Monday, May 19, 2014

Barack Obama Ain’t Worried About Being Called A Nigger

The worst-kept secret in Washington may be how much Barack Obama’s presidency has been complicated by race and mired in racism. So it’s not surprising to read a recent report of a New Hampshire police commissioner, Robert Copeland, who use a racial slur to describe Obama. It’s been done before. Recall, former Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s slip of the tongue. 

But, unlike Santorum, Copeland owns his words
“I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse,” Copeland said in an excerpt from an email he sent to his fellow police commissioners acknowledging his remark and then forwarded to O’Toole. “For this, I do not apologize — he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.” 
Copeland also wrote: “While I believe the problems associated with minorities in this country are momentous, I am not phobic.”
The common tendency when a black person is called a nigger is to rush to their defense. The citizens of Wolfboro have already done so. An equally common reaction is to write nigger off as not important. Black people use it. Mexicans use it. Filipinos use it. Even whites use it. No big deal.

A great deal of scholarship has been dedicated to reconciling these differences, the seminal work having been written in 2002 by Harvard University’s Randall Kennedy aptly titled Nigger. The book explores the word’s political, cultural, legal, and linguistic history and still stands today as perhaps the most in-depth investigation into the nuances and contradictions, a truly impressive feat of research. In Nigger, Kennedy collects troves of data, piecing together court cases, first person interviews, stand-up comedy routines, political paraphernalia, newspaper clips, and hip-hop records. Then he connects, exposes, contorts, mangles, builds up and breaks it all down until it feels like he has left no stone unturned.

Kennedy begins his thorough analysis with an admission: 

If nigger represented only an insulting slur and was associated only with racial animus, this book would not exist…Nigger is fascinating precisely because it has been put to a variety of uses and can radiate a wide array of meanings.

He then proceeds by showing what that array of meanings looks like:
  1. Nigger as insult: “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.”
  2. Nigger as a paradigmatic slur: “it is the epithet that generates epithets.”
  3. Nigger as the trump card: “the most hurtful, the most fearsome, the most dangerous, the most noxious.
  4. Nigger as a form of protest: “the only legitimate use of nigger is as a rhetorical boomerang against racists.
  5. Nigger as a term of respect: “James Brown is a straight-up nigger.
  6. Nigger as salutation announcing affection: “This is my main nigger.
  7. Nigger as compliment: “He played like a nigger.”
This is not new information. And there are obviously more definitions of nigger than what Kennedy manages to list. He concludes that: “Nigger as a harbinger of hatred, fear, contempt, and violence remains current, to be sure. But more than ever before, nigger also signals other meanings and generates other reactions, depending on the circumstances.”

Put another way, because of nigger’s complicated political, legal, and culture history, what matters most is the context in which the word is used. Its volatility is its only constant. On one hand, it remains inseparable from the deep emotional memories of what it meant in the past. On the other, it continues to be molded and reshaped over time. This presents us with an interesting juxtaposition: how do we reconcile where nigger has been and where it is going? Further, how should we feel about an 82-year-old, white Commissioner Copeland calling the country’s first black (mixed) president, Barack Obama, a nigger? What would happen if the police commissioner were young and black and did the same thing? What would we think of him? Would we demand an apology?

Last week, riding the 4-train from Harlem to Brooklyn, a group of young, black teenagers boarded, joking, laughing and talking that nigger shit as we used to call it. As the train doors closed, I scoped their gear: fresh Jordans, denim jackets, sweatpants. A few wore jeans and graphic tees. All pants fell below the crack. They all spoke the code language, which is to say they slung around niggers and fucks and shits and pussy’s. They recalled what they “woulda did” if the girl with the tight jeans wouldn’t have had headphones on (they would have made a pass at her) and whose spot was the meet up location for the weekend’s activities. A middle aged white couple tried to ignore their antics. A Chinese delivery man minded his business, staring down at the car’s dirty floor. 
Noticeably, the white couple kept sneaking scowls at the teens. Their discomfort with the nigger language was seeping out of their pores. As soon as the group of teens exited the train, the Chinese man waited a moment, then looked around, his eyes no longer glued to the floor. The middle-aged white man leaned toward the woman, appalled. He whispered that those boys shouldn’t just throw “that word” around so frivolously. What he meant was: they shouldn’t have been calling each other niggers at all. 
I believe their concern was likely genuine, albeit it misguided. They believed in the popular definition of nigger as insult. They believe that the teens on the train were using nigger the same way Commissioner Copeland was. That, even though the circumstances may have been different, those young teens were perpetuating a culture of hate. That they carried with them, in the words of New York’s Jonathan Chait, a “cultural residue” of oppression that they remain entangled in. That, as Kennedy identifies, “blacks’ use of nigger is symptomatic of racial self-hatred or the internalization of white racism.” That nigger is a reminder of that pathology.
Undoubtably, such a possibility may exist for certain members of the black community. Racial self-hatred surely exists somewhere for someone. But certainly not for everyone. One black reaction to nigger won’t necessarily mirror the next. Moreover, a group of black teenagers talking to each other clearly do not have the same mindset as Commissioner Copeland, nor is it the same setting or weighted in the same way. Kennedy comes to a similar conclusion:
Self-hatred, however, is an implausible explanation for why many assertive, political progressive African Americans continue to say “nigger” openly and frequently in conversations with one another. These are African Americans who, in their own minds at least, use nigger not in subjection to racial subordination but in defiance of it. Some deploy a long tradition, especially evident in black nationalist rhetoric, of using abusive criticism to spur action that is intended to erase any factual predicate for the condemnation voiced.
Kennedy goes on to provide a number of examples in the text to support this claim. One such example he offers as evidence comes from the illustrious catalogue of the Last Poets, a group formed in 1968 that synthesized politics, poetry, and music, entitled “Niggers Are Scared For Revolution.” The use of nigger is an exercise in lyrical gymnastics. It subverts the language of the oppressor by taking control of it and spitting it back:
Niggers are scared of revolution but niggers shouldn’t be scared of revolution because revolution is nothing but change, and all niggers do is change.
I’m reminded of Sly & the Family Stone and the similar subversive usage of nigger they implore on their 1969 hit “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” from their album “Stand”:
Don't call me nigger, whiteyDon't call me whitey, niggerDon't call me nigger, whiteyDon't call me whitey, nigger
Well, I went down across the country
And I heard the voices ring
People talkin' softly to each other
And not a word could change a thing
Here, nigger is a direct rebuke of racism and the growing divide between whites and blacks. The lyrics chanted by the band, comprised of white and black members, “Don’t call me nigger. Don’t call me whitey, nigger” are deliberately distorted and bent around the melodies of the synthesizers and bass, meant to befuddle and agitate. There’s urgency in Sly’s repetition, repetition, repetition, too. More emphasis on the slurs is added each go around. 

