The Moment I Realized I Am Black: Token Confession Entry 4

My first memory of being keenly aware of my black body, and that it meant something more than Jesus loving all the children of the world, “Red, brown, yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight.” was while watching television.

In January 1987 the landmark PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize debuted. I watched it with my family. Across the thick glass screen of our television set—classic eighties version big wooden box with knobs for turning the channel and bunny ears attena—I had my first exposure to porn. Black trauma porn. There lying on the brown carpet of the family room I watched horrifying black and white images of black folks in the 50s and 60s getting beaten by white civilians and law enforcement, hosed down with fire hydrants, and attacked by police dogs during the Civil Rights Movement.  For the first time I can recall I saw moving images that chronicled part of the history of race in America. For the first time I saw images of Emmet Til’s mutilated body. For the first time I saw moving images of the Klan marching through the streets and burning crosses in a vacant field or someone’s yard. For the first time I saw moving images of black folks marching, singing, and being beaten for having the audacity to take a stand for their dignity as human beings. Sacrificing their bodies for a prize that should not be elusive. For the first time I saw images of white Americans enraged at the audacity of black folks peacefully protesting against the tyranny of white supremacy in all its social forms in the public square. For the first time I saw the steely resolve of Rosa Parks. For the first time I heard the power of Martin’s voice.

I don’t think I had a sense then for how traumatic it was to watch that documentary. To see those images. It’s only in the last few years of seeing videos of the last moments of Eric Garner, Tamar Rice, and Philando Castile, that I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye and dusted off the footage of moments from my youth as I try to make sense of it all, and endeavor to be a conduit towards conciliation. Reflection has led me to ask questions like, “when is the first time I was aware of my blackness?” Watching that documentary at school is what stood out despite, upon further thought, investigation and mining my memory, realizing I saw it at home in the safe company of my family first. So what was it about watching parts of it again at school that stood out? The awkward collective awakening we had as kids I suppose. It was as though nothing was the same again. To say that our innocence was taken from us as we watched these images from America’s second Civil War would be a slight over exaggeration. Accurately put it was our ignorance that was taken from us. We had been formally initiated into the reality that America to its core is a nation that was established on a racial hierarchy. I had been awakened to my place in it. And for the first time it started to make sense.

What started to make sense you ask?

Certainly I was aware that there wasn’t a lot of people who looked like me around unless I was surrounded by family. I had the feeling of being “the other” for as long as I could remember, but at times it went deeper than just being “the other”. Previously I couldn’t articulate it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. That is until I saw Eyes on the Prize. Then I knew exactly what it was. It all started to make sense. Mostly gone was the overt forms of racial violence. Racism in America had made adjustments in response to the Civil Rights movement. It had undergone a master class in subtlety. So subtle that often those who wielded it did so unwittingly. Subtle like the strangely disapproving looks I sometimes received from strangers. Keep in mind I was not more than ten years old and I already knew “the look”. Before I just thought it was odd. After seeing Eyes on the Prize I had context. Context for how some people saw me even as a young black boy. Context for despite a quelling of racial violence, the belief in inherent racial superiority, or more specifically to me, racial inferiority was still very much the air we breathed in America. White Supremacy and Black Inferiority had endured. Context for my presence in the incomplete reckoning of America’s original sin.

 

Respect the Troops: Stop Whitewashing Our US Military Veterans

I’ve read numerous posts or comments over the last few days that say. Not all quite as strongly but something similar to this one … “Nike spit in the face of every active duty military personnel, retired or disabled vet. Also on every grave marker in every Military Cemetery all over the world.”

You may have missed this in history class, but did you know that Black Americans have served in every American War?

History records the first American to die in the Revolutionary War was Crispus Attucks. He was part Black part Native which means he had absolutely nothing to gain in this war. Yet he is regarded by historians to be the first American ever to die for this country.

Black Americans who fought in the Civil War saw the end of slavery, only for white supremacy to live on and adapt consequently rendering the 14th and 15th Amendments ineffective.

Black Americans who fought in WWI returned home to a separate but not equal society based on skin color, and the threat of lynching if they forgot their place.
Many of the Black Americans who fought in WWII stayed in Europe and took up residence because of the overt racism and often violent resistance to the growing Civil Rights Movement that was happening back home. They had it better in places like France than they did in the US.

