Elegy For Your Superheroes
Superheros should never remove their costumes. Without the mask, they lose the magic.
Years of dealing with racism, no matter the season’s favored model—systematic, institutional, post-racial—have drained my father. Growing up, he was my bulletproof Superman, following a personal creed of Christian benevolence and unbiased compassion instilled by his late mother. As he’s gotten older, cynicism has wormed its way into his everyday language, as loud as the rolling of summer thunder. He doesn’t believe that racial harmony is attainable, at least during his lifetime. The civil unrest in Ferguson and the death of Mike Brown have not cracked his surface. While outrage and fear turn my words into live wires, my father is not shocked. He does not believe Darren Wilson’s story. He has kept an eye on the situation. He believes that the non-indictment was determined when it was announced that the grand jury consisted of more white citizens than black. Despite his casual interest, he feigns indifference to the public protests and the grassroots campaigns. My father wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that the country’s justice system is broken, has never worked in favor of black people, and was never created for black people in the first place. Sometimes he navigates this life like a man without a country that is kind enough to call home.
One of my father’s favorite history books is Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He likes the book because it’s something that never would have been found in the curriculum at his high school, the same public school I attended. Intentionally calling reference to JFK’s Profiles in Courage, Abdul-Jabbar’s work highlights the achievements and cultural significance of icons and visionaries such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, alongside lesser-known black intellectuals and military men.
My father told me that he was tired of reading about the same overexposed historical figures during Black History Month, the rushed week in social studies where teachers always mentioned “the guy who invented the peanut” and little else. Why was Black History Month reduced to the invention of peanut butter?
My father was one of the few black students in his class, let alone the entire school. He’d known black male friends that had attempted to go on dates with white girls, only to be greeted at her door by the end of their father’s shotgun. When James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King on that Memphis balcony, my father became hyper-aware of his blackness. It was as though his third eye had been pried open with a rusty screwdriver; the razored blessing of W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness. He said that he felt “like an alien.” Many of the white students expressed condolences to him as though he were the sole ambassador for a disintegrated nation far removed from America.
“This one white guy came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry your leader died.’ I thought it was a weird way to put it. Sorry your leader died? I thought Martin Luther King was supposed to be for everyone. I felt like an alien because people kept staring at me,” he said. That day at lunch, all of the black students sat together. Everyone was tired of the theatrics of their white peers, the moon-sized eyes searching for forgiveness, demanding absolution of guilt.
My father had always been aware of his blackness. He learned how to fight at an early age. He’d need the skill of a KO punch if he wanted to survive the playground.
Racists often cling to the argument that black people suffer from the foundational demise of the nuclear family. They claim that our injustices are self-imposed, as though they are genetically dominant, the generational regifting of suffering. James Watson, Nobel Prize winner and the other half of Watson and Crick, forever a school textbook citation, and now disowned by the scientific community, has said: “All our social policies are based on the fact that…[black people’s] intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” Watson made this comment to the Financial Times. These views were to be published in a new book. The Independent cited this example: “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.” It was not the first time that he’d been unapologetically forthcoming with his racism and bigotry.
Watson’s theory is not the thought process of an isolated mind, nor is it mutually exclusive to be academically successful, a pillar of an esteemed community, and a racist. My father works in a place where the majority of the clientele are wealthy, long-retired, privileged white people. My father is one of the two black men that work at this business. He is frequently confused as the other black employee, even though they aren’t the same height and my father is as bald as Walter White and has his ear pierced. He’s heard clients, thinking that he’s out of sight, sincerely use the n-word. My father has told me that one particular white client has argued with him about the historical suffering of African-Americans and Jewish people, asking, “Bill, you can’t really think that black people have had it worse than Jewish people?” This man touted confident explanations that echoed Watson’s “scientific” deductions. He stated that the black community has a problem with absent fathers and black-on-black violence. He does not believe that American history has empowered the stronghold of white supremacy, but like Dr. James D. Watson, thinks that the disadvantages imposed upon black people are merely a permanent characteristic.
Jane Elliott, the famed Iowa teacher credited for the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise,” rightly points out that, “When they were saying and doing those things to one another, they were being their preachers, their parents, people on television—they were practicing what they had learned. I learned you don’t have to have people of color in a community to have racism. My third-graders knew every negative stereotype they’d ever heard about blacks, and there were no blacks in Riceville, Iowa.”
