You may have noticed the surge in popularity of the term microaggression this year in the public’s lexicon. From Buzzfeed lists of typical microaggressions to entire campaigns launched to fight the expression of these microaggressions and from people asking if microaggressions are even a real thing to questioning the importance of the topic in the first place, it was a very popular point of discussion.
Yesterday my friend sent me this article from The Atlantic titled The Coddling of the American Mind. I was incredibly excited to read about America’s seemingly growing aversion to intelligence, the piss poor education system we find ourselves in, or something of the like. I found something a little different, but good nonetheless. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s core point is one that I agree with – college students are getting weak and whiny, causing professors to censor themselves from using certain words or broaching certain topics that might offend or traumatize students. After recently writing on the topic of a professor at my alma mater being demonized for her own words, I wondered where this article might go. Also because of the many cases like the one they cite:
“Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law–or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress.”
For many of my formative years I attended public school in Virginia. I know. And during those years, Virginia was still pushing for science textbooks to highlight that evolution was just a theory. So I totally get this idea that maybe we’re coddling students a little too much and underestimating their ability to think critically and instead opting to allow them to think comfortably. That’s also the argument this article makes.. And it makes it well. But along the way it threw out this questionable definition:
“Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.”
Framing microaggressions in such a cavalier way suggesting it is just a perseverance of a false belief in the face of damning evidence to the contrary. This rhetoric equates an individual perceiving a microaggression to someone being told it’s rainy outside and even when being pushed out into the pouring rain, maintains that the sun is shining. It reduces offended minorities to delusional psychotics.
“The worst thing to call somebody is ‘crazy’. It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit because people are not crazy. They’re strong people. Maybe the environment is a little sick.”
Dave Chappelle, per usual, is right. When you have scores of people telling you that microaggressions exist and that they hurt and otherwise negatively impact minorities, and you still think they’re imagining it, you just gotta step aside and realize you’re on the wrong side of this discussion.
If one cares to do the painstaking work of googling the four-word sentence “what is a microaggression” the first thing that comes up is the definition by Columbia professor Derald Sue: Microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
You can find other definitions but the important part here is that it is a communication of something. I’d describe microaggressions as brief, commonplace, negative communications which reflect an oppressive society. The reason it’s important to frame it in such a way is culpability. Defining microaggressions as random offense taken from an innocent action makes –let’s be honest– white people look incredibly innocent and leaves Black people (or other minorities) looking incredibly stupid. However this proper context and framing removes sole culpability from the white kid asking the Black kid “no but where are you from” and factors in the system that makes the white kid think his americanness is more american than anyone else’s. It redefines him from just an evil racist to still a racist, but one who is the product of a racist society. And it nonetheless admits that the action taken is incredibly offensive.
This example isn’t a unique one. Many people have used this paradigm. The Atlantic also used this example of true Americanness:
“For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American.”
Microaggression eligibility doesn’t vary from campus to campus and it would be a mistake to relegate them to just a college problem. It’s important to consider the source of the microaggression and examine who is asking these questions. I doubt a Latino American approached by another Latino American with, “Where were you born?” instantly thinks “Microaggression!” instead of “We might be from the same country.”
But there’s that word again. From. Where are you from?
Here’s what we need to acknowledge when discussing extremely complex constructs such as race, ethnicity, and nationality: language is not one size fits all. That’s not how any of this works. And while it’s cool or whatever that Lucifer’s many advocates will spark discussions on why equality means we must all treat each other the same way, with the same language, they are ultimately spewing distracting nonsense. It’s the same logic they use for opposing Affirmative Action – we need to just treat everyone equally now, as to completely ignore centuries of practices and their repercussions. It’s the same argument they use when discussing the N word – if you can say it, why can’t I; we should all be able to say it. It’s strange when these people feel moved to invoke rhetoric of equality.
Microaggressions, and the students they are targeted at, aren’t the issue. The issue is the microaggressor. Even as we frame these discussions we hardly talk about the actor or executor of these aggressions. No, we must always analyze the minority’s role in disrupting the fragile ecosystem of white superiority.
The article goes so far as to claim the recipients of these microaggressions are operating in some kind of “vindictive protectiveness”. They somehow managed to vilify victimhood and paint the victims as violent aggressors. In his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire points out the faultiness of this logic:
“With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?… There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.”
The important note here is that individuals on the receiving end of microaggressions are not being “vindictive” in their instant reaction to an offensive statement or action – they are responding to violence. Freire also predicted that the microaggressors would try to flip the script and claim that they are being attacked.
“On the contrary, [former oppressors] genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed. Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression. Formerly, they could eat, dress, wear shoes, be educated, travel, and hear Beethoven; while millions did not eat, had no clothes or shoes, neither studied nor traveled, much less listened to Beethoven. Any restriction o this way of life, int he name of the rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights –although they had no respect for the millions who suffered and died of hunger, pain, sorrow, and despair.”
As if on cue, the article offers:
“It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”
I would argue that it’s creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before expressing their problematic beliefs that reinforce oppressive hierarchies, lest they face appropriate charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse. Although, I’m not sure what is worse than that. These people who walk around terrified they’ll say something that will offend a minority should consider that maybe they are the problem.
Microaggressions are real. They exist. They’re dangerous. They’re not just casual miscommunications or the pet peeve of overly-sensitive minorities. It may be an overly used buzzword but it still names a very real occurrence.
Today, August 14th, 2015 around 2pm I went to Howard University’s Financial Aid Office to get an account balance error fixed so that I could register for my fourth year of classes in my PhD program. The task of cleaning my account should be simple enough. It happens a lot at Howard (and probably other places but I can only speak to my experience). Last year a mysterious $10,000 balance appeared and I went to FinAid and they removed it, no problem. I remember that unexpected victory because I took a picture that day and posted it to instagram.
This year, ~$3,000 mysteriously appeared on my account. After three weeks of going in person, being hung up on by offices they told me to contact, and emailing individuals who never responded, I was understandably frustrated.
I walked in today and spoke with Mr. Harbin. Or at least I think that’s his name. He’s never had the cordial professionalism it takes to offer your name. But we speculate, I guess. Mr. Harbin seems to operate on the “we don’t give no fucks, yeah” motto popularized by rapsinger Future. Once, while speaking to him about financial aid, he banged out a beat on his desk like this was a high school cafeteria and the Clipse’s “Grindin’” had just came out.
Childish. But I moved on. Bigger problems in life.
A year later, today’s incident isn’t something I could just move past. Today’s incident makes me want to leave Howard University completely. Not even transfer. I just want to quit. I’ll explain why in a minute.
Here is a paraphrased summary of events:
Harbin: Yeah nobody here can help you, so you’ll have to leave.
Me: I cannot leave here today without registering for class.
Harbin: Well, I can call security.
Students and parents in the office looked on in absolute shock. The girl next to me asked what was going on and in response just said, “Wow”. Someone’s mom had to come speak on my behalf when at one point, I broke down.
It was comical at first that this guy behind a desk called the cops on a 5’2” nerdy student. But once campus police arrived, I lost my cool. I cried.
I cried because I went to Ferguson last summer when police murdered Michael Brown. I went and protested and not a single officer bothered me. I protested at the White House this year after Rekiya Boyd and Eric Garner were murdered by police who received no punishment. No cop trouble. Yet when I went to register at Howard, police are called.
I cried because I chose Howard University because of the mission statement. I chose to be here. Not that these details should matter, because a student is a student and should be treated with much more respect and compassion than I was given, but for Howard University to allow financial aid to criminalize a student who just wanted to register for class and achieve some semblance of Black Excellence is tragic.
But also, and most embarrassingly?
I cried because I’ve been in school since I was 5. Two decades of rule following and working diligently and I got criminalized within 10 minutes of our conversation. But that shouldn’t matter. I’m a pretty “woke” person. I know I’m not safe in America. I know cops are killing Black people without consequence. I know that. But this was different. It was a Friday afternoon in the financial aid office at my Historically Black University and I was just a doctoral student trying to register for class. My mind was nowhere near the reality of the world outside those University walls.
Radicalization – the process of causing someone to become an advocate of radical political or social reform
As “woke” as I thought I was, it appears as though I still had some respectability politics in me. I sat in that office pleading with this guy offering the fact that I’m a 25-year-old doctoral student, hoping he’d be so amazed he’d stop being awful. He didn’t stop. And as odd as it sounds, I’m glad. Because that got that last little “treat me like a human because I’m achieving in life” out of me. Treat me like a human, because I’m human. Forget my CV or resume.
Nothing I do can stop me from being killed by cops. Everyone from Sandra Bland to John Crawford to Tamir Rice can attest to that.
And now I know there’s nothing I can do to stop even being criminalized. Even attending an HBCU didn’t help that.
So I might as well go all out and fight the system. Black, White, or blue. Everyone can get it. I held back a tiny bit before, but no more.
When I think about the purpose of life, I can spiral into an existential crisis very easily. After all, the very genesis of human existence is impossible to fully comprehend. The galaxy we inhabit is but a speck in the universe. And it takes a certain level of arrogance to wake up every day as though you are going to have significant enough an impact on the world that you should get out of bed. One needs not look much further for evidence of this than the fact that those, like myself, who go through periods in which they lack this level of arrogance are often diagnosed with the life-threatening illness of Depression.
I know what you’re thinking. “I definitely don’t wake up every morning with a pep talk about my impact on the world”. Yes, our daily morning thoughts may not be as explicit as this affirmation of self-worth. In fact, we may often say the opposite. “My job is pointless”. “My spouse doesn’t appreciate me”. And so on, and so on. That isn’t intended to be reductive, but more an admittance of the fact that there are an infinite number of possible reasons why one might feel as though they are insignificant. Not to be incredibly morbid but the reality is, if we didn’t believe that our very presence on this Earth is worth more than our absence, many more people would succumb to the temptation of prematurely ending their time here.
So we’ve established that we do have a purpose. Without purpose we would just stop living. The realities of daily adult life are far too stressful for anyone to choose to just be alive and paying rent. So what is our purpose? I’ve thought long and hard about this. Even when I don’t want to think about it, it remains an ever-present ideation. I’ve come to the current conclusion that the purpose of life is to live it more abundantly.
We cannot control the basis of our existence. Not a single person on this Earth asked to be here. We didn’t choose to be born. But we can choose to be free. I think the question of “What is the purpose of life?” is to constantly move forward. To progress as a species. My parents cultivated an environment where the epiphanies they had at age 40 and 50, my siblings and I were having at age 20 and 30. And I’ve adopted that same passion and ideology.
