The Resistance, as always, is evolving and experimenting. We are one faction of those fighting for the future: a group of writers, thinkers, and artists using our powers to fight imagination with imagination. Through a pirate communications channel (CoLab Radio), we are imagining Alternative Futures – creating stories to question the existing dominant power structure and (re)build our own.
The year is 2265. Many around me partake in celebration of four hundred years of what has come to be known as “liberty”, a re-writing of history intended specifically to mask the continued imprisonment which we endure. Centuries have passed, but if my furtive reading of the Forbidden is at all accurate, little has changed. The resistance has never ceased, and yet our progress toward a more equitable society appears as elusive as it must have to those before me gazing back mournfully on the promise of freedom to which so many had desperately clung following the Old Victory. On this day, surrounded by forced merriment and hollow camaraderie, I instead sit in the solace of my mind, pondering what words I might have spoken to myself, even just 250 years ago, to compel a radical choice…
“For obvious reasons, what we are against tends to take precedence over what we are for, which is always a more complicated and ambiguous matter.”
– Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams
May 31–June 1, 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma. Greenwood was the wealthiest black community in the U.S. It was firebombed, 6,000 black people arrested, 800 wounded, 300 killed. (Photo credit: Library of Congress / Wikipedia)
I envision an America in which people no longer have to beg to be considered worthy of human life. I strive for a reality marked by a freedom unimagined in the American psyche, attainable only through a consciousness revolution not yet conceivable through incarcerated minds. Varied forms of social protest have yet to unify under a common goal, far more singular in what will not be tolerated than what should prevail.
The rhetoric of post-Civil War America has always proclaimed the right to peaceful protest (which it has, if ever, only grudgingly accepted), as if this somehow absolves the nation of responsibility for the history and currency rendering such protests so urgent. Civil unrest is permitted only because social upheaval of this kind poses little threat to the established hierarchy—a diseased, ubiquitous psychological hegemony that manifests in debilitating social realities. Very often, in fact, protests against social inequities promote the very realities against which they fight through the unintended, unspoken suggestion that rights, freedom, or dignity can ever be given. A corollary of such thinking is that they may also be taken, and this lie, this elaborate, pervasive concoction, is their single most effective tool—and one of the greatest obstacles to achieving this highly sought but ever elusive equity.
I stopped asking for my rights a long time ago. I stopped asking not to be hurt, not to be mistreated, not to be belittled, threatened, raped, or killed. I stopped asking when I realized the person to whom I directed these pleas had carefully constructed a reality in which I needed his permission—his gracious magnanimity–to live free from fear. It was puzzling to me at first, how I had ever come to believe such a bizarre idea. Then I knew: I held this person in higher esteem than I held myself. I regarded him as the better judge of my character, as the controller of my body, as God-like, one who giveth and taketh away as he pleases.
I needed him to acknowledge my worth, that I was worthy of being treated with kindness and concern, worthy of dignity, not only because without this acknowledgment I would continue being humiliated and abused, but, more importantly, because without the approval of this accepted model of humanity, I would feel inhuman, worthless.
Though unconsciously, I had willingly donned the cardboard cutout he, the male and therefore natural authority on the value of the female, had made for me. Certain assumptions were flawed, but the reasoning understandable. Without any apparent alternative to my dangerously misguided concept of the natural relationship between males and females, it made perfect sense that believing myself female, I should readily adopt a belief in the superiority of his maleness, consequently feeling compelled to seek his permission to live as equals in our humanity.
I pleaded because I wanted the hurt to stop, but obviously not enough to leave. There was something more compelling than physical preservation; the rare moments of intimacy whispered beautiful lies in my ears. I stayed—not always in physical but certainly psychological proximity–through every insult, arm-twisting, neck-grabbing, and forced penetration because I knew if I could just get him to see me as human, I would be able to see myself that way.
I think in many ways people believing themselves black are in a similarly abusive relationship with America. Specifically, with the white controllers of our bodies, the white models of humanity from whom we constantly seek validation. Like them, we too see as self the color of our skin, identifying so strongly with our race that our humanity–our spirit–has become imperceptible.