My father didn’t grow up in Iowa, but the specifics of geography do not eliminate the possible presence of racism. The overt and benevolent racism of New England is a brother of the racism of the Midwest, or any other area of the US. The persistence of racism is not a rarity in American shame. It is the mirror to an interconnected system of social, personal, and cultural ignorance. Elliot’s findings are timeless because racism has not changed its major method of dispersion.
In elementary school, one of my father’s teachers asked him to lead the class in a “Negro Spiritual.” My father was crippled by embarrassment. His mother went up to the school and reprimanded the teacher. The teacher told my grandmother that she assumed my father knew these songs. The teacher was surprised to hear that my father attended Episcopal services. When my father went to college in Nebraska, he was trapped in cowboy land, as he calls it. Dusty roads and good ol’ boys who rode around in heavy pickup trucks equipped with full gun racks perched on the back. One evening while he was walking home, a truck with some white boys purposefully drove onto the curb, nearly hitting him. His roommate was a shoo-in for a John-Steinbeck-rough-draft of an Oklahoma farmer. He was an unapologetic bigot who threatened my father. His friends urged him to switch rooms before something regrettable happened. My father often wondered if he should become an official member of the Black Panthers, procure some guaranteed form of protection and brotherly camaraderie. I wondered why he didn’t attend an HBCU, given his hometown’s lack of diversity. As always when it comes to higher education, it was a matter of money. But he has also cited his father’s concerns. My grandfather, having been born and raised in North Carolina, did not given the South the benefit of the doubt.
“It’s different down there. You say the wrong thing to some white police officer and you get killed,” he insisted.
My grandfather and my grandmother were thinking of the civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in 1964. My grandfather didn’t trust the cops and neither should my father. My father doesn’t trust the cops. I have to wonder when he’ll more or less teach my brother his same lesson, this same survival skill.
I don’t remember it, but my father says that when I was younger, when I was still able to slip seamlessly into the child’s seat of a grocery carriage, a white woman in a store parking said: “Go back to Africa!” Our offense was something minor and petty, like snagging the parking spot she wanted. I’ve always found this a pathetic insult, a lazy form of cruelty. America’s anti-blackness heavily relies on othering, demonizing humanity in order to remove empathy. This woman didn’t have to use any blunt racial slurs in order to express her prejudice and anti-blackness. She simply used Africa as a key word, a metaphor for inferiority. It is an age-old, image of Africa sprouted by white supremacy, seen in literature considered heavyweights of the classic English cannon such as Heart of Darkness. The late writer Chinua Achebe criticized Conrad and the novel for encouraging stereotypes that diminished Africans to animals. NPR reported that, “Achebe says that once he reached a certain age, he realized that he was “not on Marlow’s ship” but was, instead, one of the unattractive beings Marlow encounters in passing.”
In Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, he referred to Mike Brown as a “demon.” He transformed the eighteen-year-old high school graduate and college freshman as “Hulk Hogan.” In Wilson’s eyes, Mike Brown was both superhuman and unnatural, charging with the blind fury, somehow able to shake off bullets like he were made of teflon. Wilson claimed that at one point, “it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.” The officers that called dispatch about Tamir Rice assumed that the 12-year-old boy was 20-years-old. Racism has a way of turning black people into anything but human.
Benevolent racism evolved from mythologies such as Conrad’s novel. Benevolent racism reminds me of its power when people in higher positions of authority ask if I grew up around “here,” if I was born “here,” if I’m originally from “here,” “here” being a polite substitute for America. Benevolent racism is when my father is at the store and the cashier ignores him in order to help the next white person in line. Benevolent racism was there when Mike Brown was killed. Benevolent racism was there when Eric Garner was killed. Benevolent racism was there when Tamir Rice was killed. Benevolent racism is always dangerous and given the opportune moment, it will strike with ruthless and fatal accuracy.
I tried to talk to my father about Ferguson. Because my heart is aching and I have begun to feel a sense of terror that a child must feel when it stares into the dark and imagines seeing two bright red devil eyes. Except I’m not imaging these tragedies. When I read the news and see yet another story of police brutality and racism, of white supremacy’s bloody victories, hopelessness threatens to destroy me. I tried to talk to my father about these anxieties but he’s burned out. He’s exhausted to the point of startling apathy. Can you really blame him? According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 56 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.” These are bleak figures and certainly justify my father’s lack of optimism. But I wonder if his exhaustion is also part self-defense mechanism. When your survival is political, sometimes shutting down is the best defense, a false chance at an impenetrable psyche.
Vanessa Willoughby is a graduate of Emerson College and The New School. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, The Toast, The Nervous Breakdown, and Thought Catalog. She is the Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com. Tweet her @book_nerd212.
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