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How Much Time Do You Want For Your Progress?

How long have I in bondage lain,
And languished to be free!
Alas! and must I still complain–
Deprived of liberty.

On Liberty and Slavery
George Moses Horton


this is my school it is beige there is mrs hickey she is nice she is my teacher she is smiling i like her smile smile mrs hickey smile she is playing with her papers here is my first grade classroom the kids are playing we are happy there is me i am by myself i am coloring i see a kid building with blocks i want to play come and play he laughs can i play with you he will not play with me laughing and playing i cry he plays all the other kids stare at me mrs hickey walks over she is frowning he will not play with me why not his parents will not allow him to play with niggers i run home after school running and running to my mom i take off the key tied round my neck and open the door mom is at work my dog lady jumps on me woof woof she barks she is springer spaniel she is brown and black and white like me we will play chase i will run she will chase i run and i run running and running i am still running away

This is my school. It is beige. There is Mrs. Hickey. She is nice. She is my teacher. She is smiling. I like her smile. Smile, Mrs. Hickey, smile. She is playing with her papers. Here is my first-grade classroom. The kids are playing. We are happy. There is me. I am by myself. I am coloring. I see a boy building with blocks. I want to play. Come and play. He laughs. Can I play with you? He will not play with me. Laughing and playing. I cry. He plays. All the other kids stare at me. Mrs. Hickey walks over. She is frowning. He will not play with me. Why not? His parents will not allow him to play with niggers. I run home after school. Running and running to my mom. I take off the key tied round my neck and open the door. Mom is at work. My dog Lady jumps on me. Woof woof she barks. She is springer spaniel. She is brown and black and white like me. We will play chase. I will run. She will chase. I run and I run. Running and running. I am still running away.

Survival is a state of mind. Parts vanish. Others fade. But the place—the picture, a floating vista—is engraved on the inner walls of my cranial. Even if it burned down—the school and every surrounding tree—that place will forever be right in the location where it happened. Blurred, jumbled, tattered or coherent remembering blanches me into a bloodless flounder of terror.

It was September 1980. Warwick, Rhode Island. Holliman Elementary. First grade. I walked home from school, told my mother what happened, and she went to the school and told my teacher, Mrs. Hickey. My mother and Mrs. Hickey then told the principal. The principal called the parents of that white boy and they all had a meeting in his office. The boy’s parents said, that was how they were raising their children, so for the rest of the school year, they kept us away from each other. I hadn’t a clue what race was nor did I understand racism much less how to combat it. I had no idea why I was called Black when my skin was light brown, though after what that white boy said I was conscious of whites seeing me as scary and a threat. I was a lab rat for racist whites to teach their children how to not interact with us Blacks, and for me to learn what white spaces I was and was not allowed to enter. The embarrassment I felt was stronger than my common sense. I never asked my mother to explain. My parents, who divorced when I was five, believed that I’d get the best education they could offer me by going to public schools in Warwick, which at the time were some of the best in the state as were the Catholic Churches, which they both raised me. Each day I’d look in the mirror and see my Blackness mocking me. Every night I’d kneel by the side of my bed and ask Jesus why whites thought I was the polestar of evil. My bedroom became my Gethsemane. Above my bed hung a wooden plaque with a silver-toned risen Jesus and The Lord’s Prayer written beneath him. I’d stare at him staring at me and beg him to remove the Blackness, upset he birthed me dark complected. I felt trapped inside my encasement, forced to endure its imprisonment, my faith running away in terror. That boy (me!) was all-suffering humanity. I was who Jesus had come for. He was the Son of God. He had cured the sick so he could cure me, because Blackness was a sickness as that was what I heard white folks say, but he just hung there watching me suffering.