It all started with the notion that a single readily identifiable trait—skin color—could be used as the basis for the socially constructed human. From there, through generations of violence–exploitation, rape, murder—a preposterous, ludicrous idea solidified as fact in our minds, as theirs: the socially constructed human has a color, and it is not black. And if ever those with “black” skin were permitted to live as human it was only with the sanction of the true humans, when they decided to lend us, graciously, a bit of their worth. How many times have we celebrated “the first black person to”…fill in the blank with whatever social achievement they finally permit us? It is the equivalent of someone stealing your precious belongings and then expecting gratitude and appreciation upon their return to you as birthday gifts.
And yet, we express appreciation and gratitude. We rejoice at the passing of a law desegregating schools; we shed tears at the election of a darker-skinned president; we take grim relief in the indictment of a white officer for the murder of yet another unarmed…black. The reactions are almost visceral; any pause is a blessed relief to the constant fear of our inhumanity, a collective intake of blessed fresh air to lungs choked and starved by America’s bloodied hands.
And still…we ask again, we plead for our lives the next time a human with darker skin is violently taken from the world, not fully understanding the paradoxical nature of these victories.
Violence is so effective because fear of bodily harm is a powerful tranquilizer. More accurately, perhaps, a powerful agent of control. Subject a people to enough bodily harm, enough brutal murder, and the threat of violence will be sufficient to keep them petrified even in the absence of actual violence. In America, socially-sanctioned violence has always been employed as a tool to subjugate black people– people of color, niggers, African-Americans, or whatever other trending term is used to delineate otherness–but the devastation that it wreaks is far more consequential than many of us have ever even imagined.
Violent death is regarded as the ultimate loss for many of us likely because our physical bodies have been the only space we have ever been permitted to occupy. Our bodies are our last, precious hold on our humanness, and when that, too, can so easily, callously be taken, what have we left? And this fact, combined with the mass socialization of a “blackness” so blinding—so binding–is the foundation on which they have constructed the largely undisputed reality of their power.
“They” are the people believing themselves white, and they had to devise a better way to keep black people oppressed; there are too many to go around beating and killing individually, and they could not continue justifying their actions to the rest of the world. It made them, moral authorities of the universe, appear immoral. So they decide on this brilliant tactic in which they choose specific targets that will elicit a widespread fear response so far reaching that anyone who identifies with these targets should be afraid for their lives.
Unarmed people doing what people do—playing music from their cars, seeking help after a car accident, walking down the street in a hoodie, getting pulled over by the police. People were killed for doing what people do, and what is the obvious, emphasized, trait all these people, these murdered people, had in common? They were black, and they were killed by people believing themselves white.
The thing is, darker-skinned peoples have been killed by “white” people for no reason since America was called America. Again, there has never been a time in this country when black people weren’t being targeted by socially-supported violence. Yet, only recently have technological advances allowed and spurred the media to refocus on this reality. And then suddenly, black people the country over begin to feel abnormally vulnerable. They feel the chills up their spines. Parents fear for the lives of their children; husbands for their wives; and sisters for their brothers, in ways they hadn’t before; panic-induced responses as detrimental as the violence itself: No more hoodies! Turn your music down! Don’t question the police–don’t do anything that even suggests anything other than supreme respectability and hyper compliance.
Black people have become distinctly aware of our mortality, and the resulting fear is used to draw our attention away from the deeper, more insidious dangers that we face—dehumanization, voicelessness, invisibility. While we protest the killing of unarmed blacks–begging for our lives, asking for permission to live–other rights are being usurped. Alabama passed voter ID laws, and then closed the government agencies issuing these IDs in all counties where the population is over 70% black. This Jim Crow tactic remains unacknowledged in mainstream media and overwhelmingly unnoticed by minds and hearts preoccupied with fear. One might legitimately question the need to be concerned about voting with a threat of death so eminent. The disheartening answer is that by all accounts one shouldn’t, and those who commit such atrocities are well aware of this line of reasoning. They depend on it, in fact, for our continued subjugation.
