by Kevin Powell, special to Utne Reader
Collage by Marinique Mora
“I think the first duty of society is justice.”
“You’ve gotta give them hope. If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
“I’m not Black; I’m O.J.”
“There's no such thing as hurting someone for their own good. There's only hurting someone for your own good.”
“There's no point in saying anything but the truth.”
“The world is on its last go-round.”
When I was ten-years-old and in the fourth grade at Public School 38 in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, I was asked to play Thomas Jefferson in a production of the acclaimed Broadway musical “1776.” I was terrified. I was often told to be quiet, by my mother, a loud and strong South Carolina-born Black woman who had survived racism, sexism, and classism in the South, and in the North, from White people, from minimum-wage employers of every stripe, and from my father, a Black man who was never really a presence in my life. Indeed, I felt abandoned by my father, physically, emotionally; and, due to the way my mother constantly yelled at me, I felt emotionally abandoned by her at times, too. Hers was a tough love. Work hard, read and study hard, never never never bring home a bad grade. Be excellent at everything you do. Except for the fact that I was so shook by my mother and her numerous rules that I spoke mad fast or mumbled, or both at the same time, for fear that I only had split seconds to get my words out. Or I, an only child, would say nothing, shoveling ready words and thoughts back inside, keeping them to myself. I simply did not think my voice mattered.
So you can picture my distress when my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Coles, asked me to be a part of this “1776” adaptation. Yes, I was an outstanding student. Yes, I did act out in class from time to time like the bad boy my momma often said I was. But I expressed no desire whatsoever to stand in front of an audience. Even when we had the weekly assembly where us grade school kids from different ages came together to sing popular songs of the day, I would pretend I was singing: one, because my high-pitched singing voice was God-awful; second because I had zero confidence in my ability to blend my vocals in with those others.
But I also did not know how to say no to Mrs. Coles. I was raised to do what your authority figures asked you to do. I was to be Thomas Jefferson, and another Black boy, Anthony Washington, would be George Washington. Our school was integrated, with the rainbow children of post-Civil Rights America bumping elbows in ways my mother could not have imagined in the segregated Jim Crow cesspool that produced her. Why no White or Latino or Asian children were asked to play these roles was beyond me. No matter, we were told that Jefferson and Washington were “founding fathers” of America, heroes to be loved and admired and emulated, that there would be no freedom and democracy without their vision and courage and sacrifices, and that we would only be on a stage for a short period. I dutifully memorized my lines, had no clue at the time that both Jefferson and Washington, White men of massive power and privilege, had owned slaves Black like me, or that Jefferson had had a long-term Black mistress in the person of a slave named Sally Hemings. I simply knew Jefferson as this remarkable gentleman who could write, speak, lead, build, and create virtually anything he set his mind to—a true Renaissance person, I was told repeatedly, and the principal author of our freedom song, the Declaration of Independence. I wanted to be like Thomas Jefferson, and privately was elated I was going to be him in this school play.
But on the fateful day of the show my mouth was desert dry, I sweated bullets down my face profusely, my heart thumped as if it were going to bottle-rocket from my puny chest, and my knees buckled beneath the weight of great expectations as I was not sure I could deliver. Yes, once more I was in a state of paralyzing fear. Meanwhile, Anthony, his kinky hair also white with baby powder like my baby ‘fro—to simulate the white wigs of the Revolutionary War period—sat like an old man, stoic, still, ready for his big moment. Other student scenes went before ours. Then we were told to take our places, Anthony and I, for the section we shared. The moth-filled red curtain went up, and I trembled with trepidation when I saw the full audience populated with students, teachers, administrators, and parents. I could not look at the spectators for but a few seconds. Much of the time I stared above their heads, into space, or at the clock on the back wall. Anthony was dynamic and brilliant: he sang, he danced, he performed some of his lines with humor that drew instant laughter; he projected his voice with the swagger of a Broadway star. His George Washington was a revelation. I, on the other hand, whispered and muffled my lines, and I thought I might piss on myself mid-way through our scene. It was a rapid-transit blur, we took our bow, with my eyes still avoiding the audience, and then I ran off stage as quickly as I could. Anthony was congratulated loudly for his portrayal of his namesake George Washington, but barely anyone said anything to me about my performance. When I found my mother she bluntly stated, “I could not hear a word you said, boy!” Like that my acting career was over, and except for the eighth grade when I was salutatorian of my graduating class and had to deliver a short speech, I would not set foot on a stage in any form to use my voice again until I was in my early 20s. I likened the experience to an unbearable torture I had no interest whatsoever in being a part of.
Growing up I never questioned American history or the American value system, or how any of it was communicated to me. Words and phrases like “God bless America,” the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “The Pledge of Allegiance” were committed to memory and became as essential to my knowledge base as knowing my name and my address and my social security number. We were taught these things, in school, when we were very young, and we were commanded to say and sing these words repeatedly. My mother had a grade school education and she simply told me, when I was three or four, that I should be a lawyer like Abraham Lincoln, the country’s 16th president. And that the way to be as great as Lincoln was to do what my teachers told me to do, to be the best pupil at every single thing. Vaguely I knew that Lincoln had something to do with ending slavery. Vaguely we were told that George Washington was the father of this country. Vaguely I learned names like Jefferson and James Madison and John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and Patrick Henry. Vaguely I heard that Hamilton was killed in a gun duel with Burr, over one beef or another. No matter, I studied what was given to us in social studies and history classes, eagerly memorized dates and basic facts, and never questioned why the vast majority of historical figures were White men. There was a revolving door of war and violence and bloodshed, but I never thought much of any of it, for that seemed to be the price of the ticket for our freedoms. And their stories entranced me, made me envision myself as them: an explorer of new and foreign lands; a soldier or general in one noble war or another; a defender of our homeland from the Indians; an inventor or discover of something that changed America, or the world, for the better; creators of airplanes and spaceships; conquerors of soaring mountains and foreign lands. These sensational stories made me want to be, well, a White man—confidence, like theirs; hair, like theirs; bravado and fearlessness, like theirs….
