In response to recent events (e.g., Mizzou, Kenya, Beirut, Paris), John S. Blake reminds us that all of humanity is one collective body.
I prayed. I couldn’t stop the tears after scrolling social media. I closed my eyes. I haven’t prayed in years. Not sincerely. Not since I begged whatever was there for bail money. Not since I was in the Army pleading that I never had to squeeze the trigger for anything other than a black, rubber practice target. I considered the size of the universe, compared to the speck I am, and suddenly remembered I couldn’t possibly have created myself. Christians would agree. So would Jews. So would Muslims. See what happens when I pray? I am reconnected to everyone, even those that don’t pray. Atheists hope too. Agnostics have faith. Wiccans understand that nature needs no one’s permission.
I remember—more than the fact that I am human—every loving gesture and courageous act, each a dreaming drop of blood sharing one spiritual machine. Humanity is a body. I am only one cell of an entire body. Bullets and bombs are stabbings along our one collective body. People in Beirut would understand. So would people in Chicago. So would people in Palestine. So would people in France. See how easy this is? I am praying for France and Mizzou. The pains are different. France is feeling something quite new for them—fear that death is around every turn—something young black Americans know all too well.
Five days after my birth, Mary Ann Vecchio was on one knee, screaming for our humanity, beside the body of Jeffrey Miller—gunned down by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. This was around the same time that the Black Panthers had offices in sixty-eight different cities. They too were demanding humanity step in. I was too busy learning the shape of my mother’s face. I was only at the opening of the book that life begins reading to us all.
When I was seven, my white mother sat me down in front of our television and made me watch Roots. I didn’t understand anything anyone was saying. I began to giggle when Kunta Kinte was trapped in a net and dragged. My mother slapped me so hard I couldn’t scream. I gasped. The sting confused me. I didn’t think I did anything wrong. My mother sneered through her teeth, “That’s a human being being beaten, John. Ain’t shit funny ’bout that.” I spent the next five evenings watching what I could only understand as hate. I noticed differences in skin color—how those who looked like my father smiled less than those who looked like my mother. It would be another thirty years before I could understand the Atlantic Slave Trade, Reconstruction, The Great Migration, Jim Crow, the Tuskegee Experiment, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and now this, the new Jim Crow with its non-racist racism.
Some days, I wish I never learned what France did in Saint-Domingue. Sometimes, when I’m alone and have time to absorb such darkness, I will fathom taking the abuse I learned about in The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James. I will sometimes wrap my mind around the audacity France had to charge the newly independent Haiti with the financial losses France suffered when it had no more Caribbean slaves. Then I will remember how absolutely destitute Haiti was after their earthquake, and I ask myself, “Would Haitians have had more stability if they didn’t pay France ninety-million francs for their freedom?” And my mind is so primitive—angry for every word Baldwin wrote about French discrimination against Algerians—that I can’t feel sadness for the French that have recently lost their lives to assassins with bloody thirsts. I have had a difficult time allowing myself to have pity for white people because I am hurt. I am almost too resentful to remember, when Eric Garner’s breath was taken from him by the New York City Police, most of the white people who supported the BLM movement were in France! It was French people holding up signs that read, “We can’t breathe either.”
So I have to take a moment. I have to remind myself that this flesh, wrapped around this mind, is still a work in great progress. I am angry with many white Americans who see no problems with racism, sexism, or misogyny on college campuses, white Americans who won’t allow themselves to understand white supremacy, who tell themselves it has something only to do with klan rallies and nothing to do with being turned down for jobs because of the name on a résumé. What is truly sick—about me and people who are as frustrated as I am—somehow, that rationally translates to resenting bodies lying dead in France? What is wrong with me? I am angry at white Americans who never bothered to pray for Syrians or Beirut, so I’ve justified my own apathy towards people dining in a restaurant one moment, gone from their mothers the next.
I am so human it’s a shame. That is to say; it’s rather tragic that I am a member of a species that manipulated sounds we make in order to communicate, yet this same species absolutely sucks at communication. I am a member of a large bacteria covering this wet rock with a moss that creates poisons to destroy its host.