My classmates hadn’t one inkling as to how cut up I was. My gladsome appearance was no match for my self-containment. I came across as a shy, timid, awkward kid, but inside I was as shut up as a quahog. Even the New England seasons had no influence—a springtime hillside overlooking a valley, partly snow-covered; daffodils, tulips, and sturdy little arbutus blossoms pepping from their downy bed while bright colored passerines swinging on an over-hanging bough sing a song of praise for the welcome forerunner of summer days. Every white kid’s stare ignited suspicion and a dark paranoiac undertow of despair. Those white kids who tried to whip the fear were the ones I encountered daily, longed to look like, wanted to live like, and I needed validation from yet we were in the most distorted, dysfunctional relationship.

I started having anxiety attacks soon after that racist incident happened. They were serious enough to warrant me being sent to the nurse’s office and staying home from school for half the school calendar year. I kept having this dream that the white kids were using giant black erasers and erasing me out of existence. My mother told me I would freak out while dreaming; crying, screaming, hyperventilating, waking up shivering and sweating. I felt like a plantation on which racist whites’ beliefs were fought and won. Having had her own physical racist attacks when she was a teenager in high school, my mother took extra precautionary measures to make sure I was safe. She had my teacher call her when I got to school. I had to call my mother at her job the minute I got home from school and tell her if a classmate bothered me. If one of them had, she’d pick me up from school the next day. When I began to make friends I had to let her know where I was going, what time I would be there, what time I would be home, check in when I got there, and check in when I was leaving. If I was mildly late she’d yell at me, explaining to me that a Black man merely walking down the street was life-threatening. I was a very responsible kid—having been a latchkey kid with the key to our house tied around my neck on a brown shoelace to let myself in after school since I was six years old right after my parents divorced and my mother worked three jobs—so if I was late or forgot to make a phone call that said to her something was wrong. But it wasn’t that something was wrong so much as it was more about the possibility. That’s the painful part—that that is the first place Black folks’ minds have to go. It wasn’t until May 25, 2020 that I wholly understood my mother’s fretting.

All of my childhood anxieties roared back watching George Floyd get the life choked out of him: Derek Chauvin’s white face peering out as if he was watching a movie, the no change in his expression as his knee grinds Floyd’s face into the pavement, the twenty-eight times Floyd says the words “I can’t breathe,” gasping for air as he slowly loses consciousness, yelling out, “Mama”, eyes flickering ever so slightly before going blank, the moment the light goes out of him, passerby’s hollering at the four white policemen to get off of Floyd’s lifeless body, cars driving by, the wounded sky above, and the surrounding weeping trees dotted about here and there. In the pools of Floyd’s brown eyes—beyond the pain and death knocking while history laid on top of his back—I saw why my mother had wretched fear when I was a few minutes late. George Floyd walked into a store, walked out onto a bustling street, and was killed by a white man in nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds. On Floyd’s face I felt his anguish. Anguish from all the years of trying to survive a nation of racist whites doing everything to win back their top spot on the racial pyramid. When a race of people oppresses you every day, think about what that does to the brain. There’s this fatigue, this worthlessness that builds up, and chips away at your soul’s purpose. I saw unutterable pride in his face as he fought to live, to keep being boomeranged across our glittering republic, walking so slowly, so softly so not to awaken the white sleepwalkers who were so overtly dangerous.

I didn’t cry. I sat. I stared. I stood. I thought. I paced. I sat back down. I stared some more. I shook my head. I yelled at the TV. I turned it off. I stared into nothingness. I pondered. I clinched my fist. I didn’t have one simple reaction. I had a myriad of them. At first my distrust, hopelessness, and powerlessness consumed me so much I checked my passport to see if it had expired. I measured out the driving distance between where I lived in Cranston, Rhode Island and the Canadian border, 360 miles, five hours and forty-five minutes. I looked at Canada’s immigration website to learn how to become a citizen. Then his murder felt like just another Black man down, how racist white police officers behave in America. The video was a high-tech public lynching, and at that point the path to my most vulnerable parts had long overgrown. As a child, I never saw men in my family cry and so I didn’t cry—a weak indulgent that I needed to hide. Black men strong in will-power and self-confidence nerve themselves up and grapple with the situation. There was no material benefit to crying. Like a preacher uses his sermon as a substitute for crying, Black men substitute crying for the activities they know are absolutely necessary to be done.

