i have heard many of my non-black friends say how surprised and appalled they are by some of the blatant racist things they have witnessed recently either personally, locally, or on a national stage. part of me wants to ask them where they have been all their lives. none of this is new. in fact, black and brown and native people have been saying it continually since the founding of our nation. but for some reason, all that anecdotal evidence was not enough for people to accept the dream was largely deferred for certain people.
a variety of studies which make use of long-term medical records acknowledge the stress of certain experiences is passed down for generations. this is actual fact. supported by science. question. what do you think it’s like living in a country that never wanted to grant you personhood let alone citizenship? trauma doesn’t begin to describe it.
while many have lived in a dream world that made them believe if they became a certain kind of black – new black, respectable black, comfortable black, hotep black, or just plain ole human american black – things would get better, the rest of us have been trying to navigate a system we accepted will never accept us as we are, but can’t destroy our drive to succeed. the whole “they tried to bury us in the ground, they didn’t know we were seeds” thing is real. we are a people who rise through unspeakable adversity. it is not something we seek. it is not something we cower from either.
but as it’s becoming more than crystal clear to non-melanated people that we do indeed live in a country that has always seemed eager to yank our black asses back to slavery and a time where we knew our rightful place in this world, the rest of us are fighting to remind each other our history didn’t start with slavery. our greatness is not measured through white achievement. our power is not tied to the offices and positions we hold. and our future is not theirs to decide. we are not theirs.
it’s hard to accept right? that we are not theirs. we don’t exist for their pleasure. we are not the footstool that elevates their personhood. i, too struggle with it when i’m sitting in board meetings, or boarding a public bus, or speaking at conferences, or watching the news, or driving in my car, or even getting my morning coffee. i am reminded that being black – looking how i look, thinking how i think – can invite violence to be visited on my body.
because i lack safe black spaces in real life, i have been working overtime to cultivate them in my virtual spaces. i’ve been re-reading some of the literature and essays that helped me get through my years in college. i am affirming my own blackness. that led me to revisit the poem that inspired ta-nehisi coates’ latest book between the world and me. it’s written by richard wright and i first read it in my early twenties.
then i wanted to believe that i could escape the claws of our racist past. i believed as most idealistic twentysomethings that there was a destination at the end of we shall overcome some day. i now know better. and i now get what richard wright was trying to say. i can’t afford to stare in yellow surprise at the sun. not seeing the truth can result in death. but still, i embrace the possibilities of thriving with the full acceptance that i am a free black woman in a world that wants to see me in chains.
Between the World and Me
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….
And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun….