“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it — always.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Following the slayings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers, a friend of mine — another black man living here in Japan — asked me, “Aren’t you glad you’re here, man, where we ain’t gotta worry about cops trying to smoke us?”
It wasn’t even a question really. It was more like one of those interrogative statements Japanese people might make, expecting and often receiving from me in response a nodding “Sō da ne” (“You got that right”). And he was neither the first nor the last to make this inquiry.
In all my years here — and generally following yet another example of black life not mattering, at the hands of America’s finest — I must have had that question posed to me dozens of times. Even my Japanese buddies ask it, expecting a grateful affirmative in response. But it’s not that simple. At least for me it isn’t.
I mean, their assertions beg that a comparison be made between the safety of black people in Japan and the U.S. But doing so is like comparing the safety of a lion living on an African game reserve with that of a free-born one roaming the savanna of a country where poaching goes on unrestricted. In other words, it’s no comparison at all — just a totally different way of life. Apples and oranges, as they say.
So, how does someone born into the struggle, raised by Pan-African revolutionaries, Black Power movement members, trained to be a warrior — a leader, even — respond to the assertion that he’s chosen to remain here because Japan is safer?
Well, until about a few years ago, with a resounding “Hells yeah!”
But of late, I respond with sullen silence, or sometimes with angry accusations of cowardice. (“Can’t believe your punk ass scared of America! Cops’ve been lynching brothers since before my grandmother was born. This ain’t nothing new!”) But now I can’t even muster the strength to get angry, and more often than not find myself batting away tears.
There’s a maelstrom churning in me, emotions battling to be the dominant one of the moment. Guilt’s in the melee, as always, ducking, weaving, jabbing and throwing the occasional haymaker. And anger, an agile pugilist in its own right, can usually be counted on to go the distance with any-comers. But it was ill-prepared for back-to-back executions — the second of which was a live snuff film — and the retaliatory targeting of cops. That took the wind out of anger’s sails. And neither anger nor guilt were built to deal with the speed and ferocious power of that young Mike Tyson of an upstart that’s recently climbed into the ring.
I’m talking, of course, about despair.
“We must reject such despair,” said President Barack Obama at the service held for the slain Dallas police officers. “We are not as divided as we seem.”
People often ask me how I’ve changed since moving to Japan. There have been several significant changes over the years, but for the purposes of this column, one stands out. It was when I accepted the fact that I am an American and, like most Americans, I have been indoctrinated with certain values.
I learned in Japan that one of the very values that disgusted me when I was coming of age is very much a part of me, and was intensified by the election of Barack Obama. I’m talking about American Pride.
I love America and I want the American experiment to succeed. I want her to become a nation greater than the white supremacists that founded her envisioned, greater even than that Donald Trump slogan, “Make America Great Again,” suggests. I want her to become a state of egalitarian democratic multiculturalism. I want that with all my heart. Moreover, I believe the potential to be greater exists, and that Black Lives Matter is one of the keys to unlocking that greatness.
However, there was another change slowly occurring behind the scenes. In fact, I think it’s the reason that despair, an emotion I’ve never had to seriously contend with in all my years, has gotten a foothold on my soul and has put me temporarily in a bad place. The change was this: For the first time since I was 7, I feel profoundly safe.
At the age of 7 I learned that racist cops kill black people they’re supposed to serve and protect, including kids, and that an unjust justice system will serve and protect the killers. That was the year 10-year-old Clifford Glover was slain by a cop in Queens, New York. The police officer that did the killing was actually indicted and tried for murder (a first) but ultimately acquitted (not the last). And, upon his acquittal, I found myself in the midst of a protest on behalf of a previous version of Black Lives Matter. (There have been several in my lifetime, and more before then.)
This demonstration was attended by everyone I knew, including my entire extended family. Even my teachers, classmates, their parents and the headmaster of my school were in attendance — several of whom were outspoken leaders of the event. We were all in dashikis, gowns and gele head ties, combat boots and dungaree suits, Afros and cornrows — black, beautiful and mad as hell that this cop was set free. Stabbing the air with picket signs that read “Save The Children” and “All Power to the People,” and “No Justice, No Peace” — giving tearful outraged speeches, singing songs of solace and chanting psalms of courage.
This wasn’t the first protest for my mother, teachers or any of the other adults in attendance. It wasn’t the cops’ first either. They were there in riot gear, mounted on horses and looking as impassive and menacing as those that faced down MLK on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, it was my first (of many), and from that moment I knew intuitively that I’d never truly be safe in America.
