Jeffery Renard Allen is a Professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York and an instructor in the Writing Program at The New School and New York University. Allen is the author of five books, most recently the novel Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press, 2104), which is loosely based on the life of Blind Tom, a nineteenth century African American piano virtuoso and composer who was the first African American to perform at The White House. The novel was featured as the front-page review of both The New York Times Book Review and The San Francisco Chronicle. Allen is the author of two other works of fiction, the novel Rails Under My Back, which won The Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for Fiction, and the short story collection Holding Pattern, which won The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Allen has received other accolades for his work, including a Whiting Writers' Award. His website is www.jefferyrenardallen.com.
A Letter to My Native Son,
Elijah Nasir Allen, Firstborn
Elijah, I have been asked to share my thoughts about the killings of unarmed black men by policeman throughout our country, a phenomenon that seems to have become almost commonplace. I thought to give my two cents on the subject in the form of a letter to you, my firstborn son. For what can be more urgent than the well-being of our children? Hopefully I have learned something in my fifty-two years on earth. With that in mind, I pen this brief letter in an effort to pass on a bit of what I think I know--a few life-sustaining incidents, illustrations, epiphanies, and opinions that I will share with you to keep you safe, out of harm's way.
Let us start here: as a shy bookish geeky boy growing up in segregated Chicago, I did everything I could to keep busy and stay out of trouble. When I wasn't reading, I spent a good deal of my spare time collecting planks of wood and nails by the pound with dreams of constructing a boat that I would set sail in on Lake Michigan and journey off to the far reaches of the world. A childish adventure for sure, but also an imaginative game of the most serious sort, as this destined journey by water expressed my very real desire to escape the limitations and restrictions of poverty and race. And for the most part, my life has been one where I have done just that. I kept my head in the books and my mind of faraway places, kept my eyes on the prize and my ass out of trouble.
Still as a black teenager in Chicago, I could not escape run-ins with the law. I will tell you about one such incident that still gnaws at me today. Once on a nice spring day, I was minding my own business on a crowded street in downtown, when a brown sedan pulled up alongside me. Two detectives motored their way out of the vehicle and stopped me. There had been a robbery, and I fit the description.
Where are you coming from?
I told them.
Where is the knife?
I don’t have a knife?
Where is the knife?
They started to frisk me, and people now stopped what they were doing and started to stare, all eyes on me. The two detectives rifled through my shirt, checked under my shirt and undershirt, patted down each pants leg--Where is the knife?--pulled out my pockets, fisted my groin. Where do you live? I told them.
Finding nothing, they told me I was free to go. So they got back inside their brown sedan, but they did not start the engine, only sat there waiting and watching. I could not move, was heavy-footed, filled with rage. I did not want to move, wanted instead to give them a bit of my vile Southside tongue. But I did not, because I had enough motherwit to know that my very life was at stake. So I went about my way.
Elijah, you will soon encounter similar situations--I guarantee you--and you must understand that you will survive if you use your intelligence as I did. Note, intelligence is not just about being smart, but involves mental (and physical) quickness, knowing how to read a situation and think up an immediate response, a safe route of escape, a way to live to see another day.
True, but also know that there are indeed certain situations when you should and must be confront racism head on, if for no other reason than to maintain your own dignity and sanity. Especially when you encounter casual and common racism of the daily sort. For example:
I am on an escalator inside the subway terminal at Grand Central Station when the white woman a few stairs above me turns around, sees me, then clutches her purse.
I hope you fall and break your fucking neck.
What did you say to me?
You heard me.
Interestingly enough, most white people in America are totally blind to this kind of bigotry that many black people experience everyday. (The examples are many. Think about the time when we went into a high-end store on the Upper West here in New York where we live, and the hostess never even bothered to greet us, make an effort to solicit our business, patronage.) In fact, the very existence of Barack Obama as America's first black president is seen by many as proof that our country has made right all the past racial wrongs, that we now live in a “post-racial” society. But we know that this is a lie, yes? A recent study found that 55% of African Americans feel that they suffer racial discrimination in our society today, while only 12% of white people believe that African Americans experience discrimination. Fixed as they are on their set belief that we have already leapt over the great racial divide, how can they know what we endure daily? Our very American instinct for progress would seem by this point in time to encourage a reckoning with fact, with reality. But this country is like a horse with blinders, incapable of looking back at its own history let alone looking at the present dirty laundry in the full light of day. Of course, there is no reason for them to know about history, because history is what this country is fleeing--a country founded on violence and genocide, exploitation and greed.