I didn’t ask to be here. I also didn’t ask to have a finite existence in this body. So if I can’t control getting here or leaving here (no matter what my Depression may tell me sometimes), I surely will be controlling what I do while I am here. I want my existence to add positively to this world. Some of the things I’ve been through, I don’t want anyone else to ever go through. Other things, I want to make sure others have the opportunity to experience as well. For at least the foreseeable future, the human race will continue to exist. If I can help someone else live a better life, going forward, I’ve fulfilled my purpose. The next question becomes what approach you choose to help someone else.
I’m a psychologist. I’m an activist. I’m a friend. I’m a sister. I’m a daughter. I’m a teacher. I’m a mentor. And so on. Each of those roles offers a different opportunity to fulfill my purpose. Find yours.
Back in February of this year, it was announced that Jon Stewart would be retiring as the host of the parody news show The Daily Show. But in this ridiculous age of deplorable media bias, is a parody of a caricature of a news network really a parody? That sad rhetorical question aside, this left a lot of us wondering: Who will host The Daily Show? Names were thrown out – from Amy Poehler to Amy Schumer, and Jason Jones to Aziz Ansari. And then there was a Conan-like cult obsession with Jessica Williams. J. Willy, as I call my best friend in my head, is also the Senior Beyoncé Correspondent on The Daily Show so there wasn’t likely to be anyone who found her unqualified. Except Ms. Williams herself. Being a Black woman on the internet is a peculiar experience. Jessica Williams’ tweets and the replies in response to her self-assessment that she was under-qualified is an excellent case study in that experience. Readers feel entitled to you, your time, and your brain – even to the point of attempting to “correct” your opinion. I get why Jessica Williams has been on (what seems like) a hiatus.
So far, so good. Her fans are understandably a little bummed that they won’t get to see her host The Daily Show and Williams responded with an understandable (but not required) explanation. Then things take a disastrous turn. But, why am I telling you about something that happened months ago which, with our ephemeral attention spans, feels like it happened a decade ago?
I recently wrote two very dope pieces, if I may say so myself. The first digs into Kendrick Lamar’s latest album To Pimp a Butterfly as a thesis on the state of Black America in 2015. The second, and most controversial, reported on Boston University’s reaction to Professor Saida Grundy. Reader response to the former was pretty awesome. People liked it and, more importantly, they appreciated the album more after the article helped them understand it. The response to the latter? Scary. And Jessica Williams’ experience on twitter perfectly illustrates what I had to deal with.
I made the case that a (white male) undergraduate at some other university declaring that the remarks of a (black female) professor of sociology racist, was the real act of racism. The entitlement that young man must have felt to make that kind of statement is jarring. The article also takes the stance that Boston University’s president Robert A. Brown essentially declared that the university cared more about a few white male tears than it did about the many students and faculty who stood in solidarity with Dr. Saida Grundy. At Boston University’s commencement this past weekend, student speaker Leah Hong asked those who recognize the truth in Dr. Grundy’s comments to stand as she took a photo from the podium. The response was overwhelmingly supportive.
But when you write about race on the internet, you’re bound to encounter some racists. I was never naive to that. I’ve read articles on it, heard about experiences, had some of my own, and, of course, saw it happen to Jessica Williams. And still I wasn’t quite ready for people to question the very basis of the article. Disagree, sure. But commenters demanding that I “define race” without trying to engage? The aggressive demand of my labor, my time, and my engagement? Blocking someone on twitter for spamming me or otherwise making my experience unenjoyable (because I really don’t have to provide a deep reason for removing someone from my social network) just to have them email me their even more detailed thoughts? Unprepared.
Here’s the thing about that. When you move a conversation from an article’s comment section to twitter and then to email (or any other medium) after being forcefully removed from the previous space, you are harassing someone. They have declared, without any ambiguity, that they do not want to interact with you. By continuing to force your opinion into their space, and ignoring the boundaries they have established, you are behaving as though you feel you are entitled to an interaction and probably an explanation. Well, in the words of my second favorite president, Francis Underwood, “You are entitled to nothing”.
This behavior isn’t solely characteristic of ignorant faceless racists on the internet. After the article made its rounds, outlets started to contact me to write and friends started throwing up alley oops to connect me with editors. One (black male) editor, in response to me enthusiastically declaring that I write whenever I’m excited or angry, suggested I take medication to correct that level of fervor.
Which brings us back to Jessica Williams. A (white female) reader noted that it was “sad” that Williams said she’s under-qualified. To this, Williams replied, “it’s not sad. There is strength in this… This is for me. And that’s my feminism.”
Another (white female) reader asked if maybe Jessica Williams just didn’t know the qualifications for the job that she had just said she was under-qualified for. Spoiler alert: she did know.
We went from Williams graciously declining that she was qualified for the position to people making judgment values on her decision and even questioning if she understood what was happening. But it somehow gets even more offensive. A (white female) writer wrote an entire article on why Jessica Williams made the wrong decision for Jessica Williams – “Why @msjwilly needs the biggest best Lean In group ever”. And even used the ostensibly supportive “lean in” phrase that’s been pretty popular. That’s pretty… insane. The temerity it takes to insist someone you don’t know needs an intervention because they accurately assessed their skills is quite unfathomable to me.
Whether it’s racist commenters on a blog, purportedly decent/respectable editors, a random student, or fans, you are not entitled to Black women. You aren’t entitled to an explanation from us. You aren’t entitled to an education from us. You aren’t entitled to our energy.
A week or so ago in Waco, Texas, two biker gangs executed a mass shooting. Over 100 weapons were found at the scene, 170 bikers were charged with a crime, and nine gang members were killed. Steve McCraw, Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the violent shooting was the first time “we’ve seen this type of violence in broad daylight”. But according to the Associated Press, the Texas Department of Public Safety informed authorities as early as May 1st that biker gangs were expected to violently clash. Why did police not preemptively deter this gang violence? Why were police not prepared to handle the expected attack? More importantly, why was the National Guard sent to handle young Black children in Baltimore but not in response to violent biker gangs planning a war in Texas? Say it with me: racism. And I’m not the first to notice.
From the childlike care the news took with coverage of the horrific gang shooting, to the lack of outrage, the lack of character assassination, and the noticeable absence of militarized police, people noticed.
People immediately noticed the difference in how the media reports on killings related to Black people and how they report on killings related to white people. If this biker gang violence was produced by a Black gang, headlines would be wildly different. The language used would be incendiary at best and racist at worst. The words “gang”, “violent”, “murder”, and any other that would elicit a fear response would be littered through articles and spewed from the mouths of news anchors. The New York Times referred to this mass shooting as “the worst violence in the Waco area since the siege on the Branch Davidian compound in 1993 that left 86 people dead”. And yet there was the picture of gang members still at the scene where nine gang members were murdered. They were casually on their phones and otherwise hanging out while one lone policeman in the shot is holding his gun facing the ground.
Compare that to these images from protests:
Stark difference, isn’t it? In one, the police are simply there to maintain peace for local residents. In the others, police are there to punish residents. Which is from a protest? And which is from a mass shooting involving rival gangs? Right. Well, if nothing else, it should at the very least prompt such questions as:
Why are the police so willing to destroy Black communities and litter their streets with tear gas canisters but don’t want to disturb a white community?
Why do police vilify Black residents and feel that using the national guard and a heavily militarized police force is appropriate response to unarmed individuals?
Why were Black neighborhoods in Baltimore and Ferguson subjected to a curfew while more bikers in Texas were allowed to travel toward the scene of the crime?
When was the last time I saw police deal with an armed or unarmed white person in the same aggressive manner as I’ve seen them use with Black people?
Twitter user Andrew Mastin posted this picture of two lines of bikers riding into town with the message, “Stay inside, Waco. This was taken in Bellmead”
In response, ESPN contributor Bomani Jones tweeted, “Seriously, how does this happen? And by *this* i mean… not a lot of gangs are coming into town in a single file line without some serious resistance from law enforcement.”
In her 2014 article, “Disgust, Harm, and Morality in Politics”, Dr. Bloom states that when thoughts of disgust or harm are invoked, “the perceived seriousness of the original violation” increases. In other words, reminding people of the harm or disgust that could be caused by a situation causes them to reassess the original event and perceive it as more serious than initially thought. Let’s relate this to media coverage of the recent police shootings of unarmed Black Americans. Language matters. Notice the difference in the following two headlines about gang truces.
One of these gangs is being trusted to control their violence when dealing with police. The other, after calling for a truce, was accused of forming some elite squad of gangbangers with the intention of killing cops. That’s no small matter. What better way to invoke thoughts of harm than to say that there are people attacking cops, the blindly loved and respected authority figures in the United States of America?
In the words of political psychology specialist Dr. Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom “the vast majority of Americans are politically unknowledgeable”. Don’t be offended. Blame the education system. However, because political prowess isn’t exactly the top skill for most citizens of the United States of America, it’s important to say something when we see something. Well, a lot of us saw something wrong with how the media covered the gang shooting in Waco, Texas. So when we see headlines from people who ostensibly have studied to become above average skilled in journalism, we have to wonder if they are purposeful. When CNN calls this vicious gunfight between rival gangs a “fight”, that’s bias. And to lead a tweet with the positive fact that weapons were recovered is a luxury Black suspects are not afforded and borderlines on journalistic malpractice.
As popular activist Deray pointed out on twitter, this is happening at news outlets across the country.
My final point is this: almost every day when we wake up in this country, we are bombarded with images of white cops murdering unarmed Black people. There are 6 second clips on vine. TIME magazine at the video autoplay on their website. There are instagram pictures of Michael Brown laying in the street dead. And yet at this huge massacre perpetrated by white biker gangbangers, there was not this fascination and sick obsession with seeing and sharing dead white bodies. That’s important.
Boston University, an elite higher education research institute that boasts such esteemed alumni as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Uzo Aduba and Bill O’ReillyMiss Universe Olivia Culpo, has recently found itself in the news several times thanks to a complete disregard for at least maintaining the illusion of caring about Black students.
On April 25th, 2015 an article was published in the Boston Globe about the lack of diversity on Boston-area campuses.
[the] subject of racial diversity surfaced on one local campus this week with news that BU plans to shutter its African Presidential Center, prompting the center’s director, Charles Stith, to charge that the school lacks commitment to issues concerning black people.