The flawed contents inside my skull will be studied centuries from now as an assembly of children discusses the primitive versions of humanity. Time will tell a tale of people identifying themselves, still, by their physical features and regions of Earth, by nomenclature of higher powers, sex organs, and sexuality. I imagine children laughing—some with loose curls blooming over a foot from their heads, some with sun-yellow mane sweeping down their backs, some with red kink left to lock, others with straight and shining black hair. I imagine their complexions and genders to be too confusing for us to comprehend. They will be so calm—after the bombs swept buildings away, after the new era of humanity sobs for our ignorance and rebuilds—they will never understand how hate could be allowed to fester so long that we anticipate killing each other by purchasing steel, lead, and gunpowder. Their faces will crush itself—eyebrows to cheeks, to lips—trying to fathom how we added or removed value in direct response to where the dead were from, the hue of their flesh before decomposition, and who or how they loved according to the direction they believed in.
I was nineteen when a man held his ground against four tanks at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. College students were protesting, peacefully, for more rights, for Democracy, for humanity, only to be shot down on orders of the Government. I remember hearing Americans far and wide embraced the Chinese protesters as heroes and saints of social change. Ten months later, Phillip Pannell was shot in the back by officer Gary Spath in Teaneck, New Jersey. Evidence proved the sixteen-year-old Pannell was unarmed with his hands in the air. I didn’t understand. My mother wept. My friends were angry. I was confused. I kept asking myself, “Why would any police officer do such a thing? That’s just ridiculous.” Imagine the chaos—the unequivocal fear—if police shoot people at whim, there is no one to truly protect us. My mother was in prison, my father was living in the streets. I was in the Army. I was part of a chain of command. I understood accountability. When officer Spath escaped indictment, I was again confused. Unlike many other people, I can’t simply shrug at sociological toxicity and keep it moving.
I was twenty-five when I finished the Autobiography of Malcom X. I couldn’t forget, “I have less patience with someone who doesn’t wear a watch than with anyone else, for this type is not time-conscious. In all our deeds, the proper value and respect for time determines success or failure.” I purchased my first watch that week. I knew that any man as sagacious as a felon-turned-world leader just gave me a command to live by. I sat down in a mosque in Paterson, New Jersey, looking for a prayer worthy of a God. I found it in Islam. Not closed eyes, but a prostrated body. Not whenever it was convenient, but five times a day, the first being as soon as the sun was rising. I found the Quran to be a book on how to be worthy of God’s love. I never heard that before. Christianity taught me that no matter what I did, God would always love me, like every child’s favorite aunt or grandparent that makes constant excuses for spoiled behavior. Islam was like the father I never had. Islam reminded me that some things—choices, words, directions—are simply wrong and need no debate. I eventually walked away from Islam, the same way I walked away from Christianity, finding too many arguments in my head. However, I recall one night. I sat in attendance as an imam gave a sermon about Bosnia and the Muslims who were being raped and murdered. Fathers were being forced to watch their daughters being brutally assaulted then killed, only to be shot shortly after. The imam said something in Arabic that was later translated for me as, “When the finger hurts, the body hurts.” I remember sobbing. I remember donating every dollar in my pocket to help Muslims. I remember thinking, “They, they are a part of my body.” The philosophy never left me. Through my days of dope and nights of tequila, I remember feeling attached to everyone. I remember overwhelming sadness each day I peeked at The New York Times front page. I remember laughing to myself when I was homeless, at a giggling child in a park, or feeling an unexplainable warmth while I witnessed loving couples anywhere.
I’m grateful for Ta-Nehisi Coates for writing, “Soft or hard, love is a heroic act.” I am indebted to James Baldwin for writing, “Causes, as we know, are notoriously blood-thirsty.” Assata Shakur saved my mind when she asked me to ask myself who and what was I running from. Angela Davis keeps me out of prison by reminding me that no one deserves isolation. My books keep me alive. They are the walls between my darkest fears and the little hope I have. Each page in my home is devoted to making myself and my family better people. Mary Oliver reminds me there are other creatures in this world besides humans. Pablo Neruda has proven to me that one can believe in revolution and love simultaneously. Elie Wiesel proved to me—with only scraps of bread—that a person can survive all the evil surrounding it.
