by Kevin Powell, special to Utne Reader
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
What happens to a dream deferred?
What brush do you bend when dusting your shoulders from being offended? What kind of den did they put you in when the lions start hissing?
I AM NOT A NIGGER, or a nigga, or a nigguh. I am not your nigger or anyone else’s nigger, either. Nor do I belong to some specialized society that contains within its boundaries niggers, or niggas, or niggaz4life. No—
I am a man, a Black man, a human being, and I am your equal. After this piece goes live I am never again going to utter that word “nigger” to describe myself, to describe Black people, to paint a picture of a certain type of mentality born of racial oppression, self-hatred, confusion, of ignorance; not publicly, not privately. No—
Yet when I look at race and racism in America in the 21st century how could I not help but feel like I am nothing but that loaded and disgusting word? I often wonder if it actually matters I came up from the ghetto; me, the product of a single mother who escaped, barely, the color-line insanity of the Jim Crow South only to confront a different kind of race and class insanity in Northern slums; me, the son of an absent father who completely and permanently abandoned my mom and I when I was eight because he was a broken Black man and did not know it; me, a Black boy who has known rivers, poverty, violence, abuse, fear, hopelessness, depression; me, who made it to college on a financial aid package, never got my degree, but still made a name for myself, against all odds; me, who has published 12 books and who has visited all 50 American states—as a writer, as a political activist, as a speaker; me, the kid who did not get on an airplane until I was age 24, but who has since been to five of the seven continents, and who is interviewed virtually each week on television and radio and elsewhere for media outlets from every corner of the world. What does it matter that I, as my mother has said with her grits-and-butter South Carolina dialect, “speaks well”; that I have the ability to converse with equal comfort on college campuses and on concrete street corners, that I can easily flow from exchanges on presidential campaigns and gender politics to basketball and pop culture? What does it matter, indeed, if I have produced a body of work, my writings, my speeches, my humanitarian and philanthropic efforts, in service to people, all people, and that I really do see you, me, us, as sisters and brothers, no matter who you are or what you look like, as part of the human race, the human family, if you, in the smoked out buildings that are your mind’s eyes, refuse to see me, or refuse to see me as a whole human being, or, worse, simply see me as that word? Or what if you see me as an animal, a monster, some thing to be dissed, avoided, detested, labeled as angry or a thug or difficult or arrogant or a problem or a burden?
Yes, a nigger, that creature and creation born of a vicious racism seemingly as long as the nightmares of my African ancestors shocked and awed as they were bamboozled and kidnapped from the motherland centuries back; their sweaty raw bodies the infrastructure for the first global economy in this world—slavery, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. That slave trade built and enriched Europe, built and enriched America, and turned places as different as New York City and the American South and the West Indies and Latin America and the United Kingdom into real and metaphorical castles for powerful and privileged White people. Meanwhile the bodies of my beautiful ancestors were brutalized by a diabolical scheme to bend and bomb any memory of their names, their identities, their very beings, until they became that which they were told: niggers ...
So there is simply no way to have what my Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother David Young dubs “courageous conversations” about race and racism in America if you refuse to hear me, if you refuse to read this essay to the very end, if you refuse to acknowledge that my history is your history, too. We are chained together like those slaves were chained together on those ships and those auction blocks.
I can hear my White sisters and brothers say now, as many often declare to me when this uncomfortable dialogue occurs, “But I did not own slaves, I had nothing to do with that” or “My relatives did not do that.” It does not matter if you or your long-gone relatives were directly involved or not, or if you believe that “that is in the past.” The past, tragically, is the present, because we’ve been too terrified to confront our whole history and our whole selves as Americans.
