“You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress...”
- Malcolm X
I’ve always been a loner.
It’s the most clichéd personality type in the writing community, I know, but it’s also a logical result (nay, cause?) of a reality enjoyed through words: reading, writing, wandering and wondering about the greater meanings in life. Or how a guy like Donald Trump can act like an asshole and still be relevant.
The point is, it’s freedom at its apex, being able to sit in a public or private place and not need to interact with anybody else.
To be clear though, I wasn’t born a loner. In fact, at my core I’m a very social individual, or at least desire the feelings that being social in a positive environment engender: love, warmth, a sense of belonging.
Which is to say that me being a loner is a result. Of my surroundings. Borne from experience.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been reminded daily of my status as an outcast, even before I knew what an outcast was. Years of reminders. By the very nature of the human condition, you’d think I’d have gotten used to it by now.
And yet, I haven’t. Moments of marginalization pierce me today just as much as they did when I was a kid, like hot knives sliding between my ribs.
Sometimes it happens blatantly: I step through the front door of an acquaintance’s house (that I’ve been invited to; one of the many things I learned early on was that inviting myself anywhere exacerbates the feeling of outsider-ness) and somebody yells out something along the lines of “black guy’s here! Hide your purses!” Everybody laughs, I smile and shake my head, then we all go on about our business (albeit with my mood mysteriously shifted to neutral).
Sometimes it happens subtly: I’m walking from my car to a restaurant for lunch and pass a woman on the sidewalk who quickly—almost subconsciously—snatches her purse and holds it cross-bodied, away from me, closing her shoulders in on herself like she’s trying to form a cocoon. I smile at her and she avoids my eyes, picking up speed until she’s passed and I can feel the wind of her aggression against my side. We step into each other’s rear-views and she goes back to her relaxed grip and stride and I attempt (and fail) to go back to whatever it was I was thinking about before I was silently told that I can’t be trusted.
Sometimes I’m reminded of my status as outcast in the form of a “compliment,” like friends who frequently call me “rare” or a “unicorn” because I’m (apparently) an enigma.
An EBM: Educated Black Man.
Still other moments the feeling arises through a mixture of blatant and subtle interactions (the linguistic skills of some people, man, you’d be amazed) such as the many times I’ve been told—often by people I barely know—that “I’m glad you’re Jamaican. I can’t stand black Americans.” During these occasions, I sometimes open my mouth to point out that I was, in fact, born in the U.S., a couple of years after my mother and father moved here from Jamaica.
Most of the time I just shut my mouth. It’s always been easier that way.
Of course, I’m aware that in the grand scheme of things this is nothing compared to the more heinous situations black people have had to deal with throughout American history, or even had to deal with today in other parts of the country. I’m privileged to have grown up in an eclectic city, with so many cultures mingling together that you’re almost surprised when you meet somebody who says that they’re—simply—American.
And on a singular level, the commentary is usually nonviolent and meant with no ill will. Which is why I typically brush it off with a shrug and a chuckle (“Oh you; you got me with that one, you).
Ever since childhood I’ve been the type to take the path of least social resistance, prone to keeping the people around me happy despite any of my own misgivings. Call it a result of my upbringing in a religious Caribbean household (deference to authority); call it part of my inherent mental wiring (social anxiety).
Or just call it what I tend to think of it as nowadays: indoctrination.
Either way, I am a man whose instinctual reaction for as far back as I can remember has always been to turn the other cheek. Then turn it again, and again, and again, until my face is bruised and puffy from the beatings. Until my skin’s burning from years of lacerations, and the salt of my tears.
I’ve tried my whole life to pride myself on being something I could never even really identify. I guess you’d call it the Bigger Man, a thought that conjures up images of me patting people on the shoulder as they reveal their ignorance, taking it all in then rolling my eyes and shaking my head and smiling as I think “You should hear how you sound. It’s funny, actually. Stupid, but funny.” And for a while I convinced myself that’s how it actually was; that I was elevated above their words by my inaction—my non-reaction—and that I was therefore superior. At peace with it all.
I ignored the fact that my status as an outsider didn’t really afford me the ability to cajole with any effectiveness; that I was not laughing with people but rather being laughed at and actively joining in, akin to mashing my own face into a wall.
Instead of dealing with the conflict between my environment and my values, I created a persona that simply allowed me to pretend I didn’t care.
Then, this past June, a 21-year old kid named Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat for an hour of bible study, then pulled a gun and shot ten people, killing nine of them. All of the victims were black, not a coincidence. Roof did this after posting a manifesto online stating that the problem with this country—the only problem, he posited—is the existence of negros.
Of people like me.
In the aftermath, I tried to file the incident away in the same place I file every racist act I’ve heard about in the news since I was a kid and noticed my skin color was an issue; the same place I filed the murder of Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and all the others. The mental file is huge, a cabinet overflowing with documents going back as far as my formative years in the mid-to-late 80’s, even before Rodney King. And for a day or two after these church murders, I was able to check myself, ignore it all and continue in my bubble of ostrich-like solitude. Until I noticed the reaction.
For all its faults, social media has been crucial in shining a light on American society in recent years. It’s been especially central in debunking this myth that we live in a post-racial society (anybody who doubted that wasn’t paying attention during the Romney/Obama election campaigns in 2012). In the wake of Roof’s massacre, the underlying racism that pervades every sector of this country wiggled up to the surface like worms during a storm.
And even as it made me sick to my stomach, I watched my computer screen in wonder, reading the commentary on Facebook and Twitter and at the bottom of blog articles with growing apprehension as countless people—many of them I’ve known and respected for years—expressed worry not at the sorry state of race relations and police brutality in this country, but about what they deemed “race-baiting” news stories. Then, in the following days, I sat aghast as the decriers started in on a serious effort to preserve a treasonous flag that has represented nothing but ignorance and the systematic oppression of millions of people ever since its timely reinstitution into mainstream society during the Civil Rights Movement.
I watched as people worried more about these things—about the preservation of (and pledges to return to) their “values”—than the feelings of people who have been trying in vain for generations to gain something as simple as equality, as the right to live among the rest of society without Harrison Bergeron-like weights strapped to their arms and legs.
I watched as an entire community of people rose up and gave voice to their deepest sentiments, and I realized that the vision I had of the United States—a vision of innocent mischief that I’d allowed myself to believe was the true nature beneath the surface grime—did not and does not exist.
In that moment I tried, as I had so many times in the past, to turn the other cheek.
I tried to smile, like I always have.
I tried to ignore it, like I always have.
I tried to feel nothing. Like I always have.
Instead, years of compacted rage that had settled deep in the pit of my stomach for so long I didn’t even know it existed swelled and cracked and roiled and crested and ultimately burst through to the surface.
And suddenly, I didn’t want to turn the other cheek.
Suddenly, all I wanted to do was look every single person in the eye who had ever marginalized me—marginalized any minority in my presence—grab them by the ears and twist and pull and rip, shoving their faces in the same shit they’d been feeding me since day one. I wanted them to see and feel the hatred—my hatred—right before I hocked and spit right in their eye.
I wanted to cave their noses in.
I wanted to crack their skulls.
For a few seconds, I could even see how somebody like Dylann Roof could perpetrate something as monstrous as what he did. Because I wanted to do the same thing back to him, to his entire community and every other person(s) who identifies with his sentiments. Then spit on their lifeless bodies and saunter away.
Most of all—and most surprisingly—I didn’t want to stop being angry. I still don’t want to stop. It’s an uncanny, wondrous feeling, this anger inside. It’s like an unleashed beast in my mind and heart, a roaming, growling goliath I have no interest in caging ever again.
It reminds me of this Bill Burr bit, where he tells the audience that—after unwillingly becoming the owner of a pit bull—he totally understands the appeal of pit bulls. Even if you have them under control—even if there is no chance of him or her attacking anybody—there’s an added confidence that results from the inherent power you have just walking around with one.
Within my anger, I found an untapped source of buoyancy, a new point of view tinted with a shade of reality that has allowed me to start looking at the world around me still as an outsider, but no longer as an one wallowing in self-pity.
Being pissed the hell off, it has a way of making you see the good within yourself. Because nobody ever got mad without having some sense of conviction. And conviction seems to be all I have these days.
Yet, along with the rage and indignation, I couldn’t help feeling this sense of guilt as well.
Admittedly, I’m late to the party (if this can be called a party), because black people in America have been pissed off for a long time now.
