Black Boy, 2013

One of my boys is reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy for his English class this coming semester.

One of my sons has already read the book, and in a couple of years my daughter will read it. They will see that it was published in 1945, closing in on seventy years ago. They will see how hard it was to be a black boy in the United States back in 1945.

I was never assigned Black Boy in school. As a matter of fact I cannot remember being assigned a single black writer until I took an African American Literature elective in college. I was raised in a place that was not only lily-white, but white with a red neck. Black people did not willingly venture up the Elk River.

In an autobiographical sketch, Wright speaks of the “dread of being caught alone upon the streets in white neighborhoods after the sun has set.” He says, “While white strangers may be in these neighborhoods trying to get home, they can pass unmolested. But the color of a Negro’s skin… makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”

That’s what it was like for a black boy back in 1945.

In 1955 a black boy named Emit Till from Chicago made the mistake of whistling at a pretty white woman in Mississippi. White men dragged him from his cousin’s house in the middle of the night, strung him up in a barn, beat him, and gouged out one of his eyes. He was defiant, cursed the white men who tortured him. So they shot him dead, tied a seventy-pound fan to his neck with barbed wire, and threw his carcass into the river.

That’s what it was like for a black boy in 1955.

In the early nineties I attended a conservative Evangelical school in Virginia. More Koreans—actually from South Korea—were present than African Americans. I became pretty good friends with two black students in particular. One was from Nigeria. The other was from here in the US. His name was Hiawatha.

I wanted to understand Hiawatha’s experience of the world, and he was happy to try and show me. He told me to watch how people reacted to him, and I did, hanging back so that the reactions wouldn’t be mitigated by his being with a white guy. Indeed people gave him nervous glances in convenience stores. The young white girls at school gave him wide nervous berth in the hallways. I was astonished. Hiawatha shrugged it off in weary resignation. He wasn’t suggesting activism; he just wanted me to know.

Hiawatha was appointed president of the graduate student body after the elected president was deemed unfit to serve (a whole different set of issues). A charismatic presence, Hiawatha was invited to speak all over the south. He was extended an offer to come on staff at the seminary after graduation.

We discussed it, and he eventually said to me, “I don’t want to be their token black.”

I said, “What are you talking about? They love you over there.”

“Yeah?” he said. “Let me try to date one of their daughters.”

What would it be like to live your entire life with this? I don’t know. I think of the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

That’s what it was like in 1993 for an educated, well-dressed, well-spoken black man. Twenty years ago.

After the man who shot the black boy recently was acquitted, a young man named Matthew Simmermon-Gomes blogged with barely-suppressed outrage that he knew, “what it’s like to be a Trayvon Martin. To be suspect. I do know what it’s like to be followed by staff in a nice clothing store; to be stopped by police for walking down the street; to endure the thousand micro-aggressions and the hundred fearful looks.” In short, he knows, “what it is to be a person of colour in a world that privileges whiteness.”

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Roots drummer and Jimmy Fallon bandleader) blogged, “the overallmessage this whole Trayvon case has taught me: You ain’t shit. That’s the lesson I took from this case. You ain’t shit.”

That’s what it’s like in 2013.

The majority of the people where I grew up, and a large percentage of my family and acquaintances from my past there, are vehement in their justification of the man who shot the black boy. They just as vehemently insist that it isn’t really about race. It is about their right to carry guns, to be free to protect themselves. In some mysterious way it is about being a good American.

I want to shout, I want to argue. I want to delete them. I know that there has been an ocean of ink spilled on this already, and many people are sick of it. But I can’t get rid of this sick feeling in my heart every time I see something else about the case. I feel like I need to speak about it to those people who come from the same white place I did; then I think I know the one thing I can confidently say to them.

In his post, Mr. Simmermon-Gomes said that what he wanted white people to understand is that, “This is not about you.”

He is right.

What I have to say is just this: Shut up. Black boys are trying to tell you something, have been for a very long time. Shut up and listen.

Vic Sizemore earned his MFA in fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. His fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, PANK Magazine, Pembroke, Saint Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and elsewhere. An excerpt from his novel The Calling was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Award; other excerpts from The Calling are published in Portland Review and are forthcoming serially in Connecticut Review. His short story “Hush Little Baby” won the 28th New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction. Sizemore teaches at Central Virginia Community College.

  • K W

    Thank you for this. I appreciate your directness, your earnest desire to listen to what we’re being told by voices that have been historically silenced. Americans pride ourselves that in our country, people of all religions, races, ethnicities, sexes, and ages can speak; we have fought and continue to fight for those freedoms. There’s a difference, though, between institutions and individuals that encourage free speech and ones that actually listen to perspectives that might otherwise be foreign to their own personal experience. There are historically silenced voices that need to be not only articulated but heard, not only heard, but listened to. May we all be better listeners.