Furthermore what matters is that a system was put in place, rooted in slavery, based on White skin privilege and White skin color, that revolved around power, land, property, status, shared values born of oppression and discrimination and marginalization, and that has never changed in America. Never. That system and its values have been passed generation to generation as effortlessly as we pass plates at the family dinner table. So it does not matter if you never openly refer to a Black person as a nigger or not. It does not matter if your college fraternity puts on Blackface and mocks Black culture on Halloween or not. It does not matter if you are a practicing racist or not. It does not matter if you call yourself a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. It does not matter if you call yourself a progressive or liberal or a centrist or conservative. It does not matter if you have Black friends or a Black wife or Black husband or Black partner or Black relatives or Black or biracial children (biologically or adopted). It does not matter if you love hip-hop or other Black music and Black art, or that you grew up in or around a Black community, or spend much time there now as an adult. It does not matter if one or a tiny handful of Black writers, or Black artists, or Black public intellectuals, or Black spokespersons, or Black entertainers and athletes, or Black media personalities, or Black anything are given major platforms and fame and awards and tons of money and status to prove racism is not what it was, or, equally tripped out, to tell you about your racism. That nutty game of the “special” Black person handpicked to represent the rest of us is as old and tired as racism itself. We are all your equals and all equally valuable—from the ’hood to Hollywood, from Harlem to Harvard—not just the select few anointed and celebrated by White American tastemakers.
So what ultimately matters is what you are willing to give up, to sacrifice, in every aspect of your life, to speak out and push back against that which has taught you that you are superior and that I am inferior, that you are always right and I am always wrong, pretty much in every space imaginable, both consciously and subconsciously. Silence is unacceptable in the face of injustice, and being neutral is being a coward and an accomplice to the evil sides of our history.
Thus, to be mad blunt, in our America racism is race plus power and privilege; who has the favorable race or skin color, who has the power and privilege, and who does not. Yes, Black folks and other people of color sure can be prejudiced, bigoted, hateful, and mean toward our White sisters and brothers. I certainly have been in past chapters of my life but I am no longer and never will be again. I believe in love of self, love of us all. But be that as it may I am also clear that we Black folks do not control nor own the majority of politics and the government, education, the mass media culture, social media and technology, Hollywood, corporate America, sports teams, music and other entertainment, the arts, the book industry, police departments, anything that shapes the thinking of every single American citizen and resident during our waking hours. Not even close. We do not set the standards for what is considered beautiful or attractive, what is considered courageous or intelligent, nor do we dictate what becomes popular, visible, viable. And we certainly do not say what matters in history, what does not, what stories should be told, and which ones are irrelevant, not for the multitudes—not even close. Our stories, our versions of America, of our history, are marginalized, put to the side, specialized, ghettoized. This is why a brutally violent “explorer” like Christopher Columbus is mythologized as a hero, why Thanksgiving celebrants are in denial about the horrors done to Native Americans, why things like slavery and the Civil Rights Movement are essentially skimmed over, if taught at all, to any of us, in public schools or private schools, be we wealthy or working-class. Racism in America means being so immune from it that you do not even think about being White. You just are. Does this mean that I believe every single White person in the United States is racist? No, not hardly, because I have encountered far too many brilliant, honest, big-hearted, and integrity-filled White sisters and brothers who are willing to challenge their power and their privilege, even at their own material, physical, and spiritual expense. I have far too many White sisters and brothers in my life who are dear friends, allies, supporters, confidantes, mentors, and sheroes and heroes of mine. But what I do believe, because I have lived it and because I inhale it habitually, is that racism is a toxic and deadly cancer; no one is immune from it, and even the good and well-meaning amongst us have been profoundly contaminated with it, simply by virtue of your not wanting to have this conversation, or because you are having a hard time reading my words this very moment.
Yes, I do see very clearly that we are all connected, and I truly love and acknowledge every race, every ethnic group, every identity, and every culture that exists in America, on this earth. But I, we, would be lying if we did not also admit that the longest running drama and the single most dysfunctional racial relationship in American history is between White people and Black people. That as long as that dynamic dysfunction exists, there is no way we will ever do right by Native Americans who were the victims of genocide, or ever look at Latino immigrants as anything other than cheap labor and outlaws, or ever view Asians as anything other than the stereotypically quiet and often invisible “model minority.” And definitely no way we will ever come to know and understand and feel the humanity of people who are Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim while the Black-White conundrum continues, excruciatingly, uninterrupted. Stated the way they did in “the old country”—Down South—when I was a child my momma and them said, religiously, that a liar is a thief. Well, it is way past time we stop lying to ourselves, fellow Americans, and stop stealing away the solutions that are in our very hands, and have always been there—
WE'VE HAD AT LEAST three major opportunities in American history to confront and end systematic racism directly, but we merely toyed around with the notion, then backed away.