Which serves to truly illuminate my status as an outsider. Because while I’ve always been one in the non-black community due to my status as a black man, I didn’t realize until now that I’ve been the same level of outsider (if not more) within the black community I am so angry for.
While I share many of their same experiences as black Americans—and now share their same fist-shaking fury—I do not share their history. And for somebody who doesn’t necessarily believe in the assumed superiority of humanity, or the widely held belief that there is an ultimate “purpose” to our existence, this realization is kind of jarring.
I don’t feel like I should care about history. To be honest, there’s not much I care about these days other than yours truly, in his personal pursuits and goals. In this society of brazen self-interest, Patrick Anderson Jr. is the only dude I can and even want to really trust.
Yet, probably the most potent effect this recent surge in civic-mindedness has had is to remind me not just of my own past turbulence, but the turbulence in the lives and ancestry of the many black people around me. And how that turbulence is a direct result of the horrors and injustices passed down from generation to generation throughout U.S. history, long before my family ever became a part of the story.
When I was eight years old, right before the third grade, we—my parents, sister and I—moved into the house I still call home: a three bedroom affair in an area now known as Palmetto Bay. We relocated there from a rundown two-bedroom apartment in the middle of Cutler Ridge, a place I have mostly fond memories of though my parents remember it a bit differently. This might be because of the time we got robbed, or the crack heads who used to hang around outside scratching themselves and smacking their ashy lips on the corner, or the faint, scattered sounds of gunshots that occasionally rang through the night, or any of the other number of reasons the apartment was not an ideal place to be raising two young children. But my parents (thankfully) kept me sheltered enough that all I remember about the place is the living room and bedroom my sister and I shared; the safety of familiarity.
Regardless of nostalgia, I was ecstatic when we moved. I was finally going to have my own room, and I got a whole three months to enjoy it before Hurricane Andrew came through and ripped the entire place to shreds.
In the aftermath, we relocated to North Miami while the house was being fixed, but I still attended the school my parents had gotten me transferred to during our initial move: Palmetto Elementary, in the upper middle class area of Pinecrest a few miles from our tattered home.
Mom and Dad requested the school relocation for a couple of reasons. One of them was because I had recently taken some test that reported me as gifted, and Palmetto was one of the few elementary schools in South Miami with a gifted program on site. Most of their reasoning, though, was grounded in the fact that my assigned school—Colonial Elementary, three blocks from our house in a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood—did not have a good reputation.
No worries, I was excited either way, and my excitement only slightly wavered on that first day of third grade when I walked into the classroom and looked out on the sea of white faces in front of me.
There’s no real way to describe the feeling of walking into a place where absolutely nobody resembles you in the slightest, especially at my current point in life where I’ve grown so accustomed to the sensation that it’s nearly impossible to differentiate from any other norm.
I was the definition of shy that first year at Palmetto too, which I can’t honestly attribute to being the only black kid in my class because I very well might have been a shy person no matter what; I was eight, I didn’t have reasons for doing the things I did or being the way I was. I just know that that year was the first year I started noticing I was different, and realized I was much happier with my face stuck perpetually in a book, honing the loner skills I wouldn’t come to appreciate until my late twenties.
A few years ago I wrote a short nonfiction piece that got published in a (now defunct, so you can read the story here) literary magazine. It was about this one day in third grade that I’ve come to think of as a turning point in my development, to say the least.
I was in after school care that afternoon, playing baseball with some of the other boys, and I was up to bat. The kid pitching was this redhead, freckled kid who had always had this habit—the entire school year—of messing with me. It was weird, something I wasn’t used to; he’d look at me—stare at me—waiting until I noticed and paid him attention. Then he’d snicker and look away. He did it without fail, every time he passed me in the hallway or in the classroom or on the P.E. field or in the cafeteria, and I could never figure out why.
This was before I realized that shitty people just exist sometimes, and I’ve always been horrible with social cues, so I just ignored him. Kept my head down, choosing instead to stay up-to-date with the fictional worlds of Roald Dahl and Lois Lowry, Lynne Reid Banks and Beverly Cleary, Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine and anything with Stan Lee’s name on it.
Anyways, this kid gave me that same look that day on the baseball field out back of Palmetto—a line of boys standing behind me waiting for their turn to take a crack at it—right before he pitched the ball into the side of my head. I remember the impact, the burst of white stars that faded slowly back into the baseball field filled with my shocked peers.
I took the hit with confusion, raising my head to ask him if he’d done that on purpose or he was just really bad at throwing. Before I could respond though, the boy yelled:
When I protested what was obviously not a strike—the bruise on my face could confirm that, unless the rules of baseball had magically changed all of a sudden—he came over and pushed me on the ground, then jumped on me and started punching me in the head while repeatedly screaming “You’re a liar, liar, stupid black boy liar.”
My parents tell me now that we, as a family, had dealt with many blatantly racist situations in the U.S. prior to this day, moments that I had either been too young to notice or that they just spun to me in a way that wouldn’t seem as offensive, so I would just brush it off and stop asking questions.
There was the day my two year old sister—four years my junior—had a seizure and my mom and dad called 911 for help. She was badly asthmatic back then—sickly overall actually, major allergies since birth—and when the paramedics came to our crappy (yet homely, I protest) Cutler Ridge apartment, they took one look at her, a second look at my parents and me, then told them to take my sister to the hospital themselves. A cop who showed up soon after ended up berating them for what was obviously a moment of barefaced discrimination, right before the paramedics left the scene (without my sister, of course). Nothing ever came of that one.
Another time before my sister was born, my parents decided to explore a little during an (ill-advised) road trip around the southern states. Driving through South Carolina (oh, hey, S.C., there you are) we were pulled over by a state trooper who—after checking both my parents licenses—ordered them and me out of the car while he rummaged through our luggage and searched the vehicle for “drug paraphernalia.” When he didn’t find anything on the young couple with their baby son, he walked over and glared at us, asking what our purpose was in his state, at which point I (according to my mother) smiled and waved at him and said, “Hi, Mr. Policeman,” in that totally non-ironic way only kids can get away with without sounding snarky. The cop left in a huff and we hightailed it out of that back-asswards territory double step.
My parents also tell me about my year in kindergarten, at Whispering Pines Elementary, where I was the only kid in my class who could read and so was—understandably—bored out of my mind during the hours my teacher spent going over the alphabet with my classmates. Boredom has been the bane of my existence ever since I can remember, so it’s no surprise that I would start to daydream and stare out the window and find alternate ways to entertain myself; never outright disrupting the class (never been that type), but apparently doing enough to get the teacher’s attention. During Parent’s Night that year, my Mom and Dad showed up to find my seat segregated from the rest of the class, and were both visibly upset. When they asked me why, I pointed at my teacher. When they asked her why, she promptly told them that I was “unruly,” and further indicated that this was probably a result of my upbringing at home. I don’t remember much of this—I was probably off coloring or something—but my parents do. They still get angry whenever I mention it.
But that day at Palmetto Elementary, standing behind the school on the baseball field with a bat in my hand and the redhead boy on top of me punching me in the head and screaming about my skin color, I had my first and most openly violent experience with racism pointed directly at me.
And I was surprisingly okay with it. Emboldened actually. I had never been in a fight, and his small fists were like love taps against my skull (those who’ve never met me: I have an enormous head; seriously, buying hats is an issue).
I was okay with it, that is, until the kid jammed his knee up between my legs. Which was…unpleasant, to say the least. Rolling around with my hand on my junk, gasping in breaths as my stomach tipped into that familiar whipping motion that accompanies any testicle shot, I watched as the kid stood up and turned to his friends, proceeding to flex like he was king of the world.
And then, at that moment, it hit me. That if I didn’t do something—anything—I’d never get up off that ground. Sure, I might stand up. I probably would even walk away from this without any long-lasting physical effects. But my dignity would remain right there, strapped to that dusty patch of grass, pushing against my own self-loathing for the rest of my life like some modified modern version of Sisyphus.
Obviously I didn’t actually think any of that. I was eight. I was just pissed off.
The adrenaline of anger has a numbing effect, and it blocked out any pain from my bruises and crotch as I stood, holding the aluminum Louisville Slugger bat at my side like a light saber (it was around this age that I first saw Star Wars, so I like to think the reference is keeping in line with the mood of the time). I raised the bat over my shoulder, led off with my left leg, and cracked the kid right across his ass.
