Fun fact: Prolific movie actor Edward Norton is the grandson of prolific developer James Rouse.
Jim Rouse was a visionary who built Columbia, Maryland, which bumped up against my hometown of Ellicott City, an historic movie set of a town surrounded by sweet WASPy suburban enclaves. Integration was at the core of Columbia’s development, but I don’t think the Quakers had that in mind, who hauled and laid the stone that became “Old Ellicott City.” Whether or not it always worked, Columbia was seen by many as a collection of utopian villages for all people.
My first big community theatre gig in Baltimore was Fiddler On The Roof. Through the show I met my BFF Brig Berney (company manager of Broadway’s Hamilton), and on our first sleepover his Methodist mom served me my first bagel in the morning. Brig’s dad was Jewish. A mixed marriage. So Love American Style (kids, google that) and for me it was down right exotic. I was hooked for life on Brig and bagels. In Fiddler rehearsals I never went hungry and there was never a full loaf of challah bread.
The first black people I recall were the men who moved us from Virginia back to Maryland. I was eight. The moving men had my full attention, calling me shrimp and indulging my endless chatter. These men were huge and spoke in a way I’d never heard. Next there were the Joneses—a poor, multigenerational family that seemed like an anomaly in my new affluent elementary school.
Karla Gibson, my ninth grade English teacher, often greeted us warmly with flower references. My fav was: “good morning sunflowers’.’ Karla could be Andre De Shields’ sister, and she was setting out to show us all eight episodes of the groundbreaking TV miniseries Roots. It was odd, but I was down for a change from syntax and there/their/they’re. Just before the second episode, our morning miniseries was shut down by the administration, making it clear that we were not Welcome Back Kotter and that we’d have to wait for the rebroadcast. This turned into a controversy that made the local news.
My theatre pal Delores King (daughter of a notable local black integrationist), joked that her career started out by following me wherever I went. Not true, really. We met in a kids conservatory in Baltimore, became fast friends, and unknowingly worked our way toward the promised land, Columbia! We tooled the Baltimore beltway and I-95 sussing out every teenage performance opportunity we could find until we finally hit pay dirt.
We were on our way to a singing contest in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I didn’t know it, but “PG” County was no place for me and the daughter of an integrationist. Not in the same car, anyway. Excited and nervous, my Galaxie 500 sailed through a red light, and we were instantly pulled over. The officer asked me to get out of the car as he looked back at Delores and asked, “Who’s that? Your maid?” I matter of factly said: “Oh no, that’s my friend, Delores. We’re singing in a contest across the street.” Maybe I’m daft, but the whole maid thing had to be explained to me by my parents.
Baltimore became too far to travel, and convenient, cutting-edge Columbia was imminent. Jim Rouse had just tapped would-be local theatre entrepreneur Toby Orenstein to usher in the performing arts, and she would change my life forever. I was already making my own money as a young actor, but Toby employed me into college and showed me what not to touch in a kosher kitchen. The different kinds of people she attracted changed my perception of the world.
The theatre sat me in the center of a life I’d have never experienced with people I’d have never met. In public school I felt segregated from the few kids that were different from me. In the theatre, I was holding their hands.
Salisha Thomas is a singer I train. She’s talented, only tells the truth, and is effing funny. I’d chuckle when she talked about her hair and wigs and whether she was going curly or wavy. I didn’t get that hair was such a concern. I listened intently when she said, “Ric, I don’t riff!” and how riffing or not riffing could change how she is perceived in the audition room. That I understood, so I guided her through her material and what she wanted to accomplish with it. When I read “Being Black on the Great White Way,” I thought about all the times I’d observed what Salisha was talking about from the outside. I remembered when I didn’t have words for what I saw, or where I was supposed to file this information in my head.
Salisha’s article poses a lot of questions we need to think about collectively.
Originally posted on salishathomas.com.
“Being Black on the Great White Way”
Alright, come on in, and take a seat. I have something to say.
My entire career has been based on being as white as possible while simultaneously still being black so that the people hiring me can fit their quota while also not feel threatened or uncomfortable.
Are you listening? Great. Let’s get started.
I realized way early on that in order for me to be successful, I have to play by the rules to the tenth degree. In addition to playing by the rules I have to look a certain way (straight hair, clean lines, approachable smile) and also be good at whatever it is I’m doing.
I had a front row seat and first hand training on how to fit into white society seamlessly when I ran for a million pageants throughout Orange County, California. There was a day that my friend Nick and I were getting a movie from Redbox (remember those?) and next to it was a stack of local papers. On the front page was a Klan member standing next to a real life City sign that said, “Welcome to Ku Klux County- County of Orange.” He was in full Klan garb. Nick and I thought it was a joke. We grabbed a copy to further investigate.
Y’all. That sh*t was not a joke.
Within the paper, it pointed out street names and popular buildings throughout Fullerton that were named in honor of Klan Members. *eyebrows raised so high that they’re about to fall off my face*
People are always asking me why I love New York. Honestly, I feel and have always felt safer in Harlem at 3AM by myself than when I went to college in Orange County walking by myself in a parking lot at night. Y’all know I have always loved pageants and I still do, but being crowned Miss Fullerton left no room for slip ups. Going to school and working in “Ku Klux County” there was always an unspoken undertone that left me feeling uneasy. But I learned how to be a presence in any room without making my white counterparts feel uncomfortable.