  • Maureen

    Do you know the late poet Jake Adam York’s series dedicated to the memories of the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement? I’ve been re-reading the collections (“Persons Unknown”, “A Murmuration of Starlings”, “Murder Ballads”). The poems are terrific, and speak so eloquently to the issues you address in your post today.

    “Shut up and listen.” And also read.

  • UWIR

    Shut up and listen? No. Just because you’re a member of a minority doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want and no one is allowed to disagree with you.

    a white-passing man with a white name would be found guilty of murdering an unarmed teenaged boy for no other reason than his race and his hoodie

    Zimmerman did not murder Martin, and he did not kill him “for no other reason than his race and his hoodie”. That’s just utter nonsense. If race relations are to advance, a bare minimum is that black people are not allowed to say whatever malarkey they want without being called on it, because no one wants to be called racist.

    Our hopes for a world where our voices would be heard were dashed.

    How in the world can Simmermon-Gomes claim that their voices were not heard? This has been a major news story for months. The president of the United States has commented on it on multiple occasions. A prosecutor filed charges on incredibly flimsy evidence just to appease protestors. Apparently, Simmermon-Gomes is incapable of distinguishing between one’s voice being heard, and one’s voice being obeyed. Sorry Simmermon-Gomes, you are not Dictator of the World.

    If the police were blind, maybe they would have charged a man who shot dead a 17 year old boy before mass protests forced them. If Lady Justice removed her blindfold maybe she would have seen that her scales were weighted against Trayvon Martin from his first breath.

    It takes breath-taking hypocrisy to coerce a prosecutor to pursue legally unjustified charges simply out of fear of mobs, and then claim that you have the scales weighted against you.

    Maybe she would have known that by refusing to see the racial dynamics of the case before her, she was blinding herself to the very substance of the case.

    The substance of a murder case is whether the defendant is guilty of murder. It is not whether the defendant is racist. Does Simmermon-Gomes really not get that? Does he think that criminal cases should come down to whether the defendant is a “good person” or not, and not whether the defendant is actually guilty of the crime? Simmermon-Gomes is presenting apologia for demagogy and mod rule: force charges to be filed by intimidating the government with mobs verging on riots, and insist that defendants be judged according to the court of public opinion.

    For a few short seconds all eyes turned upon a racially motivated crime

    Did Zimmerman follow Martin for racist reasons? Quite likely. But following someone is not a crime. The shooting was not racially motivated, and it wasn’t a crime, either.

    upon a black boy killed for blackness itself.

    That is unalloyed libel.

    But now the world has turned away because the court has comfortably ruled that blackness really is threatening

    The court was not asked to rule of whether blackness is threatening. The court was asked to rule on whether Martin pushed Zimmerman to the ground and started punching him, and if so, whether that is threatening. Why does Simmermon-Gomes have to resort to outright lies?

    I’ve brought all my eloquence to bear and had a friend copy-edit my words because I know all too well the lesson we all learned from Rachel Jeantel: that black speech is suspect and blacks who speack publically on race represent us all.

    Seriously? As cheap as it normally is to take shots at someone’s spelling, when someone goes to the trouble of claiming to have had the piece copy-edited, and then immediately proceeds to misspell “speak” and “publicly”, I think that that is rather notable. I mean, this should have been caught by any spell-checker. How could this possibly have gotten through this alleged copy-editor?

    In spite of that I’ve spoken only for myself

    Bullshit. The very second sentence of this piece starts:

    “Like many, many people within and without the black community, I followed this case intently…”

    Later, Simmermon-Gomes says:

    “On the night he was killed, Trayvon Martin was dressed in a way that does not please you.”

    So, not only does Simmermon-Gomes speak for black people, he also speaks for white people.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I am the whitest of the white girls and I married a black man. I have learned that to shut up and listen is the only and the hardest thing in the world for us white folks to do. Clearly, I am not prejudiced, but I can hardly explain how much it hurt to finally stop arguing with my husband when race came up and just listen. Sometimes the things he said made me cry and I wanted nothing more than to argue that he was wrong, was looking at it all skewed, being unfair, etc. But 20 years of watching how he gets treated, how hard he’s worked for so little, the jobs lost, the rejection, the fear, the harassment forced me to stop arguing and just listen. He has a right to speak on the subject that I simply haven’t earned. And the more I let go of being defensive and just listen, the more I realize how delusional I and every other white person who thought they knew better than a black person what race means in this country. It’s hard but true:shut up and listen. It’s not about you.

    • Caroline

      Rebecca– It’s Caroline Nina from the Rod Dreher blog. You have been missed there, and it is so wonderful to see your good words here. You have been missed!

      • Rebecca Trotter

        Hey, Caroline! Fancy meeting you here. It’s kind of you to say I’ve been missed. I just couldn’t take Rod’s willful obtuseness anymore I’m afraid. I do have a blog if you’d ever want to check it out. It’s mostly religion and spirituality: http://www.theupsidedownworld.com


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