“The minute they see me, fear me, I’m the epitome–a public enemy…” Chuck-D of legendary rap group Public Enemy, “Don’t Believe the Hype,” circa 1988
Since 1619, Black people have been seen and yet unseen, heard and yet unheard, in what has become known as the United States of America.
The very fact that Europeans under the authority of crown and the church thought nothing of buying human beings in Africa, and beating, raping, and placing them in chains for a long and arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to lives of perpetual servitude in the Western Hemisphere remains one of the greatest crimes against humanity in recorded history. These very acts were the first example of being seen and unseen, heard and unheard, as the goal of profits in the misnamed “New World” meant far more than the bloodied bodies, the screams of the whipped and the ravaged, and the cries of men, women, and children torn from their homes to serve at the whimsical pleasures of evil men and women; evil people sailing under the sign of the Cross…evil people who swore allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Those evil people were classic examples of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” ones whose perception of who they were–and who those enslaved Africans were–ran contrary to the reality of humanity that existed within the same. As the character Socrates avers of the prisoners in the cave, “From the beginning people like this have never managed, whether on their own or with the help by others, to see anything besides the shadows that are [continually] projected on the wall opposite them by the glow of the fire.”
To this very day, the overwhelming majority of the descendants of early European colonial slave owners–and their racial kinsmen who may have never owned any slaves but who benefited from the false reality of a racial hierarchal construct that elevated whites above all others, especially Blacks, are still blinded like the prisoners in Plato’s cave to the one universal truth–that we are all human beings worthy of respect and justice under the law.
Black people in these United States have never received respect and justice because it took white willful blindness to enslave fellow human beings, to sell them along with livestock and horses, to treat them worse than their precious dogs, to work them harder than oxen, to lynch them on a whim, and to defile them from Monday to Saturday–and then wake up on Sunday praising God in houses of worship. Even after 256 years of enslavement that ended after a bloody Civil War, the 12 short years of Reconstruction that followed–and the ability for Northern and Southern whites to “Compromise” in 1877 and leave newly freed Blacks to the whims of angry former rebels–remains a stain on the Union victory. Formerly rebellious whites, I remind, who soon established Jim Crow “Black Code” laws that were far more insidious and Draconian than the old slave codes–laws that allowed many historians to conclude that while the North won the Civil War, that the South won the peace as segregation, degradation, rape, lynching, and usurpation of Black rights became the written law of the land until as late as 1968, and the unwritten custom to this very day as we see the 2020 justice system remaining separate, unequal, and tilted in favor of whites over all other races–especially Blacks.
Such is why many of these descendants of Europeans can listen to Prince and Michael Jackson, dream of being “Like Mike” all over again after watching “The Last Dance” and reminiscing of the 90s era Chicago Bulls, or even have voted for Barack Obama–and never realize or admit the racial animus if not outright racist sentiments that are deep within themselves. The types who may have never said the “N-word” in private, but who believe the the stereotypical tropes of the lazy, shiftless, ignorant, mendacious, criminally pre-disposed Black person are lies that remain one of the relics of old school racism in America. Such is how many whites can even call their Black schoolmates, colleagues, or lovers “friends,” all the while never reconciling the fact that they do not see our humanity; a blindness that is truly palpable when an unarmed Black man, woman, or child is slain by a police officer or vigilante claiming that they feared for their lives. Such is why large Black men like Eric Garner or George Floyd can have the life squeezed out of their bodies by cops who assume that surely this big, black buck can take my choke hold or knee in his neck until I am satisfied that he is not a threat–even while cuffed. Or how the white doctor or nurse can assume that surely these strong and athletic Blacks can withstand whatever pain or sickness they have without adequate medical care or pain management.
And trust, there is a level of white fear I say, a fear that stems from knowing how much evil has been propagated upon Blacks by whites in America and wondering when, oh when, will the chickens finally come home to roost? The thought that some have that surely these Black people cannot remain this meek, this docile, this forgiving forever, can they?
My people suffer and die in America because as the great Ralph Ellison once inscribed, we are invisible to the powers that be here…as Ellison wrote, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Indeed, from Plato in antiquity to Ellison in the modern epoch, one’s perception determines the greater reality. So Praying, forgiving, and begging inhumane and savagely racist whites to perceive the humanity in Black people is not enough; with a nod to the Latin idiom “Ora et Labora,” or “pray and work,” after we get up off of our knees, we have to work with all that we have to dismantle systemic racism once and for all. We have to vote, we have to show up en masse at executive, legislative and judicial branch functions, and we have to demand our rights each and every day of every week of every year to perfect this so-called Union and to ensure that those rights that are guaranteed on paper are not mere shadows on a page, but a reality with substance and based in the only universal truth that I know, which is that race is an artificial construct begun by evil Europeans to subjugate non-Europeans worldwide, and it is time for those old colonial truths to vanish along with the lies that made them pertinent for far too long.