It took several years of living in Japan before I embraced the notion that I was safe here. And once my unconscious mind got on the same page as my conscious mind, it was like a heavy burden was off my shoulders — a burden I hadn’t even known I’d been lugging round since boyhood.
I stopped waking up in the middle of the night to the slightest noise, to the briefest tremors. I stopped feeling anxiety or dread at the sight of a police car behind me or headed in my direction. I stopped misreading a pending assault in the disquieted eyes of salarymen. I stopped double-checking my door was locked, checking for exits in bars just in case something pops off, making sure I’m always seated with a view of the entrance — thousands of tactics that had become instinctual just stopped, out of lack of necessity. Safety had been normalized.
Instead of getting my daily dose of “Are black lives gonna matter today?” by looking out my window or stepping out my front door, I now get it via social media, or vicariously through friends and family — some of whom, by the way, praise me for my hecka foresight in getting the hell out of the States and wish they were in a position to do similarly.
I now have the option of tuning America out. There’s no gun figuratively or literally pointed at my head. I engage now because I choose to, and having such a choice — one that my American brethren do not have — has from the start fed guilt, and it continues to do so. Like an American draft dodger hiding in Canada while his buddies are fragging one another in ‘Nam. Over time, I’ve learned to live with this guilt. I’ve even acquired the patience to keep my anger managed. But recent events have unleashed despair, and despair is impossible to live with.
Regrettably I’ve learned to compartmentalize police killings of unarmed black people. It’s something I have to do, otherwise I’d implode with grief and take everyone I know and love with me. And as much as possible, I’ve even learned to evade the internet’s obtuse, oblivious, ignorant or flat-out hateful comments in response to such killings. You have to treat your brain like you do the rest of your body and strictly control its diet. You can’t allow it to feed on junk food/hate speech or you’re likely to get sick.
Which brings me to Micah Xavier Johnson, the suspect police say was responsible for the deaths of their comrades, and who was consequently robo-bombed. This was by no means the first time police have used bombs on suspects (see the police response to MOVE in Philadelphia in 1985) and I think it’s a given that, with police departments nationwide rummaging through the Pentagon’s garage sales, it won’t be the last. But the robo-bomb wasn’t even the most disturbing aspect of this. It gets deeper.
You see, in order to power through these slayings and come out the other side retaining the capacity to love and carry on, I have to engage. I identify a piece of myself in almost every victim. I mourn them, thoroughly, and in doing so I bond with them so that I never forget them. I’ve done this since I was young, and I still do this even here in Japan. Black snuff films have become so commonplace that it’s difficult not to become apathetic, not to shut down completely. This is my way of ensuring black lives always matter to me.
I see me in Philando Castile, armed but compliant, to no avail. I see me in Alton Sterling, hustling, as I once did back in the days. I see teen me in Michael Brown, challenging a cop’s notion of authority over my community. I see myself in Sandra Bland, maintaining my right to speak as I please. I see myself telling the cops not to touch me, like Eric Garner did. I see me in Walter Scott, in Amadou Diallo, in Freddie Gray.
My innocence died with Clifford Glover.
And, as a result of all of this senseless death and injustice, some of that rage and despair that dwelt inside of Micah Xavier Johnson dwells within me as well.
So, while I likely won’t be shot by a Japanese cop, I’m no safer from despair here “in the rear with the gear” in Japan than I’d be on the front lines of harm’s way in the U.S. Because ultimately, what befalls the African diaspora in America impacts people of African descent globally. And vice-versa. Our destinies are intertwined.
President Obama, I believe you’re right that we’re not as divided as we appear in the media. I certainly have enough friends and allies of all races around me to see the truth of that. And, no doubt, you’re on point about the necessity of battling despair. Despair feeds on truth and obfuscates goodwill till they’re indistinguishable from lies and ill will.
I’m not sure what it’s going to take to heal even the wounds my beloved America has suffered of late, let alone the old ones. Nor what it’ll take to get the point across to Americans, once and for all, that “Black lives matter” must be more than a sentiment. For the survival of the nation, it must be a mandate.
But I know it’s gonna take a lot — a lot more than moving prayers and speeches, platitudes and promises — to achieve any real progress: It’s gonna take a lot of ingenuity and a lot of legislation. It’s gonna take a lot of Serpicos to tear down the blue wall of silence, and a whole lot more nonblack faces on the front lines of Black Lives Matter. Otherwise, I fear that fear will keep us in our racial foxholes and lead to a lot more Americans gunning down Americans at home, and a lot more Americans abandoning America, seeking safety and refuge abroad.
Black Eye usually appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Send all your comments and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.