“We speak of heaven as if we’ve been there. As if heaven was a mile away.”
There are few things I love more than watching black people joyfully greet each other. There is much to be made of the act, in almost any setting, even though the tone of it may vary. The familiarity of a too-forceful slap on the back during a hug, or the more gentle How your mama doin’? pitched across a parking lot while someone throws down their bags and makes their way over for a hug. The more subtle nuances of a joyful greeting, sometimes rooted in relief or exhaustion: I walk through a sea of white faces in Salt Lake City, or Portland, or anywhere in America where I am made especially aware of the space I am occupying and how I am occupying it. From the sea emerges another lone black face, perhaps two. We lock eyes, raise an eyebrow, smile, and give a nod. One that says: I see you, and you see me. Even if no one else does, we know we’re still here.
It is an art, really. One that, like all institutions of black joy, gets dissected, parroted, and parodied — but only the language that comes from the body, and rarely the language that is spoken. On the other end of the jovial How you been doin? that bursts from the mouth of someone who you haven’t seen in awhile is often a response of “all right,” or “fine,” or, a favorite among people I know, “I’m working on it.”
I sometimes consider this, how marginalized people quantify their own lives when compared to others who occupy the same world as we do. I say that I’m “all right” even when I’ve had good days. My father, a caring and deeply thoughtful person, has been “all right” for all of the years I’ve known him. The black woman who works in the market next to my apartment sighs, pats my hand, and tells me she’s “all right” as she hands me back a receipt for another purchase.
If there is a cost to this, the reality of fear, the fights that grow and seem insurmountable, the obsession with your grief in America as a beautiful and moving thing, it is a lowering of the emotional bar. Waiting for the other shoe to drop instead becomes dodging the avalanche of shoes, occasionally looking back to see the avalanche claiming another person you know, love, or have been on this journey of survival with for so long, you could be family. I celebrate expressions of unbridled black joy because I know what it takes to unlock this, to have the joy of the body drown out the anxiety of the mind, if only for a little bit. I know that blackness, when turned away from the mirror of itself and back into America at large, is most appealing when there is a type of suffering attached to it — sadness, anger, struggle, dressed up and packaged to the masses. A quarterback dances to celebrate an accomplishment in a violent game, and words like “class” appear, hanging in the air for months. The daughter of a black man murdered on camera by police records an ad for a presidential candidate and the white people who support the candidate are so moved by her retelling of a life without her father. And I do imagine that it must be something, to be able to decide at what volume, tone, and tenor you will allow black people to enter your life, for praise or for scolding. I think about this when I go to the gym and hand my gym card over to the same front desk person, always a white man. I ask how he’s doing. Most days, he says “Good. Really good.”
The link between black music and black survival shows up most urgently when the stakes are at their highest. When I say that music is how black people have gotten free, I mean Harriet Tubman echoed songs along the Underground Railroad as a language. I mean the map to black freedom in America was built from music before it was built from anything else. Black music is the shepherd still pointing us toward any needed liberation, giving us a place to set our emotions, a room of our own.
More than any other song on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, “Alright” signaled the arrival of a new song to nestle itself into this new historical movement, led by young black people from all backgrounds: black women, black college students, black queer and trans communities. The black song that sits in the movement has often been a reflection of black people in America, hope rooted in a reliance on faith, but still so often looking over its shoulder, checking for an exit. There are trains or chariots coming to take us away to a better place, a place just for us (“People Get Ready,” “The Gospel Train,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). There is the imagery of water, that which carried black people to this place, and that which will save them from it (“A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Wade in the Water”).
I’ve always viewed “Alright” as part of the evolution of these songs. It's a song that clings to the idea of a hope that rests primarily on spirituality, but also a song that meets the people where they are and doesn’t try to take them away. The dynamics of “freedom” have changed, the idea of freedom and escape becoming less physical. When Kendrick Lamar, before the first chorus hits, tells us “I’m fucked up / Homie, you fucked up,” it feels like permission to revel in whatever we must in order to feel alive. The song is a gradual unpacking of the author’s failings, his rage and vices, all held close in the idea of surviving. Where so many songs from the past promised a new and improved paradise on the horizon, “Alright” promises nothing except the fact that there is pain, and there will be more to come. We can push our backs against that door and hold out the darkness until morning, but the night has been so long it feels like it might never end. “Alright” tells us to, instead, revel in the despite of it all. When a smiling, joyful black person says they’re “doing all right,” I imagine it’s because they know “good” may be too close to the sun. I imagine it’s because they’ve seen things burn.
The heaven that Kendrick tells us is touchable might not be real, or I maybe saw heaven this fall, when Yale students marched across their campus in a demonstration against racial insensitivity. It was a seasonably chilly November day, and the well-attended and vocal march was visibly draining some of its participants. To fight for a country to see you as human is an exhausting thing, that exhaustion compounded by the physical exertion of marching, chanting, making your space your own. After the march wound down, someone found a loudspeaker, pressed play on “Alright,” and this imagined cloud of despair pulled itself back. People danced, hugged, rapped along with what parts they knew. I realized then that the magic of “Alright” is the same magic that exists in the body language of the joyful black greeting. It fits so well into these movements because it pulls so many people on the front lines of them to a place of healing. It works as both a rallying cry and a salve. It meets you at eye level and gives you what you need — an escape from the fight, or a push to get back into the fight. It is the warm nod and knowing smile from a black face emerging in a sea of white.
Earlier this month, an activist and poet from my hometown, MarShawn McCarrel, took his own life on the steps of the Ohio statehouse. I found this out when my wife called up to me in the office of our apartment, miles away from Columbus, where I knew MarShawn. Where we spent countless hours joking around at poetry open mics or bullshitting at local action events. I am used to the feeling of knowing the dead, having a touchable relationship with someone who is no longer present. Yet the immediate moments after the news arrives never get any easier to manage. I went to MarShawn’s Facebook page and saw his final message of “My demons won today. I’m sorry.” Right below was a picture of him and his mother, smiling at the NAACP awards. Right below that, a screenshot of a threat that was emailed to him from someone telling him that they wouldn’t rest until he “shut his nigger mouth.”
The truth is, once you understand that there are people who do not want you to exist, that is a difficult card to remove from the table. There is no liberation, no undoing that knowledge. It is the unyielding door, the one that you simply cannot push back against any longer. For many, there are reminders of this every day, every hour. It makes “Alright,” the emotional bar and the song itself, the best there is. It makes existence itself a celebration.
I hadn’t spoken to MarShawn in months, a thing that we feel most guilty about after a person is gone, especially if we are miles away from home, or on a plane to somewhere even farther from home, on the day of a funeral. The last time I saw MarShawn was at a protest. We hadn’t physically seen each other in a while, and we embraced. I slapped his back, perhaps a little too hard, and asked how he was. He told me “I’m all right, you know. I’m still here.”
Maybe all of these heavens are the same — Kendrick Lamar’s heaven, the heaven that all of the trains and chariots took our ancestors to, the heaven on the other side of Harriet Tubman’s river. Maybe all they ask is that we help hold back the darkness for as long as we can, and when we can’t anymore, they’ll save us a room. They’ll make sure “Alright” is playing, and we’ll feel the way it felt hearing it for the first time, in the face of all this wreckage. Full of so much promise, as if all of our pain were a bad dream we just woke up from.