Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.
Geer: I had something else typed up to share with you all, with updates from my band, RedTouchBlack. I was going to tell you about the cool shows we had planned and the music video we were going to shoot—all cancelled by COVID. But given the recent events relating to being black in America, I feel compelled to share with you another story. In fact, I have never told this to anyone.
Upstate New York in the early ’90s was the perfect place to grow up for a shy and obedient kid like me. It was sheltered and safe. No rocking the boat in Niskayuna (the Mohawk word roughly translates to the “land of extensive corn flats”).
So when my mom took me into the old Montgomery Ward department store when I was about 10 years old, she felt totally confident letting me go alone to the toy section to gawk at all of the new shiny, colorful plastic things: “Micro-machines! What?! They make Super Soakers this big?!”
A middle-aged man in the aisle jolted me out of my reverie. He didn’t say anything, but he was staring at me. We were alone. He had short, balding hair and a dark mustache. He was wearing a long tan-colored rain coat. He was white.
Feeling uneasy, I left behind the He-Man action figures and fled toward the women’s clothing section to find my mom. Not far along, I realized that the man was following me. Having read several Hardy Boys mystery stories, I employed elusive tactics. I took random turns through the clothing aisles. I weaved through the tall, circular clothing displays, randomizing my direction. I tucked close to the hanging garments to further conceal my whereabouts. It felt like a game, but when I stopped for a moment, my body became numb—the man was still there, staring at me and coming in my direction. I instinctively scrambled away, taking more hurried turns and looking back to confirm that the man’s sights were indeed set on me.
Just then, I saw my mother. I think I literally ran into her. I whipped my head back toward the man. He turned away and went on about his business as if he was oblivious to me—as if he hadn’t just been pursuing me on a Pac-Man-like trajectory through a field of blouses and pants suits. I didn’t tell my mother what happened. She’s Jamaican. Anyone who knows a Jamaican mom can tell you that she would still be in jail for whatever she unleashed on that man.
For a long time, I thought about this incident one way: in the ’80s and ’90s, TV shows like America’s Most Wanted and Hard Copy made it seem like every other day, some child who had wandered too far from their mother was abducted and brutally murdered. For many years, I believed in the bottom of my naïve heart that this man wanted to steal me away and kill me. I imagined that he would have tortured me first in some fantastically horrible way. I could see and hear my mother’s wails as she leaned over my small coffin, covered in colorful flowers and my favorite basketball cards.
I revisited this episode from my childhood from time to time because I was traumatized by it. After all, this was the story of the time I was almost abducted and killed like poor little JonBenét. But at some point as I matured into a young black man, I experienced a sudden and visceral projection back to this incident. Like a lightning bolt, “Oh, he didn’t want to kidnap and kill me. He was following me around the store because I am black.”
This childhood brush with racial targeting is incomparable to the overt and blatant anti-black violence that we are all grieving and grappling with at this moment. But these racially motivated slights that African-Americans experience on a daily basis add up over a lifetime to a crippling sum. Like how gravity pulls on space rocks until they smash together, these instances combine to eventually produce a massive and imposing internal death star. There have been countless other space rocks hurled at me: when I spilled milk in my elementary school cafeteria, the white lunch aide told me, “Mop it up, because that’s all you’ll ever do.” African-Americans like myself live in a constant state of post-traumatic stress disorder. But then there’s no “post-” because we have new insidious experiences to add to our psyches daily.
As an African-American male, my consciousness of my race dictates and controls almost every aspect of my life. If I’m walking down a sidewalk and see a white woman walking alone, I automatically cross the street. I don’t want her to be fearful of me, and I want to spare myself the drama of anything that might generate from some misunderstanding. When I enter my home in South Philly wearing gym clothes or a hoodie, I make sure that no random passersby are watching me and taking note. What if they think I’m burglarizing the place? My neighbor asked me yesterday to grab the package off of his stairs so no one would swipe it. I waited until the coast was clear to nab it. I ain’t going out like that. Thoughts like these are ever present.
I’m also keenly aware of my blackness as the frontman for a heavy rock band. I will say that I have always felt largely welcome in the scene, especially in Philly. After so many shows, I have become comfortable with being the only black person at a venue. (Let’s face it, not many of my black friends listen to the band Sleep.) Even so, I constantly scan faces and jacket patches for any indication that I’m not wanted. I also know I’ll never have long locks of hair that I can head bang with. Long straight hair is to psychedelic rock as dreadlocks are to reggae. It gives a band a certain legitimacy. And that’s why I wear a do-rag. Somewhere in my mind I believe the appearance of my do-rag swaying back and forth makes me, and therefore my music, more accessible to a predominantly white audience. It’s also my tribute to the fact that rock music is inherently black music.
That may sound crazy. Or maybe it seems less so, given the events of the past few weeks. One thing is for sure—I’m genuinely encouraged by the responses of my white allies. The peaceful protestors and thoughtful messages, some sent to me personally, have made me hopeful. It may be too late for me to change the way my mind approaches the world I live in, but I hope we can change the world enough for my children to have a different consciousness.