America

Black Fears Matter

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Ta-Nehisi Coates and his son Samori

This is what I wore to work today.

On my way to get a burrito before work, I was detained by the police.

I noticed the police car in the public lot behind Centre Street. As I was walking away from my car, the cruiser followed me.  I walked down Centre Street and was about to cross over to the burrito place and the officer got out of the car.

“Hey my man,” he said.

He unsnapped the holster of his gun.

I took my hands out of my pockets.

“Yes?” I said.

“Where you coming from?”

“Home.”

Where’s home?”

“Dedham.”

How’d you get here?”

“I drove.”

He was next to me now. Two other police cars pulled up. I was standing in front of the bank across the street from the burrito place.  I was going to get lunch before I taught my 1:30 class. There were cops all around me.

I said nothing. I looked at the officer who addressed me. He was white, stocky, bearded.

“You weren’t over there, were you?” He pointed down Centre Street toward Hyde Square.

“No. I came from Dedham.”

“What’s your address?”

I told him.

“We had someone matching your description just try to break into a woman’s house.”

A second police officer stood next to me; white, tall, bearded. Two police cruisers passed and would continue to circle the block for the 35 minutes I was standing across the street from the burrito place.

“You fit the description,” the officer said. “Black male, knit hat, puffy coat. Do you have identification.”

“It’s in my wallet. May I reach into my pocket and get my wallet?”

“Yeah.”

I handed him my license. I told him it did not have my current address. He walked over to a police car. The other cop, taller, wearing sunglasses, told me that I fit the description of someone who broke into a woman’s house. Right down to the knit cap.

Barbara Sullivan made a knit cap for me.  She knitted it in pinks and browns and blues and oranges and lime green. No one has a hat like this. It doesn’t fit any description that anyone would have. I looked at the second cop. I clasped my hands in front of me to stop them from shaking.

“For the record,” I said to the second cop, “I’m not a criminal. I’m a college professor.” I was wearing my faculty ID around my neck, clearly visible with my photo.

“You fit the description so we just have to check it out.” The first cop returned and handed me my license.

“We have the victim and we need her to take a look at you to see if you are the person.”

It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die. I am not being dramatic when I say this. I was not going to get into a police car. I was not going to present myself to some victim…

This is the voice of Steve Locke, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design who was left shaken after he was racially profiled by the police last week during his lunch break. His story continues in his blog. Professor Locke is well – he did not join the long record of recent victims of police violence in United States. But, he said, he was lucky, and he wanted to tell his story to other black brothers. They, too, might find themselves in a similar position one day. His blog post should be considered some sort of survival guide for the moment a black man in America encounters a policeman, Locke explained in an interview after his blog went viral.

A similar story (also with a “happy ending”) surfaced last week. It actually happened in August, and its longer version, with video and detailed account by journalist Chaédria LaBouvier was published in Medium. This repulsive story, which could have easily ended tragically, shows how brutal and outrageously uncivilized policing in America can get. In this scenario, 14 armed policemen were needed to resolve an emergency call – fake or not, we do not know – because a handicapped black man was walking in downtown San Francisco with a stick in his hand. The video shows four policemen pinning down the half-naked man for about 15 minutes. Why? Because his walking stick was endangering the safety of American citizens? Similar to Locke’s, this story of an unknown man, who presumably ended up in a hospital, went viral last week, after it was edited and published by AJ+ on Facebook. The three-minute long video includes a voiceover from a police dispatcher, who justifies the maltreatment of the man by saying that his artificial leg presented a danger for the police! The story echoed, especially outside of U.S., and alongside Donald Trump’s provocative statements last week, it painted a bleak future for America. Though they ended well, both stories are horrid. The first explains a fear innate to African-Americans (and perhaps to other ethnic minorities in the U.S.), while the second is a precise demonstration why that fear is justified in this country.  