Unrestrained tears fell slowly, quietly, painfully when I was alone in my bedroom aching to convince my white classmates that I was just like them. My soul-absorbing grief over abhorring my Blackness and that racist terrorism I experienced had the power to unravel me. It wasn’t just weak—it was deadly. I worried that weeping had the potential to destroy my chance of attaining the life my white counterparts were living, which I believed I could achieve by denouncing my Blackness and showing pride for the white American tribe. I carried that far beyond my youth and over time my resistance to crying shrank my capacity to feel complexity in my emotions for my Black sisters and brothers. As a result, crying dissipated and my Blackness became muted, lukewarm, beige. And I was okay with it—if that was what it took to be accepted by white America, to convince racist whites to let me be a part of the racial pyramids top tier, so be it.

But the more the news showed George Floyd’s murder the more the weighty reality of my assimilation to be white burdened me, impaling me like a mountain torrent sweeping every impediment before it rushes down from its precipitous heights gathering strength at every bound until it’s lost in the trenches below. The distance at which I kept my heart from that racist injury I had endured, embedded in my malleable childhood psyche, meant I couldn’t translate the hurt. It was a distress call from where I stood. Seeing Floyd crying on instant replay like a sports play hit me like a slave master’s whip. My sensibilities were severely damaged: the temptation to decline allegiance to my Blackness was strong; and the conflict between these rival domestic affections and my new budding love for Blackness were agonizing. Intense sensations of every kind passed over into sensations of pain and waved over my soul like an unholy benediction. I lost my space. I lost myself. I was apoplectic to the indifference and callousness of those four policemen. Why didn’t any of them stop him? Isn’t it their duty to save? God that was a awful long time to kill somebody. Would they’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for the video? Would it even’ve happened if Floyd was white?  How come I’m alive and he’s not? All for a fake $20 bill! I’d gladly have given them the money.

Sitting in my living room with the news on I suddenly began to chuckle hearing politicians and commentaries talk reforms. How do you reform hatred? I said aloud to myself. How do you reform the mind and the heart? Abraham Lincoln tried that when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation and constitutionalized Black Rights in the 13th and 15th Amendment. America had more Black politicians during Reconstruction than it does in 2023. Hiram Revels was the first Black man elected to the U.S. Senate, taking the seat from Mississippi that had been vacated by Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Blanche K. Bruce, once an enslaved Mississippian, was elected to that seat when Revels went to work for the Freedman’s Bureau. Sixteen Black men were elected to the U.S. Congress between 1861-1900; over six hundred were elected to state legislatures; hundreds more held local offices across the South, and that didn’t include those in the northern states. Because the numbers were so significant the pushback from racist white Americans came swift and strong and in many forms. The first was the publication of the book, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates in 1866 by Edward A. Pollard. The book was a revisionist history that gained popularity in the 1890s, recasting the Confederacy’s humiliating defeat in the Civil War for slavery as the embodiment of the Framers’ true vision for America, stating that slavery didn’t start the Civil War, understating slavery’s cruelty, and claiming it improved African’s lives:

“We shall not enter upon the discussion of the moral question of slavery. But we may suggest a doubt here whether that odious term “slavery” which has been so long imposed, by the exaggeration of Northern writers, upon the judgement and sympathies of the world, is properly applied to that system of servitude in the South, which was really the mildest in the world; which did not rest on acts of debasement and disenfranchisement, but elevated the African, and was in the interest of human improvement; and which, by the law of the land, protected the negro in life and limb, and in many personal rights, and, by the practice of the system, bestowed upon him a sum of individual indulgences, which made him altogether the most striking type in the world of cheerfulness and contentment.”