It should be noted that taking back the power from a slur in the present doesn’t mean we can alter the slur’s ugly history retroactively. Doing so doesn’t lighten the burden. On the contrary, such appropriation only legitimizes its weight in the past. This might explain why the whites on the train felt the need to defend the black teens from their own reprehensible language: even as they have revalued nigger — that is, redefined it and claimed it as their own — its negative historical power remains just as pernicious. Such protection is appreciated, but unnecessary. 

There is a common belief in white America that defending black teenagers against their own history—that is, American history—is in their best interest. That protecting black teens from causing further harm to themselves might seem the right thing to do. Undoubtably, some blacks feel the same way. That by warring against and eradicating nigger we can erect a shield that can block the vile events of the past. This, of course, is ridiculous. Deleting nigger from the English lexicon will not banish racism from the American consciousness or save blacks from the tyranny of white supremacism and acts of racism, prejudice, discrimination, and terrorism. Limiting Robert Copeland’s vocabulary will not change his attitude toward President Obama either. While it is good that we desire a world void of nigger  it will not lead to a world free of racism. It will, as Barack Obama’s presidency has done, further the notion that because old guard racism is gone, whites should no longer have to face their own shadows. 

In his 1965 Ebony essay, “The White Man’s Guilt,” James Baldwin describes how whites try to look the other way:

…what they [White Americans] see is an appallingly oppressive and bloody history, known all over the world. What they see is a disastrous, continuing, present, condition which menaces them, and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility. But since, in the main, the seem to lack the energy to change this condition, they would rather not be reminded of it.
Indeed, some blacks, too, may feel burdened by that history. Nigger easily falls under the appallingly oppressive and bloody history, to be sure. And it’s a tough history to look back at. But, as Baldwin notes, history should remain with all us in the present:
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. 
This is a beautiful defense, not against history but, of history. It is also, implicitly a defense of nigger’s rightful place in the mouths of black teenagers. Not explicitly, of course. But Baldwin does not seek refuge from history’s burden. He accepts it:
In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.
Baldwin is not making a case for changing historical record. On the contrary, he wishes to master it and write it anew. 

Of course, such a brave vision of ownership is not without irony. Nigger’s etymological origins were in Latin, derived from the Latin word for the color black, niger. It did not always have a derogatory racial connotation; that developed over time. Whites appropriated the word into insult, though, as Kennedy writes, “No one knows precisely when or how niger turned derisively into nigger and attained a pejorative meaning.” 

So if whites could change niger to an epithet, nigger, the question, then, becomes: why can’t blacks write a new future for the word for themselves? Why can’t the teens on the subway talk that nigger shit?

Kennedy points us in the right direction:
there is much to be gained by allowing people of all backgrounds to yank nigger away from white supremacists, to subvert its uglies denotation, and to convert the N-word from a negative into a positive appellation. This process is already well under way, led in the main by African American innovators who are taming, civilizing, and transmuting “the filthiest, dirties, nastiest word in the English language.” For bad and for good, nigger is thus destined to remain with us for many years to come—a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience.
Here, Kennedy is not arguing to liberate the future generations by protecting them from the burdens and complexities of their past. Instead, he suggests a more modern approach. That is, embracing the fluidity of nigger and keeping us attached to its history in all its phases—from its Latin etymology, niger, to its racial denigration, nigger, to teens ebbing and flowing with their niggers on the subway. To change history requires bringing it with you and keeping the conversation that keeps its painful, complicated, and beautifully ambiguous memory alive.

This is not to infer that embracing a protean nigger is a pass to wield it frivolously and without thought. On the contrary, comprehending its power and using it effectively couldn’t be more imperative. Nigger is not a “filler word,” and should not be substituted randomly for others. That its definition is multilayered and continues to evolve does not mean nigger lacks a definition altogether. Carelessly slanging it non-discriminately strips nigger of it’s historical significance—that is, it’s meaning—completely. Hence, it becomes obfuscated and over time, a blurred memory, an abstraction. 

I’m sure those who wish to see nigger eradicated—Kennedy calls them “eradicationists”—might rejoice in this possibility. But if nigger loses its meaning—that is, all of its meanings—it is not merely one less word in the dictionary. A world without nigger is a world that turns away from the history that formed our identity, our culture. America was built on the enduring legacy of white supremacy, which includes legacy of nigger, in all of its complexity.

In calling President Obama a nigger Commissioner Copeland has become an update to that legacy. And it is up to us to determine where he fits in. But it is equally important for Barack Obama to understand his place in that history as well. As Baldwin reminds us:
“When you're called a nigger you look at your father because you think your father can rule the world—every kid thinks that—and then you discover that your father cannot do anything about it. So you begin to despise your father and you realize, oh, that's what a nigger is.
Baldwin clearly rejects someone calling him a nigger with malicious intent. Yet, embedded within his rejection of others labeling him is a fortitude, a resiliency etched into the fabric of black identity that cannot be stripped away. It is something he was born with, that is his to maintain on his own. Sure, it may be easy to get caught up in Baldwin’s words and ignore the source that gave them their strength. It certainly is easier to focus on words, and more convenient to do so as well. But James Baldwin’s spirit lives in President Obama. It also lives in the teenagers on the train. And, for the record, it also lives in me.

Calling Barack Obama a nigger is without a doubt disrespectful and abhorrent and should be condemned, to be sure. But nigger doesn’t cut one way. While it may be true that nigger may negatively impact the black psyche, it is equally true that it can harden and strengthen it, or not affect it at all. Ultimately, it’s up to Barack Obama to determine whether or not to accept the label bestowed upon him and determine what it means.

