Friday, July 31, 2015

Michael Bennett Is America's Whitest Black Kid

By Darlene Donloe

Michael Gordon Bennett has led a chaotic, nomadic, but interesting life. His ups and downs, his bumps and bruises and triumphs and defeats are all chronicled in his very personal tome, 7-10 Split: My Journey As America’s Whitest Black Kid.

Bennett, a travel expert, producer, author, host, actor and entrepreneur presents an intimate account of his life growing up the child of a military brat (his father was in the Air Force).

At 57, Bennett, who has an amazing gift of recall, reveals things about his life he admits very few friends have been privy to.

“I hadn’t shared the details about my life with anyone in California for 23 years,” said Bennett, a father of one who lives in Las Vegas.

He grew up in a racially polarized world where he was often the only black person.  A light-skinned black person, while growing up Bennett was rejected by both blacks and whites. In his early adulthood he was homeless and lived in his car. As a black person who spent his early years abroad, Bennett knew nothing of the civil rights movement that split America. And this is just the beginning.

Through it all the unstoppable Bennett proved his mettle. When life threw him lemons, he simply made lemonade. 

7-10 Split: My Journey As America’s Whitest Black Kid is a fast, easy read that is humorous, poignant, gloomy, shocking, but always entertaining.

The book is currently available on Kindle and Amazon.

This weekend Bennett will participate in the Leimert Park Book Fair.

I recently caught up with him to discuss his life and his book.

DD: What compelled you to write this book?

MB:  Well, when I started it in 2004, it was a way to excise my demons of the past. I didn’t know I had issues that needed to come out. It was cathartic putting it on paper. I wrote the first draft in 30 days. Tears were running down my face. Time passed. In 2013, I met a young lady who was born in Spain who lived there when I was a child. I told her my story and she told me I was an idiot for not finishing it.  It started out cathartic trying to excise the demons. My initial intent was not to have it published.

DD: Why should anyone be interested in your story?

MB: There are life lesson in the story about how to cope. Kids today aren’t forced to cope with adversity. As adults they take their anger out on others. I think the idea is about coping. Adversity is going to happen. How are you going to deal with it? 

DD: You ran into obstacles thrown in your path by both whites and blacks. Who treated you the worse?

MB: I was an equal opportunity offender, black and whites didn’t like me. I can tell a mile away whether someone will like me.  Not every black person is a horrible person. Not every white person is a horrible person.  When I see things like the church shooting in South Carolina - that hit home for me. How could you be inbred with so much hatred? I understand it now though.

DD: Lets talk about the title.  Explain.

MB:  7-10 is a bowling reference. It’s a metaphor. Me being the kid caught in the middle. I was going to have the cover as a bowling alley with a zebra ball going down the lane, but I changed my mind.

DD: Why did you identify yourself as the whitest black kid?

MB: I did that to get everyone’s attention. Living in Spain in the 1960s, Kennedy, Malcolm X, freedom rides, etc., I knew nothing about any of it. When you live in Europe they don’t play race relations games like we did. Our form of communication was Spanish television. No one treated me like a black American. I just walked around the streets and no one bothered me. First 11 years of my life I didn’t know there was a black community. It was in 1969 in New Jersey that I first got a look at an inner city. When we got to Philadelphia for the first time I was shocked at the poverty. I hadn’t seen it or experienced it. I had to deal with people who looked at me and then looked at my father who looked white.  I was the only black person in my graduating class with 600-700 students.

DD: Spanish TV didn’t show American issues?

MB: No, only the good stuff.  I was five years-old so the news wasn’t at the top of my list. My father knew what was going on. Mom never learned Spanish. She didn’t know what was going on either.  In Spain we were free.

DD: You weren’t around for a lot of historically black moments including the civil rights era. It was never on TV.  Were your parents purposely trying to keep it from you – or was it not newsworthy wherever you were living?

MB:  I kind of learned by hearing other people’s story. My mother’s side of the story were born and raised in the black part of Atlantic City. I was getting touches of black culture and pulled out of it again and again.

DD: Did your childhood scar you or make you stronger? 

MB: At this stage of my life, it made me stronger. But initially it scarred me. Even after going into the Air Force there were some things I couldn’t shake.  I spent 7 ½ years in the military. I walked around angry.

DD: How do the people in your past deal with you talking about them?

MB: There is only one person in the book whose real name I used.

DD: Are you still going through any race issues?

MB: From a race perspective I don’t know if I had residual scarring. I didn’t know who would accept me and who wouldn’t. I always let people make the first move. I occasionally still do that even though I’m 57-years-old. I have to snap myself out of it.

Michael Gordon Bennett

DD: Today, what are your feelings about white people?

MB: For me I don’t have an issue with white people. I was so unevenly treated by blacks and whites I don’t harbor any ill will. I’ve had white folks bail me out of some things. Some of my best friends in the military were white.

DD:  Did it hurt you more to be hated by whites or blacks?