Redhead fell immediately and I raised the bat over my head to give him another one—a good one this time, none of this soft-padding buttock crap—just as the after school care attendant came over and ripped the bat from my hands. Grabbing my arm and the other kid’s, he started dragging us towards the main office, which was when it finally dawned on me that I was in trouble.
I’d never been sent to the Principal’s Office before—had never even been in a fight before, that mythical event I had previously thought sounded so damn cool. At the thought of my father finding out about the incident (never mind that he’s always preached, to little effect, that I should stick up for myself; logic doesn’t win out in the mind of an eight year old who thinks he’s headed for an ass whooping) I promptly burst into tears.
Sitting in the office, I stared at the kid in a chair across the room from me, and bawled. It could have been a scene from a children’s sitcom if I’d been watching from the outside. You had the redhead instigator on one side of the room, swinging his legs back and forth and picking his nails distractedly, bored, almost as if he’d already forgotten why he’d been dragged to the office to begin with. On the other side of the room was me, all shuddering shoulders and breathless gasps, my face contorted and drenched with tears and snot.
The head of after school care at that time was a fire-haired woman named Ms. Faine, who I had always been slightly afraid of due to her tendency to glare at me every time we met face to face (to her credit, glaring seemed to be just what she did). Up until then I had avoided registering on her radar, but this day she decided that I was the problem not just in this particular incident, but with the entire sorry state of Palmetto Elementary after school care overall.
“Shut up!” she screamed (which, of course, only made me cry harder). “Shut! Up! You’re only crying because you’re in trouble. Just shut the hell up before you make things worse for yourself!”
Not once did she speak to the redhead kid who had instigated the fight and was now staring at me with a gleeful smile on his face.
I don’t believe in fate, but if it exists then it flexed its muscles a bit that day when my mom walked in, just as Ms. Faine was laying into me. One thing you do not want to do in front of a Jamaican mother (or any mother, I expect) is yell at her child, especially when he’s bawling like a stuck pig.
My mother went full lioness mode. She stared Ms. Faine down, clenched her fists, and growled. Told the woman if she ever spoke to me like that again, both she and my father would do everything in their power to make sure she no longer worked at that school. How dare she talk to me like that.
“I know my son,” she said. “Whatever he did, he was provoked.”
And as Ms. Faine stuttered out some sort of defense and tried to explain that I was in the wrong, my mother told her that was bullshit, then grabbed me and walked out.
My mom took me to Burger King that night. I remember that more vividly than any other part of the day, and I’d like to pause here to throw a quick apology her way . Because in writing the published piece about this altercation years ago, I mistakenly thought it was my dad that picked me up that day (sorry ma, way sexist of me).
I look back at that incident now and see things in it I didn’t see then because I was too distraught and too young; namely the racist undertones. I got a lot of flak throughout the three years I was at Palmetto, and I typically wrote it off as people picking on the small kid who liked to read, which just served to push me further into my books. As a result, I credit those early years with my hunger for literature today, and of my love for education overall.
However, I also credit it with my loner mentality. It never once occurred to me that it had any other effect on my psyche until recently, when I began to examine this notion of marginalization, and the related idea of Having a Voice. Or the lack thereof.
Because, while I look back at that day as something that instigated a positive outcome in my life—it brought me and my mom closer together, cementing in me the idea that I’ve always got her in my corner while also bolstering my belief that a focus on education is the key to upward mobility and less active hostility in your life—it also did something extremely detrimental to my social development.
Because I never got in another fight again.
That isn’t to say I never wanted to get in another fight again. I just never fought again. About anything.
That day, on that P.E. field, was the first time I instinctually reacted to a moment of marginalization with anger and retaliation, and I was quickly and harshly (and unjustly) disciplined for it. I was smart enough then to put the numbers together: my reaction plus other’s reactions equals me getting yelled at. I’ve always been decent at math and, besides, that’s not a very difficult equation.
Just don’t react. Ever.
I never said anything to anybody about how I felt after that day either. But looking back now I can’t help thinking that the only reason I remember that day so vividly is because of the lasting negative effect it had on me. I was essentially traumatized, retreating even further into myself with the complete certainty that I just was not the type of person who could or should ever stick up for myself.
Essentially, that day, at eight years old, my voice was cut off. Stifled. Constrained to a part of my mind that operated behind a thick, concrete wall. And it would take 23 years for that dude to break through.
I look back on that day now and it’s hard for me not to be enraged to the point of tears for that little boy who had no clue what was happening to him; how to articulate it, how to even see the future of kowtowing that lay ahead of him because of a small decision that he made out of an effort for self preservation. I frequently wish I could go back in time and just sit with him, hug him, tell him none of that—none of this—was his fault, and that he did the right thing. I’m not even sure it would make a difference if I could. Which is one of the many sources of my anger. And, my guilt.
Because—while that little boy was marginalized and should never have had to deal with a situation like that—it’s nearly impossible to relate that story as a black man in America without catching glimpses of past events that operated in the same hemisphere but with so much more intensity. Massive hurricanes to my summer thunderstorm. Events that me and my family know about, but had no part in due to our status as immigrants and immigrant-born.
We all know the tragedies of racism throughout history, the long-lasting, pervasive and violent effects slavery and the Civil War era had on black Americans (if you don’t, go smack your history teacher then watch Amistad, Twelve Years a Slave, and Glory for a quick overview).
Slavery and the aftermath of slavery leading up to present day U.S. society were crushing, a weight laid on top of an entire subculture of America that has been lightened over the years but not anywhere close to removed. Kind of like somebody adopting a dog, beating the shit out of it for a couple of centuries then—when the dog finally gets pissed and growls—dumping the battered thing in the middle of a deserted field and driving away.
Yet all I see nowadays are people acting like these things either didn’t happen, or they weren’t horrendous enough to have ripple effects that are still creating modern day tsunamis.
So a quick history lesson to counteract the things I’ve read from countless deniers in the past year or so of racial upheaval instigated by social media: contrary to what seems to be popular belief, one in every four households in the antebellum south owned slaves. Specific census data—including charts highlighting the percentage of slaveholding families in each state in 1860—had family slave-owning percentages in the most egregious states ranging anywhere from 29% in Louisiana to 49% in Mississippi, where slaves actually made up 55% of the population (34% of the families in my home state of Florida owned slaves).
To put that into perspective, walk outside your house (or apartment). Look at your neighbor across the street/hall. Look at your neighbor to the right, then the one to the left. In the mid-19th century South, one of those families owned one or more black people. And if not, you did.
It was business as usual for a couple centuries before our country nearly tore itself in half over this issue of keeping black people as property. In 1861, eleven territories officially seceded to create the Confederate States of America (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee) with two more (Kansas and Missouri) never officially seceding but declaring themselves in line with the views of the new rebel nation. And just to make sure everybody knew exactly why they were going to all this trouble, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, delivered his iconic Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia that year, stating (among other things):
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [of the Union]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
A fine piece of heritage attached to the traitorous flag so many Americans still tout today.
And for what it’s worth, the three-fourths of southern whites that didn’t own slaves have their place in the history books as well. Because most of the reasons people didn’t own slaves in pre-Civil War America were not moral; they were economical. Slaves were damn expensive. This did not, however, reflect a common abolitionist sentiment (as people who love to claim that “not everybody owned slaves, my ancestors didn’t” seem to be insinuating). It actually instigated further disdain. Kind of like seeing a guy driving a Bentley Coupe and suddenly hating your Honda Civic.
According to the Department of State:
“It is easy to understand the interest of the planters in slave holding. But the yeomen and poor whites supported the institution of slavery as well. They feared that, if freed, blacks would compete with them economically and challenge their higher social status. Southern whites defended slavery not simply on the basis of economic necessity but out of a visceral dedication to white supremacy.”
Needless to say, it wasn’t a good time for black people. Death, anguish, forced subservience—nobody wants that in their lives.
But when I read about the founding years of our Great Nation, what always stands out to me as the most damning aspect—the part that I believe is primarily responsible for the generations of conflict and second-class status that still stands tall in black communities today—is the stifling effect this entire era had on black voices. The voices that were stolen, both emotionally through efforts of mental submission, and physically by snatching the life out of any black person who dared stand up for themselves or their family.
Which, in the end, breaks down a people’s ability to develop.
To exhibit pride.
To effectively build a lasting, happy culture.