The article oddly boasts that Boston University now has a 4.6% rate of Black students incoming next year (!!!). And this is when we get to read an incredibly offensive and racist quote:
“The data shows important progress,” said Jean Morrison, BU’s provost and chief academic officer.
The challenge, Morrison and other administrators say, is that the pool of academically qualified black students is slim…
You: Ummm… how is that racist?!
Well, Timmy, when a man and a woman hate each other, and also have the power to systematically keep their children from progressing, that’s racism. So racism is hate + power. Jean over here is chief academic officer and she thinks there aren’t enough qualified Black students. That’s… kind of an issue, to say the least.
As a Boston University alumna, it has me (and other alumni and current students) asking #AmIEnough?
Then, right when I thought there’s no way Boston University could get even further from Dr. King’s message and legacy (I mean, closing the African Presidential Center AND having the provost come out and say Black students aren’t smart enough? That’s olympic-level racism!) here comes Boston University with the hail mary play to keep the white students placated and the white heteronormative narrative in place:
Critics also point to the low representation of black full-time faculty at BU, which has risen less than one percent over the past three decades and now stands at 2.8 percent. Overall, 7.4 percent of BU faculty are considered members of under-represented minority groups. Among local large private colleges, only Boston College had a smaller percentage of minority faculty.
This brings us to the Saida Grundy situation, which is likely the reason you’re here. According to this “article” at Fox News (which, let’s be real, is basically TMZ at this point. I mean, how does a news team witness a cop shoot a man and then change their story?) Supposedly a UMass, Amherst student, Nick Pappas, found some tweets and then posted them to a website. From there, Boston University students were enraged by Professor Grundy’s statements on white students in higher education. Nick Pappas, who are you?
Let’s talk about how deeply engrained the proclivity to protect white fragility is at Boston University. First, a (make believe) student makes this statement about a professor:
“You have to teach college-aged white males eventually, no?… this seems like you are unqualified to grade their work as you clearly demonstrate some kind of special bias against them”
Again. Who. Are. You? Your main concern is the fragility of the college-aged white male ego? Are you kidding me? Her opinion makes her unqualified to grade their work? So the other 99% non-Black professors at Boston University, are they grading Black students’ work inaccurately? Are they unqualified? This is QUITE the scandal you’ve uncovered, Nick.
Somebody out there might be thinking, “Why write an article on it? Why tweet? Why make the hashtag #ISupportSaida?” Well, myself along with other Boston University alumni and current students have tried other methods. We’ve gone to the Dean of Students, Kenneth Elmore. In his own words, “I have tried – for a long time – to stay out of the conversations on races.” Why a Black Dean of Students would want to stay out of race conversations in this climate is definitely beyond me, but here we are. We’ve tried running for office in the Student Government. We had a Black Student Body President. Not president of the Black Student Union. The Boston University Student Government. Nothing helped. So here we are. Cyberbullying Boston University into acting like they have some sense.
The Fox piece quotes anonymous “Boston University alum” but if you search Twitter and Facebook all you’ll see is Black and Brown students asserting that this is her freedom of speech and we won’t stand for this sort of racism. A few white students becoming upset because Professor Grundy accurately expressed that white masculinity is a problem in America’s colleges and that white men are a problem population is quite possibly the most appropriate example of irony. A few white students are upset that their bubbles were crushed and for five seconds they were forced to think about their race and privilege, and Boston University instantly condemns a Black woman’s statements? Come on. This is #AllLivesMatter-style rhetoric.
Boston University representative Colin Riley said, “The University does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are deeply saddened when anyone makes such offensive statements”. Which, for those playing at home, is hilarious if you scroll up a little. Didn’t Boston University’s Provost just make some racist, bigoted, offensive statements? Oh. She’s not a Black woman. Cool. As you were.
The article ends with this not at all racist or bigoted or offensive quote:
“I’m not surprised that Boston University is hiring a racist to teach African-American Studies,” David Horowitz, author of “Reforming our Univerisities [sic],” told FoxNews.com. “Anti-white racism is rampant in Black Studies programs.” d
As I finish writing this, another Boston University alum just alerted me to this Saida Grundy parody account with tweets like:
Tell me how this isn’t about race and gender. Please do that. A Black woman professor is being attacked 100% because of her words. Nothing else. Not because she, I don’t know, killed an unarmed Black person. Not because she refuses to grow with the times and admit more qualified Black people. But because she expressed a truth about racism. And while she fights for her constitutional right of free speech, (anonymous) white men are threatening to withdraw financial support of the University if she is not fired. That is racism. And also proves her point. White men be trippin’.
My final plea: hold Boston University accountable or make them tear down every Dr. King statue and close the Howard Thurman Center. Don’t parade my Black heroes around while actively allowing racist practices to continue at my beloved alma mater. We push back because we care.
Send your comments to:
The Office of the Provost Boston University 1 Silber Way, 8th Floor Boston, MA 02215
Kendrick Lamar didn’t make an album. Or at least not in the traditional sense. To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t an album you’re going to want to just throw on. Its shuffle play value is low. This is an album you revisit. It’s an album you sit with. It’s an album you study. Kendrick didn’t make an album. He recorded a thesis. Kendrick recorded the 2015 State of Black America for posterity. And he did it brilliantly. It’s accurate. It’s artful.
To Pimp a Butterfly opens with Kendrick laying the historical context of the American Dream. It highlights how Black America internalized capitalism as self-worth and instead bred self-hatred. Kendrick then takes us through a journey of trying to find happiness and failing. He paints a vivid picture of the depression that comes from being Black in America, and then journeys back to self-discovery. Finally, it gives us a plan for looking forward.
The Introduction to Kendrick’s thesis on the State of Black America, “Wesley’s Theory”, picks up exactly where Kendrick’s debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city left off with “Real”. The final track of GKMC calls into question everything Kendrick once viewed as self-affirmative. The hook on this song is a mantra repeated over and over: I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real. It’s soothing. It’s something you want to believe. It’s hypnotic. It’s convincing. It’s of my highest recommendation that you stop reading and just vibe out while that plays.
Why am I reading a review of GKMC? I appreciate you asking that. But I’m still going to meet you back here in like six minutes.
Great! Each verse on “Real” has Kendrick detailing how we’ve negatively internalized the American Dream by viewing the wrong things as proof of our self-worth. The first is a woman obsessed with material things: “You love red bottoms and gold that say ‘Queen’. You love handbag on the waist of your jean” In the second verse we see a man in love with street life and everything that comes with it: “You love fast cars and dead presidents owed/ You love fast women, you love keeping control/ Of everything that you love, you love beef/ You love streets, you love running, ducking police” And in the final verse we have Kendrick asking himself, and us, what’s the point? I should hate everything I do love. Should I hate living my life inside the club? … Hating all money, power, respect in my will. Or hating the fact none of that shit make me real.
Kendrick does an amazing job not talking down to us on this. It could’ve easily been a #hoteptwitter “I’m super deep and wear bowties” type of verse. But instead he essentially says, “I know all of this is true because I have the same problem. I think the same way. I thought the American Dream was going to be enough too.” By taking this tone, he aligns himself with us. He exposes his wounds so that we’ll believe him. He’s giving his references. He’s telling us where he’s from and where he’s been. He’s asserting his Blackness. What’s Blacker than having your parents yell at you on the phone to bring the car back while you’re out with the homies over the smoothest beat they can step to? It sets him up nicely to be the person to give us a thesis on the 2015 State of Black America. The outro angelically implores us, “Sing my song, it’s all for you”. And it sounds so endearing, we want to believe him. And we did.
Introduction – “Wesley’s Theory”
The album opens with the refrain, ” Every nigga is a star” which sounds less like a positive affirmation and more like mocking propaganda when you consider the theme. Think of stars as the actual celestial bodies that they are. There are… a lot. Some of them get names that we know and others are sold on the internet for $20 if you want to impress your grandma or take your DM game to an entirely new and creepy level. To paraphrase my favorite Disney/Pixar film The Incredibles, “If everyone’s special, nobody is”. We might all be stars, but we can’t all be Stars. This is the beginning of Kendrick’s firm proclamation that the American Dream is the American Swindle.
“At first I did love you, but now I just wanna f*ck. Late night thinking of you, until I got my nut. Toss and turned, lesson learned“
Kendrick admits that initially he fully embraced the idea of the American Dream, which meant embracing capitalism and the love of money. Eventually, he just wanted more – more things, more money. Finally he got rich and that’s when trouble starts. “Wesley’s Theory” is about the American Dream, the love of money, and the evil it brings.
In the first verse Kendrick hilariously, but convincingly, raps from the mindset of someone too deep in love with money. It’s a satire that you don’t want to believe is satire because it would mean he’s making fun of a lot of the music we listen to. Also because it’s just such a dope verse. You don’t even want to think about it. You just want to hit your shmoney dance and enjoy it.
Kendrick’s character is in love with money. He’s in love with the feeling. You can almost see the shiny suits in the music video he’s acting out. It’s an entire verse about how when he gets money he’s gonna ball out. ” Ima buy a brand new caddy on fours/ Trunk the hood up, two times, deuce four. Platinum on everything, platinum on wedding ring” And while he’s spending all his money on cars and guns, improving the American economy, he’s going to go back to his own hood and use those guns. Kendrick’s juxtaposition of the effects of the American Dream on White America and on Black America is stark. While White America benefits from the improved economy, Black America is hurting. You can spend all you want and improve Their pockets, but you end up hurting your own people. “Ima buy a strap. Straight from the CIA, set it on my lap. Take a few M-16s to the hood. Pass ’em all out on the block, what’s good?” Thundercat beautifully comes in melancholically with “We should’ve never gave niggas money”. Again here’s Kendrick’s strong assertion that the love of money has negative consequences.
Dr. Dre makes a cameo on this track and adds in one more point about the American Dream – once you’re in it, you have to pay to stay. The American Dream costs more than it may be worth.
In the second verse Kendrick takes on the persona of the American Dream as Uncle Sam and how he convinced us to not only wholly indulge in capitalism but also engage in this authoritarian idea of hating those who don’t. It was so easy to believe in it. The American Dream was ostensibly available to anyone who wanted it. Kendrick raps with this tone I can only describe as Oprah-esque. No, not like that. But this suspiciously benevolent tone.
Anything you want, you can have! “What you want you? A house or a car? 40 acres and a mule? A piano? A guitar? Anything! See, my name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog!”
