"For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues
If I were to ever be asked, “What is life as a Black person?” I would be totally aghast. Not because I couldn’t answer the question, but because of how vast it is. Where would I start? Would it be with our current condition, how we cope, how we as Black people interact with each other with other races, ethnicities, and cultures? How we live, die, or have survived an unending onslaught of brutality since the Middle Passage? How we find the time to celebrate and carve out a little time for sunshine and joy in a world that has never shown us the slightest? How do you answer what #LivingwhileBlack is in any context?
If I were to try and describe my life as an African American, it would be the navigation of different circumstances that could cost you freedom, standing, family, and life. You try and maintain a sliver of sanity while dealing with the everyday horrors of racism/white supremacy past, present, and the future. Think of a high wire act at the circus: you marvel at the persons’ ability to maintain balance while each step is more dangerous than the other. We cheer at the man or woman who is able to concentrate as they walk on a wire that is not designed to hold anyone up. If they misstep or lose their balance, they fall to the net and the crowd groans in disappointment. Only in the shoes of an African American, there is no safety net – just a freefall to death. Being Black is all about avoiding the inevitable freefall for as long as you can.
No piece of art in recent memory embodies the high-wire act better than Donald Glover’s This Is America. Glover’s mental dive is a provocative mind fuck of a video that captures Black people’s attempt to keep the music, singing, dancing, and smiling going while the carnage slowly engulfs us all. As I watched the clip I thought, “We just want to block out the shit around us as much as we can.” Again, African Americans walking on the tight rope are trying to “never let them see us sweat”, but at the end, we all fall off.
When I ask myself the question, “What is life like as a Black person?” unfortunately, I can’t come up with too many rosy responses. Yes I love my (very) Black skin, the history and fight of my people, and how we are the needle that moves the conversation of oppression and equality. We are the group that kicks the door down for everyone to follow, with abundance of love and forgiveness shown to so many people. With that being said, I also cannot ignore the fact that Black life is hard. It is a difficult journey that has driven many to depression, hopelessness, and death. I cannot talk about living as a Black individual without describing these challenges we face. If I were to gloss over them and say “Things will get better”, I would not be true to myself. Our struggle is a big part of who we are.
Below are 13 examples of what I believe #LivingwhileBlack is:
Living while Black is a constant self-policing experience. If there is a disagreement at your job, you can’t show too much disappointment, anger, or raise your voice. Doing this will reinforce the stereotype that Black people are violent. As an African American, if you are confronted by law enforcement, you have to “lower yourself” and become as meek as possible, in order to make the officer feel as if you aren’t dangerous. If Black folks are having fun in public, you can’t be too loud or laugh too hard, because that can be looked at as disturbing the peace and you get kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Living while Black means that coming in contact with the police in any way could result in an arrest, assault, or death. It does not matter if you have committed a crime or have even been accused of a crime. The mere sight of your skin color will highlight you as threat, someone who poses eminent danger, and must be neutralized at all costs. On July 6, 2016, nutrition supervisor Philando Castille was pulled over in Falcon Heights, Minnesota by officer Jeronimo Yanez for a traffic stop. Complying with Yanez while having his hands up, Castille was shot five times in front of his girlfriend and baby by the officer.
Living while Black is a daily reminder that you are not beautiful. The world looks at your skin as ugly. Your features are called unattractive. Our hair is seen as “nappy” and unkempt, bodies as fat and disproportionate. We are not reflective of the worldwide beauty standard. Many Black people have been conditioned through years of racism to not want to be dark. We all want to be seen as “pretty” and “gorgeous”, so some of us purposely mate with lighter complected Black people or even seek out white people so our kids can be “beautiful.”
Living while Black is seeing your neighborhood gentrified. The place where you grew up and had many memories is being transformed into a haven for yuppies, techies, and young white people with money who think living in the city is cool. Streets are repaired and police presence increases. Mr. Jones who owned the local grocery store has been bought out; it is now a martini bar. A new restaurant two blocks down opened up and only serves a “specific crowd.” Today Harlem, New York is less brown and The Fillmore District in San Francisco, CA, once dubbed the “Harlem of the West” is seeing many of its’ Black owned businesses leaving. Oakland, CA, home of the Black Panthers, lost 50% of its African American population from 1990 to 2011.
Living while Black means that the art you create (jazz, hip-hop) will never be seen as great until white people duplicate and bastardize it. When it is done by vastly inferior talents, then the praise will be sang around the world about it. Creators will be forgotten and the imitators will be hailed as the greats. In this world Little Richard is forgotten and Elvis Pressley is the “King of Rock N Roll.” Dave Koz replaces Miles Davis and Louie Armstrong as the face of jazz. Led Zepplin repeatedly stole songs and rifts from Black musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson, but are lauded as one of the greatest bands in history.