I’ve spent a long time lamenting this feeling of emptiness within me that’s pervaded every aspect of my life since I was a kid, this sense that I’ve never really been an actual person: a free-thinking individual with hopes and dreams and stances on important issues and moral beliefs based on personal reasoning and a personality.
However, in this new decade of my life (turning 32 in December, good God) the vehement defensiveness I’ve started to feel about me and mines has given way to an onslaught of realizations about who I really am.
Which is the basis of my anger. Because I wish I’d been allowed to feel this—to discover this—at a much younger age, like so many of my non-black peers did. It might have stopped me from a lot of the stupid mistakes I’ve made (maybe not, I could have just been another idiotic teenager; either way, I’ll never know).
Yet, even in my anger, I can’t help thinking about the thousands—millions—who were never even allowed to reach this point of realization; who were brutally struck down for even raising their chin.
I think about them, and I know I’m better off.
So then…why am I still so fucking angry?
My sophomore year in high school I had a group of friends I hung out with every morning before class. The group started out as just me and a couple of white and Hispanic guys I’d met in math and English in ninth grade, and slowly grew to include their respective friends from middle school and our neighborhoods and any girls the guys in the group ended up dating. I didn’t come with any of those historical additions though; I didn’t know anybody at my high school when I got there. So once again, I was the only black guy, for the first couple of years at least (we eventually added this guy David in eleventh grade; thanks for switching it up Dave).
As luck would have it, a couple of months into sophomore year I realized I had a lot in common with one of the girls that had started hanging out at The Table with us; a girl (I’ll refer to her as Jessica) who was a year ahead of me, which made her that much more appealing. Jessica and I liked the same music, had the same sense of humor and both had this conversely sardonic and hopeful outlook of life as an adolescent.
Jessica and I quickly became friends, walking with each other to and from class and hanging out during lunch and talking with ease about—pretty much everything. Our friendship evolved more naturally than any I’d ever had with a girl before, from saying hi in the hallways to actively seeking each other out for daily updates to long, intricate handwritten notes pressed into each other’s palms, inside jokes and sly glances when we hung out with the larger group.
I still don’t really remember when I fell for her. I just remember the day she told me she was into me, and how happy I was.
It was one of the first and only times in my life I ever had a relationship develop out of a friendship; romance building naturally out of a prior foundation and not some hyper-sexual interaction with me developing an emotional connection later on (which describes almost all of my relationships since then). We were, in a sense, best friends who just so happened to be attracted to each other, which was perfect. I was happy, ecstatic really, for all of two weeks before she broke up with me.
Teenage guys—especially teenage guys in the circles I traveled in—are not really allowed to show emotional pain, not if they want to keep any semblance of dignity. This is common knowledge, but knowing that’s how things are and following the social cues are two different situations. I managed to come off as okay on the surface after Jessica and I broke up, but inside I was devastated. And, of course—age old tale—I proceeded to take it out on any girl who showed interest in me for the next two years, actively seeking promiscuity and displaying sexist behavior which only seemed to compound my trust and self-esteem issues.
The never-ending cycle.
I look back now, knowing what I know, and I don’t blame Jessica for breaking up with me, or how I reacted. Jessica was a really good girl from a good Colombian home who had never had a boyfriend before. And despite us being friends before dating, we still progressed from not knowing each other at all to a full-on relationship in a relatively short period of time. Plus—though she wasn’t the first girl I’d “dated” (I was 16)—she was the first girl I’d ever really cared about, which made my already inherently awkward teenage self even more awkward around her as her boyfriend, in a way I hadn’t been when we were just friends. Within days I found myself abandoning the easy flow of our interactions that had characterized our pre-romantic relationship, stuttering and straining for conversation and generally spending a lot of time sweating.
These were all the excuses I’d attribute to the situation later on. Partly to let myself off the hook. Partly to let her off too.
Years later, while I was in graduate school, I came in contact with Jessica again through Facebook. Both of us in our late-twenties now, I found out she had relocated to Kansas and gotten married, giving birth to twins. I was happy for her, looking back at our time in high school as one of those influential periods in both of our social developments. We reminisced for a little, laughed some and it was nice, a sense of closure I didn’t realize I’d been seeking.
It always bothered me though, the way that we broke up, the lack of explanation and the fact that she simply disappeared from my life afterwards, actively avoiding me until she graduated. Something like that can wreak havoc on a teenage boy’s already fragile confidence, and it lingered with me throughout the years. So I had to ask: what happened?
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said.
Take it? Take what?
“People just wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Confused, I asked her to explain, and what she told me brought on one of those moments that can only be described as a paradigm shift. On the positive side, I was relieved to know now that I had played a minimal part in the demise of our friendship (though I still think my shyness was a factor). On the negative side, I found out that—for pretty much the entire time Jessica and I were together, both as friends and more—she was being harassed.
“I didn’t tell you,” she said. “I thought it would hurt your feelings. I didn’t know what to do.”
Apparently, the moment it became obvious to people around school that she and I were getting serious, the name calling and badgering began. Everybody, on both sides of the race, had something to say about the white Hispanic girl and the black guy dating, and seemed to have no trouble voicing their mostly negative opinions directly to her. It quickly soured her to not just me but the entire idea of high school dating, which led to our break up and years of second-guessing myself. Jessica, for her part, didn’t date another guy until after she graduated.
Hearing about it from her at that point in my life—this was just a few years ago—I found it hard to be retroactively upset about the situation. So much had happened since then, so many situations so similar to what she was describing that I couldn’t even say I was surprised. If anything, all I felt was a panging sense of wonder, at what could have been. I’m not saying we would have stayed “together forever” or anything as clichéd (and statistically unlikely) as that. But I like to think things would have ended on a more optimistic note, rather than being just another miniscule blip on the pock-marked road of my romantic life.
Because, what Jessica told me that day has happened in some form with almost every girl I’ve dated since I realized dating was a thing.
Anybody who’s visited Miami finds out fairly quickly—usually in the airport—that this city is largely Hispanic. So it stands to reason that most of the women I’ve dated in my life have been Hispanic. There have been some black girls, a couple of white ones, a few who identified all over the place. But Miami has a ratio and there is one race that dominates that pie chart.
I realized early on that my race and overall status as a Jamaican-American posed very specific problems for the trajectory of my dating life.
There was the blonde girl at Coral Reef Summer Camp where I volunteered before eleventh grade, a one month tryst that ended similarly to the relationship with Jessica, due to blondie’s friends making fun of her for dating a black guy. Only they were much bolder and did it right in front of me. Of course, I laughed it off.
Another Colombian girl in Miami on a student visa to study at FIU dropped me once her father saw my picture. I shrugged. She was probably going back home after she graduated anyways, and I always suspected—though never officially confirmed—she was trying to pull the marry-for-citizenship play (I’ve become a master at morally justifying the indignities in my life).
My ex-fiancée-to-be, who I met in college (more on her later) still represents some of the most poignant moments of blatant racism I’ve ever experienced in my life.
And during my last semi-serious relationship—a few months of drama that ended just over two years ago—I had to endure my girlfriend’s Cuban mother, who openly despised the fact that her daughter was dating a black guy and made absolutely no effort to hide it. I was known as El Negro in that house—a welfare house in which many people lived and nobody worked and everybody hated Obama (feel like that part needs to be mentioned). Negrito got tossed around in reference to me a lot too. I can count on one hand the amount of times that woman smiled in my direction, and I’m still pretty sure none of the gestures were actually intended for me. Needless to say, that one didn’t last very long (for many, many other reasons).
And the commentary—oh, the commentary.
“You’re really cute—for a black guy.” That seems to be a go to.
“No way I’m bringing you around my family. They’ll flip.” Brushed that one off a couple of times.
“You’re the first one I’ve ever dated—Why? I’ve just never really been into black guys.” (To be clear, I was asking “why are you telling me this?” Never knew how to take that one.)
Or the clincher: “Yeah [I’m dating you, a black guy] but, you’re not really black. You’re like…smart.”
All of this, and so much more, has been said to me, to my face, often with an innocent smile. Which makes it sting just that much more.
It’s all part of the overall existence I’ve slowly come to terms with throughout my life; this overwhelming awareness of my black skin due to the equally overwhelming amount of white skin surrounding me. The result is reminiscent of that moment in the iconic spoof of all high school spoofs, Not Another Teen Movie, when Deon Richmond’s character Malik walks up to Sean Patrick Thomas at a kegger and politely asks him to leave because he’s “supposed to be the only black guy at this party.”
I remember laughing especially hard at that part.
