Racial loyalties should not blur truth

August 28, 1999|By Gregory Kane

SHE SPOTTED me just outside the Greyhound station in downtown Baltimore: a black woman, about 5 feet 4, dressed in black pants and a bright red shirt to match the fire in her eyes. She had the dark complexion of your basic Nubian goddess.

"You're that guy who writes for the paper," she huffed. "I've got a bone to pick with you."

She walked a few feet away, to the curb of West Fayette Street just outside the bus station.

"Step into my office," she demanded.

Ah, well, anything for a fan, I thought.

I stepped into her office. The first order of business was getting the woman to remember my name, which wasn't clear in her mind. I tried to jog her memory. If the woman was going to give me a tongue-lashing, I figured the least she could do was remember my name. I decided to give her a hint and told her my first name.

"Gregory, Gregory, Gregory," she said as if the last name were just on the tip of her tongue. "Kane," she said finally.

"And what's your name?" I asked.

"Karen," she answered.

"Well, Karen, what can I do for ya?" I asked.

Karen proceeded to berate me for the awful things I've said about black folks in my columns.

"There's plenty of good black people out here," she insisted. "You've written bad things about the 'hood. But I'm part of the 'hood." She admitted there might be some bad people in "the 'hood," but insisted they bring bad things on themselves.

"You lost a brother," Karen continued.

My heavens, I thought. She does read the column!

"You lost your brother and ..."

"Two sisters," I said, completing the sentence for her. Then, as often happens to some readers on this subject, her memory failed her. She implied that all of my siblings died because of dissolute lifestyles.

"That's true only of my brother," I corrected her. "My sisters' only fault was worrying more about the health of their husbands, children and younger siblings and neglecting their own."

Having cleared that matter up, I continued listening. Karen was apparently one of several black people in Baltimore who felt my column should reflect the views of Baltimore's blacks. My column, according to Karen, should "speak for them."

"I speak for myself," I told her. "I can't speak for all blacks." As for criticizing blacks, I reminded Karen I criticize those blacks who I feel don't have it on the ball.

She talked on a little more, about racial loyalty and duties and how the overwhelming majority of blacks are "good people." Then, in an attempt to prove her point, she let slip bits of information that confirmed some suspicions. Karen praised her mother, who apparently is raising Karen's two children. Karen admitted she is fighting addiction and hasn't worked in three years.

At the end of her peroration, she couldn't pass on the opportunity to hit me up for 40 cents.

"You stopped me on the pretext of wanting to talk, only to ask me for 40 cents?" I demanded to know. She denied any ulterior motives. We parted ways with me admonishing her to kick her drug habit.

"My brother didn't," I shouted as she walked away. "He paid for it."

I watched her walk away, truly hoping Karen didn't have to pay for her addiction. But the signs weren't good. Her mom is raising her kids. She turned 34 on Monday, she told me, and she's still panhandling her way around the streets of downtown Baltimore.

I met a couple of her kindred spirits as I continued my walk. A perfectly able-bodied black man begged for a quarter as I entered Lexington Market. Another -- just as able-bodied -- asked for a quarter as I left.

Write one word suggesting that these characters need to get a life, and folks claim you're a race traitor. But at a bus stop I met a woman named Lynn, a former welfare recipient who now owns her own business. While the chat with Karen was informative, talking with Lynn was a delight. She offered a world view counter to that of the racial loyalists among African-Americans.

"I'm tired of black people supporting those blacks who do wrong and then claim the white man is out to get them," Lynn said. "If you're wrong, you're wrong. Admit it and move on."

She sounded much like a woman who adheres to the only loyalty that counts: an allegiance to telling the truth.

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