A selfie after taking out my cornrows for Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act at UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA.

The painful & personal process of Black Consciousness

I’ve been putting off writing this piece for awhile now and I’m not quite sure why. But after reading a Facebook status update from a friend, seeing too many fights on my Twitter timeline between Black folks I love and respect, and meeting up with my core group of friends from when I first transferred into Cal, I had to write. Below you’ll find a potentially relatable timeline of my personal experience, including links to my previous writings that document the process. Thank you for reading.

Cape Town, South Africa (photo credit: Chelsea Dass)

I’m not even sure where to begin, except to say that coming to consciousness — the state of being awakened and therefore “woke” to the world outside of yourself and your immediate physical, political, and ideological surroundings — is a painful one. When I said goodbye to my family and my partner to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa from July 2014 to December 2014, I had no idea how differently I would come back. Steve Biko’s I write what I like, Patricia Hill Collins’ Matrix of Domination, and Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality were influential in how much I have written about my time in South Africa. I won’t go into much detail about Cape Town, except to say that it was the only period of my life that I would classify as both “best” and “worst.”

South Africa did a lot of things to my mind, body, and soul, but what was most notable to others upon my return was that the racist tip of The Continent had politicized me. I wasn’t ever quiet and while growing up in predominantly white areas led me to internalized anti-Blackness, I had my mom to keep me in check. But one thing is for damn sure:

If I wasn’t Black before, I was definitely Black when I got back.

Me and my tee-ball trophy, accompanied by my dad (photo credit: #moms)

The thing is, though, I went about my life as if I had never left. I knew I had changed but wasn’t aware of how much I had changed. Within two weeks of returning from South Africa, I moved in with my partner as planned, and that partner just so happened to be white. Looking back, I see how I had dated so many oblivious white men and anti-Black men of color without too many hiccups; we didn’t really talk about race, we floated around it. I have some war stories, for sure, but it was only after nine years of dating men of all different races and ethnicities that I made the decision to stop dating white men, and I’ve recently been more selective about the men of color that I date, too.

This shift in who I date — and eventually the friends I chose to invest in— was not [just?] because I had “gone to the Motherland and found myself.” I lived alone in South Africa and had a lot of time to see that I was dealing with the unresolved racial trauma of being a white apologist for most of my life. Studying in a country that had only stopped the dehumanizing practice of apartheid within my 26 years of life did something to me. I was meeting kids who were “born-frees,” but if I was born in Cape Town I would have been born during apartheid. I was also vicariously experiencing the pain of Ferguson while being stuck in Cape Town. This mix had shifted something inside of me that couldn’t be put back into place. But this realization that I was not the same took all of 2015 to come to terms with, which is why 2015 was a piece of shit.

2015 Afrikan Black Coalition Conference at the University of California, Irvine (photo credit: Rasheed Shabazz)

It’s January 2015 and I’m living with my partner in Downtown Oakland when I attend my first Afrikan Black Coalition Conference at the University of California Irvine as a UC Berkeley delegate. I’m currently the Editor-in-Chief and Prison Divestment Communications Director for ABC, but at the time I had barely heard of ABC, much less been an active member of the BSU. Much like Delency, being around over 670 Black people in one physical space for an extended weekend changed my life. It brought me closer to the Black folks at Cal and added pieces of kindling to the identity that South Africa was starting to uproot. Taking Poetry 4 the People at Cal and reading June Jordan’s Soldier was the stick that began the smoke.

Jerrell Hardnett, Anthony Williams, Martez Smith, and Cash Warren at YBGLI 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland (photo credit: Jerrell Hardnett)

The end of March 2015 may have been the friction that sparked the flame. After a series of days in Baltimore as a member of the Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative Policy & Advocacy Summit on HIV & AIDS, I felt like I could accomplish anything. I was one of 70 Black same-gender loving men and I finally felt affirmed, attractive, and intelligent as a Black queer man. ABC was the first time I was around that many Black people at one time, and YBGLI was the first time I was around that many same-gender loving Black men. The kindling grew to a full flame as I read and finished my first James Baldwin book: The Fire Next Time. The combination of Baldwin and YBGLI painted a picture of a Black queer liberatory politic that had existed for others, but not for me — until that moment.

