Trapped Though We Are: a Letter to West Virginia Forebears and to Widely Scattered Progeny

When we cried out, “Blake lives matter,” you responded all lives matter. You heard us wrong. You heard us insisting on our superiority. But that’s not it; we were trying to tell you that black lives matter, not just black bodies. Not just black bodies which, like rare and innovative machines, have always mattered tremendously to those who think they are white. Black bodies have always been valuable goods; but the life in the bodies? About that life, whiteness has little to say now and had little to say then. Back then, black bodies were expensive, life-sized platinum jaguars, tough enough to build the White House, to build the South, North, East, and West. The bodies were insured, bequeathed to heirs, returned to owners. The bodies were bred to produce more bodies, more superb, rippling bodies stacked like gold bars, indexed like bonds and stocks, labeled like inventory, touched like silk, grabbed like cash falling from the sky.

It’s the life that didn’t matter. The lives of black people, tucked though they were in those wonderful bodies, were meaningless. It’s the life that did not matter. It’s the lives that count for nothing.

*

Since the beginning, the moral of our story has been white superiority and black inferiority. Every right and privilege was due to your whiteness; every injury and limit was traced to my blackness. You could buy the green hilly land, work your dozen slaves, pick your president, twirl before the mirror and be beautiful, read literature, write letters, keep your children, hear violins in the symphony hall, grin as flashbulbs illuminated the rope and tree bark, and sleep soundly because you were white; or phrased differently, because you were not black. And so whiteness has always been tethered to blackness. You can’t savor your whiteness with all its sweet flavors unless there is something bitter and stinky to tongue for comparison. That bitter stink is blackness: the mess — African! — from which ugliness, idle, and danger flow. About which you can think, “I am sweet, nothing like that!” and therefore become white.

But to justify it — to justify wearing pink taffeta on Carolina porches while black girls tend your fields; to justify hearing mister before your name; to justify touching your lips to water fountains; stepping on elevators without the suffocating sense that you scare the other passenger; smoking pot in the park with teenage impunity; to justify flipping magazine pages and being, despite your worries, closest to that impossible beauty; to justify not taking the receipt because you never imagine you’ll be stopped at the door; to justify your right to keep silent while others burn — to justify being the recipient of such strange treasures, you must dehumanize the woman whose dark hands wrap around the white flame of a cotton boll, the man who uttered Mister, the obese girl who asks her mother to bathe her in bleach. You can’t let us be your true-deep-down-in-your-gut equals in humanness — or it wouldn’t be right! Blithely clutching your strange treasures as you do wouldn’t be right. Maybe you didn’t know what you were up to; but you had to make black people into mere bodies, mere animals; no true life within to speak of.

Black bodies, laying kinky head to wide toe for miles, are the line; and beyond the line, whiteness. There is no white without black bodies just as there is no sweet without bitter, no night without day. If black bodies cease to exist — if we stop calling them black, treating them black — then what can whiteness define itself against? Without black bodies, the whiteness of the world is thrust pale-head-first into crisis. Its radiance dims. You can’t be white unless I’m black. You can’t keep your toys unless I’m black. And so, you tell me every day, I am black.

The black body is crucial. Because if you cease to be white then you are suddenly cut loose, floating alone in freezing space. Where has everything gone? The tranquil self-assurance of being the protagonist, the glossy straight hair, the very self — all at stake. Overnight, the tower of ivory cracked and crumbled. Because if you aren’t white anymore, you won’t see yourself reflected in every nook of the world, blazing in greatness. If you aren’t white anymore, you can’t suddenly count on the boss looking like you, on basking in colorblindness, on being treated as good as a white person. And what is it that keeps you white? Black bodies; the things over there, under there, that you point to and say, “See, I’m not that. I’m sweet, and that’s bitter.”

So black bodies have always mattered. Black bodies have been laid down like cinder blocks of flesh for the foundation of whiteness. Black bodies are the wall against which the milky silhouette of your white gorgeousness appears. Without my black body in your face, you have nothing against which to demonstrate that you’re white. And being white is important to you, even if you can’t admit it or don’t know it. So my black body is important to you, too. My black body which I love and would never trade for a white one … it’s important to you, it’s important to you that it stay black, meaning that it never be called or be treated or feel white.

*

It is the significance of black life that eludes … The flare of a soul, the dew of creation in black eyes, the velvety warmth of black hands as they rub a grandbaby’s silky feet, the passion and terror and joy swelling in rhythmic red beats as black hearts tick and tock. You don’t know what to make of it. Sure, it’s “life” in some technical sense, but is it really life, as in, like, a white life? Is it life that is truly equal to white life, in every way?

The fact that those young men selling cigarettes and popping skittles were alive– were as alive as white guys — is what matters, what has been so hard to grasp.

That the girl, alone on a Detroit porch, banging her fist on a door, the midnight stars overhead, was alive — as alive as white women — before the bullet made a vacuum through which the whole of her life escaped with a silent black rush.

That the kid, in snow, twirling and bouncing in a childish dance, holding a toy gun, was alive. (Or was he on the muggy Louisiana sidewalk, prone, cheek against gritty ground? Or was he in his car, on the Midwest roadside, while the trooper approached about a broken taillight? Or maybe it was the California pavement on which he bled out, the ocean just over the hills. Or was she trying to stay calm after seeing red lights swirling in her rearview mirror? It is hard to remember.) We already know his body mattered; to those cops, his body was a sign reading danger! and it was visible behind the windshield glass before the cruiser even stopped. His body mattered a great deal; it was the only thing that mattered — his black skin dispositive, his cropped nappy hair a question answered with certainty, his dry broad mouth a yank on the trigger. Yes, his body mattered. His life did not.

All lives matter. This is clear. But do you see? We are talking about our black livingness. The cosmic tingle that is gone when you die, that let’s you know she is not sleeping. We are talking about our black livingness. Our fingertips touched, like yours, by God’s. Our lives matter, trapped though they are in these bodies. Trapped though they are in this skin.

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