I had only experienced this once before, the connection at this depth between what was happening in my heart and mind with what was taking place in a far off land. We had gathered in large numbers, then, in the university bar to watch the inauguration of the first Black president of the United States of America. The bar was heaving, the excitement palpable. None of us could fully articulate what had drawn us together, neither could we communicate to each other what we all knew was happening. A dream was being drawn from illusion to reality. This event, which was going to fast settle in our memories, was a vapour for the many who had gone before us. You could see it in the coverage of the crowds who’d gathered, tears on the faces whose joy wasn’t shown in smiles but in eyebrows that conveyed the deep seriousness of what they were about to witness. Their sense of privilege was evident, and so was ours.
What really hit home was the quality of the man upon whom this moment centred. As someone who was mocked for his accent and corrected for mispronunciation by people whose grasp of the English language was impoverished, I found in Barack Obama a champion. The scars, marked by the new way of speaking I had chosen to embrace in order that my difference wasn’t pointed out each time, were being soothed at the sight of a man who looked like me – over the 4-5 years prior – demonstrate this gift of oration wrapped in intellect. My friends and I knew we were moving from being an exception to being a norm (or at least we hoped).
He stood, he spoke, we listened, we healed, we hoped and then watched the proceeding 8 years with pride.
There was a terror, however, lurking in the background. You could hear it in the voices of the many comedians, skillfully concealing the cold truth behind humour (or rather wrapping the truth in something palpable): there was a threat to this man, and all whom he represented. We all knew deep within that, as with child-birth, no new thing emerges without struggle: goliath never goes down easy and the idea of Black in power would always terrify any non-Black student of history (even that which is white-washed cannot conceal the horrors endured by my kin. Would vengeance be ours or the Lord’s?).
In the end we celebrated the simple things: a) he was alive, b) his family was intact, c) he had kept his integrity, and d) the bar he had set for Black in power was a human bar – one that all could aspire to. We celebrated the simple things because some of us had seen the growing undercurrent of vitriol and anger in those who couldn’t stomach the idea of equality, and equity with – let alone leadership from – a Black man (there is much to say about the intersection of gender and race within the landscape but that might have to wait). He bowed out and bowed into a select pantheon.
Then came 2016, and the months that preceded it. Goliath’s violent death-throws reminded those of us who hadn’t had their eyes open all along that symbols are not the reality they point to. America, like the globe, was still a stable breeding ground for racial injustice among all other modes of ‘othering’. Our symbol, alas, was an arrow pointing to a world that was possible. We, sadly, like the symbol itself, were anchored to a world that was quite some way away from making real what was possible. My heart had warmed 8 years prior, it shuddered this time.
B) George, Jacob, Bryona, and all the Martyr-Victims
We are at the limits of language.
More than martyrs
A martyr dies for their belief. This usually is something they have an option to denounce. Being and being Black are a belief. Being alive and Black is a statement of faith, confidence in something that the present state of play doesn’t acknowledge as actual. I dare to say, the present state of play doesn’t hold – systemically – that Black should be party to life. It, in fact, holds that Black shouldn’t live (if sentient life has any sense of self-determination and dignity attached to it). As a Black man, I find myself in a world that is geared to deny me everything on the spectrum of existence: it wills that I do not breathe and do not exhale.
When, in this world, is Black able to rest? Where, in this world, is Black able to exhale? The lands of our ancestry are scared by impositions of control, the stories of our ancestors un-coloured. The game of capitol is stacked so against Black that even the dream of settled descendants alludes. History is written in our blood, modernity built on the unburied bones of our ancestors – their yokes passed on to us for us to bear to the fourth and fifth generation at the least.
To utter the word Justice, thus, is to speak in faith – pointing in hope to what is possible but not real. It is to stand in resistance to dying. It is to breath in with a tightened noose and exhale with a weight on your chest – knowing how hard the intake of breath will be to achieve.
Therefore, to call them martyrs is to note the faithfulness of their choices to stand in the face of death and BE BLACK. It is to acknowledge that this faith isn’t one that can be shed but rather one that is as unshakable as the very skin they ware. It is to state that their saint-hood isn’t to do with whatever socially moral choice they made (and who can judge the living decisions of one whose very surroundings demand their lives of them) but an acknowledgement that they lived, loved, and sought life. It is to say that in the face of history, the global anti-black social contract, the boot, the words, the knee, and the bullet they lived.
