Essay: Black Lives Matter, Part 2 1/2
When I began this trilogy, Donald J. Trump had yet to be inaugurated. He had yet to propose the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico. He had yet to place a temporary ban on immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. He had even yet to call Rep. John Lewis, a black Democrat from Georgia, "all talk" and "no action." Those words seem tame with the luxury of hindsight—as if our country would actually long for the days when its hatred could be focused squarely on one race, when the dissenting voices of a white man and a black man were all the noise that could be heard in our relatively young nation.
As a writer, it is dangerous to write in real time, to let the outside world dictate the path of your narrative. It is dangerous because, no matter what book you believe in, or if you believe in anything at all, there are external forces that we, as humans, can simply not control. (Just ask the Falcons about Tom Brady.)
So, while I am ashamed that President Trump is considering a wall, and that he has insulted entire ethnicities, and that he ridiculed one of the preeminent civil rights activists, I am also glad (in that narcissistic way) that he has legitimized this trilogy of mine. Part of me, as a white man, worried that I did not have the right to speak on the matter of black lives. I worried, as a white man, that I was helping to make a mountain out of what seems to be a molehill among politicians.
But black lives do, in fact, matter. And perhaps the interpretation of that phrase is why the movement has unsettled white America. I often hear my people counter with the question, "Why don't all lives matter?," although I believe they are missing the inherent point: the existence of black lives has become downright problematic for many white Americans, because they do not know how to handle a black life, how to come to terms with its equal existence to theirs—to say nothing of every other form of human life that cannot be neatly placed inside a black box.
White America was much more comfortable when the possibility of a black man in the White House seemed an impossibility. White America was much more comfortable when rappers weren't openly idolized by their teenagers, when Beyonce wasn't pop culture's ultimate icon. White America was much more comfortable before the black athletes they pay to watch play a game demanded to be humans, demanded to be more than a jersey and a pair of shoes, much less fantasy points. White America was much more comfortable with America's sport, football, being dominated largely by black men, so long as the American hero, the NFL quarterback, remained largely white. White America was much more comfortable when the possibility of their boss being black seemed an impossibility.
(Yes, I am aware those are gross generalizations, lumping all us white folks together. But I'd say it's about time we learn how maddening, how suffocating it is to have our convictions and beliefs and impulses pre-determined by the color of our skin.)
How else to explain that some states still don't fully recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day? In Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, MLK is commemorated in the same breath as Robert E. Lee, the man who fought to keep people with black skin enslaved. According to The New York Times, lawmakers in Arkansas have attempted to separate the holidays, but have been deterred by citizens who consider doing so an "affront to Southern heritage."
I am Southern and always will be. No matter what I write in this lifetime, there is no question of my heritage. It is the place where I was born and where I was raised and where I was educated. It is my birthright.
But I do not have to sing "Dixie," I do not have to fly the Confederate flag, I do not have to celebrate a war waged out of hate and ignorance to be reminded that my mother makes the creamiest sausage gravy and the flakiest buttermilk biscuits. Or that the Crisco-laced skin of my grandmother's fried chicken will melt in your mouth. Or that there is no sweeter sound than the twang of a banjo married with a fiddle and the slap of a knee on a Saturday night.
But to be Southern (to be American) I must acknowledge the black lives that had a profound impact on my history, the recipes passed on before black people were even allowed to have soul. I must acknowledge that Elvis wouldn't have been The King without B.B., and that MLK begat a world where LeBron James could be The King, albeit a world where LeBron tends to be the extent of a young black man's dream. This remains a world in which Barack Obama is seen as a man who was white raised and white educated, a man who jumped through white hoops that are out of reach for many young black men—hoops that young women (black and white) aren't empowered to even reach for.
For the majority of their lives, black men and black women have been governed and educated by people who do not look like them, who do not share their history. They have been raised in a country where secondary education confines their history to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, to Rosa Parks and Dr. King, to the people who demanded freedom and equality, as though black history must be confined to slavery and segregation and to the overcoming of each—peacefully, mind you.
