Warning: Before reading this post, be aware that it contains extremely strong language. It was the only way I could write it honestly, the only way I could bring words to my feelings.
I moved to the United States of America three years ago. Packed all my belongings into four luggage bags, rolled into a car with my five siblings and my mom and my dad. Suddenly, I was at the airport, hugging everyone as tightly as I could. Suddenly I was on the other side of the line, separated from my family by a sign that read “ONLY PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT”. Suddenly, I was on a plane, my country shrinking beneath me, until the cars were ants and the buildings were little toy models. I was sad, but I was also excited. Up until then, I’d only seen America through the lens of blockbuster Hollywood movies. It was beautiful, wondrous, exciting. The possibilities were infinite. I was filled with boyish wonder, and I was ready for my grand adventure.
Since then, I’ve met a lot of people here, and when small chatter invariably leads to them finding out I’m from Nigeria, they ask variations of the same question: “How do you like it here?” and “Is Nigeria different from America?”
Yes it is. It’s dryer and hotter, hot enough that we’re always making the same lame old jokes about cooking meat on the pavements. The food is wildly different. In Nigeria, food is abacha and achicha and eba and fufu and egusi and suya. In America, food is burger and pasta and coleslaw and pizza and fries and Coca-Cola in three cup sizes. And in Nigeria, virtually everyone has the same dark skin. Sure, there’s a substantial number of white people and Asians and a tapestry of races, but mostly, we’re black. And because we’re mostly black, “being black” was never a term that was part of my daily vocabulary. You were tall or short or fat or skinny or intelligent or a complete and utter idiot, but you weren’t black. It was as weird as saying “you’re human”.
But by my first week in this country, that word popped up a lot. In orientation, I learned about the Black Student Union. On the news, the word “black” seemed to pop up with surprising regularity. A lot of my newly made African-American friends would jokingly respond to my shocking love of country music with, “You’re black! Where’s your Kendrick Lamar? Your J. Cole?”
The word “black” got more weight and I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it. Mostly, I didn’t know if I had any “right” to consider myself black. The word referred to African-Americans right? And I was African. Was there a distinction between being black and being African? I spent most of my time afloat in the comforting bubble of MIT, so it didn’t really matter. I had psets to punt, midterms to whine about, shows to binge-watch on my down time, and while the concept of blackness sometimes seeped into my thoughts, I decided it ultimately didn’t really matter. As that corny-ass saying goes, “The only race that matters is the human race.”
A few months here, and I decided to go to the post office. I can’t remember why; I think it had something to do with my passport. But after I’m done at the post office, I’m walking down Central Square feeling pretty good. The sun is starting to set, and Boston is strangely not showing its bipolar sleeves this evening. Not too hot, not too cold. There’s a nice wind even.
I’m almost at my dorm when I hear someone screaming, “Hey! HEY!” I turn around to see a heavyset, middle-aged white man racing toward me. I start to panick. I’m clumsy as hell so I probably dropped my ID card or my debit card on the sidewalk, and he spotted it. I reach into my pockets, but even as I’m tapping around and feeling both cards secure and in place, I start to realize something is wrong because his face is contorted in rage, and he’s not approaching me in the “Hey, you dropped this” kinda way. He’s approaching me in the “You utter piece of shit” kind of way. Next thing I know, his arms are around my shirt, and he’s shaking me and telling me to confess.
“I saw you!” he says. “I saw you grab her wallet. Where is it? Where is it?”
He’s screaming in my face. I notice one of the MBTA buses parked by the side of the road, but only vaguely, because my head is somewhere else, adrift in confusion, and as it sinks in what he’s accusing me of, and as he begins to say “why can’t you niggers–”, I completely lose it. I start to scream at him. I start to push him off. I start to yell about calling the police.
“Call the police!” he tells me. “Call them right now.”
We’re interrupted by someone hanging out the bus, yelling at us to get our attention. It’s another man and he’s saying, “You got the wrong guy! You got the wrong guy!” For whatever reason, the man holding me chooses to believe him. He lets me go. Without saying a word–a single word–he turns around and begins to walk toward the bus.
