Howard University students picket the National Crime Conference in Washington D.C., December 1934 when the leaders of the conference refused to discuss lynching as a national crime. Photo by International News Photo Co.
I visited sites along the Underground Railroad, historic sites in Philadelphia. My friend Ed came down from Brooklyn to give me a hand, which by that I mean, to take pictures of me while doing so. Though I had some vague idea of how I would be captured I relied on the chemistry between us and the sites we visited. After several weeks of rain, even on the morning of the shoot it was still raining, by the time we got to our first shoot it was done and the sun was getting away from the overcast.
Having been some time since I last wore it, the space between then and now has given me perspective about this most recent function action begun in 2015. In fact, the picture of me in profile overlooking the Philadelphia cityscape, the one that I use as the banner on the n00se as well as on my business card was taken whilst I was standing across the street from Belmont Mansion where unbeknownst to be at the time the picture was taken is the site of the museum for the Underground Railroad. It was an incredible day of learning about the underground railroad, its conductors, station masters and engineers. The guides who graciously took us on tour were so committed to telling the histories of each site. I was so impressed by their fervent testimonies I felt, I don’t know, American. They were so committed to informing us of our shared history I felt an earnest kinship that extended to them and through them to the heroes that felt no human should be treated as chattel. Our histories are all around us and Philadelphia is chock-full; all it takes is to peer ahead.
Ed shared a special relevance during the photo-shoot. He reminded me that in the last few weeks nooses were found hanging at the NMAAHC as well as at American University and other locations in DC.
He reminded me. Being mindful, rather, forgetful, is a position I often find myself in an hourly, if not, daily basis. There is so much trauma and terror, both in the world and right here in U.S., especially here that I register the latest atrocity of white violence, then, forget and move on. I have to. So much so that I am mostly unaware how the terror affects my day to day. I find myself looking at people, more than ever, looking at, studying actually, for tell-tale signs of white fear, for signs that they voted for this reality. A poet friend, Reuben Jackson, posted the next time your doctor asks how you’re feeling you should respond by informing her how the latest white terror is affecting your well-being, in fact, you are seeking medical attention because racism is driving your blood pressure up, having paranoid feelings when surrounded by white people, experiencing feelings of anxiety which can be traced to the latest police shooting, not to mention the 400 years of enslavement, disenfranchisement and terror that have been passed down through generations. How are you feeling today? Tired of racism and tired of white privilege. I wonder if white privilege will dramatically dissipate before I die or will racism and its terror just be the state in which I will live my entire life.
photo: ©Sherman Fleming/Ed Marshall 2017
November 9, 2016. One of my myriad jobs is as a curator at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital. The hospital holds a large collection of artworks created by artists with disabilities. In addition to the collection and the reason for its annual expansion is a juried international exhibit the hospital holds. This is my preface to an incident that occurred today. Today. After. I was in a mood that can best be described as sullen, impotent, enraged and overwhelmed with sadness. I really miss my mother today. I’m sure she would’ve had quite an earful to give me about the election. But that didn’t happen, so, I was virtually on my own. Driving to the hospital, which is located in Malvern. Chester County. Not the poor part that’s always on the news but the northern tony part. A few weeks leading up to the election I began to see TRUMPPence signs popping up like mushrooms after a rain; mind you, I also saw Hillary’s arrow, but, not as much. Not only were the Trump signs multiplying but also were getting bigger as Tuesday approached. I say all of this because I want to justify my being in the hallways of the hospital for most of my time there: I’m constantly looking after, hanging and/or rearranging the works that hang throughout the place. There’s this guy, I suppose he could be referred to as a co-worker, rather than a colleague because although I see him everyday, he rarely says anything beyond a good morning. Whenever I do come up on him or see him from a distance he trudges his way through the day, kind of hunched over, like, he’s trying to appear smaller. He’s like 6’6”, a big white dude. Then there was today. Today was different. I saw him coming towards me in this big confident stride, he was almost skipping. For the first time I saw a smile and heard as he slowed, a hearty “Good Morning!” “how’s it going,” he asks. Despite his attempts to appear shorter, today, I had to look up to him for the first time. He continues with the conversation, one-sided mostly as I only respond with a word maybe two. He wants to know my favorite piece, complements me on how the exhibition looks.
I wonder what made the sudden change in attitude. This guy was genuinely happy in a way I’ve never seen in him. Of course, if my candidate won I would’ve also mimicked that same gait, jauntiness. Mine would be fueled by the feeling of having room to breathe, of feeling, like the progression to being seen and respected continues. I wonder if his look of joy thinly disguised his feeling that he/they won; white men, that is. That the white race was saved and that the greatness of America lie in the purity and dominance of his race. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but, I don’t think so, not down in my bones.