Many of the Black Americans who fought in the Civil War and both World Wars were became targets of racial violence, because of their service to the nations military and how their service was a threat to white supremacist ideology.

Black Americans who fought in the Korean War returned home to be discriminated against in their access to the GI Bill. They watched their white brothers be given a chance to start a life via the GI Bill, while they were denied because of the color of their skin. And even if they were approved for access to the GI Bill their options of where they could buy a home, go to school, start a business were severely limited due to continued resistance to social integration and equality.

Black Americans who fought in the Vietnam War returned home to a virutal war on black neighborhoods via the War on Crime and War on Drugs.

Today many Black Americans whose military duties took them to Iraq and Afghanistan return home to fear for the lives of their children in encounters with police, and to listen to people like you talk as if their service doesn’t even exist and never happened. They continue to serve this country in the midst of a resurgence of White Nationalism. They serve this country and make sacrifices for the freedoms of US citizens including those who look at them, not as a veteran deserving of gratitude and honor, but just another N****r. They protected the freedoms of the white men who marched through Charlottesville last year with tiki torches proclaiming, “You will not replace us”.

You don’t have to think much of Colin Kaepernick or any of the NFL players who kneel in protest of the persistence of racism in US policing and the criminal justice system.

You can be so upset with Nike for making him the face of their new ad campaign and never buy another pair of their shoes again.

But please… stop talking as though no one who ever fought, served and sacrificed in our nation’s military was black. Their contributions to our nation is not Black History. It’s American history. A history that is often forgotten, ignored, or over looked.

Black Americans defended and continue to defend the very institutions and people that treat them not as veterans deserving respect and honor, but rather as a menace to society deserving of suspicion for doing average everyday things while black.

Token Confessions Entry 3 – Visiting a Place Where You Are “the Only One”

Imagine visiting a place where you are “the only one”. Being “the only one” is not out of the ordinary for you, because it is largely your daily experience. This is your daily experience and so reading certain non-verbal and social cues has become second nature. You have become very adept at reading a room when you are “the only one” because you’ve been doing it since before you could remember. Your intuition in these settings has been finely tuned over years of occupying spaces as “the only one”. You know when your presence is wanted or unwanted, noticed or unnoticed, familiar or a mystery, welcome or suspicious. This time is different though. It’s different because you can tell through the series of non-verbal cues, the hesitation of what to say, how to engage you, that for most in the majority you are “the first one”. The first one they are seeing, meeting, greeting, and engaging in the flesh.
 
Prior to you all of their interactions with people “like you” were limited to crossing paths. Some even admit to this. Perhaps a sporting event, a concert, or some other activity that involves going to “the city” where all kinds of people live and intersect. In the absence of proximity there has not been the opportunity to form relationship with someone “like you”. Therefore what most of those here from the majority know about people “like you” is limited to television, movies, music, history text books, and what they’ve been told by family and the community they’re from about people “like you”. You are familiar with what those sources often display and portray. You know the limitations and narrowness of those sources all too well. Those sources can often be a source of contention with your soul, your being, and the community of those “like you”. They are too often the bane of your existence, because they put people “like you” in a box. The box is too often toxic.
 
You are the first “them” or “they” that they are meeting in a space where you and them are also the same. You have both come for the same reason. So though you are “the only one”, you are also one of many. You knew this going in and you had hoped that what you had in common with everyone else would overshadow what singularly set you apart as “the only one”.
 
For some they are completely unfazed by you being “the only one” or perhaps even “the first one”. For some the fact that you are there for the same reason as them supersedes you being one of “them”. They interact engage and inquire of you the same as they do with everyone else. However, for many… for most in fact… they struggle awkwardly with the most basic of things. How to greet you. How to talk to you. What to say. Your presence as “the only one” overshadows that you are the same because amongst other things you are there for the same reason. You are a mystery that evokes an awkwardness that is not easily veiled. It’s not that they don’t like the “they” or “them” they’ve only ever watched on tv, heard on the radio or read about in history textbooks.
 