The first was when the colonies were warring with the mother country, England, for independence. How incredible it would have been if “founding fathers” like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had seriously and instantly freed their own slaves while declaring in their promissory note “all men are created equal.” How incredible if Native Americans were treated with dignity and grace, and a part of the vision, instead of as mortal enemies. How incredible if poor Whites and women of all hues, too, were included in the concept of freedom, justice, and equality? And, my God, how incredible would it have been for those Black slaves, my ancestors, to become free women and free men and free children, to participate, from the very beginning, in the building of what we claim to be a democracy?
The second chance was during the Civil War and its aftermath known as Reconstruction. We who truly know American history know that President Abraham Lincoln was not the great emancipator he is hailed to be. Sometimes he was for slavery and sometimes he was against slavery. And unambiguously his releasing from bondage Blacks in selected states gave the North more men to fight and win the war. You think not? Then Google one of Dr. King’s last speeches where he referred to Lincoln as the “great vacillator.” But, regardless, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was put forth; he was assassinated yet still there was a flickering hope of a better day as colored folks marched from plantations to liberty. But that long walk to freedom turned out to be fool’s gold. Reconstruction lasted only a dozen years, until The Compromise of 1877 put Rutherford B. Hayes into the presidency, troops protecting the basic rights of Black folks were removed from the South, and an insidious White domestic terrorism—physically, mentally, spiritually—exploded across America for nearly a century.
Blame Black folks for every moral issue in our fair land. Make Black men and Black women the poster children for every bad behavior or crime or social misstep in America. Tell Black folks that voting is a ticket to a better society, and then deny it from them every chance you get, with poll taxes, with voter I.D. laws. Create a perpetual atmosphere of intimidation and fear where Black folks never know if they will be tarred, feathered, hung from trees, lynched, bombed, shot, racially profiled, or choke-holded to death ... simply for being Black ...
It is a minor miracle of the gods and heavens that in the midst of that post-Civil War America Blacks were able, under harsh segregation laws, to build homes, own land, create schools of every variety, set up businesses that met each of their basic needs, and have whole communities, largely separate from White America—because they had no other choice. A minor miracle, too, that as racism reared its dreadful head and destroyed peoples’ lives and neighborhoods that there were not more race rebellions, each and every year, across America during the Jim Crow era.
Look what happened to my great-grandfather, Benjamin Powell, who was murdered amidst this racist hysteria in the early 1900s. He had the audacity to own 400 acres of land in the Low Country of South Carolina, right near Savannah, Georgia. He had the nerve to be an entrepreneur, a cook, and a man who did things his way on his own terms. The good White men of that community did not take too kindly to a Black man with that brand of swagger, who thought and knew he was their equal. They pressured my great-grandfather to sell the land. When he did not, one day his wife got a knock on the door and was told my great-grandfather had choked on his own food and was found dead in nearby water. No, they had killed him; my great-grandmother was forced to sell 397 acres of that land to the White men for one penny each, and scores of my relatives on the Powell side fled for their lives to other states, never to be heard from again. Years later, when she was an 8-year-old girl, my mother would pick cotton on that very same Powell property, her life reduced to being the help for the good White people, the same good White people whose relatives had a hand in killing my great-grandfather—
We got one more opportunity to correct the racial wrongs in the last century. It was called the Civil Rights Movement. We who know history know there had been energy and agitation for decades around voting and civil rights, but the height of that effort occurred roughly between 1954 and 1968—the years of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and the ruthless murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, and Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
What a majestic movement it was. People, Black people of all backgrounds, and some loyal White allies, too, peaceful, largely nonviolent, but courageous in the face of job firings, shootings, bombings, water hoses, attack dogs, not letting anyone turn them around. African Americans were not asking for much. Can we vote? Can we be full-fledged citizens? Can we move about without fear of being murdered simply for who we are?