The fire couldn’t be put out at this point and shortly thereafter my partner and I broke up. I was in a mental space where it was better for both of us — in my opinion — to separate. The timeline would suggest that it was merely his whiteness that was an issue, but this is not the case. I wasn’t the best partner because I was too busy and we weren’t focused on the same future. Race was a large factor, though, despite our love for each other. But you know that early phase of consciousness where one’s pro-Blackness is best nurtured by divesting from whiteness, lest one hurts the feelings of the white folks they used to be cool with? That’s where I was. That process was not easy and it was one of the first times I put into practice the deep interrogation required of myself and those in my circle to truly find some solace.

However, we had signed a lease together and we both had to find new places to live. After couch-hopping for weeks, I needed somewhere to live and I put aside my apprehension of living in a cooperative, electing to move into the African American Theme House at Cal before travelling to study at the University of Chicago for a summer program. Before I left, though, Charleston fucked me up. Then while in Chicago, Sandra Bland’s “mysterious death” (read: murder) broke me.

My flame was extinguished by a world that hoped to destroy me, those who look like me, and many more. I was done for a bit, but while I still haven’t finished mourning her death or the deaths of the over 20 trans women of color killed I never knew in 2015, each new case of Black Death taught me about the importance of Black support, family, and liberation as a practice.

in a discussion with my friend Emon, we discussed two things I’m about: social justice and flower. Thus, I was dubbed the “Social Justice Flower,” which is now my display name on Twitter (photo credit: Anthony Williams)

Throughout 2015 I started writing again and became increasingly vocal on social media. I slowly built up a much larger twitter following by tweeting about #BlackLivesMatter, live-tweeting academic conferences, and popularizing #MasculinitySoFragile. I was also experimenting with a Facebook “page,” eventually opting to make my personal Facebook publicly accessible. But after censorship from Facebook, harassment from trolls, and poor online etiquette, I decided to make my Facebook a “safe” space. Truly safe spaces do not exist, particularly under the rule of any company that buys and sells our information, but a sense of control became important to me. And in a world full of spaces that I cannot control, Facebook is one of the few spaces where I can curate my life, my world, my use, and my engagement with others.

I was genuinely tired of Facebook being a stressful space where people played “devil’s advocate” with me on life-and-death topics because it was fun for them. I was tired of my need-to-teach being taken advantage of when debates became arguments that induced stomach cramps in me. Facebook was taking a toll on my mental and physical health; I had to make a personal decision in my best interest. So I deleted folks I’ve known for months as well as folks I’ve known since middle school for a variety of reasons, a few of which I documented here.

This is actually why I began writing tonight. I’ve lost friends. A lot of friends, and I lost a lot of them from 2014-15. Losing friends was not a quick process by any means. Many of them weren’t close friends, but some of them were, and that’s hard. The most memorable start was in 2014 when a casual friend I’d known for seven years blamed Tamir Rice for his own murder on my Facebook. But this wasn’t a one time thing, and in this case this friend was Puerto Rican, not white.

Over time I noticed that folks I had known for years and been through a lot with did not share the same morals as I, and at their core did not see [insert Black, trans, Muslim, or any other marginalized group here] people as human. I was tired of trying to convince folks that we are human, not second or third-class citizens unworthy of equitable treatment. So I began to delete people from my Facebook, not because we disagreed on simple political issues, but because of our differences in how we treat and conceptualize other people.

Ricki Wallace in Cape Town, South Africa (photo credit: Anthony Williams)

Today was a turning point for me. A friend of mine is moving out of the state and may not return for years, if at all. We all just met up to say goodbye to her and spend time together as the Jujus was had come to be known as. The departing friend is a core member of a group of friends from whom I removed my digital presence. I deleted many of them from my Facebook and removed myself from the GroupMe we had made almost three years ago and used on a weekly, if not daily basis. This hurt a few of my friends, and rightfully so, as I didn’t explain my reasoning and they didn’t reach out to ask. They knew something was going on with me, but were apprehensive to approach me for fear of making it worse. I was dealing with a break-up, functional homelessness, serious depression, school-related anxiety — oh yeah, and the full awakening of my Black consciousness in white supremacist world.

