I hope and pray that the older I get, the wiser I get. Yet my wisdom is self-proclaimed. It is an acknowledgment that I profess simply because I have lived 63 years and have grown in thought from when I was 36. 

My 63 years encompass some of the most significant events for black people in this country and in the world. It is a timeframe during which this country went from Jim Crow laws setting the state standard to federal Civil Rights laws. I have seen television go from the rare phenomenon of a black person making an appearance to viewing black as a given and everyday occurrence. I have watched Chicago morph from a bungalow belt, which was once code for “ethnic white,” to one where at least two-thirds of the city now consists of black and brown residents. I can remember when Austin was a white enclave that black people longed to be able to live in.

My perspective on race and racism has been molded by all of these experiences. I can think back to my childhood and see the limitations that perceived racism played on my life. One example I am always referencing is my wanting to take ice skating lessons as a kid. I can remember checking the yellow pages for ice skating rinks. The only one I found nearby was Rainbow Ice and Roller Skating Rink. Yes, the now defunct skating rink was also an ice rink. But even as a child, I knew that 4800 North on Clark Street was not an address where black people lived or even considered venturing into in the early 1960s. So I neither tried nor pushed the issue. I accepted that I wouldn’t be able to have those kinds of lessons and in reality my mom probably couldn’t have afforded them anyway.

As I grew older and began to go into young adulthood, college was the refuge I encountered to expand my horizons. Circle (UIC) didn’t have a massive number of black students. And those who were there tended to self-limit to preordained niches of study. I remember the majority of blacks being physical education majors. I had one friend who majored in accounting, having graduated from Jones Commercial. Being one of two blacks (the other was Cuban) in the Spanish Department allowed me to interact with my white peers on an equal playing field. Most were not buddies, but we did have a certain level of camaraderie. If my being black was an issue for them, I didn’t let it bother me, nor did I dwell on it. I trudged on. Transcending how I had limited myself as a kid over ice skating has been the foundation for how I view life. 

I don’t allow others to define me. 

That’s the foundation of my feeling regarding this past week’s H&M controversy. You know the one over the “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” hoodie. It was worn by a very dark-complexioned, young, black male model. I admit I cringed when I first saw the picture. My mind drew up comparisons whites have made between black people and monkeys for centuries. 

But my older and wiser side began to question: Just what is wrong with monkeys? They are highly intelligent. They are cunning and clever. There is little about them to take issue with other than the accusation that we look like them. And some of us do because if we believe in science and evolution, all humans developed from some species of ape. Lastly, monkeys are known for picking up their poop and throwing it at visitors to the zoo. That is a lasting message should it ever land on you.

I also got to pondering, Just who would buy that hoodie? Most black people wouldn’t, so it would be mostly white kids running around in a hoodie comparing themselves to monkeys!