To the white people still reading: I assure you this essay is directed at no one in particular, other than yours truly. After all, I am a white man. And to understand how I view this world, I must acknowledge that every social and political platform, including Black Lives Matter, is a prism through which light can be shined. Yet we often only see the color we want to, tilting every issue at just the right angle, so that the light doesn't shine on the side we don't want to see.
As I said, I was raised and educated in the South, specifically in public schools during the 1990s and early 2000s. My only recollection of black culture in the form of literature is MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech and To Kill a Mockingbird, a book written by a white woman. I was a freshman in college, eighteen years old, before I purchased a book by a black author: James McBride's The Color of Water. Not until I turned twenty-eight, while earning my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, was I required to purchase James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, arguably the most honest, poignant depiction of black life in America during the 20th century. The recently released documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro, should be required viewing.
If I were voted in as education secretary (not a bad idea at this point?), I would require Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son to be included in the curriculum of every high school senior. I am ashamed to admit, however, that even in 2017, requiring seniors to spend six weeks on James Baldwin would likely be met with the same resistance as spending six weeks on Charles Darwin. Why does it have to be a black author, the thinking would go, why does it have to be about race?
Those same concerns have been raised about Black History Month, every year since it was officially recognized by the U.S. government in 1976. On Solange's album, A Seat at the Table, her mother (who is also Beyonce's mother) says that she can't fathom how people can ask, "Why isn't their a white history month?," when all that's ever been taught in public schools is white history. She can't fathom how taking pride in black culture can be considered "reverse racism," when so many white people pay damn good money to hear her daughters sing. But even some black people, notably actor Morgan Freeman, worry about the implications of limiting black history to the shortest month of the year, that it segregates black history from American history. Although, can anyone, even Mr. Freeman, claim that black history is integrated into the public classroom?
Rarely does a black person arise in public secondary education unless he or she was an agent of epic change, or "the first" to accomplish a feat once thought incapable of a person with black skin. At the risk of making far too fine a point: Why did I not learn about the three black women behind a monumental NASA mission in the 1960s until the 2016 film Hidden Figures? Or should I instead be asking why a black woman has never been nominated to the Supreme Court?
Meanwhile, white high school seniors are listening to Migos and Young Thug and Kodak Black in their headphones on the way to class, just as I listened to DMX and OutKast and Tupac in my Ford Focus when I was their age, cruising the streets of Kingston, Tennessee, not a black person in sight. Outside of the classroom, young white men and women mimic the dances and speech of black pop culture, sell out the shows of black entertainers, cheer on black pro athletes, and then go home to watch the news of another inner-city drug bust, the "carnage" in Chicago, and subconciously they begin to believe that the extremes, both positive and negative, are the realities of black lives.
If I am to be an American, I must acknowledge that the perpetuation of the black stereotype is a product of white America's refusal to teach black humanity in the classroom. I must acknowledge that inside me lies years of conditioning, thirty-one years of being told directly and indirectly that there can be a commonality between black and white, but that black and white, like oil and water, can never truly mix. I must acknowledge that, as a white American male, black lives have been something to distance myself from, never something to aspire to.
Those who've been following along (and I appreciate it), know that Part 1 began with a white blind man who was racist toward a color he'd never seen. Then Part 2 became about my encounter with a young black woman named Kamaria, who I would give several Uber rides to over the span of nine months. I'm concerned that hitting the pause button will lessen the impact of this story. But to not step back and examine the external and internal forces shaping this story would ignore the very impulse I had to tell it. If Kamaria were not black and I were not white, then there would, in fact, be no story to tell. And to say that our colors do not matter would be worse than the blind man, shutting my eyes to the problem I can plainly see.
