November 13, 2016

BANKS | I Suppose I Have No Choice Now

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On Thursday night, I had a conversation with a black graduate student in which he described how he has spent the semester reeling from an endless onslaught of racist bullshit from faculty and colleagues, along with a dreadful display of apathy on the part of his department. In response to my friend’s plight, his committee masked a self-preservationist agenda with gallingly tepid concern, conveying in the most unrepentant of terms that the program’s reputation superseded a black student’s right to be treated with dignity or humanity.

In recounting the events to me, my friend described the rest of the country — or, at least, the rest of the country’s black people — as having finally caught up to his level of silently subdued rage and chronic uneasiness with those who claim to share his values or support his causes. And though he uttered this sentiment in an understated, almost humorous way, it struck me as simultaneously tragic, profound and disquieting.

Indeed, I have spent the past few days teetering on the precipice between a stubborn commitment to love and a desire to recoil from everyone and everything. On Wednesday morning, I walked past a group of staff — whom I always go out of my way to acknowledge. When one of them asked me how I was doing, I could manage only a desultory smile and curt nod before hustling away. To engage in any sort of civil dialogue with anyone, even in the form of a meaningless greeting, seemed to me an unbearable act after witnessing such a flagrant display of our nation’s love affair with institutionalized oppression and legally sanctioned bigotry.

Still, though, I must admit: I remain more wary of my friends than strangers.

Sure, there are some people living in our nation with whom I vehemently disagree on a host of issues, but no amount of personal disgust, fear or anxiety will ever preclude me from engaging with them — especially since many of these tragically triumphant Americans remain deafeningly oblivious and woefully misguided. Yet while people have charged them with driving a pointless skewer into the gaping maw of a wound that already threatens to bleed this nation dry, I sometimes find myself largely unable to tell the difference between the accusers and the accused.

There are few people to whom I can turn and even fewer whom I can trust, although I write these words with a temperament more resigned than resentful. For there is no solace or recourse to be found amongst my peers right now, since so many of them have clearly harbored an earth-shattering amount of ignorance and cowardice themselves, either through their tacit condoning, listless inaction or subconscious support.

Yes, I now understand better than I ever have before, and with a crisp, chilling clarity, exactly how a nation founded on the presumption of universal liberty, respect and justice could demonstrate such hypocrisy from the moment its progenitors set foot on a land they did not own and ravaged its people. I can see now how it was that human beings could legally own other human beings for nearly half a millennium without the world so much as blinking an eye. I now understand how, once freed, the victims of this horror and their descendants could be hunted, mutilated, murdered, discarded, neglected, abducted and dehumanized — tossed into an unending nightmare that so often takes the form of spattered blood, physical entrapment, psychosocial decimation and sobbing, convulsing communities — all without a destiny-altering uproar from the people who have had the power to prevent this all along.

So please, do not tell me this is the beginning of the end, because we have been living in the end forever, even if we continue to find ever more innovative ways to repackage our nation’s oppressive systems so that they seem more humane, more reasonable and more acceptable. Consider, for example, that stocks in private prisons skyrocketed almost as soon as the outcome became clear. This has been attributed to the market’s anticipation of increased arrests, which would inevitably arise from a combination of post-election riots and, of course, any subsequent policy shifts in criminal justice — all at the expense of the most marginalized lives. In other words, the wealthy and powerful in our nation have chosen to profit from the perceived and warranted outrage of the disenfranchised and vulnerable by hoping that, well, they would stay disenfranchised and vulnerable.

As I wrote before, but feel compelled to reiterate now: the truth about race is that we live in a nation born of, founded in and supported by racism. Our money bears the faces of racists, our national anthem was written by a racist and is based off a poem with racist overtures, and our institutions are adorned with the names of racists. We have failed, again and again, to nullify the spastic heartbeat and corrupted soul of this country, and now we have gotten what we deserved. This is who we are, and we have affirmed in a resounding voice that we are frightfully unashamed of our own putrid reflection.

