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What It Means To Be Black

1839 staff writer Brandon Small considers the high price of integration and what it means to be Black.
Ferguson marching (photo by Jamelle Bouie)

We are lower grades, we are smaller numbers, we are arrested more, we are “are you the first person in your family to go to college?”, we are “you don’t sound black,” we are “your hair feels like a sheep,” we are guilty before proven innocent, we are negroes, we are niggas, we are black.

Price of a college education: $132,888. Price of 4 years of room and board: $40,400. Price of textbooks for 8 semesters: $4,800.

Elizabeth Eckford

Elizabeth Eckford

Little Rock, Arkansas; 1957

i.

Elizabeth Eckford was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

I stepped off of the bus with a light jump just as a sudden gust of warm air sailed through the space around me. Today was my first day at Little Rock Central High – a previously all-white high school. For the occasion, I had spent weeks making my dress. It was originally only supposed to take a couple of days, but then I thought, why not add some checkered print trim? Why not hem the waist a little higher than usual? The project grew in time; I barely managed to finish the night before.

But even so, I finished and I looked good. I turned the corner near the school with a flamboyant flair, my too-big sunglasses barely managing to hold on to my ears. I stopped for a moment to collect myself but realized first that the National Guard had blocked all entrances to the school. Another student walked up to the guards and they let her through with barely a glance. I shrugged. They must be keeping the press out so that we can all get along with the school day. I smiled to myself…and my mother had said that this could be hard.

I walked up to the guards and lowered my sunglasses to the tip of my nose. I smiled but before I could speak, they crossed rifles, completely barring the entrance. I nodded. They must want me to go to the front entrance. I turned quickly and padded towards the front of the building. There I found cars, more guards, and a large mob of angry-looking white people.

“It was only then that I realized that they were barring me, that I wouldn’t go to school.”

As soon as they noticed me, it was as if someone popped a balloon. The voices, bodies and lights all flew in around me. I gripped my notebook for protection and turned to the safest place I knew in the immediate area.

Voices began to crawl out from the once-silent crowd.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Go back to the jungle!”

“Get out of my school, negro!”

I sat at the bus stop while the mob mercilessly yelled and threw insults my way. After a moment, I shut my eyes and prayed. I prayed to God that He would make me deaf for just a moment so that I could get a second of rest. I prayed to God to somehow fly me home and away from all of these devils. I prayed to God that I would never have to step foot at Central High School ever again.

Price of integration: years of emotional turmoil leading to multiple suicide attempts and a lifetime of posttraumatic stress.

~

The Little Rock 9 fought for us to have the same education as our white peers. They fought for us to be taken out of underfunded schools that only pretended to offer equal education. They fought for us to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, businesspeople, and politicians. I wonder, then, why I can’t get an A in Chemistry. Why do I hand things in late? Why am I still doing worse than my white peers?

Price of integration: pressure to do well in a system that assumes you’ll do badly.

I beat myself up for not doing better, for not making sure that Elizabeth Eckford’s emotional sacrifice was not in vain, for not validating my parents’ move from their comfortable island to this American fortress so that I could have more opportunities, for not getting an a 4.0, for not getting that scholarship.

“Somewhere along the line, [staying at Central High] became an obligation. I realized that what we were doing was not for ourselves,” said Elizabeth Eckford. She was right; she was doing it for her parents, for her siblings, for black children across America, and for black people who had not yet been born. She was doing it for us. Are we then not obligated to do well? Sometimes I wonder: Am I doing this for myself or because I feel as if I need to? Do I need to spend my life validating Eckford’s sacrifice and proving old, white men wrong?

Price of integration: self-doubt.

Actually – fuck old, white men. I don’t care what they think of me. I refuse to think of myself as some sort of product of an equation that they wrote. I don’t exist to please them and fit their archetype of an ideal black man. I am who I am, faults and all. I am not a monkey that must disguise itself as a human. I am not a monster that must be tamed. I am not your target practice.

Result of integration: self-awareness and the drive to change things for the better.

Ferguson demonstrator

Ferguson demonstrator (photo by Jamelle Bouie)

Ferguson, Missouri; 2015

ii.

