“How on earth are you hoping right now?” I really want to quit. No more coping right now? My demons got demons. No more glowing light now. I have become my own shadow. Whys consuming my how. We’ve all heard the stories Of who we’re supposed to be But I wrote my own story When yours was opposed to me Became a default leader They’re drawing close to me Now my failures are their failures Supposedly. When I’m not “myself”, No one knows it me. Hiding in plain sight Until you let go of me. This is the burden That none of us has asked for But if one falls from grace We’re all put on blast for They say we credit our race Or we bring them down Then when “I’m” not there I am finally found
Almost every Black person I know who has grown up in America knows what it’s like to feel the existential burden placed upon us that says, “You represent your entire race.” I remember getting in a conversation with a military buddy who happens to be White about this a couple of decades ago. He was honest enough to admit that he had observed this too. And being a straight forward man and not very politically correct, he indignantly said, “Dang man that’s messed up. It’s not like I have to think about how every serial killer makes me look. And you know most of the serial killers are some crazy White guy.”
Because we are good friends, we could have an irreverent laugh about the absurdity of it all. And in the context of our friendship, he and I have dismantled most of that systemic garbage so that it isn’t between us. But, at the same time, things like what went down between Will Smith and Chris Rock shows that the larger culture is still entangled in this tendency to place the burden of all of us on everyone of us. Even many of us Black folks are wrestling with this, calling the incident “Black on Black” crime, because we have been enculturated into this mindset and don’t think of questioning the culture that create such misnomers and agreeing that what happened puts Black people back instead of just the person who made the decision.
As someone who has wrestled with this burden most of my own life, while always questioning its validity ever since a teacher told me I was a “credit to my race”, I can say this is unfair and needs to be deconstructed. When my teacher said it to me, I let him know that I didn’t take it as a compliment even though I knew that was how he meant it. It hurt his feelings. But not as much as him essentially saying to me, “Your race is so messed up, they are lucky to have you.”
If you are someone who doesn’t have the social obligation to represent your entire community to the world, I invite you to meditate on that for a moment. What does it feel like to think that the next thing some one from your group does that is unwelcomed reflects on you directly? Imagine someone coming up to you at your job and asking you, why someone did something as if you all have some kind of group telepathy. That’s what a large segment of society is asking of us everyday. So, if you want to lighten that burden, don’t participate in this tendency. Be part of a better way. Get to know people as individuals. Listen to and share personal stories from folks who differ from you. And don’t rely on biases to determine your relational capacity.
I can’t stop thinking about Chadwick Boseman. He’s been on my mind so much that I caught myself shaking my head in the gym on the edge of tears. Now if you know me, you know that this isn’t characteristic of me. So, I had to examine why I was taking this so hard. Even before he died, I would find myself googling about his health. Like many people, I saw him getting thinner and would find myself concerned about him. I too hoped that the weight loss was due to him thinning up for a movie role. It had been announced, around the time that he started coming into public noticeably thinner, that he was going to play the first and only Black Samurai, Yasuke, who served under Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga in 16th century Japan. Once again, he was going to take on the role of one of the “First Blacks to…” just as he had with James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Jackie Robinson. So I hoped that his gaunt appearance was going to reveal itself to be indicative of his passion for his craft and the calling on his life to bring powerful characters into the consciousness of people who for so long had very few symbols to hold on to.
Thank you for being a King in this life—for challenging our imaginations and giving us an aspirational symbol. I know many people will think that you were “just an actor”. But for those of us who never grew up with superheroes who looked like us and saw ourselves portrayed in a negative light, you made an indelible mark and shined eternally bright. #restinwakandaforever
My Instagram post August 30, 2020
I don’t say this much out loud. But I often feel lonely. Part of this loneliness comes from the fact that I don’t have many living role models before me who can relate to my background or life’s experiences. Everyday, I try, in my small way, to live up to an ideal that I have never actually witnessed being displayed up close. And I do it knowing that I live in a world that, whether people will admit it or not, is always waiting for me to fail. And not just me. If I extrapolate from the conversations I’ve had over my lifetime, almost everyone who is veiled in Black skin in this country carries this burden either consciously or unconsciously. Though many people are in denial about it, if you’re paying attention as a Black person, you know. And others know it too. If we fail, we take so many other people down with us. Because to be Black here is to be a symbol. And as a symbol, you always represent much more than yourself. Whereas, if some other people fail, they are simply seen as an individual–often deserving of second, third, fourth, and fifth chances.