How is it that we have only come to see it now? Was it, in my case – as a caucasian who did not grow up in America, but was raised in a predominantly white country, with no history of colonialism or slavery, but stuffed with Catholic archetypes – because I was slow to observe and understand? I feel I was being silent and superficial until I understood that, by doing so, I was actually supporting a white dream that rested on the remnants of white supremacy – an ideology that has experienced a resurgence over the last few years. Lacking more accurate information and wanting for deeper, more authentic voices, we passively accepted faulty figures, stereotype-laden theories on migrants and blatantly racist explanations for the existence of poorly educated ethnic minorities. Short of more palpable information, all the stories of the continuing segregation of American communities – wrapped in sociological terminology and abstract narrative – were slowly gaining status as objective truth, while silencing individual outcries.

These silenced voices are now coming back to the surface. Professor Locke is one of these voices. In some ways, the trembling voice of the robust professor and the outrage amongst readers of his account are the legacy of a new, strong voice that has spread across America like a prairie fire.

It is the voice of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer, journalist and educator. His writing for the Atlantic caught the attention of many even before this past summer, when he published his second book, “Between The World And Me.” It’s not enough to say that Coates is the newest and most authoritative voice of the African-American community. It is not appropriate to call Ta-Nehisi Coates a new James Baldwin. Coates’s voice represents discontinuity and even creates a division within the African-American community. As Coates described in an conversation with David Remnick last summer, he was even scolded by President Obama for his lack of a sense of legacy. But Martin Luther King was a man of  different times, who talked to a different generation of African-Americans, while Coates even seems to speak  to me, a white man. In what way?

There is something very special how Ta- Nehisi Coates opens his book, in the form of a letter to his son:

Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.

There are two immediate observations for an attentive reader: first, the notion of the body. As Coates continues writing, it becomes obvious that by “body,” he means something larger. A European writer would use a notion of the soul, freedom, identity – anything but a perishable body, which can, at best, grow, get injured and die. While an American reader might have another, closer understanding of Coates’ writing, his discussion of his “body” in the opening of his letter to his son immediately catches the attention of a non-American reader. Because Coates does not write for me or for just any American. He writes for blacks, for his son. Later on, he tells us how his own father talked to him, taught him to live in fear as a mean of self preservation. This is the same fear that was expressed by Locke, and that Coates is transmitting to his son with his book. But Coates has an additional message: there will be no reconciliation.  

The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence.

Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.

There is nothing extreme in this statement. Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God.

This defiance is not to be much dwelled upon. Democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are specimens of sin, so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational. At the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term people to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me.

It’s tremendous. It’s scary. It’s not Black Power and it’s not Martin Luther King, with his zen approach in trying to change the system within. Coates lets both of them go. He cuts through reality with his own language. The fact that the United States of America is not made for black bodies, but for white Americans – the white dream – is something that Coates recognised only a couple of years ago. In fact, in the same interview with Remnick, who asked him how he became so radicalized, Coates answers, “I read history. Before that, I did not understand to what extent you can get crippled if you are ignored. Or being treated like criminal when we do the same things as a white men.” Coates blames the Constitution, which – regardless of its later amendments – foresaw only the dream kingdom of the white man. This feels and reads like the story of Guantanamo. Coates tells of a population that was thrown on this island where they have no rights, no body, no place – a hell described by Laurie Anderson in her performance art piece earlier this year.

Just as Locke was afraid, so was Coates, and so should his 15-year-old son. But then Coates moves on. He does not hate – it’s not good for your soul; hate eats your soul – but he also does not forgive. While after the recent mass murder in the church in Charlotte, the mothers and relatives of the victims forgave the murderer, Coates does not.

All this killing of blacks by the police in recent years – especially young kids – makes Coates fight even harder, and become the voice of this new struggle. “I am very happy to live so long” – Coates is 41 – “to be able to observe and be on the right of what is an important struggle for the future of America and humanity. It does not matter whether or not this struggle is ultimately successful. Even if I knew that white supremacy would prevail and stay till the end of these days, I would still struggle,” Coates says at the end of the interview with Remnick.  

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