Potter’s Field: Part One

By Justin Hogg |

Well, I guess I’ll go out
just the way I came.
People slapping me about,
making me feel the pain.
I’ve lost my soul,
now the devil won’t make a deal.
But there’s a six-foot hole waiting for me
in potter’s field.
Alice Swoboda, “Potter’s Field

“We had a potter’s field on the campus, where Papa used to bury all the colored people in the area whose folks had no money.” — Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years 

 

A potter’s field is a strip of land where strangers to a community that failed them are hauled off to and clumped together like trash in a landfill. These strangers are often but not always the most impoverished and marginalized, whose families didn’t have the means to bury them. And so, they are turned over to the state. Often — such as in one of New York City’s potter’s fields on Hart Island, home to over a million buried beneath the grounds — there are no names or actual gravesites. Just clumps of mud, piles of dirt. What exists in place of remembrance are flawed records, jumbled names, pipes which indicate the position of infant gravesites. Prison inmates paid a couple of quarters every hour toll the fields and use bulldozers to dump the next mass of bodies underground. [1] In a field that cannot be mapped, a ghost field, these bodies belong to no one. They receive no wake, no open casket, no cremation.

What would it mean to think about the potter’s field as a glaring reminder of a system which seeks to erase the systemic problems facing black lives around the world by clumping them all together and burying them under more and more dirt? A system that hopes that by relocating them to a remote island out of reach for any family that they can deter those seeking closure, seeking the truth? That through massification, anyone who seeks to reclaim not the body of the deceased, but the vibrant, lived, and ongoing experiences of blackness will just keep digging and digging, hoping that any limb lodged underground could be their loved one, could be a memory to hold on to?

To reclaim the potter’s field, to identify and map onto that which is perceived to be mapless, anonymous, total, cavernous, inevitable, unending. Do we possess the tools necessary to make sense of this seemingly grim work, done by the successors of those who are rendered breathless for being black? Perhaps the Fisher Price tool kit that we have been given to talk about our past, our experiences, and our hopes of a better world do not suffice. Perhaps we need new tools. Not just to reclaim or redeem stolen lives, but to affirm and lift up those still here. In a recent talk with Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman at Duke University, Moten said the following:

We can’t go around this. We gotta fight through this. Anybody who thinks that they can even come close to understanding how terrible the terror has been without understanding how beautiful the beauty has been against the grain of that terror is wrong. There is no calculus of the terror that can make the proper calculation without reference to that which resists it. It’s just not possible.

“This”— this everyday assault of black death at the hands of state powers. A saturation of stories and death that sanitize us to the point of overlooking the deaths of black women and black trans people. And not just the bodily death done by the hands of the police, but the slow and civil death enacted through housing discrimination, gentrification, incarceration, all the way down to the daily microaggressions suffered in our everyday relations with people who do not and never will understand what it is like being black, whose goal is to blot out black lives totally.

But is to simply map a mapless field enough?


Black Fire

At a bar he recalls sitting at a table of mostly “negroes” during  a friend’s wedding. A white woman, in an uncanny mirroring of Fanon’s famous “Look, a negro!” points to his table and says to her white friends, “Look, there’s O.J. (Simpson) sitting with all those niggers.” His friend at the bar asks him, “Gee, O.J., that must have been terrible for you,” to which O.J. exclaims, laughingly, “No! It was great, don’t you understand? She knew that I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J.!” For O.J., there was no horror at this woman’s recognition of him as a nigger, no explosion or fracturing into parts, no ontological crisis, because she did not recognize him as a nigger, but as O.J., a figure formed selectively by his exploits on the football field, in films, on her television screen. Color him O.J., sitting at a table with people whose hair was nappy, whose skin was dark, and who were radically, savagely different; them niggers, him O.J.

