Wanna-be intellectual with zero motivation to get another degree, and a darn good writer who's glad he's a retired journalist. These are my meaningless musings on music, culture, politics, and all other things weaving this beautiful tapestry that is America, Black America in particular.
I don’t think I’ve ever told the story of my first kiss without saying Jill Frackenpohl’s full name. Her first name, Jill, perfectly fit her girly sweetness and innocence, ideal ingredients for the retelling of any first-kiss story. Playing off of it was her almost comically unique last name, a three-syllable collection of some of the English language’s least poetic sounds. The combination of the two felt like “Jill Frackenpohl” sprung from the brain of Neil Simon, a pretty girl who was nice to the awkward boy in one of his coming-of-age stories.
In many ways, that’s exactly what she was. I met Jill Frackenpohl in the summer of 1992 in Chapel Hill, NC. We were both attending Carolina Summer, a kind of smart-kid camp for wanna-be Tar Heels or anyone else needing an impressive additional credential for college applications. I was 17 at the time, and despite being fairly well liked and popular in school, I’d made it to the summer before my senior year of high school without getting a single kiss from a girl. Braces and a pudgy cuteness rivaling Gary Coleman in his prime kept me firmly in the “friend zone” with the ladies up until the end of my junior year. Thankfully, by the time that July in 1992 rolled around, my pubescent boyishness sloughed off.
And there was Jill.
The exterior may have improved but I was still kind of awkward. I was the nice guy with little to no game. So I know I made it unintentionally difficult for Jill. It was clear I liked her and she liked me but my lameness robbed me completely of the wherewithal to do anything about it. I ultimately did. And I got my kiss.
That touched off a very sweet summertime romance. After Carolina Summer she and her family vacationed in Duck, NC before heading home to her hometown of Denville, NJ. I headed back to South Jersey and we made all kinds of plans and promises. We wrote each other letters, sometimes as often as a couple a week. One of my favorites was from her time at the beach when she sent me seashells in a little plastic baggie she stuffed in the envelope.
Of course, the best-laid plans of mice and men…
Despite living only a couple hours from each other in Jersey, we wouldn’t see each other again until we started our freshman year at Carolina. In the first few weeks of school, she’d meet the man she would eventually marry and have four gorgeous kids with. There would be no rekindling of that saccharine-sweet summer romance of 1992.
But there would be a great friendship. Jill Frackenpohl became a tremendous friend to me. We hung out as often as we could in my two years at Carolina. When a crisis of confidence and general dissatisfaction with how I’d approached school at Carolina caused me to consider transferring, Jill told me it would be okay to leave, that I was doing the right thing. After college, as I hopped around the country seeking journalistic glory, I could count on an email message or call from Jill just to check in.
But when I learned on Saturday that Jill passed away after battling cancer, I didn’t think about my first kiss or The Great Summer Romance of ‘92 or the kind and big heart she showed me whenever she reached out to see if I was okay. I was overwhelmed with sadness, but it wasn’t a sadness borne of nostalgia.
While people flooded her Facebook page with old pictures and memories, I focused on the 38-year-old wife and mother, the big sister and daughter who loved her family more than anything in the world. I wanted to focus on my relationship with her, on what she meant to me. But that seemed so small in that moment and in the days following her death last weekend.
She was so much more than my first kiss.
That said, one day I’m not going to be so sad. And one day, Jill’s husband and children and sisters and parents and countless friends may be a little less sad than they are right now. When that day comes, it will be the nostalgia of our experiences with this wonderful woman that heartens us.
Trips home are often bittersweet for me. South Jersey has changed a lot since I ostensibly left here 16 years ago. It hasn’t felt like home in a really long time. Things are familiar but so incredibly different.
This trip I went to my old high school briefly to pick copies of two yearbooks from my time at Camden Catholic. I passed the principal’s office that I knew no longer belonged to Monsignor Andrew Martin, the man who ran my alma mater for years. I also drove past my old church, First Baptist Church in Merchantville, the place where I was baptized and my grandmother’s funeral was held.
It’s for sale.
It all served as a reminder of how much life changes and remorselessly moves on. There’s no time for nostalgia. Life is too busy mining memories for others to one day be nostalgic about.
But I’m thankful that amongst all the changes, there are things that have changed but ultimately are the same:
So I’m thankful for those things, the things that change but stay the same. The things I can always rely on.