One of my routes back to Philly takes me through Wayne. I take the route, even though it’s longer, as a change of pace. Last time I drove that route was on the weekend. Central Baptist Church is on that route. For over a year they’ve posted a sign on their lawn, BLACK LIVES MATTER. Quite an oddity for a church in that part of the country. Over the year, it’s been vandalized and repaired, however, today, as I drove by I found it missing. Its absence made me heavy.
TODAY SEEMS LIKE EVERY DAY
October 1973. Richmond, Virginia.
My friend Vernon and I volunteer to make a beer run. We take a shortcut down a West End street barely lit by those ridiculous colonial gas lamps. Both of us make a simultaneous decision to walk in the middle of the street, but it’s too late. Two guys jump out from their hiding spot, one’s aiming a gun at me. He barks put your wallet on the car! We empty our pockets of the combined $4 in change we collected for the beer. Your wallet!! I reach for it but plead to keep my driver’s license. He cocks the thing. I toss it on the car hood, put my hands back up. Tells us to turn around and count to ahundred. We take a stab at it, only getting to 3, turn around and they’re gone. I look across the street and see a man staring at us from his front door. When he sees me looking at him he quickly draws the shade and turns off the light. I sprint over, Vernon tailing me and bang on his door—I know you’re in there and you saw what happened, OPEN UP!! The light comes back on, he opens the door—he’s all sheepish; I ask him to call the police. Minutes later a scooter cop rolls up, followed by two squad cars, red lights spinning. We give a description to the scooter, it’s not much: two guys, young, wearing dark jackets and pants, maybe jeans, the one holding the gun takes the lead while the other hangs back in the tree shadows they came out from. Both Black. All the radios crackle at the same time they caught a suspect. Taking direction, Vernon gets in one car and I get in the other, the K-9 car. I’m in the back seat, the dog’s snarling, spitting, trying to chomp his way through the cage to get at me. I ask the cop to sit up front, he tells me civilians sit in the back, but don’t mind the dog, he only goes after criminals. I lean forward, trying to put him out of my mind and get away from his spittle. We roll about 5 blocks, finally turning into a supermarket parking lot. The cop points in the direction of a man completely surrounded by cop cars, and lit up by all their searchlights. Cop asks if this is one of the guys. This guy is light-skinned, got a beard and wearing an argyle sweater and gray slacks: doesn’t look anyway damn near the guy who held a gun on me. I give the cop my description of the stickup guy which doesn’t match this guy; he asks again if this is the guy. I say no. He pulls away a few blocks where they’ve pulled the same maneuver on another guy in another parking lot: well dressed and no where near fitting the description. I see Vernon in one of the cars, he’s pale and looks as scared as I am. Cop asks me if THIS is the guy. I say no. Cop asks me if I’m sure. I tell him. He says something into his radio and they all disperse. Cop rolls up to another car going the other way. They roll down their windows; the one cop asks if they got the guy. My cop thumbs at me and says he says no. The other cop says, shit, then, he pauses and says, but we almost got one didn’t we. Cop tells me he’s taking me back to the crime scene; I ask him if he could take me home. No, we’re not a taxicab service. We’re driving back, finally, as if he just noticed, he tells the dog to pipe down, which it does and in that cold silence he asks if I’m taking part in the streaking that was all the rage at the time. I tell him no. I lied. He ponders a bit, a small bit and comes back with I guess it would be a waste, you being so dark and all no one could see you, and laffs and it’s a big one, like, he got his own joke. By the time he drops me off at the spot, Vernon’s waiting. The scooter cop must’ve been waiting on me too because soon’s he sees me, he kickstarts his scooter and tells us to be careful out at night and think about carrying a gun next time before puttering away. Vernon and I are both bewildered and scared out of our wits. We stay to the middle of street, hugging each other as we walk towards his apartment looking ever which way. We got to this apartment, turned on all the lights and sat up in his livingroom until it was light enough for me to go home.
Every time I open FB—I vowed to skip it last week and failed, then, this week and failed—another Black person’s in the crosshairs of the police. I mean Charles Kinsey, damn. Reports about the reason given by the policeman who shot him: I don’t know. I don’t know? The message is pretty clear: this is a serious, if not systemic, culling of the population disguised as rogue cops behaving badly while justice looks the other way. It feels like war although not on a whole scale yet. First, random shootings, while folks steadily arm themselves and congress does nothing about gun control. Second, outbreaks of skirmishes as tensions with the media fanning the flames while deflecting attention to Black on Black crime. It’s like everybody knows it’s coming but won’t do anything to stop it. Yet, at the same time, I refuse to accept the possibility of civil war. We are too many of us who have fought and fight to get this far in making this situation a more perfect union to comply or even accept the possibility of such a horror.
