This piece was originally published in the now discontinued Read & Trust Newsletter.
There is a universal sign of acknowledgement that is, in my experience, common only to African-American males. I’ve often wondered if anyone outside of our community even notices it. It happens quickly, almost imperceptably unless you are specifically looking for it or in-the-know. Yet, no matter where I go in this great nation, when it is gestured to another Brother, it is returned in kind. I’m not even sure I can describe it well, but I will try.
It is sort of a reverse head nod. Where the chin is lifted up swiftly and returned. I like to call it The Wassup. When I’m walking down the street, and another Black male is coming the other direction, our eyes meet and The Wassup is gestured as we pass. When I walk into a room and I see another Black man, especially if we are the only ones, we exchange the sign. What’s interesting is that this is true even when we don’t know one another. In fact, I would say the exchange is even more pronounced and crucial then. Because, The Wassup communicates so much, so succinctly, and so silently.
It says, I recognize your humanity even when for most of this nation’s history others did not. It says, no matter our respective lifestyle, status, or class, I share in your pain and struggles and joy and courage. It says, you are beautiful my Brother and seeing it reminds me I’m beautiful too. It says, as the gesture itself denotes, keep your chin up and stand proud for you have fought too hard to earn the right to walk tall.
After mentioning this to my wife, she reported to me that mothers have a similar gesture. When they encounter each other in public, if one had a kid who is behaving in an unruly way, there is a glance, a sideways eye-roll and grin, that is exchanged between them. One that says, I’ve been there. One that says, I know what it is like to have a misbehaving child in a public space when all attempting to appease or control them is futile and it sucks. One that says, I know this is not a reflection on you as a mother anymore than it is when it happens to me.
I’m a runner. Often, when a car stops for me at an intersection to give me right of way, I give a single short wave or, in some cases, a salut (a habit still ingrained from time spent in the Navy). It is, I hope, taken as intended. A thank you for yielding. An acknowledgement that, though it is state law, the sheer size difference between me and their vehicle meant they don’t have to obey. Far too many don’t give we pedestrians this courtesy. I hope that by thanking those that do I’m encouraging continued fair play.
I found out something really neat today that, in a way, relates to this. When small children cover their eyes to hide, they think they are invisible. But, here’s the twist. They know full well their head and bodies are able to be seen, but this is not what constitutes "self" to a small child. They believe that if you can’t look them in the eye, they are hiding their selves. Eye-to-eye contact is, in a child’s mind, required for visibility.
Yes. One of the beauties of humanity is that we can communicate so very much with a silent gesture. These are, in effect, our Like Buttons. These are the reveal in our childhood hiding game. And, just as Likes and Favorites and Plus Ones, they communicate so much depth and nuance in a single, simple, action. These are our requirements for visibility.
I often wonder if there are other such subtle gestures among other groups. Ones that happen all around me yet I have never noticed because I’m not in the know. I’m not a part of that group. Do other cultures have such silent gestures? Would mine translate elsewhere? In other words, would The Wassup be understood and returned by the Black men of London or Paris or Amsterdam if I gave it in passing? Would my wife’s empathy land the same way with a mother of an unruly child in a shopping mall in Brussels? I wish I knew.
I’m betting that there are similar gestures elsewhere. One reason for believing this is how universally understood that Like button on many social networks is. No matter if you are an American fan of some celebrity or an Iranian revolutionary, you know and understand all that is communicated by clicking that Star or +1 on that post. You are in agreement. You are empathizing. You are supporting. You are simply saying that thing that feeds and sustains we humans so well… "Me too."
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