About three years ago, I wrote a story as I made my way back home to the Virgin Islands from the States. I said what I had to say after nearly 28 years of a specific experience was upended by the realization that not all Black experiences are the same. I can now say after a few extra years to unpack my words through conversations with people such as my friend Kurt Marsh Jr., and Hadiya Sewer, who has a Brown University Ph.D. in African American Studies - both from native St. Johnian families - I have a much better understanding of why I spent so long in the dark.
Ironically, I heard these sentiments echoed today in the all staff meeting at Living Cities, where I am a summer intern. During the meeting, a Ghanaian mentioned her experience in learning to understand the Black American experience, one that I also did not quite understand.
The Black experience in the Caribbean is far different from the one in the States. During the slave trade, the Caribbean was brutal, both in the treatment of slaves and in their battle for freedom. In many cases, plantations were abandoned because the slaves were quick to fight back given the proximity and ratio of slaves to the colonizers not present stateside. This has inherently affected how Blacks in the Caribbean understand and view the past and deal with current racial issues. This coupled with the more obvious fact that Black people are the majority in these communities – or were. That last statement indeed requires more discussion, but perhaps a different time.
Due to these advantages, I believe the concept of fear built into our brethen’s DNA is absent from those in the Virgin Islands. Bear in mind this is my observation, and I am not trying to state any significant fact that can be backed up with data. I have however witnessed and lived many of these interactions, or they have been evident to me during conversations in mixed groups. For context, my brother graduated high school and attended Boston College. There is a story he told me of a time he was waiting outside his dorm for a friend when the police approached him and asked what he was doing there. He immediately became defensive asking them what their problem was, and it escalated into an argument. Looking at our current climate with all the suspect police shootings happening to our Black and brown people, I always wonder about that encounter and how dangerous it really was. But he is a Caribbean man, and his understanding of the Black and police dynamic is very different. He has no ingrained fear of the police, he had no idea of its possible consequences. That is how I lived for a long time.
So, let me tell you when I finally woke up.
July 5, 2014. I stand among friends and family as I wait for her to walk down the aisle. At the end of the ceremony she will be mine and I hers, forever. With that came a responsibility I was not aware of.
She is a dark-skinned, Black, female, veteran. Raised by a single mother on welfare and Disability Benefits in the projects of Savannah, Ga., she had no real father. At 16, she lost her mother.
In the Virgin Islands, the community is about 70 percent Black-Caribbean. As a mixed kid, I was often teased for things I now look back on and realize were privileges. I spoke “proper” English and was referred to as rich-boy. My father built a business from the ground up and did rather well for himself and his family. White-boy was the general term for my presence, and I resented it. The whites were much friendlier and accepting, I am sure they understood my plight and took pity on my condition. I went to the best schools available, which further ostracized me from the local crowd, and left for college with a severe chip on my shoulder.
August 23, 2002. Stateside freedom. I arrive at Syracuse University and find myself immediately under assault with the categorization of Black. My whole life I have wanted to be Black and denied that by my community, and now suddenly that is what I am. I am now Black, and that is what I have to be. I throw my hands up, “No.” I am not Black, I am not white, I am mixed, to deny one would be to deny my mother or father. But I am not given this choice. The whites have nothing to say. They exclude me with their silence, a drop of oil in the water, I am tainted. The Blacks are very militant. You are not mixed, you are Black, you can’t be a house nigger, you have to be in the fields with the rest of us.
I wonder, “What is wrong with Black people? Why are you so angry?”
I lived like this for years, between Syracuse, transferring to Savannah, and living in New York City. For years I thought that the Black Panthers were terrorists, HBCUs were exclusive and divisive, Black fraternities are militant, and so forth. Black people are some of the most prejudiced people I know. Slavery and oppression were in the past, get over it. Get over it.
September 2, 2012. I am 28 years old and talking to an old crush. I purchase a ticket to see her in California, and we will see where this goes. Heck, she moves to New York City to make a go of it.
During this time, Trayvon Martin was murdered. “What a sad story,” I said. And then Zimmerman is acquitted, “This is a sad day for America. Poor family. Why are you shaking, love?” I said to her. She looked like a bomb about to go off. She has never been good at keeping her emotions off of her face.
The conversation starts; me with my view of the world, being the typical devil’s advocate I always have been. She draws on her own experiences. We argue and discuss. I am adamant that she is overreacting. “It was isolated after all. Yes, he seems rather racist in the context of the situation, but there are always going to be those few outliers. It is not America as a whole, Blacks are afforded every opportunity everyone else is. You (yes, I actually said you) always think the man is out to get you. I have always had more problems with prejudice from Blacks than I have from whites. You all are so jaded, so angry, so militant.”
July 5, 2014. She meets me at the end of the aisle under the arch in my home’s courtyard. I am hers, and she is mine. Eric Garner dies in a choke hold two weeks later. Not one month goes by, Michael Brown is shot.
I am a bit confused at this point. I have always had a healthy respect for the law, but I am beginning to wonder why these people are getting killed under rather thin circumstances. I mean at the end of the day this is the loss of life. That is a problem. As a society, we already scoot away from the death penalty, but executions seem a bit rash. I don’t know, maybe I am crazy to think it’s a bit severe.
There is no confusion on her face. I start to get a good look at her reality. It is her brother she sees face down, bullets in his back, bleeding into the asphalt under the hot sun. If you break the law, you lose your life. There is fear in her eyes. Mind you, I am still trying to rationalize the situation, but before I can even formulate the words hell opens in Ferguson. Her fear boils over into anger, and the town erupts into frustration and angst. “No! Don’t do that, violence solves noth– Are those freaking tanks?” I watched American citizens in occupied territory. It is The Siege in real life. “Well, this just went wrong.”
Every day is a constant battle. Watching my Facebook feed fill up with frustration, juxtaposed by the cute puppy videos. There is a very distinct separation forming right in front of me, and somehow many people do not see it.
28 years and within two I have already begun to unravel. This idea I had was built on some sort of lie I told myself. It is so apparent now that I wonder why it remains so difficult for some to recognize.
The next two years felt like a shooting gallery, peppered with grenades every few months. And during the riots is when it becomes evident. “Did they just call those people animals?”
Now I sit here and wonder, do you not recognize there is a problem? I see Native American’s in North Dakota, do you not recognize there is a problem? Colin Kaepernick takes a knee against injustice, do you not recognize there is a problem? Tiarah Poyau murdered for saying no, do you not recognize there is a problem? Stanford’s rape victim could bump into her assailant, do you not recognize there is a problem? My wife, across from me, she sits, vulnerable but strong. She lives in a different America. She lives in a different reality. Empathy is no longer foreign to me. I realize, with absolute truth, I’m just another nigger in America Was blind, but now I see.