Race in the US: Writing through the tears
“My enslaved ancestors whisper to me during a summer bloated with the weight of black death; they are my co-authors.”
The blood of my enslaved ancestors is baked into the rich Mississippi earth of my hometown. The echo of their screams harmonises with the whistle of the whip as it snaps in the air, connecting with bone, skin, heart.
I wasn’t there, but I remember.
They whisper to me on a breeze heavy with the scent of magnolias and sweat during a scorching summer bloated with the weight of black death. They are my co-authors in almost everything that I write.
Every day, all around me, I see Confederate flags waving proudly amidst antebellum homes and lush plantation landscapes. Horses tied to buggies clip-clop down quaint streets, allowing benevolent racist tourists to get a glimpse of where ‘The Old South Still Lives’. Across the tracks, dilapidated houses – some of the old folks swear they are former slave quarters – stand untouched along streets dotted with churches, fish joints and liquor stores.
The Forks of the Road , at one time the largest slave-trading post in the South, forms a wishbone in the centre of town. A restaurant named Black Mammy’ s (and shaped like one, too) stands on the outskirts and mostly white patrons slip beneath her skirts to dine, either unaware or unbothered with a history fraught with the violent subjugation of black female bodies.
Somewhere in the middle, there is the mingling of white and black people joined by a tacit refusal to do the hard work of challenging white supremacy. To do so is often viewed as an attack on white people, framing black people who demand dignity as the “real racists” because ” not all white people … “.
Interracial friendships often hinge upon being silent in the face of rampant and entrenched racism and the systemic dehumanisation of black people throughout the diaspora, specifically the United States. This silence creates a racial hierarchy where failing school and healthcare systems unapologetically serve a struggling black populace. High unemployment rates, food deserts and a good ole’ boy sheriff’s department are accepted by too many people as just the way it is and the way it is going to be.
To paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, I wake up every morning in the Deep South, smothered by neo-Confederate politics that threaten to kill me and my people and say we enjoyed it .
This town is where I write my columns on race and racism.
Many people consider my writing radical. I guess in a world where black bodies are divorced from their humanity and considered dangerous and worthy of destruction on sight, loving black people is both a revolutionary and radical act. In reality, though, I write so I can live. I write so black people can see their pain, strength and beauty illuminated in a white-washed media reeking with the stench of implicit and explicit racial bias that too often fails to recognise any of the three.
During this past year, the brutalisation of black people has served as both political platform and morbid reality television . Police departments replicate their history of slave patrols as their bullets plow into black chest cavities, hips, faces, arms, legs and heads, on a relentless loop. In Staten Island and Stonewall , South Carolina and Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Cleveland, this country has exacted pounds of black flesh because we’re trying to be free .
Canfield Drive was the landmine and Darren Wilson’s bullets recklessly aimed at an unarmed teen made the world explode. Though there are many names that could be mentioned in this spiral of black death, it is the life and state-sanctioned killing of Michael Brown, Jr. that so riveted the nation. His death not only raised the profile of the Black Lives Matter Movement, first organised in the wake of George Zimmerman’s state-sanctioned killing of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, it intensified it.
And I have tried my best to bear witness to it all from small-town Mississippi, while raising three black sons and hoping that an encounter with a trigger-happy, power-hungry coward with a badge does not put them in the ground before their 18th birthdays.
This is the struggle. The weight of recording the history of so much black death and black resilience in the face of adversity, while not giving into the gnawing terror that my husband and I are raising our sons in a world that hates them. It is wanting them to grow up insisting that their humanity be recognised, while knowing that that insistence could be the very reason that snatches their lives away from them.
“He reached for my gun.”
“She was resisting.”
“He was charging at me.”
“He was playing with a toy gun.”
All of these flimsy excuses have been given to justify the brutalisation and killing of unarmed black people – black children – who dared to live in the world with the expectation that they would be treated as human beings and not moving targets. And sometimes, looking at my sons and too many brown and black children like them, makes it difficult to write through the tears.
There is an expectation of black motherhood in the Deep South. We are supposed to be smiling caregivers, not radical race women who understand that Gone With the Wind was never our reality because The Wind Done Gone makes it hard for us to breathe.
And we are never supposed to write about it. One white mother publicly voiced her “concern” that I was “raising [my] precious children to be filled with hate”.
“…Turns out she is a writer/editor for a news magazine. She was one of the most hate-stirring racist people I think I’ve ever met. Every single post was against another race, and constantly claiming injustice for her own race. Very liberal one-sided views, and really the kind of hate comments that just get people all mad and stirred up to hate each other more! Comments made to her posts were just people she had stirred up to riot with her and cheer on more racism and hatred. She put down [an] entire town and way of life! I’m shocked that the sweet lady I met at the ball field was not at all who I thought she was.”
My response was simple. Yes, I am teaching my sons to hate. I am teaching them to hate racism. No, I will not stop speaking out about these things because a sweet, light-skinned black woman who roots from the stands of her son’s baseball games makes white people more comfortable than a black woman who will call out racism and hatred and ignorance wherever, whenever and from whomever I see it.
The greatest trick that white supremacy ever pulled was positioning racism as merely a belief system and not a power structure built on the bones and forced labour of black people. I am teaching my sons not to be more tolerant of race when people who look like them are being gunned down every day, but to be more intolerant of racism.
If that makes me racist, so be it.
I write about these things daily while attempting to navigate a town full of many white Southerners who smile in the face of black pain and expect me to smile back. Still, I know that racism is not quarantined in the South. Despite the tattered and toxic vestiges of the Confederacy that linger here, and the lies that this country tries to tell itself, racism is an American problem. Black lives are not respected and our rage is not accepted anywhere in this country. We know this to be true despite the desperate protestations of neo-liberal politicians pandering for votes.
This is the burden, the beautiful burden of blackness that lives on my shoulders, often slumped over my computer into the early hours hoping that my words are doing my people justice.
My swallowed screams often come out in my work, words that are so often full of righteous rage that a mentor once told me, “Just because you have an AK-47 doesn’t mean you have to shoot to empty the clip every time”.
Maybe, maybe not. Still, if this past year has taught me anything, it is this: Writing is my way of shooting back at a system that never loved us at all .
Kirsten West Savali is the senior writer for TheRoot.com . As both a writer and cultural critic, her commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop-culture. Follow her on Twitter.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
This article first appeared in a special edition of the Al Jazeera Magazine exploring race in the US. Download it for iPads and iPhones here , and for Android devices here .