Kendrick using the 40 acres and a mule language, a proposed form of reparations for Black Americans for the horror that was American Slavery, immediately makes me think of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Clearly none of us got 40 acres nor a mule. Why?
Because America has defaulted on this promissory note. America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now
Uncle Sam (the American Dream) might have looked a certain way. He might have seemed to offer everything we could’ve wanted or dreamed. But the American Dream has a long history of being a swindle. This is only but one of the many times Kendrick will cite influential Black Americans such as Dr. King throughout the thesis. He goes on to allude to Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Kunta Kinte, and so on. That’s not even considering the samples and artists on the tracks. From Snoop to Thundercats, it’s Black. This album is beautifully Black. It’s authentically Black.
“Pay me later! Wear those gators! Cliche and say fuck your haters!” Not only does the American Dream create paralyzing debt for us, we still think we’re better off and start to hate anyone who says otherwise. Anyone who isn’t as into material things and flash lifestyle is now perceived as a hater, even if they do have the same skin color as us. “Everything you buy, taxes will deny. I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before 35”. After the American Dream’s hype of all the money we can have, which we probably won’t get, even if we do somehow get it, taxes will take it right back. Poor Wesley Snipes learned that lesson real quick.
But this is the world we live in. We all believe in the American Dream, to some extent. Let’s not pretend that we don’t. If Kendrick’s going to try to convince us that the American Dream is really an American Swindle, we need to see receipts.
We were raised on this. We’ve spent our entire lives feeding into this. What happens after you spend your whole life preparing to become something and you don’t like what you see? This is the Butterfly Dilemma. Your entire life is about becoming something greater. Something beautiful. Something free. Gather your wind, take a deep look inside/ Are you really who they idolize? To pimp a butterfly.
For Free? – Interlude
If “Wesley’s Theory” establishes money as the root of all evil, “For Free?” shows the internalization of the idea that money affirms us and how it leaves us dissatisfied. “For Free?” unfortunately opens with the voice of a stereotypical angry aggressive sassy hood Black woman just completely destroying a man verbally. She’s clearly assimilated and internalized the American Dream. If the man she’s talking to doesn’t have money, he’s worthless to her.
“I shouldn’t be fuckin’ with you anyway. I need a baller ass, boss ass nigga. You’s a off-brand ass nigga. Everybody know it. Your homies know it. Everybody fuckin’ know. Fuck you nigga don’t call me no more”
Kendrick raps back at this unsatisfied woman, “This dick ain’t free! You looking at me like it ain’t a receipt. Like I never made ends meet eating your leftovers and raw meat.” In other words, he’s not giving her (or the American Dream) this work for free. While he’s frustratedly describing how hard he works to keep his woman happy, he’s also talking about the so-called Black Middle Class here. Working to make ends meet by eating the leftovers from the table. Kendrick frustratingly declaring, “This dick ain’t free!” is really the 2015 version of crying “I, too, am America.”
“Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes. Nobody’ll dare say to me, ‘Eat in the kitchen,’ then. Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed— I, too, am America.”
In “I, Too”, Langston Hughes reports the State of Black America as well. While the American Dream has shunned Black America and forced it into a second-class status, we’ve only grown stronger. We were cocooning. Tomorrow, we’ll be at the table. Tomorrow we glo up. Tomorrow we become a butterfly. Kendrick continues his rant with detailing all the things he’s worked for to keep this woman/The American Dream. It ends with “Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton that made you rich. Now my dick ain’t free.” Kendrick’s tired of working with no return on his investment. America gon’ pay what they owe.
“King Kunta” is about authenticity. The obvious allusion is that the classic African American film Roots by Alex Haley which is based on the life of Kunta Kinte, a slave whose foot was chopped off so that he could not run away from his masters. The very term “King Kunta” is an exercise in hilariously defiant authenticity – juxtaposing the royal title King with the slave name Kunta. The scene most people remember from Roots is when Kunta is being whipped and told to accept that his new name is Toby, instead of Kunta. And he takes every brutal lashing and continues to assert that he is Kunta. His name is his name. And he’s not changing for anyone. He’s not going to diminish or hide his Blackness in even the smallest of ways.
The first verse starts with an allusion to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. There’s a part in the novel where the protagonist smells yams on the street and it reminds him of home. He buys some and happily feels authentically himself again. His peers were shocked that he would do that because it was a mark of being from the South and that was shunned. But he remained authentically Southern Black, despite the hatred. Here, “yams” is authenticity. “When you got the yams- (What’s the yams?) The yam is the power that be. You can smell it when I’m walking down the street.” Kendrick is so authentically Black that you can tell just by the way he carries himself. Kendrick’s citing of many Black Americans isn’t to be inaccessible. I believe Kendrick wants us to revisit and explore these poets, writers, orators, and heroes. He wants us to fall back in love with Blackness. Bring back their authenticity instead of the watered down revised history we are often offered.
This interrogation of authenticity continues with rappers. “I can dig rapping but a rapper with a ghost writer? What the fuck happened? I swore I wouldn’t tell, but most of y’all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell”.
Shots. Fired. You know who else noticed this? Drake. “Give these niggas the look, the verse, and even the hook. That’s why every song sound like Drake featuring Drake” Oh my.
In the second verse, “yams” takes on double meanings. You gotta be careful with that much power. Too much yams, slang for cocaine, was bad for Richard Pryor. Too much yams, slang for a woman’s vagina, was bad for Bill Clinton. In the final verse, Kendrick continues his funky walk down the street, draped in Blackness. It opens with some patois, which is super Black. He’s repping Compton, which is also super Black. He’s feeling so good that he might run for Mayor.
Kendrick, and Black America, surpassed what America said he would even live to see:
“Made it past 25 and there I was a little nappy headed nigga with the world behind him… Straight from the bottom, this the belly of the beast. From a peasant to a prince to a motherfuckin’ King.” No matter how hard America may try, Black America keeps advancing. From a peasant to prince to the King. From slave to the spaceship, from property to President, we are resilient. We stay winning. King Kunta is a celebration of authentic, unapologetic Blackness. No more revising our history, for better or worse. We advance.
“Institutionalized” has Kendrick on display in full storytelling mode. After acknowledging the difficult position Black America is in, Kendrick admits that he isn’t fully fighting against it because he might be in too deep as well. The song opens with Kendrick rapping in a very vulnerable and honest tone as we hear Kendrick’s unfiltered thoughts that set up the story.
“What money got to do with it when I don’t know the full definition of a rap image? I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it. Institutionalized, I keep running back for a visit. I said I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it. Institutionalized. I could still kill me a nigga, so what?
It doesn’t matter what his financial reality is, mentally he’s still trapped in the ghetto. And no matter how enlightened he sounds on these tracks where he’s highlighting and celebrating Black lives, culture, and influence, he could literally still kill a nigga. Being Black in America is complex. While fighting against the system, we have to recognize how ingrained in us the system is.
Kendrick thinks about how amazing life is going to be when he’s achieved the American Dream. He’s paying his mom’s rent, freeing his homies from jail, getting high in the White house, he’s living! This all sounds nice, right? A little too nice, maybe. The verse comically continues with him saying other things that sound really nice on the track but don’t mean anything – “Zoom zoom zoom zoom zoom zoom” – and having birds chirping in the background like a Disney movie. Sometimes when we discuss Black America and our potential for future success, we get lost in pointless rhetoric. What we could do, where we could be, etc. etc. This daydream is then abruptly cut off by “Shit” as we get back to reality.
“Life can be like a box of chocolate. Quid pro quo, something for something, that’s the obvious”
Kendrick explains that real life goes differently than you might expect it to go. Kendrick’s problem is that he’s too loyal to his homies. He tries to bring them everywhere with him and he pays for everything. But he realized what this was doing to them when he took a friend to the BET awards. “My niggas thing I’m a god. Truthfully all of them spoiled, usually you’re never charged/ But something came over you once I took you to the f*cking BET Awards”
Kendrick was selling his friend a dream – The American Dream. He saw his usually calm friend get hype around all the wealth and get the desire for the American Dream in his eyes. ” Somebody told me you thinking about snatching jewelry. I should’ve listened when my grandmama said to me: Shit don’t change till you get up and wash yo ass” . Kendrick shouldn’t have assumed that just showing his friends the riches of this new life would have been enough to change their mindsets. The only thing that will change their mindset is them getting up and changing for themselves. Much like Kendrick and his friend, Black leaders (activists and rappers alike) have tried describing a promise land of Black American success and yet the State of Black America continues to be bleak. It’s going to take a more concerted effort in the hearts and minds of all of us to change Black America, not just the outliers who managed to find success in the Swindle.
Snoop Dogg utilizes a cool Slick Rick’s “A Children Story” style flow before the second verse to show that this verse is from Kendrick’s homie’s perspective. Kendrick’s homie responds to Kendrick’s embarrassment with heartbreaking reality of his institutionalization.
“Fuck am I supposed to do when I’m looking at walking licks? The constant big money talk about the mansion and foreign whips… My defense mechanism tell me to get him quickly because he got it.”
Kendrick’s friend is rationally asking Kendrick how was he not supposed to notice all the flashy things these celebrities have while he’s at the BET Awards. He admits that he planned on robbing everyone in there. He saw it more as taking from the rich and giving to the poor, Robin Hood style. “Institutionalized” is another example of how the American Dream is the American Swindle. Just like Kendrick’s friend, we live in a world where we are expected to display our success and opulence. We scroll instagram for hours just looking at folks’ passive aggressive attempts to prove that they are living the American Dream – cars, money, relationships, clothes, partying, etc. How are we not supposed to aspire to having such riches when that’s all we see all day? Institutionalization happens as quickly and as easily as signing up for any social media account.
“These Walls” picks up the poem Kendrick weaves throughout several tracks:
“I remember you was conflicted. Misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same.”
“These Walls” is about Kendrick misusing his rap celebrity influence to have sex with a woman whose man is in prison. It opens with a woman moaning so we know this is the “Poetic Justice” of the album. It’s a track for the ladies, right? Maybe not. The woman’s moaning sounds more painful than pleasurable. While my bias toward heralding Kendrick as a genius is clear, this is one of the few issues I have with Kendrick. His proclivity for taking on the perspective of people unlike himself, women specifically, is admirable. However when he takes on the perspective of a woman, he has a tendency to come from a place of pain, hurt, and turmoil. Either she’s a prostitute who might possibly have AIDS or she’s a woman who is so hurt by her man she decides to be a lesbian. It removes much of a woman’s agency and her ability to be a sexual being without conflict. However, the perspective remains a real experience for many people at some point in their lives.