When you are a symbol, society tries to make you an exception when you achieve in any capacity simply because the underlying belief is that most of us are incapable of meeting the illusory standards of this country. That’s why I think our ascendance, however small, is watched very closely. I believe that this is because, every step that any of us climbs, undoes the structure of the painfully comfortable false narrative that was built upon the foundation of our supposed inferiority. In other words, when Black people do well, especially in arenas where we are not always lauded, it tears at the fabric of this nation’s institutional myth about the capacities of American Blackness that almost everyone has bought into–even many Black folks. What if we were always this talented; this intelligent; this powerful? What does that say about how our ancestors were treated? What does it say about those of us who succumbed to the lies told about us? Does the past become even more tragic if we consider that we all had Wakandan like potential that was virtually strangled out of us for centuries? The questions are almost too much to contemplate.
By simply being who he was and living into his moment, Chadwick embodied that potential. His nature was regal. And in his person he carried the spirits of many of our ancestors. Perhaps that is why he was called here to embody them for us in the enduring form of film. He showed us our past and our future. He changed our world. And then he left.
In my work, I have seen many people die. I have watched as the light leaves their bodies and often wondered if they illumined every place they came here to shine in. I suspect that most haven’t. And that’s why there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about when my day will come. But I am not afraid of death. Ever since I became aware of the expectation that, as a Black Man in America, I would either die or spend some time in the criminal justice system by 18, I have contemplated my death. So no, I am not afraid of death at all. What gets to me is the idea that I will not do all that I can with this life because I will have allowed myself to be overly weighed down by the loneliness of being the first or the only. As they say, I don’t want to die with my music still in me. I want to truly live while I am here. And the truth is that I can’t say that I’ve done that yet. So perhaps that is part of why I can’t stop thinking about Chadwick Boseman.
Consider what he accomplished in the 4 years that he was diagnosed and being treated for colon cancer. Can you imagine? And consider that he did all of this while keeping his diagnosis to himself. Talk about lonely. But I don’t think he kept it to himself for himself. I think he did it for all us who know what it’s like to be the first or the only. In a consumer driven world where illness is seen as just another failure, he commanded his body and the world it inhabited to conform to his ideal. And in so doing, he tore that mythical fabric of Black inferiority that much more.
Of course, it is sad that he was not able to share his struggles with the world and receive the wellspring of compassion that he would have likely received and perhaps lived longer. But he was Black before he was The Black Panther. So I can imagine that he didn’t think he would get a second chance. So he did everything he could with the chance he got knowing that just like when one of us goes down we inadvertently take others with us, when we ascend, we take others with us as well. And that’s why I can say unequivocally that though this man had no earthly crown, he was and always will be a king. And at least for me, his being brings about a sense of conviction that before I die, I must make contact with my own regality and do everything I can to encourage it in others.
A Poem Fit for a King (In Memory of Chadwick Boseman) I’ll see you on the Other Side But I still can see you now In the ways you changed the atmosphere And by your essence you showed us how
We can’t believe that you are gone And yet you’re here now more than ever Giving form to a future and a past We salute you now and forever
Now that your form is no longer with us We see the burden that was in your eyes You held the Space just long enough To show that One who is Living never dies
Someday we all will meet you In the azure canopied ancestral plains Where everyone is a queen and king In the Place where Spirit reigns.
What will you say,
If you found out that they got me?
Knee to the neck
Or they shot me?
You knew me;
Now you forgot me?
What will you say?
“I thought he was so different.”?
“He shouldn’t have been on that hit list.”?
“There will be justice.
God is my witness”?
“I swear I’ll never forget this.”?
What would you say,
If I told you this was my family?
When they’re damning them,
Then they damn me.
Saying where we can
And we can’t be.
From the beginning,
I know that they stamped me.
What would you say,
If I told you daily I’m dying?
That this is the world that I’m in.
They want your soul,
For a buy in.
The Truth hurts,
When they’re lying.
What would you say
If George Floyd
Was suddenly me?
It was Pedro under that knee?
Let’s pray one day we don’t see.
Whenever my two year old cries for me not to leave her as I walk out the door, I wonder if somehow she knows that this might be the last she sees me–that I might make a mistake and run a red light or go to the store or go for a walk on the trail just outside our neighborhood and never come back. Then immediately after thinking those thoughts, I rebuke them. I tell myself that it is not fair for me to project my anxieties onto my toddler. I remind myself that I have a family, a ministry, and a life that matters. I tell myself that I cannot let these ideas that I live with like a permanent limp, dictate how I live. So I pray, get up, and go about the business of living. And then…
Check out Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi