Do Not Look to Me for Hope
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
-Langston Hughes, Harlem
It has been a struggle to corral my emotions, calm my mind, and collect my thoughts on what I have been feeling over the past weeks and months, and, if I’m being honest with myself, years. I do not normally find it difficult to articulate what I am thinking, though I often struggle to communicate what it is I am feeling. That is perhaps why I have found understanding my response to this moment so challenging because it is one that for me sits at the nexus of analysis and emotion, intellect, and feeling. But with expression I might find some catharsis…
On the heels of a very necessary recharge over Memorial Day Weekend spent with quaranteaming friends, my wife alerted me last Tuesday, May 26th, to the Central Park encounter between Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper. I read the New York Times article and my first reaction was joy at how ingeniously he had owned his encounter with her combining a mixture of humor, experience, preparedness, and jujitsu. Then I watched the video.
I, like Mr. Cooper, had made the momentary mistake of forgetting a black man’s place in America. Amy Cooper was there to remind both of us. She used her whiteness and its superposition secured by history, institutions, and traditions to first threaten Mr. Cooper and then to go all-in with her (race) cards calling for her institutional backup of the state. She knowingly invoked and joined the legacy of white women leveling false accusations of violence against black men, accusations which have resulted in the lynchings of Christian Coopers throughout America’s history. Without Sanctuary documents how common and civilized this has been throughout our nation’s history. I will never forget the first time I viewed the book in my African-American Studies class at Harvard in 2001. Amy Cooper sought to remind Christian Cooper and every other black man in America that we are niggers.
Honestly, I do not remember on which day it was last week that I saw the video of the murder of George Floyd (I cannot bear to watch it again). I only remember how hollow it made me feel. I can’t remember where I heard it, but choking someone to death is tough work, and Officer Derek Chauvin proved that fact over 8 minutes and 45 interminable seconds. The casual callousness of the act speaks volumes. The manner in which his colleagues regarded a black man being brutalized under the knee of the state and its monopoly on the use of “legitimate” violence to keep him in his place, even if it meant ultimately killing him, as business as usual, is revealing. It also is a metaphor for America and blacks’ place in it.
George Floyd’s murder has catalyzed protests across America and around the world. People have taken to the streets to express objection at this specific killing and for what it represents about racial injustice in America. Since the beginning of the year, we have seen blacks disproportionately contracting COVID-19, disproportionately killed by the virus, and disproportionately losing jobs all while public health recommendation that America implement social distancing have been put in place. By and large, we have accepted this short-term fate as yet another cross constructed by racial injustice that we must bear in the patriotic and quietly dignified way we have always born such crosses. We have done so even while whites have taken up arms to protest to open things back up, actions that will not disproportionately impact their communities, protests that were met with calm and restraint.
And while we lost jobs, got sick, and died, we bore witness to white vigilantes running down and killing Ahmaud Aubery and not be arrested or charged (initially). We saw Breonna Taylor, a first responder whose work kept her community safe and healthy, gunned down in her apartment by police in a no-knock raid. In the span of a few months, we as a nation witnessed how blacks were killed by vigilantes, COVID-19, and the police. And so what was there to do but take to the streets?
Civil, small, and peaceful protests for black equality and liberation have been met with vitriol, disdain, and career-ruining consequences. Just ask Colin Kaepernick. America does not want to confront its ugliness and prefers these days to keep its racism, institutional and personal, obscured enough to provide for plausible deniability. But it is there. It is how so many Americans voted for a man whose racist history was well known and still looked at themselves in the mirror, convinced of their belief in equality.
Many have asked me and pondered with me: What do we do? I honestly don’t know. A society that lies to itself about where it is today and how it got here will never have the courage to affirmatively act to secure justice and equality for all. A country that is distracted by limited acts of looting and more focused on the destruction of physical property rather than focused on the underlying causes of the protests and spots of violent explosions will never have the sustained attention span, compassion, and moral clarity of purpose to address the centuries-rooted systems that haunt the African-American community. And make no mistake about it, sustained moral clarity of purpose is what is required because racism is not a bug but one of the foundational features of the system.
And I want to take a moment to speak to those whose instincts, if not their words, have prioritized concern for property and order over entreaties for equality and justice. Yes, looting and violence are bad. That is not something that needs saying. But protests historically are never completely peaceful and a violent riot was foundational to our nation.
From the time the first enslaved person stepped foot onto Floridian soil in the 16th century until the present day, every day a person of African descent has been looted in this land. Enslaved persons had their homeland, freedom, dignity, humanity, labor, families, bodies, wombs, sex, dignity, native tongues, kin, ancestors, and gods looted. Little of that looting left after Reconstruction ended. And the looting continues today.
The protests were sparked by the looting of the life of George Floyd and are a plea for the looting to cease. Black lives are still looted (Ahmaud Arbery). Black freedom is still looted (mass incarceration). The black franchise is still looted (voter ID laws). Black education is still looted (school to prison pipeline). Black health is still looted (massive health disparities including pregnancy mortality). Black income is still looted (wage gaps). Black wealth is still looted (housing segregation). Black humanity is still looted (THUGS). To those of you who have decried the looting, ask yourself this, “Where was my righteous indignation, and where were my cries at the daily looting of black life?” Black. Lives. Matter.
Black Lives Matter is the (radical?) supposition that black life should have no greater or lesser value than that of whites or any other group in this country. Yet, many find that statement to be controversial or even offensive. But there are allies from other communities — whites, Asians, Latinos, Indigenous people, and those who are multiracial — who have chosen to stand with us, their black brothers and sisters. And many have done so with care and thoughtfulness around issues of privilege, appropriation, and co-opting. In fact, many of these allies have brought their own diverse backgrounds beyond race — class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability — that provide experience and perspective that is relevant to the dialogue of justice.
But this was also the case in the 60s, and the Empire struck back. They killed Malcolm, they killed Medgar, they killed Fred, and they killed King — the most reasonable freedom fighter America has ever known. The silent majority brought Nixon into power, which ushered in a decades-long retreat from racial progress masked by a concealer of largely symbolic victories. Then we elected Obama in 2008. He embodied the audacity to hope for a post-racial America. Like so many of the post-Civil Rights Era victories, his win served the false narrative that class had supplanted race as the primary determinant in the life circumstances and outcomes of blacks.
Eight years later we elected a small small man who built his political base by providing the loudest, most sustained, and most bombastic voice to the nakedly racist birther conspiracies. He made America great again by restoring the white privilege of being openly hostile to nonwhites, lamenting their perceived societal standing, and rejecting PC culture for a fuck your feelings one.
So what will I do? I will vote. I will organize. I will contribute. I will support. I will ally. I will write. I will teach. I will learn. I will listen. I will speak. I will petition. But I will not provide you with comfort. Do not look to me for hope. Hope may be an audacious thing, but it can also be a dangerous narcotic. With few exceptions, this past year, these past 3 and a half years, these past decades have given me little to hope for when it comes to the lives of black folks. In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folks, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” In that century, we defeated fascism; established the United Nations; became the economic superpower; won the Cold War; put a man on the moon; invented Jazz, Rock and Roll, and Hip Hop; and invented the internet. Taken against such accomplishments, we largely failed the problem of the color-line. We continue to fail it.
God gave Moses the rainbow sign
No more water, but fire next time
-Mary Don’t You Weep