The only Black people imparted to us, vaguely, Kindergarten through the 12th grade, were Crispus Attucks, who died at the start of the Revolutionary War, but I was never quite sure why, or why he was there in the first place; Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama bus; and Dr. King, who delivered his sterling “I have a dream” speech, and a few other sermons that frightened the heck out of me, because his Dirty South preacher-man oratory, dripping with both dignity and doom, always seemed to be lurking mighty close to the death bullet I knew was waiting for him, because they told us so. There were no lessons whatsoever about the Civil Rights Movement, although my integrated schools were the result of the Civil Rights Movement, as we were told, vaguely. There were no discussions whatsoever about slavery, about Africa, about anything Black folks may have contributed, including free labor in the form of human bondage, to the building of the United States. There was nothing about, say, Black music, Black inventions, Black pioneers in professional fields of any kind; no, nothing, like we did not exist, like our history did not matter. And there was virtually nothing mentioned about Native Americans except they were wilderness savages, and pathetically ungrateful; and Latinos and Asians and Arabs and any and all European ethnics (Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish, and on and on….) were missing completely, too. Either you were White, or you simply did not matter in our education either—not in history, not in English, not in math, not in the sciences, not in art, not in woodshop or home economics classes, and not in the many anecdotes we were given to read. And, alas, poor people of all races, and LGBTQ people, and disabled people, with the lone exception of Helen Keller, were completely hidden, too. And the only women ever mentioned were, yup, Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, and Betsy Ross proudly stitching together that first American flag. From any history class I took, even as I got top grades absorbing, wholly, what we had been taught, what little I learned about Black people, about America’s racism, came from mother and her oral history lessons about coming of age in the American South, how White folks treated colored folks down there in the old country. And I got an acutely personal baptism into racism in that same fourth grade year I appeared as Thomas Jefferson, when a gang of Jersey City White boys called the B.O.N.E.S. (“Beat On Niggers Every Second”) showed up at Public School 38 and proceeded to hurl rocks and bricks and bottles at us Black and Latino children, solely for being there. But I had no context, historical or otherwise, for understanding why these White boys were doing this to us, why they hated and feared us little children. I was scared, yes, but I quickly kicked it to the curb because I figured it had to be something out of the norm of human behavior in America, our America.
The two places where I could see Black people doing something, anything, were in sports and entertainment. My mother always said that Blacks, better than anyone else, could sing and dance and act a fool naturally. She enthralled me with the repeated saga of her witnessing James Brown live at the Apollo, how it looked like he had wheels at the bottom of his feet, the way he slipped and slid and split magically across that world-famous theater. She and I would watch Jersey City native son Flip Wilson on his landmark comedy show, and we would laugh hysterically at the jokes and antics on Black sitcoms like “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.”
But it was sports that truly seized my imagination and gave me some hope that something was possible for my otherwise bleak life. In boxing there were figures like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton. In baseball there was Reggie Jackson, Joe Morgan, Willie Stargell, Rod Carew, Vida Blue, Doc Ellis, and George Foster. In basketball there was Dr. J and David “Skywalker” Thompson. And in football there was one player who was the epitome of greatness, in spite of the many stars in that constellation: Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson.
I was too young to watch O.J. Simpson on television rush for an extraordinary 2003 yards for the Buffalo Bills in 1973, breaking the legendary Jim Brown’s record. But what I did see were those many Hertz rental car commercials where O.J. was sprinting and leaping through airport after airport, in a full suit and tie, a strikingly handsome Black man with a baritone voice, representing a manner of grace, skill, and progress I had never seen before in any African American male. On the playground of P.S. 38 we played a game called “free-for-all,” where we boys, mainly the Black boys, would use a football or tennis ball or sponge ball, or even a stuffed hat or glove, and toss it in the air. Whoever caught it would have to run towards the designated end zone, avoiding the touches and tackles of every other boy on the field. It was our ‘hood version of professional football, and time and again we would refer to someone with snaky moves and swift feet as “O.J.” or “Juice.” This was how much the mythical figure of Simpson loomed over us. To be called by his name or nickname meant that you had elevated your swag as a runner to superhero status. Just not anyone got to be O.J. or the Juice.
Perhaps a year or two later my mother and I sat to watch the blockbuster television mini-series “Roots,” and there was O.J. Simpson in the tip-off episode, mentoring the lead character Kunta Kinte, as played by LeVar Burton. Over time Simpson was everywhere, it seemed, in commercials, on television shows, in movies, even as a sportscaster. Perhaps my one chosen recollection of him is when the Juice carried the Olympic torch leading into the start of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. That moment reminded me of the stories I had read of Simpson as a child: of how he had overcome rickets that rendered him bow-legged and pigeon-toed; how he had survived a childhood of poverty in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. How his father, Jimmy Lee Simpson, a janitor, left his mother, Eunice, and him and three siblings when O.J. was only four. How O.J., like many of us ghetto boys, including me, yearned for a father figure, and became especially resentful of his dad’s absence during his teenage years. How it would be learned that O.J.’s pops was a closeted gay man for several years, and how that was ridiculed, in whispers, in that San Francisco community, as no straight boy wanted to be called a homosexual, or have a daddy who was one either. How O.J., determined to make something of his life, was scared straight into understanding his street and gang affiliations were not the paths. How he was a star football player in high school but first had to go to a local community college because his grades were not good enough for the University of Southern California. And how he shined once he got to USC, becoming a national sensation, a Heisman trophy winner in 1968, and a young husband and father all by age 22. And how he struggled his first few seasons in the National Football League after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills, many dissin’ Simpson as a shameful bust. But then the unimaginable happened, he became the first running back ever to generate 2000 yards in a single season; and the magnetic combination of good looks, an athlete’s body, an ah-shucks middle America smile, and an ability, no doubt, to mix and mingle with all people, a specific class of White people, made O.J. Simpson the first Black athlete, long before Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or Steph Curry, to become a cult figure—his popularity rivaling that of the president of the United States. And the Juice’s nice-guy-next-door image was the counterpoint to the brash one-man Black revolution that was Muhammad Ali. O.J was safe and reasonable where Ali was dangerous and wildly unpredictable.
