The Unbearable Vulnerability of Being Black


More than once in my time, a noise has interrupted my sleep. But her scream had no equal. She howled with such urgency in her voice, it was as if death was scrapping its scythe alongside her shadow. As her cries fainted into the distance, I could hear the sound of multiple feet pounding the pavement in pursuit of her; the same way thunder follows lightning. With the echo of her terror in my ear, I put on clothes, blue jeans and a grey sweater, and sprinted outside.   

It was a few hours before dawn when I approached the sidewalk. What I knew about the world was this: it was August 2014 and two weeks before I walked out the front door, Michael Brown had been shot dead and 23 days before Eric Garner’s  life had been choked out of him, both at the hand of the police.  As a black man in this country, I knew I was feared, subjected to random acts of violence, and that I was hated for who I am, but I was in Hillcrest, the liberal part of San Diego. I had met racism in Santee (a section of the city colloquially known amongst people of color as “Klantee”). And I was intimate with violence as my neighborhood of origin is  Southeast San Diego, which is home to the “four corners of death”, an intersection where someone has died on each corner. But surely, if anywhere, I could find refuge in the LGBT community of Hillcrest. Foresight—had I had it that night—says I should have called the police and let them carry out their duty. But the immediacy of the woman’s call for help haunted my psyche and I could not live with myself knowing I did not do enough to interrupt violence. So without regard to the fact of history, I pursued justice.

I wandered around the streets and after some time I found myself in an alley. I failed to find any trace of this woman’s presence. Her voice was absent from the air, and the sounds of running had vanished into the darkness. The only “evidence” of a crime was me in the alley searching for her. When the police vehicle turned and approached me, all the fear I heard in the woman’s voice had found new life inside my body.  

When I was stopped, I explained to the officer that I was outside trying to help a woman who sounded as if she were under attack. He asked me, “Sir, have you been involved in domestic violence?” The officer told dispatch that he had a “possible suspect”, and as if on cue, I could hear the symphony of black death and all its melodic tragedy make its way into the alley. It was as if the officer in front of me had the power to orchestrate the universe to any reality he saw fit. If he wanted to make me a criminal, it would only take the wave of his baton.

 

Facing Death

Despite my pleas of innocence, the officer persisted with questions about whether or not I beat women. I’d rather die fighting the police to protect my innocence than go to jail as a suspected abuser.  I would not accept the identity that was bestowed upon me and after watching Oscar Grant and  Trayvon Martin be destroyed by the police, I was ready to fight for my image. I made a pact with my body that I would not allow it to be put in handcuffs and that I would die before I’m arrested as an innocent man.  In that moment, I began to make peace with this is how my life was going to end.

The officer asked me to step toward his vehicle and I obliged. “Have you ever assaulted a woman? Are you sure you weren’t the one involved in the incident?”, he asked. He turned his monitor toward me, and I saw with my own eyes he was looking for a black male who was wearing my exact outfit:  blue jeans, grey sweater.

In the end, I was let go—a fact of the night that has never sat well with me. I was let go. Kalief Browder, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner were not let go and Cyntoia Brown is still fulfilling her penance. But I was let go. When I am alone, I often wonder if I escaped without paying the price for the tragedy this country has created. If I didn’t pay my dues, who is making up that deficit or is the fate that has consumed so many unarmed, black Americans still waiting at my door? America’s greatest triumph of its pursuit of justice is only belied by its failure to find it. And two of us were in an alley, both in pursuit of justice while injustice was salivating in queue. Before I walked into that alley, a crime had taken place. As I stood there, I realized I had been conditioned to believe I can be the criminal and at worse, I am the crime.

As if on cue, I could hear the symphony of black death and all its melodic tragedy make its way into the alley. It was as if the officer in front of me had the power to orchestrate the universe to any reality he saw fit. If he wanted to make me a criminal, it would only take the wave of his baton.

In considering Kalief Browder, it has occurred to me the crime to which he was asked to plead guilty was not just stealing a backpack. Fundamentally, there was something more insidious in offering an innocent black youth a plea deal. Kalief was asked to plead guilty to being a nigger. But Kalief, in his inhibited moral and ethical genius, refused the label and screamed from Riker’s Island, I am not guilty—I am not your negro; however, rejecting that image in this country arrives with a price. And the price of the laws that lead to Kalief’s incarceration was death.

The result of the tragic history of black Americans in this country is that we are led to hate everything about ourselves. If you are black, it is almost impossible not to be seen as a nigger and that’s the perception we are all up against. Even though my resolve to die that night (as opposed to going to jail) seemed like an irrational move, it was the first time, I am sure, I communicated to myself that I was worth dying for. That I am not who I was being made to be.

That night remains with me because three weeks later, I found myself in court falsely accused of stalking and harassing a woman I had never met. This time, however, the woman was not a stranger to me, but my flesh and blood: my biological mother. It is common for African-Americans not to know where we come from. I was in Cape Town, South Africa when a South African man asked me, “where are you from?” I told him America, but, of course, that is not what he meant. He wanted to know my roots, but I stood there explaining to him that they cannot be excavated. They had been buried under slavery and adoption and when I tried to raise who I am from the ground, I only uncovered darkness and dirt.

My biological mother described me as wearing a hoodie and following her onto a train. The accusation of following her was negated with video evidence that I was at my job at the time I was allegedly following her. The worst part of my description was the hoodie. The hoodie has undoubtedly become a symbol of black death. Trayvon Martin was suspicious because he was black and wearing a hoodie. Since I was also guilty of being black and wearing a hoodie, I was immediately regarded as a possible suspect; therefore,  any force of authority had permission to destroy my body, as was his.

