In light of the latest tragedies of black lives taken, John S. Blake examines the past three decades of his life.
I don’t rely on assemblies and protests to change minds. I participate to surround myself with like-minded Americans who assure me I am in fact not insane; my compassion and desire for justice and equality is noble, rational, and spiritual. My wife and I attended an assembly in Richmond, Virginia’s Monroe Park. We brought two cases of water and stood to hear random people vent. I didn’t hear much. My ears were ringing. I was imploding. I saw professors from Virginia Commonwealth University that I truly respect. I saw activists from the area that are tired. This is not the first gathering in the last year. It isn’t the tenth. I lost count. I stopped counting protests, assemblies, and other necessary grief-sessions many years ago.
It has been almost three decades of a diabolical record, skipping through my memory. The wretched noise has dragged me to this island known as depression and hopelessness. Memories ambush a great deal of my time. The first pebble lobbed into my mind’s pond twenty-seven years ago. His name was Phillip Pannell. The shooting took place in Teaneck, New Jersey, just a couple miles from my house. Officer Gary Spath (ironic, how too many of us remember the victims but hardly the victimizers; this should change) shot Phillip in the back while Phillip had his hands in the air and was running away from Officer Spath. I was nineteen and smothered in denial. Hands in the air and running away? How could an officer do such a thing? It doesn’t make sense. I didn’t understand that my light complexion and white mother enabled me to live in disbelief. Now, I don’t flinch when I hear or—with the help of contemporary technology—see such horror. I believe it all now.
The media, flying over my lack of understanding about the mechanics of a system, did their part to smear Pannell’s humanity with a distorted sense of him deserving to die. Even now, if one were to research Phillip’s story, one might read “a 16-year-old high school dropout” in the description. Back then, the knee-jerk reaction to such information was, “See? If he was in school …” or “Why’d he run if he wasn’t guilty?” or “The cop ain’t shoot him for nothing.” That was my privilege then. Though I am black, I’m often mistaken for white with a great tan, Italian maybe, sometimes Hispanic or Middle Eastern. No, I’m black. However, I don’t suffer many of the same consequences as my brethren; never followed through stores, hardly pulled over while driving, and I’ve never had a hard time finding work.
I’m seated in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. My back, ankles, and hips hurt. I am not that old. I know this is a byproduct of utter sadness. My soul has begun to beat my body for being too still when there is so much to do in this moment. My bones have no purpose lately, other than staring at social and news media, recording more blood for my mind to store. I’ve been prepared to do nothing—to watch this country crumble in resentment and blame—to seek out the accountability that hides from speeches by those in power and sneaks past fellow citizens who point fingers in vague directions.
I am staring at a ten-foot-wide, eight-foot-high painting by Kehinde Wiley titled Morpheus. This is the remix. A young black man leans gently on what could be a chaise longue covered with white silk. The young man stares back at me and he is remarkable. His sneakers are an absence-of-streetlight black with chalk-white markings. His jeans are deep ocean blue and smooth as Coltrane. For the first time in a week, I begin to feel. His jeans are sagged, exposing an exciting red and blue plaid pair of boxers. His shirt is an auburn shade, but in my grief, I can’t help but notice that his shirt is the hue of what could have been an obsidian-black before it was soaked in blood. The young, soft-gazing brother is amongst the flowers. There is a tattoo of Jesus on his left shoulder. He sports a cap in a blue that matches his jeans.
Blooms surround him in pinks, yellows, reds, and white with hints of peach and gold. There are only four peacefully blue flowers, and they are touched with the same red in the young man’s boxers. The flowers demand I match them to the exposed underwear. The garden dares me to see something more than Don Lemon ever could see in a young black man with sagging jeans. This is the only blue in the backdrop-ed garden. This suggests that all the blues belong to black bodies. “Morpheus” stares at me. He asks, “How could you ever doubt our stories? What reason do you have to shelve our pain beneath the stairs?” His eyes are wet enough to detect ambitious tears. He wears a gold rope-chain—one I imagine Phillip Pannell owned in 1990. Did I mention how absolutely radiant he is?
