Identity Crisis

It was good to see Mr. Gilmore after all these years at the reunion of people from 5th Floor Gilmore my freshman dorm.  Mr. Gilmore had won the title fairly in a contest of the same name, but he was quick to tell me, “You should have won that contest.”  Although I appreciate the sentiment, I would never cast aspersion upon his win, so I was quick to aver, “No, you were much better than me in the talent competition.” 

I only say that because it is true.  He sang a provocative blues number while accompanying himself incorporating a little stride piano technique in the mix.  Not only was he technically proficient with both instruments, piano and voice, but he was entertaining.  I was the opposite because I picked the wrong time to have an identity crisis. 

I messed up, even though I had entertainment defined for me my senior year at American High School, when our Spirit week theme was “That’s Entertainment”.  It’s simple, give the audience what they want. During high school there were moments when I rose to the occasion and gave the audience what they wanted, even when the request seemed odd.  For example, someone suggest I dress up as Al Jolson for Spirit Day.  At first, I stared at the requester wondering, “Does she realize that Al Jolson was not black?”  Then I embraced the delicious irony of a black man, impersonating a white man impersonating a black man, and I did it.   During the senior show I had appeared on stage as comedian Flip Wilson’s in drag character Geraldine with the sass, the walk, and the talk.  Then I quickly changed stripping my panty hose for a suit coat and grabbing my handkerchief and trumpet to play and sing Hello Dolly as we recreated the scene from the movie.  That was the second time I had performed an impersonation of Louis Armstrong, having played and sang St. Louis Blues my junior year in a show, accompanied by the very talented Coach Agee on piano. 

If I had wanted to perform something accessible to the audience, I would have revised my Louis Armstrong impression, but that is where I had my identity crisis.  Somehow on my own I had arrived at the same conflict that many black Americans during the 1950’s and 60’s had with Louis Armstrong, that he was a shine pandering to white audiences and therefore a sellout.  I had forgotten that being popular did not detract from his virtuosity as a musician.  It took me some thinking over years to dismiss the false dichotomy that you are either an entertainer or an artist; you are either Louis Armstrong or you are Miles Davis. 

I was not there yet my freshman year of college.  Being the only black person on my dorm floor of fifty residents, and one of four black people out of 200 residents in the building, I suddenly felt self-conscious about how I represent.  I felt self-conscious about being seen as a stereotype instead of an individual.   Somehow in only a few short weeks of college, I was infected with such thoughts, I lost myself in a momentary identity crisis.  I tried to be Miles Davis instead and took an obscure beguine piece and reinterpreted it playing part of it muted.   At the end the MC seemed to be the only one impressed, as she asked with genuine curiosity, “Is that your own composition?”  I had not stopped to consider that there was a much vaster audience readily embracing what Louis Armstrong was doing than what Miles was doing.  There was an inner circle of jazz aficionados that appreciated the artistry of Miles, but even some of them had to listen a couple of times to get it.  Oh, and more importantly, I was no Miles. 

Probably the only reason I finished as runner-up to Mr. Gilmore was because I managed to listen to my audience and give them some of what they wanted.  There were a lot of females that urgently wanted to see me posing in a bikini brief, for the swimsuit competition, so I went out and bought the appropriate attire.  With some trepidation I put it on, and no sooner had I done so, a troop of females from my dorm floor stormed into the dressing room rubbing baby oil all over my body.   I went forth and struck some poses Mr. Olympia style.  In that I was giving the audience, especially the female segment, what they wanted.  During the Q&A session, by practicing my typical deflection with humor, I inadvertently made some innuendo laden comments in a low voice, and the laughter and oohs indicated that was what they liked.

For that I was rewarded with some attention later.  During one of our “Penthouse” parties.  A lithe and lovely young lady came right into my room and was chatting me up.  She was a former ballet dancer and during the conversation she did a stretch where she raised her leg and put her foot on the top of my loft bed so that it was right at shoulder height.  I admired her display of flexibility.  Being slightly atypical, I had no clue what was happening until a female member of my dorm floor, who had observed the interaction, explained that she was coming on to me, hard.  Being impaired in my ability to read non-verbal cues, I needed things spelled out to me.  One morning in the men’s restroom and shower area I discover written on the mirror in three-inch-high letters with lipstick liner pencil, “DEREK TAYLOR IS THE SEXIEST MAN I KNOW.”  Even if it was one of the guys on the floor pranking me, at least the potential truth was spelled out for me.   

Mr. Gilmore insists I was ripped off and should have won, but I never felt slighted.  If I had, the best outcome would have been to learn from the experience.  People often speak of learning from our mistakes and pain, but we equally learn from being rewarded.   I currently study brain effects of childhood maltreatment at the University of California at Irvine, and both animals and humans exposed to early life adversity, demonstrate that the brain becomes conditioned to have a heightened perception and response to threat and punishment and a blunted response to reward.   I have also observed this interacting with adult survivors of child abuse.   I should have been learning from the positive responses I got from women and seeking their rewards.

A few years later I was approached by female members of a sorority who were putting together a “Men of UC Davis” calendar.   I was scheduled for a photo shoot on a Tuesday.  However, the previous week I had gone to hair salon in town for a haircut, which got terrible botched.  I had asked explicitly, if the woman who was about to cut my hair knew how to cut black hair. I had doubts because there were few black people in Davis.  I knew she was messing up when she sprayed my hair with water, clumped it between her fingers and went at it with scissors.  At the end I paid her, tipped her and then went home to fix the craters in my afro with an electric trimmer. At some point I decided the best thing to do was go bald.   Later that night at a party I attended I was rewarded by a lot of women coming up an enjoying rubbing their hands over my bald head.   I ended up embracing the look because it was tough and masculine.  It turns out that when I showed up with a bald head for the photo shoot, the look was not appreciated, and I got dropped from consideration.  Once again, I had pushed self-expression and failed to give the audience what they wanted.

That was the difference between me and the rightful Mr. Gilmore.  At our reunion party I was pleased to learn that he had a successful career in theater back in New York before returning to California to work as a comedy writer for television. He was a true entertainer. Being an entertainer means recognizing and fulfilling the desires and expectations of an audience and seeking the reward of their laughter and applause.  Now that Mr. Gilmore is selling real estate, his talent is shifted to fulfilling the desires of the house-hunting audience.  I have come to appreciate the value of entertainment.  I always say, the reason we have children is for the entertainment value.  I am glad that my children grew up seeking the reward of my approval instead fearing punishment from me.  That made the experience mutually entertaining.  My greatest reward has been their expressions of appreciation, even for little things like spending an afternoon with them. 

In the Bible there is a poignant moment in the story of Cain and Able when “the Lord said to Cain, 'Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door'...”. Still Cain wasn’t hearing any of that, and in a fit of rage he killed Able.  My face was not downcast after the Mr. Gilmore contest.  Over the years I have learned to appreciate the talents, gifts and abilities of others without being corrupted by envy. I truly enjoyed hearing about the successes of my dormmates at our reunion.

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