“If these walls could talk they’d tell me to swim good. No boat, I float better than he would… But your flood can be misunderstood. Wall telling me they full of paint, resentment. Need someone to live in them just to relieve tension. Me? I’m just a tenant. Landlord said these walls vacant more than a minute.”
Throughout most of the song, “these walls” represent the walls of a woman’s vagina. Kendrick details how much he loves having sex with this woman. Even though he knows she is only having sex with him because she misses her man, and even though it’s wrong, she just wants to enjoy it. Although initially their sex wasn’t perfect, now he knows exactly what to do to bring her pleasure. In the final verse we see “these walls” take on the meaning of a jail cell. Kendrick now addresses the woman’s significant other. He points out all the negative aspects of this man’s life:
“If your walls could talk, they’d tell you it’s too late. Your destiny accepted your fate… Wall telling you that commisary is low, race wars happening no calling CO. No calling your mother to save you.”
Kendrick reveals the reason he’s treating this man so badly: this is the man who killed his friend Dave in the song “Sing About Me” from GKMC. So now Kendrick is misusing his influence to get revenge. But as the poem continues to tell us, “I remember you was conflicted misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power, full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in a hotel room”. Turning to revenge and sex only resulted in depression. The next track “u” opens with Kendrick screaming.
This is easily the hardest track to write about. Kendrick Lamar did something amazing here. The stigma surrounding mental health in the Black Community is repulsive. We’re not supposed to express negative sentiments. We’re not supposed to show sadness or weakness. And particularly in the context of Kendrick’s Black male narrative, hypermasculinity certainly doesn’t allow for the processing of feelings of depression. And yet, here on what will surely be one of the biggest rap albums of the year, if not the decade, we have an entire song about Black Depression.
I haven’t heard as accurate or realistic a portrayal of feelings of depression, angst, failure, fear, anxiety and the like in a minute. If you’ve never experienced depression, first of all, huge congratulations. You are resilient and of the lucky ones. If you want to take four minutes or so and really get into the mind of a depressed individual, this is the song. This is community service.
“u” opens with Kendrick literally just screaming. On an album essentially about embracing authentic Blackness, there is an appropriate representation of Black pain. Noted Black writer James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And that’s what this is. Kendrick repeats “loving you is complicated” with real frustration and you feel as though he’s looking in a mirror, he’s also talking to Black America.
“I place blame on you still. Place shame on you still. Feel like you ain’t shit. Feel like you don’t feel, confidence in yourself…”
“u” is an amazing exploration of individual and collective depression. Depression can be triggered by any number of things for individuals – poverty, a breakup, health issues, a bad grade, annoying coworker, etc. But Black Americans are collectively vulnerable to it because of the State of Black America. Kendrick gives the main reason we could hate ourselves: seeing a problem in our community and not working hard enough to fix it or, even worse, not having noticed a problem at all.
“What can I blame you for? Nigga I can name several. Situation had stopped with your little sister baking, a baby inside just a teenager where’s your patience? Where was your antennas? Where was the influence you speak of? You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her. I fucking tell you, you fucking failure: you ain’t no leader!”
Black America is infected by a host of ills – poverty, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, etc. Kendrick is angry at himself for having the celebrity influence of being able to talk to hundreds of thousands of people at a time but still not being able to reach someone close to him. At the same time, he’s talking to Black leaders. Kendrick has already established that the youth are going to lead the revolution so he’s really talking to us. Here we are with social media letting us reach hundreds of thousands of people with one viral post and yet the State of Black America is dismal. We’re misusing our influence. This source of depression – failing our own people – is unique to Black Americans.
The show Broad City on Comedy Central with Hannibal Burress touches on this idea. Hannibal plays a dentist Lincoln. When Ilana jokes that he better do a good job on her friend’s teeth, he comments “If I mess up this white girl’s teeth, the black dentistry game is over, forever. I’m gonna get these teeth for my people”.
Black Americans don’t have the luxury of failing without consequence to others. Our failures reflect our entire people. When we fail, it leaves lasting scars. When we fail, we can get depressed. And it’s hard to look at the State of Black America right now and feel pride or success when unarmed Black men and women are being killed and raped by those entrusted to uphold the law that keeps the American Dream together.
As an individual who everyday squares up against depression, I can attest that one trap of depression is the constant negative self-talk we fall into. “I never liked yo! Forever despise you! I don’t need you! The world doesn’t need you! don’t let them deceive you!”
Housekeeping interrupts this track, as Kendrick is screaming in a hotel room, per his poem. “What do I got to do to get to you?” is sung almost drunkenly, which is how many people deal with depression – alcohol.
Kendrick talks about why he’s depressed. He speaks on the guilt he feels from being on tour while his friend was shot and died. He feels as though he failed him by not being there for him. He’s also not talking to some of his friends from back home and it’s making him drink more. As he’s drowning his sorrows in alcohol, he starts to think about killing himself.
“Shoulda killed your ass a long time ago. And if those mirrors could talk it would say you gotta go. And if I told your secrets, the world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness.”
Ultimately Kendrick’s (and our) quest for the American Dream ended with depression and a path toward self-extinction. We kill our own. We drown ourselves in alcohol. We rob our neighborhoods while supporting others. And this isn’t okay.
“Alright” opens with an allusion to The Color Purple, another classic Black novel: “All my life I had to fight”. After the very heavy ‘u”, this is a perfectly placed, much needed track. “Alright” is a reassuring feel-good track. It’s also the beginning of the “looking forward” portion of the 2015 State of Black America. Kendrick can’t tell us how to improve until he tells us that our situation is fixable. Yes we’ve been through a lot. But we’re going to be okay. Black writer (and brother of Black Greek Lettered Organization Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated) Melvin B. Tolson, whose life the Oprah-produced Great Debaters film was based on, wrote in Dark Symphony,
“Out of abysses of Illiteracy,
Through labyrinths of Lies,
Across waste lands of Disease…
Out of dead-ends of Poverty,
Through wildernesses of
Across barricades of Jim Crowism
With the Peoples of the World…
The American Dream comes with terms and conditions. They said all men were free, Black Americans weren’t included in that statement. We’ve been barred from getting an education, lied to on multiple occasions (Ferguson, anyone?), given all kinds of sickness and disease, forced into a cycle of alcoholism and debt, and even still, Black America advances. We’re amazing.
“I’m fucked up. Homie you fucked up. But if God got us? Then we gon be alright!”
“Alright” also brings in the very important element of religion. Black Americans are notoriously and historically extremely deferential to religious authority. Yet even with this typical religious upbringing, self-identified Christians often live a seemingly contradictory lifestyle which is a picture that Kendrick paints extremely accurately.
” Painkillers only put me in the twilight. Where pretty pussy and Benjamin is the highlight. Now tell my mama I love her but this what I like! Lord knows!”
He lives a life of sin and he knows God knows it. He knows he can’t change it. Just as a fundamental part of Christianity is the unconditional love and forgiveness of God, Kendrick seems to be implying that Black America needs to forgive ourselves for being human.
“We been hurt, been down before. Nigga when our pride was low, looking at the world like, ‘Where do we go?’ Nigga and we hate po-po. Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure. Nigga, I’m at the preacher’s door. My knees getting weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright.”
What kind of thesis on the State of Black America would be complete without highlighting what may be the greatest issue of our time: the killing of unarmed Black men, women, and children by police officers? Michael Brown was murdered by an officer while walking home, in front of multiple witnesses. That officer went free. Eric Garner was murdered on camera by a NYPD officer and that officer went free. 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing in a park and was murdered by police officers on camera. 7-year-old Aiyana Jones was shot and killed by police officers. Her killer went free. Martese Johnson, a college student at UVA was beat until he was bloody and then shackled at the ankles because he allegedly used a fake ID. Turns out that was a lie. Protests broke out in August in Ferguson after Michael Brown and in New York after the Eric Garner murder. Times are hard. Things seem dismal. But we gon’ be alright. Kendrick Lamar and Melvin B. Tolson both herald Black America’s ability to always be down for the cause and never down for the count. And even when it seems like we’ve hit rock bottom, we’re going to be alright. We’re going to advance.
Going with the religious imagery of “Alright”, Kendrick has a talk with the Devil. Lucifer, or Lucy, is repeating the same thing that “Uncle Sam” said in “Wesley’s Theory” “What you want you? A house or a car? 40 acres and a mule? A piano? A guitar? Anything! See my name is Lucy, I’m your dog!” Kendrick knows that the love of money and the American Dream is just the Devil tempting him but he can’t say no. So he takes the things and riches and gives it to his boys. This is where the album turns from historical context and present day situation to what our future could be like. “If I got it, then you know you got it. Heaven, I can reach you. Pet dog, pet dog, pet dog, my dog, that’s all”. Kendrick is going to use his ill-gotten gains for good. The “pet dog” phrase repeated twice likely refers to Cebereus, the three-headed dog that guards hell’s gates. But he turned that beast into his bitch at the end. “My dog”. Kendrick is affirming that we don’t need to tear down the system. We might be able to succeed within it by overthrowing it.
“Alright” ends with more lines from the poem he’s been reciting.
“I remember you was conflicted. Missing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power, full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t want self destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me. So I went running for answers“.
Should we give in?
“What’s wrong, nigga? I thought you was keeping it gangsta! I thought this what you wanted! They say if you scared, go to church. But remember, he knows the bible too”
The Devil, Lucifer, is tempting Kendrick. He really wants him to fall into the trap.
Kendrick remembers going to the mall and being tempted by all the material things for sale. Lucifer tries again to tempt Kendrick with the American Dream:
“Lucy gon fill your pockets. Lucy gon move your mama out of Compton. Inside the gigantic mansion like I promised. Lucy just want your trust and loyalty. Avoiding me? It’s not so easy I’m at these functions accordingly.”
The American Dream, now personified by Lucifer, is once again offering him everything he could want or need. And even if he doesn’t want it from the Devil, tough lucky avoiding it. The Devil tells him no matter how hard he tries to avoid him, no matter how hard he prays, Kendrick is going to end up signing the contract and selling his soul anyway. Because he still wants the American Dream.