And by no means is this an exhaustive list. These are just a handful of instances experienced in the last couple of days. In reality, I’m the person I am because I’ve had such wonderfully consistent and good people informing and influencing me.
I owe all of you so much.
Khary K. McGhee’s first piece of sports commentary was published in March of 1994. For someone who would go on to have a moderately successful career as a sports journalist for the better part of a decade, this first foray into sports writing could not have been more disastrous.
The long and short of the piece, a short Letter to the Editor published in the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel school newspaper: Dean E. Smith doesn’t know how to coach.
My analysis was pure lunacy, not only lacking any semblance of reality or reasonable knowledge of the game, but reeking of that special early adulthood know-it-all-ness tainting almost every semi-serious thought a late-teen or 20-something deigns to express (and renders their opinions, inevitably, unworthy of actual consideration by real adults).
Dean Smith did not know how to coach defense.
That was my point. I arrived at this notion after watching the Tar Heels, the defending National Champions in what was then my freshman year at Carolina, be stunned in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Boston College, a huge underdog in the game. The Eagles hit 12 3-pointers as UNC stubbornly played zone defense for just about the whole contest.
As 36 points poured into the basket and over top of the Heels’ passive defense, 19-year-old me grew angry, baffled by what I was seeing. I mean, was Coach Smith watching the game I was watching? Could he not see what I was seeing, what everyone saw?
So I ripped him. I shot off like three paragraphs of the most banal, snottiest, entitled commentary ever concocted by an amateur wordsmith. The letter was published, and what initially started off as a proud entre into the world of sports journalism quickly turned into a nightmare. My letter was followed by several letters ripping my letter. And in what was likely one of the first real self-awareness moments in my life — your 20s are filled with a series of humbling, you-really-don’t-know-a-damn-thing moments — my folly became clear.
A college freshman who played his last competitive basketball in the eighth grade just wrote that a Hall of Famer with two national championships and nearly more college victories than any other coach in the history of the game doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Flash forward all these years later.
I had no room to criticize Coach Smith — though it probably would have made a bit of a difference had we gone man-to-man after, say, 3-pointer No. 8 or so. But if one were to be critical of the humble Kansan who built one of the model programs in all of collegiate athletics, those isolated incidents of tactical decisions gone wrong — moments every coach faces, sometimes several in a single game — might be the only facet of his life where criticism is valid.
Beyond being a great coach, teacher, mentor to hundreds of young men who viewed him as second father or, in some cases, the defining role model for manhood at a critical point in their lives, Coach Smith was a great person. Check that. Coach Smith was a great American. He helped integration efforts in still-segregated Chapel Hill in the 1960s. He brought UNC’s first black scholarship student-athlete, Charlie Scott, to campus in 1967. Coach Smith was an outspoken critic of the death penalty and nuclear proliferation, and a proponent for equal opportunity, human rights and education, the kinds of causes and ideas one doesn’t associate with a giant in the sports world.
But he saw his platform as one of the most admired figures in athletics as an opportunity. His words and actions carried weight because of what he’d built at Carolina: a program where players played, learned, and carried themselves as we hope all responsible young people would in that white-hot spotlight of college basketball.
Today, President Obama presented Coach Smith The Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest civilian award, because of his excellence in every facet of his life.
(The award was actually presented to members of Coach’s family as, sadly, a neurocognitive disorder has hampered him late in life and he was unable to attend today’s White House ceremony. Even more sad, his condition has robbed him of his memory, something anyone who ever encountered the man would say was one of his greatest assets.)
Perhaps the most excellent thing about Coach Smith is that his humility would not have allowed him to be too proud or self-important receiving such an honor. Odd for a man who coached in a building named after him, I know. But Dean E. Smith never appeared comfortable with personal accolades. He spent his nearly four decades in coaching making it about his players, his assistants, his support staff, the university and community he represented, his family. At times his deflection was off-putting to some, too purposeful to be sincere.
But I’d wager that you couldn’t find a soul who really knew the man that would tell you he was any different in private than he was in public. All of it taken together, the deeds and the humility with which he approached life, is why Coach Smith is an American hero. His life, like many who were honored with him today at the White House, are emblematic of ideals all Americans should aspire. It’s seeing life beyond accomplishments, beyond your occupation, beyond the noise that comes from busybody 19-year-olds who think their opinion matters.
It is understanding that in life, no matter what we accomplish singularly, we’re part of a whole, a community that needs our talents and efforts to lift all of us up.
