The Negro Donald Draper

So Mad Men is over, and short of the NFL, there really is no other reason for me to have a TV. I got rid of mine last spring, and I actually considered buying a new one just to see the new season. But then I discovered Mad Men was on Itunes. You should know that there are only two shows that have ever made me cry--Justice League and Mad Men. Sound insane? You obviously have never watched Justice League.


Here is the thing, in the superhero mythos, a character often gains his motivations, and his powers, because of some tragic event in the past--Spiderman loses Uncle Ben, Superman loses Krypton, a mad scientist runs devious experiments on Wolverine etc. The superhero is, at once tormented and empowered by his past. Often he tries to remake it, or he tries to abandon his power in hopes that his pain will come to an end. This invariably leads to more trouble, and the hero usually realizes that he can't actually escape his past. This is the essence of the whole "Great Power and Great Responsibility" theme that powers Spiderman That idea--the past as pain and power--has always been salient one for me.

I came of age in the midst of the Crack Era. I went to a besieged middle school in West Baltimore. My teachers were the sort of black women who were obsessed with getting the best out of you and also making sure you got the best out of the world. They did what they could--but this was 1987. I'm talking tons of guns, patent leather Jordans, Dopeman, and twelve year-olds dying for Georgetown Starter jackets. I spent as much time plotting a safe route home as I spent studying.

Once they caught me on Liberty Heights, right near the old CCB. Six kids beat the hell out of me and stomped on my face. A few years later I got into a fight in my high school cafeteria--some dude smacked me over the head with a trash-can. It was a bad time for the empire. And yet everything I learned about human nature, I learned in those years. Moreover, because I had to master a certain way of being, a certain style, in order to walk through my own neighborhood, I gained a sort of second sight that has never left me. When I write I am pulling from that past, I am seeing the world not just through refined adult eyes, but through the eyes of kid who's seen people at their lowest.

And then there is the collective experience of black folks. What does it mean to be the loser of history? To come out on the vanquished end of the great American narrative? Well, it kind of sucks. But too, it powers who we are--it gives us Zora Neal Hurston, Jimmy Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Nina Simone, Romare Bearden, Outkast and Nas. I think Jay summed up the entire deal:

Do not step to me, I'm awkward, I box lefty
An orphan, my Pops left me
And often, my Momma wasn't home.

That is who we are-- to be black, and successful in any way, is to box lefty. In many old societies, the left-hander is seen as cursed. But anyone from the street--or anyone who's watched tape of Ali-Norton--knows that the unorthodox fighter can be dangerous. To box lefty, It is to have a different way of grappling with the world, a different way of seeing. The trick is not letting it be your only way of seeing.

When I rewatched the first season of Mad Men, all of this came back to me. Don's past is unorthodox for his profession, and furthermore it is an object of great shame for him. And yet the past is the source of his power. In the last episode of season one, Don has to do a pitch for "The Wheel" a slide projector in need of rebranding. Don's marriage is crumbling and he's lost his brother--the last link to his murky, and poignant past. Don pulls all of that together and makes a beautiful pitch, rechristening "The Wheel" as "The Carousel" a device that's a time machine which takes us to a place where we ache to go again." The pitch blows everyone away, and Don is hailed as a genius. But what only we know, is that Don can write such pitches because he sees different, and he sees different because he's literally seen different things. His life has been much harder than his colleagues, and that gives him a power to see more than them.

But he's also haunted by the past. Don believes his progress is tied to no one ever knowing who he truly is, to no one discovering his true history--his secret identity, if you will. Don Draper is, in the parlance of old black folks, passing. His orgins are not proper and gentile--he is the child of a prostitute, who as reinvented himself for the Manhattan jet-set. He is Gatsby and Anatole Broyard, no? And yet the irony that animates Mad Men is the fact that, without that past, Draper would likely be the sort of pampered hack he despises. He'd be Pete Campbell. His double consciousness, makes him, indeed, doubly conscious, doubly aware. Don Draper sees more.

Only two groups of people truly can sense something amidest--the blacks, and the Jews. There is a lovely scene in Season Two where Peggy, Don and the black elevator man are riding up. They are talking about Marilyn Monroe's death and noting how shocked they are. The elevator man casually notes, "Some people just hide in plain sight." It is not so much that he directly knows Don's identity, but that he is playing the role that blacks play throughout the show--they are a kind of Greek chorus, unseen, but offering short poetic takes on the themes at work.

The major theme is set from theĀ  first episode, when Don, wooing Rachel, a Jewish proprietor of a department store, is enjoying the sound of his own voice. Rachel listens skeptically and then cuts right through the mask:

I don't know what it is you really believe in, but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it.There is something about you that tells me you it to.

To be out of place, To be disconnected. That is the essence of us, and I guess in one way or another, it's everyone else too.