It’s as simple as they have never met one of “them” or “they” tclose enough to shake hands, and have a conversation further than ordering food from MacDonalds or paying for gas inside, because in that one city, that one time, where everyone had to prepay, because well it’s not as safe where a lot of “them” live. The fact that you aren’t from one of those places where a lot of “them” live comes as a surprise to the point that you have to keep reiterating that you aren’t from “there”. They’ve been hardwired to assume that everyone like you is from that one city, so you have to keep correcting them and reminding them that you are from somewhere else. Somewhere where you aren’t necessarily “the only one”, but you are in the minority. What makes it even more noticeable is that you have come to this place with two others who are not “one of them”, but are from where you’re from. In fact the three of you have all come together, even though you’re “the only one”. Yet invariably people you meet together, who aren’t use to seeing people “like you”, assume that you must be from that one city that has a lot of “them”, and not from the same place as the other two people you came with. Lastly there are those, just a few but enough to make an impression, that aren’t making the effort (reciprocate) to get to know you, because they already know everything they need to know about people “like you”. They have always been fine with being separate from people “like you”.
 
Your weekend at this place is mostly exhausting and draining. You imagine yourself potentially choosing to be there and how your existence in that space will just been a extension of that weekend visit. If you should choose to do life there, even for a time, you imagine you would perpetually feel exhausted and drained simply for being “the only one” and for many there you would be “the first one”. You are a month from being eighteen. Choosing here would be choosing the first place to be independent you, away from your parents and the support system you’ve had growing up. In that moment you become keenly aware that you are not ready to be, you do not want to be “the only one” here.

[At least that’s what I decided. Are you still imagining what it would’ve been like to be in my shoes? If so how did it make you feel? What would you have done? Thanks for considering and contemplating one of my memories of an experience I had as the “token black guy”.]

Token Confessions Entry 2: My Daughter Doesn’t Think She Looks Like A Princess

Many have a hard time accepting that White Supremacy exists in modern day America beyond the pockets of robe wearing hate groups, tiki torch carrying white nationalists, and other extremists who give the ideology of white supremacy agency. At it’s core the ideology of White Supremacy is not about hatred. It’s about who and what is inherently superior and therefore who and what is inherently inferior.

My seven year old daughter loves nothing more than wearing a pretty dress and being told she is beautiful. She’ll put it on underneath her bathrobe and come skipping up to me or her mother with that larger than life grin on her face, unveil the dress she has adorned herself in and ask the same question, “How do I look?”, hoping to be told she looks beautiful.

Just the other morning this routine unfolded. She first came to me in the den reading the mornings news. I paused for a moment to gaze into the eyes of my daughter and told her in my understated way, “You look beautiful”. She then proceeded to the office to present herself to her mother and ask the same question to which Emma said, “You look like a princess.” At this Isla replied…

“I can’t look like a princess mummy. Princesses don’t have brown skin like me. They have light skin like you mummy, and blonde hair like you.”

Emma was quick to not simply tell Isla that her brown skin doesn’t render her unworthy or unfit of being a princess, but to also go to google. She typed in “black princess” and scrolled through numerous images of princesses with brown skin and dark hair like Isla. One day Isla will truly be able to appreciate and understand how fortunate she is to have HER pale skinned Scottish mummy as HER mother. In the meanwhile she, freshly seven years old, has already received the message.

It is a message that no one told her. No one has had to articulate it to her. She knows little to nothing about racism nor the history of white supremacy in shaping her native land long before she was born. But she has received the message that white is right, and black is well… less than. Inferior.

My daughter’s response to being told she looks like a princess is an example of how white supremacy works in 2018.

No one told her that black is inferior.

No one told her that black isn’t beautiful.

No one told her that white skin or blonde hair is better than brown skin and thick black hair.

But simply by living in this culture and society she has received the message that whiteness is superior, and black is inferior. That white is the image of true beauty, beauty that she will never be able to attain.

No matter how extravagant the dress, it is on brown skin.

No matter how fabulous the hair is styled, it’s thick black and resting on a brown canvas.

And she has been seven years old for a month.

That is how white supremacy works in 2018.

It is so woven into the fabric of our society and culture. It was a core principle and driving factor fueling colonization and European Imperialism. Due to its central role in shaping the world for nearly six hundred years (see the Papal Bull Statement of 1452) it no longer requires personal agency to ensure its ideology, its tenets, its principles are passed on. It is a well oiled machine that has learned to adapt to new times and challenges.

