"Too black, too strong..."
Jeffery Renard Allen
Artwork by Anthony Young
Photographs courtesy of the author
White folks in America are the most dangerous people on earth. No two ways about it. I accept this disturbing fact, just as I accept the equally disturbing fact that almost half of the American voting population, small town folk in the Midwest and the South, put this buffoon into office. For the first time in our history our government is openly pushing to become a rightwing dictatorship, headed up by a vacuous small-minded ventriloquist dummy who voices the ideas of Breitbart, a fascist political movement that in Trump has authored a strange coalition of Zionists, Tea Party types, white supremacists, Christian fundamentalists, and billionaires. And because these fascists now control the Congress, they will simply walk all over the Democratic Party. But the Democrats go about as if this is a moment of business as usual, while liberals express alarm and ask us to sign petitions and stage demonstrations. Liberal denial of the realities of race in our country is one strand of thinking that has brought us to this moment of crisis. The stark forces of nationalism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism have been steadily on the rise for the past four decades. The limbo of bullshit denial where many liberals find themselves is as caustic a space as the specious reality where Trump and his supporters live.
Gunpowder and bleach are central to painter Anthony Young’s canvases and artistic practice.
As the young, promising artist told the Boston Globe, “I was thinking of gun crimes and gun violence, and the black male body.” Then he goes on to say, “Bleach burns or disintegrates. Or white washes. The very thing that’s destroying the image creates it.”
So much about our lives as black people in this country involves this form of creation, the proverbial making of something out of nothing, of finding a way out of no way, and surviving (and hopefully thriving) off remnants, remains, and leftovers. Black lives matter in the every-day materials of our existence, materialize in the stories we create about our existence. These stories cut through racist representations and lies and show us who we are in our various selves. As Anthony Young says, “I want to show the history of the black body. How it has been portrayed in American culture…I’m trying to think about how those images stick to the black psyche.”
Not so easy to get unstuck. Indeed, so much about being black in America is the struggle to recognize you even as you are caught in a fantasy, exist in someone else’s imaginings of you. So we push back, represent in our lives and our work. And we try to have some say in how others represent us, a losing battle it would seem.
Digital culture shows us each day that racism is a pervasive and permanent presence in America. From Snapchat images that superimpose black faces onto the faces of gorillas, to photographs and videos of white college kids costumed as the victims of a lynching or tricked out in a Trayvon Martin hoodie with fake bloodstains on the sweater, to the racist posts and Tweets in response to President Obama’s oldest daughter being accepted into Harvard. And other such micro aggressions made macro.
But something else happens when you are right there, in the mix. You want to be somewhere else. Your mind tries to free itself, a process of detachment brought on by denial. I can’t believe this is happening. You are stunned, a shocked observer, watching yourself watch the racist fool other. And, make no mistake, there are many racial fool others out there in the world, including well-intentioned liberals. Racism is just a metaphor for these people, an idea to apply to abstract situations, an idea that has no application to their daily lives.
Indeed, so much about being black in America is the struggle to recognize you even as you are caught in a fantasy, exist in someone else’s imaginings of you.
Listen: recently I served as a juror for a prestigious arts residency. I was one of two writers of color on a panel of seven, which was headed up by the young white man (a thirty-five-year-old Southerner) who ran the center. We were discussing a manuscript from a man from Guyana, an ambitious novel that I thought was as good as anything we had before us. The leader of our panel started the conversation by saying, I’ve seen this before. This guy was a finalist last year. Frankly, I’m surprised that he didn’t revise it. All of the same problems are here. He took the next five minutes to flip through the manuscript and expound upon said supposed problems.
The waters were now tainted. I thought, Since you’ve read this application before, why don’t you recuse yourself from the vote? And just shut the fuck up. But I did not voice my feeling—shame on me—because I was certain that the other jurors would recognize the obvious strengths of this applicant’s manuscript.
For whatever reason we started to talk about the applicant’s background, namely his being Guyanese. I asked a question about the applicant’s ethnic background. Is he black? (The applicant had an East Indian surname.) The leader of our panel felt the need to explain some things about Guyana to me. Ah, the presumption. White liberal presumption. Little did it matter that I am almost twenty years older than he is, that I am a writer and a professor with an advanced degree and have taught at the university level for thirty years. He spoke to me as he would only speak to a person of color, a black person.
The other problem: he got all the facts wrong. In terms of nationality and place he compared the applicant to Naipaul, then said that Naipaul is from Guyana. From there he started waxing poetical about how Guyana is in the Caribbean. Wrong again, buddy. Then he and another white juror, a smart and likable young woman in her late twenties, started to throw around the reductive term “post-colonial,” as in “post-colonial piece,” as in “post-colonial writing always…” She went so far as to say that the applicant was writing in creole, not English. Ah, the white liberal presumption. Here the mistaken belief that because one has taken some courses in political theory, one is now aware, free of bias and bigotry. Racism is reduced to rhetoric. The education that should make certain liberals more aware has become a hard shell to hide in, a space of abstract pontification. Politically content, the white liberal can pat himself on the back.
Suffice it to say that the man from Guyana did not get the fellowship. But that was only the first bad moment in a bad day on the racial frontier.
During a break, our panel leader started talking about a Blackfoot friend who had been chosen for the fellowship a few years earlier, but who, because of an urgent family matter, had to decline the offer. Then our leader said, It’s good he didn’t come here to the Center, because he’s the type of guy who would have come here and done nothing.
Interesting that our leader saw no problem in writing off his Native American “friend” as simply lazy, that he seemed oblivious to certain stereotypes, and that, perhaps more importantly, he seemed oblivious to context. Despite the romantic fascination with Native Americans, the reality is that they eclipse every ethnic group in America in terms of social ills. They suffer the highest rates of police brutality (and death via cop), rape (one third of all Native American women will either be raped, murdered, or disappeared), suicide, poverty, alcohol addiction, and other health problems; few of them finish high school and still fewer go on to college.
Listen: several years ago, I was talking to a good friend, a Diné poet, about the type of poverty I had witnessed in my travels on the African continent. I have never seen anything like it, I said. My friend just looked at me. Then he started to tell me about the dire conditions that most Indians live under on reservations (the rez) in places like Arizona, where he is from, and on reservations across America, Third World poverty.
Not long after that conversation, my poet friend went home to his rez in Arizona, and spent the better part of a bleak day convincing a person that he loved not to kill himself. Later that same day, he received a call informing him that he had been awarded a prestigious fellowship.
Our country was built on the twofold suffering of Native Americans and black slaves brought from West Africa. (Faulkner explores this connection in his greatest novel, Absalom, Absalom.) By this point in time every thinking American should know that westward expansion in the mid-nineteenth century put into play a process of removal and relocation, a process of disenfranchisement that prefigured the plight of the Bantustans in South Africa during the next century. A process of extinction that is still ongoing. What I am saying here is not simply hyperbole. Native Americans are in fact disappearing, fewer of them every year.
I asked our panel leader, How many Native Americans have been fellows at the Center?
He gave me a puzzled expression then said, I would have to look it up.