For sure, when I was a youth we would hear time and again about Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories, of impoverished boys who had overcome great adversity to make something of their lives. Well, in Orenthal James Simpson, American football player-actor-pitchman-businessman-sportscaster, we had our own Black version, in living color. I paid close attention to what O.J. was doing, right until I got to college, Rutgers University in the 1980s. During these years my consciousness around my own Blackness changed: I learned the Black history that had been conveniently left out of my schooling K through 12, and I embraced a Black nationalism that made me re-examine O.J. Simpson as someone who did everything in his power not to be, plainly, Black. It was during these years that I gravitated toward race-conscious Black athletes like Jim Brown, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and most assuredly Muhammad Ali. It wasn’t so much that I completely rejected O.J. Simpson. What I was rejecting were the parts of him that seemed to discarded his total identity, and his Black self-love, because he valued more, so it seemed, the power and privilege he was afforded due to his close proximity to Whiteness and White America. That was not a price I was willing to pay: the trashing of my own soul; and the more I learned about the so-called founding fathers, the genocide that was inflicted on Native Americans, and how African people, my ancestors, had been kidnapped and coerced like cattle to build America, from the ground up—one of the ugliest stains on the history of world civilization—the angrier I became. It was anger in those days that made me hate White America, White people, and, to be mad honest, anything remotely White, like milk or bread or the walls of wherever I was residing. So I thought less to little of O.J. Simpson during these formative years of mine, did not consider him one iota during the latter part of the Reagan years, into the Bush years, as hip-hop and crack cocaine simultaneously exploded, and, soon enough, the city of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the not guilty verdict for the White cops who mercilessly beat Black motorist Rodney King some 80 times, on videotape—
I remember it like it was yesterday: Friday evening, June 17, 1994. I was watching the New York Knicks play the Houston Rockets in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, on NBC, when news anchor Tom Brokaw broke in and said there was a police pursuit of a white Bronco that contained O.J. Simpson and his close childhood friend Al Cowlings, on the Los Angeles freeway. NBC did not completely take over the telecast, but eerily continued presenting the game while also, in a box in one of the corners of the screen, showing live the white Bronco as Brokaw narrated. Just as surreal were the people, pre- the explosion of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, who had found out about this pursuit and were cheering O.J. Simpson on during this 60-mile chase. I had grown up watching the Juice evade one football tackler after another, become a superstar and celebrity on and off the field, but now the grim reality was setting in that this man, this Black man, may very well have murdered not one but two people—two White people—his wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and an acquaintance, Ronald Goldman. I thought for sure that police would shoot O.J. Simpson down along that highway, or when he and Cowlings inched their way back to his Brentwood driveway. Or when O.J., after nightfall, had finally gotten out of the car clutching family photos, collapsing into the arms of local police.
But O.J. was spared, at least on that day. He was caught and tackled in a way he, I, we could never have fathomed; an American dream had become an American nightmare. And we would come to learn, during what was billed as the trial of the century, that the squeaky clean image was a fraud, a hustle, that here was a man who had played a ferociously violent sport, and he himself was violent. He beat his second wife, we would learn during the trial, ruthlessly. His rage and mood swings and jealous outbursts were the stuff of domestic violence cases many women could readily identify with. I cringed as I heard detail after detail. I was a staff writer at Vibe magazine at the time, covering a range of major hip-hop artists of the day, including Tupac Shakur on several occasions. The same Tupac who he himself admitted that he did not show proper concern for a woman in a New York City hotel where he was arrested for sexual assault, that he turned his back and said nothing when his “friends” proceeded to sexually attack, allegedly, that woman (only Tupac was ever brought up on charges and tried in court). And I was also in the midst then, in my twenties, of re-assessing what manhood and violence meant to me. I knew I did not want to be a foul-tempered human the rest of my life. I had grown up like a walking time bomb because, I believed, that mentality was spilled over my spirit as a child. Yes, the circumstances of my own journey had scarred me that deeply—the poverty, the verbal and physical outbursts by my mother, the pain of my father’s absence, life in an environment where I was constantly looking over my shoulder, wondering when and how I was going to die, because death was such a part of the life cycle for Black boys and Black men. But just like O.J. I had managed to escape, to college, to things I was passionate about, finally: writing, becoming an activist, and being in service to others. But the darkness does not just escape you because you have somehow crossed from one reality to another. Wherever you are from, there you are, staring back at you like your image in the mirror. Yes, I was violent, to men, toward women, toward anyone that I felt, in those days, had violated me. Yes, I was as violent as America, our America. A violence that was—is—a form of mental illness where that violent tendency becomes the chief way we confront any perceived threat or danger, or the chief way we handle turmoil or beef.
So indeed I was mightily torn during the trial of O.J. Simpson, and heard the loud exclamations of both Black America and White America. For Black people, O.J. became, in spite of himself and his life-long shuffle away from Blackness, a damaged symbol of what Black America had endured, since slavery and segregation, since the season of lynching and the season of water hoses, attack dogs, and fire bombs; an icon of victimization and resistance both, a Black man who had been pronounced guilty—many of us felt prematurely—by White America, in the same way those lynch mobs had been judge, jury, and hangman as nooses were placed around our necks and we dangled, lifeless, from those mouth-less trees. For none-too-few White Americans O.J. was the Black beast and the Black boogeyman it had long suspected Black people, particularly Black males, to be. We were dangerous, untrustworthy, violent, immoral, over-sexualized, and crazy. And we had to be stopped, put in our place, justice had to be done, with all available tools—
Women and the few legit male allies who existed in the 1990s were correct to say sexism is as much a plague on our earth as racism. O.J. viciously whooped Nicole Brown Simpson several times during their marriage. While I was being hypnotized by Ezra Edelman’s gripping new ESPN documentary film, “O.J. Simpson: Made in America,” the hardest parts for me to digest, and to hear, were Nicole’s 9-1-1 calls for police help, and those still photos of her nearly decapitated head drowning in a river of her red blood. Yes, I have learned in the years since my own backwards and destructive behavior, and thanks to years of therapy and spiritual work and being in circles of women and men who view and know women and men are equals, to not see manhood as violence first and last; to acknowledge that O.J. Simpson, like so many of us men—White, Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Arab, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, it don’t matter—was a very sick man who, at the very least, did very sick things to Nicole Brown Simpson, in the name of manhood and power and privilege and pride and ego, and an incurable desire to own and control every aspect of her life. When he felt he could not, he abused her, like his own body had been abused for years on that football field. O.J. Simpson was a man who fled the monster that is racism by re-inventing himself as something he was not, and in the process he had become an oppressor and monster himself. And, as the ESPN doc reveals, local police, men, came to the Nicole and O.J. home on several occasions, but not one dared to stop Simpson for good in what was an obvious pattern of domestic violence, physically, mentally, spiritually. Had O.J. Simpson been an everyday Black man terrorizing a White woman like that, he would have been arrested immediately. But here sexism and the glittering lights of celebrity pushed race, at least for one shining moment, to the back burner.
