On the day it was reported that Jacob Blake was handcuffed to his hospital bed, paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in the back seven times by a Wisconsin police officer, my mother called me upset, and said, “We should give up on this land and move to another country because America’ll never accept Black people. America’ll always see us as subhuman.” She had just finished listening to video clips of film director Spike Lee and Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers say the same thing. My sixty-six-year-old mother retired from Rhode Island Hospital on February 21, two days before twenty-five-year old Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot while jogging in Glen County Georgia by Travis McMichael and his father Gregory who after killing Ahmaud spit on him and called him a “fuckin nigger.” Just three weeks later, on March 13, three Louisville police officers fired twenty-six rounds of out of control bullets into Breonna Taylor’s apartment and neighboring homes, striking her five times. For at least five minutes the twenty-six-year-old EMT lay where she fell in her hallway coughing, gasping, dying, receiving no medical attention for more than twenty minutes, according to the dispatch logs. Three months after that, on Memorial Day, Minnesota police officer, Derek Michael Chavin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds while George repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe”, and shouted, “Mama, Mama…I’m through!” to his mother who was deceased.
The years we spent struggling, fighting to financially stay alive had been as hard as the fight and struggle to be accepted by white caste society. For most of my life my mother had two, sometimes three jobs. Now in retirement she was going to need a part-time job to supplement her social security income that didn’t provide enough money to pay all her monthly bills. Up until I was fourteen, we couldn’t afford to empty the cesspool more than once a year, only allowing me to take a shower on Sunday’s, the rest of the week I washed up in the bathroom sink with a face cloth. I was also only able to flush the toilet after going poop. Never once did I hear my mother blame white America for it. She went on finding ways to make ends meet, picking up a job here, a job there to the point that I became a latchkey kid at six years old, letting myself in the house after school, cooking my dinner, taking care of my springer spaniel dog, Lady, putting myself to bed, and not seeing my mother until the next morning.
Emphasis was put on showing me how to financially survive in white America. She also devoted a lot of time to making sure I connected with my blackness, my black consciousness, to believe in my potential and value as a black man and not the lie that black is an aberration from the normal which is white. She raised me in the predominantly white neighborhood of Warwick where I attended public elementary, junior high, and high schools as one of only two black kids, to get the best education and upbringing she could offer. After I graduated with honors my junior and senior year, I went on to earn a bachelors in accounting, a masters in journalism, intern at Merrill Lynch, be a pricing analyst at what was the world’s largest mutual fund company, write for Muscle & Fitness magazine, and publish stories in some of the most well-respected literary journals in the country. Who I was, how I was, mattered as much as what I was. Even when I changed my walk, talk, act, dress, even my smell to Ralph Lauren’s Polo cologne to mask my blackness, the inferiority I felt seeping out of my pores to fit in she called me out on it. The more I pushed to fit into white caste society, the more I pushed away my black consciousness the more I succeeded in being accepted by white America, but I never forgot my blackness.
So it saddened me, hurt me, made my eyes prickle with tears hearing my mother say we should leave after everything she and I went through to be here today. Fears of a Black mother, of a mama-bear who wants to protect her cub from harm. She had protected me from my bully in the sixth grade, racism, and from white parents who didn’t want their white children playing with Blacks. When I entered first grade, I went over to one of my white classmates and asked him to play with me. He told me, “I’m not allowed to play with niggers.” It disturbed my little brain so much I told my mother—who I chose to live with when she and my father asked me during their divorce—and she went to the school. My mother and Mrs. Hickey, my first-grade teacher, told the principal. The principal called the parents of the boy and they all had a meeting in his office. The parents said that that was how they were raising their children. So for the rest of the school year they kept us away from each other. That Negro child withstood enormous psychological abuse in that situation as well as being an experimental laboratory for racist white Americans to learn how to have their children interact with Blacks. That racist incident, still lingering in the corners of my mind, could’ve darkened my spirit, and created a shadow on my future. Instead, my mother molded and shaped my entire personality and interaction with whiteness and set me on a path of achievements and accolades way beyond me and my family’s wildest imagination.
But what she was feeling, thinking, I had nothing. Nothing. I wish I did. This forced me to ask myself, should Blacks give up on America? Should we move to a more accepting country like James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, and Occramer Marycoo, also known by his slave name Newport Gardner? Or will America accept the hard, undeniable truth that without enslaved Africans, without stealing the land from the Indians, and without spreading germs and diseases all over the North and South American continents as well as the Caribbean, decimating the Black and brown occupiers, this country, the four corners of the world for that matter would never have been built, and nature, not humans, would still rule this land.