Dean E. Smith, American hero, did just that.
Granted, we all have to admit that there’s no such thing as racism — institutional or otherwise — in the good old United States anymore. The Supreme Court said as much a few weeks back when it all but gutted perhaps the most influential non-Constitutional Amendment legislation our country has ever drafted, the Voting Rights Act. We got a bruh in the White House, and it’s impossible to ignore the “browning” of America as the country warmly welcomes our growing Latino population. Of course we have exorcised our racist demons given all of that. In fact, if you watch Fox News and listen to some other conservative commentators, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia during the Voting Rights Act hearing, American racism has come far enough that the persecuted these days aren’t minorities, but instead white males suffering unfairly from the oppressive blows of overcorrecting literally centuries of systemic institutional racism with about 50 years laws and programs meant to right the ship.
Of course, I’m being completely tongue in cheek here. The only people who believe America has vanquished racism, or more ridiculously believe that white people not only have stopped benefitting from it but are now the victims of it, are white people (and Clarence Thomas, who forgot he’s black). We certainly live in a more equal society, but we also live in a society where the ugliest manifestations of racism pop up more than we care to acknowledge.
Trayvon Martin’s murder over a year ago was one of those reminders that America still has tremendous problems with race. A black kid, minding his own business, is targeted by a guy who, at best, was suspicious of a kid he didn’t know, and, at worst, was suspicious of a kid he didn’t know because that kid was black. If George Zimmerman had allowed Trayvon Martin to do what any American should be allowed to do — walk in a public space back to his home — that youngster would still be alive today. But he isn’t. And Zimmerman was just acquitted of his murder after a very effective defense preyed on racist sensibilities and essentially portrayed Trayvon as a young thug who had it coming.
The feature film “Fruitvale Station,” a Sundance Film Festival favorite recently released to wider distribution, portrays the true story of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an Oakland man shot and killed by a transit police officer while handcuffed during an arrest. The officer who shot Grant contended he had pulled his taser gun and not his service weapon. He was sentenced to jail but served less than a year.
I point to these two examples because they are freshest in our minds given the Zimmerman trial’s conclusion and the release of “Fruitvale Station.” But there are numerous examples in my lifetime of a blatant disregard for black people, especially for black men.
Think back to killing of Amadou Diallo, a unarmed Guinean immigrant shot at 41 times by police — he was hit 19 times — after being wrongly mistaken for a serial rapist while returning from getting his dinner. And there was the shooting of Sean Bell, a man killed the morning before his wedding by overzealous police outside a strip club. Or just take a look at the sickening number of incidents that didn’t end in the deaths of black men but took away their lives through wrongful incarceration following false identification or prosecutorial misconduct to convict these men for crimes they didn’t commit.
It makes one feel “lesser than.” I see Trayvon’s killer go unpunished and it reminds me that there’s less regard for my life because of the color of my skin. That hurts, a hurt that’s impossible to dismiss. It’s why I have tears in my eyes as I write this.
Trayvon Martin was walking home. Amadou Diallo was getting his dinner. Sean Bell was celebrating his impending nuptials the way many men do.
They’re all dead. None of their assailants were convicted of a crime. I read that as affirmation that all of these men had it coming. They deserved what they got doing what any other American, white American, can do without being harassed.
If you think they had it coming, maybe you think I have it coming.
When Trayvon Martin was killed a year ago today, I almost immediately thought of my parents. I remembered my dad waking up at night when I came home late from a night out. He’d call out from bed, ask if I was okay. Sometimes he would get up to use the restroom, stopping long enough to have a brief conversation about what I had done with friends, where we went, how everyone I’d seen was doing. I remember my mother prepping me and my brother with advice deeply rooted in what I believed, at the time, to be hyperbole to an eye-rolling extreme. This advice may have included how to act if I were ever pulled over by police or being mindful of the fact that being alone with a white girl could be hazardous to a black boy’s health depending on the situation.