Living while Black is knowing that a white person’s word will always be stronger than yours. The power of accusation by white people, regardless if you are innocent or not, can be life changing. Many African Americans throughout time have been arrested, sentenced, and put to death by allegations from a white person, especially white women. Historically, white women have been able to “weaponize” their femininity into having Black men arrested and even convicted of assault and rape, which resulted in many lynchings. An example of this is the April 2018 arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. While waiting to meet a friend at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, the white female manager on duty felt so threatened by the presence of the two Black men in the coffee shop that she called the police. The crime that they committed? Simply waiting.
Living while Black is knowing that there is a real possibility you could be incarcerated at any point in your life. Attorney Antonio Moore cited in his 2015 report “The Black Male Incarceration Problem is Real and Catastrophic” that in America, there are about 745,000 Black men in some form of confinement. That is more than the total prison population of England, India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Finland, Israel, and Germany combined.
Living while Black means that no matter what achievement you make, accolades you receive, or success you earn, it will never be looked at as good enough. Under the white gaze, your accomplishments will always be second rate. If you get a job at a highly sought after company, people may attribute that to affirmative action. If you earn a place in a prestigious university, talks of “needed diversity” will be heard. When you are Black, you have to be absolutely perfect in any way to possibly avoid these assumptions. Even if a Black person can walk on water, some will say, “Well they can’t run on it.”
Living while Black means there are absolutely no Black spaces. There are virtually no places that Black people can congregate by themselves without being accused of being “exclusive” or discriminatory. African American and other people of the African Diaspora are not supposed to have groups or organizations that are only feature them. We are supposed to be inclusive and always include everyone. Satya X of the Women of Color Healing Retreat in Costa Rica, a workshop for Black women to reconnect with their African roots, was criticized for having a “safe space” for Black women only. White people called Satya racist.
Living while Black means when you discuss racism/white supremacy with white people, there is a certain way you have to talk with them. You cannot be brutally honest and describe how racism terrorizes us daily. How our lives are on edge due to white supremacy. No, you have to be kind, gentle, and not too tough, not too real. When we discuss the history of racism, Black people have to cater to the fragility of whiteness; we cannot indict all white people for the crimes against non-white people. Black people have to give hope that there are some good white people out there doing anti-racist work. In other words, “It ain’t all white folks.” Writer Reni Eddo-Lodge realized this and wrote the essay, “Why I am no longer talking to white people about race.” In the piece, Eddo-Lodge said, “The journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings. Even if they can hear you, they’re not really listening. It’s like something happens to the words as they leave our mouths and reach their ears. The words hit a barrier of denial and they don’t get any further.”
Living while Black means that you have a responsibility as a Black person to teach other Black people about racism and our history in America. Many of us have no knowledge of our past due to education from schools or have not been taught about racism by our parents. Because of this, Black people are confused about white supremacy and don’t understand that it controls every facet of our lives – from employment, law, and housing to healthcare, racism affects all things. We all hear the same message from our elders: work hard, focus, and ignore the problem, only then can Black people be “successful”. This can lead to disappointment, resentment, and depression. It is up to us to inform and educate other Black people about the system of racism. We are all we got.
Living while Black means that there is no option to be race neutral. This world has always viewed us a certain way, and because of that, our lives are impacted a certain way. Living while Black is accepting your past – lineage and history, your current circumstance, and what your future may hold. Everything that we do and are must be viewed through a lens of “Blackness.” We are not just men, women, or children. We are Black and that come with an extra weight. Attempting to opt out of this is dishonest and impossible. There is no color blindness when you are of African descent.
Living while Black means your life is a resistance against the US. We were brought here simply as property for labor. Black people have been dehumanized, beaten, enslaved, sexually assaulted, mis-educated, imprisoned, exposed to drugs, killed, had our culture ripped away, and we are still here. The fact that Black people are attending college, raising families, being employed, creating art, speaking out, and embracing who we are under these circumstances is incredible. It is a blow to white supremacy. Fighting and thriving is who we are. Essayist Kara Brown wrote about the resilience of Black people during the Ferguson protests urging us to “Protest. Write. Sing. Dance. Ace their tests. Beat them at their own game. Let America know that we are here and we are alive right now and forever. Let your shining blackness blind them. Let the sound of our chants deafen them. Let our collective living manifest itself in an energy so powerful and unwavering that to deny it would be to deny the sun.”
LeRon L. Barton is a writer from Kansas City, Mo that currently resides in San Francisco, Ca. He has been writing poetry, screenplays, and short stories since he was way young. LeRon’s essays have appeared in Salon, The Good Men Project, Eastbay Express, Those People, AlterNet, SF Bay view, Buzzfeed, Gorilla Convict, and Elephant Journal. His first book, “Straight Dope: A 360 degree look into American drug culture” was released in Feb 2013. LeRon’s new book, “All We Really Need Is Love” is available on Amazon.com.