The “only one-ness” conundrum!

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As a life long black folk, I’m not ashamed to admit that I talk and – in the spirit of candor – “act differently” when I’m with people like me; black folks that is! That makes me and others no different from members of other groups who talk and act differently, sometimes unconsciously, when folks who “don’t look like them” aren’t around. That’s not being hypocritical or disingenuous; that’s just the way we are.

So yeah, we black folks sometimes sling the slang, trash talk, talk loud and interrupt each other from time to time. And, yes, many of us do talk about our love ones, what’s in the news; President Obama, the rash of killings of unarmed black men, sports maybe and Lee Daniel’s hit TV program, “Empire.” Of course, many of these topics are talked about among others as well, so don’t delete, don’t middle finger me, don’t shout me down.

Do we talk about white folks? Yep! Do we talk about black folks? Yep! Do we talk about other folks? More or less, you bet we do.

Here’s another probability: although we all watch some of the same TV programs when we’re “with our own” –  the same movies, the same evening news, sports, etc. – we “see,” react to and talk about those programs through very different perspectives, life experiences and ethnic lens. Hey, correct me if I’m wrong.

Now, you ask, when I’m around folks who don’t look like me, do I talk and act differently? At one time, yes; nowadays, not all the time. So why “yes” then and “not all the time” now? Let’s start with the “at one time, yes.”

At the outset of my career, it was not unusual for me to be the “only one,” the only black, the only “negro” or “colored guy” in the minds of some in the organization.

In fact, in one company I and a black switchboard operator were the only blacks in the entire company, a firm with close to 1000 employees. Our six-inch high afros – correction, “fros” – stood out glaringly among the sea of crew cuts, of the bald or going bald, the gray or growing gray. We couldn’t hide even if we wanted to, especially me who, perhaps because of my “only one-ness,” seemed quite “popular” with building security who tailed me frequently in the parking lot requesting my identification, not my autograph.

And on top of that, my beat up old green Chevy, the one handed down to me by my uncle for two bucks; the one with lots of dents and rust compliments of ten punishing winters of driving in the state of Massachusetts, stood out like a sore thumb among shiny BMWs, Lexus’s, mini-vans and SUVs that dotted the company parking lot. Thus my Chevy, “my ride” as we used to say, accentuated my “only one-ness”.

Once I entered the building, my Southern accent stood out against the prevailing New England accent there and unspoken stereotypes of both furthered my “only one-ness.” But I somehow managed to survive that experience, my inability to blend in, through weekend excursions into the inner city, a place where I could disappear unnoticed into the barbershop, onto the basketball court, into the soul food restaurant, into the discotheque and quietly become just “one of many.”

Fast forward to another stop in my career, a time when I met “Jackie,” like me a black male product from “down South” and, like me, the “only one” in his accounting department. Many times over lunch we used to quip about our “only oneness” experiences and laugh about how we were both hotly recruited to join our departments’ basketball teams, to recruit at black colleges, but not much else.

“Terry, when I was first hired in this department along with about 15 others, I found it interesting that I was the only one singled out for a weekly visit to the Human Resources department, the head of which wanted to see if I was okay and not experiencing any problems,” said Jackie.

“After a month of being called in, I explained to the Human Resources person that the only problem I was having was not getting any sex. Stunned by what I shared, red-faced and hands trembling, she muttered that there was nothing Human Resources could do about that. That was the last of those annoying meetings.”

Fast forward to a later time in my career when I received a surprise lunch invitation from “Charles,” a black attorney in our Law department, a fellow who seemed to avoid being seen with me publicly during company functions. We met at a restaurant near our work location, one frequented by other employees we knew.

Once again, “Charles” appeared uncomfortable judging from his barely audible whispering and eyes that darted over my shoulders around the room as if to see who else was in the restaurant and, I got the feeling, who else was eyeing us; two black guys, the “only two-fers,” as far as I could see.

After we paid our bill and “Charles” elegantly folded his napkin and said a regal hello to those he recognized from work, we headed to our cars. And then this.

 “Hey brother, come over to my car. I want to show you something,” whispered my attorney acquaintance.

Once inside his Benz, “brother Charles” rolled up the windows, reached into his glove compartment, retrieved and popped in a CD, and snapped his fingers and sang out loud to the tune of soul singer James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.” This, mind you, was the exact same person I could barely hear in the restaurant only minutes before. I was left speechless.

Thinking back, I can only speculate that “Charles’ ” lunch with me granted him a temporary reprieve from an organization in which he was “the only one,” an opportunity for him to display two masks; a placid one at the restaurant table, a “homeboy” one in his automobile. He reminded me of myself at the outset of my career where I too sought weekend reprieves into the inner city to escape the psychological pressures of being the “only one.”

Which brings us up to today with the truth that I’m now 100% comfortable – correction, proud with – the “Terry Howard package” and all its imperfections and wrappings, e.g., skin color, language, accent, age, gray hair and everything else.

I can finally say that I’ve manage to accept unapologetically the placid me and the homeboy me, to accept where they converge and where they diverge, to be okay with what I say and how I act regardless of who’s in the room….and with no worry about what others may think.

And you know what? This ain’t such a bad place to be….. at all!

“Free at last; free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” 

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

©Terry Howard is a trainer, award-wining writer, coach and story teller based in Douglasville, Georgia. He can be reached at

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