Quarters

1st.
From the ESPY speech given by Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade, to Colin Kaepernick’s sitting out of and kneeling down during the national anthem, black athletes have been vocal and action-oriented this summer in speaking out against gun violence, the murder of black lives at the hands of police, and the more general role of athletes in social change. While Carmelo and his NBA cohorts were unanimously applauded for what they did and said, Kaepernick is being vilified. The reason for this division of reception? Their two approaches to speaking out have been radically different. While the speech at the ESPY’s spoke generally and condemned violence in general, Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem is specifically about the crimes of the United States, which actively seeks to silence and end black lives. In other words, the speech at the ESPY’s was an attempt to build a bridge and repair the damage already done, while Kaepernick’s project is about standing on one side with no intention of walking over to the other. Safety versus risk. Before both of these stories, however — before the big names and superstar involvement — were the women of the WNBA, a majority black league, who, like Kaepernick and other inspired black athletes across the country now, chose a side to stand on — the side of black lives.

In the WNBA this season half of the league’s teams —  Minnesota Lynx, Phoenix Mercury, New York Liberty, Indiana Fever, Seattle Storm, and Washington Mystics — employed a number of approaches, using their platform to protest the extra judicial killings of not just Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, but also the killing of black lives by state violence everywhere. All members of each of these teams participated in the protest. In warm-ups and in press conferences they wore plain black shirts and sweats. Some teams wore shirts that said “Change starts with us, Justice is accountability” with the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling on the back. Other teams wore shirts with the hashtags, “#Black lives Matter” and “#Dallas5.”

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The entire Seattle Storm basketball team dressed in solidarity with Black Lives Matter

This was far more than a cheap fashion statement– like Kobe Bryant wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt during warm-ups in 2014. Players on the Phoenix, Liberty, and Fever rejected the bullshit sphere of the post-game press conference by refusing to answer questions that did not have to do with their protest and Black Lives Matter. Some of the game’s biggest stars, such as Seattle Storm players Sue Bird, and Breanna Stewart, two white women, took to Twitter to post about how silence is betrayal. White silence that is. And it wasn’t just players either, it was a full team effort in every regard. Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve wrote a rejection of All Lives Matter on Twitter, and stood by her team’s decision to protest. But make no mistake about it: in a league that is 70% black, it was black women- Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Tina Charles and others at the forefront. The most vocal protesters were the most vulnerable.

As of 2012-2013 the average WNBA salary was $70,000, probably a bit higher now, while the NBA average was $4.9 million. Some WNBA superstars such as Phoenix Mercury players Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner actually play in Russia and China where they are paid up to 12 times more than in the WNBA. Griner can make around $600,000 for just a four month season in the Chinese league where she makes only $100,000 in the WNBA. Taurasi makes around $1.5 million in the Russian league. This drastic wage-gap becomes a greater issue when the president of the league, Lisa Borders, threatened significant fines of both the teams and individual players: a $5,000 fine for the teams, and a $500 fine to players. The now rescinded fines issued at WNBA players for their protests were based on non-existent dress code rules, mobilized against these women’s bodies at the point of their disruption to expectations about how female players are to protest and specifically how they are to dress prior to the game. This invented dress code rule is telling in that it is only mobilized against women. When Lebron James and the Miami Heat wore hoods for Trayvon Martin, or when multiple teams wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts, there was no threat of a fine. This speaks to the surveillance and constant repression always leveled against the bodies of women.

Players in the WNBA are held to the impossible expectations of operating from a position of close similarity and drastic difference to male athletes. Brittney Griner for instance is harassed by men for dressing how she wants to: in an androgynous manner. Similarly, on the court, her height and dominance in the low post is coded as masculine. I’ve read numerous comments referring to her as “a dude.” At once she is rebuked for not dressing ‘ladylike’ and at the same time is leveled by male critics for her style of play on the court.

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Brittney Griner

Contrast this with the eclectic fashion sense of Russell Westbrook, point guard of the Oklahoma City Thunder. His fashion line includes sleeveless body hugging shirts/skirts, extremely tight leggings, sparkly and ripped up clothes. He wears what he wants, just as Griner does. And expectantly, the response to the things he wears is met with general and harmless exclaim, a “what is he wearing?” But on the whole, people have come to expect it. I’ve scarcely seen him attacked for not dressing ‘manly’ enough. This has a lot to do his play on the court though, being one of if not the most aggressive guards in the game. He viciously attacks the rim with thunderous dunks and is one of the most demonstrative and pumped up players in the game. The difference between Griner and Westbrook is that Griner is not afforded the freedom to dress how she wants, to play the way she knows how, while Westbrook is. If he chooses to dress androgynously, then he is a real ‘game changer’ while Griner is relegated to a position of backwardness.