The above said I foolishly tried to avoid the ESPN O.J. film because I did not think it would shed any new light on what I had already known about him leading to his ultimate demise. It does and then some, yo. That O.J. was born into the same period of segregation as my mother means something. That O.J. came of age during the great Civil Rights protests but deliberately and publicly chose to stay on the sidelines means something. That O.J. became like a Black man in White face, like many a Black American before and after him, eager to please White America, and likewise terrified of the power of White America, to the point that he became an invisible Black man in plain sight. Moreover, I thought about the fact that O.J. played football, our ultra-violent modern-day gladiator sport. We did not know in 1994, in 1995, about this thing called CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), about the catastrophic effects of constant blows to the brain on football players; things like, yes, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, drastic mood swings, and severe bouts of rage. For sure, the five-part ESPN O.J. doc film is one of the best I have ever seen—ever. It makes your flesh crawl; it makes you think critically; it reminds us in the most painful ways that race and racism are central tenets of the American social fabric and that you cannot, should not, avoid ourselves, our shared history. Yet, still, if there is one singular criticism I have of that otherwise amazing mini-series it is that it does not mention CTE once at all. Two decades later, and given the endless parade of football players—Tony Dorsett, Junior Seau, Mike Webster, Dave Duerson, Paul Hornung, Frank Gifford—who displayed conduct similar to that which is described of O.J. in this doc film, you’ve got to wonder. Football, our beloved American football, is a metaphor for violence and insanity and destructive manhood run amok. Calvin Johnson, recently retired All-Pro wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, said he stopped because of its brutality, because of the toll on his body, and readily admitted that players pretty much get head injuries on every other play or so, if not every play.
That implies we all, regardless of our identity, have been socialized to believe a man is to be aggressive, violent, competitive, hyper-masculine, a warrior, a fighter, no matter the cost, even to ourselves. We punch, we kick, we bite, we stab, we shoot, we rape, we threaten, we murder. And we have been socialized that there is one dominant group in America, and on this earth, that has done everything great and noble that we should emulate—the ever-powerful and ever-privileged White man—and so the only way you could possibly be a part of that is to renounce your identity, integrate, assimilate, take on a bootleg definition of White American maleness recycled with whatever parts of you that you dare to hold on to: anything and everything that you feel will help you to survive, and win, at the cost of your own sanity and your own life.
When the Simpson verdict came down it was decidedly split between Black and White America. Black Americans live in one America, mostly, and White Americans, mostly, live in a different America. Some of us, no question, overlap, cross boundaries, bust down barriers, but the vast majority of us, in spite of integration, Barack Obama, Oprah, hip-hop, a shared love of food and sports and music, actually do not know each other, ourselves, or the history of America beyond the very basics, and even that is a stretch for some of us. Our eyes are different, our ears are different, our sensibilities of what we feel and experience are different. For Black folks, who had witnessed those cops acquitted in Los Angeles for the Rodney King beating—amongst hundreds and hundreds of cases in our lifetimes before and since—it meant cheering and crying as if we were cheering and crying for an O.J. Simpson touchdown. It meant cheering in spite of the fact that some believed, as I did and do, that the Juice did in fact kill Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. This is the disaster of American racism; that a group can be so beat down and wounded by it that we will celebrate as a victory a clueless and violent Black man getting off with double murder, because his great escape was our big payback for centuries of oppression and discrimination and injustice.
I was a guest at MTV studios on that October day in 1995, with anchor Tabitha Soren, and civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, when the verdicts were read. There was much talk that Black America would riot everywhere if O.J. were found guilty. As we four sat in that ice-cold MTV studio and listened to the decisions come down I could see the face of Tabitha, a White sister, morph into horror and fear, and her slim body sag in her chair. Rev. Jackson squeezed Tabitha’s hand hard, as he had been holding it, and Rev. Sharpton sighed, the kind of sigh one produces when a heavy burden has been lifted from one’s shoulders. I had mixed emotions because I was in sheer disbelief. Nothing in American history, like nothing, had prepared me for anything like this. But that majority Black-woman jury had sent a message to White America, one White America was not prepared to receive. Surprise, awe, anger, revulsion, disgust; and, suddenly, the criminal justice system was now broken. Suddenly the jurors were stupid. Suddenly we needed to have reform. That was the twisted irony of America’s long sojourn with race and violence. Black America believed, by and large, had Nicole been Black, no one would have cared. White America believed that because O.J. had money and celebrity status, he got off. Both were right. And both were ignorant in different ways. We as Black folks were ignorant for celebrating the O.J. verdict as if we had somehow won our freedom from slavery. Our emotions got the best of us, 400 years of indifferent treatment in America had, well, stunted us to our own humanity, and many did not realize as we hailed O.J. we were also hailing the cruel butchering of Nicole and Ronald. For White people their ignorance was rooted in what Malcolm X once notoriously called chickens coming home to roost. When you have been conditioned to believe that your skin color and your value system and everything about you is superior to anyone else, when you have been conditioned to believe that White is right and everything else is wrong, when what you have been taught in school, in your religious institutions, in the mass media culture—here there everywhere—that your life matters above all others, that you are the foremost figure in any space at any given time and place, then it is extremely difficult to lose anything, to have your power blow up in your face, in any form. That was the O.J. verdict, as uncomfortable as that may sound. O.J. fundamentally was not just his own creation, but also a creation, and a creature, of White America, as the ESPN film suggests, boldly: the good, the bad, and the ugliest. The whole tragic occurrence, one of the most tragic in American history, reeked of a Shakespearean play, ship-loaded with sex, drugs, violence, murders, alibis, deception, dark humor, ill-fitting gloves, botched evidence, and what seemed to be foul play from every angle conceivable.