I thought of my parents, of their concern when me and my brother left their sight, because I knew that they spent their entire lives trying to guard us from exactly what happened to Trayvon. He was killed because he was a young black kid someone didn’t recognize and assumed the worst of. My parents, and in particular my dad, who spent much of his youth in segregated Alabama, understood the inherent danger to black males in America, one that goes beyond the things that every parent of every child worries about when their kids aren’t near. Some of these dangers are more apparent than others depending on a variety of factors. I know I was lucky enough to be spared the horrors many brothers face day in and day out due to where I grew up, who raised me, and how I was raised. My neighborhood was just a couple blocks away from one of the most crime-ridden and poverty-stricken places in America, but honestly I could have been 100 miles away from east Camden and a city that’s consistently ranked amongst the most dangerous in the country. Over half of homicide victims in the United States are black — despite African Americans making up just 13 percent of the U.S. population — and an overwhelming majority of black murder victims — roughly 85 percent — are black males, according to a Wall Street Journal article from last August.
I grew up knowing I never had to deal with that.
What my parents knew I couldn’t escape was the enduring prejudice, fear, and animous that spurred Trayvon’s death. In the weeks that followed his murder at the hands of, at best, an overzealous neighbor, or at worst, a racist vigilante, there was a lot of talk about what Trayvon Martin should or shouldn’t have been doing, or what he should or shouldn’t have been wearing, or what he should or shouldn’t said to the random stranger who started following him as he walked home from the store. All of that talk about Trayvon’s behavior, this assumption that a 17-year-old boy had a statutory duty to make his neighbors feel comfortable with his presence despite doing nothing more than mind his own business, reminded me of what my parents and a lot of parents of black boys try to prepare their sons for as they ready to strike out on their own. I don’t know if Trayvon could have dressed differently or walked differently or spoke to George Zimmerman differently and it make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the situation. But I know a lot of black people who didn’t find it shocking that folks like Geraldo Rivera and others said that a number of seemingly inconsequential variables could have spared Trayvon, and that it had been incumbent upon the young man to control those variables.
Few people understand “code” or “signifiers” the way black folks do. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote over a century ago, touching on a salient feature of black American life since slavery: Self-preservation has often been dictated by what the dominant culture (white American culture) wants us to be or feels comfortable with us being. And, of course, what’s most comforting to any group of people is what it knows best. Hence, the least threatening black people likely are ones who most mirror white Americans, be that mirroring speech, appearance (hair weaves, straightened hair), education, dress, etc. Trayvon was “code” for “trouble” to George Zimmerman. Start with being young and black. Add on to that an archetype — “thug wear” as Geraldo Rivera called it — and Zimmerman doesn’t need much more evidence in his mind.
Young. Black. Hoodie. Random characteristics leading to one conclusion: The Boogeyman is in my neighborhood, and I have to stop him.
My parents knew that could be my fate too. Heck, at 37 I sometimes wonder if that could still be my fate, that despite being a college educated professional with an advanced degree, some trigger-happy cop or yellow-bellied, easily-threatened and unconciously-racist average citizen might misread “The Matrix” and view me as someone who could do them harm — all while I’m minding my own business.
Sadly, that enduring fear leads to the often exhausting excercise of putting people at ease.
I smile. A lot. Not in a Stepin Fetchit kind of a way, but in a seriously-I’m-a-nice-guy kind of way. I’m (overly) conscious of what a white person, especially a white woman, might be thinking when they step on an elevator alone with me. I shouldn’t care if he or she feels uncomfortable. But I do. In stores, it’s a major annoyance to be sweated by salespeople, so I actually avoid shopping. Or when I’m asked if I need any help, I answer with a pretty patronizing, “No, ma’am, but I’ll let you know if I do.”
I don’t do these things because I’m looking for acceptance. This isn’t about people liking me. But I do feel like, as Dunbar wrote, I must “wear the mask” for my own sanity at times. I just don’t want the hassle. I don’t want to hear it from folks who only deal in archetypes and stereotypes. I don’t want to have conversations I probably shouldn’t have to have or be talked to a way I shouldn’t be talked to as a grown man.
And I don’t want to be seen as a threat, a menace, a danger to your person, for being perceived that way could be a matter of life and death.
Earlier today, one of my students came in. He’s a smart, handsome kid. Really gifted athlete who could serve as your prototype if you were asked to design an NFL linebacker. Kids on campus call him “Megatron” because, at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he looks like a machine.
He was wearing a hoodie. I was in the middle of writing this.
I know there are plenty of people who see him the way I do: a bright, charming black kid who is making the most of an opportunity at one of the best universities in the world. But I couldn’t help but think of the folks who wouldn’t be able to give him that much credit, unable to see that he’s much more than a hooded Boogeyman.
My student deserves that. So did Trayvon.