These killings rightly inspire impassioned protest, where we march, loot, and declare loudly that black lives matter. Otherwise, who will stop them from killing us? And yet the unspoken voices of our minds are revealed in our desperation: We need them to acknowledge our worth, lest we be unable to acknowledge it ourselves. What is most devastating about this violence is not the reality or possibility of physical pain, impairment, or even death, but rather the psychological imprisonment that it enables.
People believing themselves black have been conditioned by violence, by America, to believe that rights, freedom, and dignity are given, and that these are not the birthright of every human. Instead, they are granted by people believing themselves not first as human, but as white, male, straight, able, Christian, and…the list is as long as there are arbitrarily normalized characteristics on which to base a false belief of superiority.
Much as I believed that to live free from abuse I needed a man’s sanction, so have people grouped by nothing more than a darker skin shade have been conditioned to believe we need permission to be human. If this weren’t the case, if we weren’t seeking confirmation of our humanity from White America, we might protest the internal violence in our own neighborhoods with equal vigor, declaring to the gangsters killing children in Cleveland, to the murderers of people who are simply exercising their right to live as whomever they please, that black lives matter.
Admittedly, it is easier to protest the actions of an individual or an institution than an entire segment of society, but we should not be blinded to the significance of other motivations behind our differential response to the killing of black people. We are cowed by the weight of Michael Brown’s death and treatment thereafter, but are we as deeply disturbed at the murders of 5-year-old Ramon Burnett and 3-year-old Major Howard at the hands of drive-by shooters? Or Islan Nettles and Shelly Hilliard, victims of the same brutal dehumanization that took the life of Eric Garner? No, we are not and cannot be. They are unfortunate consequences. They do not fit the media’s agenda, and therefore no one, not even us, really knows their names. And for far too many of us, the Islans and Shellys seem irrelevant to our cause. For too many of us, the Ramons and Majors have somehow become so common place anyway that their deaths do not signal our mortality. They do not remind us of our borrowed citizenship, and therefore we cannot in the same fashion be moved by the violent loss of their lives.
There have been times when the violence in our communities has reached such devastating proportions that we took to the streets, even as our adversary seemed invisible and unconquerable. But those times have been rare and ineffective in their fleeting impact. Many accurately see this violence as a product of whiteness’ war on black humanity, recognizing the hopelessness and recklessness of generations raised in fear. When we can muster it, we often feel compelled to direct our energies toward toppling what we believe is the true culprit–a system breeding desperation and violence through constant, oppressive dehumanization. It is easier, again, to mobilize against external threats than to recognize the effects of white supremacy in the shaping of our self-perspectives. We are still failing to grasp the nasty undercurrent; we fail to see how our minds have been co-opted by their imaginations and will remain shackled by similarly destructive ideologies until we can conceive of an alternative concept.
We can never be equal in a society where we feel compelled to ask for equality, because what we are striving for is not equality but permission to be like them, do things the way they do them, and to live as their socially constructed humans do—with a privilege gained by alienating the inalienable rights of others, a guise that masks psychological frailty and fears of their own worthlessness. Some have seen beyond The Lie, unabashedly interjecting that all black lives matter into conversations far too frequently echoing the fundamental notion of white supremacy: only some people get to be human. And this is where their power lies–too many of us imagine the world in only the way they imagine it; too many of us acquiesce, acknowledging their authority and the right to construct humanity.
But recall they are rapists. They are murderers and thieves, and what they have murdered and stolen is any possibility for freedom or equality by making the imperative–the only imperative–of people believing themselves black the right to not be killed by them. They have murdered and stolen from us for so long that all we have left to strive for–to envy–is freedom from oppression. And in White America, freedom from oppression has only ever meant being an oppressor. It is therefore unsurprising that many of us covet a power that has only ever existed through violent imposition. We were made to think there was no alternative.
Part 2 coming next week.