To be black is to be seen by everyone and no one at all; to be at once coveted and loathed; to be both heard and misunderstood — both herd and cattle, martyr and savior. Them, always wanting, always asking more, demanding you give, that you offer. Them, wanting you to pretend to be invisible, wanting your chic, your cacao.
To be black, and to not also be crazy, is a miracle, a mystery, a modern marvel of science; to be black, to not reach for trigger or hammer (rope may be far too triggering) looking to blow brains away, yours and cohorts alike, is a phenomenon, as phenomenal as a solar eclipse, as a man walking on the moon, as grassy knoll. To carry the history of a people in your marrow, while simultaneously bearing the brunt and weight of the brutality laid across your feet daily, that daily dalliance done with death, it dancing, diving onto grave and tombstone.
To live this life, a black life, is to be too tired always, is to be tried more often than you would like, than would be counted; is to be the fly on the wall everywhere, to be sensitive to all sights and sounds and touches and avoidance of such — to see people pivot their bodies, to alter their speech, hide perishables, keeping all things pertaining to holy out of plain view.
If I have learned anything being compressed in this skin, it is that self-love can save your soul, Frankie Beverley’s voice can bend metal, and every day is a blessed one; I have learned that Baldwin knew everything, that a heart can keloid, that memories can steal themselves from the vacant lonely buried in loins. I do not know what holding back means; I have no use for it — I will live and die with a heart of water, fluid until the dam breaks (or cartilage, from carrying the struggles of other blacks, something America will force you to do whether you are strong enough or not.) It is this love that allows me to tolerate and deal with both the macro and micro-aggressions that have presented themselves since birth to my doorstep — comfortably arranged and ordered to solicit rage at the slightest occurrence of disrespect — an ill-timed side-eye, a scuffed Jordan, a perceived scoff digested as insult. I know of no big lives, full lives lead, being driven by the spirit of one who plays it “safe”, not here, not in this country. Safety is for NRA conference conversation, for airplane flight attendants, safety is a luxury, is a Lexus or Acura — it is not for those seeking to peel back the layers of resistance; all who I admire the most have pushed themselves to the edge, seeking which is unidentifiable; searching for a purpose bigger than self. That self, this purpose, is tied defiantly to a cause if you are born black. This is not by choice, this cause has been bred in you, branded onto you.
If your dreams are not scary as shit, if the life laid out for you is not you gambling for the bigness in the stars and your heart, then you are to be told you are missing out on your grandness. It is a fairy tale, a mythological fable passed from American school child to American school child, the cleaned-up, idealized bastard version of opportunity. You are told that if it speaks to you, if they speak to you, follow that, listen to that — heed whatever beckons and calls to your bones, to the marrow in you. And while this is inherently true, true if you believe in a power higher than heaven, in universal law and karmic cycles and spirits and Yoruba guidance and such, its application across the board for all of those who are walking the path of living, seems to be partial to a select, cherry-picked few, with the marginalized many scratching the bottom of the barrel for the remaining scraps. I don’t know…maybe I have spent too much time around dreamy, happy, white people (“white” as a construct, not as a skin or color or race. “White” as in a system, as a bubble, a box that allows certain segments of the population the honor of not having to be aware of the world outside of their own privileged circumstances)— us blacks have in us ingrained the idea that we are not deft at dreaming; the wanton idealism that lifts henna from ink to Coachella revelers, this reckless believe in overcoming all odds in spite of circumstance, the Bruce Willis/Tom Cruise effect Hollywood has made so easily tangible amongst the most elite of ivy league bro keg-chuggers, has not made its way through the pipelines of South Central, pass the barbed wire of the South Bronx, we are told. And so, we are told to dream, and mocked when the realization comes that dreaming is only a special kind of augmented reality for the under-served.
We are told early, normally around the same time when we are made to believe, and also when we are too young to question the likelihood and validity of receiving money from fairies for fallen teeth, or mystical fat men flinging themselves down chimneys (which is interesting — to grow up in an apartment building where hallways were littered with Budweiser beer cans after late-night house parties and stairwells carried scattered used condoms and their affiliate wrappers strewn about, having to rationalize why Saint Nicholas aka Santa Claus only came down chimneys, and did not climb through windows using fire escapes as leverage, in the stories shared in classrooms. We wrote letters to him each year, and each I would receive none of the things I asked for. Jesus and Santa seem to hold similar spaces in my heart in that way) that if we only work hard, if we only meditate on the goodness of the world and the people and dreams in it, if we only go the extra mile and place our best shackled, mangled foot forward, or bow our heads in the most uncomfortable of positions for the most exalted of gods using the most holy of prayers, that we too can have our slight slice of Americana, of the American Dream; this is the rapturous tale weaved by the fairest of skins for the most disadvantaged, disenfranchised, colored and unsaved miscreants of the world. We are told at youth that we are to gobble up these old wives tales of racial harmony once conceived by founding fathers; these men who owned other men, who used race as a blow torch to ignite bias and prejudice, inciting hate as a means of justifying the perfunctory methods government has used to pillage communities of color, we are told to place our faith in the future of our nation on the shoulders of these men, these patriots of our bigoted past.
Being raised as a colored one, it becomes natural to see the world and laugh when the world, the white world aka America, tells you: white privilege isn’t real, white supremacy doesn’t exist, racism is a lie, and Charlottesville is actually an outlier, and isn’t “American” or what America “stands for.” America has stood on the backs of others since its inception; this is not new. This is the streamable version of the antiquated gospel that is the sanctioned state-to-state violence seething in the soil of the U.S.A. EQUALITY BE DAMNED! Hate speech and its evil, contorted rhetoric are as American as apple pie…and slavery, and the KKK, and Japanese internment camps, and Guantanamo and on and on and and on, so on, so forth. To be born black is to be born believing your life is truncated upon birth, and that everything to follow forth is all but farce, a mere stage-play, with your livelihood as the punchline. America is the greatest of performers ever; we are all bearing witness to the fruits of our magical labor. Can you see it? “It” is the Starbucks attendant on W. 43rd st. staring blankly through big windows, perhaps he is 6’1, he is brown and he is waiting for you, you and your latte leaving, to see him human; or the woman sitting on the D train at the far end corner, earphones in with no music, holding tears like infants; perhaps the construction site crew member just home from Riker’s new child, still Cripping, but still trying — it is all of them and none of them, all of us and none of us, all waiting to be visible.
By Joel Leon