Navigating these times as a Black man during one of the most difficult years of my life is a challenge. But, it is in my vulnerabilities and brotherhood that I locate my humanity.
“I cry a lot, but admit to it…” Dave/Plug 2 of De La Soul, “Trying People” (2001)
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams opened up a can of worms — or better yet — the floodgates. At a press conference on May 27 of this year, Advocate Williams stood next to Eric Adams, a Brooklyn borough president who is also a former New York City police officer. Next to Advocate Williams and Adams, a bevy of other city and state elected officials were present as Advocate Williams bared his soul about the recent police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. As well, he lamented about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two white vigilantes.
Throughout his political career, Advocate Williams has always been visible and outspoken on racial and social justice issues affecting Black New Yorkers since his foray into local politics back in 2009 as member of the New York City Council. However, this time was different. The usually fiery Advocate Williams reflected a mood that was very somber as he described his personal feelings about the police killings and addressed the mental state of Black people in New York City and across America. “I’m not okay. I’m not okay today. I want to give everybody the permission today [to say] that they’re not okay. I want to give the Black community permission to say that you’re not okay. I woke up today with “what the fuck?!” I am tired. I am tired.”
It wasn’t that part of his commentary that caused an uproar of emotion inside of me. It was the 30 seconds toward the end of his speech when he yelled out to the top brass of the NYPD and their heavy-handed handling of Black New Yorkers who did not practice social distancing: “How dare you!” “People are dying!” As Advocate Williams broke down in tears and walked away from the podium, the floodgates of my emotions opened and tears streamed uncontrollably down my face.
It was the weight of the succession of those three deaths (Arbery on February 23, Taylor on March 13, Floyd on May 25) that brought the consciousness of Black America to a breaking point where the range of emotion could no longer be censored. An academic, policy-buffer figurehead explanation of Black rage was no more because even they were tired. This was typified by the live, on-screen emotional breakdown of CNN political analyst and author, Bakari Sellers when he stated: “It’s just so much pain. You get so tired … I feel like I lost my brother.”
. . . .
2020 has been one of the most difficult, polarizing and emotionally exhausting years in recent memory. Some might even refer to 2020 as a defining year of an entire generation. The effects of the events encompassing this year have impacted the entire globe.
First, it was the death of retired NBA-All Star Kobe Bryant who was not only considered one of the greatest players of his generation, but also in the entire history of the NBA. Since his 2016 retirement, Kobe Bryant became more openly social and accessible to the public. With that, society got to see a more intimate glimpse of him as a loving family man, enterprising businessman and humorous actor.
Yet, it was the tragic nature of his death — a helicopter crash into the side of a mountain in Calabasas, California that took the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and several others — that sent shockwaves around the globe. The reaction from sports fans in response to Kobe’s death was earth-shattering; it was one of the rare times where men openly wept in public spaces.
Couple Kobe’s tragic passing with the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic, that has now sent most of the world to a grinding halt, one could say that humanity has been hanging on by a thread (Note: At the time of writing of this article, jurisdictions around the world are slowly opening up certain governmental and business functions).
The information (and misinformation) and management of this virus, plus the numbers of recorded cases and deaths caused a massive reorganization of life as we currently know it. Since March, schools across America have been closed down, and teachers and students of all educational levels have had to resort to distance-based, online learning and video-conferenced graduations. Major corporations and small businesses have either temporarily cut-back their operations or have gone completely out of business creating massive unemployment numbers that have not been seen since the Great Depression.
When state governments across the country first began initiating their own quarantine methods to stem the tide of Covid-19 infections ravaging their regions, international financial markets began to spiral out of control. The cost of oil dipped below $20 a barrel, causing an energy crisis that has not been seen since the oil shock of 1983.
Bustling metropolises throughout America came to a standstill with little economic activity, except for essential businesses, services and their newly essential employees. In New York City, the transit system, also known as the lifeline of the city, became a shell of its former self. As a result, mass transit ridership in New York City fell by more than 90 percent after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “NY on PAUSE” executive order, which mandated that all non-essential workers stay home to contain the spread of the disease.
