March 26, 2017

BANKS | You Don’t Realize You’re Intelligent Until It Gets You Into Trouble

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Should I write about the nine transgender women of color (and counting) who have been killed so far in 2017?

Or should I direct to you to Akhilesh Issur’s recent guest column, which poignantly illuminates Cornell’s ongoing mishandling of our international students’ urgent plight, not to mention the hypocrisy and apathy demonstrated by the institution at every turn?

Should I write about James Harris Jackson’s premeditated, racially motivated murder of Timothy Caughman — the first, according to Jackson, of many?

Should I remind you about the Cornell student who in January found himself on the receiving end of a text by another Cornell student calling him a nigger, only for the incident’s brief flare to be quickly extinguished?

I’m not sure what I should write about, to be honest, nor am I sure if I have the energy or desire to do so today. But I do know that whatever I write, I can expect to be disillusioned — even if only temporarily — by the responses and reactions. Just take a look at the comment section for my last column.

As I touched on in Part 1 of this series, black writers must live with the knowledge that, by all accounts, the words they write and speak will be avidly consumed and contemplated by people who have done close to nothing for them and mean very little to their message. And so you find yourself hopelessly entangled in an endless feedback loop, or echo chamber, talking to yourself ad nauseum until, as Baldwin says, “your will gives out — it has to.”  For rarely do my pieces find their way to the people with whom I have the most in common, and in this failure I am far from unique. This is why I Am Not Your Negro, beautiful and cerebral as it may be, is received by the white and black intellectual with such vastly different avenues, emotions, implications, criticisms and compliments.

The problem, of course, is that black people have never needed to be told about white people in the way that the film does; we already know and have lived the film. Our very presence is the manifestation of the history brought forth by its imagery, and a review of that history is not a stimulating, speculative thought experiment so much as it is a noxious provocation, simmering and sunken. So, intrinsically, the film is not for black people, and it is especially not for the black people most affected by the complex systems described within. I have family and friends back home who need to see this film, but I’m not sure if it would resonate for them in the ways that it has for me. I write those words with a heightened and grim awareness of the educational privilege that has allowed me to do so, as one who has infiltrated the white world.

I recognize, for example, that Lemonade contrasts with I Am Not Your Negro in that it is in fact for black people, and even more so for black women. Yet I find that there is a great, unspoken value in the album receiving as much attention as it did by bitter, angry, uncomfortable and confused white listeners. Is there a way, then, I wonder, to tell a story for your own people and still be heard by the world?  Will those white fans to which I referred in Part 2, who rap “nigga” so emphatically as if to take ownership of the word, ever truly be able to comprehend the intimations of the songs for which they clamor. Or have we become so molded by the tangible, impermeable aftereffects of the socially constructed ills represented by black art that black artists’ creations will simply always, by virtue of white supremacy, never be fully accessed or appreciated without white people refusing to admit that it’s okay to not have everything?

If a book has colloquial slang and syntax, or cultural phenomena, or thought processes, or social  structures, or characterizations, or perspectives, that are taken to be common knowledge among most black folk, this does not mean that you shouldn’t read the book. Oftentimes, the artist didn’t make it to teach you, but instead to share his/her/their own story; you just happened to learn something along the way (a la Moonlight). But no one asked you to comment. This is why films like Get Out, which attempt to reconcile the message with the masses, are so polarizing. Why, just the other day, I read a review of the film written by a fellow Sunnie, and well…suffice it to say I had to laugh to keep from crying. The author clearly had little interest in examining the dark, vacuous chasm separating his experiences from my own. So he flung himself, unintentionally and ignorantly, into the chasm, simultaneously expanding its dimensions and intensifying the viscous danger radiating from its depths.

Being privileged in any identity and trying to grapple or contend with the experiences of the oppressed is like discovering, in middle age, that your brother is not who he said he was. Or, rather,  that he has been trying, desperately to tell you who he is for some 400 years, and you have simply refused to listen. And now, here he is, your brother, your flesh-and-bones, and yet incomprehensible to you.  And it’s your fault. Now, in the case of race, I as the brother have to find a way, because I lack the power,  to be heard. And it can’t be through my own language, nor can it be through my own community’s way of telling stories — at least, not without the threat of improper digestion, misuse and abuse on the part of the consumer. As James Baldwin said, “Whites want black writers to deliver… an official version of the black experience. But no true account really of black life… can be contained, in the American vocabulary. The only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which the vocabulary is based. But they won’t let you do that.”

They might not let me, but I still have to try.

Amiri Banks is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Honest A. B. appears every other Monday this semester.