When I was a kid, I always seemed to get in trouble for talking in class. I didn’t talk more than the average kid; I was just trying to stay engaged in the conversation. Other kids would talk, I would talk back. Crack a few jokes. Seemed the polite thing to do. But no matter how I played it, it always turned out that I was the one who would make the teacher turn from the chalkboard, drop her hands, and give me that withering look, forcing me to bow my head like a scolded dog. It made me feel helpless. And I really didn’t want to cause anyone any trouble.
In most of my classrooms, I was the only black boy.
I’m not sure if this was in any way related to getting in trouble for talking. But then that’s the thing about race. You always have to wonder if it’s related.
One time a teacher explained it to me: “It’s not your fault. It’s because your voice carries.” Does my voice carry because I’m the only black kid in class? I wondered. I was about 10 years old. It was the first time I remember feeling like I was being punished for something about me that I didn’t choose.
These days we are forced to keep responding to and dealing with someone’s reaction to something about us, often something we didn’t choose. It’s in the eyes of people who cross the street to avoid being close to us. It’s in the eyes of police officers who look either at you or through you, as the case may be. It’s in the brisk pounding of your heart the moment you see a black-and-white cruiser, and in the way you plan to keep your children calm if you are pulled over. It’s in the tweets you receive, in which perfect strangers call you and your children “monkey” or “nigger” or “chimp.” It’s in the tweets you receive, wherein people complain about the fact that you don’t like it when people call you and your children “monkey,” “nigger,” or “chimp.”
Racism is — to understate it — frustrating. I try not to gripe too much about, because being always told by white people to “stop whining” has its own destructive effect. But the most difficult aspect is the lingering sense that we didn’t even ask to come here. A nagging, persistent feeling that we were minding our own business when we were snatched up, forced on a boat, and randomly chosen to be subjected to four centuries of hell. And for what reason?
I thought about this when I was watching Kanye’s recent deliverance of the divine single “Ultralight Beam” on Saturday Night Live. As per usual, the Chicago icon put on a graceful visual performance of a thematically transcendent track — a live-form music video that somehow managed to plant the spiritual vigor of black gospel on an digitally eternal backdrop. Kanye these days may be an unholy mess on Twitter, but his work is indeed a God Dream. It’s boundless and brief, unbridled and simple, clean and lush. Kanye posits an unpolluted Afrofuturist response to the bedraggled grind of being black in 2016.
The Life of Pablo happened to drop with typically idiosyncratic fanfare during Black History Month, that 28-day stretch in which corporations subject us to dusty footage, staid speeches, musty statues, and old black folks exhumed and carted about for their annual parade through the commercial landscape. The subversive bullshit of Black History Month as it is routinely practiced is that we are forced to live with the idea of blackness being something long past; a dead pantheon of former slaves and 19th-century inventors in wire-rimmed glasses. That is to say, black people that are without threat because they are without presence. This must be much more comforting for people than the current version of blackness, because when Beyoncé or DeRay celebrate their race, they are bombarded with threats and shouts of “sit down and shut up” by the very same people who pin MLK quotes on their own timelines. Everyone, it seems, is OK with historical blackness. Far fewer people are cool with blackness in real time. This is what makes the Afrofuturist Black God Dream so potent. It affirms a future for us rather than celebrating a past.
Black people who are here are here because we have been taken a long way from home. For reasons that we don’t understand, that we will never understand. If the primary existential question of humanity is “Why,” then the primary existential question of black humanity is “Why us?” Implied in this question is the idea that it didn’t have to be; that there exists some reality in which we were not made to endure slavery and its attendant horror, struggle, and misery. There must, somewhere, exist a reality in which we are free. Occasionally when I catch the eye of another black person at a stoplight or on the street and we look at each other, I find myself thinking of the past 400 years we’ve been through together. I wonder what it would be like if I were free to love this person? If I were free to hold them as closely to my heart as I hold my own children? What if I were free to proclaim that love, to honor it without being tone-policed and accused of reverse racism or some such ludicrousness? What if we were free to be safe, free to be sane? What if we could dance and sing freely without being told we were too loud? What if our children were free to play, unconcerned, as they are now, with the possibilities of their own death?
What if we had a Black Utopia?
The Panthers tried it. What if, they asked in true Bay Area entrepreneurial spirit, we weren’t beat by racist cops and our children had food to eat every day? A scant 40 years too early for venture funding, they financed their dreams with a publishing company that sold newspapers and served the children of Oakland free breakfast. Nonetheless, this work earned a lot of people police bullets and prison sentences. Twenty-one-year-olds died on bloody mattresses at the hands of the Chicago PD. Men spent literal decades in solitary confinement. Utopia is hard.
This hasn’t been lost on Kanye, or on anyone in the hip-hop genre, for that matter, which has built a robust visual library of black people at peace. In fact, it may be that the brightest examples of Black Utopia today are to be found in music videos. Whether it’s the unfettered technicolor communal joy of Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad,” or the dark and intimate club comfort of Rihanna’s video for “Work,” even the most clichéd of videos are likely to present a version of life in which black people experience the elusive idea of serenity and satisfaction. This is one of the (many) reasons hip-hop videos almost automatically strike us as unrealistic. Because the subjects are not suffering, a state of being we instinctively understand to be divorced from reality. One of the most far-reaching and iconic of these is Tupac’s “I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto.” The video, shot posthumously and set days after Pac’s 1996 murder in Las Vegas, tells the story of his ascent to heaven, depicted here as the bright-red clay of New Mexico. Director Lionel C. Martin brilliantly solves the problem of Pac’s recent death by shooting the entire video from the rapper’s point of view, allowing us to taste for a moment what it would mean to be free. We see smooth adobe buildings with intricate, Islam-inspired craftwork and cool tile floors. Sheer curtains drape diffusing sunlight over children sitting in circles reading. An old man gives us a ride and offers a smoke. We have a drink at a bar. We walk into a diner. Everyone knows us. A guy almost bumps into us, but apologizes. He has nothing to prove. And neither do we. We sit down and are handed a gleaming white cup of hot coffee. Everything is just fine. It’s a prosaic heaven, which is what makes it all the more seductive. The video suggests that the most fanciful departure from our daily life, the life beyond our wildest dreams, is simply one in which we are not routinely bothered.
We all pine for a world we don’t have. That nostalgic desire is woven into our most ancient stories. But African-Americans are, by circumstance, afflicted with a particularly potent strain of this human condition. We experience such an arbitrary form of institutional suffering, and have for so long, that it stuns the mind to think that we were selected for this for no apparent reason. And that it continues in all its forms. Subtle, aggressive, dismissive, violent, dishonest, seething — and perhaps, somewhere in our DNA, we can remember when there was another place, another land. But it is only a memory. There is no there. And for many of us, there is no here, either.
Chance The Rapper delivers a blistering verse on “Ultralight Beam,” during which he stacks speed upon a passionate plea until he finally breaks rhythm with this simple invocation: “This is my part. Nobody else speak. This is my part. Nobody else speak.” It’s a devastating moment, and one that finally makes good on the song’s persistent threat to go beyond music. It makes me wonder if maybe the closest most black people can come to heaven is the freedom to speak without being told for the 397th year in a row to be quiet. Maybe heaven is just a place where you can let your voice carry.