Naturally, as a person of color, my first and primary disappointments go towards the vast majority of white people. They have failed me, themselves, their nation, their families and the world by not heeding the words and pleas of those who begged them to take this election seriously, warning them repeatedly that Trump’s campaign was indicative of a society wrought with division, hatred, mistrust, violence and, of course, oppression. The swiftness and almost enviable ease with which many of these same white people have recovered — shrugging and insisting that our daily lives (read: their daily lives) will be largely unaffected — does not even astound me as much as it should. Whether or not they have consigned themselves to this delusion in the core of their hearts remains to be seen, but the myopic nature of their comments shows a willingness to deny the power of symbols. We are now faced with a president who has denigrated, disparaged, discriminated against or otherwise endangered the lives of nearly every identity group imaginable. Yet, fascinatingly, the same people who declared that a black president marked the end of racism in America have not responded to Trump’s election with an equally audible proclamation of what his reign must represent. It seems to me that the light of truth has granted many sight, but rendered them mute in exchange.

Rest assured, though: No one, silent or otherwise, will be completely safe from the fracas bound to ensue. Once the dust settles, then, people will see that the dilemma in which we now find ourselves has long since ceased being political in nature. Rather, this is about human beings, and their right to be freely, fully, happily themselves without fear of persecution in the form of policies, laws, violence, or intimidation. People of color, individuals who identify as LGBTQ+, women, immigrants, Muslims, the socioeconomically vulnerable and the disabled (among others) have already begun to find themselves ­­­at the mercy of an increasingly emboldened populace in the form of increased hate crimes, reports of verbal abuse and harassment, intimidation, physical violence, vandalism, etc. There are dozens of examples to choose from (just Google post election hate crimes), but the one that stands out to me is a GroupMe, entitled “Mud Men,” to which every single black freshman at Penn was added, and in which the participants were informed via menacing, epithet-laden messages of planned daily lynchings.

I cannot tell anyone how to think or react to all of this, and I do not fault anyone for embracing their pain, frustration, sadness, despair, anger and/or debilitation either. They absolutely have every right to feel this way, and I’m sure there will be times in the near future where I share the same sentiments. I have become a man with nothing to lose, which of course intimates that I am liberated from all of my previous restraints and reservations. So even as I remain wary of most strangers and disappointed in most friends, I feel enraptured by a gust of resurgent resilience as I seek to span the countless rifts fracturing our nation and world.

On that note, even the people who voted for Trump out of conscientious hatred — as opposed to desperation, fear, or ignorance — are human beings. And though it may pain some to read these words, I know that we must find a way to communicate with them and hear their perspective too. However, this sort of seismic, widescale mobilization will require unprecedented urgency, incomparable compassion, and tremendous temerity. We must now reflect on this moment and respond in a way that seeks to arrest the hearts and minds of the lost or idle — whether through our words, our demeanor, our acts or our spirit — so that we can carve out a path to redemption.

My words lack the potency and force required for such a movement, so I need to be better: More focused, more ambitious and more present. I need to speak with more daring and act with more gumption. Even now, I am beginning to question why I ever censored myself, withheld my thoughts or sought to protect the feelings of those who seemed predisposed to agree with me on some fundamental level. I must face all of my friends who continue to twiddle their thumbs in compliant complacency with a renewed sense of fearlessness and honesty. I refuse to remain deadpan and lifeless, numbed by the sobering reality.

No, I will continue to be black, to feel, to breathe, to eat, to sleep, to be black, to smile, to laugh, to run, to sing, to be black, to pray, to talk, to write, to fight, to be black, to lose, to fail, to learn, to succeed, to be black, to live, to listen, to explore, to experience, to be black. I will continue to exist, fully human, fully black, fully myself. I am still me, I am still here, I am still alive and my life matters — not just for me, but for all the people who labored and sacrificed in order  for me to enjoy the platform I now wield.

Once more: My life matters.

And I’m going to make the most of the time I have left. I hope you’ll do the same.

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