russell-westbrook-fashion2
Russell Westbrook

What women in the WNBA did in July was not about money, and it damn sure wasn’t about any liberal notion of equality. When tennis legend Venus Williams fought for and achieved equal prize money for women at the Wimbledon tournament in 2006, she must have known that this ‘equality’ would not undo the way that her black body was seen by a mostly white and male audience: black, manly, animalistic. She knew that fighting the All England Club would most likely garner even more hatred than she already faced every time she stepped onto a tennis court, even though she is the Williams sister with more alleged ‘class,’ ‘grace,’ and ‘humility.’ It was clear that the ritualistic, forced handshakes and smiles of The Duke of Kent and All England Club Chairman Tim Phillips would be accompanied by even more glassy eyed transparent disdain, even as she hoisted the gold plate for the fourth time in 2007. No amount of money could make the always threatened lens of white supremacy any less focused.

While an athlete’s body always undergoes a process of devaluation, of thingification, female athletes and specifically women in the WNBA face a more sinister objectification where at once their bodies are picked apart and negated because they are tirelessly compared to the NBA. If players in the WNBA sought to be just equal with the players of the NBA, then they would have sat on their asses and did nothing, then they would have talked about how “The violence has gotta stop,” like Dwyane Wade at the ESPY’s in the most generic of ways. They would have worn “I Can’t Breathe Shirts” once like the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat and been done with it. Amidst this constant torrent, they displayed actual unity and solidarity, not a half-assed and empty gesture towards activism. Not only did black and white women stand together against systemic racism as a team but women of the same class status facing nearly equal monetary discipline from the league showed no fear in the face of spineless pay cuts.

As could be anticipated, their actions have largely been forgotten and made invisible by the actions of men, who don’t face the same risks. For instance, the NFL won’t do anything about Colin Kaepernick, because it brings attention to the league and money in the form of ratings, jersey sales, and media coverage. What he is doing is phenomenal, donating one million dollars of his own to communities in need, as well as the profits for his rocketing jersey sales. But the fact is that the NFL is content to sit back and profit. Kaepernick’s protest has inspired others across the league– players on the Patriots, Chiefs, Rams, Broncos, Titans, Dolphins, Seahawks (namely Eric Reid, not the deplorable team action) to kneel in addition to raising a black power fist, a la Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics. One player who did this, a linebacker for the Broncos named Brandon Marshall, lost his endorsements with Centurylink and Air Academy Federal Credit Union, but has since been offered an endorsement from hip-hop tycoon Russell Simmons. This spread of protests in the NFL has largely been the work of individuals, not entire teams, with the exception of the Seattle Seahawks, who stood for and locked arms with one another in a failed attempt to show ‘unity’ with the anthem. Their action was toothless, and it detracted from the brave actions of kneeling and fist raising players. The NFL would only take action, it seems, if an entire team did what Kaepernick and other individuals are doing. Otherwise, it is still business as usual. Imagine for a minute an entire 53 man team plus the coaching staff kneeling and raising their fists in the air– that would be a statement. As it stands, no white male athlete on the collegiate or professional level has taken a knee or raised a fist.

Where there has been full team involvement has been on the youth level — pop warner, high school JV, varsity squads, college teams, cheerleaders and marching bands all across the country from Charleston high school in East Oakland to Howard University in Washington D.C. And, coming full circle, in the WNBA once again, as the entire Indiana Fever team took a knee during the national anthem with their arms locked before their playoff game on September 22.

fever

This kind of unity is threatening; it actually changes things. When half of the WNBA acted in unison in July, the league had to fine and threaten them with repression because their actions were an actual risk to business — a business that is growing but not exactly booming. The protests of the women of the WNBA showcased a disruption not only to white supremacy, but demonstrated that women, always thrust into the category of “second-class champions,” as Venus Williams wrote in 2006, do not need to operate from a position of or fight for equality with men. Instead, the way to produce actual change is to take direct action, to take a hard stance, despite who is following you, despite the inevitable blowback.