I started this essay on July 22nd, so, it’s been several weeks since my return to it. I couldn’t find the words to talk about my recent n00se experiences, the reason being totally consumed with my mother and I’d been pondering if it was appropriate to share why I haven’t been posting, but, the absence, the dearth of entries for n00se warrant this post. At last, I finally bid my mother goodbye as she was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. We interred her in the same gravesite where my father’s body has occupied since 1997. 2016 has been a grueling and exhausting year and my mother rapidly, and with brakes failing, became its focal point. Strong-willed, some say more accurately, stubborn, right up to the end I can’t recall being with her for so long for those 3 months of care nor so intensely in nearly 30 years. It was necessary to care for her, but, more importantly, as she spoke of old long gone friends visiting her and dead relatives dropping by, I needed to be with her. Now, my sister and I take the steps to emotionally, not to mention, materially, say good-bye to mom. Each scribble of “deceased” on a subscription renewal notice, each bill settled, makes the passing of my mother more and more acute. And more and more I don’t want to let go and am haunted by wondering if I did all I could do to keep her going. Which, the answer is yes, but, still, was it enough? I have no answer to that end and am unsettled by its blank. In fact, I can’t remember what I did, but, for a period of three months, I was doing it everyday. There were times where I felt helpless and frightened as I harangued hospital and rehab staff to attend to her pain issues. At times, it seemed as though my alarum slowed them down. Now, living in the weight of her absence, which, at times, tethers me to the bed or binds me to the driver’s seat unable to do much of anything at all I dream of fleeing, but there’s nowhere to flee to. Where is my northern star?
So, instead of editing this document that I started in July I decided to keep adding to it. The death of my mother parallels the deaths and shootings Facebook brims with. Since Charles Kinsey’s shooting, there have been other—it’s hard to keep up—Black people shot and/or killed. Carl Williams, in his own home, Bernard Wells, Jeffrey Tyson, Korryn Gaines, Donnell Thompson, Sylville Smith, I could go on and on (names drawn from this site: http://killedbypolice.net/). I am not ordering them chronologically or alphabetically; it would be ridiculous to be so formal like I’m tending a garden or reading off an attendance list. The tragedy associated with their names comes at us from a man-made avalanche everyday. And though not all shootings and killings have exclusively been of Black people, what still is incredible is the number of Black people killed. I discovered the site, killedbypolice, and selected year 2016, which, at last count, numbered around 600 in July, but, surely, that number has been surpassed. So, it seems, the police are shooting everybody and anybody; there is no doubt they have a license to kill. But, the rampant and nondiscretionary use of guns, the proliferation of open carry or concealed carry which have made packing heat so populous has made shooting, killing, a national epidemic. But, hasn’t it always been so? As more and more guns supplant reason, isn’t expediency and resolution by gun the new black?
So I return to my earlier query: Am I doing enough? Did I do enough for my mother? Am I doing enough in the fight against racism in the 21st century? Probably not, but, each day I am presented with the opportunity to get better at it. Make a commitment to do more. Just around the time I started n00se and during my weekly runs through Wayne, Pa. I noticed a Black Lives Matter sign posted on the grounds of Central Baptist Church. Curious, I did some research and discovered that the church decided to display the sign on the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown (http://www.mainlinemedianews.com/articles/2015/12/10/main_line_suburban_life/news/doc5669e72d0303e214584679.txt?viewmode=fullstory). Soon after, in reading an article about the display, members of the church were ‘surprised’ by reaction the sign provoked. I chuckle at the word, surprised. Anyone familiar with Wayne knows that a sign like this is sure to spark a reaction and not a good one either. What’s more, why are the patrons of the church unaware of what’s happening with BLM nation-wide? What is striking to me, besides the fact that a church is receiving such a negative reaction, is that it is one, an historical one to be sure, that continues to uphold the sign in the face of such hostility. But, more importantly, as frightened as the church pastors are, they continue to stand behind the sign. It’s been vandalized a few times, most recently, the word Black was erased, but repainted. It’s probably not so ironic that the haters who leave angry and ranting voicemails and Facebook posts anonymously hide their identities in much the same way as the ku klux klan hide their identities underneath their robes and hoods. I bet if they were confronted with that analogy they would be shocked. I can hear the refrain now, “I’m not racist but. . . !” Then again, maybe not. Maybe I’m being too optimistic about Wayne. But if this church in one of the toniest areas in the Philadelphia area continues to post that sign I can do no less.