MB: That’s an interesting question. I think to be hated by blacks. I can’t blame them. Living down south where you’re from and what you’re exposed to matters. When I was younger it hurt that the black community didn’t like me. I didn’t understand why they didn’t like me. I figured out why – you don’t come in and change the rules overnight. I’m nicely dressed, educated, etc. They were poor, didn’t have money for lunch. I had traveled the world. They were beaten down my society. None of that applied to me. It was like I was rubbing my experience in their face – I was not. I didn’t know.  Separate but equal I now understand it’s separate but very unequal.

DD: To this day, do you still find the same kind of attitudes towards you by blacks and whites?

MB: Not so much anymore. Over the years society has changed.  Some look at me as an enigma.  There are certain circles I walk in where they say I’m different. Well, what makes me different?  I get offended when people say that to me. My life experience is a little bit different because I’m black and smart? That hurts me. I hear that from white people. White folks think I’m different.

DD: Talk to me about your father. When he didn’t vouch for you and you lost your ID, etc., that was brutal.  Describe your relationship. 

MB: I want to be fair to him. He passed away two years ago. He read the book before he passed. He signed off on everything about it.   My mother understood as well. My father had a lot of demons.  He was the product of a 15-year-old mother in Baltimore. We don’t know who is biological father is. My father looks white. Mother is black, but physically looks white. A lot of this deterioration of our relationship stemmed from his childhood. Carrying baggage of looking white. His mother put him up for adoption to another family member. My father when I was real young, he had his military job and had two other jobs. I don’t want to paint him as a despicable, evil person. Vietnam took every ounce of positive energy out of him. He was the best functional alcoholic I’ve every seen. He wanted me to go in the military. But I wanted to go in as an officer. He suffered from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and alcoholism. He would always say, ‘If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.' I was miserable joining the military. It was his proudest moment.

DD: What was the most painful part of the book to relive and write?

MB: My relationship with my father. As an adult you can deal with the institutional racism down south and being the only black at a school, but a relationship with my dad was hard. I know he loved me. I would say he was even envious of me.  Some of his friends were his friends because of me. I think there was a jealousy factor.

DD: You have incredible recall.

MB: God blessed me with a good memory. I can remember details about Spain and Florida like it happened to me yesterday. My years in the Air Force are like it happened an hour ago. I’ve always had this gift. I coasted through school because I had a good memory. I didn’t have to study.  I never opened a book. I never took a book home.  

DD: If you had not been homeless, would you have gone into the Air Force or any part of the military?

MB: Probably not. I wanted to go to college so bad. Every friend I had went in college as an officer. A few were enlisted, but most went in as officers.  I would never have gone to military if I had figured out how to go to college. I was 35 when I graduated.

DD: The Tale of Two Cities reference.  Actually, that could capture a lot of people’s teenage years.  I didn’t live your life, but after having read this, it really sums it up nicely. Sum up your life.

MB: First word that comes to mind is complicated. Because I graduated from college so late in life, some things weren’t available to me. I have a degree in journalism. I wanted to be a sports announcer.  There isn’t a sport I don’t know. Well, maybe hockey. There isn’t a sport that I don’t know stats and information about.  When you’re in journalism you don’t start in the number two market. You have to go to small markets and make your way back to Los Angeles. Confused comes to mind. Trying to figure out my next moves.  I had to make difficult career decisions. 

DD: How long did it take you to write this book?

MB: The first draft took one month. Then I picked it up and started editing. Still wasn’t going to publish. Two or three years go by, I gave a friend my manuscript. He read it in 2-3 days. In 2008-2009 I started editing it again.  This time I said I’m going to finish it. I went back and reread it again last October 2014. I included Spain, rewrote the book. I also added the time I spent in Maine. The first three chapters weren’t there the first time. From October to March I just kept editing.

DD: Talk about the writing process.

MB: The first 30 days it just came pouring out of me. I knew I had resentment in me. I sat down and started writing and couldn’t stop.

DD: How did your whole family react to the book?

MB: My sister just read the book a month ago. My other sister was 10 when I graduated from high school. She was shocked. There are a lot of things she didn’t know.

DD: Your life experience made you who you are. If you could go back and change anything – what would it be?

MB: Setting my father’s situation aside, I wouldn’t change anything.

DD: If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?

MB: It was worth it. Honestly my life and what I experienced the pain, anguish and tears, at the end of the day it was all worth it. This is something you can share, it’s a teachable moment like President Obama said.  There were times I was going through depression and didn’t want any people to know. I stayed in my bedroom. I wanted someone to embrace me. I didn’t have confidence. I was desperate to fit in with someone. I allowed them to zap my confidence.  I’ve learned you have to stick to your guns and keep your self-confidence.  Don’t let anyone tear you down. Stay strong.

DD: What’s the takeaway from writing this book?

MB: Perseverance. I mentioned this earlier. Life is going to throw challenges at you. You are not going to always have anyone to help you with that. I certainly didn’t. No one can prepare you for this. It was just one of those things. My life could have easily turned to crime.  Something inside said, no. I pushed back and said, ‘no, that’s not the way I want to go.’ I was scared of my father and didn’t want to disappoint my mother.  You can overcome obstacles.

DD:  Is there a part two to your book?  What would be the jump off point?

MB: I think I would probably start with the homeless beach part  my Air Force career and when I got to college.  I have another 8000 pages in me.

 7-10 Split: My Journey As Americas Whitest Black Kid

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