(Then look it up, buddy. I already know the answer: none.)
A third incident from that day bears mentioning. During another break, our leader was telling us all about how exhausted he was because the Center had received over five hundred applications that year.
Do you usually receive so many applications? I asked.
No, he said. We usually have fewer than four hundred. Frankly, he said, I really tried to get the word out for purposes of diversity.
Another telling moment. Clearly for this man, the Center’s appointed director, diversity is a burdensome problematic that needs to be defined by the word “frankly.” Of course, my fellow juror of color and I had been asked to serve on the panel in large part to bring diversity to the panel, to help ensure that the reviewing process was balanced and fair. I was left to wonder, where does diversity end and tokenism begin?
Racism is not a fixed place of being (a racist, as in you are a racist), but a sliding continuum of fucked-up behavior. This explains why an otherwise liberal person like the director of the Center still buys into simplistic categorizations, stereotypes, and received ideas. Explains why the liberal actress Meryl Streep can say “We are all Africans” to justify the lack of diversity in the judges’ panel for the Berlin Film Festival. Explains why the liberal white psychiatrist that my mother worked for for thirty years could both support civil rights causes and feel no obligation to give my mother a pension. And it goes a long way in explaining the political minstrelsy of a Rachel Dolezal. I would go so far as to say that we should recognize Dolezal’s racial careerism as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a parasitic liberalism that seeks to latch onto blackness, as it were, to reshape our history and claim our stories as its own.
Ah, the white liberal presumption. Here the mistaken belief that because one has taken some courses in political theory, one is now aware, free of bias and bigotry.
I was in my hometown Chicago during one weekend in spring 2008 when twenty-eight black and Latino men were shot over a period of less than forty-eight hours, from six pm on Friday evening until noon on Sunday. The shootings never made the national news. (Violence against black men in Chicago rarely does.) Obama would be elected into office that fall. A year or so later, I gave an interview where I talked about how hundreds of black men were dying in Chicago and no one cared, including President Obama. In February 2014, President Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which had as one of its stated goals finding ways to address the social ills that breed violence by black men against other black men. But black men were being murdered every day across America. So what brought on the sudden interest? We did.
It was only in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing and verdict that the national media became interested in the deaths of black boys and men at the hands of white victimizers. But it was the Black Lives Matter movement, through their black bodies and their black voices, who would not let the nation forget, who forced the media to take notice.
Almost immediately, the organization’s critics tried to change the conversation, and thereby silence it, dismiss it. Why aren’t you focusing on black-on-black violence? But we know this all- too-familiar game. As Charles Blow stated in a May 5th editorial in the New York Times: “Both state violence and community violence are problems, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One exacerbating factor of community violence is the present and historical factors that helped form the communities and created the conditions for violence.”
But these attempts to silence the Black Lives Matter movement should come as no surprise, since like Rachel Dolezal, white media concern about our lives is disingenuous. We need only think about the pronounced differences in the way the media covers stories that involve the death of white people at the hands of terrorist organizations, and the deaths of black people through similar forces. Think about the shock and outrage and sense of disbelief and calls for international mourning and lowered flags and military response in the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe that maimed and killed a handful of people. No such calls are ever issued after radical groups like Boko Haram kill fellow Africans by the dozens, hundreds, and thousands. Black lives apparently don’t matter to many. So often while growing up in Chicago I would see a story on the local news or in the local papers about some poverty-stricken black girl who had been brutally raped and murdered in a housing project in Chicago. Then an affluent white girl would die and her story would not only make the national news but maintain a prominent place there for week after week, even month after month. There was clearly a perceived difference in the lives of these two girls, in their value to our society, in the double factors of racial and class difference. Imagine: federal, state, and local legislators would institute immediate and systemic change in policing should innocent and privileged white people begin to suffer violent deaths at the hands of police, deaths caught on video. The conversation around police violence suddenly changed after the assassination of the five cops in Dallas, with many urgent calls to find a solution to the “division” between cops and the black community. Then after a few days of “mourning” and vigils and the public shedding of tears and numerous speeches about the need for “compassion” and “healing” and our great country’s ability to overcome any problem, the moment of urgency passed and it was business as usual with Donald Trump proclaiming that he is the “law and order” candidate. In short order his conservative bedfellows began to point the finger of blame back at the victims of police misconduct, black people, us. We should stop complaining, we should appreciate all that cops do for us and support them, we should stop dissing cops and making them feel bad, stop exaggerating and overreacting. Cops are not racists, cops are not killers, they must make quick decisions under duress, face extreme difficulties in their heroic efforts to serve and protect the public, although there are of course those few bad apples, those rare few. Black Lives Matter is a hate organization, a terrorist organization. All the chatter only proves for those who need the proof that black lives don’t matter for many Americans.
Grass roots activism might be the only way to insure that our lives do matter, if only to us. We write our bodies into the headlines. You are my audience and I am yours. White people can listen in. White people can join the dialogue. Indeed, one great thing about the Black Lives Matter organization is that its leaders, all young intellectuals, have been effective in attracting a true rainbow coalition of people who are willing to put their bodies on the line. For that reason, Black Lives Matter cannot simply be written off as a “black” organization or a “black” movement. We should welcome those who see themselves in our struggles—fellow exiles who view America from the margins, as we do, and who then act in response. As Susan Sontag noted in her final book Regarding the Pain of Others, “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action…If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do…then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”
Purposeful action requires intellect, a willingness to remain informed and to use that information for engaging with others and the world. In his book Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said defines the intellectual as an exile who always maintains a “double perspective that never sees things in isolation.” He continues: “Even if one is not an actual immigrant or expatriate, it is still possible to think as one, to imagine and investigate in spite of barriers, and always to move away from the centralizing authorities towards the margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never traveled beyond the conventional and the comfortable.” This is the journey that many liberals refuse to take, claiming instead to sympathize with the margins from a place firmly among the centralizing authorities.
I would go one step further and say that a double perspective also involves seeing the world through an international lens.
I recall the first time that I went to the island of Zanzibar almost a decade ago to attend an international film festival, probably the most prominent film festival on the African continent. To my great disappointment, the festival was beset by one technical disaster after another. As embarrassed as I was for the festival’s organizers, I was equally disturbed by the casual and accepting attitude of the white festivalgoers. Whenever anything went wrong, one of them would say, “It’s Africa,” as in, “What more can you expect here in Africa?” No way that this festival should be held up to the standards of excellence that we expect from other festivals in other parts of the world. Their refusal to hold the organizers of the festival accountable for incompetence only confirmed in their minds long-held western stereotypes about the African’s lack of agency. They need our help. They can’t accomplish anything without our money and aid and guidance—a sentiment that I was to hear verbalized on subsequent trips to the continent. Little did it matter that this festival was very well-funded, to the tune of well over a million dollars a year. Meaning the incompetence was a deliberate choice, a matter of cutting corners so that a well-positioned few could pocket the funding, and not simply the result of “technical challenges” or the “lack of infrastructure.”
