Forty-six years ago this past spring, I was on the edge of throwing a brick. On a warm spring evening in early April, just as I was about to go out and clandestinely meet my boyfriend, I heard over my transistor radio that Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis.
I can remember staring in the mirror and thinking what would become of me. How would I be able to proceed now in the country of my birth, the country my father fought for in a segregated army during World War Two, and which he was proud of, although wary.
It was then, somewhere inside I think, that I began to feel that my life – if I was going to have one at all – would have to be elsewhere. Where, I didn’t know. But not in America. Yet I didn’t resort to violence, didn’t give in to the rage and despair inside of me because my father hadn’t; my mother hadn’t. They had endured.
That was and is my template. Back in those days, watching the streets of my hometown of Chicago burn, watching streets burn all over America, watching the people my age and younger confronting the police, breaking into shops, carrying off goods as if taking the American Dream by force, I found myself understanding them. Being with them, in a way.
When you’re young you’re raging all of the time. Living in a society in which your very presence is seen as a threat and an invitation to the criminal justice system is enough to break anyone. Public Enemy’s prescient title “Fear of a Black Planet” nails America’s existential crisis with black people and black men. The explanation for this can sound like a nonsense. And in a way it is. You have to live there, be there to understand.
I don’t know Ferguson, Missouri. But I do. I imagine it to be much like the South Side of Chicago, where I grew up, once full of white people, now gone – and with them the amenities, the niceties. In their place come the “chicken shacks” and barbecue joints; McDonald’s; and expensive places to buy smartphones; the small grocery shops run by marginal people, too, but they are what Americans call “Asian” – of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean descent.
To the Community, they became the White People.
To the Community, they became the receptacles of the rage and the despair and the angst.
All the while you live in this as Black Man. What that means, among other things is this: if you’re stopped by the police you put your hands on the top of the wheel and keep your mouth shut. It means that you can cause havoc by just walking into a shop, and maybe you act stupid because of that.
A black BBC correspondent friend of mine – a no-nonsense Northerner through and through – was once helping the movers get him and his wife into a Washington DC house while on assignment. His neighbour came over and said to his wife that she didn’t like all of “those black guys” congregating in front of her grass.
My friend was summoned by his wife out of the group of movers and she repeated what the woman had told her. My friend asked the neighbour to get out of his house.
He never forgot it. He never felt comfortable again there.
Sure, if you have money, or are a TV personality or a big music star, America is fine. Because the real class divide in the USA is between the “have nots”, the “haves” – and the “have yachts”. If you can get into the last two categories, you can buy your own reality. Money talks and walks. But if you’re a black man, you can still get mowed down by a householder, or Officer Friendly.
And then there’s the President of the United States, Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military on earth; the head of the number-one economy on the planet. Except from Day One he has been seen by many in the land of his birth as an alien, as something outside of the norm; as suspect; a plant; a Muslim Manchurian Candidate; someone set out to “undermine the American way of life”.
When President Obama said of young Trayvon Martin – gunned down by a man told by the police to not use deadly force – “Trayvon could’ve been my son” – all hell broke loose. You would imagine that the citizens of the Republic would have been touched by the President’s empathy. Instead, for them, this was yet one more example of “POTUS, the enemy within”.
To judge this presidency by any normal parameters is not possible because it has not been allowed to be possible, to be normal. Because Barack Obama is a black man. The same reason that Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. That’s the truth and I’m sorry to have to say so.
Bonnie Greer’s memoir – ‘A Parallel Life’ is published by Arcadia.
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