This piece is an excerpt from my book Godless Circumcisions, available on Amazon/Kindle.
When a person of color is killed by a police officer, or badgeless vigilante, it strikes at the moral fabric of America but more viscerally at the psyche of every person of color with a beating heart. Each strike, blow or shot to their flesh pierces through our collective identity in ways sometimes articulated by great poets, demonstrated by activists old and emerging and mapped by social workers, theorists and spiritual gurus. Much more often, however, we do not have words or faculty to articulate that fire that emanates within our bones; gifting us with a source capable of birthing both revolutionary rage and cancerous infernos. There are simply those things cannot be spoken, because the tongue was never meant to fathom such violences.
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It
sings because it has a song.”
During the most recent trend of state-sanctioned, or explained, violence on black men and womyn, I’ve been a at three strikingly different institutions (Tufts, Berkeley & Howard Law). Tufts is an elite “little Ivy”, a predominantly white institution (PWI), just outside of Boston. It is drenched in white-liberal progressive politics, with a tradition hewing close to that of a Unitarian practice, strongly flavored by liberal Jewish politics. The school is lily white with a sprinkling of people of color–many of whom are first generation college students–with a deeply radical core. Howard Law, on the other hand, is a historical black university (HBCU), and has an iconic tradition of moderate to radical black social justice movements. Many of my peers at Howard Law are nestled firmly in the middle class, if not the upper middle class, but a few of us Section 8 types slipped through the cracks. In both cases, the responses to the murders of black peoples has been the same. Students organize. We debate. We learn. We cry. We struggle to cope with the privilege of our location and our increasing distance from the realities of everyday black folk. Perhaps the most popular trend has been to link our livelihoods to those of the slain and surviving with T-Shirts and hoodies stating “I Can’t Breathe” or “I Am Trayvon.” This is understandable but more akin to identity affinity than powered realities.
My peers and I, inclusive of alumni, from Howard University School of Law, participating in the March on Washington.
As a participant and sometimes leader in many of my campuses’ movements, I’ve experienced both heartache and empathy at these responses: feeling both a sense of commonality and hope, as well as a searing sense of guilt, opportunistic therapies and liminality. The fact of the matter is, I can breathe and I am not Trayvon, Ronnisha, Ezell, or Tamir. I am here. While I face many systemic and sociopolitical challenges, threats violences and obstacles as a blaqueer male, raised on food-stamps and Section 8, I am still here and moving quite fast from there: that place where my flesh and blood, my mother, brothers and sisters live. It’s unlikely as a JD, and soon to be PhD, student that I will routinely find myself in a situation or geographic location where police will regularly practice stop & frisk. My growing and compounding privileges will continually afford me a layer of protection–albeit quite less than whiteness–that my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, might never know. The majority of my time–no matter how much I profess to work with or for the people–will be spent behind lecterns, podiums and teleprompters, no matter how much time I spend in the community. I will be hustling and dealing with micro-aggressions, but in boardrooms, coffee shops, faculty meetings and at the very least, behind the thin veneer of my cultural capital. More often than not, I’ll be lauded for not being “those people,” my people: which of course, is a violence of its own, but it will never kill me.
Pictured: Me, first day of law school.
Graduate and undergraduate school has the power to provide social and economic capital to Black and Latinx youth. If we are able to navigate these often white-supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal, capitalistic, nativist spaces–and escape with a fragment of our souls and ethics in tact–there is an elusive promise that we might achieve the success our foremothers and ancestors had long sacrificed for, for us. However, in many cases, this acquisition of privilege–in our quests to gain wealth(s)–often robs us of the richness of home. Within our families we sometimes become pariahs, not because we think we are better, or our family sees us as worse, but because our newfound privilege (and sometimes world-views) are the Onyx elephants at the table. While we experience and note the growth in the physical, social, and political distance from our families–we also become hip to the distance from those in our educational spheres. We understand many academic and sociopolitical questions from the textured lenses from which we’ve come, a world unfamiliar to many of those who run our schools, as well as the kids we slayed in beer-pong last weekend. We are foreigners in the land. And, perhaps most salient to this piece, is the fact that our authenticity is now challenged on every front. We are simultaneously cast as not black enough (read: too educated), not smart enough (read: too black) , too conservative (read: career-minded), radical (read: human-centered) and hypersensitive (read: culturally competent). These markings exist in the minds of those often most consequential in our lives: family, professors, supervisors and “friends” and all too often have the effect of pushing us into a place where we are neither here nor there, neither strangers nor community members, but living battlefields for political and sociocultural supremacy.