Those of us engaged in the war for equality should understand that it isn’t simply about ridding the world of the word nigger. Rather, our focus should be concentrated on eradicating racism. Which is to say we should focus on creating a world in which nigger can never bring us down.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Yes, Football Legacies Are Judged Through the Lens of White Supremacism

My latest over at Salon on Peyton Manning, white privilege, and how we evaluate athlete legacies. ICYMI
The nature of racism is not simply a matter of of explicitly or implicitly expressing skepticism toward a particular group or social class. It is also an aversion to digging beneath the surface so that one can acknowledge the complex fabric that makes up the individual experience. To reject the impulse to form simple conclusions — assumptions — is to open oneself to seeing the man behind the helmet, as a whole human being. As Richard Sherman has noted, there is a time and place for everything: humility, confidence, reservation, aggression, shit talking and focus. That is who we are. “I really don’t know how to be anybody else,” Sherman said. “I can only be myself.”
Enjoy.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Richard Sherman and his fans...

Yesterday, I wrote about Richard Sherman and his fans over at Salon. This first one felt amazing. Those of you who know me know how much of a big deal this is. It is a big deal because you all had a hand in getting me to this point. For that I thank you. Check it out here

I also really enjoyed reading people’s reactions. I never really knew how putting your work out into the world would feel until now. I guess when you say thing like: “The NFL dictates the rules of decorum and defines values, sportsmanship and acceptable behavior…We love the politics of respectability,” people are bound to start talking. Which is a good thing on all fronts. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Lost Files...

I know I haven't been around for a while. But I found something I wrote last semester: my first film review.

Given the recent Oscar nods, it has some (though not a lot) of relevancy...


Gravity and Life Disconnected
by Ian F. Blair

Sometimes film can make you feel alone. Not the kind of aloneness one gets when sitting in a room, leisurely reading a book, attune to his or her surroundings, but the isolation of a prisoner locked in solitary confinement, disconnected from the world and forgotten. The kind of aloneness that allows anxiety, despair, and panic to fester. The kind of aloneness that ultimately can kill the human spirit, draining the life out of us. Other times, film can act as a bridge to the world around us and in front of us, making us feel alive and attune to our most indelibly human impulses and the impulses of others. Some films accomplish the former, others the latter, each serving a purpose in their own right. Others don’t really make us feel either (or feel anything at all). Then there are films that do both—making us feel alone and connected—films that use disconnection to make yearn for attachment. This is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

Gravity, a 90 minute sci-fi thriller, takes the audience into the far reaches of outer space and leaves us there: helpless, lost, and alone. Complete radio silence. It also makes us pine to come back down to Earth where connectivity—to others and our surroundings—makes life worth living. The film forces us to look at life when the world seems out of reach, both metaphorically and literally, through the development of its rather simple plot—an American space crew is caught in a high-speed flurry of space debris that destroys their ship, Endeavor, leaving its two survivors, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) stranded in outer space, isolated with no means of communication to Earth and no hope for return—and the journeys of its characters. It also offers us the hope that the world is not quite out of our grasps. The incredible special effects and breathtaking three-dimensional imagery (though, there is also a 2-D version) capture the drama of impending doom and impossibility of being stuck in outer space. The galaxy, and the universe for that matter, are a nightmare.

“I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Kowalski, an astronaut on his last mission before retirement, fortuitously says just moments before NASA’s radio command alerts Endeavor of the space debris that will soon destroy their ship. Earth’s silhouette glows in the background, spinning like a slow-motion dreidel on a surface tilted at an acute angle; its geography—from the Himalayan Mountains to the Ganges River—appears to have literally been photographed through a Hubble telescope. The view is immaculate and beautiful. When the camera pans out, the black nothingness of space, lit only by twinkling stars the size of small diamond-studded earrings in the background, reduces Kowalski, the Endeavor, and the Earth to mere blips on the universe’s radar. The savvy computer-generated imagery (CGI) brings you into Kowalski’s purview, making you feel as insignificant as Kowalski looks. Gravity is a shared experience between the viewer and the characters on screen. We can feel Kowalski’s nervousness. We can imagine the strands of hair on Kowalski’s arms standing like a patchwork of thistles in a marsh. The feeling is enough to send chilling goosebumps shooting down our spine as if we were standing in meat locker with a serial killer waiting outside gripping a cleaver. We, too, have a bad feeling about this mission. And rightly so. As the film makes clear from the outset: “Life in space is impossible.”

Indeed, outer space can feel like this. But if Gravity were truly impossible, the film would have been a dreary picture, void of hope, depressing, and boring. The dictionary defines “impossible” as “unable to be, exist, or happen; incapable of being true; not to be done or endured.” The film is none of these things. This is really happening: we are really in space; we are really hit by thousands of orbiting pieces of metal shrapnel; we really hear the cries of NASA command at Houston; we actually watch two of our fellow space cadets get dismembered, the air sucked from their suits, the breath swept out of their lungs; we are dislodged from the ship and launched head-over-heels toward the dark side—the shadows—of Earth; we do struggle to catch our breath; our carbon dioxide levels are rising and our oxygen levels are plummeting. Cuarón makes all of this feel real. Though we may seem like this can’t be true, it feels the opposite. We get a gut-wrenching feeling like a dream gone awry and can’t wait for something to wake us up—an Inception-like kick to return us to normalcy. Cuarón doesn’t tell us we cannot endure; he asks us if, in fact, we can. He shows us what impossible looks like and obfuscates it, making us question whether or not what we saw was impossible or if there is a possibility for us.

Gravity flirts with impossibility. Yes, the shuttle is destroyed; but there is an emergency escape pod on an international space station. The space station escape pod has no juice to get back to Earth; but the pod at the Chinese space station orbiting thousands of miles away remains in tact and operational. Radio command at Houston is silent—all communication software is damaged—but Kowalski and Stone continue to talk as if Houston can still hear and will respond eventually. Kowalski’s jet pack runs out of power; but there might be just enough in the tank to help him get Stone to safety. The power in one of the escape pods doesn’t work and Stone gives up, attempting suicide by cutting off her air supply; but a dream (after she passes out) jars her back to consciousness with a renewed sense of purpose, a drive to survive, a reason to live. Cuarón methodically teeters the line between hope and hopelessness. Gravity is a 15-round blow-for-blow bout between impossible and possible. Cuarón brings us to the brink of nihilism and then asks us to find a way to believe in something.

The film’s highs and lows are exhilarating. But with exhilaration also comes exhaustion. With each additional impossible situation—each twist, each turn—we ask ourselves “really, is this how it will end?” Gravity sucks the air out of our lungs; yet our heart continues to race. (Indeed, that seems like an impossibility!) When will the suspense conclude? We don’t know. Cuarón is Gheppeto, pulling the strings, dangling the emotional peaks and valleys of his characters in front of us. His primary puppet is Stone. The camera focuses on her throughout most of the film. Her emotional roller coaster is more than the logistical nightmare of making it back to Earth, it is a confrontation with her past life before being stuck in space. Cuarón meticulously unpacks her complex emotional baggage. And her backstory is incredibly heartbreaking: Stone’s daughter died a few years back from slipping and hitting her head, news that was delivered to Stone while driving and listening to the radio. 

