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.