#Americanhistory

Why We Left

Hey y’all. I do still write, though at the moment, I’m writing mostly on other outlets and working on a stealth project that I’ll be sharing later in the year. 🙂 In the meantime, I’ll be reposting my work and other dope writers on the blog. This piece, “Why We Left” is republished from one of my most recent in Medium’s Human Parts Collection

why we left

“A powerful way to sidestep America’s reluctance to become post-racial would be for more Black Americans to become post-national.” – Thomas Chatterton Williams

As 2015 already seems exhausting with regards to the frequency of police brutality, I’ve been having parallel conversations with a number of friends, mostly Black, about their holiday travels. Non-ironically, almost all of them went abroad. Between the friend who spent three weeks in Trinidad and Jamaica, the friend who went to Ghana for almost a month, and my own holiday in France, it was clear without having to be stated: the fatigue of American life has sent a number of my friends, particularly my Black friends, abroad.

Going out of the country is hardly newsworthy. Facebook is full of travelers, mostly childless Millennials flexing their international check-in muscles at hole-in-the-wall bistros across Europe and half-ruined Buddhist temples. A few friends are feeling thirsty and bohemian, trapezing across Southeast Asia; another friend is hiking across East Africa; a poet friend is planning her tour across South Africa. But the reasons my friends are travelling doesn’t quite split down a racial line — rather, race and class illuminate the fractured spaces. Ostensibly, my friends, irrespective of race, are travelling to get away from the ties that make life respectable but taxing. Everyone said, “I need a break,” but the subtext from my Black friends was screaming, “I needed to get out of the United States because I can not breathe.”

And then there are those who can neither breathe nor leave. The activists across the country who organize, who fight, who sacrifice, who make decisions like choosing between bus fare to protests and eating dinner — they can’t leave. Most Black Americans, when shit starts hitting the fan, the walls, etc. — they can’t leave. It’s not that they don’t want to. They too dream of lying on beaches of white sand and warm waters with their families. They too want to travel the world. They want to know what it’s like to mention places like the Louvre and the Tate with a casual boredom that happens when money, opportunity, and freedom have bred familiar contempt. Eric Garner was selling cigarette loosies (but not that day) because of a judicial and economic system that denied him more formal alternatives; the probability that he or Mike Brown or Kimani Gray could “just get away” is laughably and insultingly, low.

The end of 2014 was a traumatic period for lived Blackness; the miscarriages of justice for Clinton Allen, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner left me completely drained. Being Black at the end of 2014 left me with an overwhelming mix of anger and despair that can only be described as fighting with an opponent whose arms are so long it feels like air boxing. For many, “Black Lives Matter” reminded them how much their lives actually don’t. The paradoxes of Blackness in late 2014 were reconciling the love of a country that your Blackness has built, but that hates you. We left because of fatigue, because the arc is long and we are still so very young to be this exhausted. Anywhere but here was appealing. “Why are we even staying in a country that hates us?” someone asked me on Twitter. I couldn’t really answer that. I was conflicted. As much as I needed to go, I didn’t want to. I stalled looking for an Airbnb. I waited until the absolute last minute to renew my passport. I was late when contacting friends in Paris. I briefly wondered if I’d regret not booking a one-way ticket. I wasn’t even completely sure what I’d be writing about in Paris. I just knew that I wouldn’t be in the States. But I felt forced out.

I chose Paris because I like problems and paradoxes. I went knowing that Paris was not free; Paris has not been free since the Romans colonized and humiliated the Gauls, who never forgot it and in turn, colonized and brutalized Algeria, Morocco, Vietnam, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and more. I knew better than most that racism in Paris can be acute, if not for African-Americans, most surely for the North Africans, whom I have been mistaken for on occasion. Paris has always loved African-Americans, even if French history itself has despised and exploited Blackness. As such, while New York was filled with protests through the holidays, I floated through Paris for nearly two weeks mostly unbothered, the assumption being until I opened my mouth that I was from Martinique or Guadalupe. The Martiniquaises and Guadeloupéens more or less, are people from island colonies in which their very racially mixed population are widely cited testaments to the alleged French commitment to racial mixing and thus, racial harmony. Even when my Americaness was revealed, it was not a problem for two reasons: one, I was African-American (the only Americans the French respect) and two, I would be leaving soon — but while I was there I was spending money, not like those other Black immigrants sponging off the French economy.Perhaps this is what White privilege feels like, I remember thinking. You can convince yourself that none of this is really about you.Should you even think that hard about it to begin with.