My mother called me as soon as the verdict came down, her worldview hardened by the racism she recalled from her native South Carolina and her adopted Northern environment of New Jersey. A worldview that included being called every foul name for Black people one can think of, rarely ever being called by her first name, and from the time my mother was eight-years-old she worked exclusively for the good White folks in her dirt-road town. Breathing heavily and straight trippin’ about the verdict, too, my mother said to me, matter-of-factly, “Kevin, you heard O.J. got off, right?” I responded that of course I knew. Then my mother said to me, with the dread and sorrow and echoes of Black mothers who may have seen their sons lynched for merely looking at a White woman: “I hope O.J. reminds you of this, child: stay far away from White women!”
I was dating Black women, but that was not the issue to my mother. Her point was that any poorly thought out relationship with White America could mean the end of me. And her point was that O.J. Simpson was very lucky to not be in jail, or dead, for I believe my mother also felt O.J. was guilty. But Black people, especially Black women, for a variety of reasons, are loyal to Black men even when we are not loyal to them. I thought of this as I watched the ESPN doc and listened to the sound-bytes of two of the Black women jurors who were steadfast that it was not just O.J. who was on trial, but racism in America. If revenge was ever to be exacted, right or wrong, this was the time to do it. And thus it was so. The conundrum is that in America we have done such a piss poor job of dealing with the horrid legacy of racism—no real national dialogue, no real reconciliation, like ever, and no real understanding and acceptance of the fact that racism is race plus power and privilege—that this debilitating social disease manufactures, time and time again, dysfunctional and insane behavior, like O.J. and the circus that was that trial of the century—
And equally as tragic has been O.J.’s life post the trial of the century. I had no idea how far homeboy fell. The drugs, the alcohol, the midlife crisis of living like he was a rap star in his new South Florida encampment, complete with videos, him rapping, and women easily the age or younger of both his daughters. O.J. was not only an alleged murderer, but he had accelerated the pimp lifestyle he was indulging in when married to Nicole Brown Simpson. So without saying it aloud, the ESPN doc is also about sexism, about misogyny, about the demonic definitions of manhood, about destructive addictions to fame and celebrity, drugs, drink, women, sex, and, yes, violence and abuse, too, which has landed O.J., in his senior years, in that Nevada jail.
I winced several times watching the rise and dramatic fall and demolition of Orenthal James Simpson. I doubly recoiled knowing a lot of it was his internalized Black self-hatred and Black self-sabotage, made in America. O.J. truly believed he was not Black, that he was somehow above the law as local police of every race gave him pass after pass before the murders, because he was the Juice. No, he was only the Juice as long as he performed, as a White man in a Black body. The moment he thought he could get away with murder, he was born, again, into what he was created to be in that San Francisco ghetto: n_____ orphan of the American dream.
Yes, n____ orphan is what I heard, vaguely, about Alexander Hamilton once I started hanging around grassroots activists. It was in my early days as a community organizer and it was suggested on multiple occasions that Hamilton, one of America’s so-called founding fathers, was, partially, a Black man, and that he passed as White; that he had some African blood running through his veins. Did not know if this was fact or fiction, but given how so many things had been left out of my education, like Benjamin Banneker, a colonial America Black man as accomplished and all-purpose as Benjamin Franklin, I speculated periodically about this Hamilton dude. Could it be that Hamilton had been whitewashed, like much of United States history? I pondered this as I read, in college, Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist Papers, learned that he, like his contemporary Thomas Jefferson, was the quintessential multi-tasker: soldier, lawyer, scholar, businessman, writer, newspaper publisher, first Secretary of the Treasury, statesman, revolutionary. And that his life had been blown away by Aaron Burr in a gun duel, due to ego-driven, power-hungry, long-standing disputes. And he was on the $10 bill.
Otherwise Alexander Hamilton was not one of those Revolutionary War-era folks you gave much thought to, nor it seemed, did our collective school system. So I was mad surprised when the very gifted Lin-Manuel Miranda announced he would be writing the book, music, and lyrics for a play about Hamilton. Previously best known for the Broadway hit “In The Heights,” Miranda is one of the most artistic visionaries of our times: he acts, he sings, he spits rhymes, he dances, yes, but, to me, Lin-Manuel’s true genius is in his ability to put words to paper. He is a writer, a great writer, a whiz kid with a hip-hop nerd resourcefulness that is the electrifying subway screech and halt of Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets, the salsa sidewalk poetics of the Nuyorican Poets Café, the old school show tune trick bag of Sissle and Blake, Gershwin, Berlin, Sondheim, and Rogers and Hammerstein, and the boom bap drum licks of rock and roll and rap. There is abundance in the head of this proud Puerto Rican hombre bred in Nueva York. Probing, I learned that Miranda had stumbled across the 800-page Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton, and he was hooked. Makes sense, given that Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean and that Lin-Manuel is a child of island heritage, too. Makes sense as well given that Latinos, frequently forgotten somewhere between Black America and White America and their shared historical dysfunctions, are also often left out of conversations about, well, most things. The way Hamilton was left out of the nation’s telling of the founding fathers. Makes sense because both Hamilton and Miranda made names for themselves, against numerous odds, in New York City. Inspired by Miranda’s curiosity, I was reminded that Hamilton was born to a Scottish father and a mother whose background still remains puzzling to me, in spite of Ron Chernow’s otherwise fine biography awkwardly explaining away “myths” of her alleged mixed background; that he moved to another West Indian island, St. Croix, as a boy; that his parents were never married and he was the result of an adulterous affair (his mother was estranged from an abusive husband); that he was considered an illegitimate child; and that it was wealthy business leaders on St. Croix who made it possible for him to go to the American colonies, to study at King’s College, which eventually became Columbia University.
I stopped there because I wanted to see the play and Miranda’s interpretation of Alexander Hamilton with my own eyes. I was especially intrigued by two things: Lin-Manuel was using hip-hop, the beats and verses, the culture, the language, the attitude, to remix this story of an ostensibly White founding father into a musical. Second, the playwright boldly decided to cast a majority of Latino/a and Black actresses and actors in these roles documenting Hamilton’s life, regardless of the fact that people of African descent were predominantly slaves during this period in American history. That blew my mind, made me think back to when I played Thomas Jefferson as a boy in that grade school play, and nothing, like nothing, in my childhood camera phone could have pictured Black and Brown bodies taking on the bodies of White folks, those kinds of White folks, on Broadway, AKA “the great white way,” no less.
