The other day, I thought the unthinkable.
I was reading, with enormous glee, an interview the incomparable, legendary genius Toni Morrison gave to the equally brilliant Hilton Als as reported by New York magazine. Morrison is someone who I have idolized from the moment I was able to decipher the code to her gargantuan intellect. The minute I was able to read a Morrison novel and actually understand—and more than understand, unearth and absorb—the abstruse, intricate language, I felt alive and literate. I felt seen for the very first time. Her words, for me, are salve and a psalm, edification and affirmation.
So I dove, heart first, into Morrison’s marvelous conversation with Als, allowing her words to lift, carry, and shelter me. But my flotation came to an end when I came across one particular passage. Als had asked her about the act of survival and the art of forgiveness to which she responded:
“The really vile and violent and bestial treatment of slaves and their descendants did not succeed in making those descendants reproduce that violence and that corruption and that bestiality. [A contemporary example is] the survivors and the family members who were killed in that church did not say of the killer ‘I want him dead’—it was something grander and more humane. It was eloquent and elegant, the response of forgiveness. We sometimes understand that generosity ... as a kind of weakness, whereas I always thought that that was extreme strength.”
I ignored for a moment the slight pinch I usually feel when I encounter something that, on some buried level, strikes me as a falsehood. It was the easiest and most natural thing to do. I do it every day, every time I wish to deny a reality that would interfere with my own version of it. Joy can be scarce and those who are denied it reflexively act to preserve its lingering; ask any addict. But at base, in the most plain language, I simply wanted to believe what she said was true. What black person wouldn’t? After having endured hundreds of years of barbarism at the hands of those who, bafflingly, imagine themselves civilized, it is a comforting thing, inspiring even, to believe that we are, somehow, a better species of creature than they, that their slings and arrows only serve to make us swifter, more resilient, more holy.
Yet I disagreed with Morrison. The earth did not quite quake, but I most certainly did.
Whatever the justification for our collective denial, yes, the vile, violent, and bestial treatment of our enslaved ancestors—and us—did, in fact, succeed in making us reproduce that violence, corruption, and bestiality. Perhaps we do not perpetrate this foolishness against white people; we are far too acquainted with the consequences to dare attempt such wild abandon; and besides, some of us adore whiteness far too deeply to ever bring it any harm. But nowhere is it more evident than in how we treat the other marginalized peoples among us. One need not even leave one’s own home to encounter the evidence: look at how black men treat black women, how black adults treat black children, how black straight people treat black queer people, how black non-disabled people treat black disabled people, how black bourgeoisie treat black proletariat, how black religious folk treat black atheists, how black cops treat black civilians, and so on, to know that the indoctrination was utterly successful. As a black gay man who simultaneously occupies positions of privilege and oppression, I can say this with the deep certainty and clarity that comes with both participation and resistance.
And I need not evoke anything as fictitious, lazy, and unsound as “black-on-black crime” to make this point. Black people in America are neither exceptionally criminal nor exceptionally violent, but we are, regrettably, American. In this context, we have become part of the murderous machine that crunches lands, plunders resources, grinds spirits and calls all of this democracy (some of us might refer to this as “get money,” but the same underlying principles apply). We, too, conjure the ancient sorcery (or, at least, we hope to) that turns person into property—that is, when the magic is not obsessed with death.
The historical records, thanks to the frightening efficiency of European colonialism, are spotty at best, but what we can glean from the wreckage is that, alongside the great Dahomey Amazons, the magnificence of Timbuktu, and a much more sophisticated understanding of gender and sexuality than infantile and appalled Europeans were capable of grasping, there were also nations and villages and peoples on the African continent, prior to the European invasions, that were anything but utopian bastions of progressive and upstanding behavior. Though Europeans have perfected and globalized it, patriarchal hegemony is not wholly a Western creation, as my play-cousin Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein suggested when I shared my shame with her. The sooner we release Africa from the childishness of our fantasies, the sooner it can live, breathe, and be the recipient of the broad, celestial, and messy antiquity that both white and black people have denied it.
Let us be honest rather than romantic about our past and present. Otherwise, we are just replicating the exact same dangers of white supremacy—master’s tools, as Audre Lorde called them. James Baldwin cautioned Malcolm X against this very thing. He told X that we could not defeat white supremacy by embracing, in remixed form, the very fallacy upon which white supremacy is built. He later reiterated, to Dr. Kenneth Clark, who asked Baldwin about the appeal of the black nationalism practice by the Nation of Islam:
“It is much more sinister because it is much more effective. It is much more effective, because it is, after all, comparatively easy to invest a population with a false morale by giving them a false sense of superiority, and it will always break down in a crisis. It’s the history of Europe, simply—it’s one of the reasons that we are in this terrible place.”