Two days after Kamaria's dispute with security at the TV station, I texted her to confirm she needed a ride home from work. "Naw. Not today," she wrote. "I have something new lined up. Working with kids. So we'll see." She never offered a reason for her abrupt departure, whether she was fired, or if she left the station on her own accord. I didn't pry, didn't ask if she thought she'd been racially profiled by a white security guard. Therein lies the perpetual battle of a black person, determining if he or she was being treated equal or the victim of prejudice.
But the battle wasn't mine to fight, or perhaps I felt squeamish about the imaginary barriers of color that we, as acquaintances, had yet to address, much less tear down. The fact remained: Kamaria and I were born into a systemically racist society, a society that has created in us learned responses triggered by the mere sight of our skin. Before Kamaria could simply be Kamaria—and not the black woman—I would have to untangle the stereotypes knotted up inside me about her, as both a black person and as a woman. These stereotypes are attached to us from birth, stereotypes rooted in religion, in slavery, in male-dominated history books. These stereotypes are on me, a white man, to push aside, not on a black woman to live down, stereotypes that Kamaria should have never been shackled with.
Still, color barriers are as comforting as they are confining, same as that literal wall President Trump would like to build. These figurative walls are all we've ever known, barriers that seem to have stood since the dawn, barriers that have been buttressed over and over by hate and by ignorance, but also by fear of the unknown that lies behind them. To bring down our barriers is to let the fear of the unknown inside. Whether that fear is real or imagined we are not certain, but it is better to be safe than it is to be sorry.
Besides, Kamaria nor I stood to gain anything. We were not friends, nor did we have a shared history as classmates or co-workers, and there didn't seem to be any romantic interest. If we're honest, forging a friendship between two adults out of thin air, especially across lines of color, must be met with the selfish question: "What's in it for me?" So I wished Kamaria luck, texted her to let me know if I could give her a ride down the road. I wrote that I'd be gone to Italy for ten days in early October, the last official trip of my existential journey.
"Keep doin you," was all Kamaria texted back.
It was late September then, and the skin of the South was beginning to tighten under the stress of a drought—hearts were just as tense, hands wringing over the fissures that were forming on the campaign trail. Hillary Clinton, we were told, was a shoo-in for the Oval Office, at least according to the folks on TV who are experts on such matters, as though the pulse of this nation can be measured while sitting behind desks and reading lines on a graph.
Although, in fairness, on Oct. 7, the day before I flew to Rome, recordings surfaced of Trump saying he could just go up to women and "grab them by the pussy." The report prompted several women to speak out about alleged instances of Trump sexually harassing or assaulting them in the past.
Surely, the proverbial nail was in the coffin. Surely, regardless of your pigment, the suggestion that a man running for Leader of the Free World would commit sexual assault removed all doubt. While this essay isn't about the degradation of women (I'm working on it), I can't leave this point dangling. I can't ignore that sexism and racism, while two separate evils, are not such strange bedfellows—as much as we'd like to keep each form of prejudice locked in its own room, not allowing one to influence the other, not confusing our issues. Surely, class and religion and race and gender don't speak to one another, surely that quartet doesn't translate to where we get to stand in the pecking order.
I can't help but wonder if all of us shouldn't listen to every lyric on Drake's Views, the most-streamed album on Spotify in 2016. I can't help but wonder if we shouldn't consider the line between a booty call—a "Hotline Bling"—and the objectification of a woman. Has that line become so thin we can no longer see it?
That will inevitably be read as a condemnation of hip-hop and rap, genres that I listen to incessantly, genres that I would argue are positively pushing the boundaries of music and keenly commenting on American culture in ways that "white music" simply can't. Still, for better and for worse, these songs have become the anthems of Millennials. What was once a subculture has become pop culture. And while my pre-smartphone Millennials and our post-smartphone counterparts might argue that the allure is injected into the beats, the lyrics we sing out of subconscious repetition have become the drug. The lyrics—and the timbre of the voices that spit them—are as addictive to our ears as the drum loops in the background, which we, if we're honest, would not listen to in a vacuum.
