For What It’s Worth, My Life Matters, Our Lives Matter

November 27, 2014

Protestors hold a die-in at 14th and I St NW, Washington, DC, November 25, 2014.  (Andrea McCarren/WUSA via http://www.wusa9.com)

(For What It’s Worth) Protestors hold a die-in at 14th and I St NW, Washington, DC, November 25, 2014. (Andrea McCarren/WUSA via http://www.wusa9.com)

Between Bob McCullough, Darren Wilson, the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, the NYPD, Rudy Giuliani, the Cleveland PD, and 100 million other sources, I could easily draw the conclusion that the lives of Americans of color are only worth as much as three cigarillos or a toy gun. Or, with it being 2014, that we’re just characters in a video game in which scared Whites get to kill us for sport or out of spite. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ferguson PD allows Wilson to mount Michael Brown’s skull above his mantle after he returns from his long-delayed honeymoon, the poor racist!

But my life, your life, all of our lives are worth more than what any racist asshole or system places on us. I had to learn this lesson a long time ago. It’s the lesson that is the raison d’etre for my blog Notes from a Boy @ The Window, not to mention my book Boy @ The Window. There are literally millions of messages we as Americans of color take in over the course of our lives that for so many, our lives don’t matter. Counterintuitively, it means our lives really must matter. Why would anyone or any system expend so much time and effort excluding people on the basis of race and social status in the first place?

Café Crème cigarillos, Denmark, October 21, 2011.  (PeddderH via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Café Crème cigarillos, Denmark, October 21, 2011. (PeddderH via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Still, learning that I mattered began at home, in Mount Vernon, New York, from folks who treated me every day as if I mattered not at all. Between my Humanities and Mount Vernon High School experiences and the abuse I suffered at home, I didn’t need the additional dimension of police harassment or White vigilantism to remind me that those of us without standing, who refused to conform to acceptable ways of thinking and speaking, were discardable. Maybe that’s why I turned to nondenominational Christianity in the first place. To realize that despite it all, that I mattered to God, to a universe much bigger and much more mysterious and powerful than the fists of my stepfather or the denigration and ostracism I received at school. It all gave me reasons to live.

So when my first encounters with police harassment and White vigilantism did occur (beginning right after my seventeen birthday), I had faith in God, and with that, faith in myself as a foundation from which to draw strength. Whether at Tower Records or in Pittsburgh or in Los Angeles, and regardless of how scared I might have felt during those moments, I remained outwardly calm. I remained myself.

Yes, I was lucky. Maybe my weirdness, my proper speech, my faith, maybe even God and the universe, kept me from getting beat up or shot on sight by police, security guards or by groups of drunken White guys in pickup trucks. But really, by the time Whites (and some Black cops, to be sure) started profiling me in earnest, I had made the decision that I had worth, that my existence, creativity, analytical ability, critical reasoning, all mattered.

It helped that I had victories in my life, big and small and somewhere in between, to draw on, too. Not just my advanced education or my first publications. By the time I’d hit thirty, I’d learned how to love again, to feel again, to write again, to have fun again, to even feel pain and recover again. All of that made my life much sweeter, filled my world with color and sound and texture, with words and deeds that mattered to me and everyone who’d become important to me.

W.E.B. Du Bois in duality (double-consciousness), original picture circa 1903, November 26, 2014. (http://www.storify.com/ozunamartin).

W.E.B. Du Bois in duality (double-consciousness), original picture circa 1903, November 26, 2014. (http://www.storify.com/ozunamartin).

While there are moments that I can go there, because of the likes of Wilson, McCullough and Giuliani, the fact is, I refuse to allow dumb-assed racists to determine my life’s worth. That those folk who devalue the lives of other folk because of their -isms (racism, misogyny, homophobia, imperialism, capitalism) and ish are in fact making their own lives worth less and worthless.

While W.E.B. Du Bois was right about this “peculiar sensation…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” I don’t think I live my life in a constant state of double-consciousness. If I did, I would’ve jumped off that bridge over the Hutchinson River Parkway long before adulthood. No, up or down, I know my life has meaning, my existence is worth more than a 9mm bullet, that every sentient life matters. And like Michelle Alexander’s talk with her son this week, I’ve made sure that my son knows that his life matters, and should matter, to him, his mother, and to me.


On Lena Horne

May 12, 2010

Maybe this isn’t the right time or place to be bringing this up. I’ll probably be vilified by my slightly older-than-me readers who’ll claim that since I didn’t grow up when Ms. Horne was in her prime, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That, of course, hasn’t stopped me before, and won’t stop me now. But two things have to be said about the late Lena Horne that most reporters and commentators on her life have either overemphasized or glossed over completely. One, that there’s a huge difference between breaking down barriers and commenting on injustice and full-fledged civil rights activism. Two, that Horne represented the issue of double-consciousness in Hollywood and entertainment in ways that few want to discuss now that she’s no longer with us.

Yes, I have seen Horne on the silver and small screen, even in my limited years on the planet. Yes, I know what she did on behalf of Black soldiers during World War II, the ground she broke in film and music, the use of her position in entertainment to speak truth about discrimination, exclusion and harassment in Hollywood. That makes her a groundbreaking icon. It makes her a bit of a civil rights activist. But it doesn’t put her in the same sentence as Dorothy Height, Paul Robeson, or Ella Baker. Maybe that’s unfair and unrealistic, but the journalists and commentators have exaggerated Horne’s impact in this area.

I’ve always found the stories of the mesmerizing Ms. Horne interesting. Not that I didn’t understand, between the beauty and all of that talent, evident as late as her appearance on, of all things, The Cosby Show in ’89 or ’90. But a radio commentator recently suggested that the late Horne could’ve passed for White, but decided to be one of the rare ones to stand up for her race instead. Really? Really? Mostly light, bright and almost-White Blacks didn’t pass for White, even when it would’ve been convenient for them to do so. Although Horne was light, I don’t think it would’ve been easy for her to pass, for a whole variety of cultural, familial, and other reasons. She deserves credit for this, I suppose, but no more credit than the likes of Walter White, Nella Larsen or Mary Church Terrell.

Which brings up the one unspoken, complicated fact that has gone unmentioned, especially among Black pundits and writers. That Horne benefited from her looks — her light, bright and almost-Whiteness — as much as she had to fight discrimination because of them. Her beauty and her skin served as the embodiment of double-consciousness, in Hollywood and in mid-twentieth century African America. She was Black and yet not Black in the eyes of MGM and its execs. Yet she was also a Black icon who represented the ideal in terms of her lightness, at least as far as the times themselves dictated in African America. I’m not suggesting that the late Ms. Horne took full advantage of this reality — far from it. But I do believe that she gained advantages that didn’t fall so easily toward others, like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers.

Was Lena Horne one of the great Black female  — heck, American — performers of the twentieth century? Of course! Did she entertain like few others could? Absolutely! Was her impact on race relations, African American civil rights, and our understanding of race and skin tone far more complicated that is being portrayed in commentaries and obituaries? You betcha!


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