Every now and again something gives me a soul lesson, unlike a simple life lesson. It’s a deeper thing, hard to explain but real. Often, I’m not quite sure that the ways in which I learned about myself were purposeful or happenstance in terms of the medium. But I find myself unwrapping whatever it is in awe… amazement… eager to be changed by it.
Jharrel Jerome in “When They See Us”
I was 13 years old when the “Central Park Five” case started in New York. I am not ashamed to say I don’t remember hearing about it much, or it having much of an impact on me. I do recall it being one of the first times, other than seeing the name on TV or emblazoned in lights in Atlantic City, hearing the name Donald Trump in the news. But honestly I was too involved in my own teen drama.
I do recall much more vividly in 2011, Trump calling for then President Barack Obama to release his US birth certificate to prove he was a born citizen, and seeing that horrendously racist ad he took out in four NYC papers calling for the death penalty of “murderers” who were actually innocent children that were used, tricked, and illegally interrogated for hours without parental supervision. The NYPD, in true form, put on a masterful performance of trickery and fraud and racism. No surprise there.
2014 was the year Mike Brown, Eric Garner, LaQuan McDaniel, Akai Gurley, and Tamir Rice were killed by police officers. It started a series of conversations about what it meant to be Black and male in America for parents of Black sons. In my house, we discussed how my son didn’t and never would have the privilege of being seen as young and innocent, as his young and innocent little face peered back at me, confused and bewildered, too free to be afraid and too happy to understand.
2014 was the year that I experienced uncut racism at my place of employment for the first time… my upward mobility sabotaged by white men less experienced and much less educated. It was also the year, the Central Park Five, as they had become known, were exonerated for a crime for which they spent years wrongly imprisoned and rumblings of Trump running for President started.
2014 was pivotal for me in terms of my Blackness… While I abhorred and was educated on America’s racist history, my own personal Blackness had been pretty much an urban tale of an Around the Way Girl. Bamboo earrings, bad attitude, gangsta talk, manipulating minds, being gentle and kind, independent, and my grandma stayed buggin! Yet suddenly I experienced all it meant to be Young, Gifted, and Black through this lens of trauma. I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but surely it was…
I spent a long time trying to understand some shit that wasn’t meant for me to comprehend. I had never experienced blatant racism, so it was foreign to me. I convinced myself that I didn’t belong there… not because I wasn’t good enough, I was too good, that was the problem. I started to see everything as an operation of color… whether warranted or not. I felt like a prisoner, detained somewhere I didn’t belong. So kind of frozen by that feeling, I couldn’t move. I never took my own response to their behavior into consideration. It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you respond to it that matters, right?
I took ownership. I decided that my Blackness, something I always embraced, was gonna get a bear hug. I would be blue black. I might eat a chitterling… Ok that’s going too far.
I had spent a long time hearing that as a lighter skinned Black person my experience of Blackness wasn’t quite the real experience, but I knew different. My experiences were just as real and authentic as any brown skinned sista’s… not the same, sprinkled with privilege in some instances that I neither wanted or asked for…but as real and authentic nonetheless. I had definitely experienced the modern day version of racial injustice at the hands of my employers. I also had allowed it to take residence beside me… and I needed to evict it once I really processed it.
I decided that I was going to swallow whole every bit of knowledge and experience I could have that gave me a better understanding of where I fit in this unfortunately racist and sexist place. So June 5, 2019 I sat down and started to digest another piece of our history, made so beautifully and hauntedly by Ava Duvernay. Listen… it was much like what I imagine hell to be like in one bite and then just rich and flavorful and robust in the next… art and hatred. Joy and pain.
Jharrel Jerome and Korey Wise
This young man’s performance, not taking away from any of the other actors as they were all phenomenal, but this one… it made me feel some power I didn’t realize I had. Being Black is a joy… we are lit, cultured, educated, magical, unicornian and shit. Being Black in America is also traumatic af! There is a scene where Yusuf Salaam’s mother walks him out of the police station and it flashes to Korey Wise sitting on a wooden bench in the police station. At that moment, I knew he was about to take me somewhere. I wasn’t really sure where… but I just put my seatbelt on.
I was metamorphosed from it in a way I had never been from watching news stories or reading articles. I think I can only compare my reaction to his scenes to seeing Mike Brown lying in the street hours after being gunned down and Trayvon Martin’s sneaker peeking from under the sheet on the ground. Yet his portrayal was somehow more real, even though it was scripted. At one point, the young actor, Jerome, looked into the camera with such desperation and fear…
…it was clear he’d not just acted out this trauma but decided to experience it first hand, to become a 16 year old in Riker’s Island… if not physically, then emotionally. It was like he ingested the script. He feasted on the real life victims being on set, sharing their stories. In basic terms… he went all the muthafuckin way IN! He surrendered himself and forced me to do the same. That boy was GOODT!
There was a scene where Jerome alongside Neicey Nash, as Korey Wise’s mother, are separated by a wall to discourage contact with prisoners. Jerome leans over and grabs her hands and pleads with her to come back to see him. That shit took a gangsta all the way out ok…
I could feel what it must have felt like to be a child deprived of any loving human touch, of your mother’s presence, of any positive human interaction. He broke me down ya heard. But something came from that mix of artistic excellence and emotional transference that was seriously cathartic.
Racism has many faces. It’s the pointed hate of walking into a church with Black parishioners and shooting them. It’s the juxtaposition of power versus safety with our Black sons and trigger happy police officers. It’s the feigned ignorance about Black life, vernacular, levels of education and success as if our skin color makes us somehow foreign and less human. It’s the xenophobia against people and cultures assumed to threaten the majority, their power, wealth, and sheer numbers. I could go on and on. Whatever it’s manifestation, racism is hateful and borne of control, power, and the threat of death. What I thought would leave me even more mad at patriarchal racist white folks, left me feeling powerful in a way I cannot explain well… but I’ll try.
Have you ever had a headache and immediately grabbed for Excedrin or Aleve because you didn’t want to bother with the headache or it’s cause, only to have the headache an hour later still pounding? That is often what we do when we have been traumatized, big or small, we look for a band-aid. We want it to go away and we don’t want to deal with the root cause. Instead, if you take a few deep breaths, get a cool compress, and take a nap, the headache will be gone when you rise. It requires both taking some responsibility for your healing and some time for it.
I spent a lot of time mad about shit that really didn’t serve me. I didn’t go in, see my part in it all, heal that, and use their evil for good… instead I just let it sit and fester …
“or maybe it just sags like a heavy load, or does it explode?”
Mad at white people… not all white people but hateful, patriarchal, racist white people… the very ones who don’t care if I, or more importantly my Black son, lives or dies. Why spend an iota of energy on that mofo?!?
I liked my sheltered and innocent life… it was comfortable, safe, cozy, and easy. But that shit is a thing of the past. It got me here, I’m grateful for the shelter… but I have seen how ugly and hateful people can be. The thing is, that’s them, not me, not you, not us. Fuck hateful, patriarchal, racist white people and all that shit they hope they are making us feel… anger, rage, hostility. Don’t let the hateful shit they do stop you … from grinding, from becoming, or from watching this masterpiece.
Like any and everything else , trauma has to be faced head on. I sat down in racism and it didn’t kill me… it made me stronger. I was beasty before… I’m a muthafuckin Blackity Black superhero unicorn now. I am the dream and prayer of Harriet and Frederick, Malcolm and Fannie Lou, Thurgood and Shirley, William and Betty.
As for the racists, I ingested their hate and spat it out, so now I’m immunized. I lost nothing and gained everything. That’s the transformative power of art. They will remember me different.