These misconceptions were rarely challenged because few people saw the benefit in doing so. The sad fact is that Africans often treat white people with more respect than they do other Africans. White skin (and euros or dollars) command privilege. And that privilege only fuels a sense of self-righteousness, self-importance, audacity, and arrogance, the sense that they can say or do anything they want. Believe me when I tell you that they would often say condescending things to me that they would never dare say back at home. Here, why don’t you let me show you how to do that…Hey, next time be sure that you…Hey, where are you from? Chicago? Really? You speak pretty good English. I thought you were from Nigeria. They would treat me like an African.
That said, my interest in Africa is more than simply intellectual or theoretical or artistic. I am married to a woman from the African continent, from Tanzania, and one of our sons was born on the continent, and we hope to make our home there one day. Both my time spent in various countries on the continent, and my relationships with the people there, including my wife, have demolished many of my fanciful ideas about Africa, while also broadening my understanding of fellow Americans.
On my second trip to Zanzibar I became immediately aware of the widespread and desperate poverty. Heartbroken, I took every opportunity to tip anyone I could. I later learned that the employees at the hotel where I was staying referred to me as the “rich guy,” which explained why they were so keen on assisting me when I didn’t need assistance, why they always wanted to run errands for me. But my stupidities would reach even greater heights.
Thoroughly drunk after hanging out all night, I came back to my room where my wife (then fiancé) was asleep. I broke down in melodramatic tears.
What’s wrong? she asked.
I mumbled, I can’t believe how hard people have it here, how much they suffer. She said nothing. What was there to say?
We laughed about it all later—my sloppy drunkenness, my earnest effort to speak about a reality that she knew firsthand, my thinking that my tears, my sympathy meant something.
Of course, my giving a few dollars here and there was doing little to alleviate the suffering of most people on the island of Zanzibar. But I was to discover that the vast majority of NGOs operating on the island for the express purpose of bettering the lives of the local people were doing even less.
My wife took English lessons at a school run by an American couple who it so happens had expatriated to Zanzibar from my hometown, Chicago. The woman gave free English lessons to locals two days a week, although she held no teaching certificate and no college degree. The one condition, her students had to take computer classes from her husband for a fee of twenty dollars per month, a substantial sum in a country where most people earn on average about forty dollars a month. In addition, the couple solicited donations from overseas through a slick online campaign that involved photographs of smiling students seated before computers and other evidence of their supposed educational and charitable mission. Unfortunately for them, the couple fell sick, packed up shop, then moved back to Chicago, where they resumed their humdrum lives in the service industry.
Make no mistake, such fraudulent NGOs are common across the African continent. Their presence speaks again to the phenomenon of white liberals who invent narratives of charity and equality and progress as a way of profiting from the suffering of black people, Rachel Dolezal writ large. As Edward Said notes, “Everyone today professes a liberal language of equality and harmony for all. The problem for the intellectual is to bring these notions to bear on actual situations where the gap between the profession of equality and justice, on the one hand, and the rather less edifying reality, on the other, is very great.”
Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH was the first grassroots organization that I had any firsthand knowledge of. My mother, Alice Allen, joined the organization in 1972—I was ten years old at the time—primarily as a volunteer. I have few recollections of her involvement, but remember accompanying her on several occasions to the PUSH headquarters—everyone I knew simply called it just that, PUSH—where she stuffed envelopes, answered phones, and performed other odds and ends. I have few surviving remnants from those days—some brochures and calendars, a few campaign-style buttons, and, the object of the most interest to me, a puzzle constructed from a photographic image of a young, handsome, afro-coiffed Jesse Jackson, a puzzle that has never been touched let alone used, the plastic covering still perfectly intact. I do not know why my mother chose to join the organization, and to this day, I have never asked her. She was never an openly political person. If anything, I always saw her as just the opposite, a passive bystander, a woman who never acted when she suffered some wrong.
My mother was born in the segregated South in 1930, in a small town called Houston, Mississippi, near Fulton, near Tupelo, near Oxford, Faulkner country. The members of my family were the poorest of the poor, sharecroppers and domestics, but my grandmother found a way to send my mother to high school in Memphis. Then, seeking greener pastures, my great aunt Beulah made the trek to Chicago during the Great Migration, the first member of our family to do so. She helped sponsor my mother, who came to the Windy City in 1949, and who set out on a career as a domestic, although at times she tried other jobs, took some classes at a city college every now and then, and even enrolled in a nursing program, only to drop out of the program because she could no longer tolerate the haughty instructors who constantly belittled her and the other poor black women in the program.
My mother gave birth to me the day after Faulkner died when she was thirty years old. She and my flashy, city-slick, criminal pimp gangster father had a fraught relationship, and eventually she left him—”we separated” as she would always say, “got separated,” she would say, “I got separated from him”—when I was four years old. She never took the steps to initiate a divorce, and as far as I know my father never filed papers. So my mother continued on with her life under his surname, Allen, rather than reclaim her maiden name, McShan. My father had little to do with us after the separation, and, not surprisingly, she never sought any financial support from him to help raise me. Instead, she collected welfare and food stamps, and worked off the books for cash as a domestic six days a week cleaning the condominiums of rich white people on Chicago’s Gold Coast and cleaning the houses of rich white people in the northern suburbs.
Although it is hard for me to admit now, for most of my life I believed that my mother had been psychologically if not spiritually broken by the segregated South. The South represented a period in her life that she would never talk about, and a time and place that she did not want my Aunt Beulah (the family storyteller) or any other kinfolk to talk about. The lynchings. The labor in the cotton fields. The daily insults, affronts, and humiliations. I could bear her silence, accept it, but what I could not accept was her unwillingness to stand up for herself, as I saw it, when someone wronged her, to stand up for herself and fight back, retaliate, get even. Time and again, I witnessed my mother suffer some wrong and simply take it.
Perhaps the most telling incident involved her refusal to hire a lawyer after she was cheated out of a substantial sum of money that one of her employers had bequeathed to her in a will. Within days of the death, before the body was even in the ground, the woman’s daughter used some clever legal maneuvering to seize the will, and confiscate all money and assets. I repeatedly insisted that my mother hire a lawyer—Get what you are owed, get what you deserve, get what she promised you, are you going to just let that greedy heifer cheat you out of your money?—but she would not.
I was all the more surprised because I was privy to a few rare occasions when my mom became infuriated when far less than money was at stake. I had seen her call people (black people) out of their name, curse (black) people out, even threaten them.
On one occasion, she had even confronted my employer. I was fourteen and working part-time at the local library under a boss who kept calling me “stupid” whenever I misfiled an index card or put a book on the wrong shelf. I made the mistake of telling my mother, and the very next day, my day off from work, she dragged me to the library, asked me to point out my boss, then walked over to the woman and got up in her face. Bitch, she said, I hear that you been calling my son stupid. If you ever speak to him that way again, I will beat your ass. Mark my word.
What I did not understand at the time was how my mother’s anger (rage?) was brought on by the myriad injustices of class prejudice. My mother often spoke negatively about fellow black people who “think they better.” She had many close middle-class friends—including some former high school classmates back in Memphis—who enjoyed the material trappings that were denied us. So she could not “stand” black people who saw superiority in their education, profession, and wealth. And much was said about the vagaries of Chicago’s black middle class, who lived in neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, arrogant, pompous, and pretentious “niggers who think they’re God’s chosen,” who “don’t want to have nothing to do with us.”
