Black Boy, 2013 (and now 2014)
One of my boys is reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy for his English class this coming semester.
One of my sons has already read the book, and in a couple of years my daughter will read it. They will see that it was published in 1945, closing in on seventy years ago. They will see how hard it was to be a black boy in the United States back in 1945.
I was never assigned Black Boy in school. As a matter of fact I cannot remember being assigned a single black writer until I took an African American Literature elective in college. I was raised in a place that was not only lily-white, but white with a red neck. Black people did not willingly venture up the Elk River.
In an autobiographical sketch, Wright speaks of the “dread of being caught alone upon the streets in white neighborhoods after the sun has set.” He says, “While white strangers may be in these neighborhoods trying to get home, they can pass unmolested. But the color of a Negro’s skin… makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”
That’s what it was like for a black boy back in 1945.
In 1955 a black boy named Emit Till from Chicago made the mistake of whistling at a pretty white woman in Mississippi. White men dragged him from his cousin’s house in the middle of the night, strung him up in a barn, beat him, and gouged out one of his eyes. He was defiant, cursed the white men who tortured him. So they shot him dead, tied a seventy-pound fan to his neck with barbed wire, and threw his carcass into the river.
That’s what it was like for a black boy in 1955.
In the early nineties I attended a conservative Evangelical school in Virginia. More Koreans—actually from South Korea—were present than African Americans. I became pretty good friends with two black students in particular. One was from Nigeria. The other was from here in the US. His name was Hiawatha.
I wanted to understand Hiawatha’s experience of the world, and he was happy to try and show me. He told me to watch how people reacted to him, and I did, hanging back so that the reactions wouldn’t be mitigated by his being with a white guy. Indeed people gave him nervous glances in convenience stores. The young white girls at school gave him wide nervous berth in the hallways. I was astonished. Hiawatha shrugged it off in weary resignation. He wasn’t suggesting activism; he just wanted me to know.
Hiawatha was appointed president of the graduate student body after the elected president was deemed unfit to serve (a whole different set of issues). A charismatic presence, Hiawatha was invited to speak all over the south. He was extended an offer to come on staff at the seminary after graduation.
We discussed it and he eventually said to me, “I don’t want to be their token black.”
I said, “What are you talking about? They love you over there.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Let me try to date one of their daughters.”
What would it be like to live your entire life with this? I don’t know. I think of the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred”:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I cannot imagine it not exploding. Still, that’s what it was like in 1993 for an educated black man who spoke and dressed in ways that could not possibly give offense. Twenty years ago.
After the man who shot the black boy recently was acquitted, a young man named Matthew Simmermon-Gomes blogged with barely-suppressed outrage that he knew, “what it’s like to be a Trayvon Martin. To be suspect. I do know what it’s like to be followed by staff in a nice clothing store; to be stopped by police for walking down the street; to endure the thousand micro-aggressions and the hundred fearful looks.” In short, he knows “what it is to be a person of colour in a world that privileges whiteness.”
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Roots drummer and Jimmy Fallon bandleader) blogged, “the overall message this whole Trayvon case has taught me: You ain’t shit. That’s the lesson I took from this case. You ain’t shit.”
That’s what it was like in 2013.
The majority of the people where I grew up, and a large percentage of my family and acquaintances from my past there, are vehement in their justification of the man who shot the black boy. They just as vehemently insist that it isn’t really about race. It is about their right to carry guns, to be free to protect themselves. In some mysterious way it is about being a good American.
I want to shout, I want to argue. I want to delete them. I know that there has been an ocean of ink spilled on this already, and many people are sick of it. But I can’t get rid of this sick feeling in my heart every time I see something else about the case. I feel like I need to speak about it to those people who come from the same white place I did; then I think I know the one thing I can confidently say to them.
In his post, Mr. Simmermon-Gomes said that what he wanted white people to understand is that, “This is not about you.”
He is right.
What I have to say is just this: Shut up. Black boys are trying to tell you something, have been for a very long time. Shut up and listen.
Here we are in 2014 and another boy is dead. Another black boy, that is.
In both cases, “the real crime was a violation of a social norm that black people should always defer and be submissive to white people. If we do not do so we are guilty of being ‘arrogant’ or ‘uppity’. The White Gaze views black people as social lessors. When we say ‘no’, stand up for ourselves, or demand the same manhood and citizenship rights as white folks, this is an act of defiance, defiance that must be countered–with force–if necessary.”
CHAUNCEY DEVEGA “‘Lines Were Crossed’: White Racial Logic and the Michael Dunn Jury” (www.chaunceydevega.com)