The Lost Cause was followed by Thomas Dixon Jr.’s best-selling novel, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan published in 1905. A decade later it was made into the massively successful film, The Birth of a Nation, the first film shown in the White House by a president, President Woodrow Wilson; and the highest-grossing film ever made until Gone with the Wind, earning the equivalent of $1.8 billion adjusted for inflation in a 2015 Time magazine article by Richard Corliss. The only other movies to hit that milestone were Titanic and Avatar. The Birth of a Nation became a popular propaganda tool for white nationalists and gave a rebirth to the KKK the way Barack Obama’s presidential election gave a rebirth to the racist backlash similar to that after Reconstruction, but in the form of Donald Trump’s birtherism and then Trump becoming president himself.

It wasn’t a coincidence nor was it happenstance that white nationalism and white grievance reared up in such an explosive way during Obama’s two-term presidency. He was believed to be emblematic of Black individualism within politics and economic hierarchies. White folks assumed that once Black folk achieved political and economic power we’d be on a par with one other, but instead what it’s done is diminish Blacks to a commodified culture that’s reduced everything down to success rather than greatness: the first Black President, the first Black First Lady, the first Black woman Vice President, the first Black female Supreme Court justice, the first Black this and the first Black that. I keep in my head something Cornel West said, “The last thing I wanna see is a Black middle class walking around as if they’re peacocks. Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! I’m the first! I’m the second! I’m the third! It’s a peacock strut. Peacocks strut because they can’t fly.”

Millions of white folk also spoke of Obama’s historic election as heralding the advent of a post-racial era—a myth peddled by whites who downplay the severity of racism: that racism is a spent force; it’s only a problem among a dwindling group of older white folk raised in different times; and those who warn about the dangers of racism in modern America are baseless alarmists. But what they failed to remember was that every time we Black folk make ground, there’s always been resistance, and we’re in that racial regression time right now. We’ve moved sadly to Obama being the period at the end of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream sentence. Obama was a civil-rights baby—a seed planted by the generation of Black Civil Rights leaders who were willing to sacrifice their lives for racial equality. For fifty years (my birthday’s July 10th), I was blessed to live off the fruits of their sacrifice, and for fifty years I watched and felt white Americans inch further and further away from the principles they embraced to give us our equality. James Baldwin spoke of these paradoxical contradictions in 1968 when Dick Cavett asked him on his show, “I’m sure you still meet the remark that: What are the Negroes…why aren’t they optimistic? They say, ‘But it’s getting so much better. There are Negro mayors. There are Negroes in all of sports. There are Negroes in politics. They’re even accorded the ultimate accolade of being in television commercials,” to which Baldwin smiles. “I’m glad you’re smiling,” Dick says nervously. “Is it at once getting much better but still hopeless?”

“Well,” answered Baldwin, “I don’t think there’s much hope for it, you know, to tell you the truth, as long as people are using this peculiar language. It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro here, or to the Black man here, that’s a very vivid question for me, you know, but the real question is what’s going to happen to this country. I have to repeat that.”

It’s not us Black folks who’ve progressed, it’s white folk. It’s that enough of them have shed their racist beliefs. To say us Black folks have made progress is to say my ancestors deserved to be stolen from their home country, forced into chattel slavery, raped, segregated, oppressed, and murdered. I write this having watched every interview and read everything James Baldwin’s written several times over. Baldwin’s patience ran out near the end of his life in the mid-80s. The anger and frustration he had channeled into his writing he could no longer quell, and let it out in an interview in the documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket: “What is it you want me to reconcile myself to? I was born here, almost sixty years. I’m not going to live another sixty years. You always told me it takes time. It has taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces’ and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?” I keep Baldwin’s words in my mind to remind me how America’s historical racial injustice was encapsulated; how state and federal government—sanctioned and unsanctioned—was crystallized in those nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds that Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck.

