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Living with the constant threat of death as a Black American
It was in a cramped bar in 2016 that I told my friend that I would die at a young age. I’d had a few drinks, but I had a lot more anxiety. Anxiety for my friend facing felony charges from her arrest during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Anxiety from seeing history repeat itself the past few year: images of Michael Brown’s lifeless body in front of Canfield Apartments; the barrage of bullets that Dylann Roof lay on nine Black churchgoers; the 15-year-old son of Alton Sterling crying, “I want my daddy back”; the indigenous men I witnessed being dragged out of their tepees by white officers while a crazed horse, shot by police, ran through a crowd of protesters.
Then there was the dream that had left me sobbing in a McDonald’s parking lot a few weeks earlier. I was on my way to Standing Rock and mentally preparing myself to protest the pipeline. I awoke in the backseat of my friend’s car during a long morning stop. I stumbled outside, reached for my phone to call my best friend, and cried so hard that I ended up with a headache.
“The police had shot my brother instead of that 13-year-old boy, Ty’Re King,” I told my friend at the bar, relaying my dream.
The Columbus, Ohio, police shooting of King, and the memorial of candles that my friends and I organized for him, were just a few of the things that had run me ragged that fall. October brought that horrible day with the horse running through the crowd of water protectors and my clothes smelling of smoke from burning barricades at Standing Rock. By November, I’d leave the camps for the last time and Berkley would burn in reaction to Trump’s electoral victory. It was a year full of defeats, of destruction, of death.
From birth, Black people are given two options: assimilation or the threat of death. Huey Newton wrote “Revolutionary Suicide” about the precipice of these options. Nina Simone had the song “Strange Fruit.” Malcolm X faced it in that photo as he peered out of drapes with a rifle in hand. In the movie Selma, Coretta Scott King’s character describes “the constant closeness of death.”
I had taken the path of assimilation, enrolled in a string of extracurricular programs for gifted Black youth from the inner city. University ended with a bachelor’s degree and the irrefutable mark of Black death on my generation’s psyche, Michael Brown. After traveling to Ferguson myself and then trying to work in the real world after graduation, assimilation began to feel like a spiritual death in anti-Black society. Connecting with people through organizing toward a better world, traveling and then writing about these experiences, became the most important parts of my life.
Two years later after making that choice, I was arrested and sat in a holding cell for numerous hours. As I waited under the linoleum lights, I cradled my legs and tried to count the reasons why I could be different than both of my fathers, both Jamaican immigrants to the United States and both men who would spend time in prisons on U.S. soil. Just weeks after my birth in 1994, my father had been beaten by a group of men and left on a roadside. Instead of my biological father’s presence, I’d grown up with photos and stories of him.
I also thought of Fred Hampton Jr., who was born just 25 days after his father, a Black Panther, was murdered under a spray of bullets from the Chicago Police Department. At the time, his father was sleeping and presumably drugged by an F.B.I. informant. Fred Hampton was 21 years old, just two years younger than I am now.
When I was released to a group of friends who had paid bail for me, I thought about both my father and Hampton. My father had chosen to deal drugs, a path that many disenfranchised bodies embark upon, and paid the price; Hampton stood up to injustice and was killed. Both men were ensnared by what the world has to offer a Black man. I wondered if would I become one or the other—or have a path fully my own.
Activist Erica Garner became more politically active after her father was killed by New York City police in 2014. In December 2016, she died as well. Erica’s mother stated before her passing, when she was put in a medical coma after a heart attack, “We just ask that y’all give her time to heal.” But I am sure that the years of fighting an uphill battle against an anti-Black political system did not help her enlarged heart. In a video for the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, she stated, “No one gets to see their parent’s last moments, and I was able to see my dad die on national TV. They don’t know what they took from us. He wasn’t just someone that no one cared for him or no one loved him. He was loved dearly.”
I thought of Erica’s words in that video as I stood in a crowd of people counting down to the end of 2017. If 2016 was made of nightmares, then 2017 was a year of the nightmare becoming a reality. I didn’t need a list of the tragedies against Black bodies to be reminded of where my own life and fight could take me; Erica’s death already did that work.
It was carved into my mind in the way that Dr. Bloom, the co-author of Black Against The Empire, broke down how the work done by those like Erica can become too heavy. “The politics takes its toll. There’s no way around that. I think we just have to define what’s worth living for. I think sometimes the way that you live is more important than how long you live. Erica, she paid a price. I’m sure she felt that it was a price worth paying. How could we not feel that way too? It doesn’t mean that she should have had to pay it. The costs are real.”
I tried to will away my understanding of what the cost for Erica had been, but I couldn’t. The only way that I could begin to overcome that loss when one of our own dies was to not want to will it away. Erica Garner had lived intensely. She loved her father; she fought for him. We begin to change the world when we do not reduce ourselves to the struggle that we have faced. For Black people to do this in an anti-Black world is a small revolution in itself.
During a conversation, Sabaah Folayan, the director of the documentary Whose Streets, about the uprising in Ferguson, explained how she aimed to unapologetically show the experiences of those fighting for Black people. “A lot of storytelling, it seems the goal is to meet white people where they are in hopes that we’re gonna bring them along bit by bit,” she says. “But what we’re not doing, in that case, is meeting people of color where they are, meeting young people where they are, meeting people who are actually involved in these movements where they are, and that’s what Whose Streets wanted to do.”
Folayan also stated that the battle for Black people is not only “changing the minds of the power structure and getting our power back,” but also “showing up for our own people and healing our own people.”
It is never good to give all of ourselves to a world that ensures us violence. Nor is it good to turn away from a reality that so many others choose to ignore in order to have comfort. Just as Folayan had the courage to portray Black rage and be part of the resistance unapologetically, I hope to have the courage to redefine my relationship to the possibility of death. For me, right now, my focus is keeping the movement alive. Being true to myself provides its own security.
Prince Shakur is a queer, Jamaican-American writer and activist whose work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Electric Literature, and AfroPunk. He is writing a memoir on his political coming of age and Afro-Caribbean masculinity.