My mother never seemed to give much thought to money, to getting more of it, at least where she was concerned. Her fixed-budget mentality was to have lasting consequences. When she made the decision to retire in 1996 at age sixty-six, she had no savings to speak of, and would have social security as her only source of income. Facing such circumstances, I demanded that she ask her primary employer, the wealthy psychiatrist for whom she had worked for more than thirty years, to give her a pension. And for weeks and months she promised to call him but never did. So I did. Rather than have him pay her on a monthly basis, she settled for $15,000 in cash, what her lifetime of work amounted to in his eyes. Of course, I complained, but by the same token I recognized what was foremost in her mind. The money that she could bequeath me, and the good that it would hopefully do in my life. Money that she did in fact bequeath me a dozen years later during a health crisis that would force her to move out of her apartment and into the nursing home where she resides today.
That whole sad episode started sometime in the fall of 2007 after a routine visit to the county hospital, where my mother went for monthly visits to have a doctor trim her toenails, a necessary precaution since my mother is a diabetic and has to take special care of her feet. During one routine visit, as I was to learn later, the doctor cut her toenails too closely and cut one toe. That toe became infected, but upon subsequent visits to the hospital in the following weeks and months, doctors and other hospital staff kept up a steady stream of denials. The toe was not infected. The toe would heal. Soon, the toe was black with gangrene, then the foot. By the following spring, it was clear to all, including me—who saw and smelled and wept at the sight of and the smell of the foot black with rot—that the foot would have to be amputated. Weighing all options, the surgeon decided to amputate my mother’s leg below the knee to allow no chance for the infection, the rot, to spread further.
Distraught, enraged, I wanted to set the world on fire. And I would have. But my mother did not want me to sue the county hospital, fearing that she would be blacklisted and have nowhere to go after she left the hospital. I could not understand her reasoning, maintaining as I did illusions that my mother would have a speedy recovery, then return to her apartment, her life, her friends. What I did not know, what I failed to understand in all of my grief and anger and suffering, is that my mother already knew that her life would be forever different, that she had known this from the time she learned that she would have to lose her leg. And it was only then that I recognized that my mother had conducted her life with thought, patience, pride, character, dignity—with class. Certain battles for her weren’t worth fighting because the risks were too high, the outcome unpredictable, the costs in time and effort too great, draining, consuming.
Perhaps no one has done a better job than William Faulkner at so accurately defining this longstanding phenomenon of black people like my mother who act with grace under pressure. In The Sound and the Fury, this fellow Mississippian put it simply: They endured.
My mother endured this violation of her body. And she would have to endure other violations in the nursing home—clothes stolen out of her closet, a telephone that never worked properly, a toe on her surviving foot that was allowed to go gangrene, and, most recently, a broken hip that resulted from a fall after she tried to lift herself out of her wheelchair rather than continue to wait and wait and wait for a CNA to come. And she continues to endure, even as her body fails little by little in a place that smells like shit and piss and often death, a place where she has seen other residents die for the past ten years; and she endures even after all her friends on the outside have died.
Once it was clear that my mother would take up permanent residence in the nursing home, I was left with the task of cleaning out her apartment, of sifting and sorting through all that she had saved in her seventy-eight years of residence on earth. Among other items I found the cheaply made pistol—what used to be called, in the parlance of the seventies, a “Saturday Night Special”—that she started carrying back in 1974 after she and a male friend were robbed at gunpoint just outside the courtyard building where we lived on Chicago’s South Side. (I was to learn much later that 1974 was an almost prophetic year in the city’s history, a sign of things to come, the year when the city’s murder rate reached an all-time high, numbers not to be reached again until twenty years later.)
I thought back to a morning thirty or more years in the past when I was standing some six feet from my mother in our kitchen, when I was standing near the door with my back to the wall behind me. I was watching my mother as she made her final preparations before leaving home for work. She slipped that very same pistol inside a white ankle sock—she called it a “footy”—as she always did, before she put the pistol into her coat pocket or purse. Just another day. Routine. So the pistol went into the footy, but she lost her grip on it. The pistol fell out of her hand and hit the linoleum floor. I heard a loud pop, then felt plaster spray against my side and my back. Saw that the toe-end of the footy was black with fire and soot and smoke. I turned and looked behind me to see a hole the size of a silver dollar in the wall at the level of my abdomen. The bullet had missed me by inches.
Such were my thoughts while I looked down at the pistol where it lay in a small yellow suitcase that I had found hidden away at the top of a closet, while I looked down at a box of bullets that I had also found tucked into the pouch of the suitcase, thinking about how my mother had continued to carry that pistol for decades following that morning when it had accidentally discharged, how she felt she had to carry it for protection on the mean streets of South Side Chicago. Her fear of crime was just that great. Important to note that this was at a time when the Chicago Police Department was openly and unapologetically brutal towards black people, a time when the police station on Madison had a notorious reputation for beating confessions out of black people, and for using other means of torture such as electric shock. These were things black people knew, things that did not come into official light until recent reports about the CPD, our nation’s second largest police force, confirmed what was common knowledge to us back in the seventies. The beatings and torture continued well into the present. A study from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2013 found that “Chicago has a checkered history of police scandals and an embarrassingly long list of police officers who have crossed the line to engage in brutality, corruption and criminal activity.”
Even more recently, in the wake of the Laquan McDonald killing, a report in the New York Times from last year found that from “2011 to 2015, 97 percent of more than 28,000 citizen complaints resulted in no officer being punished.” It was commonplace back then for segments of the community to demand that the police department be dissolved altogether, demands that neither those in power nor my mother took seriously. Without cops, my mother would say, we wouldn’t be able to walk the streets.
These were my thoughts while I looked at the white-handled pistol lying inside the yellow suitcase, next to the copper-shelled gray-tipped bullets. Thinking done, I took several photographs of the pistol and the bullets, then disposed of both.
Interestingly enough, I saw Jesse Jackson for the first time in person on that trip to Chicago, a trip that, as I’ve told you, I took for the express purpose of cleaning out my mother’s apartment. I saw him standing with his bodyguard in an airport terminal while the two men waited to board a plane. I like to believe that the terminal where I saw him was actually in an airport in Chicago, at O’Hare or even, better yet, at Midway, since it is located on the South Side of Chicago, but in truth, I happened to run into Jesse Jackson upon my arrival in New York, at LaGuardia Airport, or JFK. The where is of little importance. What is important, what I remember, is that none of the other passengers seemed to notice Jesse, let alone recognize him. Fair to say in fact that they were trying not to notice him, that they were outright avoiding him.
So I walked right over to Jesse. (Everyone I knew called him that, Jesse.) It never crossed my mind that his bodyguard might identify me as a threat, or that I was in any way violating Jesse’s privacy or thoughts or space. I simply went over to him and extended my hand in greeting.
He looked at me, before quickly and casually taking my hand into his own.
