Every time an image of Sandy Bland — who was found dead in a Texas jail cell last week, after her arrest following a traffic stop — crosses one of my social timelines, a slow, long wind of hope is punched out of me.
This incident has broken my stride. I am still digesting the execution of the nine worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina. My heart remains stunned and swollen. And the other churches that have been taped as they burn continue to shock me.
The domino effect of black men gunned down by police across the country has had me on edge. It is as though their gurgling last breaths ring in my ears, their lives not yet ended but continuously tortured in a long, drawn out death as the pattern of slaughter ensues; extending the torment of each bloody execution until the day we decide that a police state is an un-American activity. Also, I feel the effect of the ghosts of all the black youth who have been extinguished by the fate of hate and inaction.
These are cases of institutionalized racial prerogative. We find ourselves at the bubbling of a polite genocide, one that is upheld with genteel, liberal observation. No one is running to the streets to cheer on the oppression of blacks. Silence holds exceeding power.
Sandy Bland reminds me that there is no safety zone for being black, no base for a good black person, and no protection for resisters of hate. From video records, one could argue Sandy Bland was an activist. As we learned from the 1950s and 60s, activism can get you killed. The echoes of violence that constitute the era known as the civil rights movement seem to paralyze the need to make change for our country at a time when we are so in need of change.
And yet when I tear up at the image or mention of Sandy Bland, it is not solely for her family’s loss, but for the fact that it is time to stand, and our country remains seated.
I cannot remember which I read first, The Autobiography of Malcolm X or A Raisin in the Sun, but those are the books that first taught me of love. By God, I wanted to be a revolutionary. And now I am of age, and I must ask myself if I am the revolutionary, or the citizen for that matter, who I thought I would grow up to be.
If I confessed to you: that some of my choices have been a means of trying to protect myself from the rights others invoke to denigrate me; that I thought an education or a job might temper an act of bigotry, or at the very least suggest a distant sense of fraternity; that my experience with race in America has guided the balance between following my heart and building a fortress to protect my sanity against constant race-based attacks; would you think me less? I know better that there is no safety zone, but I am an optimist. It turns out I cannot protect myself if I cannot protect the meaning of America.
I have found that, while the methods of bigotry are more tame and covert as you move up class lines, they are no less vicious when you descend them. Cops have always pulled black people over for driving nice cars. (For any naysayers, Chris Rock will vouch.) There is always one person in an office who will modernize a minstrel joke to check your self-esteem. There is always a public setting that will shoot a warning look that the space is meant for whites only, except for the entertainment.
There are jobs I would have declined had I known that, while they don’t kill blacks here, they just make us feel we are unfit for the environment. I only know bars and restaurants in the North that I would have passed over had I known entering while black was a political act instead of a response to hunger. The South may be famed for a stance on race, but the ideals of the Ku Klux Klan are equally distributed in this nation.
And now a woman, who was not unlike me, has been taken down without much of a national stir. I’m black, so of course I should be scared, but should not we all? And what shall we do? If we are at a moment where our national standards are unbalanced, how will we change?
I hope it is not a march or a social media campaign. I hope it is not violence. But perhaps commitments of service to actively resist the active forces of hate. I mentor as a political act. On this occasion I write. But what is it that I will do each day to defend the America of my dreams? So much darkness is circling our country, and it still doesn’t seem enough has happened to break the camel’s back. There is no great resistance; just a few mad people here, a few upset people there, so many nifty hashtags. But what of our patriotic labor?
When the Kendrick Lamar album dropped earlier this year, it felt like the soundtrack of revolution. I thought, a movement has got to jump off in the next few months. But nothing. When I sat in the opening night audience of “Hamilton” on Broadway this past Monday, I found my own voice in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s imagination of our most adamant Founding Father. If ticket prices weren’t so high, perhaps that would spark revolution.
In the Netflix documentary, “What Happened Miss Simone?” Nina Simone’s voice stirs up the pain and the call of revolution. If you want to feel something and everything about love and freedom, that film will take you there. Or does it reveal that we are already there–that here is the time of revolution? Will we leave the moment to the always perfect soundtrack of Miss Simone, or will we invoke her music for fuel to do the work as the living legacy of revolution?
We are in a killing time. It is legal to pull black people from their property and demand that they defend their right to remain alive. Enough people have appointed themselves executioners, but who will be self-appointed protectors? We are in an America still governed by black and white, while the cultural and ethnic landscape has become so diverse and complex. We must not be racist, or homophobic, or classist, or gluttonous with our resources. With more eminent threats than any other generation, we must proceed as though we can conquer it all. I want to live for a country that stands for freedom; with every day freedom feels more and more tentative.
There is a genocide brewing at home. Will there be a revolution? What would a revolution look like? Am I to be a revolutionary? Would I be the only one? Who will they come for next?