Cuarón interweaves the radio into numerous scenes but only as Stone’s story unfolds do we begin to understand its significance: it symbolizes life and death. In the film’s opening scene, Stone asks Kowalski to stop playing his music on the radio. It reminds her of the sadness of life back at home. Conversely, the radio reminds Kowalski of life’s good times back on Earth. When Kowalski sacrifices his life to save Stone, he turns his radio back on to peacefully make his final transition. When Stone attempts suicide, she cuts the lights off and turns the radio on. When she finally makes it back to Earth, the radio silence of Houston ends—she can hear their calls again; she is reconnected with life on Earth—and she is reborn. The radio is Cuarón’s soundtrack—not to be confused with the score, which is masterful in its own right—because it signifies the ultimate peak and valley: it makes us confront Stone’s, and our own, mortality.

Gravity shows us that living life disconnected is living life lost. Which is to say, it is not really living at all. If “Life in space is impossible,” Cuarón means it not in the literal sense but as metaphor. For space can be anywhere—outer space or back on Earth in Ryan Stone’s car—because we can disconnect from our surroundings wherever we are. In Gravity, Cuarón shows us what can come from this kind of withdrawal. No wonder, after watching, we feel so alive.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

M.I.A. in the Dojo

If you wanted a look into my life for the past month, the place to go is not this blog. Neither is my Twitter or Tumblr. You won't find much here nor there. You may find me in the library in the physical sense. However, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact location of a dream. 

My first month of school has been an awakening, but one in which my eyes struggle to stay open. Coffee can't save me, though it has become a prevalent force -- and necessity -- in my quotidian routine. I still drink it, naïvely hoping my reaction will be somewhat like the Folger's commercials. That it will jolt me from my paralysis, opening my eyes and ears to my surroundings. 

But I know better. The glass is half empty -- in fact, I'm staring at my depleted Starbucks cup now -- a concept at odds with my generally optimistic demeanor. I am learning to live with that paradox, but still looking for a crack to look through. I see glimpses here and there, but I've always been weary of oases. I question what is real. So, in essence, I am far from where I want to be.

Blindness is not to be confused with having an acute line of sight. For me, it is obtuse and unobstructed, empty. It reminds me of that moment in the Matrix when Neo plugs in and he opens his eyes to find nothing around him, just white ambiance. He looks around, spinning his head on a swivel, slowly rotating his torso, his hips following his eyes' lead, but nothing is immediately in sight. He is by himself, not just among the living, but among the lifeless: no objects are in view; no floors and no ceilings are decipherable, though he must be standing on something. He doesn't know where he is. He has no location. That will be determined by the programmer(s).

When I was 14 years old I had no concept of what that scene meant or the implications it would have on my life. Perhaps I was too young to comprehend. My guess is I elected to focus my attention elsewhere: the bullet-dodging action, the lust, the bending of the spoon, and the slow-motion special effects. I have no such luxury now. My graduate program is teaching me to open my senses so I can be more receptive to the undercurrents of art and more aware of my own personal connection to such art -- emotionally and intellectually. I'm also learning how to notice details, which -- for those of you who know me -- isn't something I am particularly gifted at, naturally. The struggle is real.

The initial phase of learning how to do this has consisted of hours and hours of reading about those who have mastered the skills I seek to develop -- their ways, their techniques, and ideas. Me and my classmates are immersing ourselves the works of Marshall Berman (R.I.P.), Siegfried Kracauer, George Orwell, V.S. Naipaul, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and others. These are the architects. Their work is extensive, and somewhat dense, but enthralling. More importantly, it is necessary: one must learn from the greats and understand their history before walking the path towards achieving a greatness of their own. So I am plugged in, downloading, eyes closed. 

After each lesson, I drink more coffee. I need more programming. I want to learn kung-fu, which is to say I need more tools -- tools that, at the moment, are far away from this blog and my other social media platforms. 

I must practice. Back to the dojo.

Monday, September 9, 2013

This. Is. The. Remix.

Firsts can be overwhelming. As are seconds. Last week was my first week of class and I walked into the tall, seven-story building resting about 100 feet from the corner of East 4th Street and Cooper Square with a nervous curiosity and anxious butterflies. 

My first is really a remix. School has happened before. I have studied and combed through a few books. I passed, which is to say I survived. That was undergrad at Sacramento State: the classes, the parties, the girls, hip-hop production, illness, and my dad passing from brain cancer were the maze I meandered through. And I made it out. 

This is New York University. My first semester reading list is a whopping 22 books and three lengthy packets of essays. Such a list seems daunting considering my reading habits of yesteryear. Changing those habits will require a great deal of sacrifice, not the kind I am accustomed to. I’m banking on my competitiveness and curiosity to pave the way. In times of uncertainty, it is helpful to turn inward which is to say those are my guns and I’m sticking by them. So is writing. My hope is that I can use these tools to become something -- someone worth reading, someone I want to read.

I would describe my program the same way the program director has. At orientation, she said it was part journalism, part philosophy, and part criticism. I have a background in none of these concentrations. Many of the people in my cohort have comp lit backgrounds; some have dabbled in history and politics; some are musicians turned critics; others have traveled from abroad. The common theme -- it seems -- is they have written a lot and have been doing so for quite some time. Their knowledge of books appears to far surpass mine. They read things that I have never heard of. I read things too, but fewer and far between. 

We were all drawn in by the same force: inquiry. The program spoke to us. It also spoke around us and through us. This is our shared bond, the link between eleven graduate students as we embark on this year-and-a-half trek of self-discovery. Perhaps, then, it was fitting that the first book we were assigned cast us away from the docks of our own preconceptions and what we thought we once knew. This was the bottle that was thrown against the hull:

“I have no memory at all. That’s one of the great defects of my mind: I keep on brooding over whatever interests me, by dint of examining it from differing mental points of view I eventually see something new in it, and I alter its whole aspect. I point and extend the tubes of my glasses in all ways, or retract them.”

Indeed, we are back for the first time. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

With Eyes Wide Shut: On Skipping My Ten Year High School Reunion


I did not attend my ten year high school reunion last weekend. My choice was calculated. I did not want to go. So I stayed in New York, with my new life. 