Photo Credit: Simon Howard
Quotation: Tabias Wilson
In effect, we often experience our lives as stateless peoples, who exist in liminal, unnamed social positions. We know of our condition, as do the professionals and scholars that came before us, but it remains an open secret. It would be uncouth to speak of the trauma of situational privilege, that thing we kill ourselves for daily, in a communal ritual of cultural euthanasia and godless circumcisions. Who are we to whine about the stresses of managing multiple consciousnesses that, at times, overwhelm our neuronal pathways to the point of exhaustion: where we forget what role we should be performing in the moment, which inflection to use, when our skin tone is proper for the zone? It seems silly to speak of school as a spiritual and ideological war-zone when thousands die across the nation and from police interactions, gun violence and other symptoms of the war on black and blackened and poor folks. Who are we to speak of pain when poor people are made and invisible and swept under the feel good blanket of “middle class” politics? We got out. We are moving on up. We don’t quite know where to, but we are told it is a good place. It is distant. Far from our families. We mustn’t worry about them, this distance is good for our career, we are told. We must be separated to learn to lead, as if the education system has ever taught any black person what they didn’t already know about surviving the dual plague of white supremacy and capitalism. In all truth, we are being taught and trained to be different; to be professionals. To profess, to speak of and bear witness to a life–an ideology–that is not only different than that from whence we came, but also superior. We are slowly transformed into ambassadors of American elitism and our black flesh is transformed, as we accumulate wealth and situational prestige, into proof and authentication of the silently violent, sociopolitical and legal power structure that we live in. Our successes become proof that most, if not all, social ills are not baked into the system or nation but instead a sad indication of a character flaw in the bones of several million people. They could’ve done better–the logic goes and our bodies prove–if they simply worked harder, worked smarter and gave a damn. Professionalism, with its bowties and pantsuits and relaxers and fresh lineups and learned inflections and branded predilections is a costly performance, a ritual that provides partial absolvement to some and sure death to others; the mothers, the fathers, and the kinfolk of the newly learned.
Many of us are learning to unlearn. Yet there is much that we do not know, chiefly, how to navigate these seemingly oppositional spaces without losing our future, abandoning our pasts or sacrificing our peace. What we do know is, we are in a place that many have lost blood, sweat and tears for, all with hopes that we might one day stand on their shoulders and reach the proverbial mountaintop. We know that we are our mother’s sons and daughters and gender-free children, but worlds apart from the conditions of our rearing. Still and yet, there exists a desire to reach back, pull forward, and take care of home. But how do we do that, authentically, without papering over the privileges we now possess? How do we show solidarity with the slain and surviving without being struggle-blind, and refusing to provide for the differences in our present existences and social locations? We know that we may never be Eric Garner, but our nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, cousins, uncle and aunts, might just be.
My sister Synée and nephew Daiveyon. My brother Eric and nephew Eli.
Therefore, we must realize that we cannot continue to operate as a “talented tenth” that knows best for our peoples. Instead, we must first note–and admit–the power and privilege that has come from the struggle of luck and opportunity. We must offer our skills, resources and talents as supplements to the strategies of those most impacted, and continue to empower and affirm them as the leaders and experts that they are. This is not to say that we should sit on our laurels, and watch the most burdened carry the heaviest loads, but a reminder that we would do well to listen–sometimes in disagreement–before positioning ourselves as the saviors of our kin. As beneficiaries of a system that feeds feeds off of our families, we are called to move past partial patronage and began a process of disinvestment from economic and cultural violence, while investing in and helping to imagine an alternative system of thriving. We all face struggle and discrimination, the intersections of lived realities, opportunities and obstacles. However, our present, compounded existences must be reckoned with, if we are ever to come together as an impenetrable force of liberation, justice and healing. I have always attempted to take home with me, wherever I go, but in the year 2015, I endeavor to let “home” be a co-pilot on our journey, and not just a passenger.
Family picture: My mother, myself, Synée, Eric & Macretia.