The movement was powerful, it was diverse, it had voices as different as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party. It desegregated public spaces, it appealed for voting and basic citizenship rights; it challenged police brutality and poverty and economic injustice. There were many big and small victories and I owe the fact that I am a first-generation college student to these many unsung warriors of the Civil Rights era. But then it was over—
AS SOON AS DR. KING'S BLOOD was scrubbed and washed from that Memphis motel balcony, America, our America, under the guise of taking the country back, began an all-out assault on those very minimal triumphs that occurred during the Civil Rights era. We have witnessed Nixon, the Reagan Revolution, the crack epidemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex; we have seen record numbers of poor Black folks thrown off welfare and locked in jails during the era of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton; we survived the administration of George W. Bush, his infamous wars and his failed “no child left behind,” and that hideous stain on America’s face called Hurricane Katrina. We stand idly by as gentrification, under the pretense of urban development, destroys long-standing Black and Latino communities, from Brooklyn to Oakland, from The Bronx to Seattle, from Detroit to Atlanta, leaving the very poor people Dr. King urged us not to forget largely alone to fend for their lives, isolated and alienated by the triple evils of racism and classism and indifference. Public schools and an over-emphasis on testing and zero-tolerance discipline in these poor communities are a disaster; there are little to no jobs; there is constant fear of the police and of each other; there is endless violence born of self-hatred and despair; there is little to no hope; there are racist and classist stereotypes they confront every single day of their lives; there is the looming threat of prison or an early death which have swallowed their peers and family members. If this is what integration was suppose to be coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, then it has been a complete and monumental failure for poor Black people in America. Black communities are not what they were; the multi-faceted and thriving Black “businesses” of yesteryear have been reduced to barbershops and beauty salons, churches and funeral parlors, and the mom and pop soul food restaurants. The class divide between poor and middle class African Americans is larger than ever, and there is a convenient and perpetual need to blame poor Black folks for everything that ails Black America—like guns and violence, like drugs, when we know, factually, that White folks—rich ones and poor ones—shoot guns, are violent and take drugs, too. But people lie and make up convenient truths to suit their agendas, and we know that when racism and intra-racism are the order of the day, it’s very easy to blame the ghetto, the ’hood, or so-called niggers.
And it is within that context, now, where we also bear witness to the meanness and venom manifested during the Obama years with a president elected by a rainbow coalition that made some believe, naively, that the United States was at its best: full of empathy and compassion and magically post-racial. Instead, during his term, Barack Obama has received more death threats than any other commander-in-chief in American history; he has been thoroughly disrespected by Congressional members and other elected officials, sometimes to his face; and the “they” we Black folks like to talk about still question Obama’s nationality and ethnic origins, his religion, his loyalty to the country. It is a Fox News Channel mentality that thrives on fear, hatred, violence, and intimidation. It is a Republican Party where even Lincoln’s flip-flopping politics would be welcome given the fire-breathing inhumanity spewed from its leadership in these times.
It has been in this climate that there seems to be an explosion of racial profiling cases throughout America. Say their names and you hear Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Oscar Grant, Aiyanna Jones, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice ... so many dead Black bodies that I have lost count. Some killed by police, some killed by civilian White folks, some Black adults and some Black children, some where it was clear-cut and captured on video, some where the circumstances are murky, the alleged causes feeling like the lies they told my great-grandmother after her husband was found dead in that water.
But let’s be clear. These racial murders did not end with the Civil Rights Movement. They never ended. I have been an activist since I was a teenager, since the 1980s. I have worked on so many racial profiling cases that I have come to expect, weekly, news of yet another Black woman or Black man killed. What has changed is that we have, in these times, cellphones and social media to record and share these tragedies. I do not know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. For every single time a Black person has died at the hands of a police officer, or White person, usually a White male, in their car, in their church, in their ’hood, my soul grows taut and my heart aches because I know but for the grace of the God I believe in, that can be me.
That is because to be Black in America is to live a sort of death every single day of your life. It makes for a stressful, paranoid, and schizophrenic existence: Am I an American, or am I not? You do not know how you will be assaulted, so you brace yourself for the worst and hope for the best. For me that means I am forever thinking about things my White sisters and brothers do not have to think about. Like if I carry my black iPhone in my hand will it be mistaken for a gun, and will I consequently get shot by a cop? Like if I, a marathon runner, jog my miles through certain neighborhoods at certain times of the day or night, will someone call the police on me or, worse yet, will they morph into George Zimmerman to my Trayvon Martin and be judge and jury and executioner of my life? Like if I dare to show an emotion like outward confidence will I be deemed a menace to society, a threat to the status quo, an uppity nigger or “boy” who needs to know my place, the way some in America have been offended by Super Bowl quarterback Cam Newton, his smile, his smirk, his proclamations that he is superman, his doing the dab dance whenever he makes a big play?