The poem continues here ” Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t wanna self destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me. So I went running for answers. Until I came home”
“Momma” is about returning home, back to your roots, after a period of being lost and trying to find yourself. It’s about getting back to our people. To our Blackness. “For Sale?” had Kendrick being tempted by the Devil. This is Kendrick getting back on track with God, or with his people. And he’s happy.
“This feeling is unmatched. This feeling is brought to you by adrenaline and good rap.”
When Kendrick released GKMC, people started to acknowledge his writing skills. He was on top of the world.
“Gambling Benjamin benefits, sinning in traffic. Spinning women in cartwheels, linen fabric on fashion. Winning in every decision. Kendrick is master that mastered it. Isn’t it lovely how menaces turned attraction?”
He got out the hood and achieved all this success. However, while most people would say Kendrick’s success is best marked by getting a plaque acknowledging that he sold many records, he views his greatest accomplishment as returning to his authentic Blackness.
Most of the lines in verse 2 start with “I know” He’s had the privilege of exploring the world and all it has to offer. He’s seen contradictions, he’s seen riches, he’s seen poverty.
“I know everything. I know Compton. I know street shit. I know shit that’s conscious. I know everything. I know lawyers, advertisement and sponsors. I know wisdom. I know bad religion. I know good karma. I know everything.”
And after all of his traveling the world and different experiences, he now knows what really matters. He knows what’s most important. “I know if I’m generous at heart, I don’t need recognition. The way I’m rewarded, well, that’s God’s decision.”
It’s clearer now what Kendrick, and Black America, need to do. Where, Kendrick returned to Compton to give back in whatever way he can in the first verse, the next verse recaps what happened when Kendrick went to Africa in 2013. He saw a kid that reminded him of himself. He looked just like him and likely had similar experiences such as being bad at home and hanging out in the street. This young Black kid acts as a voice of reason. He tells Kendrick he’s too westernized. He’s internalized the American Dream to deleterious effects.
“Kendrick you do know my language. You just forgot because of what public schools had painted… Make a new list. Of everything you thought was progress and that was bullshit. I mean your life is full of turmoil, spoiled by fantasies… If you pick destiny over rest in peace, then be an advocate. Tell your homies especially to come back home.”
Our conceptualization of the American Dream has steered us wrong. And this little Black boy is telling Kendrick that if he wants to uplift Black America, he has to get us to fall back in love with Us. The song then breaks here with “This is a world premiere” as though this is the new introduction to Blackness. The final verse details our search for ourselves. For authenticity. For happiness.
“I been looking for you my whole life. An appetite for the feeling I can barely describe. Where you reside? Is it in a woman? Is it in money? Or mankind? Tell me something. Got me losing my mind! AH!”
“I don’t give a f*ck about no politics in rap, my nigga”
Kendrick starts “Hood Politics” with a clear statement that this isn’t just about rap. Hood Politics highlights different situations with each verse. In the first, hood politics give a brief history of why gangs formed – different cultures and values. People join gangs to be safe in their own hoods and to be part of something greater. In the second verse, hood politics refers to the government and shady politics. In the third verse, hood politics refers to the rap game and fan consumption.
” They tell me it’s a new gang in town. From Compton to Congress, set tripping all around. Ain’t nothing new but a flu of new DemoCrips and ReBloodicans. Red state versus a blue state – which one you governing? They give us guns and drugs. Call us thugs.”
Hood Politics aren’t unique to the hoods of Compton and other low income areas often inhabited by Black and Hispanic Americans. Kendrick points out that the same rules that institutionalized Kendrick’s ghetto mindset, also govern America. While the two arguably most notorious gangs in America, Bloods and Crips, claim red and blue colors respectively, so do the two main political parties in America – Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Yet while people are quick to claim gang allegiance and activity is foolish and all over stupid colors, the government is essentially doing the same. It’s all the same. Members of the military and cops get guns and they’re freedom fighting heroes while Black people get guns and they’re thugs.
“Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’. Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum. Y’all priorities fucked up. Put energy in the wrong shit.”
Hood Politics in rap are equally as hypocritical. Fans claim they want “real hip hop” but won’t buy it when it gets made. Kendrick’s shoutout to Killer Mike as well as the earlier implication that the government gave the hood drugs makes me think of Killer Mike’s song “Reagan”. Kendrick and Killer Mike have both made songs about Ronald Reagan’s administration and how the American government has truly swindled Black America with no remorse.
How Much a Dollar Cost
Again, Kendrick sits us down and tells a story. “How Much a Dollar Cost” is essentially a parable. He tell us a story about when he was in South Africa and was getting gas. The lesson is from Matthew 19:24 so now he’s citing the dopest Black man alive – Jesus. Kendrick really drives home his hatred of capitalism and money with this song.
“And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” – Matthew 19:24
One day while still on his trip in South Africa, Kendrick is out driving his expensive car and stops to get gas. A homeless man asks him for some money but Kendrick assumes he’s going to spend the money on crack so he doesn’t give him any.
“A piece of crack that he wanted, I knew he was smoking. He begged and pleaded. Asked me to feed him. Twice. I didn’t believe it. Told him ‘Beat it’. Contributing money just for his pipe? I couldn’t see it.”
The homeless man replies that he actually isn’t addicted to anything and that he just wants one single bill.
The chorus here, which features James Fauntleroy absolutely floating on the track, says a dollar is cheap. What’s worth more is feeding your mind. “Water. Sun. Love. The one you love. All you need, the air you breathe.” While Kendrick is sitting in his car, the homeless man is still staring at him and he asks Kendrick if he has ever read Exodus 14. Exodus 14 details the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt only to find themselves wandering around the desert. The Israelites were mad.
They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” -Exodus 14:11-12
Kendrick draws a parallel here between the struggle the Israelites faced and the struggle of Black Americans. Black Americans, as Kendrick’s thesis has continuously provided evidence for, have been through a lot. From slaves considered property, to citizens, to academics to doctors to lawyers to politicians to even having a Black President, we’ve escaped slavery just like the Israelites. But still, even with all that progress, here we are with the 2015 State of Black America looking very, very bleak. Did we come this far just to die out by cops killing us? Or from killing ourselves? Spoiler alert: Moses came through and parted the Red Sea and the Israelites escaped. Also, all their enemies died when God closed the Sea back up.
The homeless man tells Kendrick all of this. And Kendrick is on a guilt trip. He’s mad a homeless man is pointing out that he’s living wrong. He tells him what the price of a dollar is: “I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost: the price of having a spot in Heaven. Embrace your loss. I am God.”
Kendrick had a talk with God. And he learned that money is not only is money not going to bring happiness, it’s actually going to determine his fate, and it’s not a good outcome.
Complexion (A Zulu Love)
“Dark as the midnight hour or bright as the morning sun. Brown skinned, but your blue eyes tell me your mama can’t run.”
Kendrick shines a light on the tragic history that has lead to variations in our skin color. While skin color differences are used for jokes and even romantic preferences, Kendrick reminds us that there are phenotypically white traits we have that are likely because slave masters were raping our ancestors.
Kendrick then proclaims that we should let the Willie Lynch Theory reverse a million times. The Willie Lynch letter is my favorite piece of fake literature. The myth goes that this guy Willie Lynch was a brilliant racist genius and he predicted that after slavery, Black people will still divide themselves by skin color and instagram filters. Kendrick Lamar is a genius. But I want you all to know that Willie Lynch didn’t exist. He didn’t write a letter about how to control us. Someone else wrote it and trolled us. But I feel this track, regardless.
The Blacker The Berry
I appreciate this song much more in the context of the album. When it was first released, I rejected it. “The Blacker The Berry” coupled with the statements Kendrick made about Ferguson, made me feel like Kendrick was blaming us for the current State of Black America. Kendrick Lamar commented on the killing of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson by a police officer by saying,
“What happened should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting – it starts from within.”
“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015…”
And a lot of us collectively sighed. Not Kendrick. Not the Kendrick that was supposed to lead us into the promise land of dope hip hop and self love! Why was Kendrick using the distracting rhetoric of “Black people need to respect themselves before others will respect them”? As a fan, I was disappointed. As a Black person, I was offended. As an activist, I was angered. With everything we’ve gone through, from enslavement, to questionable medical practices with Tuskeegee, to Jim Crow, to today, with all these external forces aimed at us, why is Kendrick blaming the victim?
Kendrick aligns himself with us to tell us about his hypocrisy. He’s just like us.
He knew this would be a hard pill to swallow so he makes this point very clear.
“I’m African-American. I’m African. I’m Black as the moon, heritage of small village. Pardon my residence. Came from the bottom of mankind. My hair is nappy. My dick is big. My nose is round and wide.”
After listening to “The Blacker The Berry” in the context of the album, I get it. I placed Kendrick in a box. We often create false dichotomies in Black America: Martin or Malcolm. Migos or Mos Def. You’re this or that. You can’t be both. You can’t like both. You can’t have both. So how dare he place even an ounce of culpability on Black America when we’ve ostensibly had everything thrown at us? But we can do both. We can rightfully place the blame on the American Swindle, but we have to own up to our part as well. I still fully and firmly believe that bringing up this myth of “black on black crime” is dangerously distracting rhetoric, as black on black crime and white on white crime occur at close to the same rate but I “get” what he’s saying in the context of the album.
America did this to us.
America has fought us every step of the way. Every ounce of “freedom” we’ve gotten in this country was court-mandated because we fought for it. We died for it. And we have to hold ourselves to that same standard today as we did in the “Civil Rights Era”.
“So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my bday
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging made me kill a nigga blacker than me?
You Ain’t Gotta Lie
Echoes the sentiment on Real. Comes back to confirm that you don’t need all that.
You ain’t gotta lie. Confirms that Kendrick really means what he says. Speaking to rappers who think they can’t sell by making good music. To Black Americans who think they need to be a certain way to be deemed “authentic”. Just be Black.
Asking, “where the hoes at?” to impress me. Asking, “where the moneybags?” to impress me. Say you got the burner stashed to impress me. It’s all in your head, homie. Asking “where the plug at?” to impress me. Asking “where the jug at?” to impress me You ain’t gotta lie to kick it my nigga. You ain’t gotta try so hard.
The album version of “i” (as opposed to the radio version) opens with a man shouting, “We’re bring up nobody but the number one rapper in the world! He done travelled all over the world. He came back just to give you some game!”
This is an appropriate intro for the penultimate song on the album. This is the thesis conclusion. After the historical context the thesis took us through and the update on the State of Black America, here is Kendrick telling us the moral of the story. It’s us. It’s you. It’s me. i.