In America we consistently make the mistake of thinking the Emancipation Proclamation abolished the idea of inherent white superiority. It only abolished slavery while leaving the ideology that birthed it intact. Unchecked and unquestioned it has enormous power to shape how we think without us being aware it has taken hold. Even with the recent increase in white nationalism white supremacy is most effective in and insidious in its subtle forms.

Why Black People Tend to Dance: An Apology for Cam Newton

It’s not about race in a way that makes her and others racist and hate black people. It’s about race in that so many white people either don’t and in some cases refuse to understand, and some black people have forgotten, that dancing and being loud is a part of our culture as Black Americans.

 

12240038_10208400423587504_2136578022119085585_nMuch of the criticism not just of this angry mother, but of those less offended by his behavior, but wishing he conducted himself differently, has centered around the opinion that Cam’s behavior, amongst other things, was lacking in class. I hear this criticism of him and other athletes, typically black athletes (not because they are black and the critic dislikes black people, but because usually black athletes are the ones celebrating by dancing and other demonstrative behavior) all the time. They would prefer, he would just hug and high five his teammates quickly, in an understated fashion, and then unassumingly jog off the field to the sidelines.

Allow me to offer this critique of the “it lacked class” criticism. This criticism often highlights the cultural differences between black and white Americans. I can hear the retort now, “Yet again! Why do you have to make it about race?” Well if you bear with me I will explain to you why it is about race but not in a “anyone who criticizes Cam is a racist” explanation. This explanation doesn’t require or ask white people to apologize for the past or recognize their “privilege”. It simply asks that people who are criticizing him for a touchdown dance, whether they be white and hearing this reasoning for the first time or black and have forgotten to consider without hearing it as an attack.

It’s not about race in a way that makes her and others racist and hate black people. It’s about race in that so many white people either don’t and in some cases refuse to understand, and some black people have forgotten, that dancing and being loud is a part of our culture as Black Americans. Culture is simply what we make of the world, both in a literal sense of making (building and creating) things, and in how we make sense of the world around us. And for black Americans dancing and celebrating is an integral part of our culture. Dancing is how we sought to make sense of the world around us. What did our ancestors make of slavery? Singing, shouting, and dancing. You need look no further than predominantly black churches the world round to see all three of those things remain embedded in our culture. We wouldn’t have survived the horrors of slavery and injustice without dancing. It’s in our blood to dance, when we’re suffering and when we celebrate, to the point that now we the sons and daughters of those people who cultivated that kind of life do it sometimes instinctively without thinking about it, or remembering why we have an urge to respond that way. Dancing and singing and shouting kept many of our ancestors from losing hope that things could get better. And praise God things have gotten better. And still we don’t or at least try not to forget where we come from, even as we try to accommodate the majority culture, thus we keep on dancing.

The late Ralph Wiley, an author, journalist and writer who was a Sports Illustrated staff writer for nine years, described this culture and reasoning better than I in his book Why Black People Tend to Shout (all this discussion about Cam inspired me to go dig the book up).

First of all, black people are too happy just being able to shout not to take advantage of the luxury. When you have to read that bits were put in some of your ancestors’ mouths, you tend to shout. When a sweet grandmotherly sort has to tell you how black people once were chained in iron make in the canebrake, to keep them from eating the cane while they harvested it, and that these masks were like little ovens that cooked the skin off their faces–when you hear that grandmotherly voice and realize she once was a girl who might have been your girl, and someone caused this pain on her lips and nobody did anything about it but keep living–this gives you a tendency to shout,

Black American culture is a byproduct of the great grandchildren of the tribal African culture. A culture that danced to celebrate life, danced boys into manhood, danced the betrothed into matrimony, and danced the fallen into the afterlife.
So now when someone like Cam gets criticized and told “show a little class”, it’s like being told to assimilate. When someone like Cam is told they find his dancing in that moment offensive (all the while half naked cheerleaders are shaking what they mama gave em) it’s like being told, “we find your culture offensive”. And we find it slightly ironic that so much of our shouting singing and dancing, in the form of folk, blues, rhythm and blues, hip hop and rap music, has been copied had a white face slapped on it and sold to the masses for a profit, but it’s somehow offensive when we do it.

When someone like Cam is told to “grow up” in response to him pointing after a first down, it’s like being told to forget where you came from, or to get over it. If you’ve heard a word of what I’ve just said then you’ll know, maybe for the first time, that dancing is how we got over.