Thank you for all you have done, I said.
You got it, brother, he said.
I should tell you that this handshake took place only a month or so before Obama was elected into office, or so I like to think. Of course, Jesse had come out in support of Obama, and I also remembered when Jesse himself had run for president back in the eighties, remembered how he was the first person I heard champion the term “African American,” also back in the eighties, and I remembered much else about this man. I was thanking him for all of that, this man who knew that black lives matter, and this man who understood that black people themselves often had to be convinced of that fact. Jesse had made famous the slogan, “I am somebody.” Whatever his faults and limitations, Jesse fully understood the destructive effects of racism on the black psyche, understood what happens when whiteness sticks to the black psyche and how difficult it is to get unstuck.
We need only think about the pronounced differences in the way the media covers stories that involve the death of white people at the hands of terrorist organizations, and the deaths of black people through similar forces.
Sometime later that fall, after my encounter with Jesse, after Obama had been elected into office, I made another trip to Chicago to visit with my mother. I was riding shotgun in a car with my oldest first cousin Charles, who was driving me to the nursing home. That’s when Charles revealed a secret to me that I had no knowledge of. He told me that someone our family knew and trusted had abused him years ago when he was young, a startling revelation for many reasons, although Charles did not specify the who or the what.
Then he said, I never told Alice. Because I knew that she carried that pistol, and I knew that she would have shot him. And I didn’t want her to go to jail.
Chicago artist, activist, and entrepreneur Theaster Gates believes that the creative intelligence and mindful craft that goes into making art can be brought to bear in developing projects to transform devastated communities, such as the worst areas on Chicago’s South Side—wastelands of vacant lots, crack houses, and neglected and crumbling properties—where Gates carries out his practice. His practice involves turning dilapidated houses into performance spaces, old bank buildings into community centers, abandoned storefronts into movie theaters, and empty lots into green spaces. In a TED talk, Gates spoke about how he developed this line of thinking through his hands-on training and work as a potter, “a fairly humble vocation.” He goes on to say, “You very quickly learn how to make great things out of nothing…You also start to learn how to shape the world.” Most importantly perhaps, he learned that the “limitations of my abilities, my capacities” was solely contingent “on my hands and my imagination.” So one learns how to expand and broaden the hands and the imagination to meet the demands of craft and make the objects that you need to make.
Certainly many will argue that Gates’s conceptions, claims, and accomplishments are exaggerated, that art is one thing and community renewal another. And they would not be wrong. Still, it is worth bearing in mind that our lives matter in what we do with our hands, and, most importantly, in what we do inside our heads, in who we are in our thoughts, and in who we imagine that we might become. I am somebody. As Said noted: “Prominent intellectuals always are...in symbolic relationship with their time: in the public consciousness they represent achievement, fame, and reputation which can be mobilized on behalf of an ongoing struggle or embattled community.” As a public figure, and as an icon, a symbol, Theaster Gates is setting an example for us all to put good into the world in the form of art or business or activism.
Our efforts of late to mobilize through our bodies, our words, and our minds, through all forms of symbolic relationships, have reached a level unprecedented in recent memory. Dressed in sexy leather outfits and black tams, Beyoncé and her dancers stage a musical demonstration during the Super Bowl halftime show in Phoenix, Arizona. (For years running, Arizona was the only state in the union that refused to recognize Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday.) Then she does all this and more in her film-album Lemonade. Kendrick Lamar performs in chains against a backdrop of a prison at the Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. A group of Black Lives Matter activists, students from the University of Illinois at Chicago (my alma mater), MoveOn members, Bernie Sanders supporters, and other protesters come out in such large numbers that they trump Donald Trump, who is forced to cancel an election rally in Chicago. Dressed in leather shorts and red tams, a group of women students protest cuts in funding at Chicago State University, while black women students at several universities in South Africa stage demonstrations where they bare their breasts to protest rape and the pervasive culture of misogyny that both permits and promotes rape.
Resist in the ways that you are, in the ways that you live and go about the world. Those of us who make, who create, should make, create, while those of us who act up and disrupt, act up and disrupt, and through such artistic and political practice we, to quote Said again, decide “what truth and principles [we] should…defend, uphold, represent.” We shall be known by our fruits.
The young radicals of today who make up the membership of grass roots organizations like Black Lives Matter have taken a page from the past. On the one hand they adopt the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience that defined the Civil Rights Movement, while on the other they embrace (flaunt) some of the iconography that was common during the Black Power Movement, namely the clothing and gestures, the look of the Black Panthers. It would seem that the black activists of today see in the Panthers an aggressive commonality in circumstances, since fifty years ago college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton started the organization for the primary purpose of putting an end to the violent excesses of Oakland police officers against the black people of that city. All that is well and good. What is not well and good is that the Panthers have come to the fore of political and cultural consciousness in a kind of romantic idealization that remembers all that was positive about the party—such as their courage and their social programs—but that overlooks (forgets) the shortcomings of their brand of politics as spectacle.
Celebrated French novelist and playwright Jean Genet, who did much to lend financial and moral support to the Panthers, observed this spectacle firsthand. He wrote movingly about the group in his last book, Prisoner of Love, which he finished not long before his death, a book that is as honest as it is eloquent. “They deliberately set out to create a dramatic image. The image was a theatre for enacting a tragedy and for stamping it out—a bitter tragedy about themselves, a bitter tragedy for the Whites. They aimed to project their image in the press and on the screen until the Whites were haunted by it. And they succeeded.”
We have the lens of historical hindsight at our advantage. In his 1998 article “The Black Panthers and the ‘Undeveloped Country’ of the Left,” historian Nikhil Pal Singh writes: “Rather than seeing the Panthers as the vanguard of a visible insurgency in the country, we should understand them as being the practitioners of an insurgent form of visibility, a literal-minded and deadly serious guerilla theater in which militant sloganeering, bodily display, and spectacular actions simultaneously signified their possession and real lack of power.” He goes on to say that one “way to understand the Panthers’ performance is to recognize how they literally made a spectacle of the state. Within the logic of this spectacle, the excess and escalation of the rhetoric and imagery that the Panthers invented or popularized...worked to continually heighten the anxiety of those charged with the duty of securing that state. In this regard, the police agencies, once they had been verbally attacked and legally outmaneuvered, found as their only recourse the demonstration that their own power was backed by more than words and empty guns.” For all the good they did, the Panthers seemed uncharacteristically naive in failing to understand that when you confront through force or through the threat of force a country that possesses the strongest military in the history of the world, you must fully expect them to try and take you out, by any means necessary.
Thankfully the radicals of today have not resorted to inflammatory rhetoric nor guerilla tactics. (This is not to rule out the necessity of violence when the existential circumstances demand it. We only need remember Frederick Douglass’s famous battle with Mr. Covey as recounted in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. In addition, it often takes violence or the threat of violence to move many Americans to empathy. The riots in the mid-sixties made many recognize the urgent need for change so that few questioned Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation when it was put forward. Of course, this fear of violence also brought a conservative reaction, with Richard Nixon being elected as the “law and order” president.) Still, the movement must be on guard against the ever-present possibility of symbolic action devolving into pure spectacle.