Indeed if the #OscarsSoWhite, then that theater district has historically been #BroadwayBeyondSoWhite. You can pretty much count on both your hands and both feet in the 100-plus year history of Broadway the stars and creators and hit shows where people of color dominated the stage, specifically Latinos and Blacks… Bert Williams… “Shuffle Along”… “Too Many Girls”… Olga San Juan… José Ferrer… “West Side Story”… Rita Moreno… Chita Rivera… Ben Vereen… Miguel Piñero… Melba Moore… “Dreamgirls”… August Wilson… George C. Wolfe… Savion Glover… “Bring In Da Noise Bring In Da Funk”… John Leguizamo… “Anna in the Tropics”… Audra McDonald… “In The Heights”… Quiara Alegría Hudes….
And then there is Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Hamilton”… No one could get a ticket it seemed, for the hottest Broadway show in like forever. I begged, I tweeted and posted to Facebook, I called people who called people, I knew people who knew people, and I was turned off, to be mad blunt, by the ticket prices, some north of $1000; I refused to pay part of my total monthly bills just to see a play, no matter how game-changing. People who did catch “Hamilton” raved about it, adding to my angst. It has been a mega-hit, one that forced producers to share in the profits with the majority people of color original cast, a rarity for Broadway. Controversy was stirred when a casting call went out seeking “non-White” actors to replace members of the initial ensemble, presumably. Interesting, yo, considering we’ve seldom heard the New York White theater elite complain about decade upon decade of exclusion and marginalization of Black, Latino/a, Asian, Arab, or Native American actresses and actors from its stages—
When my companion and I arrived at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, she and I were struck by the fact that folks had been sleeping outside for several days—food, drink, blankets, sleeping bags, cardboard—in anticipation of tickets, via lottery. I was doubly struck by the massive crowd outside, and the wild energy that was abuzz there in Times Square, and how most of the ticketholders were overwhelmingly White. This was disconcerting to me, and reminded my companion and I of the Upper Westside dinner we had left minutes before, where an elderly White wife and husband sitting at the next table chatted us up about “Hamilton.” The wife had seen it, and said, with adolescent innocence, “I did not think I would like a play with rapping. I did not think I would understand it. But I did. I got it.” I was intrigued and amused because, well, I am a life-long hip-hop head, literally grew up in the culture, as a dancer, a graffiti writer, a music journalist, a founding staff member of Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine, and I co-produced the very first exhibit on the history of hip-hop in America, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For sure, my next book more than likely is a long-overdue biography of hip-hop’s greatest icon, Tupac Shakur. Gravely ironic, given how poorly a Broadway show inspired by his life and music did before “Hamilton” premiered.
Hip-hop, the foundation for “Hamilton,” was created by poor people: poor African Americans, poor Latinos/as, and poor West Indians, in New York City, much of it incubated “Uptown,” in The Bronx, in Harlem, before spreading across the five boroughs of our metropolis. These were the same poor people Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us not to abandon and forget at the end of his life. That Dr. King who condemned the Vietnam War and said we were sending poor Blacks and poor Whites to fight poor Yellow people in Southeast Asia. That Dr. King, he of the Nobel Peace Prize, global fame, and the moral leader of the Civil Rights Movement. And that Dr. King—eff the awards and accolades—whose final act, before his assassination on the balcony of that Memphis motel, was organizing Black garbage men there, and a national “Poor People’s Campaign.” Made in America, the birth of the hip-hop nation was more or less Dr. King’s vision set to the grits-eggs-and-bacon frying pan rhythms of funktified artists like James Brown. Simple definitions of hip-hop are “winning on our terms” and “making something from nothing.” Nothing is right. In its soul hip-hop are these favorite things: a microphone, two turntables, spray paint or magic markers, and sneakers and cardboard or linoleum to dance on. These things represent the four key elements of hip-hop: the rapper or emcee, the deejay, dancing, and graffiti art. Hip-hop factually began, in my humble opinion, when a young lad named Clive Campbell—hip-hop alias is Kool Herc—arrived from his native Jamaica in the West Indies to New York City, in 1967, right in the middle of Dr. King’s last year of life. A West Indian immigrant just like Alexander Hamilton, Herc too came with a dream, determined to hustle and flow.
I thought about all of this as we made our way into the Richard Rodgers Theatre, especially as I strained my eyes to find, here there anywhere, Black and Latino theatergoers. There were barely any. The few Black and Brown faces I saw were those who worked at the theater, taking our tickets, working security, running concessions, ushering us this and that way. Meanwhile, there were countless White families, undoubtedly rich enough to afford the steep ticket prices, with their children, teenagers, pre-teens in tow. I thought about the fact that when I played Thomas Jefferson in the fourth grade, Broadway, although a stone throw away from my Jersey City birthplace, seemed millions of miles across the universe. The closest I could ever get as a child was that “1776” production I was in, and the commercials of various plays on television. What would my life had been like, if I had been blessed to experience Broadway, to be exposed to live theater, as a child, as the White children were doing with “Hamilton” and God only knows how many other plays. I similarly thought of the early to mid-1980s, when as a youth I attended the greatest hip-hop parties in New York City: at places with names like Union Square, the Rooftop, the Roxy, and Roseland. Those same African American, Latino/a, and West Indian youth who created hip-hop begat a second generation, a second wave of hip-hop heads that included kids like me. It was rare, in those days, to see a White person embracing our culture, and if she or he did, if she or he were there, it meant they were also gaining the knowledge, as we said, of not just the music and fashion and language, but also of our lives. Because, frankly, there was no way to access hip-hop without also being forced to confront race, gender, class, poverty, violence, and the many forgotten people and communities of America. As Chuck D, lead rapper of Public Enemy, prophetically said, hip-hop was our CNN.
