February 28, 2016

BANKS | Been a Long Time Comin’ or Three Short Stories

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A brief anecdote:

It is freshman year. I’m sitting on the TCAT bus when on walks a friend of mine. She is a black woman.

Wait… no.

She is a beautiful, intelligent, remarkable and resilient black woman. There we go, much better.

Anyway, she is being fully herself — fully black. She is “loud,” her vernacular is unfiltered and unrestrained, her body language ripples with freedom, her tone is pure, her content honest.

And me? I am reserved, perfectly still, my body trying to fold itself up and become invisible. I want desperately for her to stop drawing attention to us.

The question: What is the moral of this story?

When I first set foot on this campus, I was the masterful assimilator, ensuring that everyone was at ease, no matter what. To some extent, I still am. I still love when people are surprised by the music or films or other art that I unexpectedly know about. I love when I can do things that make people do a double-take. I love when I know someone I’m not supposed to know. I love when I can demonstrate my adeptness for sliding into any group, any environment, any space, regardless of the race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. of those within the group. I love that I’m chock full of surprises, constantly challenging every norm about what a black man should be. I love that I can resist the tremendous pressure to feel isolated or otherized.

But when I first got here from Atlanta, a city in which I had been the racial majority, I wrestled greatly with my newfound identity as a black person. I wanted to embrace the reality of my people’s limited presence on this campus, but when I looked to the older students, they seemed too loud to me. Or perhaps too vocal, or too political, too upset, too radical. They were, quite simply, too unabashedly black. I preferred to save that part of myself for whenever I was home. But these courageous souls constantly thrust themselves into the social sphere, and with gusto.

Allow me to provide another brief anecdote, but first some context:

I am obsessed with the breadth of human communication. If I ever get rich, I will spend all of my free time learning new languages. They are the ultimate key to empathy, in my opinion. And, for better or worse, I harbor a sort of intellectual hubris when it comes to speaking. I’m really good at speaking articulately. I know how to engage and impress people when I open my mouth. I know that I’m good, and as a result, I can be internally arrogant about this sometimes. (Forgive me for this fault, I’m working to get better.)

Now then: I was sitting in German class the other day, and I could not have been more frustrated. Although I’ve been speaking German for over 11 years, this high-level discussion about the Holocaust was the first time where I felt truly incapable of saying exactly what I wanted to say. I simply … lacked the words.

To wit: There are few experiences worse than the debilitating dread of undesired silence. To communicate, to be heard in earnest, is to be human. And I felt as if I had been reduced to nothingness. This was partially my fault though, because I hadn’t been staying on top of my German. I felt ashamed that I had forsaken this mode of communication for so long. Yet buried within that moment of shame was a nascent epiphany, which I will now share with you.

While walking out of German class, I realized that, after two years of learning and growing, I am no longer that kid from the bus anymore. If I have something within myself that is a part of me, that something deserves to be expressed, always.

Final anecdote: The other day, I was eating dinner with a beautiful, black woman in Rose. The student sitting next to us did little to conceal her displeasure when we sat down, and made sure to glare at my friend, who was being fully herself, at every possible moment. I tried to lock eyes with this person so that she could see me: Human and Black. But she always averted her eyes whenever she caught me looking at her. Eventually, she sighed, glared one last time and left abruptly.

Listen, I don’t care whether or not this woman’s actions were racially motivated, whether overtly or via the subconscious. And I don’t even wish her any ill will, because I’m happy, I’m warm, I’m blessed, I’m kind and I love all people. However, unlike the Sun columnist of old, who felt compelled to do lip service to those parts of himself at every conceivable opportunity, I refuse to relinquish the fullness of Amiri Banks. And if you don’t understand what I’m talmbout, let’s just say that I’m not finna let anyone get away with challenging the presence of my blackness. I’m not gon’ hide anything, or be conciliatory. Imma look racism in the eye and tell it to come see ’bout me. Imma switch to my colloquial slang freely while still flexin’ on these folk who think they know sumn. They can question my capabilities all they won’t, but ion care no more. I’m not out here tryna appease anybody but myself. And I’m ready for the relentless storm of vitriol, retaliation, and online comments that might come with that. I’ve been the nice guy for long enough.

Still, given all of that, let me be perfectly clear brothas and sistahs: You ain’t gotta talk or walk like me to be black. You ain’t gotta pretend you been rocking with the Beyonce of Formation since you first learned how to dance. You ain’t gotta be rapping The Blacker the Berry with Kendrick all day every day or wear a nappy ass afro. I’m still gon love you, and I still gotchu, whether you want me or not. Why? Cuz don’t none of that make you black.

Nah, only one thing make you black: the blood in ya veins. If you black, you black. Non-negotiable. And that’s that.

Amiri Banks is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at abanks@cornellsun.com. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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