Words belonging to Malcolm X remind me, the media is not worthy of trust. News anchors, journalists for internationally known papers and magazines, and reporters worldwide worry, too, about losing their paychecks. They have orders, told what to do and often how. They are doing what the socially conscious hate to hear; only doing their job. Most of us fear losing our livelihoods, lest losing what we believe keeps us alive—knowing full-well how lonely life is when bills pile like leaves the beginning of every school year. No one wants to be turned away at the doctor’s office. We all want our children in the safest and best financed school zone. We all play politics when we keep to the status quo, ’cause we got houses to keep lit and mouths to feed. So, we are all just doing our jobs, we’re all doing exactly what we are supposed to do. Like police. Like university administrations. Like black queer women leading campus protests and making magic. Like politicians. Like those who complain about politics. Like the prison industrial complex. Like Colonization. Like drones. Like death. Like every edge of shrapnel stuck in bone at various points on our planet. We are exactly where we are supposed to be.
My therapist is a very patient woman. She is white. She often talks to me about the misogyny she’s confronted in her life. I tell her I can’t fathom what it must be like to be a woman. She responds with mirrored empathy concerning my blackness, and I choke on tears. I’ve told her, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this; dealing with racism, sexism, apathy … it’s beginning to tear at my very being.” My therapist floats back and forth between smiling with compassion and sharing my anger. And for an hour, I am not talking to a white woman. She is not talking to a man. We are two great minds searching for a way to peace. We are warring consciences desperate to kill fires. We are setting fires in our spirits to meet what flames we can’t control. White America, I love you. I love every ally that has sat themselves down on a campus protest knowing the results are about someone else, knowing intuitively that when the finger hurts, the body hurts, and healing is all that matters.
For my black people tweeting, “Fuck Paris,” please stop. I love you, and we have a great deal of work ahead of us. As a student at VCU, I can assure you, I understand. We’ll make necessary changes, but this is chess, not checkers, and we can have compassion for others while standing up for ourselves. I know, so many people call what we’re doing nationwide “a tantrum.” Ignore them. We are shaping this body for the future. Leave their criticisms burning in their own hearts. Some of them are mad about flags. Others have a difficult time imagining what it feels like to have ninety-six percent of their professors look like their grandparents’ oppressors. Anger keeps us from Loving each other. Loving each other is the only way forward. Always.
For white people; you who look like my own mother, angry about another protest—consider compassion. We share one body. Understand that black bodies have been getting murdered by police before the first jail was built and officers were called overseers. I know many of you think the work is done, but you’re wrong. Equality means balance, and righting wrongs you had no part in feels unfair, I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that the wrongs must still be corrected. Let’s get the work done. To all my Christian Americans, this isn’t about Islam. No bible would suggest leaving the cold to freeze to death, or the hungry to starve. All wars are about wealth and resources. To all my Muslim counterparts, I love you. We are connected. When the finger hurts, even in France, where you are hated, our bodies hurt too. It has to be okay to feel each other’s pain and identify ourselves in the pain, not the circumstances. Chicago understands how Paris feels right now. Palestine identifies with Baltimore. Beirut, I am praying for you. For the one-hundred-forty-two students (children) killed in Kenya, I am outraged. I am crying for us. Once we lose our ability to hurt when another part of us hurts—when we begin to sever limbs in order to shrink the human body, desperate to experience less pain, we have performed the last task towards complete insanity.
The body hurts all over. The body hurts all over. This is how I pray. This is the only way I know to stop resisting the love I’ve always wished for. I consider all of us sharing space, determined to help flesh to tighten, muscle to bloom—the body, flashing and unbroken. Until then I am praying; that we can live with every loss, that joy is attainable for everyone, that these prayers for you will be regifted for someone else we love.