Once “Hamilton” began I was mesmerized. Yes, I had seen majority people of color shows on Broadway before (like “Fela!” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” and nearly everything August Wilson had ever done). Yes, I had previously witnessed highly successful Broadway productions with the energy of hip-hop at its core: “Bring in Da Noise Bring in Da Funk” and “Def Poetry Jam.” But nothing, like nothing, prepared me for “Hamilton.” It is a thrilling excursion into the life of an overlooked American hero whose racial identity and immigrant status were questioned more than a few times by his contemporaries. It is one of the best American musicals I’ve ever seen, in any format. There is music, there is singing, there is rapping, there is dancing, and there are virtuoso performances by the entire cast. I was particularly affected by the majestic talents of Daveed Diggs, who played two characters, Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; and by Leslie Odom, Jr., with his stirring and somber interpretation of Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s rocky childhood and longing for a whole family made me think of my also being called “illegitimate” because my father and mother were not married either. Likewise I marveled at how Hamilton made the most of every opportunity, getting his college education paid for, as I did, not finishing undergrad, as I did not either. His passion for writing was mine, too. His dedication to a cause, in this case the American Revolution, the same thirst for answers as we ask, in our times, if Black lives matter. Slavery, immigration, his sex scandal while married, it is all there in “Hamilton,” brought into existence by this worldwide cultural movement we call hip-hop.
But the very same people who created hip-hop cannot, by and large, afford to see a show inspired by what they created. This is the warped rationale of American capitalism. Something becomes hot, “they” raise the prices, be it gentrification in our ‘hoods or a Broadway show, they price people out, they make the demand so high as it is ridiculous, and they make it something only the exclusive few can experience. And folks downright lucky, like me, who got my two tickets I paid for at a reasonable price, because a very kind man on Facebook connected me to a friend he had who was working for “Hamilton.” Yeah, I got the friend-of-a-friend discount hook-up, miraculously, through genuine human kindness. I was grateful, but I did also wonder, while absorbing “Hamilton,” if this play would have mattered had it been about that Black colonial figure Benjamin Banneker, not Alexander Hamilton. I wondered if the play would have mattered, or even gotten produced, or be the juggernaut it has become, had it been about slavery, about the African people who many of those founding fathers owned, or if it had been about, say, Nat Turner, and the slave rebellion he led, instead of about these powerful and power-addicted White men, with Hamilton squarely at the center of it all? Some would argue that those are complex questions. And my reply is, no, it is rather simple. Native Americans were here first. The land, theirs, was stolen from them. They were the victims of genocide. African people were stolen from Africa. They were made to work for free as slaves. The genocide was brutal and ugly and the institution of slavery was brutal and ugly. And in the midst of this White men, White men like Hamilton, fought for their freedom, although their freedom had nothing to do with my freedom. So what makes this play different, unique, and subversive, is that Lin-Manuel cuts and scratches, a la a hip-hop deejay, the narrative, and he, a Puerto Rican, is the title character. It is a not-so-subtle way to critique Alexander Hamilton and his founding father homeboys, but also a not-so-subtle critique of the mighty lack of democracy on Broadway, and in America itself.
We were born on the Fourth of July, so they say, our independence day, but if you were Black or Latino/a, or a poor White, or disabled, or queer, or Native American, or women of any color or creed, or anyone who was not a wealthy White male businessman or landowner, then freedom and democracy did not really and truly apply to you. That was America then, that is America now. I thought of this as my companion and I were on a short vacation in Connecticut, just chillin’, minding our own, for the Fourth of July holiday break. We were sitting on the outdoor patio of a local restaurant when a noisy pick-up truck heaved and hauled up Main Street. There was a large American flag, flapping in the slight evening breeze on the left, and there was a large Confederate flag flapping in that breeze on the right side. My companion and I, both Black, were instantly deflated and defeated, our vacation ruined by a symbol that has everything to do with slavery and denial and hatred and fear and ignorance toward those Black like us. We wanted to end our vacay in that moment, but knew we could not, because we also knew we had as much right as anyone else to be there. But our safe space and our safety was dashed, we felt vulnerable because of who we were in this 99.9 percent White Connecticut town, and, truthfully felt if a Confederate Flag could be flown so effortlessly then so too could someone so effortlessly end our lives for being who we were. Call us paranoid, but anyone who has paid attention to what has been going on in these United States the past few years, one killing of a Black person after another, would be mad paranoid as well. I reckon that is the case, too, if you are, say, a lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, or a queer sister or brother simply out at an Orlando, Florida nightclub, a safe space, so you thought, where someone can walk in, oh so very casually, and proceed to shoot and kill as many of you as he so desires. A safe space the way those prayerful people thought their Charleston, South Carolina church was a safe space, yes, until a White supremacist young man named Dylann Roof, in their prayer circle praying with them, unloaded his bullets into their God-obeying spirits. Practically one year later in Orlando this man, this American man, this Arab American man, this Arab American man who may or may not have been gay himself, and deeply self-hating. This man who was able to get access, yet again so naturally, to guns the way every other shooter or mass shooter has gotten guns as if they were picking fruits or vegetables at a supermarket. Was he or was he not connected to ISIS, a terrorist with foreign ties, or simply someone, like O.J. Simpson and the many other mostly male mass shooters, made in America, a product of our violent environment?
And then the day after the Confederate flag sighting we heard the news of Alton Sterling, a seller of cds and dvds in front of a convenience store, being shot and killed by a Baton Rouge, Louisiana police officer. I watched the video, I watched two police officers tackle and subdue Sterling, I watched one police officer kneel down over Sterling and shoot him, at point blank range, into his chest. I cried, turned my head away, then looked again and cried some more. Then when the second video angle was released, I cried harder, tears of pain and anguish, because with this new viewpoint one can see that Sterling’s empty hands held no gun. Yes, when that cop unloaded his bullets into Sterling’s chest, the front of Alton Sterling’s shirt became like a field of vivid red roses; and I replayed the part of the video again and again where Sterling’s outstretched arms are cutting and scratching the sky, like those deejays who may have inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda; then those arms trembled and shook as I had seen as a boy in church when we poor Black people were begging God, begging anyone, for help. And then Alton Sterling was dead, his casket and graveyard the asphalt streets where he had hustled his cds and dvds for years. Dead, even as America was still drunk and blunted with the fireworks and pageantry of the Fourth of July.