Before I got off the phone with my mother, she told me to check my email for the video clips she sent me of Lee and Rivers questioning leaving America. Lee had delivered a stunning lament about the current state of the country in an interview with Anderson Cooper—addressing the unrest in the nation before posing a scarier question: “Is the United States headed for a Civil War?”
“How many times have I been a guest on your show after someone black or brown has gotten shot? And just looking at the footage of Jacob Blake who was shot seven times in the back, paralyzed from the waist down, his ankles shackled to the hospital bed, and right away I think about that was what the slave catchers did. Where my ancestors—if you got caught—the least thing they did was put shackles on your ankles. And one of your producers told me that so far our brother king Jacob Blake has not been charged with anything. If he has not been charged with anything, why in the world is he shackled to his hospital bed? My question to the authorities in Kenosha is Kyle Rittenhouse—I know he’s been arrested—is Kyle Rittenhouse in shackles? Seventeen years old. Shot three protesters. Killed two protesters and maimed another one. And after he shot three people, and killed two, he’s walking the streets, and armed vehicles and jeeps pass by him. And it’s after he shot that semiautomatic weapon, after he shot that semiautomatic weapon. Imagine the same scenario, but a Black man has a semiautomatic rifle and all the chaos was happening in Kenosha. Do you think that armed vehicles and jeeps are gonna ride right by a Black man? And we’re laughing because it’s so crazy.
“There is so much hate in the world, specifically the United States of America. And Doc Rivers, the great couch of the Los Angeles Clippers, was so on the money with this remark: ‘We love this country, we love the United States of America, but the United States does not love us back.’ From the very first person that died for this country, Crispus Attucks, in the Boston Massacre, the very first person who died for this country was a Black man. And we have been fighting, putting our lives on the line for every single war for the promise to be recognized as human beings and full citizenship, and here we are in this dreadful year 2020 and Black and brown people, Black and brown trans people, are being shot down. Like it’s all right. And this guy in the White House, and what he’s done, is just level hate and it’s heartbreaking. I pray to God this guy’s out November 3rd. Also I’d like to bring this up, and you’ve talked about this too. I think there’s going to be shenanigans, some skullduggery if he loses, particularly in a close vote. He might not want to leave, and I know they say by law and all this other stuff—later for that. Anderson, are we coming to a civil war, the next civil war in the United States of America? I ask you that question. I can’t have a restful sleep. This constant of Black and brown people being murdered, shot down for no other reason than because of their skin.”
I felt sadness well up in me hearing this. It was disturbing, frightening to hear Spike Lee, a well-respected Black man who made it big in America say that we Blacks are being treated and killed the exact same way our enslaved African ancestors were more than four hundred years ago. White Americans belief in racism, to define Blacks inalterable flesh, bone, inner makeup as ascribed not by man but by nature, by the natural world, deem it acceptable, forgivable by God to chain a Black man to a pickup truck and drag his body for four and a half miles along an asphalt road before dumping the torso severed of its head in front of a Black cemetery, has been to deny Blacks the right to own and control our own bodies. When put in that context how could we Blacks love America in the face of its past heresies that are current—suffrage, exploitation, extinction of Blacks’ blackness?
Wanting to know what Doc Rivers said, I clicked on the video and listened. Speaking to the press after winning the playoffs game against the Dallas Mavericks, Doc, with tears in his eyes, and heartbreak in his voice said, “Just watching the republican convention and they’re spewing this fear. All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear. It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. You know it’s funny. We protest and they send riot guards. They send people in riot outfits. They go to Michigan with guns and they’re spitting on cops and nothing happens. The training has to change in the police force. The unions have to be taken down in the police force. My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops. We’re not trying to defund the police and take all their money away. We’re trying to get them to protect us. I didn’t wanna talk about before the game because it’s so hard. I just keep watching it—that video. If you watch that video, you don’t need to be Black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged. And how dare the Republicans talk about fear. We’re the ones that need to be scared. We’re the ones having to talk to every Black child—what white father has to give his son a talk about being careful if you get pulled over? It’s just ridiculous. And it just keeps going. There’s no charges. Breonna Taylor no charges. Nothing.”