Any black American in any phase of the criminal justice is fighting for their life. This was the second time I found myself in a battle for not only my body but for my psyche. It was burned into my mind that if someone wanted to destroy my body, all they had to do is describe me as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner. If someone could paint me with blackness, they had the license to take my life and there was my biological mother, in front of me, holding a paintbrush.

I was able to maintain my innocence and the judge did not grant the restraining order. If there was victory, it was lost upon me in a whirlwind of shame. I walked out of the courtroom avoiding eye-contact with strangers. I was innocent, yet I felt guilty. I wanted to remove myself from the world because I knew if I felt guilty that was how I was perceived. And if that was my existence, I resent life. I have no ancestors, and the only person I have met that looks like me, hates me and denies my existence as her child, and it seemed America was not interested in my existence either. When I revisit that scar in the back of my mind, I am in the alley. But in this timeline, had the restraining order been granted, and I am stopped by that officer. I am filled with despair when I see how my life would have come to an end once my name is put into the system and next to it is restraining order.

Facing Life

What I am approaching here is that because the nation has always used the law to galavant white supremacy throughout its glittering mountains and shining valleys, and because the country has not interrogated the methods by which the law created the conditions of black people, we, the entire country—both black and white—are trapped in a state of perpetual sin. When I read Cyntoia Brown’s story, one would think news about the physical violence she endured as an adolescent would be such an unbearable tragedy for our nation that it would resurrect within society and Congress the most violent of amendments toward the law. But to the contrary, the country took a laissez-faire approach to her case and allowed a 16-year-old to be tried as an adult, despite being abused and controlled by a sexual predator and who 21 out of 36 times had sex with someone because she felt forced to and 25 out of the 36 times were statutory rape.

Although I am not a religious man, I harken back to my youth in church and hearing “the wages of sin is death” from the pulpit. Considering that the president of the United States is a man who sexually assaulted a woman the same way Cyntoia Brown described a 43-year-old man forcibly grabbing her vagina, the moral authority of this nation is dying — and my spirit becomes numb when I consider the deficits made by the sins of our forefathers.

I heard Cyntoia say, “I’ve had to think about it every day. Facing life.” It has occurred to me that she achieved a feat that America in all its hubris of bravery and courage has fallen short. It has always been an end for America to keep its citizens from facing the reality in which all of us find ourselves intertwined. Facing life is to confront what is behind you as a means to question what is in front you But America has not been able to about-face and confront the consequences of its history.  The country is so attached to its image of black people as savage, sex-fiends and criminals that it is incapable of unseeing the illusion its laws has made of us.  

The reason why the country has failed to offer an apology is that it would be an admission that their foundation lies on creating niggers, and the admission of guilt would be a plague on all their houses: on the jailhouse, the courthouse, and the White House. Once they plead guilty, they will be forced to show their addiction to and remove themselves from the forces of white supremacy that govern the laws which herd black youth into prison.  

The country is so attached to its image of black people as savage, sex-fiends and criminals that it is incapable of unseeing the illusion its laws has made of us.  

My most sincere optimism is that the sight of a 16-year-old in chains is so intolerable that those who can change this will be moved to do so; I am no prophet, but I know how to spot a charlatan when I see one. I am sure the whiteness that governs our law, in all its false gospel about Cyntoia’s image, will lead those who wish to see her in chains to express opinions about her “sexual promiscuity”. Afterall, it was Assistant District Attorney Jeff Bucks who implied that because Cyntoia was “comfortable” using a 43-year-old man’s restroom, “comfortable” eating a meal from Sonic’s at a 43-year-old man’s home,  and “comfortable” lying in bed with a 43-year-old man who had an arsenal of guns, who was a sharpshooter, and felt “comfortable” taking a nap, she could not have had any fear for her life. All of this was said in an attempt to exploit narratives that depict black women as not only chattel but breeders, and that because black women have an insatiable appetite for sex, regardless of their age, it is in Cyntoia’s nature to be comfortable exchanging her body for $150, and any action she took under gunpoint from a procurer, needs not to be mentioned. I can hardly find anyone, and I mean, anyone, who has ever concluded that black women were comfortable with being victims of rape because they did not flee from their captor. It is also lost on me how a minor, who by law cannot give consent, can be described as a prostitute or sex worker. This incoherent reality made for Cyntoia, a child who is a willing sex worker, is one we must fight against.

We are told justice is blind, which is just misleading propaganda. Let’s be clear: when they say “justice” they mean “punishment” is blind. But, it seems to me that anything with the power to punish by means of death should have impeccable vision. If justice could see Cyntoia, could see us, there would be no use of phrases such as  “child prostitute” or “16-year-old adult”, most certainly not in the court of law.

If the nation wishes to survive its moral degradation, because it can, we have to ask by what moral code do we want to live? Because it is a farce to believe that George Zimmerman had more fear of Trayvon Martin than a 16-year-old girl had of her 43-year-old serial rapist. If the country chooses to, it could expose the prophecies of whiteness as fraudulent and arrive at a truce with the past and present.  Because what the law is doing to black Americans does not have to be impenetrable fact of reality.

If I am alive, Trayvon, Eric, Sandra, and Tamir could be too.

 


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The Unbearable Vulnerability of Being Black

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