By April 13, weekday subway ridership dropped to a record low of roughly 365,000 trips from its usual 5.5 million weekday trips (Note: At the time of this article, weekday ridership has rebounded more than 150 percent, to nearly 950,000 people according to MTA officials). Wearing a mask when we leave our homes and practicing social distancing at supermarkets has become our “new normal.” Main hubs for human interaction and socialization such as places of worship, restaurants, bars, cafes, parks, and gyms have closed or scaled back their operations and many of us have been confined to our homes. The stress levels of such a colossal shift in human interaction are nearly unquantifiable
Riding the subway trains and buses during the height of this pandemic has been a harrowing experience. Plus, the headache of owning a car in NYC, pushed me to give up my 2006 Saab 9-5 last summer. So, I have been forced to take public transportation or use my Uber app for car service. Whether I’m going to visit my mother and auntie or freelancing as a substitute teacher at one of the city’s Regional Educational Centers (REC) for children of first responder-or-essential worker parents, I can clearly see the division of race and class by who’s taking mass transit.
The majority of the people riding subways and buses were (and are) Black and Brown people who have to work. Janitors, security guards, home health aides, housekeepers, cashiers, cooks, construction workers and many more serve as the economic underbelly of the Big Apple that keeps the city churning. This includes the Black and Brown men and women transit workers — engineers, conductors, bus drivers and cleaners who have also fallen victim to being infected or dying from the Coronavirus.
Another issue that was as disturbing as it was revealing was the amount of homeless people riding the trains because they had nowhere to go and justifiably refused to be housed within the homeless shelter system for fear of being infected with Covid-19. For those who grew up and/or lived within the five boroughs throughout the 1980s, the levels of homelessness I witnessed on the trains and within the subway stations were eerily reminiscent of the homeless crisis that preceded the Coronavirus pandemic.
Like then and now, it was mostly Black, homeless men. What is different this time around are the growing numbers of young, Black men under the age of 25 living on the streets. I personally witnessed young brothers sleeping on the floor in subway cars. It’s very painful to see, but is the Black man ever seen as a victim?
“They shame me when I speak about Black men and boys.” Dr. Tommy J. Curry, author of “Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, And The Dilemmas of Black Manhood”
Since the Jumaane Williams press conference speech, I have experienced a multitude of emotions around the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. First, it was a release of sadness and emotional fatigue.
Currently, my emotional state is sustained vigilance — meaning that in the midst of my range of emotions, I never relent on staying prepared. I never cried for Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Anthony Baez, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, seven-year-old Aiyana Jones, Philando Castile and Eric Garner all of whom were all murdered by the hands of law enforcement.
When West Afrikan immigrant, Amadou Diallo was killed by undercover New York City detectives back in 1999 in a hail of 41 bullets, of which he was struck by 19, I did not cry.
I was 10 years old when the NYPD murdered graffiti artist Michael Stewart in 1983. I was 11 years old when members of the same department murdered Eleanor Bumpurs in the Bronx in 1984. For their deaths, I was too young to truly conceptualize their killings and the impact of those killings within the Black community.
But, when Advocate Williams broke down in the manner he did — using the public forum as his bully pulpit — I felt that it was okay to cry, and I cried and cried for nearly one minute when I reflected upon all those names.
The conversation of Black men as victims is mainly framed in academic discourse, news shows, panel discussions/conferences and public policy measures within the purview of crime as both the perpetrator and casualty. Rarely is the Black man given a voice for his turmoil, his emotional, psychological, physical and economic well-being — or the lack thereof — as a subject and being subjected to white male, hegemonic domination.
The totality of our humanity is an afterthought, if it’s ever thought of at all. We are often viewed as emotionless robots who “must perform at all costs,” be it financially, sexually, physically, politically, or emotionally despite the global cancer that is racism. Additionally, we Black men inundate ourselves with these false narratives and expectations, which have harmful implications on our manhood, health, career outlooks and interpersonal relationships just to name a few — this also contributes to the high levels of fratricide among men in our communities.
I remember sitting on the stoop outside of one of my childhood friend’s brownstones in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. At the time, he was recalling the details of some drama between him and his child’s mother. He asked her “Do you ever think about the pressures I have to go through and still be a father to our daughter? Whether it’s a struggle to do certain things?” And her reply was “No. Never. You’ll be alright …”
So, I push against any notions that seek to devalue my experiences as a Black man in the Hells of North America: my anger, my rage, my pathologies, my insecurities, my misunderstandings, my honor, my joys and my pain — whether it be from state-sponsored violence and mass incarceration. More Black men are in prison in the United States than the total prison populations of India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined.
