Friday, January 1, 2010

What do Pan Africans Want?

I was reading a book called Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, which details a year in the life of a man trying to become a championship scrabble player. He meets lots of championship calibre scrabble players - all of whom seem to be self-obsessed to one degree or another - and gets to know a few in particular.

One of the ones he gets to know, and whom he becomes very good friends with, is a guy named Marlon Hill, one of the top African American scrabble players.

Fatsis's writing on Hill makes for some interesting reading:

I include two long excerpts, with a lot of coarse language, so beware. Also be aware that Marlon's self-centered behavior isn't all that unusual at the top of the Scrabble's just his unreasoning anger about events that happened before most people on this planet were born that separate his self-obsession from the others.

The conversation moved away from Matt. Marlon was threatening to take a job, stocking trains for Amtrak, a solitary task he thought would suit him.

"I can't work for nobody," Marlon said. "I can't stand people. People are just too damn stupid."
Marlon says he always expects to get fired from a job. "I'm the happiest poor motherfucker you'd ever meet in your life.

pg 181 When I arrive, Marlon is lying on his bed, his naked, fireplu body wrapped in the sheets. watching Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. He is crashing after a three-bus, 61 hour journey from Baltimore via Washington, Toledo and Chicago. ...

Marlon is broke, and he says he needs to win some money - playing Scrabble, not gambling. He wants to pay me for this hotel room, and he still owes me $100 from a year ago in Chicago. Plus he needs to make sure he has enough cash for bus fare home.

I'm happy to fromt Marlon money - he pays back when he can - but I can't help wionder. Marlon is a bright, self-aware highly social man who won't take a job because almost all jobs, he theorizes, benefit white people. He gave up on the idea of working for Amtrak. Instead, he plans to win a lawsuit he has filed against the food company Giant.

A few months earlier, Marlon walked into a supermarket to buy a pack of cigarettes. THe clerk asked him for identification. Marlon, who is thirty-four, felt as if he were being harrassed. He raised his voice and asked to see the manager. HE raised his voice again. THen Marlon says a security guard - a whilte security guard - grabbed him, threw him to the floor, and pinned his arms behind him. Marlonn was arrested. No charges were filed, but he sued the company, alleging battery, false arrest and false imprisonment. "I'm gonna get a whole lot," MArlon says. "That's malicious prosecution and shit. Brother man gonna get paid."

In additionto studying words and waiting for the trial, Marlon has been writing what he describes as a tract about Pan-Africanism. I'm never sure if Marlon's by-whatever-means-necessary routine is bombast or of he's organizing a revolutionary cell in his bedroom. Marlon is a pussycat by nature, polite, funny, loving and friendly with just about everbody in the Scrabble world, race notwithstanding. But he's genuinely angry. WHen I ask him what he's going to do, he'll often reply, "Gonna burn down America!"

Marlon was born in Baltimore. His mother, Hattie, worked for years in the main post office downtown until she went on disability with diabetes and neuropathy in the early 1990s. Marlon knows his father, but he has never been part of Marlon's or Hattie's life.
An aunt inspired in him a sense of racial injustice; reciting the Pledge of Allegiance she would say, "and justice for y'all" instead of "And justice for all." An uncle told him that white people "didn't want black people working them them because they didn't want us to know how dumb they really were."

Marlon never followed, or led. ...He never joined a gang because "peer pressure is totally lost on me." He went to the library but hated school - the bells telling him when to come and go, the obligation to stufy what he considered useless subjects, like the GErman class he quit in sixth grade.
"I'd've been a great football player, a great boxer, a great anything I would have done," he tells me. "If I'd gone to school, I'd a been a great doctor, a great lawyer, anything."

"Whose fault is that?" I ask.

"I don't see it like a fault. That I'm not plugged into the matrix is not a fault. I'm glad I'm not plugged into the matrix."
Marlon quickly discovered that winning at Scrabble was a mild but important form of empowerment. He could beat the Europeans - the people responsible for the school system, the government and four hundred years of racial injustice on the continent - at a game of the mind. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, hDs, whoever. Playing Scrabble, Marlon could stick it to the man. It was even sweeter when he beat someone whose condescension was plain.

It definitely does not validate my existence," he wrote to me, "But it makes some shit easier to take."