I failed this practice test of White privilege miserably and immediately. The protests that I left behind in the States had ignited passions in Paris; weeks before I arrived, activists took to the streets to protest the human zoo exhibit. Gross old Frenchmen suggestively raised their eyebrows and when they could, whispered loud enough, “café au lait.” I interviewed people of color in Paris about their experiences, which ranged from wanting to open a Black Panther Party chapter at the Sorbonne to forced indifference. The correct answer, had I passed this test, would have been to assign it all to Frenchness, to the lasciviousness of French men, to the complex colorblindness of French society that I, as a race-obsessed American, would never understand. But it seemed like a trick answer given how deeply French functions as a proxy for “White.”

I thought of another dear friend, who now lives in London with no immediate plans to return to the States. His words before he left always ring clear: “There’s no law that say that you have to make your home in the country you were born in. In fact, America was built on a whole mass of people that did exactly the opposite of that.” But I didn’t want to be French, or British, or even African for that matter. How could I be? I am so thoroughly American. And part of what makes me so deeply American is my Blackness. Blackness, as a concept of not Whiteness and a justification for exploitation, was put on the books in the Americas first, most notably in 1639 and 1705, though the slave trade had begun and been perfected by the Europeans.

If culture has always been America’s most valuable export, the fruits of Black labor are still its biggest and most lucrative. And since Blackness and subsequent racial constructs were first created, used, and exported to the rest of the Americas, Europe, and even Africa in order to justify the economic system of slavery, how, in my Blackness, could I be anything but American?

African-Americans, as it pertains to descendants of American slaves, have every logical reason to permanently leave the United States of America. African-Americans have also ingeniously employed every seemingly illogical reason to stay. Incredibly, many of them are returning to the lands of plantations, sharecropping, and lynching that just a generation or two ago sent their grandparents fleeing north as political refugees. If we were to look at this objectively, it is clear that African-Americans should consider their investment in America as sunk costs. The cultural capital of Black America would presumably travel wherever they go. Try elsewhere. Start over. But yet, African-Americans do not. Why they do not leave, collectively, I can’t answer. But I know why I cannot permanently leave. I have lived elsewhere, but it is here, to me, that the breadth of Black sorrow has become the most radiant form of life affirming brilliance — and it is addictive. Living while Black in America requires an intellectual and mental athleticism and finesse that has few peers. It is the startup of all startups. It is the ultimate marathon. Blackness demands from its cognizant participant a rigor and focus that can only produce majesty and mania. It is both heaven and hell. It is mercilessly reviled and hopelessly imitated. It is in short, a spiritual experience.

The reasons why we left are explicit and endless. The reasons why we returned are more complex, more paradoxical. Black America has consistently provided the moral compass and blueprint for a country in which its White faction has consistently, more or less, asked us to leave. And perhaps we would have left, if we knew that America — one of the brilliant masterpieces that Blackness has created, the thing which our soul, over centuries, has been given to and pillaged for — would be all right without us. Would you abandon your masterpiece? For a people denied property, rights, the opportunity to possess much less bequeath, America is what we own. It is our life’s work, our investment, our birthright, our trust fund. We are past the point of sunk costs, or even investments; it is a matter of ownership, stewardship. Our deeds and receipts are written in blood that still flows out of brutality and exploitation. And while America as a proxy for Whiteness has never thought to wonder this, many of us are more terrified of what America would become without us. Or perhaps it has. And it could be that the inability for Blackness to breathe is what America would feel too, if we left.

The Men Who Left Were White

 We’re re-publishing this brilliant essay, The Men Who Left Were White, with the permission of the writer, Josie H. Duffy. Disclaimer: I’ve never met Josie, but have a lot of friends in common with her and I’ve heard she’s great. And funny. And thoughtful.  And so is her writing – which you should check out on her blog, The True Fight. She works as a voting rights and economics lawyer in New York and I’ve been consistently impressed with her observations about race and class in this country, which is exactly what we’re talking about here. Read, share and discuss. This is great reading.

 There are three things you should know.

First: I’m not biracial.