Like if I dare to challenge or question a White woman, a White man, as I have many times—the White female journalist on the New York public radio podcast, the White male editor of that national men’s magazine, the White women and men both who like to come on my social media pages to criticize and challenge, randomly and disrespectfully, my posts—will I be penalized, ostracized, deemed a problem child simply because I use the mind my God gave me?
Like if I dare to express, aloud, pride in my heritage, my culture, my people, and to acknowledge, through my art, as Beyoncé does with her song “Formation,” will I be told that I am offensive and unacceptable to middle America, because I also reference the revolutionary elements of my history like the Black Panther Party?
Like if I dare to convey any anger, as I did when I was in my 20s as a cast member on the MTV reality show “The Real World,” will I be branded as such for the rest of my life, to the point where, two decades later, I have absolutely outraged White people, coming on my Twitter or Facebook pages, cursing me out, telling me they did not like me then and they do not like me now? Or like every single time I am on Fox News Channel, or some other network, talking about issues like violence, guns, abortion, race, gender, whatever it may be, and I inevitably get tweets, emails, you name it, threatening my life, calls for me to go back to Africa, to kill myself, to be killed, just because I happen to be a Black man in America with a voice and an opinion—
This is what the cancer of racism does to me, to people like me. We die and have to resurrect ourselves day-to-day. We laugh and party and praise God hard to keep from crying and dying inside, from committing slow suicide. We cry and battle low self-esteem and debilitating angst and sadness simply because we wonder, aloud, what did we do to be so black and blue? We swallow the racism until it becomes as natural to us as our heartbeats, and that internalized racism becomes Black self-hatred, Black abuse, Black-on-Black violence physically, spiritually, mentally; it becomes the Black elite, the Black gatekeepers, the so-called Black leaders and thinkers, the ones who have no real plan, no real vision, no real imagination when it comes down to the real challenges facing Black America, yet are quick to pimp or put down Black America, particularly poor Black America, every chance they get, but have nothing to say about American racism and its devastating effects, like ever; it becomes the Black woman writer who recently attacked me so nastily on social media because she did not like my private, off-the-record feedback on her work or her approach to Black issues; or it becomes the Black male airport worker who loudly disrespected me at the security checkpoint because his false sense of power told him I was nothing but a nigger to be bossed around and controlled; or the many times in my own life where I too have been so wounded by this system of oppression that I lashed out at any and all Black folks because in doing so I was trying to smash the mirror that was myself once and for all. We are pained, we are hurt, we are distressed, we are bewildered, many of us do whatever we must to dull the awful sensations of racism—with drink, with cigarettes, with drugs, with sex, with video games, with sports, with music, with violence, with mistreatment to self and to others—a very vicious cycle, a treadmill we can never seem to escape—
NO ONE—No One—should have to live like this, think this, or be like this. No one should have to teach their children how to react if stopped by the police. No one should have to tell their loved ones “be safe” or “be careful” when they leave home, not knowing if they will ever return, not in the 21st century, not after all this nation has been through, not after all the many lives lost. No one, including me, should wake in the mornings wondering if this will be my last day on earth, if I will die at the hands of a police officer, or a White racist, or a deeply disturbed human being who is Black like me ...