I try to fathom Philando Castile in such comfort. I have daydreamed of a heart at the center of this universe that will palm Philando’s soul until the spirit knows peace. Morpheus begins to grow two long braids. I am staring at Philando Castile. I’m tearing up, knowing no matter how auburn Philando’s shirt bloomed, his girlfriend saw only beauty. Have you ever heard the wailing of Diamond Reynolds? I see an actual diamond split like an atom, releasing a force that shakes my chest. I feel shame if I watch her cries, if I turn up the volume and allow myself to sit in the utter embarrassment I feel as a black man—an American citizen—that simply hasn’t done enough to confront this nation I call home about its militarized and apathetic approach to law and order.
The leaves that appear to fall around Morpheus are gold. They look like skillfully-shaped paragons of pure sunshine. It is an autumn of sorts. The flowers blossom despite this season of their deaths. Light shines brightest on the left cheek of Morpheus—there and on his tattoo of Christ.
I move. I am now sitting beneath Kehinde’s nine-foot by nine-foot rendition of Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps. The portrait is of a black man controlling a white horse that has lifted itself onto its hind legs. The man is decked out in camouflage and Timbs. He points upward to command mobility. The hind legs of the horse are on rock that slants to suggest they are at the foot of a mountain. Napoleon’s face is determined. There is no doubt, no stutter in his decisive act. They are going up and over. Other rocks are engraved with names: Williams, Bonaparte, Hannibal, Karolus. Magnus. MP. Graves. Napoleon and his barely-contained stallion are stepping over the dead to do what they could not. The sword on Napoleon’s left hip stays sheathed. There is no need. Napoleon is unarmed but powerful. The white horse appears afraid. The white horse has no interest in scaling the Alps, but the rider, Napoleon, the black man, is taking the horse where he does not want to go.
Alton Sterling led his family. He worked. He was a husband. He was a father. His fifteen-year-old son begs this nation’s protesters to stay peaceful. He asks, in the press conference looped on CNN and MSNBC, that there be no violence in his father’s name. But I think to myself, He is fifteen. Phillip Pannell was murdered twenty years before this boy’s birth. People protested then. People are protesting now.
Napoleon wears a gold shawl that matches his Timbs. There is a red and gold damask pattern behind him. I am reminded of the Haitian Revolution and how it changed our international economy. I remember lessons in my African American Studies class with Dr. Gutarra Cordero. I remember the part of her lecture when she told us about Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Toussaint L’Ouverture and how Napoleon resolved to burn the entire country to the ground and recruit more slaves to start over. I remember Dr. Cordero telling us how Haiti had to buy their freedom to save the nation from the scorch. I also remember her telling us that Haiti finished paying France just a generation before the great earthquake they suffered. I now understand Haiti’s poverty.
Alton Sterling struggled but managed. He fought every day to make sure he served his family and protected them from the scorch. He gave until he could give no longer. He gave until what he had left was taken from him.
When I was a boy, I resented my father for every arrest I experienced. I was angry he wasn’t home. I noticed how few fathers lived in the projects. I was young. I didn’t realize not all missing fathers are lost. Some are snatched. The night’s sky closes like curtains during their best-they-can performances. My father was an Alton Sterling. My father was a “doin’ what I gotta do” dad. My mother hated his hustle, but there was money, always money. There was money until there wasn’t. There was money until an arrest. Until jail. Until. My father sent loving letters from jail, but I wouldn’t read them. I didn’t know I was angry with marginalization. I had no idea I was in need of restorative justice and access to upward mobility. I hadn’t a clue that my mother’s cries were about how my father and her were treated when they walked into banks together, restaurants together, hotels together. It was the 1970s.
