The Lumpen Blacks
By Messiah Rhodes
I’ve visited Detroit, Portland, St. Louis, Newburgh and many little towns across the nation that you’d least expect. In their history, all experienced uprisings that would break the segregation of communities. But we have come far from our slave ships only to see our own brothers and sisters lead us back unto cages again. Blacks, Latinos, non-whites, all move through a white world with boots on the necks of the poorest Black people. White hands design a world where Black life is a second thought as they plan our bridges, our cities and our education. Still, we imagine a world outside, an unknown that breaks the confines of our idleness.
Growing up in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York the neighborhood was its own world: boardwalks, sand in the streets, blue NYPD police cars, and tall housing projects. In the nineties I remember a massive renovation of the projects I lived in — grey, aging window frames replaced with new, black insulated frames. The multiple-story buildings, each apartment on each floor receiving the new upgrade treatment. During this time, I remember peeking out and seeing a dead, bloodied body in the street down below. From the seventh floor, I couldn’t tell if the man’s neck was slashed or if his body was riddled with bullet holes. My childhood was also filled with toys for Christmas, fireworks and water guns for the Fourth of July. The contrast between innocent childhood and street violence in broad daylight, crack smoking, drug running was normal to me. I thought it was just life.
By the time I was seven years old, things changed for the me. I experienced my first encounter with police officers. I was taken away from my parents by court officers — men and women armed with guns. My parents tried to hold me tight, in my white blazer and red bowtie. But their tears and screams created no empathy from the officers. Since then I’ve wondered why this world wants me to be so be poor and Black in America, to be homeless and a dropout in America. The courthouses that are swept and maintained, the housing project windows replaced for better heat by union labor. The polluting middle class cars that drive on highways built around poor Black neighborhoods. Born in an open-air prison, an America that continues to improve for those on the top, I’ve always been a disposable and forgotten human being. A criminal life is a prouder life than being subjugated to white life. It is a survivalist reaction to the desperation born out of broken families and minds.
A world constructed around the hatred of my skin, a world where others who look like me also persecute and belittle me. I am mis-educated; I am alienated. I am wrong for my way of thinking. I am too tense. I did not pursue a class in African American studies. The same people who make money from movements never speak for us, but only about us. We are still in pain, pushing our broken down cars down the street. Aging grandmothers lost in nursing homes and our children go without homes, placed with foster parents who worship God and beat them every night.
Our bodies continue to be exploited, abused and cast aside. My cousin’s best friend’s son, Tamon Robinson, was unarmed when he was run over by a police car for stealing path stones. Hashtags and viral videos beam out from high-tech phones and computers, but that did not happen for him. What happened to Tamon could have happened 200 years ago with a horse drawn carriage and slave patrol. The printing press would publish the news for its small village audience: “Thief Negro Found Slain.” Hypothetically and realistically, our deaths even centuries later remain very public, gruesome and still go unnoticed over and over. After her suicide, my partner of five years, Ashlee Blake, was brought to the bottom of the stairs in a black bag, where medical workers casually dropped her on the floor. At that point I was too shocked, too broken to be angry, or to scream. I cried in the arms of a friend, wondering: if she were white would they have dropped her body carelessly the same way? My anger boils up and I wonder if I am really as alone as it has always felt. I dream of robbing banks, blowing up shopping malls, shooting the president, and dying in a blaze of heroic gunfire, having annihilated the world that mocks me. Happy in spite of so much suffering. But then I am reduced to designing posters and doing trust exercises with salaried community organizers.
You who fly over us in your airplanes, on your trips around the world. Brown faces with mouths that speak many languages, many come already knowing we are Niggers. They look down — these are the same houses we live in, the subways that we take, the traffic lights we hope will stay red to give us time to cross the street. We exist here as our beautiful corpses rot away, the living Black bodies that move as a herd, needed when called upon — to vote, to shop, to sing, yet hated, whipped and repressed. Our minds and bodies survive day by day with the hope we will be rich, not free.
For the money I only saw Niggers smarter and stronger than me fall by wayside, embarrassed because of their McDonald’s hats, their late night jobs stocking the shelves. They have to sell heroin and molly again. They were better than me but a dime bag, or a gun that wasn’t even really there condemned them forever to a ghostly second-class citizen life. A felon. Our most talented, yet we wag our fingers. We know what’s wrong, we know what’s good for them, it was written ages ago. Not gone but forgotten, what’s left is a second-class movement — people who wanted power but could no longer be numb. A group of ambulance chasers and spectacle seekers making the same mistake over and over again. We expect a conscience from someone. We expect someone in power — behind the fighter jets, the tanks and the gold bars in Fort Knox — to stop and listen.
For freedom may mean that the alienated, the mis-educated, the thugs, the orphans will be your equals. Your sweat, your readings, your struggle proves you are human, but to the white man it will mean less. The education I received surviving outside of whiteness will mean more. The bodies of the dead around me will be remembered and you will love them, not “loved” them in the past tense. We do not know Marx, Black bourgeois theories or savings accounts. But we have survived the gun battles, hiding our children from police and gangsters. Your idols will look different in their suits and ties — their trophies and plaques will be scars and bullet wounds, stretch marks and missing teeth, the smiles that make you uncomfortable. They will all be real. That is the freedom I am looking for.