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,
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
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