At a September townhall meeting in Harlem, Carl Dix, a longtime Uptown fixture and mouthpiece, stood before the microphone in the auditorium of the Schomburg Center and called for mass rebellion. "It's going to take a revolution," he said, "nothing less, to end this and the horrors of the system once and for all."
Dix's statement came at the climax of a bloody New York summer marked by unending police brutality, and his sentiment was justified. Dix was right. This was war. Specifically, this is, and has always been, a war for recognition. It is a war that has spanned centuries and taken thousands of black lives, lives that fought wanting to know of their white persecutors: I see you, but do you see me?
Testifying before a grand jury in September, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson said that Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old he'd shot and killed a few weeks earlier, "had the most intense, aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon." A demon. Both Brown and Wilson are big men—6'4", over 200 pounds. If they stood facing each other they'd see eye-to-eye. Wilson didn't see Brown's eyes, didn't see his face, didn't see an 18-year-old kid: He saw a demon. And he pulled the trigger.
To be a black in America is to be constantly at war, to be hated and loved, to be fetishized and tossed to the side, to be told you are worthless, it is to be in a perpetual triple-state of existence with the nigger the world says you are, the person you actually are, and the person you aren't. It is to be constantly disoriented, stuck between reality and perception and unsure how to properly negotiate that relationship, swallowed by the lies and anger and resentment and hatred of those around you. To be black is to be fully consumed by someone else's view of you despite knowing otherwise. It is to be trapped, to be caged in, yelling, praying, trying to do more, trying to be kinder, stronger, smarter. To be a black is to unbalanced at all times, teetering and falling, and ultimately failing.
That is a frightening reality to confront, to battle day in and day out. It is exhausting—although "exhausting" doesn't quite grasp the all-encompassing psychological and physical fatigue the black body endures daily—continually having to prove your decency. To perform just right, so that people whose first response to you is "demon" will recognize your humanity.
The decision not to indict Wilson joins an ugly American tradition. I want to tell you that I am shocked. I am not. I want to tell you things will be all right. They will not. It's a familiar feeling. I have been here before. I am gutted, less than, three-fifths whole.
It is a relentless, slow-moving genocide. The bodies are piled high. Renisha McBride. Rekia Boyd. Jordan Davis. Ezell Ford. John Crawford. Oscar Grant. Ramarley Graham. Aaron Campbell. Jonathan Ferrell. Trayvon Martin.
The bodies are rising still. Michelle Cusseaux. Angelia Mangum. Maria Godinez. Marlon Horton. Tjhisha Ball. Kendrec McDade. Kimani Gray. Timothy Russell. Malissa Williams. Ervin Jefferson. Victor Steen. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. And still so many more.
These killings have amassed to a collective discontent. Brown's execution was but the tipping point in a long-practiced, long-profited American pastime of neo-lynchings. Black bodies no longer hang from trees, twisting like strange, bloodied fruit in the southern breeze, but instead meet their end in train stations, housing complexes, on streets, and in department stores in Cleveland, New York City, Oakland and Chicago.
History binds us.
There have been marches for voting rights, appeals against housing discrimination, rallies for equal goods and services, sit-ins for access to discriminatory educational structures, and peaceful protests demanding the end to a system of horrors that wholly believes in the disempowerment of disenfranchised people. Our humanity has always been at stake. It is the thread that ties Ferguson to Selma; that ties Emmett Till to Michael Brown.
I am a black man who arrives in the middle of a vast history: a history of people who have battled against oppression and fought against unequal liberties, a history of people who have fashioned their blackness—my God, their very humanity—as sword and shield for one very simple instrument: justice.
I am a black man. But I am black first—that is the terror and false intimidation you identify, that is the demon you see running at you, only I am unarmed and helpless, fighting against a system that functions on my very suppression. I am exhausted, but I keep going, forging ahead.
I am a black man living in America and I have felt its meaning all the way to the marrow of my being.
I am a black man. But I am not tragically colored. I am just tired of explaining. And I think Michael Brown was tired, too.
[Photo via Getty]