A few weeks ago, I gave a speech at the State Theatre in downtown Ithaca as part of Martin Luther King’s Commemoration. Afterwards, I received a standing ovation from the crowd, which I found to be decidedly insufferable.
I suspect that my aversion to the applause was in part because I am not nearly as humble as advertised, so I feel uncomfortable with any adulation from the outside world — my ego is large enough already. More importantly, though, experience has taught me to regard hollow gestures like the clapping of hands with a well-warranted cynicism. After all, no one in that room should have been able to listen to what I had to say that evening, go home and still sleep well. Yet, as I stood there, lit up by the limelight, I was grimly aware of the hypocrisy precipitated by the clapping hands: Most of them were not nearly as moved as their rapidly oscillating palms suggested.
This revelation served as a great motivation for me to return to my column, although 900ish words feels increasingly stifling as I approach graduation. Fortunately, though, I still have a “make-up” column in the queue, which I intend to use in the coming week or two to complete this three-part series of reflections on art, writing and James Baldwin.
Speaking of my idol, Baldwin understood the pitfalls of acclaim better than most, commenting frequently on his embattled role, especially at the height of his fame, as “the great black hope of the great white father.” Indeed, the more deeply he engaged with these issues on a cerebral level, giving speeches and interviews, the more he ran the risk of disengaging from himself, his community and his identity. Because as racism has partitioned society into discrete, esoteric and woefully unequal arenas, black artists — the ones with integrity, anyway — have been forced to make impossible choices in an attempt to balance subversion of the narrative superstructure and success. They must constantly contend with the manifold implications of their creations for disparate audiences, perspectives, needs and sensibilities. Inevitably, the act of navigating such a treacherous minefield (or prison) inflicts violent lacerations on the black artist’s psyche.
For this reason, I am conflicted by the success of a film like Moonlight, which was not created with the white gaze in mind. For white people know that to see us finding and embracing the fullness and complexity of ourselves, even amidst our many struggles, is to validate the distance that they have created and perpetuated. Black Americans are forever gathering up all the remnants of our erased heritage and mixing them together with the blood and zeitgeist of our country, only to create something newer, freer, more unpredictable, more beloved and more human than our ancestors’ abductors could have ever imagined.
Worse still, so many white people seem to be infatuated with the idea of distance being overcome via painless, neutral means. Therefore, they must have the rich culture to which we so proudly cling. White fans of rap, for example, must be able to say “nigga” when they listen to their favorite songs. After all, if they can’t say nigga, then this would mean that perhaps the artists behind those songs are not truly rapping about, for or to them. Perhaps these white listeners are not, for once, the protagonists, but in fact have necessitated the creation of our unique culture in the first place, which they now consume and co-opt with irreverent glee.
When white people sense the tangibility and insolubility of this eternal distance, they begin to understand that they are responsible for its existence. But rather than peer into the void and try to shrink the distance the right way, so many will instead try to become us, to live us, to perform some kind of grotesque act of reverse vicarious expression. In doing so, white people are attempting to snatch back the reins of black people’s lives and we become, in effect, the living dead.
I write in dramatic terms, but I do sometimes wonder if any of this even matters, since nothing I write will fail to be consumed (and possibly misinterpreted) by the supposed pantheon of the white mainstream. As an aspiring writer, the privilege, prestige and power of an institution like Cornell has allowed me to amplify my voice, catalog my transformation and excavate my words from the surrounding environment, while simultaneously threatening to seduce me into excusing the potential side effects of being here.
Take, for instance, the response by so many here to a white man hurling ethnic slurs and xenophobic poison at an Indian immigrant before shooting him dead, or to the tragic chaos uncorked by President Trump’s disastrous travel ban. At times like this, I feel as though a vast chasm separates me from even the most “aware” individuals amongst my white peers. For even as they may use words like “sad” and “unjust” and “infuriating” to describe these events, they can never truly comprehend the unutterable intensity of emotion that overtakes me when such raw stories diffuse, daily, across my computer screen — only to be forgotten in an instant, or not noticed at all. Indeed, I am frightened by the ease with which some can discuss these heinous acts as if they are academic abstractions, holding casual concern and dangerous dismissiveness together in the same tense space.
I could have written this entire column in African American Vernacular English, and written it solely and only for and about people who look like me, and even then I’m not sure what I’d make of the outcome, glorious, fulfilling, empowering and righteous as it might have been. Most black intellectuals know of the torturous duality of blackness, of the infamous double consciousness coined by W.E.B. Du Bois. So here I am, in the 21st century, rehashing my ancestor’s hundred year old nightmares.
Well, I am out of space yet again, but I have at least begun to unravel my many ruminations on the subject. To be concluded, soon enough.
Amiri Banks is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Honest A. B. runs every other Monday this semester. Amiri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.