I stand there, stunned, waiting to see if he’ll say anything, but he keeps walking, and in a tone so unlike mine, I yell profanities at him until he’s in the bus and out of sight. I turn around, and people are staring at me. Their expressions are variations of a theme–annoyed, judgmental, concerned. I keep walking into my dorm, shaking with such anger. When I’m in my room, I almost cry. But I force myself not to.
All I see is that man’s pink bloated face as he screams in my ears, “Why can’t you niggers–”
I don’t know why I’m writing this. I’m not quite sure what I hoped to achieve when I sat in front of my computer and began typing. But thirty minutes ago, I was looking through Facebook comments, on a news post about a man named Philando Castille, and the comments are going “Why do black people never protest black-on-black crime?” and “They always look for ways to play the victim.” I’m thinking of the video of Philando leaking blood, and I’m thinking of his girlfriend trying to stay calm and I’m thinking of their kid in the back seat. And I’m staring at these comments. Someone has just put up a meme of a lady staring intensely at a laptop; the meme is captioned, “There Must Be Some Way This Victimizes Me.” And I want to post a reply. I want so badly to say, “SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP BECAUSE YOU DON’T–YOU ABSOLUTELY DO NOT KNOW WHAT THE FUCK YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.”
But it would never be enough to type it. I wanna scream it at their faces. I wanna reach through my screen and grab them by the heads and shake them like ragdolls and tell them to shut UP. FOR ONCE.
I’ve been in America for three years, and I feel wholly underqualified to speak about matters like this. In Nigeria, they floated past my radar, so why take them on now?
I don’t know. I can’t hide under some fancy little idea that there’s a barrier between black and African–because what matters to these people–you know who these people are–is that they can take one look at the color of your skin, and populate their minds with the entire backstory of you. They can take one look at you, and before they’re even looking away, they’ve put you–they’ve put us–in this mental catalogue. It’s this dreamy little world where thugs and criminals and menacing and lazy lives.
I go on my NewsFeed and I see my black friends post. They’re tired. This same old shit. This same old story. Only difference is the face this time. They’re upset. They’re heartbroken. The names keep growing, the protests continue. Someone hits reset. And here we are again.
And I’m tired too. I’m tired of living in denial. I tell myself each time that there’s something I’m not seeing, that there’s more to the story. That it’s not hunting season on black people, because why would it be. That the problem is deeper, nuanced, more complicated.
But then I see those comments on Facebook. “He shouldn’t have resisted” and “He was no angel” and “All lives matter”. Those god-awful comments, made from pedestals of privilege so blinding they think they live in a world where the same rules apply to them. This is the same country that had separate toilets, fountains, buses for “colored people”. This is the same place where black people were once slaves, property, indistinguishable from land and cows and cutlery. This is the same place where historically black colleges had to be a thing for black people to have any hope of an education. The same place where white Brock Turner gets six months after caught in the act of rape, and black Brian Banks gets imprisoned for five years on a false rape charge. The same place where the black bodies keep piling up, where the executioners stow their guns in their holsters and go home to watch football and live their tidy lives. There is no nuance, there is no complication. There is no subtlety. There is a problem. We feel like dogs. We feel like we don’t matter.
So the next time someone starts with that bullshit–all lives matter–I’m gonna resist the urge to kick them in the face, because violence is never the answer. I’m gonna think of the ever-growing list of names, and I’m going to think of Philando Castille, and I’m going to wonder how all lives matter when their lives didn’t, not to those on the other end of the trigger. In a flash, in the same moment it takes to flip a coin, they destroyed decades of hopes, dreams, thoughts of the future, family. They destroy the promise of a life where you can rise from bed in the morning and be reasonably certain of returning to sleep at night. They take away the illusion of safety, of protection.
Because you’re a thug and you were resisting and you were never a good father to begin with and you should know better and if only you had complied, if only you had been a model citizen, if only you had followed the law, if only, if only.
If only you were anything but black.
Same old story, ain’t it? There’s nothing else I can say.
Same old story. Only thing that has changed is the face.
Rest in peace, Alton.
Rest in peace, Philando.
And rest in peace, to the names that haven’t been added yet, but soon will be.