Black is the color of Mike Brown’s 292-pound, 6 foot 4 tall, strong-boned-yet-still-too-fragile-for-the-impact-of-six (or possibly more)-bullets-in-his-now-dead body.
It is the color of my father’s hands, shifty and shaking, reaching for his driver’s license and registration in the glove compartment, as the waiting police officer’s gaze burns shame into the bowed heads of me and my small friend in the backseat of the brand new car like iron-branding marks, reminding us of ancestral betrayals and ancient humiliations. Still too familiar, too close, despite the centuries and the generations that separate us from their legacy in those tense moments. We sit there huddled and ashamed, frozen, like resigned criminals, with our breaths and hands held tight, as Father goes on to sign his non-American name on the dotted lines of the faded pink speeding ticket we know he does not deserve—as if to underline his disgrace, as if to mark ownership of his shame.
A pitch-dark sludge of tar-like silence drips down on us all the way home, with the loud, proudly African music from the stereo now turned off and Dad refusing to take his eyes away from straight ahead of him at the windshield even once—even as I desperately try to catch his eyes in the rearview mirror to let him know, quietly, that I am old enough to tell what’s happened, that I am on his side, and that I still respect him—in spite of the way his hands were shaking so awfully, and in spite of the cruel, sharp stench of his fear accumulating all around us as the police officer had interrogated him, making him appear somehow even physically smaller right before our eyes, with each uttering of the word “boy” in reference to him—with each skeptical glance at the car’s fresh paint and brand-name model.
Later on, Black is the color of third-grade theater audition anxiety, when I stand in front of the judges and passionately recite, stanza by stanza, the selected lines for the part of Juliet, my dream role. Finally, a chance to prove them wrong about my status as dumb new foreigner—a chance to show them just how wrong they’ve been about me this entire time. Five days afterward, Black follows me home like a greying cloud when the casting results are handed out and there is a small note in my backpack from the drama teacher telling me that they loved the audition but that I just don’t “fit the part,” and would I mind playing the role of the apothecary instead?
Cue warm, fat tears and hours spent tugging at my hair in the mirror, wishing it were straighter—wishing it could belong to someone else.
Black thrust me into a narrative of long suffering—a history of personal struggles.
Black has tucked me in after long days spent overcompensating for who I am, and bathed my feet after months spent trying to outrun her twisted legacy and the societal perceptions that have limbs far more powerful, more swift, than the legs of my individual achievements alone.
Black caressed me in her churches and her buildings when no one else would take me in.
Black taught me to be careful—to look both ways when crossing the streets of apparent progress—lest someone come and drag you back to the depths of your old ranks in an instant, lest someone run up in front of you to force a mirror toward your face and remind you:
Black is still black.
For once you are born black, there is no growing up—only growing in. Every year you are encouraged to retreat more and more into yourself and apart from the light of first-classed civilization until you are indeed so dark you are nearly invisible, when at last you are finally sterile and safe for the rest of society. But only after you have thoroughly been muted down, pegged a few notches below the normal assuredness, and dimmed to your least vibrant of settings, transforming into a less threatening shade of yourself in each potentially dangerous situation in exchange for a more pleasant experience of subjugation at best—in exchange for the right to stay living at worst.
Black is a nation 20 years past apartheid yet still decades from equality; it is voting along party lines, not communal benefits; it’s half a lifetime’s worth of jail time for a crime you never committed except through birth; it’s watching your entire village be ravaged in three weeks by a disease whose cure is still so foreign to people like you: black as the night sky in the loneliest of African deserts—in the prism of day-to-day life with skin the color of “outsider.”
It is startled, fallen, shaking Mike Brown at the edge of death; shot one time too many by the hands of an enemy as old as dirt, as dark as time, more dangerous than even the stark white grip of Darren Wilson’s cold hand on the trigger:
Black is knowing this should not be my story to anguish over, my pain to emphasize, knowing that some forms of grief are collective and raw and persistent, knowing that the alternative to being gunned down isn’t living freely but living quietly, never crossing the wrong stars and finding yourself in the wrong place or the wrong time at one of destiny’s many not-so-color-blind crossroads. Like the grief-stricken paths of a thousand frozen black mothers, clutching prayer beads and tissue papers tonight, remembering the small dimple, the crooked smile, the tender brow of a child whose fate was aligned with a million crashing black asteroids of inevitable destruction, of final torment, from a bullet too strong, too determined, to be deterred by the power of maternal pleading or unwavering belief in the divine alone.
And Black is still black.
Black is in the silence. It is the distanced, detached responses from all those at this University who have not seen the things so many of us have seen, who refuse to be reminded about how Mississippi is still burning; how we are still fleeing from our civil-war legacies in Brooklyn and in Compton, in Chicago and in Detroit; how South Africa is still aching from the weight of upholding its feigned progress; how neglecting the spread of preventable diseases is still a form of genocide; and how Ferguson, Missouri is just a bursting microcosm of the ailments replicated all over our society—all over our campuses.
Black is the rising smoke from a burning police car during post-verdict riots in Ferguson. The rioting is our catharsis. It is the pressure-cooked manifestation of all our slow-brewing but now wildly seething anger. It is the phenotypic evidence of our inherited black rage, a rage that has been floating in us all along, just beneath our whitewashed smiles to you on the other side of our gentrified streets, building up in us all these times we have had to bristle in silence and cower in small corners when the steep, astronomically taxing cost of injustice strikes us again and forces us once more to remember, to remember the names and faces of all the ones that have come before this:
Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Timothy Russell. Tyisha Miller. Patrick Dorismond. Alonzo Ashley. Wendell Allen. Yvette Smith. Ronald Madison. Victor Steen. James Brissette. Tarika Wilson. Aiyana Jones.
Too soon to forget their names.
Too soon to forget the reality of the countless others whose bodies are never recovered, whose memorials are never held, who rot to slow deaths in the cells of a prison-industrial complex as sprawling and glittering with shame as the majestic shadows of the towering plantations of the Deep South—just a few short centuries, a few long sufferings, from the headlines we mourn today.
Black is the sound of my heavy heart, still beating: resilient and marching forward—onwards.
For Malcolm, for Martin, for Michael…
For the millions who have disappeared in our history books, our news coverage, and our memories.
And, lastly, for the precious child I hope will read these words one day and know with certainty that her mother, like the rest of her people, may at times appear battered, fallen, and broken beyond repair—
But we shall
Nina Katemauswa is a third-year in the College majoring in philosophy and political science.