Perhaps that suggests I am not proud of who I am and where I come from. Perhaps, I am simply too proud. Indeed, I am as stubborn a man as you will find. At times, I agonize over parting ways with my own thoughts. I enjoy the view from my vantage point. But I hardly consider my view obscured; it is clear. The game is simply far away. 

I am not the same man I was ten years ago. I don’t pretend to be. I am not the same man I was yesterday, either. Hov said, “I’ll never change, this is Jay every day.” His words are paradoxical. He has changed. Yet, he hasn't. Every day is different, though some are similar. Even his memories have evolved: they’ve expanded, but some may have contracted. Memories are easily forgotten, pushed aside, and disregarded. They can also be cherished, affixed to our brain, or embellished. In any case, the events that transpired cannot be altered. But their mythology can. I am not immune to this syndrome.

It is not as if I don't remember high school. I graduated in 2003. I attended Fairfield High School in Fairfield, California. We called it “the High.”  We had a cool “set” that we threw up, matching the year we would say our goodbyes. Our cross-town rival was Armijo. Our colors were red and black (and white); theirs were purple and gold. I was in the honors classes which supposedly meant I was smarter than other students. My grades indicated otherwise. They were on the better side of average. I studied when I felt like it which drove my teachers crazy -- at least those who paid attention. Unrealized potential is a downer. I hated the distance between “honors” kids and “non-honors” kids. It was very anti-egalitarian. So I rebelled. The result was a mixed schedule of both advanced and “regular” curriculum. Certain days, I felt like an outsider because I never really settled into either class. I felt like Fairfield, juxtaposed between the Bay Area and the Valley. But I was far from an outsider: I played sports and ran the school newspaper. Neither garnered me much notoriety or overwhelming popularity. I was a casual observer who -- to borrow from Kendrick Lamar -- was "not on the outside looking in," or, "on the inside, looking out;" I was, "in the dead fucking center, looking around." 

I never really woke up excited to attend school. It was something I did. I found solace in keeping busy. I played basketball and ran track. I was neither fast nor slow though I showed hints of athleticism from time to time. I also played in the band for a few years until I was forced to choose between sports and music. I chose sports despite the fact music ran intravenously from my goofy-looking ears down to my boisterous feet that are the consummate metronomes. They are the source of my life’s tempo. I let the ball bounce.

My friends made school entertaining. We would listen to the radio at lunchtime. We would play the dozens. We would watch the weed smokers surreptitiously sneak hits in the bathrooms and in the parking lot. We would talk shit about our crazy teachers. We would recount the fights in the quad. We were in the beef only to the point where we knew who had funk with who and how it was likely going to get resolved. We never sought it out, but it still left a few scars. As I got older, I became more social. I got a whip and a dope speaker system which made me closet cool. My friends would pile in my 1995 Honda Civic and we would hit the sideshows and the parties on the weekend. We shot dice for money. We chased girls. We played streetball at the park. On occasion, we would dream of what lay ahead.

The thought of a ten year reunion never crossed my mind. In fact, when I left high school my intention was to never look back. I was done. That book was closed. I vowed not to be the guy who comes back to the high school parties and hangs around like a leech, clinging desperately to the blood of yesteryear. I was going to college. So were my closest friends. Others would surely be left behind, and I was fine with that. The tradeoff of hustling is losing a few street soldiers along the way. Some ties get severed. It happens. 

Then came Facebook, a way for me to see who actually went to college and check up on them. (Recall, it was only open to college students. You had to register with your student email account.) Facebook reopened the High’s doors that were once closed. I had left for less than a year. The social media platform hadn’t yet evolved into its own world; it was merely a medium of communication. Friends hadn’t begun to reinforce their own narcissism with selfies or awesome photographs of their feet in the sand, the ocean and Coronas in the background (confession: I do it, unapologetically). It was a jolt of life back into the three letters of failure still dormant in the back of my yearbook: KIT. Unfortunately, some of my boys -- those who didn’t make it to college -- were left out of the party.

Trips home became more somber because I preemptively knew who wasn’t online. It felt like taking a trip to prison to visit your brother. The glass in between you and your homeboy feels too thick to penetrate. The phone is as close as you get to grasping the complexities of their spiral and the window is as close as they will get to seeing the progress you've made since you left them (or since they left you). 

When Facebook opened to everyone, I was overwrought with confusion: the looking glass became a telescope, but it was also a second chance to focus in. Still, I felt distant. The moon felt closer.

As the reunion planners made arrangements for the ten year festivities, I thought about all my selfish reasons for showing up, the business cards I could hand out with my flashy title, the stories behind my career, and who I had become -- a college educated man with the world in front of me. I thought about what I had and what others didn’t. I thought about what they had in high school and what I lacked. I thought about running into an old crush with kids. I thought about old friends who had grown distant. Was I really ready for that intersection between who I was and where I’m headed? I closed my eyes. Time passed. I moved to New York for graduate school. The question still lingered. My eyes remained shut. 

The more I agonized over it, I realized I wasn’t asking the right question. On Monday, I thought to myself: why don’t I want to open them back up, not even a crack? It was epiphanic, dare I say. 

With eyes wide shut.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Block Parties, ATVs, and NYPD... Oh My!

Last weekend, me and my friend embarked on a trip to Costco. We stocked up on everything we could get our hands on. When we returned to her apartment -- my temporary crash pad on a quiet street in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn -- a block party going on. It got pretty wild. We got out of the car just as a woman screaming at the top of her lungs was being bear-hugged and dragged away by three people. A fight had broken out and it was being broken up by the neighbors who were her friends and family. In no way did I feel threatened. Neither did my friend’s neighbors sitting on their stoops; they watched the whole thing transpire. The fight was a dud. 

Long after the fight was over and cooler heads had deescalated the situation, the police showed up to disperse the crowd. They arrived in a few police interceptors. More followed. They hopped out of a couple NYPD vans itching for some action. It was nearly midnight. We found out later the city permit for the block party festivities had expired. If that was the case, the number of police that showed up for an expired permit seemed like overkill. Admittedly, I'm not a police dispatcher nor do I pretend to know the appropriate ratio of officers to civilians that are necessary in that particular scenario. But my suspicion is the fight (dispute) brought the cops out and they showed up in full force. 