An hour before eleven officers were harmed by a man who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, I was seated on my backyard deck with a friend. He came over because he needed a place to vent ideas and desires that we knew—should he post them—would get the FBI at his doorstep before either one of us could yell COINTELPRO. He sobbed in the dark as we smoked cigarettes and traded historical knowledge. We giggled at the thought of how beautiful life would be today for us if Fred Hampton wasn’t assassinated. We talked about starting a free breakfast program on the weekends—when public schools are closed and many children do without. Then, I get an update from The Guardian; officers killed during peaceful BLM protest. I shared the notification with my friend. We said nothing. We could barely look at each other. I know the thought we both held with two hands, Is this the beginning? Is this “The Fire Next Time,” the roosting chickens? Are we here? No. The next thoughts were full of fear. All I could imagine was how much harder life will be for the young and black. It was late. My friend thanked me for making myself available to talk. I thanked him for trusting me with his vulnerability. He left, but not before we made sure to tell each other how much we absolutely love and are grateful for each other, no matter the distance or absence.
The next morning, after making coffee and sitting outside, I just sobbed. I gave myself permission to cry hard enough to give my spirit room to move in my chest. My chest has been at full capacity—names over the last twenty-seven years that have drowned in rivers of bullets. My chest has been a Most-Wanted-poster wall with missing verdicts and feeble indictments. Suddenly, a moth lands on my right hand. I was shocked because moths are usually active at night. I know because, while I’m up writing, I watch them play by lights. Moths are delicate. One wrong graze near their wings and flight is impossible for them. It was weak. I knew it was going to die. It crawled to the tip of one of my fingers, flapped its pretty beige and white wings a couple of times, then leaned to one side and stopped moving. I wondered if my hand was its mountain. I wondered if my backyard was its garden backdrop. I wondered what it absolutely had to see at the summit of my fist before dying. I am forty-six years old and have no idea what justice looks like. I would climb the fist of God to witness justice with my last breath.
I am now sitting before Kehinde Wiley’s media presentation titled Smile. This is a ninety-minute presentation of black men trying to keep smiles on their faces. I quickly consider Du Bois and double consciousness. I then consider all the black men I’ve ever known that have whistled and smiled to put white women at ease in elevators and subway cars. I thought of all the conversations my mother has started with other white women on buses to let them know the black boy is her son, making a public service announcement that no fucks would be given should someone even consider looking at her son with scorn. The men in the video hold smiles so long their eyes tear up. Their smiles begin to resemble growling as they squint to spread cheeks as wingspans. So many of them smile with ease, while others appear to have a great degree of difficulty smiling at all. At this moment, I consider how absolutely impossible it is to hold a smile for five hundred years—peeling it off, only to hand it to your children.
Then, the smiles are solace to me—the atoms of sunlight that make up teeth against the soothing forest-browns of skin. I smile. Then I cry. I begin to feel all the potential losses. I am alone in here. I can’t stop crying. They are so many faces. They are Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Phillip Pannell, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Amadou Diallo, Phillip Pannell, Tony Robinson, Ezell Ford, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, Phillip Pannell, Trayvon Martin, Phillip Pannell, Laquan McDonald, Dontre Hamilton, Freddie Gray, John Crawford, Oscar Grant, Phillip Pannell, Phillip Pannell, Phillip Pannell, and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. How could I ever have doubted the darkness of racism? And in the last week, Alva Braziel was murdered with his hands in the air—like Phillip Pannell. Racism is a darkness comparable only to the tunnel between a bullet and a skull, a bullet and a heart. Even at nineteen, how could I have ever doubted? Maybe if I believed and reacted with activism twenty-some-odd years ago, we’d be at a better place with social change today.
