I get it. You’re frustrated. You’re angry. You’re sad. You’re confused. You know that the killing of Mike Brown and the lack of indictment of Darren Wilson are a travesty. You are probably aware that the system you live in, the nation that raised you, the institutions that educate and protect you, commit or support massive amounts of violence against communities of color. I’m sure for many of you the cognitive dissonance must be profoundly disturbing. For others, for those of you who, though white, are marginalized and dehumanized daily, this moment is probably an agonizing reminder of the pain you carry around everyday. I’m sure the discomfort you are feeling, the rage, the sorrow, the guilt, the confusion is probably further complicated by an excitement. I’m sure some of you are excited that things are happening, that movements are starting. I’m sure a part of you is hoping that this will be our 60’s movement moment.
I feel you. All of those emotions are valid. I share all of those emotions though likely in different combinations and at different levels of intensity. This piece in is no way intended to invalidate how you feel or to suggest that those feelings are not important. I feel your pain, I share your pain and I wish that pain would end. You need to understand however, that our pains are fundamentally different.
As most of you can imagine, this last week as been hard for me. It is not just the indictment, or lack thereof, of Darren Wilson that upsets me; in all honesty I had expected that for months. It’s the national conversation we are having on race, justice and, most importantly my very status as a human being. Can you imagine that? Can you empathize with what it might feel like for your own nation to not think that you are a human being? Can you imagine then, what it feels like to for me, dealing with all of this, to have to politely ask you to step back?
Over the past couple of weeks I have nearly been torn apart by society’s ontological debate of my humanity. Every few hours it hits me. America doesn’t think I’m human. I am just another Black man worthy of suspicion and doubt. Another looter. Another criminal. Another statistic. The only home I’ve ever known thinks that I do not deserve to live.
I am a centuries old problem with no solution but genocide.
Like Brittney Cooper said, “I am undone.” In these moments, when the despair feels like it’s ripping me apart, only the solidarity of other Black people gives me real solace. It’s the moments when a co-worker and I randomly catch each other’s eyes and we both see the pain, and the fear, and the exhaustion and one of us says “shits f%$” and we both laugh. We laugh because it’s all we can do. We laugh because sometimes the pain is too much to bear. We laugh because screaming might get us fired. We laugh so that we don’t cry.
This is why I went to the White House after the announcement. I was hoping to be surrounded by my fellow Black people, to yell, to scream, to cheer, and to sing. I wanted to gather my people around me and boldly assert my humanity to the world. Yet that’s not what I found. What I found was a mostly white crowd of college-age liberals chanting, hugging, and taking selfies with their overly-dressed up roommates. There was energy, an excitement in the air that I couldn’t share. Being surrounded by a group of young white people alternating between hugging friends who had joined them and shouting angrily at the cops (many of whom were Black) was not validating my humanity.
I questioned leaving then, angrier than I was before. Eventually, Howard University students showed up and staged a die-in. Their powerful, distinctly Black presence was welcomed. I felt alive in that moment. Later, their cries of “HU” were punctuating cries of “Black Power” and for moment I felt that sense of unity mix with the energy: I felt hope. I really believed that together we could do this. Then other chants began to compete for air with the cries for “Black Power,” and that hope vanished.
As much as I was troubled by the cries of “H.U.” due the historic social tension between Blacks who went to Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCU’s] and those that didn’t, I understood the impulse for that level of solidarity. I understood that desire to say we are united, we are here, we refuse to be quieted and we refuse to deny our Blackness in a world that hates us for it. That unity, that solidarity, was shattered as Howard students shouting “Black Power” were suddenly competing with white people starting chants like “No Justice, No Peace.” I began to notice that even in this crowd; we have self-segregated ourselves into clumps. White people whose friends had not yet arrived were uncomfortable and searched for their own.
This impromptu rally was the perfect metaphor for the state of the anti-racism movement in America. We agree on (most) the facts; white “allies” come out to support the cause, yet struggle to feel comfortable surrounded by Black people and so clump with their friends, take pictures to prove that they were there and subtly and unconsciously fight to control the space with their chants. Often, this fight for control is more obvious, like white people taking the mic and talking about why they are there, sometimes it more subtly like white people trying to be inclusive and chanting “all lives matter.”
To be clear, I don’t think that white people were actively uncomfortable with cries of “Black Power” en masse. Instead, I think that in large crowds multiple chants always start as one side can’t hear the other. As chants compete well-meaning white people will react either by chanting the one chant they can be a part of or by trying to be inclusive by shouting “all lives matter” over the fray. Eventually though, the subconscious wills of white people will always win out.