Yeah, it is utterly exhausting to have to navigate daily the macro and micro slings and arrows that are American racism. It is doubly exhausting to have to do so and also explain to good, well-meaning White people over and over again what racism is, what they can and should do and why, and then, in some cases, be expected to hold their hands emotionally. Black folks in America are sick and tired of being the emotional and spiritual help for White Americans who want to get it but do not. We are also sick and tired of being the historical mammy figure, or the post-modern nanny, forever catering to your needs while our needs get woefully neglected. You want to end racism in America and on this planet, my White sisters and brothers, now, and once and for all? You have got to do the work yourselves, in your communities, with people who are White like you. I can and will be your ally, your friend, will work in coalitions with you. But just like when I was first challenged, by women, to think about sexism and gender oppression as a man in a different way back in the early 1990s, I could not just expect women to do my work for me. I had to do it. Nor could I expect women to hold my hand. And I had to do this work with men and boys, not women and girls, primarily. Because I needed to go to the source of the power and privilege, not to the sufferers of that power and privilege. This is not easy work, challenging systems of oppression. But the choice of doing nothing or remaining inactive means a continued death of the American soul, of the American psyche, and an acceptance of the sickness that is within all of us. To be ignorant to what I am saying is a sickness. To think I am lying or exaggerating is a sickness. To think you are somehow immune from all of this is a sickness. And to twist things around, to believe that you are somehow the victim, in sheer opposition to history and modern-day facts, is a sickness, a sort of mental and spiritual escapism devoid of truth and devoid of a desire for real healing and real reconciliation in America.
THE ABOVE SAID, this is so much bigger than #OscarsSoWhite or #BlackLivesMatter, although both are symptoms of the bigger problem. The Academy Awards are so White because America still believes it is so White, that White stories matter and that the stories of people of color do not, except on rare occasions, and with the same basic types of characters and plots. Rarely are we permitted to be complex, multi-layered, thoughtful humans on film or television, except for the masterful producing work of, say, a Shonda Rhimes, that rare Black person shining in Hollywood. This is why I say Black lives do not really matter because if they did we would not need to say it over and over again. Who, precisely, are we trying to convince of this fact?
This is also so much bigger than how we perceive a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady versus how we perceive a Cam Newton or a LeBron James; although we know White men can be angry, confident, sullen, rude, sore losers—no backlash for Peyton Manning after his Super Bowl 44 loss and demeanor versus nonstop backlash for Cam Newton after his Super Bowl 50 loss and demeanor; we know White men can be fathers of children without being married to the mother and never accused of making babies out of wedlock, even if they did—Exhibit A is Tom Brady’s first child versus Cam Newton’s first child; same scenario but a different public reaction. And it is not mad cool when a famous or non-famous Black woman or man shows a range of emotions, including anger and confidence: she or he becomes a pariah, a thing to be marked, labeled, hated, condemned, and watched by false angels with dirty faces. Think of Serena Williams, think of Nina Simone, think of Sandra Bland when she was pulled over by that Texas cop. That said we know a certain segment of the American taste-making machine likes its heroes to be heterosexual White men. So if you are, say, a heterosexual Black male hero, you must be the apolitical and socially detached Michael Jordan type. You cannot be Muhammad Ali, or someone like Ali in his prime like, say, Cam Newton. Nah. You cannot desire to be in control of your own career, your own life, and your own destiny, like LeBron. Nah. You must be obedient, you must be grateful, you must be an employee only, one who does not think or know your own value; you must be neutral and you must castrate yourself and your dignity, by any means necessary—
And so, you see, that is why this is also so much bigger than a Donald Trump, although we know that Trump represents everything that is wrong with America, not just because he is an angry, foul-mouthed, disrespectful, opportunistic, racist, sexist, and classist heterosexual White male, but because he knows he has power and privilege, and uses it to injure others, without any remorse whatsoever. Trump’s racism is the same racism of Barry Goldwater, of Nixon, of Reagan, of George W., of Paul Ryan, of Rudy Giuliani, of Chris Christie, of certain kinds of straight White men of means and access, who couldn't care less about middle class and working-class White Americans, but who have conveniently created and spread a lie, in thinly veiled racial tones, that the enemy of these White folks in middle America, in the American South, are the Black folks and other people of color who threaten their freedoms, their jobs, their security, and their rights. Whether Trump really means what he is saying or if he is simply being highly opportunistic is inconsequential. Fact is he is saying those things, people feel and believe him, and he continues a storyline that has brought great harm to America for centuries now. Because the greatest trick of a racist is getting folks to believe that racism doesn’t exist in the first place or that the people with no power and no privilege are the real racists, the real oppressors.