“What are you?” people ask, and they expect me to say something thrilling and tribal. I answer, but still they press. “Where are your ancestors from?” people ask, and they want answers that aren’t San Antonio and Wheeling, West Virginia. But that’s all I got. My story is both simple and untold. The bones of it, of me: I’m black, despite the skin that goes virtually translucent in the winter. Despite the thin unpredictable curls. My mom and dad are black, as are my grandparents. That’s all she wrote. That’s all there is, even as I write this sentence. My parents, usually liberal employers of nuance, have always been militant-clear about drawing that line. We aren’t biracial. When I tell people I’m black, they find it unsatisfying. “That’s no fun,” one girl joked to me recently. “I thought you were going to have a story.”

Image

The parts that make a whole.

 Second: I’m 44% European, 49% African. Not exactly an equal split, but pretty damn close.

I hear the same sentence twice.

The first time from my mother. It’s Christmas in Georgia. Outside the clouds are unloading cold sleet, icy and malicious and familiar. “It’s gonna read my genes,” I tell her. She’s rifling through our miscellaneous drawer, filled with nails and old pictures and pens long dried-up. She’s skeptical.

“Why?”

“Why what?” I ask.

“Why are you doing this test?”

I shrug. “Why not?” I’m eating freezer burned ice cream out of the container; no one has touched it since I was last home. “Because. It’s irrelevant.” She closes the drawer and looks in her purse again. “They break you down into slices, you know.” She looks up. “Do you have my keys?” “No.” I pat my pockets, find them. “Yes. See? Maybe I’ll find out I have the losing things gene.”She laughs. “I could tell you that right now.” “You spent all that time researching our family tree,” I point out. She thinks for a second. “That’s different.”

Black America's best and brightest.

Black America’s best and brightest.

I know what she means. My parents – faithful worshippers of the AUC, who went to black colleges, worked for black companies, took us to black doctors, sent us to black schools. There were no blond Barbies in our house; Rapunzel had long braids in our fairytales. You could point a shotgun barrel to my mother’s head and she still would not utter the phrase good hair. My father wouldn’t refer to us as light-skinned, not for love nor money. To them, the technical was irrelevant. The technical had no context. It was the history that mattered. Still, I ask her. “Don’t you just want to know?”

“Not really. What do I need to know that for? Some people want to know all that stuff.” She’s headed out the door.
“Some don’t.”

Second time it’s February in Brooklyn and it’s night and through the window you can just make out a sliver of the water. He and I are eating tacos, each on our laptops murmuring half-formed ideas. I show him the e-mail. “Hooray! Your sample is at our lab!”

“The sheer potential of information is overwhelming,” I say. “Who would choose the word hooray?” he asks.
“One test that can tell me what I have brewing and what I might be passing onto my kids. Like, it could say I have schizophrenia.”

“You’d probably know by now,” he says.

“Or brittle-bone syndrome.”

“You’d know that too.” He looks at me. “I don’t think you know how genes work.”

“Or if my sons will have male-pattern baldness.”

“What if you find out you’re white during Black History Month?” He grins, but I don’t.

“Maybe I don’t want to know,” I say and he shrugs.

“Cancel it, then,” he says. “You don’t have to find out. Some people want to know about themselves and some don’t.”

But I do want to know. That’s how I am. I always want to know. And when the email comes it’s in the middle of the night, and I scramble to wake up and open it. There’s a map. Western Africa is shaded dark, but Ireland and England are shaded too, with a hint of highlight over South Asia, and another tiny note indicating Native American blood. I stare at it, trace the outline of my history with my finger.

 Third: In my family, the men who left were white.

his property and his family?

His property and his family? or both?

Let’s go back.

They had land the size of which a city brain like mine can’t fathom. Southern men with pale skin, the kind of men whose job it was to oversee the overseer.

These women – my ancestors – were the opposite. Not boss of a solitary fly. Exhausted from all the work they’d done and the years of work that laid ahead. Cleaned and cooked and picked, squinted and bent over and limping, working, working so hard for so long that they must have been sore in places they didn’t know they could be sore— their bone marrow, their blood. Nothing to show for it but the injuries. Not a hint of a thing resembling victory.

The women must have known rape was coming. Dread has a taste, you know. It must have crawled up their throats. But by all accounts there was no fight. What would be the point? The sharp cut of a whip across your back? What a man like that wanted, he got. No one could save the women. If he wanted it, then eventually his pale hands would be forcing open her thighs. Eventually he’d force himself inside.

And afterwards just empty air space, him pulling up his pants, clinical. Before he retreated to his bed with his wife, did he instruct the slave to go back outside to where she slept? And where she slept – was that a thin layer of straw or grass? Or was she one of the unlucky ones, stuck with just a plank of wood?

