It was the last day of school, and I was walking with my dad. . . . Suddenly, he paused, looked at me intently, and said, “Son, you’re a black male, and that’s two strikes against you.” To the general public, anything that I did would be perceived as malicious and deserving of severe punishment, and I had to govern myself accordingly. I was seven years old.
I am angry. It is illegal for me to be angry. Remember: Don’t get angry. It is illegal to be a black man and be angry. Right. Got it. I will remember this next time.
Yeah, there are no more “colored” water fountains, and it’s supposed to be illegal to discriminate, but if I can be forced to sit on the concrete in too-tight cuffs when I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s clear there’s an issue. That things aren’t as equal as folks say they are.
Is it possible for white America to really understand blacks’ distrust of the legal system, their fears of racial profiling and the police, without understanding how cheap a black life was for so long a time in our nation’s history?
We treat racism in this country like it’s a style that America went through. Like flared [pant] legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people.
By the turn of the twentieth century, every state in the South had laws on the books that disenfranchised blacks and discriminated against them in virtually every sphere of life, lending sanction to a racial ostracism that extended to schools, churches, housing, jobs, restrooms, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries. Politicians competed with each other by proposing and passing ever more stringent, oppressive, and downright ridiculous legislation (such as laws specifically prohibiting blacks and whites from playing chess together).
“That’s just how white folks will do you,” one of [my friends] might say when we were alone. . . . And my mind would run down a ledger of slights: the first boy, in seventh grade, who called me a coon; his tears of surprise — “Why’dya do that?” — when I gave him a bloody nose. . . . Our assistant basketball coach . . . who, after a pick-up game with some talkative black men, had muttered within earshot of me and three of my teammates that we shouldn’t have lost to a bunch of niggers; and who, when I told him — with a fury that surprised even me — to shut up, had calmly explained the apparently obvious fact that “there are black people, and there are niggers. Those guys were niggers.”
That’s just how white folks will do you. It wasn’t merely the cruelty involved. . . . It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people. . . . It was as if whites didn’t know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn.
I am a descendant of a whole bunch of black folk who couldn’t be broken.
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”
I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.
Struggle is a never-ending process and freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
It is not a romantic matter. It is the unutterable truth: all men are brothers. That’s the bottom line.