My mind was reeling. My heart was numb. My body was limp with exhaustion. The butterflies in my stomach were all tied up. Blacks were being shackled and slaughtered as if we weren’t twenty years into the twenty-first century, and more than four hundreds past slavery. As if the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act were never enacted, as if they didn’t even exist. There was a truth in Doc and Spike Lees’ comments. But were they right that America would never love us back? Was Occramer right in leaving Newport, Rhode Island? For more than sixty years, Occramer wanted nothing more than to leave America and return to his West African birthplace where he was stolen from.
In 1760, Occramer’s mother sent him off with a ship captain who promised to get the fourteen year old an education in America, but instead the man sold Occramer into slavery to Rhode Island sea captain Caleb Gardner. Gardner changed Occramer’s name to Newport, the name of the city they lived in. Soon Gardner discovered the youngster learned to read and write with little teaching. Occramer also displayed a talent for music. When not working for Gardner, he started a music school and composed numerous songs that filled the churches of Newport and Boston. Most of his work is lost, though the lyrics to one of his popular songs, Anthem, are still remembered.
“Hear the words of the Lord
O ye African Race
Hear the words of Promise
But it is not meet to take
The children’s bread and cast
It to the dogs.
Truth, Lord, yet the dogs
Eat of the crumbs that fall
From their master’s table.
O, African trust in the Lord
Praise the Lord.
Praise ye the Lord Hallelujah.
Occramer joined the First Congregational Church of Newport where he became friends with abolitionist, Rev. Samuel Hopkins. Hopkins encouraged Occramer to return to his native land. After succeeding in obtaining his freedom from Gardner in 1825, Occramer moved to Boston where he worked with the American Colonization Society, a group that assisted freed slaves in returning to Africa. He successful raised money and donations of equipment to fund a return to Africa.
Before his voyage to the continent of his birth, he said, “I go to set an example to the youth of my race. I go to encourage the young. They can never be elevated here. I have tried it sixty years—it is in vain. Could I by my example lead them to set sail, and I die the next day, I should be satisfied.” It took Occramer his entire lifetime to achieve his dream. On January 7, 1826, at the age of eighty, he and his retinue sailed on the brig Vine from Boston to Liberia. Landing in mid-February, they were struck down with “fever of the country” to which they had no immunity. Occramer, his son, and half of his colleagues died in two weeks. Occramer was buried, as he always wished, in the soil of Africa.
An editorial originally published in the Newport Mercury, republished in the ProvidencePatriot & Colombian Phenix, New York Gazette, and Richmond Enquirer outlined how the death of Occramer served as a warning to Africans looking to colonialization as a way to escape America’s racism. The editorial proclaimed that, “We have always disapproved of encouraging the emigration of the Black population of the northern states, to Africa; and the result has tended to confirm our opinions, that no practical benefit could rise from sending them to that sickly and inhospitable climate. The emigrants from this town were among the most respectable and industrious of our colored population; most of them were comfortably situated, and several were owners of houses and land.” But Occramer’s escape from slavery was broadcast throughout many other New England newspapers as being the result of a benevolent god.
Having lived in little Rhody my whole life, my mother took me to Newport many times as a kid to see the mansions, walk the cliffs, and visit God’s Little Acre, a small corner of the Common Burying Ground comprised of three hundred markers of enslaved and free Africans—the largest and most intact African slave burial ground in the country. I hadn’t visited God’s Little Acre since my twenties, but I had this sudden sense of urgency to go there—a ten minute drive from my home in Cranston. It was around seven o’ clock when I got there. The orange aurora was descending through streaks of thin clouds over the cemetery. The field grass around it was still wet from the recent rain as I pulled my car down the slim gravel road bordering the old stones. The salty ocean air was heavy with the smell of summer’s end on a gentle breeze, and brought back beach memories of a simpler time in my youth when happiness was easier to come by. Looking out at the graves, I got out of my car, and walked over to where Occramer’s wife, Limas, and three children are buried. Do we belong here? I asked out loud. Will America ever love us? With what my mother, Spike, and Doc had said, with everything that was happening in the country, the killings of Blacks, the protests, the man in the White House stoking the flames of hate who lauds Andrew Jackson, the president who forced the Cherokee off their land and sent them on the Trail of Tears, I needed an answer. I didn’t know if I was endeavoring in vain to answer this question by asking my dead ancestors so I decided to watch nature setting: a bright aurora in the vaulted mauve sky, darting her dying rays on the shady groves that I sat under. A gentle zephyr lent aid to a small blackbird waving at the glittering tides, breathing a serene melody on the bosom of the Bay. Every undulating and rippling autumn leaf on the trees was as harmonious as its feathered wings. The branches danced to the music. The lucid moon discoursed with the sun as it appeared on the horizon. The coat of the briny mixed the elements, and modulated the air with the most imperious magic.
