by Terrell Woolfolk-Carter
For centuries, we, the descendants of kidnapped and enslaved Africans, have existed in a simmering cauldron of poverty, inequality, and discrimination. Whether it be housing, education, loans, health care, nutrition, employment or criminal justice, not one of us have been left unscarred. Some of us have been swimming against a tide of systemic and institutionalized racism for so long that our limbs have finally become fatigued, our strokes against the tide have finally faltered, and we’ve breathed in waters of Inferiority, causing us to drown in the service of white supremacy.
We are born into a world where our bodies are not our own, it is a place where on a whim they can be caged and stripped of animation. We’ve been brutalized and lynched, our helplessness, our shame, has been televised, sensationalized, and broadcast to the world like a reality T.V. show. But when George Floyd cried out for his momma before his last breath was viciously taken from him there was this visceral anguish, a collective pain felt all around the world causing that simmering cauldron to explode, engulfing cities across the country in a conflagration of pain, righteous anger and frustration.
During that first night of the uprisings my vision was being funneled through this narrowly defined tunnel of anger, trapping me in a blind rage, limiting how I interpreted what I was seeing to: (here they go again putting out to the world that someone else has to tell us that we should be enraged, that it is someone else instigating our reactions, that it is someone else causing divisions amongst the American people. That the systemic oppression and murder of people of color in and of itself is not enough for us to see, to feel, the weight of oppression. Someone, maybe the Russians, are pointing these things out to us). I felt insulted that people would dismiss our righteous rage as outside instigated as if we weren’t sophisticated enough to understand that we were being brutalized.
On top of that on that first day there were these contextless images projected to the world of out-of-control black people stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down. Although I knew better, because my life was the context, I still felt myself being influenced by what I saw, making those tunnels walls sticky with shame and judgements.
It wasn’t until the next day after talking to my sister and then a real good friend of mine that I was able to realize that there are several things that can be true at the same time. 1: There are outside agitators, agent provocateurs, who have opposing agendas that show up at peaceful demonstrations to disrupt, and cause chaos. 2: There are people who are righteously enraged and want to strike out violently. 3: There are people who, as they see it, will take advantage of opportunities to make their lives better. 4: There are people who organize peaceful protest to demand from those in power an end to racial oppression.
The existence of one does not eliminate the others. For me this realization was important because it gave me a more holistic view that ultimately provided me with a bit more clarity. So as I sat in a penitentiary cell, with my view of the world as small as the 19 inch T.V. screen that I saw it through, I was able to provide myself some context which I would definitely need as events transpired before me.
I watched with a morbid fascination at a city ablaze in fury, desperation, frustration and flames. Because of my newly found clarity I was able to deconstruct the tunnel that my vision was being funneled through, which allowed me to suspend the judgements that I could feel threatening to overwhelm me. I continued to watch as my emotions swirled in a collage of confusion from this nostalgic kind of sadness to an unbridled fury as chaos reign in a West Philadelphia neighborhood. Why though, why such such a varied range of emotions? Well, it was more than likely because, I’m from West Philly, 52nd Street to be exact, that was my neighborhood full of smoke and the burning shells of police cars. The same streets I roamed in a codeine induced haze almost thirty years ago are the same streets that were littered with discarded clothes and sneakers dropped by panicked teenagers and young adults who scurried out of ransacked stores, with arm loads full of self-esteem. For me it was personal. It was almost like watching a younger version of myself, there’s no doubt in my mind that had the exact same circumstances that had cities across the country on fire, existed when I was young I would have been doing the same thing.
I could relate, for I possessed an intimate knowledge of what it meant to be a boy-man, broke, and not feeling good about who you are, I know what it feels like to be called a nigger, to become lost in the black hole at the barrel end of a gun because I was born suspect. I know what it feels like to live in a world that determines your worth by the materials you own. I know what it feels like to not have the means to acquire the materials and how that in turn leaves you trapped in this desperate world of consumption where the most important thing in life becomes the pursuit of the “feel good”. I know what it feels like to be invisible and everything you need to be seen is on the other side of a plate glass window and then, a brick flies, glass shatters, and the window, the barrier to what you believe is a better you, is gone.
I watched my young brothers and sisters, the products of an inequitable distribution of wealth and resources take the things that they felt would give their lives some worth. Young people who’s future considerations only stretched to the next moment of the ” feel good”, who lacked the capacity to understand that their actions would be used against them without context, that what they did in the moment would be used to separate them from the communities they come from, so that when they are swallowed whole by a steel and and concrete beast no one will hear their cries as they are eaten alive.
Conditions of poverty and racism can determine reactions and all those responses will differ. There is no such thing as a monolithic response to oppression, not everyone who struggles to breathe under the weight of white supremacy will protest peacefully. Some of us will react violently to that oppression, some of us will simply react not understanding what it is we are reacting to, causing harm to ourselves and the people who are close to us. But, what we can never lose sight of is the fact that, that these things are not the causes of societies ills but, instead they are the effects of a racist system of oppression, they are symptoms of a sickness that this country has been afflicted by since its inception, and not the disease.
“Riots are the voice of the unheard,” has been an often used quote by Dr. King especially as of late. But what did Dr. King mean by this quote? Was he referring to the marching, the slogan shouting, the songs, the verbal confrontations, the kneeling of peaceful protesters where the police in some instances knelt with, prayed with, and hugged protesters, creating this false perception of everything’s gonna be alright. Or was Dr. King referring to the sounds of plate glass windows shattering, the roar of gunfire discharges, police gas tanks and tear gas cannisters exploding. Was he referring to the crackling of the blazing infernos that fed off the combustion of our rage or the acrid odor of black smoke filling the skylines of American cities, or was Dr. King describing the worn down rubber soles of 200.00. dollar Air Jordans pounding on city streets weighed down by stolen salvation. Or did he mean that the voice of the unheard is all these things in combination, an expression of pain from the marginalized and oppressed that echo off the memories of broken black bodies buried in graveyards all over the country. It is imperative that those of us who are aware do not become so caught up in our seemingly desperate need to be inclusive, apologetic, non-threatening, and non- offensive, that we end up turning blind eyes and deaf ears towards those of us, that in their struggle to just be, give voice to their existence. For if we don’t listen, if we continue to ignore that voice, to shun it, be embarrassed by it, then we will be turning our backs on those of us who are lost and stuck in those spaces of, chasing fools gold, leaving them trapped in a chase to catch what can’t be caught, and without all of us together pushing forward to dismantle the yoke of oppression that has us all trapped, our potential to be all that we can be, will never be, dooming us to a failed future that keeps repeating itself. The End