That’s what I was thinking as two City College communications majors talked to me behind the camera that was focused on me in the Quad at SDCC.
And I wasn’t just thinking that I’m bad. No, not at all, for I am: Truly. Bad. And I don’t say that as a wolf ticket kind of brag. But as a black man you can’t reach 74.99 years of age, in these here United States of America, with all your senses, and not indulge in a little swag. So please excuse me if I break into a bee-bop stance with a little Bojangles tap dance and act out just how bad I am.
The reason I was on the premises was because I had been asked to speak at a ceremony that was dedicated to Black History. Now that invite, alone, sets the tone for how bad I am because they didn’t just ask anybody to address them. Can there be a greater honor than having someone think that you have something to say?
But I’m not ass kicking bad. That must be made clear. I’m bad because I’ve managed to be a loving human being for almost every moment of my life up to this very moment, minus a couple of moments when I had to slap a couple of bullies silly.
And love is what I spoke about at the gathering because The African American struggle has always been about love. Love of ourselves. Love of others. Love of life. Love for taking on our very plight. We’ve sought only peace and justice, the right to live dignified lives without some chump saying “We don’t serve Negroes.”
With my bad self I spoke about growing up in Tucson, where I first, in my childhood years, began teaching myself how to maintain my cool in a world run by cold hearted hateful fools.
I briefly shared a couple of things I’ve experienced in my lifetime like when I was a little boy playing with my cousins down in Union, Mississippi and all of a sudden, in the most panicked of voices, they were yelling at me: “No! No! No!” and I’m going “What? What? What? and they scream “You walked in front of that white man!”
According to Jim Crow down there, at the time, a black person passing up a white person on the sidewalk, no matter how slow they happened to be, was a major crime. And the punishment wasn’t pretty!
I spoke of a visit my mother and I made to Highland Park, in Detroit, in the summer of 1949, between my fifth and sixth grades of school. Our cousin had just moved into a neighborhood which had been all white until he showed up. We stepped out of the cab onto pavement with “Nigger, Go Home!” prominently painted on it in red, with the initials KKK signed below the disgraceful greeting.
We got up one day to drive to Canada and lucky for us we rose early because as we gathered a few things together we smelled smoke. The garage was fully enveloped in flames and the house was beginning to burn.
But in spite of such scary inhuman encounters, in my life, and there have been a few more (don’t get me started on the police), I pointed out that I somehow managed to get through life without being overcome with anger, without embracing myself in self-pity or resorting to drugs and alcohol to get through a day. I learned how to not be like those who oppress others, how to not put all people of a group in the same category, specifically how to not denigrate all white people when it was a white person with whom I was having a problem.
In keeping with such thinking, I read the audience a poem that I used to introduce myself to students at the last school where I was a principal, a poem that let the kids know that the man in the main office was a human being above all else, someone they could rely on, someone who would respect them in the same manner that I would respect their teachers, their parents, my own family.
One line goes: “Now, when you see me coming, you won’t have to stop in your tracks, you can just kick back and relax…” That poem was written in a spirit of love and it did just what I intended it to do: it bonded me with a few hundred children the first time we ever met. Oh, I’m bad.
And the rewards for such a loving approach come in aisles in Von’s or along a hiking trail or in the lobby of a theater or at a rally for justice and peace, when someone calls out “Hey, Ernie McCray!” and gives me a bear hug and then breaks into a litany of memories like “You remember that time when we did Prince’s 1999 and brought the house down at the Talent Show?” or “Thank you for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself” or “I drive my granddaughter to this school everyday because you’re here, because being in Room B5 was the best year of my life! Can you still dunk?”
Ahh, the joys of being an educator.
I closed with my poem, “I’m Just an Old Dude Trying to Feel the Vibe,” (Published in the OB Rag) , a writing that gets at the subject of love with lines like these:
Sing the children love songs;
Sing them to them ever so softly;
Sing them to them ever so tenderly;
Sing them to them ever so sincerely,
and so lyrically that they can’t help but dream dreams
with their eyes opened wide,
dreams that enable them to realize
that they can rise above the troubles in their lives
and not only survive
Like I said, the African American Struggle has been a love story. I could have given up several times along the way and allowed myself to succumb to folks who were bent on sucking the life out of my people like hungry leeches on a feeding frenzy. I’ve seen it happen to more friends and family than I would like to remember. But I decided I wanted to honor what my history, Black History, has taught me, that keeping one’s eye on the prize of human respect is a venture in becoming as loving as you can be.
Yeah, I’m bad.