“I know. It’s wack.”
My blackness has been the butt of jokes in friendly groups for so long that I can almost always recite the greetings and salutations before they come out of people’s mouth. I’ve heard it all, from the insinuations of criminal activity (“Check the silverware when Pat leaves”) to stabs at my intellectual capabilities (“Come on man, black people don’t know how to read”) to stabs at my physical capabilities (“Come on man, black people can’t swim”) to drunken declarations that any given house has “Reached the black quota!” once I walk through the door, to offhanded comments like “I wouldn’t normally invite a black guy, but you’re cool” tossed out with a flick of the hand, as if they’re nothing but words.
Let me be clear: this happens all the time.
All. The. Time.
Not just daily, but multiple times a day, to the point that I stopped hearing it for a while.
The commentary, whether from a romantic interest or my guy friends, is always given in the frame of camaraderie, that almighty cop-out that bars people like me from protesting in any way, lest we look too much like the “Angry black man taking things too seriously.”
So, socially, you have a choice: accept it, or walk out. And risk being a social pariah.
And make no mistake, these are your only two choices. Because to retaliate in kind is nearly impossible. There’s nothing I can say to a white guy that would ever cut as deep on the racial lines as the shit he can say to me, and I’ve been all too aware of that fact since I was old enough to talk back.
Which brings me back to my anger, and the associated guilt.
Upon analysis, my anger is not at the specific incidents outlined above. Rather, it is a direct reaction to the deep, societal sentiments that make people think it’s okay to say the things they say to me and other black people; an underlying sense of light-skinned superiority that pervades U.S. culture.
White Supremacy, to be exact.
It’s evident in nearly every aspect of our existence as a society, and is a layover of this country’s history; a history heinous enough to explain my concurrent guilt at being so mad over mere words.
Following the Civil War, the period known as Reconstruction gave way to seven or eight years of black upward trajectory, particularly in politics. For the first time in America, black people held public office, were voting on public issues and actively making a difference in their own lives and the lives of other people in their communities. For the first time, they had a voice.
Of course, white people in the south did not like that. Not one bit.
Enter the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the White League, to name a few of the superstars (trust me, there were more); terrorist organizations with the triple-threat purposes of suppressing this new-found black activism, restoring blacks to their previously subservient nature and concurrently restoring white supremacy. They labeled this movement the Redeemed South, pledging to take back their territory and return it to the values of the past (if that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the great-grandfather of today’s Tea Party movement slogan).
Through violence—including lynchings, shootings, and the burning of black houses and black businesses in black communities all over the south—these organizations were able to plummet the south to very nearly pre-Civil War conditions, enacting black codes and vagrancy statutes that, according to Douglas Blackmon in his 2008 book Slavery by Another Name, were tantamount to “new slavery.”
In an effort to stop the violence and save black people in the south, Booker T. Washington proposed in 1895 what would come to be known as the Atlanta Compromise, negotiating with other black leaders an agreement that black people in the community would work humbly, submit to white political rule and ultimately acknowledge white superiority in exchange for freedom from harassment and some (very limited) educational opportunities.
Fellow activist W.E.B. Du Boise staunchly opposed the compromise to no avail, and would later state in response that “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
This legalized status as a second-class citizen was never more apparent than during the Jim Crow era of “separate but equal” status that dominated the next sixty years of black existence in the south.
Jim Crow laws essentially told black people, in legal jargon, quite a few things: that they were not worthy of a voice, that they had no right to protest how the rest of the nation viewed and treated them, and that—ultimately—their very lives were a privilege and not a right.
As a result, it’s in our history—in the black genetic code—to be kicked to second place, if we place at all.
Separate but equal was anything but. Government funding went primarily to white schools, leaving many black schools as little more than shacks with barely a desk inside. And once desegregation took hold in the sixties, White Flight from areas of desegregation ostensibly continued the trend of white supremacy, privilege, and separate but unequal trends that has lasted through today.
Practices such as redlining and the targeting of white areas for government funds have left black people in America gasping for air for decades, kept from opportunities to move upward within American society, perpetually cycling through the reinforcement of stereotypes against our culture. Which has done nothing but foster this anger—my anger, black people’s anger—that has given way to violence and degradation, part (but not nearly all) of the reason for the overwhelming numbers of incarceration in African-American communities.
Again, it’s all a cycle, one that was started long before the Civil Rights Movement and was not stopped but merely slowed down—albeit considerably so—by that effort.
The effects can be seen in every aspect and every industry in which black people are present, from entertainment to business to technology to the service industry. Even in agriculture, the art of producing usable products from nature—something American history would suggest the black race is particularly qualified for—discrimination persists. Between 1981 and 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against thousands of black American farmers throughout the country, denying loan funds which were subsequently given to white farmers under similar circumstances. The issue was the main argument behind the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit filed against the USDA by the National Black Farmers Association, a suit that led to two separate settlements of $1.25 billion in 1999 and $1.15 billion in 2009.
The money was undoubtedly a help. But no amount of money can fix emotional damage, a phenomenon that is evident in the demeanors of black people and black communities all across the nation.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations”: “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
I fell in love—real, true love—my junior year at Florida State University. She was a freshman, a white girl—Italian and Irish—from a city just north of Daytona Beach named Palm Coast. We met during the summer of 2007, her first semester in Tallahassee. Tallahassee summers are hot as hell and boring, nothing to do outside of class other than party and lay around.
Candace (I’ll call her Candace) and I met under those conditions, went home for summer break and ended up talking on the phone all day every day for the two weeks before fall semester began. By time I got back to school, I was smitten and—thankfully—so was she. And for a while things were really, really good. Of course she frequently mentioned our status as an interracial couple, but in those early years I never got the sense that she was looking down on it; rather, she seemed to simply get herself riled up to the point of murderous anger whenever anybody else said something even vaguely racist about us (and believe me, people—especially from her hometown—did so frequently).
I planned on proposing to her around our four year anniversary. By that point I had started my thesis hours in my graduate program at University of Central Florida. She had transferred there to finish undergrad and be closer to me. We shared an apartment with a dog and a cat, and we talked about having kids.
But, underneath all that, there was a strain of animosity that had developed between us due to a few too many drunken fights, one too many (as in one is too many) early-relationship infidelities on both our parts. I tried to ignore it, remember the girl I saw as my best friend; the girl I not only loved sleeping with but loved just sitting with, in a room with some speakers and a 90s rock playlist, discussing everything from our future to why Zebra Cakes are the greatest snack ever created.
I don’t know where that part of our relationship went. All I know is that—by time I realized I couldn’t be both honest to myself and continue my plan to propose to her, by time we had the fight to end all fights and she moved back to Palm Coast with her mom and stepdad—we couldn’t be in the same room with each other without going at it.
That first month after I was heartbroken. Barely left my apartment other than to eat and watch movies (I was taking online lectures that summer, which allowed me to really, properly slip back into loner mode). By time I got offered my first teaching assistantship, I seriously doubted I could even go on campus again, much less teach a class and finish my thesis. We didn’t speak for that entire time. We had moved to Orlando together. I didn’t know anybody. The entire city reminded me of her. My apartment smelled like her.
Then, one day, I woke up and felt like writing. It was a joyous occasion, and I proceeded to write for six hours straight that day, formulating much of the first few chapters of my thesis, what would eventually become my first novel Quarter Life Crisis. The main character, who I had previously written as a simple bum with no idea what he wanted to do with his life, was now a bum with no idea who’d just gone through a break up.
Original, I know (that’s sarcasm, btw). But it was effective at getting me out of my slump. Catharsis through literature. The cliché of all clichés. Hallelujah.
Within a week I was headed towards being my old self. I dug up the number of an old acquaintance who lived in Orlando and invited myself out for a hookah night, quickly becoming close with some of her friends. Within another week the contact list in my phone no longer looked like a wasteland and—though hanging out with them was yet another barrage of black jokes lining up for the kill—I wasn’t alone in my grieving process anymore and therefore felt well on the way to recovery.
About two months after our break up, Candace called me to see how I was doing. Thankfully, I was doing okay. I had just turned in a few chapters to my thesis advisor and gotten some good feedback. I was enjoying my first semester teaching Creative Writing courses to UCF juniors who seemed to see me—only 26 and therefore close enough to their age to make it weird I was teaching them—as a vision of their near future, relatable yet ambitious enough to inspire (I like to think that’s how it was at least; they very likely all thought I was a prick).