I’m grateful for Kehinde Wiley’s work. I needed to see black men smiling right now. I need to see black men smiling right now. I absolutely need to see as many black men smiling right now, to save me. I need open mouths that are taking in air, eyes split wide and loving, tearless with my name around brown irises. I just want joy in stretched lips and ears pulled back, without alarm. I need to speak with smiling black men about how beautiful life is. I imagine we’ll do that sometime after the funerals of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Moving now through another room of Wiley’s work, I see a remix of a painting titled Judith Beheading Holofernes. The story behind the original painting—a white woman severing the head of a man that planned to destroy her village, so she entered his tent under the guise of romance and waited until he passed out from drunkenness—is one of heroism and necessity. Wiley’s remake is of a black woman with the head of a white person. The names and faces flashed on the canvas: Sandra Bland, Tarika Wilson, Shareese Francis, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, Tanisha Anderson, Shelly Frey, Darnisha Harris, Malissa Williams, Alesia Thomas, ninety-two-year-old Kathryn Johnston, and seven-year-old Aiyana Jones. (I’ve only gone back through police shootings from the last couple of years. There’s more. Much more.)
And there it is, the rage—what I keep bottled up whenever I hear, “If she wasn’t, then …” or “If he’d just complied ….” As anger takes center stage in my logic, I wonder what neck I have to slit to save my village. I recall lines from a poem by Shane McCrae titled “After the Uprising”:
“Who do I got to kill
to get all the way free
And it was more people than it was
alive in the world”
At the beginning of this essay, I was listening to Coltrane’s “Equinox.” I moved on to Saul Williams’ Not in My Name. Then I turned up Saul’s jam “Om Nia Merican.” Now, I’m listening to the instrumental by DJ Khaled, “I Lied.” Do you see? On a timeline, even our music can’t take much more. I imagine Phillip Pannell’s hands, high, running for his life. Why did he run? This is why. In black communities, the police have proven, over years and years of clear evidence, the State has killers for street controllers. Is that a fair statement? Have some officers done wonderful things for others? Absolutely. But as a black American, all I see is a uniform first. If you’re asking me to stand still and wait to see what happens next, you must be white. This is what my anger looks like. I think about former officer and CNN analyst, recognized mouthpiece for the NYPD, Harry J Houck, mocking Diamond Reynolds with all the apathy of a python coiling a rabbit, “She’s so distraught, she was able to videotape the whole thing.” This is where my rage lives. This is the head in the hands of Judith.
Then reason comes. I know traffic stops are unavoidable. I understand many officers have families and communities they love and feel a sense of duty and service in their daily affairs. I know many who always wanted to protect their communities and became police officers to follow their destinies. Officers in Memphis are suing their department while being threatened with demotions for speaking up and exercising their legal rights to appeal to the courts. What I ask of every officer is to challenge the contemporary methodology of policing. Officers like Michael Birch who recorded his superior commanding him to racially profile more black men. I beg said officers to search their spirits and see the corruption for what it is. I implore officers nationwide to confront cops that are eager to perform vulgar displays of power—to heal grieving masses of Americans who are in need of a newfound trust in the slogan “To Serve and Protect.” I don’t see a war, but I can’t stop counting casualties. This ongoing and tiring debate of black lives and blue lives has left too many of us further bruised. We are a bruised country. Stricter laws and riots will only cause more death. I can love both, men and women in uniform and black communities from North Miami to north Portland, east end of Richmond to West Philadelphia. Of course the lives of police officers matter! What I ask in return for my confident statement is for each and every officer in this nation, and all those who support law enforcement—everyone who truly believes all lives matter—to confidently state “Black Lives Matter” in return. Can you do that? Can you say that black lives honestly matter to you? Say it. Out loud, please.
I’m grateful for the VMFA’s exhibit of Kehinde Wiley’s work. I needed to see black and beautiful in the same place. I needed to witness black mothers and fathers guiding their children along an idea in which Wiley is quoted at the entrance of the presentation:
“Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.”
To the family of Phillip Pannell, I’m so very sorry. I should have done more. I should be doing more now. We can never do enough.