GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
OK, so ever since I could remember, I've been black. But like most black Americans, there's other stuff mixed in. And after a family reunion in Chicago talking to some of the old-timers, I start understanding that in addition to everything else, we've got Native American roots on both sides - Blackfoot from my fathers and Chippewa from my mama. My auntie actually has a picture of my great-great-grandmother looking fierce staring at the camera wearing native regalia. And that's cool, but it doesn't mean anything to me. It doesn't affect my fundamental blackness. So I'm going to school in Ann Arbor, and on the radio I hear they're going to have the biggest Native American powwow in the country right there. And I figure maybe I should go, learn a little something about that part of me, that part of us. The next morning, my girlfriend and I fumble around in the dark trying not to wake up my roommate and whoever else is laid out in my living room. I grab a shirt, a sweatshirt, and we're out. We get to Crisler Arena, and it is incredible. We walk through a sea of exhibits and demonstrations and music and storytellers and thousands of people who seem to know each other. And no, I don't feel like I'm going home or something. It feels like the opposite of that.
I respect the various native cultures, but this is new to me. I don't know anything, and I don't want to mess it up. Every single piece is cool. I keep coming back to see dancing competitions between various groups and families and tribes, dozens of dancers rocking brilliant costumes festooned in colors and feathers and schemes. And they dance, Jack, they dance - choreographed, rhythmic, hypnotic, swirling body songs and this beat powered by teams of drummers. And it is awesome and athletic and beautiful and intimidating. And every so often, after the dancing competition, the announcer invites everyone to the floor for an all dance. It's a huge arena where the University of Michigan basketball team plays. But instead of hoops and nets, hundreds of old people and little kids and grizzled men, teenage girls, they take the floor, and they dance together in rhythm and community. And it's hypnotic and it's glorious. But I'm just a watcher watching things go on, careful not to mess something up. But I start to get into the rhythm of the event. And I listen to some of the elders tell stories, and I can't keep my eyes off of the dance. The announcer again calls for an all dance. And he puts down his microphone and motions me toward the floor. Go on. Go on. You want to dance, dance.
So I go up to the floor, and I start trying to fall into rhythm behind the hundreds of people next to me. And one thing about my family is that we can dance. And I'm getting it. And I'm getting it. And I'm dancing. And I'm dancing like I've done this before with the drumming. It's a group thing. You dance together. Everyone at the same time dancing, getting it. And the ladies - the ladies are smiling. The old men are smiling. And yeah, I'm doing it up. It's physical. I start to get hot. So I take off my sweatshirt, tie it around my waist. It flaps behind me like a tale. And I've got this. I look towards the side and see my girlfriend frantically waving me over trying to get me off the floor. And I'm like, no. No, no, no, no, no. Not now darling. Can't you see I'm feeling it? I'm trying to be with my people. Now she's running over insistent waving me off the dance floor. What is suddenly so important right now it has to break my groove? What? She motions for me to look down at my shirt. And I look down at my shirt and time stops. Emblazoned on my T-shirt is the Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo. This horrible bug-eyed, bucked tooth, grinning, bright red racist caricature of Native Americans. I'm displaying this image on my chest in the middle of a several thousand person powwow like wearing a Klan hood at an NAACP rally. And first off, you have to understand this is not even my shirt. I'm a Detroit Tigers fan. My roommate is from Youngstown, Ohio, and somehow in the dark, I grabbed his stuff.
And yes, Cleveland fans, you know this is horrible. Either you know this or you're stupid. Pick one. I'm talking to you, too, Washington Redskins defender. You heard me. So like I told you, time stops. Every single person in the entire arena turns around in slow motion to point at me and stare. Heavy condemnation in the thousand pairs of angry eyes - at least that's what it feels like as I'm scrambling to pull my hoodie over the offending image, and I run off the dance floor lickety-split towards the exit. The announcer sees me. He's seen me the whole sorry display, and he's like, no no, no. The dance is not over. Scared to look around and see once-friendly faces filled with hate, but when I lift my eyes, there's no anger. Everyone's just getting it to the rhythm of the drum. So I try to dance. I try to dance, try to move my feet. I shuffle, but now I can't get it. I can't - I can't get it. It's not working. It's not them. It's me. Then I hear the announcer kind of laughing. He says on the microphone, sure is hard to dance under a big, heavy sweatshirt.
Well, today on SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, we proudly present "Pariah," amazing stories from real people living outside of everything they hold dear. My name is Glynn Washington. Please get ready. Buckle up because this is SNAP JUDGMENT.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAS MASK")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.