The call came late at night, and I could hear something in her voice even then. There had been a sort of steel in her tone when she first left and moved all her stuff out, taking the dog and leaving me with the cat (she swears this wasn’t out of spite…I beg to differ). But that night, on the phone, she sounded like her old self: sweet, friendly, conversational. She seemed to genuinely want to know how I was doing, and I found myself wanting to know the same about her. We talked for about an hour, and right around the moment I realized that she’d been drinking, she told me she missed me and wanted to try again.
My initial reaction was an emphatic yes—let’s be real, I wasn’t actually okay—which I unfortunately voiced. She was ecstatic, and we got off the phone that night with plans to meet up the next day, at a point in the middle of the hour drive between Orlando and Palm Coast. I went out to the living room then to tell my old acquaintance, who had recently become my roommate (rent ain’t cheap), what had just happened. She proceeded to remind me exactly why me and Candace broke up in the first place. Reminded me of the weight and burden I’d felt waking up next to her those last few months.
I went to sleep that night troubled, but woke up in the morning with a certainty: getting back with Candace was a bad idea.
I had plans to move to San Francisco, or New York. I wanted to see the world, and write about it. And single life around UCF had proven itself to be not as…uh…cumbersome as I thought it would be.
Candace wanted to settle down. Now. Have some kids and do the domestic thing right there and then. I couldn’t even imagine what that would be like. All I kept thinking about were the looks people would give us, and our kids. The looks people already gave us whenever we went out. Orlando is coming up on the Progressive tip, but not nearly fast enough (to put a fine point on it, Sanford—the place where Trayvon Martin would be shot and killed just a few years later—was about 10 minutes away from my apartment).
So I called Candace, told her we’d made a mistake having that conversation the night before. We weren’t meant to be together, we were toxic around each other. And in that sober moment, she sadly agreed. It was the most civil post-break-up conversation I had ever had in my life, and I loved her for it. Indeed, right then, I wished on everything I held dear that we had met at different points in our lives. My heart poured for her.
Two weeks later, I was out with some friends in Downtown Orlando having a couple of drinks when my phone rang. It was Candace. I picked up, and she was drunk on the other end.
“You’re a fucking asshole,” she stated.
I was drunk too, so I laughed, which apparently was the wrong thing to do.
“I’m never dating another black guy again,” she said. “Fucking niggers are all the same.”
I hung up on her and was just the right amount of drunk to brush it off. The next morning though, it all came rushing back, and before I had a chance to confront her, I got a text message: Sorry about last night. I was wasted. Whatever I said, I didn’t mean it.
It’s a common tactic to feign memory loss the morning after a drunken night. I know this; anybody who knows me personally knows I’ve perpetrated the same act countless times. I still loved her, despite her faults, so I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt (especially since she technically wasn’t my problem anymore). I told her it was okay, that she should chill out with the heavy drinking (like I should be talking), and left it at that.
Over the next few weeks, though, the calls became more and more frequent. The racist undertones scaled back slightly, but she was adept at finding other ways to berate me for supposedly ruining her life. She called me screaming angry, she called me crying, she called me laughing maniacally with her friends in the background yelling about how much fun she was having and how glad she was that she dropped me.
I don’t know why I continued to pick up, but I did, nearly every time, and sat there on the phone with her until she inevitably hung up on me (or, typically in a drunken rage, I hung up on her after telling her she was being ridiculous). Funny thing was, none of the phone calls were about us getting back together. They mostly seemed to be about this idea that I’d wasted her time, convinced her of a future that never really existed. I can’t even really say whether or not she was right. Maybe I did.
About four or five months after we broke up, Candace started seeing somebody else, and in that common manner of ex-boyfriends that still baffles me to this day, I got jealous. Especially when I found out the guy was, as is prevalent in Palm Coast, redneck as hell.
My distant disdain for the guy was short-lived though when the phone calls became less frequent. I figured we’d reached a turning point and things would start to level out. Maybe we could both go back to our lives. She’d recently gone through some traumatic stuff—her best friend’s mother dying (I attended the funeral out of respect, and we actually had a civil conversation afterwards) and her troubles with school compounding. She seemed to want to get her shit together, and I was just far enough away for her to be out of sight, out of mind.
Then one day she called and said two words that are possibly the oddest thing a man can hear from a woman he hasn’t dated in half a year: “I’m pregnant.”
Obviously the baby wasn’t mine (though the instinctual belief that it was caused my heart to stop for at least half a second). Which meant it was this new guy’s. I found myself slightly hurt, though I hid it, testing the waters to see what she felt about it.
“It should’ve been yours,” she said. We hung up that day ominously, me with no clue what was the right next move.
What do you say to an ex-girlfriend who finds out she’s pregnant from a man she openly admits is a rebound? What do you say to yourself, when you notice your jealousy meter is peaking in spite of the circumstances?
I tried to write it off, forget the entire thing and just focus on my last semester as a graduate student. Then the phone calls started again, only this time there was a male voice on the other end.
“Stay the fuck away from my girl,” the guy said. The first time this happened, I honestly thought the girl I’d been seeing casually had a boyfriend and hadn’t told me. Then I realized it was my ex’s number and laughed, then hung up on him.
For a month, Candace and her new boyfriend called me nearly every weekend, drunkenly harassing me, his apparently racist attitude rubbing off on her so that what started as common post-breakup laments quickly grew sinister.
On one occasion, they both called just to tell me I was a nigger (thanks for that, have a nice evening).
On another occasion, Candace called to tell me my roommate was a nigger (my roommate, a blonde white girl from Homestead, Florida, was understandably amused).
I was able to brush these off due to prior experience, and even kept picking up the phone calls out of some lingering sense of respect for her and the knowledge that she was more than likely being brainwashed (to her limited credit, she was very obviously wasted on each and every single one of these occasions).
Then, one day, I got the customary call from her number while out at a rooftop bar Downtown with some friends from the side job I’d gotten serving tables at Smokey Bones to help pay rent. It was her boyfriend/future baby daddy, and he was livid.
“I told you to stay the fuck away from my girl,” he said.
Up until this point, I’d somehow managed to keep my cool. But this was just ridiculous now. Candace and I had broken up nearly eight months earlier at this point, and the only time we’d seen each other since then was at her best friend’s mother’s funeral. I barely remembered what she looked like at that point (as is customary for many men, I destroyed every single thing with her face on it in our apartment after she left).
“I’m not calling your girl,” I said. “She keeps calling me.”
There was a pause, the faint bump of bass in the background coming from the bar, me leaning against the bathroom wall where I’d taken the call.
“I know where you live, bitch,” he said, as if I hadn’t said a word. “We lynch niggers down here.” And he hung up.
I stood in the bathroom for a long time after that, inebriated and therefore taking a long time to process the situation. I couldn’t wrap my head around what had just happened. It seemed comical, as if I would get a call back from the guy any moment and he’d be laughing on the other end, sort of like all my friends always did after they made some blatantly racist joke to my face—just playing, Pat, don’t get all Angry Black Man on me.
But this guy wasn’t my friend. I didn’t even know him. What I did know was the girl he had impregnated, my ex-girlfriend Candace, did indeed know where I lived. She and I had picked out the apartment together.
I went back to the bar and took a couple of shots, then a couple more until I stopped thinking about it.
The next morning I made it very clear, through text message, that any other communication from her would be reported straight to the authorities. She was nonplussed, called me to talk about it but I refused to pick up. I was enraged. I told her to lose my contact info, and if she knew what was good for her she would lose her Jim Crow-era boyfriend too. Then I blocked her number and went on about my life.
Though the incident really did bother me, I’d gotten so used to brushing occurrences off that I really didn’t think about it for months after that (granted, I was teaching two classes and in the final death throes of thesis defense preparation, so I had ample distraction). Central Florida was an enigma to me; part of my home state, just four hours from the city I was born in, but sometimes it seemed like another world. Living there, I began to see what people meant when they talked about the deep south. Whereas in Miami I mostly dealt with racism on an I’m-just-joking-don’t-take-it-so-seriously level, guys in Orlando just didn’t give a shit. They’d tell you straight to your face they didn’t like you, five minutes after meeting you.