2nd.
It’s game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals in Cleveland and Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors just got tossed out of the game and the arena on a bullshit foul. He removes his mouthpiece — that highly touted mouthpiece, worth $5,000 — and throws it so hard that it hits a Cleveland Cavaliers fan in the second row right on the head. He’s lost it, the commentators say, in shock. Jeff Van Gundy, Jeff Breen, Mark Jackson:“I’ve never seen him lose it like this.” A couple minutes later, Draymond Green, another Warriors player — fresh off his one game suspension for another bullshit call (though he frequently hits men below the belt with his leg) — is arguing with the referee. The ABC commentators, or the Goon Squad as I like to think of them, are predicting what they think will happen next, are formalizing an imaginary to the viewers. They just know Draymond is not going to control himself, they just know that he is going to pick up a technical. Their mouths are salivating at the possibility of his ejection. Steve Kerr, head coach of the Warriors, puts his hands on Draymond, a move telling him to cool it, but Dray won’t stop. He gets Kerr off of him and seems to raise his voice even louder at the ref. And then . . . nothing happens. Draymond and the ref talk, and then they end the transaction. No technical foul, no ejection. Draymond does not throw his mouthpiece and hit a fan in the head, he keeps playing.

What people don’t seem to get is, this is the way Draymond talks, and it’s the way he expresses himself on the court. To white eyes it looks like anger: black anger. Yes, his face is expressive — yes, he raises his voice, opens his mouth wide, is demonstrative. Now, the kicking people in the groin thing has to stop, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Listen to the way they talk about Draymond. It’s one of those, We have to protect him from himself situations. The expectation is that you will keep your mouth shut and avoid getting a technical foul. But this does not account for the fact that no one on the planet knows what a foul is in the NBA. Most calls warrant some disagreement. Sometimes I get frustrated by the way NBA players protest every single call (the likes of Andre Iguodala on the Warriors, with his arms perpetually up in the air indicating: Me?) — but it has gotten to the point for Draymond where referees, commentators and ‘fans’ seem to expect that his screws will become unhinged for no reason.

He flexes after every and 1 (a foul + a made basket), he sticks his tongue out, his mouth is a running faucet, but is this really the first time you have seen this? Hasn’t there been another 23 who played for the Bulls with similar character traits? Does Draymond not fly high enough? Or is it that his tongue is not out when he’s gliding for a dunk? One can, again, take to the online comment section to find what is really being said about Draymond. It isn’t 1982 in the Big East, Georgetown on the road, white cowards with posters of Patrick Ewing reading “Ewing is an ape.” This is an evolved kind of cowardism, but no different. Go read it. Thug. Donkey. Ugly. Dirty. It is not just the same recycled racial slurs thrust onto a new black body, these are specific and pointed. Draymond is made animalistic because his play is hot-tempered, he is stout on defense, because he gets under players’ skin. His play becomes translated onto him, unfairly so. This characteristic is based not only on general ignorance and racism, but on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the body reacts in the arena of competitive sports. Whiteness must limit Draymond to this singular characterization, because the possibility of a black athlete being both a beast on the court and a human being off the court is too much to comprehend.

draymond
Draymond flexing

On the court, I am a bully. I enjoy playing in the low post (the area closest to the basket), the feeling of controlled aggression as your body hits another body. I relish backing down a smaller defender, posting up and shooting right over them. There is a mode that the most dominant big man of all time, Shaquille O’Neal often talks about. To play in the post, you have to have a killer instinct. (Almost) anything goes. People grab your shirt, stick an elbow in your back, push you. What made Shaq such a great big man is that he sought to punish defenders every time he touched the ball. You were not going to deny him. And when he wasn’t playing, he was the most fun loving guy, the goofiest, a jokester. These two facets of Shaq make up who he is. He should not be denied the right to be goofy off the court just because he plays viciously on the court. But so it is to be black.