More than victims
To call someone a victim is at once to acknowledge that there exists in place some rule by which the action happened upon them is a malefaction. It is to say that the order at present, states that their lives shouldn’t have been affected as they were. Is that the case here? Does the world where Black is afforded even the ‘living’ status upon which the idea of victimisation can settle exist? History speaks of a world where Black was considered cattle – existing for its resource – and the expunction of Black life worth as much shock as the death of cow at an abattoir. No consideration was necessary for the quality of life lived by the Black person other than that which would aid in its (and I use that intentionally) productivity.
The reality of the present is this, that attitude to Black life cannot be relegated to the past. It is present in the components that make up society. It is, in fact, the very bedrock upon which what we call society is built. There is no aspect of society that doesn’t adhere to that principle that denies sentience to all that is Black. Cast a lense on health and the principle rears its head. The same is true for education, politics, the judiciary, economics, housing and religion.
Therefore, to call them victims is to pretend that the world affirmed their right to live.
Black calls them victims as an act of faith. It does so because of the chains that bind it to hope. Hope because that world that would truly call them victims is a dream that the present has set itself to keep from becoming. The world where they are truly victims is a Black world and not this one.
We raise their names as banners in resistance to the world that is. We call them martyr-victims as a ritual to conjure into being the world we know can be but is not. We stitch our skin to theirs so that as they descend to the depths – to rest with our ancestors – they stay linked to the living – kept alive in rebellion against their executioners. We wear them on our sleeves to give Black life the sentience that it is denied, so that we who live my LIVE!
Here the sadness; hear the sadness.
To be Black and live is to act in faith. It is to believe in something that isn’t in rebellion against something that is. Goliath has been, and continues to be proficient. Therefore, to hope for the world were Black and Living aren’t oxymoronic is to harbour an eschatological hope that as yet has no anchor. It is to hope one day to wake up to a dream, and wrestle the reality one dwells in.
It was about to happen again. I could feel my heart warming up from the deep thaw. The two preceding years had been hard to bear, and I was sure the ones to follow wouldn’t be easy either. The toxicity of the landscape had intensified and, like the rest of the people I was about to share the moment with, there was a deep exhaustion. We had seen an increase in racial insensitivity (ask Reni-Edoo), an emboldening of racial violence (see the blood of the martyr-victims), and a global swell of the kind of populism that made our anxieties increase.
But here we were, Black family under one roof. Someone had organised the tickets to that everyone in the room was connected to each other somehow. The friends I made in that theatre still impact my life today. Why were we there?
The kingdoms of our ancestors had been erased from memory. Their artifacts stolen to be displayed as exploits – denotations of another’s prevalence and power while simultaneously concealing the bloodshed and violence by which they were wretched out of the lands to which they belonged. Black had/has been made to feel as though it is incapable of poetry, governance, commerce/wealth, and civility (whatever that means).
Here the hope; hear the hope.
For once in the space where society suspended belief there was to be painted that dream that we – Black – knew was possible. Theatre’s such as these were one of the no-go places for the ideas about to be presented. And in the landscape within which we were living, with bigots in the places of power and authority, we were desperate for a dream. We embraced and high-fived; we applauded the opening credits and watched with bated breath – exhaling deeply in the presence of our Black family.
The film was eschatology being brought a step closer. In the world where Black couldn’t live, Black was now able to dream. The suspension of the tenets upon which the world we lived in (if you could call it living) was built, was no longer reserved for private conversations. Our hope – and in-fact our past – was now on the big screen and, perhaps, a globally shared dream: a tonic in the prevailing nightmare.
August 28th 2020
The trigger for this post was – on this day – the death of Chadwick Boseman. I’m sure I’m not alone in the wailing. As the waters engulfed, I allowed myself to sink till my feet found the floor of the ocean.
Hear the weeping; here the weeping.
Chadwick’s death was death and more. I grieve for his family; I grieve for his Black Family; and I grieve for me.
Suddenly I, like others, were confronted with the bitter coldness of what the earth has to offer Black. In cancer comes the truth that none of the ills in nature are somehow kept at bay from those of us for whom the noose of rotten humanity chokes. In the death of the character he so vividly brought to life (it will be so hard to imagine anyone else bearing the needed believe-ability for the tonic to be what it was), came the confrontation between the illusory nature of the eschatological landscape and the brutality of reality. What vestige is there for Black if both the dream and reality in the end assail? What hope can we anchor ourselves to if even in the land of rocks and trees diseases assault our kings?
If only our hope lived in the storehouses from which our tears came.
The king – like the rest of us – was already dead!