When I turned the TV off, visions of shedding my Blackness to assimilate into white America kept dislodging within me, paralyzing my thoughts, stuttering them into invisible syllables rather than sentences. Childhood memories I had forgotten existed were unbuckling. I was born a Black, impoverished, fatherless only child with an anxiety disorder, raised by a lesbian single-parent, bullied, discriminated against, hated my Blackness, diagnosed with reading and math disabilities in the fifth grade, and with debilitating obsessive compulsive depressive disorder at age twenty-four. It was so outrageous, looking back, I don’t even know how I functioned. And add to that I held onto the belief that I was a nigger until I was in my mid-thirties. My country’s racism was structural, interpersonal, episodic—an existing precondition that was taxing my physical strength, sapping my mental energy, and murdering my spirit, but I had to find a way to use it. I was young enough to believe myself salvageable, and poised myself to make that quantum leap into white America’s future, girding myself for the third race war: the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement being the two prior. In that riotous pulse of racist fervor I contained myself, imitating my white classmates. The problem was my mother could barely afford to take care of me and her so there wasn’t money enough for me to imitate those kids.

But I wanted to be at the top of the racial hierarchy with an intensity that shook my soul. I had a tenacity, an ability to keep going under the most intense pressure, and knew the only way to make it happen was to use my mind and get an education. I didn’t know if I could overcome those learning disabilities, but with no other prospects, and watching all of my honor-roll white schoolmates taking college-prep courses and reading books I made a connection between the books and the life they lived and the life I lived and wanted to live. I used books and writing to overcome those disabilities and got my revenge by graduating my junior and senior year of high school with honors, earning a college degree, attending one of America’s best graduate writing programs at Emerson College, two of the world’s most esteemed universities, Harvard University and MIT, admitted into one of the country’s top medical schools, Boston University Medical School, interned at Merrill Lynch, and worked as a pricing analyst at what was the world’s largest mutual fund company, Skudder Kemper Investments. I thought I could reverse the narrative at least for myself by doing all those things that white folks did. It’s a hard reality to accept that all the achievements I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into weren’t enough, aren’t enough, will never be enough, and that if I showed my fifty years of assimilation to a racist white policeman it would mean nothing, nothing because all he sees is a nigger. This was in effect killing me emotionally because something inside of me couldn’t bend—I could only be broken.

My disordered thinking was unable to recognize that my trauma started hundreds of years ago. That what was happening to me had started when my ancestors arrived on the slave ships in 1619. In some blind and instinctive way, the things that’ve been tormenting me are the very things that connect me with my ancestry: carrying the racial trauma of intergenerational racial trauma—effects passed down that’ve weathered Black minds and bodies for hundreds of years. Booker T. Washington too believed that when whites saw Blacks “contribute to the market place of the world,” and content with living “by the production of our hands,” Black inequality would end. He spoke those words in 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. W.E.B. Du Bois denounced and labeled Washington’s speech the “Atlanta Compromise.” These two giants underscored that single linear paths to achieving Black equality like mine are an ineffective waste of time. Looking at George Floyd lying dead on the ground underneath the knee of a white man after four hundred years of my ancestors being under the knee of the white man demonstrated that white supremacy wouldn’t be buried in the cemetery that claimed so many Black lives no matter which paths were taken. The struggle Floyd and the rest of us Black folk are under literally and figuratively require us to take a multitude of roads and both battle and accommodate racism to help us and future Black generations fully realize the promise of America.

I’m still working to purge that white boy calling me a nigger from banging against the walls of my cranial like pealed laughter in a boneyard. That ague affliction that has been my intimate companion, made me feel alien, and shattered my security in the nation keeps telling me that we’re still being birthed to a nation, which assures us in as many ways as it knows how that Blacks have a certain place, and we can never rise above it. The fact that we had to form another racial justice organization, Black Lives Matter, under the first Black President means Baldwin’s assessment of our country back in the 80s when I had my first racist encounter would be shockingly similar if he were alive to see the racist events of today. All of America’s Black corpses are speaking, saying they’re very worried about a republic which can produce a white policeman who feels comfortable kneeling on a Black man’s neck on a Minneapolis, Minnesota street in broad daylight for nearly ten long minutes and kill him, a republic that sixty years earlier produced five white policemen who stood on a Black woman’s neck on a Birmingham, Alabama sidewalk in the middle of the day in 1963. All of my ancestors are afraid that these same white folk will never stop keeping us small because they have deluded themselves for so long with the belief that Black lives begin and end at the bill and sale.

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