I started writing a Broadway musical during this quarantine. It’s a passion project and something that I love. While day dreaming about who I’d want to partner with me on my creative team, I started thinking of the talented, amazing people that I already know and love. I definitely want women and black people represented around me. First, I went down the line of people at Beautiful. And then I thought about it…
And it hit me: Everyone on the ‘other side of the table’ was white. Mostly white men. But hear me when I say it is not their fault that they’re white. Just like it’s not my fault that I’m black. The fact that they’re all white is not the issue. I love them. I would do anything for them. THAT’s the problem.
The subconscious hoops that I jumped through while seeking the approval of them all was something I was not actively aware of while I was doing it. I realized that any time I knew any of them would be popping into town to check on us when I was on tour, I would unconsciously make myself MORE WHITE to appear more DESIRABLE. (I do the same thing when I know I might need to hail a cab. Look the freaking part so that you don’t get passed over.) I would go find my straight hair wig, or one with a light wave, put my makeup on, and wear colors and silhouettes that made me appear softer and more approachable.
Salisha Thomas appearing soft and approachable.
OH MY GOSH. I’ve been doing this for YEARS.
And guess what: IT WORKED.
I bought a whole house based on doing this. My brain has been in overdrive for so long, and I didn’t even know it! I don’t even have the energy to get into Disney right now. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, the times I’m asked to play a black stereotype. “Think more—Whoopi!…. a little more sass….. Can you do like, a soulful run at the end?” What is being asked while trying to avoid sounding racist is, “Can you be more black?” Each audition I ask myself, what box do I need to fit into today? You guys, I’m so tired.
It wasn’t until recently that I’ve begun to start wearing my own hair. Media has begun to shift. The American ideal of beauty is slowly changing, and when that shows up in the media, people’s minds begin to change whether they know it or not. The more you see black people or natural hair on TV, in magazines, on stage, etc., the more accepted it becomes. When I was a child, all I saw were white women with soft, straight hair. So to me, that was beautiful. The only people with big curly hair on screen were the crazy side kicks who were supposed to be funny; not necessarily desireable.
Things are changing.
I got to be Miss California, but I rocked that year with so many wigs that it took up an entire suitcase while I traveled. I’m grateful for the reigning women right now who are rocking a whole lot of texture. Things have changed from then to now, thank God.
But…. You already know.
Racism is so freaking real that it’s not even funny. Sometimes it’s little things: Like when my dear sweet friend, DeLaney and I went to enjoy a movie together in Chicago. She’s a total bombshell, gorgeous, kind, approachable, you name it. She’s also white. We got our tickets, and she walked right through. I followed right behind her, but the attendant stopped me (and only me) and said he needed to check my bag. My tiny little purse. It was upsetting. I wanted to say something. I wanted to point out that he blatantly let her through and only checked me. But I didn’t do that for two reasons: 1) I didn’t want to be defensive and cause a scene; become the angry black woman. I was taught early on to always comply (as we’ve seen, something small can quickly turn into life or death) and 2)… She actually had all our snacks in her bag which in hindsight was genius for exactly this reason. The downside being that I got profiled while having to act like everything was okay.
It was not okay.
And then there are big things, like a white officer murdering a man for 8 minutes on camera and getting away with it.
Let’s sit with that for a second.
How much more obvious do things need to get before it’s addressed?
I’m ready to be whoever I feel like being. If I choose to wear a wig, I want it to be because I was too lazy to do my curls. Not because I’m metaphorically trying to catch a cab in my profession.
I just got to California. I’m staying down the street from where my parents are. And just yesterday, I jogged a couple miles to see them and wave at them from the front yard. I rang the doorbell and ran into the street to give whoever answered the door some space. My papa came and was trying to conceal how worried he was when he realized that I had jogged on foot alone instead of driving over. Sidebar: The neighborhood is nice.
I’m being modest.
My dad said, “You shouldn’t be jogging in this neighborhood by yourself.” I interject, “While being black you mean.”
I shouldn’t be jogging in this neighborhood with a mask and gloves on while being black.
He looked at the ground and we both took a beat.
Y’all, this is not okay.
Anybody else ready for a change? I could write a whole book on this. But I’m hungry and need some lunch. I’m grateful for everyone who’s checking on me and their other black friends right now. I never really know what to say but it does mean a lot. There’s a quote that I saw today that rang so true in my spirit pertaining to saying All Lives Matter versus Black Lives Matter:
“If I say my house is on fire and you say ‘all houses matter,’ well that may be true, but all houses aren’t on fire right now. My house is.” -Talib Kweli
I have a dream of living in a world where I don’t have to worry about the safety of myself or my family members while doing normal things in predominantly white neighborhoods. I have a dream that I won’t need to do a million subconscious black flips (lol, I mean back flips) to get a job or fit in to prominent circles, but instead just simply look how I look; that being myself will be enough.
I am a strong, proud black woman stepping into her power. Even if I am afraid, I will be brave and stand up for what I believe in. Now is not the time to be silent, whether you’re black, a person of color, or an ally. Take a stand. There is no grey area on this one.