Do you feel the electricity buzzing through the air, dancing across your coconut-oiled hair and skin, jumping through your racing heart, filling your aching soul with meaning and purpose? That’s the feeling of revolution – of change pulling at your being so hard that you can feel it all around you.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all white men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

At any given moment, I am 21 times more likely than whites to be a victim of police brutality. One moment, I could be jaywalking across Fifth – late to class as usual – the next moment, face-down in a pile of Pittsburgh slush. If I’m lucky, I’ll be read my Miranda rights. If I’m lucky, I’ll still be alive.

What a privilege it must be to not need luck to jaywalk.

We can’t keep living like second-class citizens, we can’t keep living with the constant fear of death, we can’t keep living under a giant, white thumb. We are tired. We are out of Little Rock 9s and Harriet Tubmans and Martin Luther Kings. We have no more great people to sacrifice. We have shed enough blood for this land, and we intend to spill no more. We are done, and now it’s time to ask:

Who do you protect?

“No justice!” I bellow at the top of my lungs. My throat hurts, my hands are cold, and snow has melted inside of my boots. I am miserable, close to tears. I am angry, close to seeing red.

“No peace!” reply hundreds. Chills run down the left side of my face, crawl over my shoulder, hop across my spine, and slither down to my snow-soaked feet. A man stares at me from the window of the dingy, Oakland Five Guys, a large cheeseburger dripping oil into his hands. He looks confused for a moment but catches site of the “Black Lives Matter” signs. A shadow passes over his face. He carefully wraps up his burger and steps outside to join us. My neurons fire endlessly, too excited to stop. There are hundreds of people standing with me in the gloomy, wet cold of Pittsburgh winter because they believe that black lives matter.

When people who look too much like me start dropping like golden apples from the oldest tree in the world, I worry. I see a man who murdered a child over Skittles and iced tea get off without even a slap on the wrist. I see videos of people being choked to death even as they yell, “I CAN’T BREATHE!” I see these images and these videos and I hear these words and these lies and it makes me really wonder: Does my life matter?

“No justice!” I scream again, this time tasting blood in the back of my throat. I touch my friend Bemma and tap my throat twice, our way of saying, I need a break. She nods and looks away quickly. I can see the tears in her eyes despite the darkness. The glow from the candles that surround us and the flashing police lights down the street catch the water that trembles on the surface of her eyes. For a moment, I can see every single molecule in them–the water, the salt, the proteins, the hormones. And I can see the essence of the tears–the anger, awe, courage, despair, the overwhelming amount of compassion, all mixed together, continuously dancing in her eyes in ways I never could have imagined.

“No justice!” she roars.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Blacks are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Beauty, Passion, and the Pursuit of Change.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lipps Page, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lipps Page, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway

Harlem, New York; 2015

iii.

Black people have this unique ability to thrive even when being oppressed. Yes, we’re more likely to die and be killed. Yes, we’re more likely to drop out of school and get convicted for drug use. Yes, we’re more likely to suffer from a host of various diseases. But, despite all that, we live. No – we prosper. From the ashes of our pain and love, an unstoppable phoenix rises. It can breathe fire, sing lullabies, and say, “I love you” all in the same breath. Its tears heal the deepest scars and destroy the deadliest of cancers. Its feathers can tip over an elephant with a single touch. It is electric and magical and unstoppable.

Throw us all into a shitty part of the city and you’ll get a renaissance. We will always survive.
Try as they might to dispose of our physical bodies, our spirits only grow stronger. They dance together in the sky and around us, inspiring us with their limitless wisdom and energy. Throw us all into a shitty part of the city and you’ll get a renaissance. Our ideas will mix, our hearts will grow, and our minds will wander to places that theirs have never even felt.

We speak in dialects and poetic vernacular that only our streets can speak. We cover the walls with colors and symbols that only our eyes can see. We are the most exclusive club in town – V.I.B.P. only.

Try as they might to suck away our humanity with insults, to stop us from going to school, to stop us from living, from jaywalking, from wearing hoodies, from having things in our pockets – try as they might to stop us from being Black, we will always survive. We are fighters and warriors and people who just can’t give up. We are humans with needs and desires and dreams and fears. We are Kings. We are Queens. We are Black.

About the Author

Brandon Small is currently a senior Microbiology major at the University of Pittsburgh. He is an aspiring doctor and human rights activist.

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