The dying rays colored the water with bright tints of gold, which faded one into another, and when the sun had sunk below the horizon, the ocean changed to a delicate purple, then a deep blue before becoming black. Over this dark abode the blackbird took flight to ethereal light safely landing in the trees billowing free. The bird flew high and might over the dead souls of my enslaved ancestors who wished they could take flight. Having sailed through life’s tempestuous sea I wondered, why did America have such contempt for my African ancestors? Why didn’t they want an affinity? Every day through crowds of white I winged my flight, scratching to stay alive in a state where my raven race is viewed as an inhuman disgrace, waiting for the day when Blacks would fly high in the white American sky.
I looked up at the moonlight shining with silvery brightness out of the starless black sky onto the curling waves—the stars deader than a defoliated cotton field. The moon forsook the coastline where gentler and gentler purl the rolling ocean. Misty vapors appeared as the bird’s mingled music floated into the light and shades of night—the air unbroken by the brightness of the bird’s blackness. The bird preened its feathers, and when finished spread its dusky pinions to the heavens. In its sockets black meteorites glowed bright with the intensity of a thousand beautiful destinies. This bird felt more like a sibling than stranger with its black color, pushing toward a planet rid of color lines.
Night’s leaden scepter sealed my thoughts and my drowsy eyelids. But like tongues in trees out of the grove came a melodious tune from the feathered songster. My heart hummed the notes like a seashell with the trouble of a fearful child. The flowing syllables rolled through the vale, through the tunnels of my despair. At the peak of its ascent, joy bursts like the aurora. My mind drifted off and reminisced about those years as a young black man shackled in whiteness. How I roamed this country land in fear of its slave history, its racist terrorism, the obliviousness of its privileged European settlers, but yet always feeling nature embracing me without fear. But this unearthly whisper soothed this Black man’s sorrows in that hour, and reminded me that my voice is the freedom of my African ancestors who were jailed down to build up the American landscape, who found solace in the voice of nature, which is never silent in the heart of its mother.
I laid down on the grass thinking—what was it in the contemplation of this whisper that gave me such solace? I could have fancied it to have been the murmur of one who in his mortal state had lived, but now haunted the place he once reveled, or suffered. As I pondered in silence, lingering long, I looked out with a kindling glance upon the liquid plain, and saw the bird with a delighted mien flying towards me. The augury bird sat on the gravestone of Occramer’s wife. A midnight daydream I must’ve been having because as I stared at it I saw my slaved ancestor’s victory deferred and wavering. I saw us fighting on the battlefield of humanity for the souls of Black folk, our cause advancing. The stillness of the air stirred with rapture, vanished joy of years in bondage recaptured, and our victory the triumph of the spirit over matter.
When the vista ended, the feathered warbler flying off in the distance, I felt this intense feeling of aliveness—my black consciousness, my negritude if you will, connecting, merging with nature’s consciousness. This soul-shaking moment taught me to look through the lens of my African ancestors, and see white America’s knee on the neck of black consciousness, taught me that my negritude is nature, the land on which America was founded, impossible from to be separated.
My negritude reaches deep down into the brown flesh of the ground, deep into the flesh of the black sky. America’s atlas is colored with the spilled blood of my African ancestors. In the trees of our hands lay bare the wounds cut in the trunks. Our fear still crouched in the ravines, in the tall meads, on the zephyr’s wings, perched high in the trees, adrift in the atmosphere of this celestial sphere. My negritude spouts from fumaroles, swims in the ocean’s pools. In its highest boughs it rustles, and in the soil where my ancestors are buried, its roots nestle. My negritude is the earthiest of the earth, the lifeblood of the planet for without it the world would not be the world because it is us who built it. For centuries nature witnessed it. In its memory are Negro Spirituals sung in cotton fields, runaway slaves trekking through its streams, rivers of black blood, of Black corpses on its shores, hanging in its trees, buried in its seas, and forever are the screams in its silent currents of Africans thrown off of slave ships. Even its riverbeds are covered with death’s-heads. For there isn’t a part of this country, a corner of this planet where the grass, trees, water lilies grow without a piece of my Black race growing inside of them.