In one tournament, Marlon does very well - placing second.
It was the highpoint of Marlon's Scrabble career. The victory led to a profile in the Baltimore Sun, which led to a job testing game software.
Marlon loved the work, and he was good at it. But he quit a few months after I met him, citing a racial incident. He worked briefly as a security guard at Morgan State, but quit that too. Now his job is Scrabble, Marlon says, and changing Society.

pg 187: Indeed, losing his cool is Marlon's biggest weakness. But it is also the personality Marlon chooses to cultivate: the brilliant but unpredictable ghetto boy, as apt to drop ELUTRIATE in a game as he is "motherfucker" in a conversation.

It's not just his skin color, it's how he chooses to wear it. There are plenty of African-American scrabble experts, including one ranked higher than Marlon, Lisa Odom of Minneapolis....But none of them makes a point of race, while Marlon struts his blackness...Marlon knows standard English, he choose to speak the way he does (using High Ebonics.)
Of course, no one takes Marlon's act entirely serioussly. He has forged caring friendships with many players.

..."Never in my life have I felt inferior," he tells me. "Never, not ever. Ain't never looked at a white boy and thought that motherfucker is better than me. Under no circumstances. Stupidity when it confronts intellect does not retreat. Intellect when it meets stupidity ain't got no choice but to retreat. 'Cause the first thing you say is, 'Oops, you stupid.'"

Marlon goes 19-20, out of the money -- and out of money.
I lend Marlon another $100 to get home.

pg 273: In recent months, Marlon has occupied himself with his harrassmant lawsuit against the Giant supermarket chain, and naturally, with word stufy. Still living at hoome with his mother, he has ruled out conventional jobs. He is determined to expose America for its racism and classism. He's been reading John Henrik Clarke's Africans at the Crossroads: Notes on an African World REvultion and begun writing.

"I'm gonna have two books written before you finish rthis one [Word Freak]," Marlon tells me. "One of them, you know what it's going to be because you know me: America with three KKKs." The other book, Marlon says, will be about the same subject - our unjust nation, AmeriKKKa - but written in a street voice "I might have to do one in a pen name because they ain't gonna believe it came from thte same person" he says.
If Marlon seems more dedicated to his cause he has reason. A few weeks earlier, he tells me, he was harrassed by a cop while sitting on a train enroute to a Scrabble tournament outside Baltimore...

The story is vintage Marlon: Victimized by his skin color, he provokes authority rather than walking away. I admire Marlon's convictions but I also wonder whether they don't hurt him. In the Giant case, he could have simply shown the clerk his ID and bought his cigarettes rather than protesting. And he could have accepted the company's $50,000 settlement offer. He didn't. Marlon had sued for $250,000 and thought he could win a bundle at a trial in front of a predominantly African-American jury. It was about principle, and about self-image. ...

"I had what I thought was a good jury,"Marlon told me after the trial. "I had six women - five of us and one of y'all." But the trial in the Circuit Court of Baltimore City didn't go well. Seven people testified. The defense witnesses said Marlon began swearing immediately after the salesclerk asked to see ID. Marlon said he didn't. The defense witnesses said Marlon cursed again when he was asked to leave the store. Marlon said he didn't. They said Marlon pushed a security guard with both hands before he was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. Marlon said he pushed only the guard's hand away aftrer the guard touched him.

"There were so many people who came in and testified that it happened. We had absolutely no witnesses but Marlon," Marlon's lawyer told me. But Marlon blamed the lawyer for missing inconsistencies in the testimony. "One guy had me pushing the guard what would have been ten feet," Marlon said. "Another had me pushing him one foot. ANother lady had me pushing him and then me going back ten feet."

Marlon, I think, would make an excellent lawyer.

The jury awarded Marlin $10,000. "I thought it was a miracle I won the case," said the lawyer, who received 40 percent of the award. WIth his $6,000, Marlon bought a computer. He says it's all he wanted. BUt the system, as usual, let him down. THe lawyers let him down. The jury let him down. THe criminal justice bureaucracy let him down.

"This was a wakeup call for me," Marlon wrote in one of his notebooks after the trial. "To remind me of how things are. THis was a slap in the face: wake up and handle your business."