So few lessons get learned. Positions become more fixed, and certain notions and privileges more fiercely (savagely) defended, a strange mixture of arrogance and innocence. For example, Ted Nugent called President Obama a "mongrel," then when he came under fire by members of his own conservative party he issued an apology where he claimed that he did not know that mongrel is a racist term--a term I would add that has been used and is still being used by the most vile and violent white supremacists such as the Nazis, Neo Nazis, skinheads, and Klu Klu Klan.
One problem is that America is set in a belief that all of the great things about our country today somehow magically appeared out of the blue, when in actuality every social gain in this country--the eight-hour workday, social services like social security and medical insurance, consumer protection, etc.--came about because average people had to fight and die to force our government to implement certain progressive policies. As Frederick Douglas famously said, "No progress without struggle." Remember that this country has never openly given us anything, and it never will. Progress comes from struggle. But progress starts with recognition of a problem. And confrontation is often necessary.
How different I am here from my mother, your grandmother, a woman who grew up in segregated Mississippi and perhaps for that reason believed that she had to avoid confrontation in order to survive, and that I had to do so as well. A human being who was so deformed by history that she would never speak about all of the horrible things she had witnessed and endured in Mississippi and Memphis, and even in Chicago. However, she did tell me one thing: In Chicago in 1955, she saw Emmett Till’s body in the open casket. She had only this to say about it: It was horrible. (By the way, Emmett Till was fourteen when he was brutally murdered in Mississippi, the same age that you are now. Never forget that.)
My mother is also a woman who has a tremendous amount of pride, and for that reason she never expected or demanded an apology when she was wronged in any way by any person. She certainly never expected the world to be fair or just. (I do. Perhaps I am wrong.) And she never thought this country owed her for past wrongs.
On that note, there remains considerable uneasiness over the matter of what this country owes us, if anything. I would offer that the first thing our government could do to come to terms with the past would be to issue an official apology for the hundreds of year of legalized slavery our ancestors endured and for the hundred years of legalized segregation our ancestors (including my mother, your grandmother, Elijah) endured after slavery ended. An official apology would serve as an actual recognition of our country’s ugly past, as opposed to the present token month of "celebration" of "black pride" and "achievement" that in no way acknowledges anything. By the way, it is worth noting that Black History Month has its origins in a custom that was originated by a black man, Arthur Schomburg, as Black History Week many decades ago, another example of how our government, our society, never willing gives us anything.
But the apology is only the first step. And our government owes us reparations, no doubt there. And although this is a no brainer, many people in our country remain savagely disdainful of the idea. (Why is that?) So don’t hold your breath.
That said, an official apology and reparations won’t put an end to the form of systemic racism that permeates every aspect of our country today. Our society will never rid itself of racism, become post-racial, until we we do away with the notion of race altogether. Quite some time ago scientists studying the human genome proved once and for all that race is a fiction, a social construction as opposed to a biological fact--and I might add a construction that was developed to classify certain groups of people so as to deem them inferior and exploit them. Although we know that race is a fiction, the language of race persists at every level of our society, and continues to do its dirty work. Permeates everything we do and think, for one can’t swim in the water and not get wet. We all buy into this idea. As a “black” person in America, a fixation on race can cause you to put your energy in the wrong place. To react rather than act, to seethe rather than create. You look at everything and divine a conspiratorial intention. Or you fall victim to this country’s low expectations for “black” people, which is why, Elijah, as you know many of your friends will end up either in prison or dead on the streets. Race is a story that encompasses both the cops who shoot Amadou Diallo forty-two times, and the gangbanger who shoots dead a rival. The same baggage. So you must rely on your intelligence to see you through this maze, even as our country as a whole has to figure out a way to dismantle the maze itself. Easier said than done.
So, there you have it, my two cents. Indeed, my words are the only thing I can give you. I have always thought that words can make a difference, that they can actually change reality. Can't they?
Son, carry on. May God protect you,