White people are not superior to us and that is self-evident. But we are also not superior to them and to suggest otherwise, however indirectly, is to succumb to seductive, but dangerous mythologies that will inevitably lead to destruction—ours as well as theirs.
Communities built upon the bones of the ravaged and ransacked can only be vicious and, therefore, lifeless, doomed to return to the dust from whence they came. But black people may be in the unique position—if we are vigilant enough; if we remain conscious; if we are unwilling to be deluded; if we refuse to be romantic; if we, unlike most white people, can withstand a veracious self-inventory; if we have the courage to endure it knowing that we could only become more humane—to occupy the coveted moral high ground.
What we have to remember is that, despite the misleading narratives that can be found in many of the Abrahamic philosophies and practices, suffering on its own does not make us divine, nor does it make us singular or move us beyond reproach. It merely makes us human. We are not metal and stone to be banged upon and chipped away, sharper and more slender than before. We are flesh and blood, flesh that weeps, as Baby Suggs Holy urges in Morrison’s Beloved; blood that calls out from the ground, as Abel’s did after he perished at the hand of his own brother Cain. Experiencing oppression rarely makes a people less oppressive. Quite the contrary, it usually makes us emulate our oppressors and, eventually, become them.
I disagreed with Morrison here, too: that our forgiveness is the currency upon which our morality is purchased. There is, by my own measure, nothing gallant or splendid about allowing our grandmothers—the sacred keepers of ancestral wisdom—to be slaughtered in prayer as we stand idly, stoically by, secure in our masochism, giving the sadists the exact thrill they were seeking with our reverent, pristine absolution. Vengeance without just cause is savagery. But to pry open the fingers of the hand squeezing your mother’s throat, your brother’s throat, by whatever means at your disposal: that is hope. For you are saying, in no uncertain terms, that you choose life.
Forgiveness without a strategy—without a means to secure justice, as merely an appeal to the invisible, intangible, and indifferent—is surrender, and not even a surrender to anything as principled as peace. Let us be honest: our forgiveness does not come from a place of moral fortitude or vigor. It comes precisely from the indoctrination that arrived, part and parcel, with the invader’s religion. It comes from an untold weariness and battle fatigue. It comes out of the harrowing realization that we are relatively powerless against the onslaught and have few options aside from acquiescence, amnesty, or suicide. For us, “we forgive you,” as my friend Tiffany Jones suggested when I shared my blues with her, is a less agonizing articulation of “we are afraid of you” or “please don’t hurt us.” And our fears are justified. We have witnessed, for far too long really, the disaster and disarray of which those who call themselves civilized are capable and we know how contagious that chaos has proved to be. Forgiveness is an appeal to people’s hearts and good sense. But what do you do when facing the horror of a heartless, senseless people?
Where does this leave us? Does this mean that we must return to the riverside and retrieve our swords and shields? I do not know. I do not even know if our weapons formed against them shall prosper; those were their god’s words after all. But I do know that as divided as we are, we do not have even the slightest of chances of withstanding the miseries they unleash. And I do know that we cannot be afraid to speak these truths merely because white people will surely take them out of context to use for their own nefarious purposes. That is their folly, but it does not have to be ours.
To love one another—and here, I do not mean love in the sense that you might find distorted in a Hollywood film or misused in a Hallmark card—is to hold each other accountable and be held accountable, to insist upon the humanity of others and of yourself, to refuse to reduce someone else to make yourself feel grander. Love is not merely the presence of fond feeling any more than war is the absence of it. Love is another word for obligation. To love, truly, you must be in everlasting combat against your own desire to dominate those who might not have your strength, resources, or status. And this is the way of the universe: for every action, there is a repercussion. Know yours; know it intimately.
America is hell—distinct from other hells around the world, sure; sometimes appearing heavenly on the surface, but it is hell nevertheless. I do not know if we can make it out. But I will know that we have when a Sakia Gunn, Rashawn Brazell, Relisha Rudd, Islan Nettles, or Nakita Holland can prance down the burning pavement, shimmering in the way that prized people do, and not one of us, not a single one of us, dares to extinguish their shine. Then, and only then, will I be as certain as Morrison that the indoctrination was a failure. Then and only then will I know that we have finally remembered who we are and why we are here: to restore, with grace, love’s precious face.
For Kiesha Jenkins
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]