25 years ago, I was really beginning to understand both the beauty and the overwhelming burden that my black male body represented. Native Son, Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, To Kill a Mockingbird, Roots, the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, etc., were all marinating inside of my 16 year old consciousness. Add to that, Yusef Hawkins, Yusef Salaam and Michael Griffith, all looked like me. I was angry and confused.
That summer in ’89, I went to see Do The Right Thing. I saw it three times at a dingy, little theater called The Castle in Irvington, NJ. I cheered. I laughed. I cried. I cried, because I knew then, that at any given moment, it could be me dangling, neck crushed between a baton and a shield like Radio Raheem.
25 years later, I’m crying again. This time, it isn’t a Spike Lee Joint. It’s real life. I’m on campus at Howard University learning that there would be no indictment in the Eric Garner case. I feel 16 again, except I’m more angry than confused. I’m reminded that it is always open season on people who look like me.
I’m a suspect. I’m target practice. I’m nothing. Rinse and repeat.
A couple years back, while teaching Freshman Composition at a different HBCU, I decided it was time to revisit Do the Right Thing. I thought the film would be a good primer for an essay on gentrification. I prepared my notes on race, class, poverty etc. – all of the things that I was certain would come up after we screened the film.
The movie ends. I stroll up to the front of the room, full of a knowing excitement about how the film had probably tapped into my students’ simmering rage.
I start with a simple question, “So…who did the wrong thing?”
They respond, “Radio Raheem.”
As a professor, I try to consider and prepare for all of the possible ways a discussion may go. I had not prepared for a room full of brown faces telling me that Radio Raheem was asking for it.
Completely thrown, I asked, “Well, who did the right thing then?”
In unison, I hear, “Sal.”
At first I started to point out things that they may have missed in the film, but then I decided to just listen. For most, while Radio Raheem did not deserve to be killed; the belief was that it was his own fault. He instigated it. Most argued that if you want black faces hanging on the wall, open your own pizzeria. Many felt that if the black people just got up and did something with their lives, they wouldn’t have time to be worried about such small matters.
I looked in their eyes wanting to see some fire, some sense of rage against the machine, but there was none. Their attitude about my attitude could be summed up in one student’s statement, “That’s old school thinking…we got Obama now.”
Hello post-racial America.
I blamed the parents. We overcame and underprepared.
For the next couple of years, I watched too many young people Twerk, Chicken Noodle Soup and Harlem Shake their way through life, as the world around them seemed to implode. Nothing seemed to matter, except for grades and making money.
Then, Trayvon happened.
Then, Eric Garner.
Then, Michael Brown.
My students are awake now.
This semester, at Howard, I had my students watch Cornbread, Earl and Me, Let the Fire Burn and examine the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin” and Melvin Van Peeble’s, “Love, that’s America.” All deal with black skin rubbing up against oppressive white systems. We ended with Langston Hughes, “I, Too.” In it Langston writes:
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
I challenged my students to consider their place in America. I asked, “Is the ‘darker brother’ out of the kitchen yet?” At the same time, every day as I rode the train between Baltimore and DC for work, I had to challenge myself to consider my own place in America.
After work, the platforms and trains are full of young, black kids, who are very much like me at 16. They take up too much space, are sometimes too loud and move around too much. That said, they aren’t really bothering anybody. They’re being kids, but I can often look at my fellow riders’ faces and know that they see something different – a threat. Even when the kids are annoying to me, I worry about whether they’ll make it home safely. I do this while I process feelings of embarrassment, anger and exasperation about their behavior. Being black is beautiful and exhausting.
Even at my highest levels of teenage consciousness, I had no idea of just how uncomfortable my presence made people. I was a good kid, doing well in school, and never got into trouble. I engaged with the world from that perspective, not fully understanding that world mostly engaged with me no differently than any other black boy.
As I mature, I’m finding that even for the kids who are troublemakers, I still worry. If Radio Raheem were a real person, should we not weep for him, because he wasn’t on his way to college, or didn’t have a wife and family? All lives matter.
Some years ago when Chris Rock, artfully and eloquently discussed “niggas” and black folks, I agreed. “Niggas” were ruining it for everybody. Over time, I’ve realized how much classist segregation works against us. They’re already attempting to conquer and divided us, we shouldn’t be willing participants in that effort.
In class, after hearing about the decision regarding Eric Garner, I sat and talked with some students about their feelings. There was anger. There was sadness. There was confusion. It may sound strange, but this made me hopeful. They are feeling something. They’re thinking about who they are and who they want to be. Most importantly, they are thinking about how to change the world.
I trust that they’ll find a way.
Phill Branch is a Lecturer in the Department of English at Howard University