When we hear someone say “I miss the old days when guys just played the game the right way without all the theatrics”, we hear you want things to be the way they were before the color barrier, or more accurately put the unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” policy, in sports being broken and required a subdued and suppressed black man to break it. Jackie Robinson is an American hero and is the most courageous man that ever competed in modern sports, but he was chosen over the likes of Josh Gibson and Satchel Page because Branch Rickey believed Jackie he could subdue his need to dance and shout. Muhammad Ali is considered the greatest athlete ever by most Black Americans because he dared to dance shout and rap inspiring Black Americans who had despite their assimilating efforts been kept separate and unequal to start dancing again.

When someone like Cam is told “act like you’ve been here before” we know he is doing it because we have been there.

Removing the Flag Is Good But Does Little to Create Real Community

“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community” Georges Erasmus

 

I first heard the above quote during a presentation done by Mark Charles at Q Conference in Boston this past April. Mark was making the case that Americans will continue to have racial tension as long as we all continue to operate from a different a memory and different pasts. It’s really sad to think that it required 9 people being murdered by a racist white supremacist for us to finally reach a point where are beginning to take the steps necessary to have a common memory of our history as Americans, black, white, and everything in between.

 

While I fully support the removal of the Confederate/Rebel Flag from the grounds of state capitals, I fear this will cause us to prematurely think our work is done. Those flags will be removed from our public places, but our real problem is not that flag although the debate surrounding it is indicative of our true problem. One symbol stirs feelings of pride from a shared heritage for one group of people stirs feelings of trauma from a shared suffrage for another.

 

We do not have a common memory and we do not share in the same past. For White Americans their collective memory and past is one of conquest, colonization, freedom, and “God’s blessing”. For ethnic minorities, particularly Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, collective memory and past is one filled with trauma from the struggle to be recognized as human and treated with dignity and equality. Our collective memory is filled with dehumanization, enslavement, mass genocide, demonization and marginalization. For white peoples in this country it has truly been a dream. For black and brown peoples in this country that dream has almost always been a nightmare over the 400 plus years since the early colonies. “Manifest Destiny” destined those deemed savages and beasts to destruction and to the margins of our country.

 

 

As difficult as it might be, white people need to start listening to the memories and the past of the ethnic minorities in America. It won’t be easy. It will be hard to believe for no other reason than so much of it is omitted from the majority of our history books. History has always been written by and representative of those who are one of the majority and elite. If we want real healing then the parallel narrative of the marginalized must be heard. It must be written. It must be taught. It will expose the blind-spots you didn’t know were there in our past as a nation. Black people, Hispanics, and Native-Americans need to remember that white people are hearing these stories, memories and past for the first time. They are being asked to look at parts of our history through our eyes, and if they really see it it will strike at their heart. Hearing about it for the first time will be traumatic for them and we need to extend them grace. We need to assure them of our sincerity in informing them is not to guilt or shame them, not to demand an apology, not to seek reparations. We need to show them the compassion we’ve so desperately needed to heal. In this way we can all heal together, and truly have community without losing ethnic and cultural identities.

 

The debate raging on social media over the Confederate/Rebel Flag and its possible removal caused one of my white friends to do some research into the history of the flag.  She described having a traumatic experience. She grew up in the south with that flag being flown everywhere, and was told the same as so many others of it being a symbol of their heritage as southerners. What she found was a gapping blind spot into the history of how that flag quickly became a symbol of white supremacy and hate as its re-designer William T Thompson intended. Her words to me over the phone illustrate what so many are experiencing, “I have been grieved to my heart since finding out the history around that flag.” If I had responded with a flippant “well duh, where have you been” attitude it wouldn’t have been helpful. No more or less helpful than when I’ve shared more stories and memories of what it’s like to be black in America and it is met with accusations of playing the race card, or attempts to explain it away.

 

The flag should be removed from the grounds of state capitals, and states who integrated it into their state flag need to get it out.  However, if that is all we do then we will fall desperately short of what is necessary for real community to happen that transcends race and ethnicity. We need to teach both narratives in our history books in our schools and places of higher learning. The history of our nation needs to be taught through the eyes of both the elite and the marginalized. I am not suggesting that we throw out one narrative and replace it with the other. Rather they should be part of one comprehensive telling of our history, of our past, and shape a shared memory, so we can move forward into the future not separate but together.