In this sense the movement faces a rhetorical challenge. While conservatives hide behind a calculated rhetoric of tolerance that involves an insidious manipulation of the political discourse, young black radicals express a rhetoric of anger and outrage that often doesn’t seem grounded in a concrete course of political action. The passionate and articulate DeRay Mckesson pointedly notes that “Protest is the idea of telling the truth in public,” but many might be left to wonder what he hopes to gain from this truth beyond a demand for “community policing.” Activists like Deray must recognize that rigorous legislation is a necessary step towards structural and systemic change. The history of our country shows time and again that those in power enact progressive legislation only when we force them to. Slaveholders did not wake up one day and collectively say, “I think we should abolish slavery.” (A scary fact, a recent survey found that twenty percent of the American public believe that slavery should not have been abolished.) A titan of industry did not wake up one day and say, “I think we should do away with child labor,” or “I think we should have an eight-hour workday.” As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.” Legislation—laws on the books, laws that can be enacted and enforced—is the most meaningful goal of political struggle for any nation.
That said, make no mistake, legislation is also the only way to offset liberal complacency. Many liberals believe identifying the problem—racism in America, AIDS in Africa, homophobia, etc.—absolves them of responsibility. They believe that their empathy, their compassion, is enough. This sort of emotional catch-22 in large part explains the widespread popularity of Ta-nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. Reading becomes a form of political theater.
In the fall of 2015 at a sold-out event at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones asked Coates, “Why do you think that so many white people love what you write?” Dumbfounded, Coates responded by saying, “I don’t know why white people read what I write…I didn’t set out to accumulate a mass of white fans.”
Coates is certainly an accomplished and powerful prose writer, deserving of the accolades and the awards. Still, I would suggest that white liberal readers are less drawn to his prose than to the nihilism that he expresses in his book, a nihilism that is the intellectual corollary to the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter activists—political demonstrations. In this extended letter that Coates directs towards his son, innocent white readers imagine themselves to be the son, so that Coates now speaks to them, explains racial injustice to them. White readers feel that in reading what a black person has written about the problem, they understand the problem, and since Coates offers no solution, the reader feels a particular empathy and compassion but no compulsion to action. This scenario only serves to justify the liberal’s feelings of guilt, as well as her/his passivity. The moral waters are further muddied when a corporate giant like Marvel hires Coates as a scriptwriter to capitalize on his fame. All of it becomes a performance for white people. Whether the actors know it or not. Whether the audience knows it or not. When the show is over they leave.
Nothing new here. The American narrative has long depended upon a script where black people are cast as different and therefore less. Conservatives and liberals both view black lives as limitation—Black Limitation Matters—and they often embrace, praise, and reward narratives from black people that affirm their beliefs. Small wonder then that the film Straight Outta Compton, a self-serving revision of the history of the gangster rap group NWA, was one of last year’s most popular and celebrated movies. To take full advantage of the recent media frenzy around police brutality and profiling, the film’s producers wisely framed their hagiography around the song “Fuck tha Police,” a song that was in fact not typical subject matter for the group, whose music primarily glamorized black-on-black violence and fucking “bitches.” (It is also worth mentioning that many articles that have been penned about the group retrospectively identify them as a “political” group along the lines of Public Enemy. Go figure.) Whatever its cinematic merits, Straight Outta Compton whitens (or blackens, depending on how you see it) the history of NWA into a celebratory rags-to-riches story, a strategy that is aesthetically and morally no different from Zoe Saldana donning blackface to play Nina Simone, or Don Cheadle framing the events of Miles Davis’s life through the fictional lens of a totally imagined white journalist to secure funding to make his biopic, or Nate Parker making a film about Nat Turner that tries to pass itself off as history when the story that film tells uses the usual Hollywood tropes and clichés’ about slavery in place of the known facts about Turner’s life and death. More importantly, it shows how so many Americans find comfort in both fictional and “factual” narratives that present black life as pathology, a story that can be reduced to poverty, gangs, violence, prostitution, broken families, bad schools, drug addiction, etc.—narratives aimed at them, that let them continue to perform in a political theater of sympathizing from a safe distance.
Bringing sporadic episodes of black frailty and failure into the orbit of mainstream knowledge does not neutralize any social or political ill and level the playing field. Far from it. They are meant to neutralize us into despair and complacency. Narratives of limitation would have us believe that the world is stagnant, unchangeable. On this point, the ever-wise Edward Said advises us to look “at situations as contingent, not as inevitable, look at them as the result of a series of historical choices made by men and women.” Choice, volition. We can will the world we want into being, or at least we can strive to do so.
In the meantime, we need to “stay woke” and stay alive. Growing up in Chicago, we were taught to expect the worst from cops; the goal was to say whatever, do whatever, and hopefully make it through the moment and go home alive. This is a lesson lost on some black folk of the present generation, who are strangely naive in expecting that a cop should be courteous to them and treat them respectfully within the confines of the law. The reality is that many cops see any perceived challenge to their authority as a reason to use physical, and possibly deadly, force. Of course, many of these cops are already seeing you through the lens of racist ideas, such as a belief that black people are prone to violence and therefore dangerous. Our protections under the law are one thing, but it is quite another thing to tell a cop to “hurry up,” as a young woman was heard saying in a dash-cam video. From that point on he will have it in for you. This is not to in any way excuse police misconduct, but instead to demand that we think and act on certain truths about race that have allowed us to survive for generations in this country. Survive before anything else.
My wife becomes distraught after watching videos of the shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights. She says to me, We have to move to Africa as soon possible. She fears for our sons, James and Jacob.
I want to reassure her, say all the smart and right things. But all I can do is look at her, before I turn my face away.
July 13, 2017 – February 10, 2017
Post-script, Jan. 20, 2017
Fellow panelists, the question we are starting from is how do we from our various positions (in language, in the construct of the US, where we are writing from/who we are writing to) orient towards discourses of madness, trauma, and recovery in our work? What might be interesting given the current moment, is to further ask how this orientation relates to stances of resistance, to ideas of “free” speech/thought/being, to identities/bodies that are under assault, to the rising threat of fascism (many debates on this), to the contradictions of hyper-isolation and panoptic gazing in the age of neoliberalism and social media (and other things you are thinking! Just let me know)—and of course in all of that, the “place” of poetry, fiction, memoir. Every day my Facebook feed seems to alternate between sentiments that may be (though not necessarily fairly) simplified to: “don’t mourn, organize!” or “I can’t deal so I’m unplugging.” There seems to be a problem of feeling and imagination right now, and much of dominant discourses around madness have been about feeling inappropriately and of course, “seeing” things. So what do various forms of creative writing uniquely offer us in this moment?
I await your responses.
Greetings to you all. I have been mulling over Cynthia’s question since she sent it last month. And here we are on Inauguration day, and I have so many thoughts but still feel that they are muddy, tentative, feel that I have no answers.
