I wish I could've met James Baldwin. As I (slowly) continue to try and finish The Fire Next Time, which has become sort of an epiphanous reading for me, I find myself feeling like this man knew it. You know, the it that when someone speaks about it, people want to automatically discredit what is being said. Not because it isn't true, but because it IS true. James Baldwin spoke truth with every word he said, regardless of what it was that he was talking about. I can sit here and rattle off probably quite a few quotes but there is one that I recently came across that had me nodding my head as if I was listening to a heavy Nas verse:
"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time."
This was in 1961, about 56 years ago. Circling back to my Nas comparison, the Queens MC spoke about police brutality on his debut album Illmatic in 1994 which was 23 years ago. It's 2017 and we still are deeply entrenched in the conversation of excessive force by police when it comes to Black and brown bodies. To be Black in America today, 56 years after Baldwin spoke those words, still means to be in a rage almost all of the time!
That is the realest quote I've ever read.
Why? Because it is so true. I know this rage. It comes from the overt racism I see everyday. It's everywhere. But it also comes from the mediums that try to tell me racism doesn't exist in our modern society. Any mention of racism is usually met with cynicism. When I read articles that make arguments such as "all Trump supporters aren't racist" or "protests by athletes during the national anthem is unpatriotic", I feel the rage that James Baldwin speaks about. It's almost as if we have to defend our right to point out and speak out against the injustices that we experience, as a whole and as individuals. With the recent events in Charlottesville and the subsequent rallies and counter protests, the subject of racism versus the preservation of culture and history seems to be a hot topic for those who are trying to defend America's racist past. When I hear arguments related to the removal of statues of Confederate "heroes" or hear statements like "I don't care about a statue, it doesn't mean anything" from white people (and a few Black people) I wonder if these people understand the trauma of racism. The I quickly realize that they don't. Part of that trauma is the rage that I and a lot of people like me find ourselves in all of the time. Imagine being told you aren't alive. You wake up everyday, get dressed, go to work, spend money, come home, have dinner, watch TV and eventually go to sleep. The next day, you pretty much do the same thing. This routine goes on for years, until one day, you run into a complete stranger and they tell you that you've been dead for the past decade, or longer. It's hard to believe because of the memories you have. In fact, you don't believe it, but everyone around you tells you the same thing every time you see them. Yes, you can touch them, they can touch you, you can taste the food you eat, feel the warmth of the sun; you feel emotions just the same as the people who are telling you that you don't really exist. That's what it feels like when I hear people saying racism doesn't exist today. It's obvious that it does and is stronger than ever.
So what can one do with this rage? When I think about this question, I think about the attitude that Malcolm X had early on in his role with the Nation of Islam and the attitude that Huey Newton and the Black Panthers had. They had this rage and they felt like they needed to use this rage to fuel their fight, to take what was rightfully ours, our rights as human beings, "by any means necessary" If that meant physically fighting those who burned crosses on their lawns, who firebombed their homes and churches, who sicked dogs on men, women and children, then so be it. But I also think of Martin Luther King's non-violent mindset as well. Both methods got results but, as I look at what is still transpiring today, I wonder has their effectiveness faded. What do we do to combat racism in 2017? In a world where our nation's first black president was supplanted by Donald Trump, how do we fight against a machine that seems to be designed to pacify black people by appearing to hear us, only to show us their social tone deafness? How do we channel this rage, even in the face of criticism from people who look just like us that don't agree with our outlook (see Son of Baldwin and the criticism he has received)?
I don't know.
"...to be in a rage almost all of the time..."
While writing this blog post, several events centered around racism have been in the news. Just recently, a video was released of a white police officer in Georgia telling a white female motorist he had just pulled over, who was afraid to put her hands down because "she had seen too many videos of cops", that they "only kill black people". He was telling her this to calm her down, to let her know that she wasn't in any danger, because she was white.
Think about that for a second.
Imagine how every black person in this country who saw that video felt when they heard that officer say "we only kill Black people, remember?" I know how I felt and how I feel every time I think about those words. That rage comes up. It makes me wonder how that cop would've replied if that was a Black person in the car, saying that they had seen too many videos of police shooting Black people. I remember being pulled over in Mississippi while visiting a friend back in 2014. This was shortly after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO. While the car was being searched, I was admittedly nervous. I mean, I was a Black man from out of town in the deep South. As I stood there waiting, I guess my nervousness showed because I was tapping my leg with my left hand. The officer, who was a white male, asked why I was doing that and I responded "because I am nervous". The officer countered with "What do you have to be nervous about?" My response was "Do you really want to have that conversation?" Then, ironically, the Black officer (female) who was on the scene as well chimed in that it was probably due to the way police were being portrayed in the media at that time. I immediately said, "No, no, it has nothing to do with the media," and then quickly decided that I was going to leave it at that. The officers finished their search and let me and my passenger go shortly after that.
White people can't understand the rage that James Baldwin spoke about. And even though that white woman in Georgia was afraid of that police officer, I don't think even she truly understands our fear. But the police officers know that they instill this fear in us. That is another cause of the rage. That fear isn't out of cowardice, it is a fear of being gunned down for absolutely no reason other than because we are black. While I was deciding how I was going to end this post, I came across and article about NFL football player Michael Bennet of the Seattle Seahawks where he reported that he was held on the ground at gunpoint by Las Vegas police last month after the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight. According to his statement, police apprehended him after hearing what they thought were gunshots. Video shows an officer with his knee in Bennett's back handcuffing him while the defensive end is asking the officer to explain why he was being handcuffed. Bennett further reported that before that another officer, with his gun drawn, had told him that he would blow his "fucking head off" if he moved. After he was cuffed, he was put into a police car and it wasn't until they confirmed who he was, an NFL football star, and that he was not a suspect that he was released. No explanation was given as to why he was subjected to such an excessive use of force.
In my opinion, I feel this is no coincidence, especially since Bennett has been very vocal in his support of Colin Kaepernick and has sat durning the national anthem during all four of the Seahawks' preseason games this year and has said he will continue to do so. But even if the officers didn't know who he was, there was still no justification for their actions. Bennett was unarmed and was in a crowd and ran just like everyone else did when they heard what was believed to be gunshots. Bennett said he "felt helpless" as he "lay on the ground handcuffed facing the real life threat of being killed." He continued, "All I could think of was I'm going to die for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat."
That's that fear. After the fear, comes the rage. A rage that for Black people, never goes away.