BUT IN SPITE of the questions in the title of this essay, and in spite all I have written here, I really do have limitless hope for humanity, for America. It is in my spirit, it is in my bones, and it is in my DNA. I have no other choice. I do not want to say the clichéd thing about racism not ending in my lifetime, because I will continue to do everything I can to help it end, before I die. And as I criss-cross America weekly, yes, I do hear the sad and sordid tales of racism on college campuses, of Black student leaders and Black student athletes protesting one insult after another. And yes, I do see in innumerable communities people fighting the good fight against racism, against hate. But I also see, as I speak at and facilitate public conversations in places as different as Perrysburg, Ohio, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, a genuine fatigue with the racism, with the hatred, with the fear and ignorance and violence and division, with people not talking with and listening to each other, even when it is not comfortable to do so. Yes, I have hope because of young people, the diverse groups of youthful Americans I encounter everywhere I go, who at least have a willingness to hear, to learn, to share. It is their fearlessness, their idealism, their openness that keeps me going, that makes me believe we can change history and change this world.
Finally, we have heard for years, at least going back to the presidency of Bill Clinton, this call for a national conversation on race. What I have come to realize is that that is a political football for certain kinds of political leaders to toss about when there is yet another racially motivated tragedy in our America. That if there is truly is to be a conversation, a raw and real dialogue, that it must come from the bottom up, from we the people. I’ve said all I can say about America, about American history, about what racism has done to me, to my family. I am drained and near tears, to be downright honest, from writing this piece, because it forced me to revisit both new and old traumas, to revisit new and old wars with myself, with others, wars that I really do not want to fight. I want to heal; I want us all to heal. This healing work must happen with White sisters and brothers and it must happen with Black sisters and brothers, and sisters and brothers of every racial and cultural upbringing in America. Protests, rallies, marches should continue to happen as long as racism exists, as long as there is inequality, injustice, and the absence of opportunities for all people. They must. But we also must be conscious of how this racism cancer eats at us, how it destroys us from the inside out, how we must learn the difference between proactive anger and reactionary anger. Proactive anger builds bridges, possibilities, alliances, movements, and, ultimately, love. Reactive anger destroys bridges, breeds dysfunction, and spreads more madness and confusion. Yes, passion is necessary, and we should be angry because of what I have described in this essay, for it is a natural human emotion. But that anger must not become the very hate we say we are against.
For White Americans this means you’ve got to re-invent yourselves if you are serious about ridding our society of racism. You’ve got to ask yourself who and what was I before I became White? What does it mean to me to be human, to be a human being, and what, again, am I willing to do, willing to sacrifice, and willing to give up to be a part of this necessary healing process? You must learn to listen to the voices of Black people and other people of color, you must not feel the need, through arrogance or insecurity, to tell us who we are, what we should be thinking or feeling or doing, and you must, with love and respect, understand when we may be hyper-sensitive to race, to racism, given the history and present-day realities of our America. Shutting us down or ignoring us or un-friending us says you do not truly want a conversation, as equals, especially if that conversation makes you uncomfortable.
As for me, I just want to be at peace, I just want to see love in the world; I just want to love and honor myself, who I am, without it being considered an affront or danger to someone else, because of racism, because of hate and ignorance and fear. I do not want to be, forever, that exasperation and anguish in Sandra Bland’s voice on that video where the Texas cop pulled her over, my life the heavy drag on the cigarette she smoked, not knowing just a few days later she would be found hanging in a Texas jail cell. I do not want to pick up a gun and commit suicide at the door of the Ohio statehouse because my demons got the best of me like 23-year-old #BlackLivesMatter activist MarShawn M. McCarrel II. I do not want my life to end prematurely, at your hands or at mine, and I do not want my life to be in vain, because of what I am. I do not want my work for freedom, justice, and equality for all people to kill me, is what I am saying, to destroy me, to render me mute and useless, to myself, to others. That means I just want to be a whole human being, a free human being, and respected as such. And I just want to live in an America, and on a planet, where I can dream, forever, instead of being tired, irritated, uncomfortable, and scared, forever, that my life will somehow wind up as a nightmare—
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, Letter to a Young Man and Hamilton, O.J. Simpson, Orlando… Email him, firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on twitter: @kevin_powell.
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