In another vein, I am reminded of the 2016 playoffs during a postgame press conference after a Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets game. Draymond Green was at the podium. A reporter desperately trying to make a story out of thin air suggested that the recent floods in the Houston area were somehow linked to the Warriors winning and their ‘splashy’ three point shots. Draymond immediately cut the man off and ripped into him, at the same time showing great empathy for the people of Houston. His tone was aggressive but controlled, much like the way he plays and interacts with others on and off the court.

Sometimes, though, one loses control while playing in the post. That elbow digs in your back too hard, he has pushed you with his hands too far. Naturally, you retaliate. It is your body after all. You lower your shoulder, you push back, you dig into the hardcourt when posting up. You are no longer just gaining position, but like an offensive queen on the chessboard you are trying to obliterate any position or chance he could have. This is OK. When your body is black however, you have retaliated before you retaliate. Your actions are assumed to be violent because black has been coded as violent. When you are Draymond Green, the whistle is blown prematurely. Not so for Steph Curry, curiously, whose mouthpiece meltdown will be remembered as an anomaly thanks to the ‘Superstar treatment’ (the disproportionate treatment and application of the rulebook applied to players the world has deemed superstars of the sport). Shaq worked his way up to being a superstar, but still, he could never escape his body, which is still constructed as monstrous and gorilla-like. Draymond on the other hand, fourth best player now on the Warriors, will continue to talk, and some ears will continue to hear him before he has even said anything.

3rd.
I am sitting in the plaza level of Qualcomm stadium. It is a preseason NFL game – The San Diego Chargers vs. the visiting San Francisco 49ers.

I hate Bay Area teams with a vitriol that is irrational and can only be explained through fanaticism. The fanatic, as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano explains in Soccer in Sun and Shadow is:

. . . a fan in a madhouse. His mania for denying all evidence finally upended whatever once passed for his mind. . . In the midst of the rowdy crowd, dangerous centipede, this cowed man will cow others, this frightened man becomes frightening. . . . In an epileptic fit he watches the match but does not see it. His arena is in the stands. They are his battleground. The mere presence of a fan on the other side constitutes an inexcusable provocation. . . . The enemy, always in the wrong, deserves a thrashing. The fanatic cannot let his mind wander because the enemy is everywhere, even in that quiet spectator who at any moment might offer the opinion that the rival team is playing fairly. [2]

Clear in Galeano’s characterization of the fanatic is that the localization of provocation is not directed at the players themselves and whatever actions they have done, but with the “enemy” who in my view are Bay area fans. It is not that I was glad that Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks batted down Colin Kaepernick’s 4th down pass attempt in the 2013 NFC Championship because I wanted each and every player on the San Francisco 49ers to lose so badly. It is that it gave me satiation and pleasure that I could rub it in the face of every 49ers fan I knew. When The Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals I fanatically took to social media to jab it in the eye of all of the enemies. The fanatic “watches the match but does not see it” because they are not watching the match for pleasure or enjoyment. The fanatic has lost the ability to enjoy a great game just for its objective greatness, for the ebbs and flows of a great game. What they enjoy is that the enemy team lost, because they are wrong, objectively.

So tonight, I find myself rooting not for the 49ers, but for Colin Kaepernick. Because I want every racist/nationalist/bigot who has the audacity to boo him to lose. Kaepernick has been sitting during the national anthem before every game, and tonight, as he sits, I sit.

There is a racist white man standing next to me, shouting at Kaepernick from the safety of his seat some 60 yards away from the field and only two seats away from me, “You fucking bitch! Get the fuck out of our country!” His hatred can be explained as well, and it has absolutely nothing to do with fanaticism or sports. He says “bitch” but I know what he really means, I know what he means to say but cannot because he is a coward. The woman who is with him appears flustered but not shocked, patting him on his drunk chest, lazily telling him to stop it. A group of cops, whose patrols are doubled surely because Kaepernick is in town, walk up to our row. “Hey! You want me to throw you out before the game even starts!?” I’m laughing, their green vests a couple of inches from my body. Still pigs. I wonder if they see my shirt. It has a target over the body of a cop on the back, but most people only see that. They do not see that the cop already has his gun drawn, looking off in the distance, ready to pull the trigger. Meanwhile, the racist has quieted for a second, on timeout like a good boy at the command of the pigs. I wonder why there are so many cops here. In the Bay, in similar fashion to the cops who walked out of a Minnesota Lynx game in July, Santa Clara police are affirming that, yes, their job entails murdering unarmed black people. The police union is threatening that they will stop working 49ers games if the 49ers do not “discipline” him. Perhaps some of those cops have arrived here.