“Black men are often theorized as defective,” states Dr. Tommy J. Curry in his book, “Man-Not.” He continues on to say, “Because Black men are not subjects of – or in – theories emanating from their own experience, they are often conceptualized as the threats others fear them to be. This fear has been used to legitimize thinking of Black males as degraded and deficient men who compensate for their lack of manhood through deviance and violence.”
This sentiment was evident when I was conversing with my old friend Erick Spencer, who recalled an encounter he had with a white woman on the street.
“I said good morning to her, and she said nothing as she avoided me on the sidewalk with a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and protest sign,” said Erick. “Beware of people using your misfortune and cause for their own agenda.”
Across the US and in the United Kingdom, there has been an underreporting of the impact of Covid-19 on Black men. On May 9, on WDSU News in New Orleans, Louisiana reported the staggering loss of older Black men to the Coronavirus. “Black men over 40 accounted for nearly half of the city’s deaths linked to COVID-19, newly released data from the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office show,” the article stated.
The article went on to say, “Of the 461 people whose deaths are COVID-19 related, black males make up 43% of the deaths but 28% of the city’s population, based on 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data. Out of 200 deaths among black men, 97% were over 40.”
The Independent in Great Britain reported comparable numbers as well. A June article written by Adam Forest titled “Black men suffer highest coronavirus death rate in UK, government figures show” stated “The mortality rate involving Covid-19 from March to mid-May was highest among black men, at 255 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It was lowest among white men, at 87 deaths per 100,000.” These statistics reveal a stark reality that black men are dying at an alarming rate and rarely receive mercy and understanding.
Honor thy . . . brothers
My older brother Troy passed away on April 1. Not from the complications of Coronavirus, but, unfortunately, he may have been included as a Covid-19 death.
He was one of the many men I looked up to as a teenager in 1980s New York. He had his own struggles with periods of incarceration and being a family man. His example was one of many that I was impressed by and grasped onto amongst a bevy of sports figures, educators, Black nationalists, Muslim men and leaders, “the gods” or brothers of the 5 Percent Nation, rappers, hustlers, therapists, boosters and leaders of street crews, uncles, older cousins and homies on the block, as well as my dad.
This is the perfectly imperfect range of Black male humanity that is not often displayed to the world. How many times have we cried under duress or are allowed a release that doesn’t involve the striking of a whip, a police baton, a gunshot wound or eight minutes and forty-six seconds of a police kneeling on the neck of a Black man who literally cries for his mother?
The same day I cried with Advocate Williams, I cried a couple of hours later on Facebook as I read a post from my friend: poet, artist and activist, Tai Allen. I was recounting my experience as a young member of the Fruit of Islam at Muhammad’s Mosque #7 in Harlem (FOI), and the police standoff that took place in January 1994.
I’ve told the story a couple of times to confidants with pride over the years, but this time was different because in my retelling of the story, I was hit with the fragility of life. Black life. Black male life. The brothers put their lives on the line to protect the mosque, its occupants and the principles that it stood on. There were physical altercations that occurred between police officers and the FOI, but bullets from weapons were never discharged.
It was in that moment of remembrance that I broke down and cried. People could have died on both sides. I could have died. And I had the same teary-eyed response in sharing that encounter in a visit to my aunt, as well as another encounter with my 12-year-old son and his mother. They all consoled me. It was cathartic.
Currently, I stare at a flyer pinned on my wall that has a picture of Assata Shakur on top. Along with it are the names and faces of political prisoners, former members of the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, the Republic of New Afrika and many more — all of these faces are of Black men.
Assata Shakur is in Cuba with the help of Black men. Yet, as I am looking at the faces of Imam Jamil Al-Amin, Jalil Muntaqim, (Tupac Shakur’s stepfather) Mutulu Shakur, Kamau Sadiki on this flyer, I wonder where is the massive outrage for them? Where are the protests? Where are the tears? It seems that people become “woke, social justice warriors” when Black men are dead, or portrayed as “oppressors.” But rarely are we ever … human.
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