On Aug. 1, I was marching in the Emancipation Day parade along the streets of Port of Spain, Trinidad, the finale of a three-week study abroad program. In addition to my classmates and tour guides, I marched with thousands of black people in ornate African clothes as they danced, sang and drummed in the streets to celebrate the end of slavery for their ancestors in 1838. Though at times I had felt ambivalent about my own black identity in a country nearly equal parts people of African and people of East Indian heritage, that day was affirming. I felt a sense of belonging I rarely feel anywhere else.
Then I came home to dead black bodies in the streets.
I knew this was waiting for me. I had Internet access while away, and I managed to keep up with news of Eric Garner, who died July 17 after an NYPD officer put him into an illegal chokehold. When the state medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide, I remember thinking, "Good."
I was reminded again of what I would be returning to the afternoon of the parade, when I logged onto Facebook and found a photo of a flier placed on cars at the Fancy Farm Picnic, the largest annual political rally in Kentucky. The fliers warned of a "Jewish-controlled media" ignoring the "black-on-white crime epidemic" and called for the "average white citizen" to protect his "woman [sic] and children" against the "savages."
I knew this was waiting for me, but I wasn't prepared for Ferguson, Mo. It's partially because, unlike so many other murders of unarmed black men at the hands of police, the execution of Michael Brown felt like it happened at home. I went to college in St. Louis, and Ferguson is just outside the city. Several people I went to college with still live there, so my news feed is filled with updates from people experiencing firsthand the war zone their home has become. This incident makes the question "Is someone I know next?" ring louder in my ears.
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But the death of Michael Brown also is shocking because of the circumstances. Broad daylight. Residential area. Witnesses. Running away. Hands up. "I don't have a gun. Stop shooting!" No paramedics called. A life not given a chance for revival. A corpse lying in the street for hours for people to photograph and share on social media.
And because of the continuing aftermath: character assassination. Vigils turned into battlegrounds as police in camouflage rolled through an American city in tanks. Smoke from tear gas. Debates between the use of the label "riot" vs. "political uprising." Photos that make you ask, "What year is this?" Analogies to Dred Scott -- blacks had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Declarations that this country is not for black people.
This post is the first thing I've written related to Michael Brown and Ferguson. I had been somewhat shocked into silence, but had I been able to find words, what else would I have said that hasn't already been expressed somewhere or that I haven't already said myself? I've already noted how "narratives invented centuries ago to justify behavior people knew then was morally reprehensible" are being repeated and revised today. I've already asked, "Whose job is it to make white people, and especially white men, see themselves as equal to every other human being?" I've already expressed hopelessness.
So why am I writing about this now? Just to remind myself that when I landed in Port of Spain, I went to the customs line for foreigners. They asked me questions about my plans while in their country. When I touched down in Newark, N.J., I went to the line for U.S. citizens. I approached a kiosk, typed in the answers to questions about products I brought back with me and used the kiosk's camera to take a selfie. I presented a print-out of the selfie to a customs agent, and he said, "Welcome home." And I smiled broadly and said, "Thank you."
I am writing to say that I am home. As unwelcome as the imbalanced application of laws (Marissa Alexander compared to George Zimmerman, for example) and the persistence of anti-black racism make me feel, my sense of belonging is alive here, too. If you think I don't belong, that I am inferior, or that I have no rights you are bound to respect, then it is your heart that needs to change -- not my behavior, and certainly not my citizenship.
Now, if anyone knows how to make hearts change, please tell law enforcement within the next 28 hours.
[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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