From the Black M.A.R.S. Project by James Young
What Murder Looks Like From A Distance
I had just woken up. The sun was shining through the cactus-coated windows just above my makeshift bed, a fold-out couch. It was another beautiful late summer day in Berlin. After picking up my cell phone, I started scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed to catch a glimpse of what was going on back in the United States. Perhaps it’s become a compulsion by now or at least, a meager attempt to maintain some connection to the country I’ve called home for the past 22 years. The article title my finger finally descended on escapes me now, but its content was all too familiar: another unarmed Black body murdered by the police. His name was Michael Brown.
Since I started learning about the history of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “The Other America,” I’ve never stopped feeling rage or some emotionally caustic concoction of anger, hopelessness, and desperate ambition to do something…anything, that might lessen centuries of pain inscribed in our collective memory. August 9th, 2014 was no different.
But let’s return to the beginning first. Why Germany? Last March, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation selected me as a 2014-15 Watson Fellow. The opportunity affords a fortunate cohort of students (approximately 40 each year) from the United States a stipend for one year to fund independent travel and pursuit of a creative research project. I chose to focus my project on art, activism, and Black masculinity in the African Diaspora. Without doubt, its scope is broad. However, it’s allowed me to connect with a wide range of Black artists and performers who are similarly trying to figure out a number of questions that interest me: How can art be used as a tool of resistance? What kind of art should we create to deal with the present spiritual, social, political, and economic turmoil we face? And how can we construct representations of ourselves that challenge and defy marginalizing narratives? So after researching the history of Black folks in Germany and considering the parallels between the treatment of African people there and the United States, I marked the country as the first stop on my year long journey.
The more articles I read about Michael Brown that late August morning, the deeper I felt moved to write something…anything that might lessen centuries of pain inscribed in our collective memory. Poetry has always been my outlet since the age of 12 when I first scribbled the contents of my heart onto a pad of notebook paper in sixth grade. August 9th 2014 was no different.
The Ballad of Michael Brown
When scorching hot suns
bake Black flesh of our sons
on asphalt pavements
When jack-boot thugs
called local police
play toy soldiers with
When white governors
tuck us in for curfew and
Black presidents say
time will heal our wounds
we are angry
we are sick and tired of being sick and tired
we are impatient…
dying to survive.
Yet our wearied footsteps
march in ancestral shoes
still seeking paths
leading to justice.
Since that day, I’ve spent time in England, France, and currently, write this piece from Brazil. In the circles I’ve found myself in—from the vaguely conscious to Pan-African folks who champion all Black everything—people know what’s going on in the United States. I think it’s important to repeat that. People around the world feel our pain. There have been solidarity protests in major cities of each European country I visited—Berlin, London, and Paris. And the relationship between Black folks and the police never fails to spring up as a topic of conversation. It’s also common to hear romanticized aspirations to visit the USA because they’ve seen so much of the sunny side. It leads one to consider what visions of our country are broadcasted. For as bright as things may be for some, the lives of far too many are still shaded by injustice. But there are only so many conversations about home one can have with folks from another country, of another culture and history before recognizing that the sense of urgency I feel watching what’s happened these past months is not, and perhaps cannot, be shared to the same extent.
When Thanksgiving arrived back in the United States, I found myself protesting on the streets of Saint-Denis in Northern Paris. Our cause was a different one. Outrage has been sparked across the African Diaspora by white South African artist Brett Bailey’s ‘artistic’ production, Exhibit B. If you don’t know, I suggest checking out any number of articles about his controversial artistic commentary on the 19th and 20th century histories of placing African people in human zoos…by placing African people in human zoos in the 21st. The protestors numbered upwards of 200. The assault-rifle armed police presence was significant as well. But I was excited to take part in resistance efforts despite my limited background in French after reading about the success of protests in London. So as we chanted on the streets outside Théâtre Gérard-Phillipe, it was humbling to stand in solidarity with sisters and brothers of the diaspora. Yet I also felt a growing sense of homesickness at the same time. For at that moment, folks in Ferguson, Missouri and at least 90 other cities across the United States were rising up, speaking out, organizing, and protesting against police brutality.
Perhaps the real question is not what murder looks like from a distance, but how to respond effectively to it. I had the opportunity to connect with Professor Donald Muldrow Griffith in Berlin. A retired professional dancer and teacher from the USA, he has made his home in Germany for the past 35 years. Professor Griffith heads an arts and cultural organization called Fountainead Tanz Theatre that hosts an annual festival called Black International Cinema as well as a monthly public access program. I asked him about the experience of being so long removed from the United States, but still being engaged in the work he does which promotes the sharing of African American history in Germany. His words resonate with me still: “Those who have escaped from the cauldron have a responsibility to those still trapped inside.”
Some days words never feel like enough. In the words of the London-based rapper, poet, and author, Akala, “Behind my painted smile and all the revolutionary noise/ is nothing but a lost little boy.” I’m still on my own journey of self-transformation—part of a greater effort to channel my abilities and privileges into something that makes a difference. Outside of financial stability, I’ve believe that the greatest blessing being a Watson Fellow have provided me are the luxuries of time and distance that so few possess. These past months have challenged me to see myself and my country through another set of eyes. And once you become aware of how the world operates, that knowledge can never be taken away from you. It is liberating and troubling at the same time. Some days words are all I have. I recently penned a poem called “Colorblinded Contradictions” to highlight the conflict between rhetoric and reality when it comes to Black folks. My conclusion:
As long as tear-eyed mothers
ride along with Black babies
I’ll continue to cry out
for justice in all of my verses.
My friends in London inspired me to consider social transformation beyond the rhetoric during my first Kwanzaa celebration. Singer, spoken word artist and performer Oneness Sankara hosted a gathering of folks at her home on the day celebrating Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics). That evening, we came together to discuss what the day meant to each of us. It was then I realized that I was surrounded in that space by folks who have dedicated their lives to trying to create alternatives to our present situation. I was blessed to be hosted during my stay by KMT the Freedom Teacher, who transformed his home, May Project Gardens, into a model of what he refers to as “sustainable city living,” using permaculture practices to grow his own food. KMT has recently dropped his first EP, “Fear of a Green Planet,” integrating hip-hop, sustainable living, and eco-activism to encourage self-determinism.
I thought the collective the protests across the country represented the beginning of our generation’s Civil Rights Movement. As months of organizing fades from mainstream media spotlight, my hope has taken a new form. In my mind, we are called to action now more than ever. As the African proverb states, “Until lions have historians, the history of the hunt will forever glorify the hunter.” We must tell our stories. We must act with compassion, conviction, and courage. In the words of KMT the Freedom Teacher, we must begin “planting little seeds everyday” of internal transformation that will manifest outwards. So when the time to harvest comes, we’ll be “watching the world just change.”