The Alabama Shakes is an awesome fucking rock band. Think of a black country girl that grew up on blues and punk music clashed against electric guitars and rhythm. There’s a warmth and edge to Brittany Howard’s voice that I adore; she, to me, feels like the last soul singer and she doesn’t even make traditional soul music. The power she yields is undeniable and the richness of the band, overall, is delectable. I heard buzz about the band about a month after their second album Sound & Color dropped. On my second day of listening to the album, I was fully immersed. Alone in my cheap one bedroom efficiency with floor-to-ceiling wood paneling, I was blasting song after song on full tilt; enjoying the band and enjoying life. It was one of those rare moments of adulthood were nothing feels bad. Imagine a beautiful beach at sunset: no one else on Earth matters, just you, the sun, the sand, the crashing tide and the fiery horizon. That night, it was just me, my uncomfortable two-seater 1980’s couch and The Shakes. The day was June 17, 2015. And, in the middle of my fiery horizon, news of the Charleston church shooting broke.
I’m not a religious person nor am I an atheist; for better or worse, I try to place my faith in people. Faith, naïvely, that people actually care about other people. That’s the thing about having faith: you have it whether it makes logical sense or not. That night, June 17th, my faith was shattered in a way that I’m not sure I’ll ever fully recover. I love people, but living in a country that continually denies my humanity and dignity is exhausting. That night I lost the ability to feel anything because I was filled with everything. I was paralyzed by grief and a part of me died along with Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson.
At moments, I can feel cynicism swallow whole and, subtly, I lose my grip on placing value in people. Lately, I’ve been ignoring the news and stories about black trauma. And it’s not because I don’t take those issues seriously but it’s because I don’t want to be reminded of the terrible world we live in. Whether it’s the latest footage of seeing police officers relentlessly assault a black body or seeing white Americans hurl racist insults and their subsequent ass whooping, this cycle of violent, troubling videos continually exposes the state of affairs in America and, possibly, the world. On Twitter, I’m reminded that Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water and that our government would rather create a space army, like a plot line from a D-list action movie from the 80’s, than to save it’s own citizens. On Facebook, I’m reminded that correct information isn’t the real goal; it only matters that what is shared is entertaining or not. On Instagram, I’m reminded that we continually chase fleeting aesthetics.
Even further back than the church massacre, I remember having to turn off the auto-play feature on Twitter in 2015 because people wouldn’t stop sharing videos of reporters Alison Parker and Adam Ward getting murdered by former co-worker Bryce Williams. I never watched the video, but when multiple accounts throughout the day kept sharing the clip, it felt like people had an insatiable desire to see death. A recent trend has been people sharing videos of racist getting pulverized for using the n-word or harassing minorities until they can’t stand it anymore. For example, last week, there was a “before and after” style video released on Twitter that involved an elderly white lady calling young black folks “niggers” while riding a DC Metro Bus. That was the “before” clip, which lasted around 30 seconds. The “after” clip showed the white lady’s face completely doused in her own blood. While I felt no remorse for the racist woman, I didn’t need to see evidence of her attack. Her body laid in a pool on the Hopscotch Bridge in Northeast DC and the day went about like nothing had ever happened.
I haven’t reached my limit for caring but this numbness feels like a reaction to something plaguing this country. Daily usage of social media feel like mental gymnastics, constantly seeing news of black pain and death and instantaneously deciding to respond or not. Do I read this article about 6,000 homeless DC kids getting ready to start the school year or do I watch the “Bitch, I’m A Cow” video again? I want to do both, but I’m not always strong enough to.
While no videos of the Charleston church massacre exist, seeing pictures of Dylann Roof have always disturbed me. His icy smugness carries the stench of white superiority and it immensely bothers me that he and many others in this nation’s treacherous past have easily murdered praying black folks. After generations of degradation, I’m tired.
To be black in America is to struggle and our humanity is tangled into our ability to survive, but what happens when the fight is too much to bear?
One the day of it’s release, I saw Crazy Rich Asians, a slick, beautiful, funny movie about young Chinese adults falling in love while struggling with traditional vs contemporary norms. (Sounds basic, yes, but the movie is incredibly sweet and good; go watch it.) Before the movie, in a sea of not-so-interesting trailers for upcoming releases, a preview of The Hate U Give ran. The film follows the life of a black teenage girl, Starr, as she navigates life between living in her predominately black neighborhood and going to a predominately white, wealthy high school. The crux of the movie is Starr witnessing firsthand the killing of a unarmed black teenager by the police. The film follows are our protagonist leading protesters against cops in riot gear and making rousing speeches to galvanize supporters and stir the emotions. When the trailer was over, I had zero interest in seeing it.