Don’t let your pain define you/Belonging to nowhere
Heard this quote on a morning talk show a few days back and have been thinking about it now a week later: Don’t let your pain define you. The loss of my mother has compounded the pain I’ve been experiencing since I’ve taken on n00se. The arc of being with her at the moment she suffered her stroke, through her rehabilitation that would only take her so far and then, being with her when the EMT’s were trying to stabilize her pulse in order to transport her to emergency, finally, closing her eyes in the ER has increased my dis ease. My mother’s fragility and eventual leaving has intensified the onset of rheumatoid arthritis of which I was diagnosed just about two years ago. I realized that n00se has made me aware of the constant pain I’m in but more devastatingly, is leaching to the surface, painful memories I’ve buried deep, deep down.
I think I’m angry. I mean, I had hoped this performance would alleviate the horror I perceive around me as well as the trauma so many of us experience on the day to day, hope that it would aspire to find words, images to put to this pain. So far, I don’t know what n00se is. Moreover, I’ve noticed that when I am asked to explain n00se I’ve become so outraged that I become tongue-tied—I say things that have very little to do with what I’m performing. I try to imagine my response to seeing someone wearing a noose and I wouldn’t have to ask; I’d know immediately what it’s all about. Is wearing a noose wearing my pain? Maybe. Surely. But there are times when I’m not aware of it at all, which may not be a good thing, but the only remedy my body concocts so that I can get up in the morning. I feel so vulnerable by this action that the words to describe it are beyond reach so far.
Observing my body more now than ever, when I’m out and about, I am now conscious of how I comport myself when engaging white folk so as not to appear aggressive or stupid or any of the other narratives attached to my body. It sounds ridiculous, I should be just who I am but, still, I feel this shift in a certain way that makes me ill. That’s the definition of dis/ease: Racism is a disease that makes me ill. Rather than have some rehearsed response to people’s inquiry—which I’ve yet to do—I’d rather be a silent spectacle. The perfect response I’ve received so far was from a worker in IKEA who walked behind me without stopping to engage but needed to express her reaction just the same and said, “It’s giving me chills.”
Belonging to nowhere is an apt description of an event that happened some years ago. If only it were a distant memory but I see it and experience situations like it repeatedly. On an impromptu beach trip to Wilmington, NC, while sitting on the beach a young white man planted his beach chair right on the edge of the surf a few yards away. As the surf rushed in, then, out, engulfing his feet in the process, he look out over the water and declared, “ I could sit here for the rest of my life, all I need is a beer and a good shit.” I was contemplating that blend of beer drinking and defecation when I saw on the boardwalk a young black family, husband, wife and two children. What made me notice them was that they were dressed up as if they just come from church. But I knew what it was all about. They dressed up on this particularly hot and sunny day, when everybody else hardly wore anything at all, to experience a public beach and not be harassed. I shook my head in some smug and condescending way, thinking how sad it was they couldn’t just enjoy being at the beach like the shit-beer guy or even myself for that matter. They were doing everything right. They looked middle class, educated, presumably faithful. The males, father and son, their hair was recently barbered, and the mother’s and daughter’s, coiffed and gleaming. Me, I was sitting on the beach with my then girlfriend who is white, the total opposite of that family, we were probably a spectacle ourselves, brazenly sitting on that beach in broad daylight. I also thought at the time that the energy we exuded gave us some cache; I was proven wrong. Later when we went to a restaurant just off the beach our 10 minute wait for a table became 20 minutes, then, 30 minutes as I observed other people, couples, families come in after us and immediately get seated. Of course, they were white people. I knew right then that it wasn’t that I was the only black person in the restaurant, but that I represented that American gothic love/hate paradigm: a Black man with a White woman. I had to ask for the manager, who, in turn, seated us right away with an apology for taking so long. But there was no reprimand for the hostess, no acknowledgement of the discrimination; I’m sure in the manager’s view, she wanted to get us served and gotten the hell out of there as quickly as possible. The neat and pressed family also just wanted to get through their day and, as a result, hopefully be invisible enough to do so, because, being visible is dangerous. Danger can break on them, on me, at anytime, anywhere, even in the most comforting of environments. All it takes is one angry person in combination with a complicit and confused public. It doesn’t matter whether I perform n00se or not, but, especially when I’m performing it: n00se is intolerable permanence.