Nobody had ever talked to me like this before: not Granddaddy, not any of my regular teachers, and definitely not Mama. In my family, we all moved in the same direction, hustling and scheming and getting nowhere. That was the path laid out in front of me. But now here was Miss Troup–in all her leather-boot and red-fingernail finery–telling me I could go another way. I took a deep breath and gazed at my reflection. You can do anything and be anything, I thought, trying it on for size. But I wasn’t totally convinced I had a place in Miss Troup’s world of “possibilities” and “potential.”

~ From Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat, Patricia Williams

I Fell Down a Hole: In the Heat of the Night

I am currently sitting, eyes closed in a hole I created by playing the television show In the Heat of the Night in the background while writing something completely unrelated. It started, as most things do in my life, with the theme song, particularly the part of the song I’m used to hearing at the opening of an episode:

In the heat of the night
I’ve got trouble wall to wall
Oh yes I have
I repeat in the night
Must be an ending to it all
But hold on, it won’t be long
Just you be strong
And it’ll be all right
In the heat of the night

This inevitably led to me to the original film score Quincy Jones composed and Ray Charles’ recording of the same song:

Next, I found myself reading John Ridley’s foreword to the Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary Edition of John Ball’s novel, In the Heat of the Night. In it, Ridley describes the main character Virgil Tibbs as a “black man more carefully constructed than fully realized, an approximation of life designed to thwart a common enemy but to be of no threat to its originator.” My curiosity has been inflamed, to say the least. Now I want to know more. How did this book lead to an Oscar-winning movie starring Sidney Poitier and a television series that was certainly a familiar presence in my home? Maybe reading the book will offer some insight. I don’t know. For now I’m still in the hole, digging deeper.

We often assign music one task—to move us. We want it to make us sad, make us cry, make us happy, make us dance. In my opinion, the best songs ever written are the ones that give me what my heart wants, but also meet me where my head is.

And where is my head right now?

There’s always someone tryin’ to take someone’s power away.
The history of the world is violent. Will it ever change?
Now we’re livin’ in a time where you just can’t hide
There’s a camera in every hand
It’s not elusive. Even when they treat you like you’re useless,
We know what the truth is.

India.Arie, “Breathe”

My head is burdened by thoughts I’m very tired of thinking. It’s almost impossible to understand how a people could deem themselves so superior that they would enslave another. Or how after decades of fights for freedom, we somehow still need to explain that we aren’t yet free and stand aside while the powerful, the wealthy, the white trivialize this perpetual war.

The Constitution
A noble piece of paper
With free society
Struggled but it died in vain
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner
Hoping for some rain
Looks like it’s hoping
Hoping for some rain…

Gil Scott-Heron, “Winter in America”

In an effort to be kind, I’ll admit it is different now. We don’t walk around with our chains visible. But they’re there. A lot of us are bound by poverty and an inability to sustain ourselves financially, a state rooted in a system of slavery and racism conceived long before we were. Most of us are wondering why, so many years later, we even have to have a conversation about representation. Among these and many others, all of us are wondering why the mandate for an encounter with a black person is to shoot first and ask questions later.

Black human packages tied in subsistence
Having to justify your very existence
Try if you must, but you can’t have my soul
Black rage is made by ungodly control…

Lauryn Hill, “Black Rage”

When love beckons you, follow him
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

~From The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

Grief and remembrance are not sacrificed to the false gods of propriety and decorum but released into the air like primal music, channeled through the congregation in a collective discharge of pain.

~ From The Quiet Game, Greg Iles

 

I really only have one thought about Greg Iles’ The Quiet Game. It’s a thought I vaguely remember having while reading the Natchez Burning Trilogy. These stories always start with the death of black people, but end with these deaths being little more than a footnote. Sure details of their demise are woven into the twists and turns of the plot, but whiteness remains central. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Maybe Natchez, Mississippi is like most places in this country where the sudden and tragic deaths of black people are background noise to the interests of the majority.

All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity. Haunted by wrong turns and roads not taken, we pursue images perceived as new but whose provenance dates to the dim dramas of childhood, which are themselves but ripples of consequence echoing down the generations. The quotidian demands of life distract from this resonance of images and events, but some of us feel it always.

~ From The Quiet Game, Greg Iles

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

~ From The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

I want this to be real. Maybe it would be if she had gentle hands. Her hands are calloused, rough, sharp, hard, tough. Her pride is intrusive. Maybe I could believe this if his strong silence had come after I spilled my emotions and not after she hurled ridicule. Maybe if their opinions were set aside to make room for mine, this could finally feel true. Maybe I could live, confidently.

Instead I shudder because I fear the fight. I keep my life sheltered and distant because it’s the only way I have the strength to truly live it my way. I step away when I feel pushed. I walk away injured by opinions and exhausted by the tension between respect and self-respect. I close my eyes and arms to the possibility of progress because I’ve battled too long to hope for different.

You give people hope; then the pendulum swings the wrong way and they’re left shattered, as much by false hope as by misfortune.

The Quiet Game, Greg Iles

 

Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.

~ Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning”
From The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race