I remember a time walking into a bar called Cowboys with my roommate and some of her friends (the name should’ve probably given it away, but I’d been there before without much of an issue) and walking up to the bar to get a drink. The bartender looked at me with a smirk on his face, his eyes studying me from head to toe. He walked over and, very distinctly said “You must be lost.” He followed it up quickly with “whatcha drinking?” I was sort of awestruck, so I just ordered and pretended I hadn’t heard him. The guy made my drink, brought it back, then went over to take care of some other people. That same night, in the back of the bar, I tried to get a drink from a guy who completely ignored me for ten minutes, though by that point the bar wasn’t busy at all. I went home that night thinking the first guy was actually the decent one. At least he served me.
Tallahassee—where my undergrad alma matter FSU is located—was no different. The night Obama got elected for the first time in ‘08, Candace and I (the good ol’ days) drove by a group of people outside with signs celebrating. I honked my horn twice, put a hand up in recognition of what I considered (at the time) a significant victory for the state of race relations in the U.S.
Instantly, red and blue lights filled my rearview mirror.
The state trooper who approached asked me why I was honking. This was at nine o’clock at night on busy Tennessee street right across from campus. I told him I was just honking at the Obama supporters. I looked back at them and saw that the state trooper who’d been in the passenger seat was harassing the group, telling them they had to leave (which, in fact, they did not; they were standing outside of a bar where numerous other people were congregating). The cop ended up giving me a ticket for a noise violation, and for not wearing my seatbelt. I’d taken it off to reach into the glove compartment for my registration.
After handing me the ticket, as he walked away, the cop said gruffly—his face drawn, jaw clenched—“Congratulations.” We went straight back to my apartment after that. I like to think I was lucky the guy showed restraint.
Just a few months ago I went to go visit some friends in Austin. It was a great weekend, swimming in the springs and eating way too much food and taking pictures of the massive amounts of art seemingly everywhere. I almost hate to mention the single negative blip, because I honestly haven’t let it influence my good impression of the city. But on our last night out, me and three friends went to a bar with a bull-riding machine. My friends were riding the bull and I had to pee so I went to the bathroom. Inside, I took the open stall, and two white guys with beards wearing full black were standing by the sinks, another black guy using one of the urinals. I closed the door, moved to take a piss, and was in the middle of it when the lights in the bathroom went out. At first I thought the power had shut off, until I heard right outside the stall:
Then the bathroom door opened and closed. I shook off, zipped up, and opened the stall door just as the other black guy in the bathroom turned the lights back on. He looked at me and shook his head.
“Cowards, man,” he said, then washed his hands.
I can’t say I was surprised. Austin or not, it was still Texas.
Yet even with these and numerous other memories stamped on the passport of my life, I still haven’t had anything close to that third grade fight, with the redhead kid dropping me and screaming anger at my blackness as he attempted to pummel me into the ground. I wholly believe it’s the passive attitude I adopted that day that has kept a lot of these situations from escalating to violence.
Which is why it was such an odd experience to hear my ex’s new boyfriend threaten to lynch me over the phone line. I’d spent my whole life trying to avoid those types of altercations, yet there it was anyways.
Months after that incident, after I’d already finished graduate school and was getting ready to move to New York, I would revisit that situation and finally feel real, genuine anger about it, though not nearly as intense as the anger I feel today just talking about such occurrences. I couldn’t believe he’d actually said something like that, and I had to wonder if he knew the history behind the word. I’d already come to the conclusion that he didn’t actually mean it, that he’d just been trying to get a rise out of me. But I also wondered how many times in the past black people had thought to themselves, They’re not really gonna do it, right before they found themselves strung up from a tree, or a lamp post, or the front of their very own house.
In 1891, George Smith (aka Joe Coe) was a black fifty year old married man living and working as a railroad porter in Omaha, Nebraska. He had two children, and his home was on North 12th street, near the area of downtown Omaha.
It’s hard to find details about Smith other than these, but I like to believe he was a simple man, though I know from experience that humans are rarely ever simple, the complexities of the mind manifesting themselves in various ways throughout a person’s life.
Either way, on October 7th, Smith/Coe was living his life as freely as a black man in 1890s Nebraska could when he found himself accused by five year old Lizzie Yates of assault and rape. Yates was white, and other than the initial charge itself there is no indication that any evidence was ever presented to support the accusation. Additionally, Coe had an alibi for the time period when Yates accused him of the crime, as well as witnesses who attested to his innocence.
Nevertheless, Coe was arrested and brought to the Douglas County Courthouse that day.
Accused and convicted of rape several years earlier in Council Bluffs, a city near Omaha, Coe was immediately thought guilty by the white community, who bristled at the rumor that Joe Coe had not only raped a white girl but killed her, and was only receiving a small sentence of twenty years. Coe wasn’t even the man’s name—the newspapers dubbed him that for some reason, along with spreading the untrue rumor that Yates was dead.
Within hours, a mob formed outside the courthouse, initially starting as a thousand citizens and quickly swelling to ten thousand at its peak. Overwhelmed, the city officials had no choice but to let the mob take Smith, at which point they dragged him to the victim’s house where her mother identified him as a man she’d seen snooping around the neighborhood (though she couldn’t be sure and would not swear it). Assured of his guilt, the mob cinched a rope around Smith’s neck and proceeded to drag him through the city streets while beating him relentlessly, all before hanging him from a streetcar wire at 17th and Harney.
In the aftermath, seven men were arrested, at which point another mob formed outside the courthouse demanding their release. The County Attorney wouldn’t give it, which could have been considered a small victory if, not ten days later, the County Coroner didn’t testify in front of a grand jury that George Smith had died of—I wish I was making this up—fright.
[As quoted in a New York Times article published October 20, 1891]: “The heart was so contracted and the blood was in such a condition that the doctor was satisfied the man was literally scared to death.”
The grand jury decided not to prosecute and the accused were all released.
Joe Coe was unique only in that the case—taking place in Nebraska, a free Union territory during the Civil War—displayed a certain harmony between Southern and Northern aggression towards blacks. In the south, Joe Coe happened all the time. In fact, a recent study found that nearly 4,000 Southern black men, women and children were lynched in similar fashion between 1877 and 1950. Most men were lynched following accusations of assault, typically on white women, often times for something as simple as an accident, as was the case in Mississippi fifteen years after Coe when Will Brown was lynched within minutes of bumping into the daughter of a white farmer while rushing to catch his train.
There are no shortage of stories concerning the brutality of white-on-black judgment and execution throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in our country, some of the murders perpetrated by supporters of the KKK, many of them committed simply by angry whites who opposed equality.
Surviving through the ebb and flow of American society’s path towards present day, these same people would later be responsible for the resurgence of Confederate pride seen in the reemerging battle flag during the ’60s, and countless acts of violence including (but not limited to):
- The 1957 murder of Willie Edwards Jr., forced by KKK members to jump from a bridge into the Alabama River
- The 1963 assassination of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in Mississippi
- The 1964 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, in which four teenage girls were killed
- The 1964 murders of three civil rights workers
- The 1964 murders of black teens Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore in Mississippi
- The 1965 murder of Viola Liuzzo, black mother of five attending a civil rights march
- The 1966 firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer Sr.
In 1980, three KKK members shot four elderly black women—Viola Ellison, Lela Evans, Opal Jackson and Katherine Johnson—in Chattanooga, Tennessee after a Klan initiation rally. All three men were acquitted by an all-white jury.
The case would be similar to one that took place that same year in my hometown—just three years before I was born, one year before my mother moved here from Jamaica—in which four police officers would be acquitted by an all-white jury for the murder of Arthur McDuffie, a black man beaten to death during a traffic stop.
Only difference was the McDuffie case didn’t sit right with the black community in Miami, setting off what would come to be known simply as the Miami Riots; three days of mayhem that caused 18 deaths, countless injuries and over $100 million in damage. A lot of the historic black districts of Liberty City and Overtown would end up burned to the ground that year. I drive by there every day to and from work. A lot of the people I see on the streets simply look lost.
I hear about the Miami Riots, and they remind of news reports I saw as a child in ’92, when Los Angeles lost its mind for a couple of days. And this year, when residents of Baltimore and Ferguson stood enraged, raising their fists in retaliation.
Rioting by blacks in the face of injustices like these always warrants the same reaction from peaceful black leaders and the white community alike: violence doesn’t solve anything. Neither does excessive anger. Calm down, wait it out.
Change. Will. Come.
The sentiment always fails, however, to take into account the history of violence perpetrated on blacks, and the unavoidable anger that would arise in any group who found themselves sitting on the sidelines decade after decade, constantly barraged with images of injustice against people who look like them, all while the dominant society keeps telling them to wait their turn.