Look, I'm not telling anyone what to listen to, but to not listen to what you're listening to is no different than voting for someone based on nothing more than a party line. When we become desensitized to words like "nigga" and "bitch" and "hoe," when sexual fantasies are presented as the social norm, we begin to lose any sort of grounding in what reality might look like. The qualities of a black man are reduced to his penchant for violence and drugs, his penis being compared to a pole, whereas a woman's qualities become purely external and sexual—her butt a particular fruit, her worth measured in how fast said fruit can twerk on said pole.
Donald Glover, the NYU-educated actor/rapper who won two Golden Globes for his breakout series Atlanta, called the rap trio Migos "the Beatles of this generation." I don't disagree, nor does the American public: Migos' latest album, Culture, is currently No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
But the difference in the moving image and music is a necessary distinction to make. Film is, at worst, a voyeuristic make-believe. As for the lyrics of Migos, they represent the reality of many young black men in not only Atlanta but also in America—the crack game and the rap game and the duckin the po-lice game. And, as they boast on the chorus of their signature track, their "bitch is bad and boujee."
Is that Migos' reality? Or is it a reality they've watched play out around them, like a movie? And now they've managed to hover above that life, their songs both a lament and a celebration of their ability to go from nothin to somethin. Who's to say? Their art does not require explanation. Still, we listen, young white America, and we snort up their music like three lines, as the white facts about black lives.
The three young black men who compose Migos (known as Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff) came from North Atlanta, which is a long way from NYU, both literally and figuratively. I can't claim to know if Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff could've reached NYU, as Glover did. Regardless, the three young men opted to forego an education and created their own acronym: Young Rich Niggas (YRN), which later became Yung Rich Nation. Reason being? They didn't want to exclude other races who might want to pay for their clothing line or their songs.
Smart kids. And to pick apart their music is its own education. Take the track "Call Casting." It kicks off unassuming, just tickling ivory, but then the echoing boom of bass. The ivory starts tip-toeing around a pulsating Dracula-esque pipe organ, all of it cascading over a tat tat tat tat on loop, punctuated with the faint echo of a concave steel drum. Listen to it. Just try not to nod your head and bob your shoulders, even if you ain't got no rhythm.
Then their vocals as instruments, the instantaneous octave switches to the guttural call and responses, the Brrt, Brrt! to the Skrrt, skrrt!. It's tribal, it's black, it's mystical. And finally, the rhymes: Mama cryin, niggas dyin/Wonder why I done gripped the fire, yeah!, Takeoff spits, stone-cold, straight-faced, followed in the next verse by Came from a Cup O' Noodles/I fucked the game, karma sutra, which is Quavo skipping across the beat with a wink and a dose of urban development—not the Ben Carson kind. But to read the lyrics isn't to hear the manipulation of the vowels, the rebellion and identity in the grammatically incorrect syntax, the beauty in the sound of g-less gerunds stacked one atop another.
So who are Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff once the music stops? Is this life they croon about the dream of young black men, or their unfortunate fate? Do they exist on a different moral plane than myself, because of their upbringing? By succumbing to the enticement of their music have I ignored the societal forces that have led them to paint a portrait of violence and misogyny? Is Mr. Glover's NYU education an anomaly? What's the reality in Rep. John Lewis' district?
I'm not demanding answers to rhetorical questions, nor am I claiming that Atlanta is a microcosm for African-American life. But I am posing the questions, because inside them nuances are lost and the insecurities of white male America reign. President Trump revealed something about the white (heterosexual) male psyche that perhaps our country had been avoiding. Which is that the white heterosexual male psyche hasn't changed all that much. Our superiority complex cannot be underestimated, nor can it be denied that we remain the majority. The prospect of losing our spot at the top isn't one that we want to entertain. Nor do we want to entertain the prospect that a black man is innately better at sports, or more musically and rhythmically inclined, giving them the advantage in arenas that have grown exponentially in popularity and importance to American society—even though the percentage of black men who choose those paths and actually achieve financial success is minuscule, our perception skewed by the outsized stars. Our perception is skewed because we do not know the middle-class black man who is no different than us, in his minimum-wage plight or his pleas to remember the forgotten man.