That said, I will start by saying that these are the most troubling times I’ve born witness to in this country in my almost fifty-five years of existence. Of course, a type of authoritarianism has been on the rise since the eighties—even earlier if we consider in the South the mass exodus from the Democratic party to the GOP in the wake of anti-segregation legislation during the sixties and during Nixon’s call for law and order as a way to crush progressive resistance—but the disturbing fact now is that the Tea Party and their followers and fellow travellers view the world through a frame that has no interest in facts or reason or that is incapable of taking in and understanding fact and reason.
The examples are many, so where do we start? A few days ago, in a curious bit of circular reasoning, the Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, told Senator John Lewis that he should thank the Republican Party for ending slavery. During the primaries last year, on a live news broadcast, Iowa Congressman Steve King showed his ignorance of history when he posed the question, “Where did any of these…subgroups of people contribute to civilization?” Or try this synecdoche: in a survey conducted on the streets in both 2014 and this year, Jimmy Kimmel found that many people have no idea that the Affordable Care Act and “Obamacare” are one and the same. Clearly the uninformed and the ignorant often parrot rightwing propoaganda they hear and take it as fact.
And this mentality of “fake news” often supports an attitude where many people would rather destroy the country if they can’t maintain their distorted view of America. You cannot hold dialogue with such people, nor do they want dialogue. No talking to people who equate the Affordable Care Act with Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, with people who elected Trump into office because they believe he is not part of the establishment, who believe that white people are now the victims of racism, who believe that Black Lives Matter activists are racists and terrorists, who deny climate change and don’t understand why we need environmental protections, and who believe, as I read recently, that “billionaires are smart.”
Given the above, we can expect nothing from these people except the worst. (Accept the worst.) They represent the summation of a longstanding narrative where white Americans think that they are the most free and noble people on the planet when in actuality they have become the single greatest threat to the existence of everyone. Put bluntly, nothing we say or write or do will in the least change the way they think, bring them out of their deep sleep. (Even if the CIA and other intelligence agencies, John McCain, the military, and other patriotic right-wingers take Trump down, which I think they will, this will not change the presence of the right-wing extreme in our country, a demographic that will only continue to grow in numbers as these ignorant or stupid (or brainwashed or deluded or simply vile supremacist types) continue to vote against their own interests so as to embrace white privilege, a privilege that is such only to a few elites, not for the masses.
The truth of the matter, whatever we think about a group like the Black Panthers, they had no choice but to stand up and defend their humanity in the face of systematic police brutality. My question: how are things any different today?
When I look back on my graduate school years in the eighties, a time when I was a Marxist and active and “woke,” I have to recognize that I was naive. Extremists in Central America simply killed anyone left of center in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, and nothing that I did, and nothing done by the thousands of other activits that I worked with on this issue, could stop that. We did manage to get Congress to cut funding for the Contras in Nicaragua. But even that failed, since, as we know, the CIA managed to find a way to fund them through an alliance with drug smugglers. The one great success was that the divestment movement brought an end to Apartheid. (And understand: we were ultimately the ones that forced the Boers to the negotiation table with the ANC to start the process that would bring about the end of Apartheid and create a new democratic nation after the ANC had fought the good fight for almost one hundred years.)
And this is my point. Economic power is key. Demonstrations have no true or lasting impact unless they lead to a movement that can put a stranglehold on money. MLK learned this with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (As you all know, King was in Memphis to support a strike when he was gunned down.) Activism has to have that aim in mind, economic power. And the aim of that power is to institute legislation that can bring about institutional and systematic change. In short, activism aims for legislation, a process that may result in toppling those in power.
The other thing King knew, as did Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and many who came before or after them, to be free you must be willing to die. Read the Covey episode in Douglass’s first narrative. Recall that at the turn of the twentieth century, Ida B. Wells told black people in the South to take up arms as a necessary measure of protection against lynch mobs. “The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense,” she said in speech in the summer of 1892, included later that year in her pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All of Its Phases. “The lesson this teaches, and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”And let us not forget, Mandela was kept in prison for all those years because he refused to renounce violence as a strategy towards freedom. The ANC moved to a platform of armed struggle after the Sharpesville Massacre in 1961, which proved that the nonviolent resistance that Gandhi used in India and that King and others used so effectively here in America was a suicidal strategy in a country ruled by a violent and ruthless dictatorship.
In the end, what I am saying is that too many people on the left today, including writers, have no idea about the aims and sacrifices of true struggle. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a challenge. It never has and it never will.” Anyone who understands what he means understands that a time may come when we have to fight in the streets, as it were. (I am not telling you to go out and buy guns.) How often have peaceful demonstrations changed political power? (To answer that question, simply look at things happening in the world today, think about what is happening in the Philippines with these government-ordered assassinations that have gone unchallenged.)
We cannot change the mind of those who oppress us, but we can stand up and defend our humanity, and we can bring all our collective powers to bear and wield economic power to, as Public Enemy put it, “shut ‘em down.” In a country like ours, writing (and the academy) can never be a true form of activism. (Who is our Pablo Neruda? Can we ever have the equivalent here?) We can create a terminology at times that becomes crucial, as we see in the writing of, say, a James Baldwin or with Alice Walker and her idea of “womanism.” We can write stories and poems that show us ourselves as we really are in a country that from its origins has told us that we are less than human. Writing can point us in the direction of self-love, a much needed thing, yes? (It all starts there.) In a larger sense, we can raise the consciousness of people who might join the struggle, but that is activism, not writing. The fact is, our words reach a limited few in this country; even the words of famous and outspoken writers reach the already converted.
That said, the harsh reality is that we as writers have little to no impact on social and political change in this country. It was activism in the sixties that changed attitudes in this country about race—or at least tried to change attitudes—that forced our federal government and state and local governments to institute civil rights legislation and affirmative action, and that forced universities to change their policies and institute new curriculums, that showed the society as a whole the evils of racism and other forms of social injustice.
As writers, we need to again recognize that our work reaches people who think like we do, or who want to. Many years ago, I remember reading a little anthology that PEN published that was called something like They Shoot Writers? Even back then, in the contentious eighties, the point was clear that American writers have little impact on politics unlike the huge impact that writers were having in places like South Africa and Central America. They don’t shoot writers in America. They have no need to because almost nobody cares about anything we have to say. Since the seventies, our presence in the public shere has dwindled down to a handful of “public intellectuals.” (I am old enough to rememeber seeing James Baldwin on a talk show, or Truman Capote, or Norman Mailer, or Joan Didion, or Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, etc.)
On the one hand, we stand and we fight for social justice. On the other, we write. If nothing else, our writing has value—in the now and beyond the now—because we use language for truth, use language to ground our thinking in truth, in a country, in a world, where language is mostly used to lie or sell products. Language can keep us grounded in reality, and it can ground us all in a conversation about a shared reality in a country where tens of millions of people seem incapable of thinking critically. Our lives matter in all the work we do, whether it is with language, or in the classroom, or more directly in the political arena, all the work we do that can and must keep us from slipping into invisibility and silence.
These are my thoughts to you all.
A Luta continua,
Sorry, you need to find a “Black” site to promote your “black” culture. Looks to me like your selling out and becoming an oreo with all that education and that white boy job!