In San Diego, it is military night at Qualcomm Stadium. A night filled with war machine and imperialist propaganda at every turn. On the jumbo screen, United States marines tell us that we are not loud enough, and “Go Chargers!” from their positions in places that they should not be. They try and rile us up, not just for the sake of cheering our team on but cheering our country’s continued imperialist project. Yes, propaganda, paid for by the Pentagon in fact. To my right I hear ‘Hoo-rah!’s’, flaring up and dying out like wildfire. And the 49ers are coming out. I look for #7, as does everyone else in the stadium. He appears on the field, his afro a clear marker. Immediate boos. I try and sift through the decibels but all I hear is the white man to my left.

Then, the national anthem. Since it is military night, it is grandiose and over the top, a massive flag and a marching band. But no one really cares about that here. They are looking for the man sitting. From our seats he cannot be seen. The crowd has the gall to get in another quick boo before the actual anthem begins, and then again after it is over. I am sitting down as well but no one notices that, no one calls me a bitch or tells me to get out of the country. Because that is the kind of situation this is. Here we have the Trump-esque racism that is and isn’t, but definitely is. The substitution of words in an attempt to mask what these white people really feel. Not a “bitch” but a nigger. I wish white people would just say it already, in a place that wasn’t protected like the online comment section. I’m glad that I decided to come, so that they have to hold their tongues.

Kaepernick, meanwhile, is trying to concentrate on football now. He needs a strong performance because his status on the team still isn’t defined. He could be the starter with a good performance, but he could also be cut. On the first possession, amidst heavy boos every time he lines up behind the center, he leads the 49ers eighty yards down the field and they score a touchdown. I make overt and demonstrative gestures with my hands at every first down, encouraging Kaepernick with clenched fists and claps. I am shooting glances to my left and right, hoping someone will engage with me. The crowd is silent. They cannot say anything because they don’t have an excuse to act out on their own. His excellence has shut them up. For a series, Kaepernick hushes their weak attempt to mask their true intentions and anger in the ambience of the crowd which cannot be attacked but must be accepted as the majority for its noisy duration.

4th.
Gymnastics is a sport about presentation. Girls and women must smile on the floor routine, with copious amounts of makeup caked on their faces, must flex their hands with grace and purpose. On the vault they must give a courtesy to the judges after landing ridiculous 720 degree twists and flips. On the bars they must keep their toes pointed or face point reductions. All of this is done to impress the judges, who could remove tenths of points because due to fallible perceptions of error. I find this realm of gymnastics to be a kind of analogy to the lived experience of black girls and women across the world, who are never good enough in the lens of white eyes.

A picture captivated me a few weeks ago. It was the image of a young girl, who could be no more than 14 with her arms in an x, her face stone cold against the gaze of a white man. It struck me first because I saw the same x during the Olympics from marathon silver medalist of Ethiopia, Feyisa Lilesa, in protest of the ethnic cleansing of the Oromo people by the Ethiopian government. This girl’s name was Zulaikha, just 13 years old, and she is a student at Pretoria Girls High, an all girl’s school in South Africa. She was protesting the outlandish regulation and treatment of black and African girls at the school, who have been continually harassed and forced to straighten and alter their natural hair. Zulaikha is one of many girls facing white supremacy dead on, herself already forced to leave three schools over her hair prior to arriving at Pretoria.

The girls’ protest got much attention thanks to a Twitter hashtag “#StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh.” Zulaikha was made a hero by some, including me, in the perhaps too-rapid sharing of images without the needed contextual thought and attention that they require. It is true that in the quick heroization of young black girls their humanity and pain can be erased in the hands of certain groups. I did not realize this until I saw a picture of Zulaikha in tears with another girl. It broke my heart, reminding me that struggle is not just about a fist raised in the air, confrontation, but ultimately about remembering our humanity and shared love for what and who we are fighting for, for our most vulnerable people: young black girls. As Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, “Photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed.” [3]  Zulaikha became a possession, animated only as a revolutionary symbol. There was a tension, I realized, between strength and collapse. For us, the ones who just view the picture, we can assign her the status of hero and go on with our lives. But for Zulaikha, this publicity puts another target on her back that she and her family have to live with.