Dead the way Alexander Hamilton was that Summer of 1804 day when he and Aaron Burr engaged in a duel, Hamilton’s life ended by gunshot, just like that. White-on-White founding father violence, but we don’t call it that, now do we? Hamilton was dead, dead like Philando Castile, the very next day after Sterling, the same week, yes, as America’s Fourth of July holiday made possible by men like Alexander Hamilton, sitting there in a White tee shirt in the passenger seat of a car in Minnesota, as his girlfriend Diamond Facebook lives this gruesome and frightening scene of him and her little girl in the backseat, with the just-fired gun of a police officer lipping the edge of the video. Was this real, were these folks acting there in Minnesota, as Miranda and his cast mates were acting on that Broadway stage? Alexander Hamilton had many beefs in his lifetime, with Jefferson, with Adams, with Burr. He spoke about slavery. He did his best to prove himself, worked hard, as hard as Alton Sterling worked selling those cds and dvds to feed his family. As hard as Philando Castile worked at that Minnesota Montessori school, in the lunchroom, not only making sure those kids ate, but being a role model of what is possible, as Hamilton was. What is the value of a life, any life, if it can be taken away so easily? What is an act of violence if not a form of mental and spiritual insanity where we feel that hitting, kicking, punching, beating, or shooting and murdering each other is a natural and permanent replacement for peace, for love?
Truth be told, Hamilton and the founding father’s times were as violent as our times now. The play reinforces, start to finish, if one were truly listening and paying attention, that this nation, our nation, was built, brick by brick, on violence, that this violence is a way of life for us. And this nation, our nation, was founded on power, on greed, on hoarding resources for a small minority, at the expense of the rest of us. That sort of thing will drive you crazy, once you begin to become aware of who the founding fathers truly were, it will make you crazy if there were local militias, then, and local police, now, who, excessively militarized, treat regular everyday citizens as threats to the one percent who run and dictate everything. It will make you crazy if you served in the American military, in Hamilton’s time, in these times, only to see yourself left out of the American dream. The trauma can be overwhelming, the sadness and anger a deadly rat poison one drinks and vomits into a psychotic rage; and because those same founding fathers ordained your right to bear arms, you just might become Micah Johnson killing police officers in Dallas and Gavin Long killing police officers in Baton Rouge, and seek revenge on local police, especially if you watched, as I did, over and over, those ghastly scenes of Sterling and Castile dying—or Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice, or the uncountable other viral videos of Blacks dying at the hands of White, Black, Latino/a, or Asian police, like it is a spectator sport, a reality television show, a rite-of-passage to being Black in our America. Not an excuse, not support for anyone who would point and shoot at police, not a call for violence toward anyone—as I do not condone violence in any way—just some context for y’all to consider. And to consider, too, that the police shooters in both Dallas and Baton Rouge were military veterans. War is hell, Marvin Gaye once sang. Well, I am sure, a double hell to return to the U.S. after fighting for freedom for others, as they like to say, but wondering why your people do not have it at home. Call it rage, call it revenge, call it the post-traumatic stress disorder of a post-military life, call it cocking and aiming a gun when you feel like it in America; be it the police killing innocent citizens, or citizens killing innocent police officers, we’ve come to a severe crossroads in America and you, me, we, have no clue from whence the bullets will come and who they will murder next.
Death is a part of life, my Aunt Cathy always says. Yes, auntie, fo’ sho’. But there is something utterly abnormal about dying, in an Orlando nightclub, outside a convenience store, inside your stopped car, in a duel, on that Memphis motel balcony, at a school, on a college campus, at work, in a church prayer circle, on the streets, in your home, just because we have been so conditioned to believe that we are in a perpetual state of war. Except we have no clue for what or whom we are fighting, except ourselves.
I thought of this when we left Connecticut and my companion—in the aftermath of Diamond’s video of her dead boyfriend and her alive little girl in that Minnesota car—said not only was she not comfortable driving and was terrified of the police pulling us over, but that she was more fearful for my driving because I am a Black man in America. I thought of this as we left Connecticut, a state that had slavery, contrary to notions that slavery was just down South, and we headed back into New York City, which at one time was the biggest importer of slaves in America. I thought of this as I saw, in my mind’s yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Hamilton, shouting on the stage of the Tony Awards, the night after the Orlando shooting, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside….”
Yes, love, I agree, one thousand percent. For it is the most revolutionary act we could ever perform on any stage, to love ourselves, to love each other. What the founding fathers loved was power, was privilege, was property, human and material, and that is why America, our America, remains, limbo-like, in a state of flux, over 200 years old now, yes, but also forever that infant unable to walk without falling down. America needs to be born, again, but it ain’t happening if we do not make it happen. It ain’t happening if it is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…. When will this ever end with that sort of mentality, with that sort of revenge and conquer mindset, from cops, from citizens, from us all? When the Dallas and Baton Rouge snipers shot and killed those police officers I felt their pain, too, felt for their families, for all of us, our violence, our uniquely American violence, in wars overseas, in the many wars we are fighting against each other on this land, is, maddeningly, torturing and killing us. I am not quite sure what else can be said that has not been said somewhere else. But what I will say is that we’ve got to make an effort, not to be insane, not to be evil, not to be violent, in words, in actions, in our spirits. Because our spirits, right now, are contaminated. When I was in Los Angeles recently I participated in a sit-in with #BlackLivesMatter young activists in front of that community’s city hall. The protest, as have been many I have participated in, was peaceful, was civil, was beautiful. #BlackLivesMatter is not a terrorist group, and it is obscene and inhumane for someone to suggest that. They, we, simply want peace, we simply want love, and we simply want the freedom to be all of who we are, no matter who we are. #BlackLivesMatter would not be necessary if all lives truly did matter in America. Case in point is from the moment I posted about that protest the social media trolls attacked it, and me, violently. But the same kinds of people will say they love America, they will say they love the founding fathers, they will say how much “Hamilton” and Alexander Hamilton and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson mean to them. But why, beloved, is it okay for you to have your freedom and your heroes and sheroes, but I cannot have mine? Why are my freedom and my very being a threat to yours? And who continues to win when we the masses of people forever fight and hate and fear and kill each other, merely because we refuse to talk with and listen to each other, especially when quite difficult, and merely because we refuse to learn how to love each other?
Kevin Powell is a writer, public speaker, and activist. He is the author of 12 books, including his critically acclaimed new autobiography The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster). Read other pieces by Kevin Powell exclusive to Utne Reader, Will Racism Ever End, Will I Ever Stop Being a Nigger? and Letter to a Young Man. Email him, firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on twitter: @kevin_powell.