This is not to say that I expected them to reach out. That would have been nice, because often folks dealing with depression are not great at expressing their needs. I’m someone who has worked with students dealing with depression, so I could identify the symptoms in myself but could not dig myself out of the hole. What actually hurt the most was that one friend saw my newfound militance in a negative light and another let his white racist friend harass me publicly on Facebook without coming to my defense. I felt like I was very alone is a group that was predominantly white and hadn’t spent much time around other Black folks. So instead of complaining, I removed myself from the group and included some of them in my Facebook purge.

I had started to feel resentful toward their online behavior and after a long year of confrontation with white people and non-Black people of color about race, I was drained, to say the least. I didn’t feel like explaining again and again how I felt and why I felt that way, so I removed myself from the situation. In the process, though, I hurt some people because they didn’t realize that I was willing to engage in these conversations offline, just not online.

What I didn’t recognize was that I’m odd in that I’ll give a person my phone number before I’ll accept them as a friend on my Facebook. Not because my Facebook profile has much personal information on it —it doesn’t. But because of the way I use my Facebook as a tool for spreading information and social media activism, I like to modulate the access to aspects of my life that I share with new people. As a friend recently said, you can learn a lot more about a person and their presentation of self in ten minutes of scrolling their facebook than ten minutes of texting.

Inviting someone into my Facebook is like inviting them into my life, but I’m one of the few people who uses Facebook in this way. This means that deleting someone from Facebook does not automatically mean they’re “deleted” from my life. On the contrary, I am willing to engage in offline conversations to strengthen our friendship rather than continue an antagonistic online relationship. In the long run, not everybody needs to be my damn friend on Facebook.

Cape Town, South Africa (photo credit: Anthony Williams)

I say all of this to say that many of us know how painful consciousness can be. The world starts to cave in on you. You see heteropatriarchy, sexism, misogynoir, transphobia, anti-Black racism, white supremacy, ecocide, capitalist propaganda and more. Anywhere and everywhere. This is only a miniscule peek into the pain of realizing that the world around us has been fucked and that ego sometimes doesn’t allow us to see it until it starts directly affecting us and our loved ones. I started seeing how truly fucked up the world was for the first time in 2014–15. I knew about personal injustices and large cases of the evil -isms, but after traveling abroad and returning I couldn’t ignore much. I could never unsee the interlocking systems of oppression that I now obsess over.

My kindling had become a fire. That fire became a bonfire. That bonfire was extinguished before I reset it. My flame now burns at a slow simmer. After many mistakes in judgement and too many cases of reactivity instead of proactivity, I’ve learned to let a lot of things go and focus on the things I can actually change. But it’s hard to handle mourning the loss of Black, brown, indigenous, differently abled, trans, gender non conforming, incarcerated and enslaved people whom I’ve never met while also losing friends and family for being too enthusiastic in my efforts to make the world a better place.

That being said, I’m not saint and I don’t claim to be. I don’t think everything I do is altruistic just because I’m trying to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression. I don’t think I’m better than anyone because I’ve read books that I never knew existed three years ago. I fuck up. A lot. I’m a human with my own reasons for everything I do, just like everyone else. But I also realize that I need to prioritize my family, my health, and the liberation of my people. And that means that I may lose people along the way because some folks — of all creeds — just want to make it to the next day, rather than making the next day a better day. I was like that, I respect that, and I sincerely hope nothing I do is read as ‘holier than thou.’

While I have drastically changed politically, intellectually, and emotionally, I would say that my essence is the same. I’m still stubborn, but open to constructive criticism. I’m still blunt, but loving. And ultimately, I’m still fighting to get us all free, whether you like me or not.

“To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” — James Baldwin

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