“Well well, uncle Tom, aren’t you just the perfect Oreo with that education and white boy job! Go promote black culture on somebody else’s friendship list! You’re blocked!!!
I am just checking up on you…
I always wondered that by posting as much as you do you will by default bring out the nuts, some of whom have never tried to achieve anything but who resent anyone who is not like them. I met plenty of people like that in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I kept quiet when encountering people like this and that is one reason why I am alive today. People like him can foster a resentment for you and if you get into a continuous confrontation with him, you could cause him to go to another level. Right now you are overseas in another country and your family is at home alone. Keep in mind, thugs live on a thug’s level…
Your cousin with love
You are right. Yes, I have to be careful about social media. As you see, I mostly post family photos and writing-related things, but this redneck was reacting to a video that DL Hughley posted that I reposted. (Everything that Hughley says in that video about Trump is true.) The sad fact is that in many ways this country is worse than it was fifty years ago when Seale and Newton created the Black Panthers, even as the world is better in many ways—less poverty, less crime, less violence, etc.—although news reports give the impression that the world is chaotic and on the verge of destruction. (There is some truth there, given how authoritarian and arrogant and unqualified and stupid Trump is, a man who will soon command the most powerful military in the history of the world, a man who has wondered publicly why we can’t simply use nuclear weapons against our perceived enemies.)
Last fall, Elijah wanted to write something about the Black Lives Matter movement for his college-level English class. So I suggested that he do some research about the Black Panthers, which he did. I am happy for my son, my firstborn, since Elijah is by and large a happy kid. I was not when I was his age. The sad fact is that we live in a country that has never recognized us as fellow citizens who are entitled to the “pursuit of happiness.” Elijah knows that. And knowing that he knows hurts me deeply. I wish that I could protect him and Jewel and James and Jacob and Zawadi, all of us. Can I?
As black men, you and I and Elijah are the most despised segment of American society. I wish it were otherwise.
The vile things that this guy wrote to me—by the way, a friend told me that he sent her some vile comments as well after she posted something about the suffering of Syrian refugees—did not shock me in the least because I know that tens of millions of people in our country think the way he does and will always think that way. Perhaps you have comfort in your belief that Christ will return to the earth soon and put an end to hatred and injustice and suffering, and institute a paradise on earth. I can take no such comfort, although as you know I have my own deeply felt spiritual longings.
At times I feel powerless. All I can do is provide for my family and try and protect them to the best of my ability. And I feel the need to struggle and resist, although I am no longer the twenty-five-year-old “revolutionary” who can passionately and fearlessly take to the streets as I did thirty years ago. The Jeff then was an idealistic Marxist who believed that people were basically good, who believed that good triumphs over evil in the end, that justice wins, who believed that we could change the world if we organized, that the Revolution was right around the corner. The Jeff of today is a sober realist who recognizes that the odds are against us, but who also understands that we have no choice but to stand up and defend our humanity at all costs. Claude McKay penned his famous poem “If We Must Die” in 1919 in the wake of the atrocious violence that white mobs across the country inflicted on black communities that year, one of the most shameful episodes in American history, all the more shameful given that black soldiers had gone overseas to fight for our country.
I don’t want to die, because I love what each day brings, take comfort and pleasure in family and in friends, whatever their ethnicity, just as I relish the world for its endless and surprising variety, all that it can give by way of food, wine, travel, film, art, books. And I love the discipline of writing, my chosen vocation, the daily challenge of shaping words into story. My words are the one thing I can get right, if I work hard enough. So I take comfort in symbol, metaphor, image, sound and syntax, in making.
Addendum: The Numbers
For those interested in surveys and statistics, the numbers about race are disturbing.
In his piece for the New York Times called “In Iowa, Trump Voters Are Unfazed by the Controversies,” Trip Gabriel spoke to people in various districts across Iowa, areas where Trump won by as much as twenty points. Al Ameling, who is fifty-eight years of age, is quoted as saying, “We need law and order back in this country,” a cliché often heard in America, as during Nixon’s re-election run in the sixties. One is always left to wonder when exactly this golden age of law and order took place in our country. And we have good reason to read the phrase as code that equates black people with lawlessness. So, for example, Gabriel quotes a seventy-year-old retired commercial bakery manager, Ms. Furman, as complaining about people from “Chicago” who are moving to Burlington to receive higher government benefits and bringing crime with them. Then she makes this telling statement about President Obama: “My view is he purposely got into the presidency so he could ruin America.”
The facts suggest that many white Americans believe that their fellow black citizens are driving America to crime, lawlessness, and ruin. They perceive us black people as a threat. Even as white people hold such racist beliefs, the facts show that they are unaware of their own racist bias. On March 4, 2015, Salon ran a piece by Kali Holloway called “10 Ways White People Are More Racist Than They Realize,” which points out among other things that numerous studies show that white people believe they are now the victims of racism. In a September 17, 2015 piece for Vice called “White People Explain Why They Feel Oppressed,” Touré summarizes some of these findings:
Modern white Americans are one of the most powerful groups of people to ever exist on this planet and yet those very people—or, if you’re white, you people—staunchly believe that the primary victims of modern racism are whites. We see this in poll after poll. A recent one by the Public Religion Research Institute found 52 percent of whites agreed, “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” A 2011 study led by a Harvard Business School professor went deeper to find that “whites see race as a zero sum game they are losing.” That was even the name of the study. It showed that over the last five decades both blacks and whites think racism against blacks has been slowly declining, but white people think racism against whites is growing at a fast rate. White people are increasingly certain that they’re being persecuted. The study also notes, “by any metric—employment, police treatment, loan rates, education—stats indicate drastically poorer outcomes for black than white Americans.” White perception and the reality are completely at odds.”
The primary race brought some disturbing facts to light. For example, on Feb. 23, 2016, in a New York Times piece called “Measuring Trump’s Supports for Intolerance,” Lynn Vavreck summarized findings from YouGov/Economist polling, which found that “Nearly 20 percent of Mr. Trump’s voters disagreed with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Southern states during the Civil War.” That same study found that about 31 percent of Trump supporters believe that white people are the superior race.
This led Time magazine to publish a piece the following day that concludes, “Donald Trump appears to have high levels of support among the nation’s intolerant population.” In her article, Vavreck goes on to say, “New data from YouGov and Public Policy Polling show the extent to which he has tapped into a set of deeply rooted racial attitudes. But first, two caveats about these data are worth bearing in mind. The national YouGov survey was done near the middle of January, before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Public Policy Polling is a company aligned with the Democratic Party, and some of its results over the years have been suspected of bias. Taken by itself, its conclusions could be doubted. Taken with the YouGov and exit poll data, however, these three surveys can give us a better idea of Mr. Trump’s backers.”
Last, the study from the Pew Resarch Center “On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart” from June 27, 2016 presents a number of interesting findings. The one of most relevance to my piece, only 14 percent of white Americans say they “strongly support” the Black Lives Matter movement, and only 26 percent say that they “somewhat support” it, in contrast to 65% of black people who when surveyed say they support it.