I watched as they herded people out of the street and ordered them to clear the sidewalk. It was a bit over the top.  The people at the block party lived here. This was their home. One bad apple shouldn’t ruin the bunch. A few of the neighbors voiced their displeasure. The cops continued to flex their strength, clearing the sidewalk. Another van showed up and more police dispersed. There was a bit of a standoff. I watched from my friend’s stoop. It wasn’t quite “Do the Right Thing.” Not even close for that matter. But it was a bit chaotic. And it didn’t have to be. 

Thursday, this happened just up the road in Brownsville, Brooklyn:

Outraged loved ones say a Brooklyn father of eight was scared to death — literally — after cops swarmed his apartment while searching for someone who slugged a woman and stole her cellphone.

Carlos Alcis, 43, dropped dead Thursday from an apparent heart attack as his helpless wife and four of his children protested the fruitless intrusion in Brownsville, relatives said.

Compounding the tragedy, cops asked Alcis’ 16-year-old son Emmanuel, whom they rousted out of bed and wrongly suspected of being the thief, to help perform mouth-to-mouth. The family also claimed it took nearly 30 minutes for an ambulance to reach their Rockaway Parkway home — just blocks from Brookdale University Hospital.

Brownsville is considered a high-crime area. It is not my neighborhood. I haven’t hung out there extensively either, but I have driven through it and it is a familiar subway line. I've read about it in various crime-related news articles. A number of famous people from Larry King to Zab Judah to M.O.P. to Al Sharpton have called it their home. Their stories are well-known and documented. Others less so. From what I've heard, the high school graduation rates and annual median-income are abysmal.  The last time I visited New York, there was a homicide that made the nightly news.

Reading about a place is one thing. Knowing is another. In no way am I highly knowledgeable about the ins-and-outs of their community. I am an outsider. But as an outsider, some parts struck me as particularly rough in the classic stereotypical sense: there were rundown, dilapidated buildings, empty lots, liquor stores, people hanging out on the corner and sitting on stoops. As an aside, I recently had a brief Ruff Ryders moment when I saw a pack of dudes on ATVs popping wheelies and performing other stunts randomly throughout the neighborhood. It isn’t every day that what you see in videos and hear in music makes its way into your peripherals. 

On the real, it is no secret that Brownsville is a primary police target because of its tough reputation. The NYPD lives in the neighborhood but they aren't a part of it. They are sent there, with love -- relentless, tough love. Their presence permeates every facet of the community. That officers would mistakenly raid someone’s house, uninvited, in the middle of the night and accuse a black teenager of committing a crime doesn’t surprise me. In neighborhoods like Brownsville, anyone could be viewed as reasonably suspicious. 

I finally had a chance to comb through the court opinion written by Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan, in which she ruled that Mayor Bloomberg’s NYPD-enforced “Stop-question-and-frisk” policy violates the Constitution. Scheindlin declared, “There is no basis for assuming that an innocent population shares the same characteristics as the criminal suspect population in the same area.” I thought this was spot on. But it also made me further sympathize with the eight Brownsville children who are now fatherless. It also made me angry. Here -- in bold, legal language -- a judge said they shouldn’t have been targeted simply because they lived in the neighborhood they did. Their brother shouldn’t have been treated with such skepticism. If he hadn't been harassed that night, the father might not have suffered a heart attack which would ultimately led to his death. The situation likely was unnecessary. 

I also thought Judge Scheindlin’s conclusion spoke volumes about policies in areas like Bed-Stuy and Brownsville: 

The City and the NYPD’s highest officials also continue to endorse the unsupportable position that racial profiling cannot exist provided that a stop is based on reasonable suspicion. This position is fundamentally inconsistent with the law of equal protection and represents a particularly disconcerting manifestation of indifference. As I have emphasized throughout this section, the Constitution “prohibits selective enforcement of the law based on consideration such as race.” Thus, plaintiffs’ racial discrimination claim does not depend on proof that stops of blacks and Hispanics are suspicionless. A police department that has a practice of targeting blacks and Hispanics for pedestrian stops cannot defend itself by showing that all the stopped pedestrians were displaying suspicious behavior. Indeed, the targeting of certain races within the universe of suspicious individuals is especially insidious, because it will increase the likelihood of further enforcement actions against members of those races as compared to other races, which will then increase their representation in crime statistics. Given the NYPD’s policy of basing stops on crime data, these races may then be subjected to even more stops and enforcement, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle.

I think this is worth reiterating: “Given the NYPD’s policy of basing stops on crime data, these races may then be subjected to even more stops and enforcement, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle.” The passage really calls into question how crime statistics are calculated and how resources are allocated to fight that crime. The bottom line, if you look for suspects that is precisely what you are going to find, and you will continue to find them the harder you look.

On a personal note, I enjoy the block parties. The people who get into occasional scuffles -- though out of line in many cases -- don’t phase me. The spirit of people popping wheelies on their ATVs is soaked in innocence and gaiety. Sure it is dangerous. Not many would dare to argue otherwise. I grew up going to the sideshows in the Bay Area. The risk is real.

I just wish the risk weren’t artificially inflated.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I'm In New York, Listening to My iPod

I am in New York City and I must say, it is a wondrous place. I have been here for two weeks immersing myself in the culture, soaking up all the city has to offer. The restaurants are amazing. On every street corner sits a food vendor. On every block, a new adventure for your tongue. There is a restaurant for every personality and ethnic background, and a delicacy for every mood. The pizza joints are a world in-and-of themselves.

The city’s night scene boasts endless possibilities. I’ve never had so many options at my fingertips which is a major adjustment from Sacramento. And the choices multiply with every section of town -- from SoHo to Harlem, the Village to Brooklyn, the Upper West Side to the Financial District, and back up to Midtown -- making it ripe for young professionals and adventure enthusiasts. There is almost too much to do. It is a good predicament to be in.

I am still without a home, however. At the moment, I have temporarily nested in BedStuy, Brooklyn with a friend who has kindly allowed me to sleep on her couch until I can move into my new apartment. Her neighborhood is truly that -- a neighborhood -- which is another way of saying you don’t really get the big city feel. Yet, there is a bodega a few steps from her brownstone, and a subway stop around the corner which is what I stereotypically came to New York expecting to see. The neighbors seem friendly and welcoming, though weary of a newcomer with no ties and no fear of new surroundings. Every day, I feel their eyes focusing in with each step I take as if they don't know where I am going but they are interested in my direction. 