The Hate U Give trailer looked like the director and actors took great care in crafting the story and everyone seemed to be giving their all. Also, it seems like 20th Century Fox spent good money to create the film. It’s great seeing a movie directed by black people starring black people that isn’t derivative of a comic book franchise get good dollars to finance it. And I think the message of what the film wants to say is important: the killing of black people by the police must end and it’s important to find the strength, will and voice to fight for your literal life. But, while watching that trailer, I couldn’t help but be perturbed by the black trauma that the film will undoubtedly explore. It’s exhausting when of the majority of products being continually offered are soaked in pain and despair.
For the last dozen years, Black Panther and Girl’s Trip were the exception, not the rule like 12 Years A Slave, Birth Of A Nation and Django Unchained. BET is rolling out a gaudy six-part docuseries on the death of Trayvon Martin. Other than the election of Donald Trump as President, the acquittal of Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman was the watershed moment of American culture of the past decade. But we’re so close to Martin’s murder and it’s subsequent effects on the America psyche, how can we properly evaluate the event with any historical perspective and accuracy, and, most importantly, why do we need six, hour-long episodes to discuss the event when the details are fresh in our collective consciousness? Cynical as it may seem, trafficking in black trauma on the big and small screen seems profitable.
The Hate U Give shows this brave young woman standing against riot gear wearing, smoke grenade launching police. But we’ve seen this image dozens of times before in real life; why rehash it again? Do we need these reminders? Who is the we: the black folks needing to be reminded of our history, the white folks needing to be reminded of their shame, or both? Or is it just for viewership numbers?
Disillusion and jadedness are all signs of my desensitization but I understand how that is a part of the problem. Since the Charleston church massacre, a part of me forgot the power of art and film and how these stories, our stories, can be used for good. A few days after I saw Crazy Rich Asians, I checked out Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a movie that I had actively dodged for a few weeks while many people lauded the film. When the original trailer for BKkK premiered in May, I was highly skeptical that it would be worthwhile, but, with it gaining critical praise and social media buzz, I decided to give it a chance.
Early in the film, there’s a scene where Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael is speaking before a black college student union in Colorado Springs. Played masterfully by DC native actor Cory Hawkins, he preaches black pride with fire, passion, comfort and understanding. Ture understood black pain and youth animosity; Hawkins beautifully channeled Ture’s spirit. And, as I sat in that cold, dark theater, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of the first time that I watched Lee’s Malcolm X with my mother and my aunt on VHS in our small apartment in Southeast DC in 1993.
X introduced me to an individual I’d only seen on baseball caps and church fans. In my favorite acting performance ever, Denzel Washington was the full embodiment of what man is: complex, flawed, broken, resilient, humbled and brave. To watch his life blossom from hoodlum to hero had a profound effect on my little life. He taught and exemplified black pride and black strength, through his rise from the ashes until his untimely demise. I wonder what other seven year-old’s watched that movie and had their little lives changed. And in that cold, dark theater, I wondered what people would be moved by Hawkin’s performance and were inspired by Kwame’s spirit. Twenty-five years later, the power of art and film moved me once again.
BlacKkKlansman may be one of the best films in Spike’s stellar career and, hopefully, the movie reintroduces a new generation of young people to his filmography. The end of the movie (which I won’t spoil here) shook me to the core. I was near tears as the fatigue of our journey and the long road still left to travel weighed on me. However, not only did the significance of the film stick with me, but, also, a renewed understanding of why these stories need to be told and shared.
Kelly Marie Tran, the Vietnamese actress that played Rose in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, wrote a piece for The New York Times detailing her struggles from dealing with racist and sexist fanboys. The torment so great, she deleted her Instagram account in the wake of Disney adding diversity to the latest Star Wars installment to avoid the mountain of hateful comments. In the article, she digest the incident but, also, reflects on who she’s become while dealing with all the pressures of being an Asian American actress.
While combating racial and sexual stereotypes and identity conflicts, a lot of Tran’s struggle is my struggle too: being the other when the majority views your existence as a burden. While I do not want to conflate her struggle with my struggle (because, even though I’m black, I understand the male privilege that I’m still beneficiary of) but I still empathize with it nonetheless. Her story deserves to be told; she should not have to minimize herself to appease her oppressors. Even stemming from pain, these stories can inspire change. And I’m not going to let Dylann Roof or George Zimmerman or Jeronimo Yanez or Trump take away my humanity. Don’t let them take away yours.
This piece was originally publish on August 27, 2018 and revised for updates and edits on February 19, 2019.