- Opelousas, Louisiana, 1868: 200-300 blacks killed for attempting to join the Democratic party
- Colfax, Louisiana, 1873: 60-150 blacks killed following the election of 1872
- Coushatta, Louisiana, 1874: 5-20 blacks killed by the White League
- Thibodaux, Louisiana, 1887: 35-300 blacks killed by white laborers angry at a lack of jobs
(I’ll pause here to point out that, if you see a trend of unclear statistics, it’s because nobody ever really bothered to count the dead black bodies)
- Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898: 15-60 killed in what’s considered the pivotal moment in North Carolina’s affirmation of white supremacy and the Redeemed South following the civil war
- Atlanta, Georgia, 1906: 10-100 killed. Just because.
- Louis, Missouri, 1917: 40-200 murders of blacks along with extensive property damage, over jobs
- Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921: 40-300 murdered, along with the destruction by fire of the entire Black Wall Street, including 35 blocks and 1,256 residences, leaving 10,000 black people homeless
- Rosewood, Florida, 1923: six blacks killed, and the entire town of Rosewood burnt to the ground and subsequently abandoned
- Mims, Florida, 1951: home of NAACP activists bombed, resulting in two deaths
- Orangeburg, South Carolina, 1968: three black protesters killed and 28 injured by Highway Patrol during segregation protest
- Jackson, Mississippi, 1970: two black students killed and twelve injured by city and state police shooting
- Greensboro, North Carolina, 1979: five killed by Klan members during a protest against the Klan (all Klan members involved were subsequently acquitted)
This is just a sample. And I haven’t even started on the past 35 years.
The repetitiveness and frequency of black murders at the hands of racist whites throughout American history has given me a theory about modern day race relations: the human mind is only capable of holding so much in the banks of their short term memory. We’re geared towards the personal anecdote, the very notion of facts engendering an automatic non-empathetic appeal.
I’m willing to guess you, at about halfway through the above list, only saw the numbers, and could no longer comprehend the actual lives lost.
Yet each and every one of those numbers was a person. Very likely a person with descendants and relatives who are still alive today.
Each number was a life taken senselessly, often by the people tasked with protecting the innocent: cops, military members, politicians, clergymen.
Between 1955 and today, over 55 black churches have been intentionally destroyed, and those are just the ones confirmed as hate crimes. Violence and death and oppression on this level, sustained over this period of time in another country would bring up talks of attempted genocide, and drastic human rights violations.
Fear and anger go hand in hand.
Every single one of the lynched, shot, dragged and ultimately murdered black women, men and children in the South stood as more than just a death. They stood as a symbol. As a message. A message that has been passed down through generations over the past century and a half: your life—this black life—can be ended on a whim.
Violence—and, more importantly, the standing threat of violence—does something to the evolution of a human. It creates a permanent tension that settles up in their shoulders, in their brain, making it impossible to ever truly relax. There’s only two things you can do in that sort of situation: give up, or get angry.
But my family wasn’t around the U.S. South for any of the stuff that happened prior to 1980. I’ve never actually witnessed a lynching or a racially-motivated massacre, or heard of either happening anywhere near me. We weren’t in Baltimore or L.A. or Ferguson during their (ongoing) hard times. My mother had just moved here when the riots in Miami took place, but she was nowhere near the area. I wasn’t even born yet.
None of my family were in the states for the decades and centuries of violent oppression.
But it’s there in my blood, in my heritage. In my upbringing, and integration into this society.
I used to want to give up.
Now I’m just pissed off, and knowing I shouldn’t be doesn’t do anything to change it.
I don’t know if my ex’s baby daddy who threatened me that day knows the history of the word “lynching” and what it means for black people in the south. I’d like to actually believe he was just speaking out of his ass, with no intention of ever actually acting on his claim.
I’d like to believe that because the alternative makes me cringe. Because I do know the history of lynching, and of the tendency for violent words to turn into violent actions.
And If I’m this angry about it, I can’t even imagine what people who have lived with this for generations must feel every time a black person is murdered arbitrarily.
Merriam-Webster defines “Tension” as follows:
- the act or action of stretching or the condition or degree of being stretched to stiffness
- either of two balancing forces causing or tending to cause extension
- inner striving, unrest, or imbalance often with physiological indication of emotion
There is a tension in the black community, one that did not arise today but has been steadily increasing—stretching—since long before I was born. It has been passed down through generations; yet, contrary to popular belief, this inheritance is not simply a byproduct of our elders memories. It is a tension borne from American society, installed in each black child from the moment they take their first breath. Like a stamp on a computer processor, the systemic discrimination that permeates our entire culture.
I look back at my life sometimes—not as frequently nowadays, I know better—and what I see is a long series of breaking points. I am broken; I have been broken, and in spending the beginning of my 30s putting myself back together I seriously wonder how I never just came completely apart.
My last suicide attempt was three years ago, about a month before I moved back to Miami from New York. Lying on my coffin-sized bed in my closet-sized room in upper Harlem, I took out the prescription bottle of Oxycodone I’d been given when I got two of my wisdom teeth pulled the year before. I’d taken one of them at the time, and still had about 15 pills left (I have no idea why they gave me so many). I had been drinking. The empty pint of Smirnoff was lying on the floor next to my feet, my TV on in front of me. I’d been playing NBA 2K, when I suddenly didn’t feel like trying anymore. So I swallowed all the capsules. Then I sat there for five minutes waiting for something to happen. Then I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
I don’t think I ever really meant to do it. I ended up leaving the apartment after and going downstairs to the liquor store that was right below my apartment, to buy another pint. I don’t remember anything else about that night.
It was the third time I’d contemplated ending things.
Previously, in 2004, I was driving home from a bar at about five AM—drunk, obviously—and attempted to ram my car head on into an SUV coming towards me in the opposite lane. Thankfully the driver swerved out of the way, then opted out of coming back to confront me and just kept going. I sat in the middle of the intersection at 136th street and US1—right in front of The Falls shopping center, a place with a movie theater I frequent—waiting for the cops to show up and arrest me. Nobody ever came, so I went home.
In the sixth grade I was sitting in my English class, upset about something some guy had just said to me on the P.E. field (and, of course, too timid to say anything about it), when I suddenly felt like a weight was sitting on top of me—as if somebody had just draped a 200-pound cloak over my shoulders. I remember feeling so tired, just wanting to stop thinking. So I scribbled a note, something generic, then went to the bathroom and just stood there, trying to figure out how to get it done, whatever “it” was. The doors burst open as I stood there, my teacher and an Assistant Principal rushing me to the office and calling my parents. I saw a psychiatrist for a couple of weeks, before he decided I was just an angsty teenager and sent me back to class. I can’t say he was wrong, because I really don’t know.
Each of these moments were characterized by lengthy bouts—years—in which I rarely felt anything other than worthlessness. Anything other than agreement that all the things people said about me right to my face were true. Agreement that all the cruel things I saw people doing in public were just the way of humanity.
I’d grow conversely restless and tired. No, not tired; exhausted. And I’d just want it all to stop. I grew exhausted at the thought that trying to get my head above water would always be met with another dunk. That my protests would never elicit anything more than a pat on the back, a chuckle and an eye roll.
“Whatever you say, little nigga [ends with an A, so it’s okay].”
I recently read a research paper by Denise M. Green from Troy University—published in the Social Work and Society International Online Journal—titled “The Paradox of Self-Determination for Marginalized Individuals,” and a specific passage caught my eyes:
“An equally important component of self-determination is exposure to the critical thinking process. The critical thinking process is taught in formal education; however, this does not preclude its presence in the day to day teachings of everyday life. The ability to process information correctly is an essential component for successful self-determination and necessary for sound decision-making. It is quickly apparent the destructive results when good information is usurped and replaced by political agendas, religious dogma, or the whims of misanthropic leaders. Bad or deceitful information can lead to poor decisions and further marginalization which in turn reduces the connectivity of the marginalized individual – driving them further away. The manipulation of information for self-indulgent reasons can have disastrous consequences.”
I know. It’s wack.
So yes, I am a modern, angry as hell, black man. And I feel damn guilty about it, because the history that preceded me held horrors I cannot even imagine.
I don’t want to be angry, and I probably don’t deserve to be as angry as I am, with as much intensity as I feel.
But I am.
And I’m embracing the shit out of it.
Because I’ve seen the alternative. And I ain’t going back.