“How much longer until I can die?” these women, my ancestors, must have wondered. “How many ways can one person own me?”

Even after Emancipation, slow as molasses in January, finished crawling across the finish line– even then it didn’t end. Shit, maybe then it was worse.  I bet once the man doesn’t own you, he might have to scare you. He might have to beat you up a little more. I don’t know. I can only guess, because the only knowledge we have is in the missing spaces. Men who are missing from birth certificates, who never laid eyes on their child. There’s no love there, no romance, no babies made with care and devotion. My history tells the story of white men who raped, white men who coerced, white men who had black children, and then white men who disappeared.

slave children during Reconstruction.

I’m thinking about these men the night I watch Obama introduce My Brother’s Keeper. It’s the last day of Black History Month. Obama speaking about black men always gets me squirming in my chair, bloated with admiration and also disappointment. He’s balancing on the same flimsy tightrope he’s been walking forever. I’m grateful for a president that considers the plight of black men in America. But the condescension still tastes sour.

“We’re dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society, and are entrenched in our minds,” he says.

“Who’s our?” I say to no one.

He talks about the initiative, about ensuring that black men become “better husbands and fathers and well-educated hard-working good citizens.” He says that we have got to “encourage responsible fatherhood.”

I get tired of hearing about the epidemic of missing black fathers. It’s always the same story, that old, tired, persistent-as-hell narrative, a troupe of vagabonds and thugs. It exists without context, without history.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to dismiss the very real pain of children raised without fathers, including black fathers. It is undeniable that too many kids have been left behind by the men that created them. I see the aftermath in many of the men I’ve loved, black men who never knew their fathers.

But I want to remind America of how criminally short its memory can be. In theory, the good thing about this country is that we all have our own story to tell, and there exist a whole host of stories, both parallel and perpendicular to mine. Countless fragile intricacies that are sometimes unimaginable to me, other times too familiar. But in practice, some of these stories go missing. And I wonder – where’s my story?

White supremacy remains the most powerful force in America’s history, the trump card of socialization. The narrative of abandonment has been hijacked to only include black men. If you google “white men abandon children” you get this:

Googling pathologies.

Googling pathologies.

But there’s a history of abandonment in America, a history of leaving black women and black children, and it did not start with black men. I want to tell America: you can’t escape my story. After all, mine is a storyline threaded through all of humanity, the price women have been overpaying since the beginning of time and sex. As long as men have been fucking, they’ve been disappearing. Because women carry life we are also forced to harbor fear; history is saturated with the stories of babies born of coercion, of aggression, of deceit, of abandonment, and the stories of those babies turned full-grown. When we talk about what slavery we talk about the ephemeral – what was and what ended. The details: plantation hierarchy, middle passage. We think that’s it. But what it meant – what it means – is worse than all of the details. What it means is a legacy of genetic material that courses through my own veins.

This is not a story about skin color. This is not a story about how race is a social construction. I’d reckon such a story would be boring for you. If it’s not, let me tell you – it would be boring to me. I’m not interested in narrating the tribulations of being, surefire bet, the lightest black person in the room. Nor am I informed enough to tell you of the triumphs. In America, skin color is the x in virtually every social equation. It is predictive. I am quite positive that being lighter has meant privileges that were not afforded to people with browner skin, many privileges that I have not even identified.

mixed race in the 1800s.

mixed race in the 1800s.

This is a story about history, about identity.

The way we’ve come to fetishize white features on black bodies is not only dangerous because of the way it reinforces the idea of white as better. For someone like me, it’s complicated for an additional reason. The part of me that created those white features came from men who would deny me if given the chance. Indiscreet men who took advantage of women and left. Men who not only abandoned their children but, in some cases, sold them. Had their own children bent over in fields for no pay.

I’m a living remnant of that sexual assault. I’m a living remnant of that pain. I can see it in my thinner hair, my lighter skin, my freckles. I think of those children, also my blood, and what it means to grow up marred by that abandonment and shame. I think of those children the same way I think of children with no fathers today. Surely we are all both prey and predator, snake and mouse. Surely our genetic material runs rife with strands of the conquered and the conqueror.

And maybe there’s a fourth thing you should know: part of identity is choice. My identity is defined in part by rejection, including my own. I am black. The people who made me are the ones who never left.