Similarly, due to our racist history and our own internalized oppressions, little divisions in the Black community become aggravating and concerning in a mixed audience as I become aware that white eyes are watching us. I feel a need for us to represent ourselves to society instead of just being able to be. Instead I feel like I have to mediate my emotions, my reactions and, subconsciously, police my fellow Black people, to confirm to how I wish we were viewed. I feel a need to perform my Blackness instead of just being able to be unapologetically Black when my people are dying. White people need to realize that their presence can change whether an event is a safe place, almost private in its feelings of security, or a threatening public space.
This is why a woman at the Rally in Mount Vernon Square got on the bull horn and re-affirmed that it was a Black issue, that the call needed to be Black Lives Matter and not All Lives Matter. It is instructive that this woman (an every Black woman who spoke at the beginning) was interrupted by cries of “no justice, no peace.” <— Giving the words an added level of unintentional irony.
It’s a subtle problem. But subtlety builds over time. Eventually, as moments turn into movements, it stops being subtle. So here we have it, the crux of why I’m writing this letter. You need to understand, that for many Black people, Ferguson protest are not a public pep rally for racial unity, they are a living wake. We are dying. We are being killed by the police. We are getting lynched by the media. Our souls are nearly suffocating by the pressure of being a problem.
Pep rallies: A pep rally is a gathering of people, typically students of middle school, high school and college age, before a sports event. The purpose of such a gathering is to encourage school spirit and to support members of the team for which the rally is being thrown. The pep rallies are often very loud and have a lot of excitation to keep all the students excited for the upcoming game and to cheer on the team.
Wake: A wake is a ceremony associated with death. Traditionally, a wake takes place in the house of the deceased with the body present; however, modern wakes are often performed at a funeral home. It is often a social rite which highlights the idea that the loss is one of a social group and affects that group as a whole.
Now, not all wakes are solemn, tear-filled occasions taking place in funeral homes. In fact, all cultures do wakes differently. Some celebrate the dead. Some drink until they can no longer feel the pain. In Black communities wakes take many forms but often try to bring the community to not only mourn but reaffirm our hope that things will get better. The most well-known example of this is perhaps the funeral processions famous in New Orleans. In Black churches across the country funerals are often filled with Gospel songs brimming with a mournful, desperate hope as friends and family members testify about the life of their loved one. These spaces are about community healing. Community solidarity. Individual validation through collective story telling. It builds to a sense that we will continue on because we have no other option, together we will move forward because its only way we know how, together we will change the world.
This was the tone of all the actions run by the Black Youth Project 100 yesterday. While the demands delivered to people in power were crucial to getting change, equally important were the validating cries that protestors shouted in unison.
“It is our Duty to Fight. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
The group was instructed to look each other in the eye, to make connections, to validate each other. What might seem like a great photo op to outsiders was an unspeakable validating experience for me. I was nearly in tears connecting eyes with other people, mostly Black, and shouting my humanity to the roof tops.
It was wake. It was a celebration of Black lives cut too short. It was a dirge for the death of our perpetual bondage.
When white allies clump together at protests and fight for inclusiveness, that community healing can’t happen. Imagine going to funeral services of a good friend’s brother. You might be very close with your friend, you might even be closer to them than distant relatives. Yet you have to remember that as close as you might be with them, as sad as you might feel for them, as much as you might have loved their brother you are not family. You have to take a step back and let the space be what the family needs it to be. By asserting that “all lives matter” you are denying us a chance for internal solidarity, not standing in solidarity with us. This is to not say that white people are not welcome, or needed, in this movement.
Quite the contrary, racism is a problem for white people to fix. This piece is just to say, that if you are white and you find yourself at a march for racial justice surrounded by white people: something is wrong. I understand the inclination to be surrounded by your own, just remember that you have the luxury of being surrounded by your own every moment of every day. POC have to seek out.
So to all my White friends, community members and allies, I hear your desire to express yourself and to be a part of the solution. Please remember that sometimes the most radical thing an ally can do is show up and remain silent, to allow Black people to lead. Sometimes the best way to insure that All Lives Matter is to give Black people room to own a space, to be surrounded by (mostly) fellow Black people, to yell, to scream, to cheer, and to sing. Give us our space to mourn our own deaths.