helplessness

I wasn’t going to post on the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I still don’t want to post about it. Going through my Facebook feed today, I saw so many comments on the issue from my close friends and loved ones, all voicing my personal feelings on the issue. The videos, the tributes, the think-pieces were all a lot to digest. I found myself searching for the specks of levity in my feed – memes, cooking videos, anything to distract my mind from the traumas of collective mourning. There was a negative energy in the world today which was inescapable. People were quiet, reflective, fearful. Everyone seemed to ask themselves and one another in private, just above a whisper: when will it stop? How can we make it stop?

I’ve been living in Chapel Hill for about a month and a half now. I was home in New Jersey for only five days before I was on a plane to come down here for my research fellowship. It’s been a hard process, adjusting to the pace of my program, balancing a flare-up of my anxiety disorder, and attempting to get my ducks in a row for my impending graduate school applications. I have been spending a lot of time by myself after recovering from a rather serious anxiety attack in response to writing “dread.” At this point in the summer, after I presented my research this Tuesday, I am reaching a point where I can actually relax and take my time with project. This is perhaps why I’ve found the time and the mental energy to write this short-ish piece, committing a half-year long rumination to thought.

Today, members of the cohort decided to ask for a meeting to discuss the events which transpired earlier this week in Minnesota and Louisiana. I am personally against these large-scale town hall kinds of meetings, mostly because I’m always fearful of the emotional energy which such events produce. There is nothing more frightening than the feeling of helplessness which creeps into the voices and faces of the oppressed and marginalized, than realizing in that moment, as the air in the room stiffens and one’s breath turns cold, that your life, your right to existence, is constantly questioned, your suffering mitigated. I can remember this feeling at Swarthmore when the administration held a meeting to respond to the defacement of the French and Francophone Studies board (see footnotes). It was the feeling of dread at my black student union’s meeting to discuss the terrorization of Black students at the University of Missouri. It was the same feeling today, and I do not doubt I will feel it again, and continue to feel it throughout my career in academia.

When I talk about helplessness in my life, I am talking specifically about the attempt to actively counter colonialism and hegemony within and through a system which actively perpetuates these very systems of dominance. The act of writing this blog, of submitting my fiction to publishing houses, of researching postcolonial theory, of going to Senegal and engaging firsthand with African culture, does little, it seems, to keep these young men and women alive. I am coming to realize a great theoretical divide in my own life: although I share the racial phenotypes of Castile, of Sterling, of Gray, of Brown, of Martin, of Diallo, the road I have chosen in my life, the road which has been chosen for me, is markedly different. On a bodily level, I am a threat; I cannot escape the ideology of violence which contextualizes my visibility as a Black man. But beyond the pseudobiological understanding of race as physical, as phenotype, I am an anomaly. Outside of race, my manner of speech, my academic history, my socioeconomic background are all characteristics which mark me as neither here nor there. I live in fear of interacting with the police, but know, somehow, that the tools I have been given by my upbringing will save me from the fates of the Black people being killed every other day by the people in charge of protecting them. For some reason, my life seems to be valued more than others, I am understood to be better at being human than others. This is the existential dilemma I have been dealing with for many months now; how do I reconcile my privilege, my positionality, in a conversation about individuals systematically barred from the spaces I seek to inhabit? How do I speak with and not for others?

The academy cannot and will not save us. As I said in the meeting today, I can get my PhD and write my books on how the ideology of racialization informs law enforcement, legislation and social representations, can contribute to a long tradition of African-American social theorists and critics attempting to tackle the manifold ills of our society, but to what avail? What is the use of writing my work from the comfort of a well-lit university office, with a salary and a decent middle-class household waiting for me? What is the point of writing about an issue which only seems to affect me on the most trivial and superficial of ways, when my cousins are dying? Am I writing with the intent of my knowledge “trickling down” to the masses which need this? Do the masses need this? Am I theorizing on what ultimately is not my lived experience? Will theory keep Laquan alive? Will this essay keep Officer Bryant from shooting 11 year-old Leroy in the back?

I cannot pretend that I have had negative interactions with the police. I haven’t been pulled over, haven’t been frisked, haven’t been interrogated or pulled aside or asked where I was going, because something about me, something which I will never be able to understand, tells the watchful that I am a good one. It could be the way that I speak, the way that I dress, the way that I walk, but something about me signals to them that I am not a danger to them, or that I am not the kind of person they are looking for. I slip in and out of spaces freely, because I embody everything that is expected of a Black person. Clean cut, polite, non-vernacularizing, non-threatening – if you were careless, you could call me white. But there is something there which cannot possibly pass that holistic survey of whiteness, this great pockmark all over my body.