My apartment in Manhattan is far from their concern. It is distant in geography and in memory from Brooklyn.  Jay-Z once said Manhattan -- the island or "The City" -- was like a foreign country to him, a place where your parents went if they had a good job or where kids went on field trips, if they were lucky. This much seems understandable: each borough -- and neighborhood within each borough -- has a different identity. They are all separate worlds in the same galaxy. Manhattan is faster and less personal. People operate in silos; they walk with calculation and little affection or regard for the person walking next to them. In Brooklyn -- Bedstuy -- people sit on stoops, together. 

This is not to say the people are unfriendly in Manhattan, or New York in general: they are simply different. Their demeanor may be intimidating to the untrained eye attempting to make sense of their seemingly “pushy” ways. Everyone does their own thing. They make their own way. They appear burdened by complacency, bound by aspiration, and blinded by ambition. Their paths have converged from different places in search of something, the same “something” that brought me here. And though I am homeless, the city lights have a way of pacifying my discontent. The allure of movement -- in all directions -- is nurturing.

Still, not everyone fits the ambitious mover and shaker role. Many are simply trying to make it, day by day. Dancers, rappers, spoken-word artists, and musicians put on shows for tips in between stations, sometimes only collecting a few dollars from a wide-eyed tourist entertained by their antics. Young, black kids wearing tattoos, backpacks, sagging pants, and tattered shirts sell candy out of Costco-sized boxes with the rehearsed pitch that they are simply “trying to stay off the street” and keep from “getting into trouble.” Homeless people walk the streets and roam the subway tunnels, begging for their livelihoods or simply trying to find temporary shelter. For the most part, they are ignored by aloof, apathetic eyes and tuned out, iPod ears. 

On my ride home from the Village this evening, I made a slight detour to a local Shake Shack in Downtown Brooklyn. After eating, I boarded a C Train back to Bed Stuy. A young police officer hopped on the train with me. He walked through the car, scanning the passengers, and stopped, leaning nonchalantly against the rail on the other side. One stop later, a woman and her three children boarded the train. The woman was Black and heavyset. She pushed a stroller, with a huge plastic Target shopping bag affixed to the stroller’s handles. All of the children were Black: a baby lay asleep in the stroller and the other two children sat down, the young girl with pigtails sitting beside her mother and the young boy across from her, next to me. Both the boy and the girl held plastic bags of their own, none of which contained brand new goods. They contained clothes. I looked down to the floor next to the woman and saw a small duffle bag. It wasn’t new either but it was full. It must have been a task to zip the bag shut. The woman appeared to care about her children -- she made sure the boy was holding the railing while he sat and that the girl held onto her waste -- but it was obvious they had worn her down. She made a desperate attempt at blinking slowly to rest her eyes. I sat and watched, listening to Kendrick Lamar chant, “Pussy ass ho niggaz, I can’t fuck with y’all, Bitches all up in my business, I can’t fuck with y’all... Look at my life then look at yours, get some ambition, why you bored? Time’ll never wait on no man, society will never hold your hand.” 

Two stops later, the woman and children gathered their belongings and exited the train. She struggled to wheel the stroller off the car onto the platform. No one seemed to care, not even the police officer. She was on her way to the shelter. Her bags were all she owned. Her kids were likely all she had. I exited two stops later. Nobody seemed to pay attention to me as I grabbed my backpack, still knocking Kendrick Lamar on my iPod. 

As I walked up to the street level of the station and down the block, I passed by the laundry mat. CNN was in the window. I kept walking, thinking about the woman on the subway and her kids and their destination. I approached my friend’s brownstone, her burden lingering in my memory, but I quickly remembered that her problems weren’t the same as mine. I put the key into the door and turned it clockwise, walking into the building where I would be sleeping. I turned two more keys to get inside. My friend was sitting next to the door getting her hair ‘did.’ A gameshow was on television. I sat down, checked my email, and watched. I was back to my life again.

Tonight, I’m sure I will dream about my future in this beautiful city and all it has to offer. Tomorrow, I’ll put my headphones back on and pick up where I left off on Kendrick Lamar’s album. I’ll be back to “getting it.” Going about your business is the city's mindset, and it is something that fuels people to make the most of this land of opportunity. But I wish that opportunity could be heard through a boombox and not an ipod.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Love, Sacramento

I am sitting at an airport, waiting for a one-way flight to my future destination. I have always wondered where life’s nuances would take me, what direction, and what prose it would follow. The degree of certainty feels nonexistent, but the emptiness offers unlimited freedom. There is nothing to fall on and no direction by which to do so either. I have no concept of up or down. So in my mind, everything is forward.  Uncertainty offers a seductive promise in that every option is on the table. Yet, there are no options at all. 

As I near boarding time, I am reminded of where I have been, which is to say I can see what is behind me. Perhaps that became clearer -- the clearest it has ever been -- this past weekend when my friends threw me a going away party. The night progressed and the people got drunker, but the thoughts grew more lucid as the clock ticked on. More people showed up. More alcohol was consumed, though I maintained a subtle buzz, unbeknownst to most of my friends who were turning up. The love continued to flow.

Around 1 a.m. -- seven hours after the first drinks had been poured -- a few of my brothers raised their glasses for a spontaneous roast. I found a seat on top of a floor speaker, sat back, and enjoyed the inebriated love flowing in my direction. It was a beautiful moment, one that I wished could have continued forever.

Remarkably, I was able to take it all in with clarity. No tears fell. No liquor spilled. But the best part was watching different facets of my life collide into one moment. My secluded, professional world merged with my childhood. The lines between my family, friends, and colleagues blurred. 

Now, that amalgamation of my different lives is a memory, one that I will cherish as I embark on a new path that has no footsteps to follow. I don’t see any of those memories in front of me, but I know they remain by my side. And I have tunnel vision, which is to say I can feel their presence. There is no weight holding me back, just omnipresent support.

Five years ago, I felt that support which has now brought me to this plane, that I will now board. My destination is unknown but I think New York City is a good place to start.

Our Brilliant, Empathetic President: Still Ridin' Around and Gettin' It

Just in case you haven’t caught the President Obama’s “impromptu” remarks on the Trayvon Martin case and race, here it is.



This is certainly the first time any president has engaged in any kind of intelligent, empathetic dialogue about what it means to be black in this country. He really nailed it. But I think there is something more to be said that he did so on the highest platform possible in this country. If the president could be followed in a store or have people click the locks when he walked by as a “normal” black man, certainly there was a chance that a 17 year old boy could be profiled walking home with a bag of skittles. It was a great “walk in my shoes” moment.