“I done been through a whole lot. Trial, tribulation, but I know God. The Devil wanna put me in a bowtie. Pray that the holy water don’t go dry.”
With this, we can’t help but think of the trials Kendrick has detailed. We learned about the American Dream’s insistence on loving money from “Wesley’s Theory”. We learned about how that can negatively affect us from “For Free?”. We began to defiantly embrace our Blackness on “King Kunta”. We recognized our limitations on “Institutionalized” and “These Walls”. We tried to stay in our comfort zone. We tried using other vices. This only brought us sorrow and depression on “u”. Kendrick reassured us that Black America is going to be okay, though, with “Alright”. On “For Sale?” we still battled our demons but on “Momma” we finally came home. We got back to our Blackness. This wasn’t an easy process, though. Because we still live in America, and the politics of our situation our very real, “Hood Politics” taught us. “How Much A Dollar Cost” really hammered the point home that the American Dream’s conceptualization of “success” as “riches” is completely wrong. On “Complexion” Kendrick reminds us that our Blackness isn’t the same. We’re different. We have variations. But we still gotta love us. “The Blacker The Berry” showed us that while America really screwed us over and we’ve been through a lot, if we really love ourselves we have to take some personal responsibility and improve ourselves. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” reminded us not to fall back into the traps of the American Dream. “i” has us at peak enlightenment.
” Not on my time! Not while I’m up here! We could save that shit for the streets. We could save that shit. This for the kids bro. 2015, niggas tired of playing victim, dog… How many niggas we done lost bro? This year alone? Exactly. So we ain’t got time to waste time my nigga… I say this because I love you niggas man.”
The album version of “i” has Kendrick making these guttural “huh!” sounds. Like he’s literally at war. His flow switches from this smooth jazzy flow to a beautiful but quick pace rhythm like an expert boxer. On this version of “i”, Kendrick is appealing to his people. He’s trying to rally people. He’s trying to keep the peace. A fight breaks out on the album version, as well, and he tries to get us back together. Kendrick steps into his role as a leader of Black America.
As we work to love us, our history, our culture, our people, and also try to move forward, we’re not going to all agree on the method. We all want freedom, but we have different ways of getting there. Regardless of our path, we have a unity based in love. Kendrick goes on to speak to the people in the crowd, you and me, and the rest of Black America. He’s rapping acapella so it truly feels like a revolutionary speech. This is his rallying cry.
“I promised Dave I’d never use the phrase ‘fuck nigga’
He said, ‘Think about what you saying. ‘Fuck niggas’.
No better than Samuel on D’jango. No better than a white man with slave boats.
So ima dedicate this one verse to Oprah
On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us.
So many artists gave her an explanation to hold us.
Well this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia.
Definition: royalty, king royalty. Wait, listen.
Description: Black emperor, King, ruler. Now let me finish.
The history books overlooked the word and hide it.
America tried to make it to a house divided
The homies don’t recognize we be using it wrong.
So Ima break it down and put my game in the song
N-E-G-U-S, say it with me.
Or say no more. Black stars can come and get me.
Take it from Oprah Winfrey.
Tell her she right on time.
Kendrick Lamar, by far, the realest Negus alive.”
“As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression. And with that being said, my nigga, let me ask this question: When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?”
The last song on the album, “Mortal Man” has Kendrick asking us to keep this all in perspective. Kendrick is still human. Much like Mandela, and all the other great Blacks Kendrick draws on for this album, from Moses to Malcolm, he’s only a human. “If I’m tried in a court of law, if the industry cut me off. If the government want me dead, plant cocaine in my car. Would you judge me a drug kid or see me as K. Lamar?”
Kendrick noted on Hiiipower,
“And I want everybody to view my autopsy. So you can see exactly where the government had shot me. No conspiracy, my fate is inevitable. They play musical chairs once I’m on that pedestal”
There is a stark consequence to preaching these truths and rallying Black America toward self love. Many of the great Black people Kendrick called on in this album suffered a tragic death or were murdered. This entire album features a poem that is read to Tupac on this track, whose life was also cut short. Kendrick wants to know that if he can’t keep leading us, are we still going to appreciate what he has done.
“How many leaders you said you needed then left them for dead? Is it Moses? Is it Huey Newton or Detroit Red? I sit Martin Luther, JFK, shoot or you assassin. Is it Jackie, is it Jesse, oh I know it’s Michael Jackson. When shit hit the fan is you still a fan? That nigga gave us Billie Jean, you say he touched those kids?”
Black America, if we’re going to move forward we have to treat those who have the courage to stand up and lead with more loyalty. One of my favorite pieces I’ve ever read is by Phonte of Little Brother and the Foreign Exchange titled, “My Hero Ain’t Molest Them Bitch Ass Kids” With a title like that, you already know you’re in for a treat. Essentially, Phonte highlights the ridiculousness of the accusations against Michael Jackson. It ends with,
“I am not attempting to paint Michael Jackson as a saint, as no man ever lives up to such a lofty title. But to me, the phrase ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ seems to sum up Michael Jackson’s life more than ever. Why would people try to tear down a man who constantly used his power, money, and influence to help others? Why would people express such disgust and contempt for a man who constantly sang of love and peace and used his talent to entertain, uplift, and inspire millions? Tell them that it’s human nature, I suppose… Rest in Peace, Brother Michael”
“When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan” is about more than just being a fan of Kendrick or any other artist, however. It’s about being down for the cause. When the fight gets real, are you still going to maintain your commitment? Paul Mooney once said, “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but don’t nobody wanna be a nigga”. When it’s not glossy and pretty, are you still a fan of Black culture and people?
The track and the album ends with Kendrick reciting his poem in full to Tupac.
I remember you was conflicted. Misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power, full of resentment, resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t wanna self destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me so I went running for answers until I came home. But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt. Going back and forth trying to convince myself the stripes I earned or maybe how A1 my foundation was. But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one: a war that was based on apartheid and discrimination. Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned. The word was respect. Just because you were a different gang color than mine doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a Black man. Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets. If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us. but I don’t know. I’m no mortal man. Maybe I’m just another nigga”
Tupac tells Kendrick, “The poor people is gonna open up this whole world and swallow up the rich people. Cause the rich people gonna be so fat, they gonna be so appetizing… The poor gonna be so poor and hungry, there might be some cannibalism out this mutha, they might eat the rich.
Kendrick asks Pac, “What you think is the future for me and my generation today?” and Pac replies, “I think niggas is tired of grabbing shit out the stores and next time it’s a riot, there’s gonna be bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that. I think America think we was just playing and it’s gonna be some more playing. But it ain’t gonna be no playing. It’s gonna be murder. It’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831 up in this motherfucker. You know what I’m saying? It’s gonna happen.
Kendrick goes on to explain the butterfly metaphor: The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it. It’s only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city. The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar.
I know. This was a lot. This is my interpretation of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. I believe he laid out a thesis. I hope after reading this you’re only more interested in hearing the album again, and again, and again. After all this analysis and critique, I didn’t even touch on the samples used here, and trust they are equally as Black. From jazz to funk to hip hop, there is a story being told there as well. Future research into the album should also explore the poem and conversation with Tupac in more depth. And that album cover? Oh man. There is so much to the picture being painted by Kendrick Lamar. I don’t know it all. But I hope it sparks discussion and marks a return to truly embracing our Blackness.
These have been the rallying cries from Black America for the past few months. I Can’t Breathe, became a well known phrase more recently after the Eric Garner non-indictment. In a more just world, chants like these would sound as silly as #TheSkyIsBlue and #WaterIsWet. But sadly, we have to affirm loudly and proudly that #BlackLivesMatter.
But what does the chant even mean? Black Lives clearly don’t matter to everyone. They matter to us. They don’t matter to police. They don’t matter to the majority of White Americans. They don’t matter to lawmakers. And I don’t endeavor to change that in this post. I want to talk to us. Black Lives mattering means more than just being alive. In the words of the mixed race philosopher Aubrey Graham, “Everybody dies but not everybody lives”. I thought of this yesterday and today.
On Christmas Eve at 2am, 3am, 4am, 5am and for the rest of the day the majority of my timeline on twitter was talking about Antonio Martin. We were talking about ways to not be killed by police. We talked about why we shouldn’t have to talk about this. But regardless, we were talking about it. We didn’t have the luxury or the privilege of just tweeting MERRY CHRISTMAS EVE! Nobody was in a Christmas spirit. Nobody talked about gifts. And even those of us incredibly aware of the psychological importance of unplugging from time to time were glued to our screens while the Chief of St. Louis Police Jon Belmar continued to lie to us and display an offensive lack of empathy. We spent Christmas Eve mourning. We spent it in fear. We spent it frustrated. We spent it fatigued. We spent it on the defensive. That’s not living. That’s not life.
Black Lives mattering means happiness. As Black men and women, our happiness is revolutionary. To live proudly, happily, and without preface or apology is an act of rebellion. To declare #BlackLivesMatter and to push back on anyone who tries to say #AllLivesMatter is important. (More on that in my next post.) To declare #BlackLivesMatter means fighting for our rights even when they try to paint us as violent, angry, or ineffective.
We can fight for our rights. We can be happy. We can remember their names. We can hold several thoughts at once. Have a great Christmas and Kwanzaa everyone. But also remember that there are several families out there with gifts under the tree that will never be opened. There will always be an open place at the dinner table now. We won’t forget that. And we’re going to fight to make this stop.
I opened this document planning to recount my experience in Ferguson. And every time I look at this blank page I’m unable to write anything down. I’m a writer. I take complex ideas and make them (hopefully) easy to understand. I write professionally. I write academically. I’ve written for blogs, journals, classes, personal life, etc. And yet this has been the ultimate struggle. Part of the struggle is that going to Ferguson was an insanely complex and multi-faceted experience. You’ve seen my attempts to recap the events surrounding Ferguson with part 1 and part 2 but it would take multiple books and an HBO special to explain everything.
In this, we find ourselves lost in the complexity of the moment. We want short blurbs, live tweets, and pre-existing narratives: cops are bad, Ferguson is a war zone, we shall overcome, justice won’t be served, etc. While this struggle rhetoric may help us grasp complex situations, it’s also inherently flawed. It may be easy and accessible to conjure up images of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, lynchings, slavery, and other harsh themes such as riots, pepper spray, and fire hoses, it will also cause you to not understand the present situation. I don’t want to contribute to that.