I have toyed with the idea that my lack of interactions with the police somehow invalidates my experience as a Black person, but I quickly shoo these ideas out of my head. I refuse to equate blackness to suffering and oppression in so reductionist a fashion, but I have played with idea in my writings in the past, and continue to ruminate on this concept of being the good one. It is such a horrible thought, that because I embody certain characteristics, I therefore am deserving of life, and because other people do not, that their lives are expendable.

But the helplessness question comes back. I am unable to do anything about this issue, mostly because I realize that all of my possible ideas are either futile in their overwrought desire for immediate change, or too gradual and not immediate enough. Nonetheless, the survival tactics of kowtowing to the police in order to protect your own life is oppression. It keeps our cousins and our children alive but it continues a relationship of slave and master which Black people have accepted unconditionally for far too long. We cannot strive towards our own humanization, towards our own self-preservation, while continuing to cut ourselves down in order to cling, but barely, to life. In the process of playing Sam for that officer, what is done other than dehumanizing the self, or surrendering your life to the wills of another?

We have a right to live, to take up space, to take in oxygen, water, and food. This is irrefutable, intransigent. I do not owe you my respect, I do not owe you my obeisance. The rhetoric of “comply or die” is lost when we consider the great pains the police are willing to take to preserve and protect white life. A white man can walk into Walmart brandishing an assault rifle and screaming racial epithets and be calmly coaxed to surrender himself to the authorities while a black man can’t even play with a toy gun before he is gunned down. It is no longer questionable that Black life is not valued in the United States. It never has been.

It is not the Black middle class which is being hunted and killed in droves by the police. At Swarthmore, my classmates and I may enjoy living within the same living-space, frequenting the same restaurants and going to the same parties, but during breaks, we all disperse momentarily to our anterior lives, and slip back into the lives we left behind. For me, in South Orange, I have to worry but tangentially about being stopped by the police, but for my friends from New York City or from Newark, their relationship and history with the police is markedly different. Not all of us have the tools to avert their panoptic gaze, and not all of us use these tools, realizing therein that this toolkit is in itself annihilatory. To perform symbolic whiteness to protect you from ideological blackness is to passively conform to a system of oppression which forces you to consent to your own oppression. This is the issue with respectability politics – they are white, colonial, bourgeois, evangelical, queerphobic and markedly conservative in nature. They cannot save us, they haven’t saved us.

We need a new set of politics designed to actively subvert the system, but the walls of this barrel are slippery and difficult to climb. The system was never meant to be subverted, the revolution is theoretically impossible. As one governmental entity leaves, another replaces it. Power shifts, a new subaltern group emerges. The lives in the margins continue, for we do not even have the language or the imagery to fathom a world void of marginalized peoples.

Here I am, bracing myself for graduate school. I’m getting ready to continue the next phase of my academic journey, to immerse myself in theory and literature devoted to these very topics, only to continue to distance myself from the problem in the process. How can I change a system which is designed to necessitate my compliance with the annihilation of my race, using the bittersweet pleasantries of “But this doesn’t affect you, you’re a good one” to pacify my saddening fury? When will it stop? How can we make it stop?

 

Footnotes

There was an event in I believe December of 2015 that I attended. I originally intended to write a blog post on the event, and took a decent amount of notes, before I realized that I didn’t want to force the idea. Essentially, there were five students’ pictures hanging up on the bulletin board for the Modern Languages and Literature department’s French and Francophone Studies program. Three of these pictures belonged to women of color, two to white women. The pictures of the women of color, one evening, were ripped off, causing the administration to respond to what appeared to be a hate crime. This event arrived at the tail end of a season of social and racial conflict on college campuses, the events at Harvard Law school seeming to mirror the defacement of the MLL board. I attended the event, listened to the unwelcomed shock and disbelief from my classmates, before making my own comment about how events like this don’t surprise me, and how we go to school with people who harbor these thoughts about people of color. It is so bizarre to me that people still seek to live the postracial dream, when there is evidence everywhere to prove that this is a lie. I suppose it is easier to sleep and entertain specters which are not and cannot be real, than open your eyes and find yourself disillusioned and miserable with the world around you. Both options are terrible, and a third doesn’t seem to exist.

Image: thegrio.com

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