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Zulaikha Patel

This tension gets played out in gymnastics quite often– not only in the slip of balance on a beam, but in a botched vault landing, in the stepping out of bounds during the floor routine. Four years ago, USA gymnast Gabby Douglas was America’s golden girl. All around gold medalist, winning pretty much everything. Four years later she has been falsely deemed a bitter and ungrateful black woman. She didn’t go through the motions as she was expected to, and white America crucified her.

Overcome with joy after helping her team win gold in the team competition, she let out some laughs during the national anthem, a perfectly reasonable and natural occurrence, even happening to the great white hope, Michael Phelps. She didn’t hold her hand over her heart. Does anyone know why people put their hand over their hearts during the anthem? Since there is no definitive answer anywhere I have looked, I am going to take a page from the playbook of racist trolls online and go with an uncredited source. This source suggests that in the olden days of American glory, knights would put their hand over their hearts to indicate to the leaders that be that they had no weapons on their person. Gabby’s entire black body is viewed as a weapon.

Just like that white man at the football game, white America hid behind certain words to deny and save face about how they really felt. When Gabby didn’t stand up and clap like her teammates for fellow gymnast and current black golden girl Simone Biles, she was called “salty.” We know what you mean when you say salty. You mean what the white racist at the football game said about Kaepernick.

Black girls and women balance on a beam where both sides lead to misery. They move from bar to bar, and everyone in the crowd hopes they fall. Their heels and toes are met with extra surveillance. Sticking the landing to perfection always yields a judge who finds some error, however miniscule. They stepped out of bounds, they stepped out of bounds! It’s not fair, her body’s built to beat me!


If I could just get off of this L.A. freeway/Without getting killed or caught/I’d be down that road in a cloud of smoke/For some land that I ain’t bought — Guy Clark

ojcar
A white Ford Bronco

This is the first time I’ve watched the footage of the famous white Ford Bronco cruising down the L.A. freeway. It didn’t exist until it was packaged and neatly wrapped up in a bow for me to open as part of a 464 minute series on its driver — until it confronts me in beautiful high definition courtesy of ESPN films. I count 15 LAPD squad cars behind the Bronco but my mother tells me there were more. Glances are exchanged in my living room, the typical questions floating around. Do you remember that mom?– my mother asks my grandmother. I am astounded– something appearing on my television that I’ve never seen, a lull in the archive. On the television they are keeping pace with the Bronco but they could surely be driving faster, they could surely have overtaken the driver by now. It is now not a question of are they escorting him, but to where. I squint my eyes to try and make out the profile of the man behind the wheel. He can’t be black, can he? If he were really black he would have been shot by now! Why are they just letting him stroll down the highway? Where are the spike strips, where is the police aggression? The helicopter camera reveals an apparent twenty two year gap wedged between my current confusion and white America at the time. Did I want this man to be Rodney King? My riveted pupils reflect my shock. Meanwhile, the driver is cruising, not careening, pulling up to what the reporters on the television say is his home in Brentwood, Los Angeles. I still don’t believe he’s black, even as his black son is restrained and escorted away by police, even as images of a LAPD officer with a shotgun sits and waits in his house, even as O.J.’s black body exits the vehicle obscured in the Los Angeles summer night.

 ***

 

Works Cited

[1] Bernstein, Nina. “Unearthing the Secrets of New York’s Mass Graves.” The New York Times. N.p., 15 May 2016. Web. 1 Oct. 2016.

[2] Galeano, Eduardo. Soccer in Sun and Shadow. London: Verso, 1998. Print.

[3] Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Print.

Also consulted: the 30 for 30 documentary “O.J.: Made in America”

Cover photo from Andrew Hill’s 1964 album Black Fire.

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