Never mind the white man's physical inferiority complex, which stems from the elusive myth that black men are genetically more well-equipped to run faster, jump higher, and satisfy longer in the bedroom—and never mind the inherent problem with a man defining his worth in terms of his ability to play a game or have sex or earn more money than the next man.
What began as a detour into sexism has veered into racism. Yet, as I said, how to separate the two in a man's mind, when the objectification of a woman is not confined to a color, when a white man's prejudice toward a black man is entangled with his sexuality? How to view a black woman like Kamaria, who falls victim to both sexism within her own race and racism within her own gender?
I can only view this world through the lens of a white, heterosexual male who was raised Christian. With that one sentence, I am admitting the stereotypes I project onto others, which are then projected back onto me. I was raised by the good book, the one that says women should be subservient to men, the one that says two men ought not lay together. I was raised in a culture that frowned upon interracial marriage, in a town that remains roughly 95% white.
My most influential exposure to black culture as a teenager was Tupac's Greatest Hits and the movie Friday. My only tangible exposure to black culture was playing pick-up basketball with the handful of black kids who lived on one street in my hometown, kids who were defined by their nicknames: Gramps, a bruising running back who was the eldest; Byrd, a free safety who could fly; and Boomer, a shifty halfback who you didn't get on the wrong side of. I was the white boy who would D up, crash the boards, and drove the lane with the same anger, "no blood, no foul." At school, we rarely spoke. They weren't invited to my house, and I never stepped foot in theirs. As for the few black girls I grew up with, the unfortunate joke was they had no one to date, because they were kin to all the black men in town—the thought being that no white man was allowed to cross that line.
Inside me live the very stereotypes I abhor. And perhaps there is no finer, more nuanced point to make: the root of the problem is in our own inability to acknowledge the systemic sexism and racism that has been buried inside us under layers and layers of religious and cultural ideology. The dilemma is the same as a drug addict's first step, admitting that he has a problem. But how to take the second step, when everyone is also an addict, many of them unwilling to admit it, many of them thriving on an addiction to what they believe to be the natural social order?
Not until I landed in Italy, only my second trip out of the U.S., could I distance myself enough to have the self-awareness of my own skin. On my first day in Rome, I was stopped by African men who were wearing brightly colored kaftans and peddling bracelets. I eventually bought one—a piece of thick leather painted black, adorned with an oblong black stone in which a white elephant was carved. I gave the African man ten euros, half out of guilt for the lower class he portrayed, and half out of guilt for my own whiteness, the unspoken assumption that my skin afforded privilege.
It was as if those African men capitalized on their skin in a way that wasn't at all shameful. They preyed upon the uncomfortableness of the American white man, who was not their oppressor, but rather a tourist they'd been trained to exploit. Their color was secondary to the sale. There was no pride lost in assuming inferiority, if it meant euros to take home to their families. These black men seemed to have no bitterness about their skin, for they knew their plight was of no consequence to Italians. They had come to Italy on their own accord.
And thus the crux of the black-white quandary in America—the "what if" of slavery, the what if that will always linger. Black lives can't be extricated from American history or culture, even if black lives would prefer to be. It's the same as a spouse who cheats on a marriage with children: There can be forgiveness, but there is no forgetting, and whatever the marriage might've been, it will never be again, nor will the children's lives ever be the same. The what ifs of slavery are impossible to trace because an African-American's ethnicity is contrived, an ethnicity not of their choosing. Yet a black person born in America must sleep with these what ifs, wake up to this arranged marriage every morning, without the option for divorce.
There is no answer, only acknowledgement. As James Baldwin once said, "I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I do not expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else." As for me, I have to write at length about being white in this America, before I can begin to focus on what this America means to me.