I don’t have much to say about the riots or the protests. I’ve tried drafting a post for the past few days and nothing has come out. It all sounds trite or too formal or too academic. Writing your vulnerability is difficult, but you all know this.
In times like this, I feel my blackness the most. I watched the video of George Floyd’s life getting snuffed out, just like I watched the spray of blood as Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead. I acknowledge people’s right to abstain, but I never do. And each time, I feel a certain nothingness inside of me. What’s wrong with me? I just watched a snuff film, watched this man beg and plead and gasp while this fucking cop applied pressure to his trachea until he went limp. He was probably dead by the end of the video. I watched a man get murdered for no reason. So why do I feel nothing?
I don’t post on social media when things like this happen. I avoid talking about it with my friends because I resist unraveling the bundle of nerves around my true feelings. No one can put my fragile life back together, so why bother? Or, I’m afraid that there are no true feelings thereunder, that what I feel I feel is just an illusion. Affective gas. Existential indigestion.
You don’t have to tell me that there’s nothing protecting me from being another Ahmaud or Michael or Korryn or Tony or Sandra or Breonna or Trayvon or Amadou or Sean or George or Eric. Mine is another name to dry out your mouth at a sun-parched rally and scrawl onto your picket sign. Another face to break the internet.
I already know it, and it’s the knowledge of my knowing that I avoid. I live so squarely inside of my body that I can feel my skin tighten as I shrink in the presence of white people. Obedient and obeisant. Willing to serve. I’m never unaware of who and what I am in this world, even when I’m trying to be someone or something else.
I avoid Facebook, Instagram and Reddit because everyone is talking about the latest killing, saying the same old things. Voicing their hot-blooded anger and grief. A stir, a collective weeping. Then the lull before it happens again. This time is different and I’m glad. I adore the crimson glow on the horizon while I watch the world burn from a distance.
There were protests in New Haven today. Had I known of them, I would have had to make the decision of whether I wanted to go or not. I don’t think I would have gone, had I been given the choice. I can’t furnish you with an explanation that doesn’t sound like an excuse. It’s all nonsense in my mouth, a meaningful jabbing with the tips of my fingers.
I abstain because I think about my racial experience every minute of every day. Whenever I go into a store, I feel their eyes on my back. I’m careful of where I put my hands, careful to not seem too shifty or shady. Very rarely do I enter a store without making a purchase because I don’t want people to think I’ve stolen something. My grandmother’s voice is in my ears: “Always ask for a bag.” Why, I asked, a stupid child not yet aware of what he is. “People will think you stole if you don’t get a bag.”
Whenever I sit in a seminar room, I police myself. I’m eager, I’ll admit it. I do my homework, I like the sound of my own voice. But somewhere in a region of my mind I’m whispering “That’s enough, Xavier. You’ve spoken too much. Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up.” A fifteen second point feels like I’ve been talking for thirty minutes. I imagine their green and blue eyes rolling. “Why does he always have to talk about race?” My point was too long, meandering, incoherent and baseless. I’m taking up space, I’m expanding and smothering everyone in the room with my dark continent of a body. I imagine hearing their thoughts in my head as a kind of prejudicial telepathy. “Stupid, arrogant, garrulous n*gger.”
I don’t share my emotions with others. Very few people have seen me cry or angry or excited. In general I’m rather neutral because being neutral is safe. But this isn’t a façade, but a defense mechanism. Boisterous, rambunctious and loud black children get set apart. They draw too much attention to themselves and demonstrate that they won’t survive in a white demure world obsessed with decorum and homogeneity. Black kids with ambition learn to keep themselves small, even when they pretend that being tiny is partial to their truest selves. Being black in white spaces means believing your mask is your personality, after all.
It means believing that being in diverse and integrated spaces means you no longer have to know your place. Nothing was ever further from the truth. A diverse and integrated space means that your place has been ordained. You have an office now: resident black. Be grateful and don’t look so darn melancholy. Try to put on a smile.
Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind is a person I don’t recognize. I keep him imprisoned in the frigid Fort de Joux of my mind. A war criminal, a terrorist, I leave him there to ice over and die.
I’m not okay, but I’ll survive.
I know my silence doesn’t mean what I feel people think it means. When I don’t post or reshare the links to resources, relief funds, mutual aid – it’s not that I don’t care or that I’m unbothered. I choose my quiet to protect myself because I still have to deal with a racist world when the protesters go home and classes start again and things return to normal. I tune out because protecting myself keeps me alive.
Survival isn’t enough, though.
I fear this post makes no sense, but I’ll post it anyways. I’m used to my emotions not making sense. I’ve accepted that emotions never make sense. Nevertheless, I haven’t been articulate and I may have even soured your image of me. I accept this if it’s the case. I’ve always feared that I’m secretly a cold, calculating and manipulative person with little to no warmth or passion. Maybe I am, and my numbness to all of this is just a symptom.
I wish I felt comfortable going out and protesting, writing thinkpieces, posting my thoughts and opinions to Instagram, standing off against the police. I’m grateful that there are people out there doing what I can’t or won’t do.
Perhaps I’m nothing but a sniveling craven of an academic hiding behind his books, preaching of a world he’s too afraid to build. And if that’s the case, can I accept myself with grace and kindness, even if that means being rejected by you?
Is my grief and fury, tinged with melancholy and stained with pessimism, legible to you?
Does it need to be?
Image: Faith Ringgold