HOW DO I RESPOND?
By Bakar Wilson
How do I respond to the killing of young Black men? I respond with my own stories. I am a gay black man from the South. I was born and raised in West Tennessee. I never tell people this, but my maternal grandfather and Medgar Evers were fraternity brothers. They belonged to Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. When my mother was a child, Medgar Evers would hide out at my grandparents’ house in Mississippi while the KKK looked for him, wanting to hurt or kill him. My mother remembers sitting on his lap as a small child; she was probably around 5 years old. The KKK would eventually kill him. Until the age of 15, I lived in a rural town an hour and a half away from Memphis, TN, home of Elvis Presley. People from around the world travel to see his house and visit his grave. When I was 15, we moved to Memphis, and I finished out high school there, and began plotting my escape from the South.
Unlike my mother and father, whose generation was integrating schools, I am a beneficiary of their bravery and resilience. From Kindergarten to 8th grade, I was one of two Black students in my class, and I was popular and smart. I graduated 3rd in my Junior High class, the other Black student also graduated in the top 10. So there we were, two brown skinned children representing our entire race in this predominantly White elementary and junior high school, in a mostly White town. We knew what we had to do, and there were issues. In 4th grade, I remember being called the “N word” during recess from a certain person. It hurt, and I told the P.E. teacher who I had a crush on at the time, but I did not even realize what being gay meant, and for some reason his name escapes me. Anyway, the student was punished; I went home and told my Mom, and she explained to me again how this world views us. And everything returned to “normal,” but from that moment on I realized how careful I have to be, how I must behave in a nonthreatening way and acquiesce to the white privilege that surrounds me. So, that is what I did under the fantasy that things will get better. I will not always be a target for hate like Medgar Evers, or Emmitt Till, or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X.
Fast forward almost 30 years later and here we are. Here we are except things are different for me. I am 37 and have come to terms with my queerness thanks to years and years of therapy. I live in New York City. I am an adjunct English professor for CUNY and an accomplished poet, yet I am still a target even outside of the South, not from ignorant kids from the playground or the classroom, but from police. People who are sworn to “serve and protect.” My question is: Whom are they serving and what are they protecting? This is rhetorical of course because we all know the answer. They are serving those in power and protecting the system of oppression and privilege that has existed in this country since its birth. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the list goes on and on, all of these men’s fates are connected to the social pathology of racism and black fear that pervades this country in its culture and media.
AC360 on CNN presented a special report on children’s attitudes about race in 2010. Guess what, not only did White children realize the value of white skin, but so did Black children. When Black children were asked who the pretty child is, or who the good child is they pointed to pictures of White children. And this is not something that their parents are teaching them; we are teaching it to them as a culture. Children are not stupid or naïve; they are sponges able to absorb the information, signals, and messages sent around them and analyze them, and gather an understanding of what it means to them and how it will affect them. So while White children receive the message that they are valued and loved and protected, Black children are receiving the message that they are devalued, dangerous, and targets of abuse and murder. The root is racism.
When I hear that racism does not exist anymore because we have a Black president or that we live in a post-racial country, I want to throw up. This country is more racist than ever. The killing of young Black men by police officers is modern day lynching. During Jim Crow, lynching was not only legal, people used to sit outside and eat lunch or dinner while it all happened in front of them. They were able to hold down their food. There is no audience for what has been happening now, which is progress, I guess, but what the fuck? How do I respond to all of this? I respond with anger. I respond by telling my students that they have to get involved with the political process. They have to vote. All young people and people in general have to vote. I am sure people will read this and see me as some militant, angry Black man who hates White people and who hates the system. Well, I do hate the system, very much, and I am angry, but some of my best friends are White, and I love them and always will. I love them because they see what I see. They see their privilege; they see the injustice; they see the hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence that this country holds as sacrosanct. And at the end of the day, they are wonderful, intelligent people who are humanists, not racists. How do I respond? I respond as a teacher to young minds. I respond as a poet. I respond as a human being.
Bakar Wilson is a fellow of Cave Canem, the prestigious organization nourishing vital new voices in African-American poetry. He has performed his work at the Bowery Poetry Club, Poetry Project, The Studio Museum of Harlem, and The Asian-American Writer's Workshop among others. His poetry has appeared in The Vanderbilt Review, Stretching Panties, The Brooklyn Rail, and Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology. A native of Tennessee, Bakar received his B.A. in English from Vanderbilt University and his M.A. in Creative Writing from The City College of New York. He is an Adjunct Professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College at CUNY.
This is the first post in the 8-part series featuring poets and writers on theme of OUTRAGE. Here is my brief intro to the project.