A lot of people – from friends to professors in my department, to my landlord, to strangers on twitter – have asked me to write about my experience in Ferguson. And I tried to acquiesce these requests. But the majority of the articles I’ve read, the vlogs I’ve watched, and the podcasts I’ve listened to has become clickbait and unproductive to understanding Ferguson and moving forward. So I’m not going to write a beautiful essay about what it was like “on the ground.” I don’t want to offer you more tragedy porn to get excited. What I will do, is tell you how this has impacted me since.
Going to Ferguson on a bus of 41 other people made me reassess how I view myself as a scholar, an activist, an American, and as a human being. And I don’t say all of that to be lofty. It’s truly caused me to re-evaluate how we do this – how we do this thing called activism and how we do this thing called life.
I’ve oscillated between true depression and unbridled anger over the murder of Michael Brown, and the subsequent catastrophic infringement of human rights and destruction of the Constitution. The cover up by the police, the lies by the Chief, the bumbling idiocy of the media, and the blissful ignorance of non-Black people made for a very remarkable shift in my life.
After Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown, many people rushed into action. Vigils were held, marches were planned, funds were donated. But the people I expected to help and be at the forefront were nowhere to be found. Churches were not speaking out. Black Greek Lettered Organizations weren’t doing anything. HBCUs were silent. I think the biggest hit to my naive optimism that people who claim to care will step up, was the lack of leadership. So the first shift I want to cover, is one involving expectations.
I attended Boston University for my undergraduate degree. If I were still at BU during these events, I would not expect anyone in the administration or in the student body to step up, start a movement, or contribute significantly in any way. That’s based on my experiences there. I was there during Trayvon. I was there when our Black Dean of Students consistently remained silent about issues that concerned the Black community. BU wasn’t about to make this grand statement. And I didn’t expect them to. Expectations. But Howard University? Yeah. I had some lofty expectations there. And I won’t get into slinging mud of any kind but this is where I am. Did I expect any of the many HBCUs, Black Student Orgs, sororities and fraternities to step up? I did. Is it unfair to have higher expectations for “us” than it is for “them”? I don’t care.
This caused me to rethink all of my affiliations. Am I okay with being part of an organization that nationally has not taken part in a major movement to stop more #MikeBrown situations from happening? No, so I made sure my chapter in Boston was actively involved and got involved with my alumnae chapter here in DC. What about my school not doing what I felt was enough? I got in contact with some people who want to get involved. Etc. So while I initially was paralyzed by this super predictable shocking revelation that not everyone is down for the cause, some good talks with some good people helped me refocus that anger into a more productive response.
The second shift involved my activist ideology. I’ve gone from a person who preached civic engagement to borderline advocating for voter abstention. I’ve lost faith in the system and in our ability to be catalysts for change. I’ve lost faith in humanity after I dealt with several opportunists popping up around Ferguson (one a particularly popular twitter personality who y’all insist on constantly retweeting but that’s none of my business). The main reason I question civic engagement is because there seems to be a major distortion of what it takes to impact an unjust system. For example, let’s say we all agree that voting is the key to fixing everything. And let’s say we got 100% of people in Ferguson registered to vote. And on top of that miracle, let’s say 100% of residents came out to vote as well. In this ideal situation, who are they going to vote for?
And I’m not saying don’t vote. I’m saying in my shift as an activist, I’m questioning our so-called solutions. People want to vote and sign a petition but nobody wants the liability of real civil rights work. I know we’re not supposed to talk about Michael Brown in schools but is American History still being taught? I evoke the image of the Freedom Riders, but lay no claim to a comparison, because these people weren’t riding into the sunset happily. They were riding into dangerous terrain where they could easily have been killed. Dr. King was arrested countless times. And that guy wore a suit! (For anyone not on twitter, people like to claim if Black people dressed better we wouldn’t be treated like criminals.) Those students who sat at lunch counters? Arrested. Students protesting? Arrested. I’m not sure I believe people are as committed to the cause as twitter would have us believe.
For one, I no longer feel the ability, or the need, to compartmentalize my life. There isn’t my academic life, then my activist life. There isn’t this false dichotomy of Angela Davis by day and Rihanna by night. I’m more comfortable being this multi-faceted (seemingly) contradictory individual. I can like Chopin and Chief Keef. Drake and Dostoevsky. Dr. King and Dr. Dre. You see my point. And my absolute obsession with alliteration. Along those same lines, I feel this need to be overwhelmingly Black. In everything I do, say, even wear. When I roll around DC blasting “Fight the Power” while wearing my Hillman crewneck? That’s purposeful. All that code switching and respectability I was raised on? It just feels less necessary. Or I’m much less willing to do it. It’s exhausting. I’m gonna be me and unabashedly so. Along with my desire to be more authentically myself, I don’t even have the energy for fake interactions. You know those people you’re “cool” with but secretly can’t stand, that coworker who habitually line steps, that cop who is tailgating you because he knows he can get away with it and you’re supposed to remain calm and polite? No more. I’m not recommending this life for everyone. I’m just relaying where I am in life. I’ve ended several toxic friendships, told my coworker to chill out, and had conversations with police that wouldn’t have taken place before.
So far, those are the impacts Ferguson has had on my life. I’m trying to channel all of this into a forward moving purpose. For now, it’s been a very personal revelation and development. But the goal is always mass change and figuring out how to improve the state of affairs for us all. If you want to talk about what I saw and what went down, I’m less interested in that conversation. But if you want to talk about what it means to be an American, what it means to fight an issue in one place that is rampant in cities across America, or how effective voting really is, let’s talk. Ferguson may be the focus right now, but it can’t be the end of your life as an activist.
Here is part 2 of my thoughts surrounding the murder of Michael Brown. Not everything covered in this series is clearly related to Michael Brown but all the thoughts and events in this series came as a result of that incident. Part 1 can be found here.
This is the part most people want to know about – how the bus trip came to be and how it went. Once again, I really don’t know where to start with this. Talking about this so candidly could easily get me in trouble. (Hindsight: I just finished writing this and it’s way too long. So I split it up into several more posts about the bus trip itself.) Everyone’s been asking me, “OMG how was your trip?” like I went on vacation. So that’s been weird. If I told people I was going to visit Ground Zero in NYC nobody would ask me in that tone. And no, Mr. I Jump To Conclusions, I’m not comparing the thousands of lives lost in 9/11 to Michael Brown. But the reverence just isn’t there for Black bodies in general, and it was on display here. Which is a point I will get to later.
Michael Brown was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson. In the days that followed, twitter erupted and the news began to cover it. Again, part 1 covers this in much more detail. Petitions began to go around to get police to wear front facing cameras. The biggest one I saw had more than maybe 50 or 60 thousand signatures – started by Shaun King. Talib Kweli began retweeting him and it got bigger and bigger. Suddenly it had 200,000 signatures. Dude was legit! One interesting thing about this movement, that I covered in part 1, is that twitter really came together. Strangers were supporting strangers. That’s great. However, the downside to not having national leaders we can trust leading this movement? People pop up, claim to be down for the cause, and then aren’t. We’ll come back to that.
So here’s how and when #DCtoFerguson came to life: I see Shaun King has created an event! He is organizing a march in Ferguson NEXT SATURDAY! (Plot twist – this march never happens. We’ll cover that later.)
Drive. Walk. Fly. Crawl. Jog. Take a bus. Carpool. Just meet me in Saint Louis for a MARCH FOR JUSTICE next Saturday https://t.co/9xfuh8fY9b
It’s Friday, August 15th. 4:07pm Shaun is organizing a march for Saturday, August 23. Literally one minute later:
@ShaunKing trying to organize some folks in DC. Any suggestions on getting a bus? — Michelle Huxtable (@MichelleHux) August 15, 2014
The reason I’m highlighting that? Point number 2.
2. The Decision to Go: All Hail Rev. Dr. Michelle Huxtable
That interaction you just saw is literally all there is to the “How did you come up with this idea?” story. A one minute thought process. Ever since I organized this bus of 41 people I’ve been contacted for TV news and newspaper interviews. Someone (not one of the two I just linked to) asked how I came up with the idea of bussing. How I came up with the idea of bussing. Bussing. As if that wasn’t a staple in the fight for Civil Rights of the 60s. To go back to a lesson in Part 1: Language, can we stop calling it the Civil Rights Era. We’re still in it. We’re still fighting. So when someone in 2014 asks how I came up with the idea for bussing for civil rights, you’ll have to understand why I’m uncomfortably angry.
Let’s say I get past that, though. Maybe they phrased the question in a weird way and didn’t mean that. Maybe they meant what made me, just a 24 year old in school, decide to take on the gargantuan task of taking a bus of people down to Ferguson. But, even that is a problem. The fact that my instinctual reaction to just GO wasn’t good enough says a lot. The fact that some reporters felt the need to understand why I would go says a lot. I wish someone asked me how I felt that other people weren’t going. And this is not at all to say those of you who did not up and go to Ferguson are wrong or inferior to me. We’ll get to how useful or useless a trip to Ferguson is in a moment. I say that to say I’m not unique. I’m not special. I’m not a brave leader. I’m not an activist. Well I am. But not for that reason. I see the word activist the same as I see the word feminist. Everyone should want women and men to be equal. Everyone should want the races to be equal. It should be something everyone is. And if everyone is, why even have the label?
I’m just a concerned citizen and human being. By the time I wanted to go, tanks were firing tear gas and rubber bullets on American citizens. Yes I was pissed and literally could not sleep because of the murder of Michael Brown. But for some reason I was really upset about the fact that their constitutional rights were being trampled on and nobody seemed to care. So I was fired up. And it angered me that if the shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer didn’t evoke empathy, you “let’s take back our country” folks and the average American didn’t care about THAT? If you felt nothing during this Justice for Michael Brown movement, you need to see a doctor. That level of lack of empathy is typically aligned with psychopathy.
I wish it wasn’t strange that I cared that a Black kid was murdered by a police officer who was supposed to protect and serve. I wish it wasn’t strange that I wanted to go to Ferguson to support the protesters. I wish it wasn’t strange that I wanted to make it easy for others to go too. I wish more people didn’t feel so proud of me for doing this. I wish more people got so pissed and so fed up that they just instinctually reacted. I reacted by taking a bus. I’m reacting by typing this. I’m not done reacting. Maybe you’ll react by mobilizing your community where you are.