What’s more, this was a brilliant bit of oration. Brittney Cooper of Rutgers University offers a pretty good breakdown of Obama’s rhetoric worth checking out. The folks over at Xpostfactoid really got in the weeds too. I would love to read their RapGenius analysis if they had one.

Others were a bit more critical:

I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. But this town has been spinning a story that's not altogether true. He did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation; he was pushed to that podium. A week of protest outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House pushed him to that podium. So I'm glad he finally arrived.

But when he left the podium, he still had not answered the most important question, that King-ian question, where do we go from here? That question this morning remains unanswered, at least from the perspective of the president. And the bottom line is this is not Libya, this is America. On this issue, you cannot lead from behind.

I respect Tavis Smiley for being a fierce advocate for the black community and “justice.” He has never been afraid to offer his criticisms against “the system.” He seems to care, and I have no reason to question his intentions. I generally try to take people at their word. 

But Smiley is a warrior of privilege. He criticizes President Obama because he can; it is his right as a citizen of this country. We all can be critical. But I think it is worth noting how easy it is to be critical of the President of the United States when you are not the President of the United States. It is a luxury not being accountable to anyone but yourself. In Tavis's case, he has no level of responsibility to a constituency or institution. He doesn’t have to deal -- not with the politics or the weight of pressing the button.

I think there is something to be said about studio gangsters who live behind the mic and aren’t riding around and getting it. Which is to not say a lot.

Monday, July 22, 2013

I'm Moving: A Few Late Thoughts on Trayvon Martin

It has been a tumultuous week. A number of thoughts have crossed through my mind since George Zimmerman was acquitted of the second-degree murder and manslaughter of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. A number of emotions have been weighing me down as well. I know I am not alone. 

For the record, I think the jury, given the facts of the case, got it right: George Zimmerman did not commit murder as defined in Florida law beyond a reasonable doubt. I’m a bit hesitant to agree that he didn’t commit manslaughter because of the low burden of proof required. However, the expanded definition of self-defense clearly had an impact on the jury’s decision. All things considered – the definitions of negligence and self-defense – the jury’s decision was not necessarily baseless. The rule of law prevailed.
I say this as an observer. I’m not a lawyer nor do I play one on television. I am also not a juror nor do I question the judgment of those who were. I was not in their seats, I hadn’t walked in their shoes, and I wasn’t part of their deliberations. My privilege is my vantage point. Watching from afar is convenient, yet far more sensationalized and hypersensitive. Newly revealed facts an the dramatic twists and turns of the case influenced my judgment. What I read played a part too. I was fortunate to watch with a level of detachment that the jury couldn’t have: a man’s fate was in their hands, as was the legacy of the fallen. The process must have been incredibly stressful and overwhelming for them, not to mention heartbreaking. This is the price of civic engagement and full citizenship in this country.
In the end, the justice system worked the way it was supposed to, albeit the outcome wasn’t what many -- myself included -- may have wanted. But be clear, there was no winner at the end of the day. None. The entire situation is a tragedy.
That said, the reactions of people I know have been particularly bold. Some of them empty. Disenfranchisement seems to be a common theme. As does sadness and hurt. Many are angry, and understandably so. Many don’t know what to think or how to feel. I identify with all the above.
Much has been already said and written about this. But I particularly enjoyed this post from Roots’ drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Johnson:
I don't know how to not internalize the overall message this whole Trayvon case has taught me:
You ain't shit.
That's the lesson I took from this case.
You ain't shit.
These words are deep because these are words I've heard my whole life: I heard from adults in my childhood that I needed to be "about something" other than all that banging and clanging and music I play all the time. As I got older, I heard I wasn't as good as so-and-so is at music. All the "you ain't shit" stories I got -- Jesus, it's a wonder I made it.
Rich asks, "Wait, you're not surprised, are you?" I'm not surprised at all, but that doesn't mean it stings any less.
I should be angry, right? I remember when the Sean Bell verdict came out and I just knew, "Oh, God, New York is gonna go up in flames." And yet no one was fuming. It was like, "[Shrug] … No surprises here. That's life."
Rich asks again, "Are you surprised … that you ain't shit?"
It hurts to hear it, and I say, "I'm not surprised, but who wants to be reminded?" What fat person wants to hear that they aren't pleasing to the eye? Or what addict wants to hear they are a constant F-up? Who wants to be reminded that — shrug — that's just the way it is?
I guess I'm struggling to get at least 1 percent of this feeling back, from all this protective numbness I've built around me, to keep me from feeling. Because, at the end of the day, I'm still human.
... Right?
I have felt as if “I ain’t shit.” And not just on one occasion. It is a feeling I grapple with daily, a feeling that seeps through every facet of my life. Every step I take, every interaction I have with people, I deal with it. My insignificance is my conundrum as a person of color.
That conundrum gets further entangled when I attempt to look at what I mean within the confines of a system. America is a country of public policy and laws. We are also a country that depends on the enforcement thereof. If you break the law, you are supposed to be punished. But to be black in America is to be persecuted even when we don’t break the law. Just like Sean Bell and Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin puts a face to that persecution. His tragedy makes it difficult to understand the value of a life under the system and how that value is assigned. If he has none, then who does? Further, how can we protect that value and add to it?
The Trayvon Martin case embodies Black America’s juxtaposition. Those who hoped for a different outcome -- myself included -- were rooting for a system that has continuously been used against them. We wanted the prosecution to win. We wanted “justice” to be served. We wanted the slain to be honored by the system working in our favor. The irony of the Trayvon Martin case, however, is that we wanted justice to be colorblind in a world of different hues. When it wasn’t, we were outraged but not surprised. Personally, I didn’t believe justice would be served. I anticipated the letdown.  
I say this as a member of the system. I am an insider of the very world I scrutinize. Working in a capacity where I directly influence the letter of law makes me a part of the problem and you have every right to lump me in with the ruling of Trayvon. This is my admission, but I am not alone. Laws don’t get passed by themselves, yet the reality is -- sometimes they do. And cases like Trayvon Martin are a big reason why.
The morning after the verdict, I was walking westward down W 125th Street, approaching Lenox Avenue in Harlem when I stumbled on a sign pinned to a telephone poll that said, “Crackas killed Jesus 2, what’s new?!?!?” 
I wish I were surprised this, but sadly I’m not. I think the real question we need to ask is: who is pushing the revolving door?