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The 7 shots of Isaiah Brown (April, post-George Floyd murder case) #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Isaiah Brown was shot by the policeman who’d given him a ride home less than an hour earlier, after his car had broken down at a gas station. He was shot 3 minutes into his 9-1-1 call. The cop mistook the cordless phone Isaiah was holding for a gun. This was the very phone he’d mentioned to the 9-11 dispatcher, using the very same cordless phone from his home. On the 9-1-1 call, Isaiah is explicitly asked, and confirms that he is unarmed, also that he was walking down the street on the phone, escaping a volatile situation. 

On the call, it’s clear that Isaiah was reaching out for a lifeline – calling out from hell in sheer crisis. It wasn’t that he was in danger, he had the emotional maturity to call for help when he felt himself at risk of endangering another. “I’m about to kill my brother,” he calmly tells the dispatcher, who by now can start to hear him panting from walking. 

“Do you understand that you just threatened to kill your brother on a recorded line on 9-1-1,” she asks calmly. “Mmm Hmm,” he confirms casually. He was calling her for help, and by now it’s clear that she’s attempting to keep him talking, i.e. redirect his attention from his crisis by having him describe the crisis.  She’s helping Isaiah to look at his situation objectively, and it’s working. This is a classic de-escalation tool that anyone who has ever taken care of a toddler knows. Isaiah calmly and rationally confirmed that he knew the implications of his words, and he kept pleading for help. 

This was a call about a domestic dispute and there was talk of a gun, which never materialized, neither did the caller nor his brother in the background suggest the actual presence of a gun. Isaiah can be heard twice ushering someone out with him, and by his tone it seemed that he was speaking to a child, using a Black girl’s name. None of Isaiah’s ushering is noted in the transcript. In hearing so many keystrokes, one wonders which parts of this is being taken down. Again, she asked him to confirm that he was unarmed. In fact, she seemed bewildered that he was using a house phone, yet still able to walk down the street, again, evidently attempting to de-escalate the situation. How many times have you told some to “take a walk!”

“How are you walking down the road with the house phone,” she asks. “because I can,” he says, and leaves it at that. 

In the background of the call, we hear police sirens approaching. “You need to hold your hands up,” she says. “Huh,” he asks. “Hold your hands up,” she says sharply, as if anticipating the coming agitation. It’s interesting to note here that we, too, know that despite the casual nature of this distress call, despite all clear and explicit confirmation that the gentleman was unarmed, and regardless of the fact that the dispatcher knew that Isaiah would be in the street when officers approached, the raising in alarm in her voice betrayed the fact that she knew the officer would escalate the situation. 

“Why would you want to do something like that,” she calmly asks, he calmly answers. She engages him in this topic for a while, and we can hear the background become quieter. His explanations are patchy and make little sense, yet he remains calm. By now, it’s clear that the caller is of danger to no one else but his brother, and that he’d managed to create some physical distance between the two. So far, nothing suggests anyone is about to die. Yet, the officer arrives, and within 30 seconds, 7 shots are fired, Isaiah is down.

After the 7 shots are fired, you can hear someone moaning in pain, and you can’t exactly tell if it’s Isaiah or the dispatcher; the dispatcher’s recording continues.  After the shots are fired, and it’s clear from the audio that the victim is moaning in pain, the cop continues to bark out orders: “Drop the gun” and so forth. He’s just 7 times, we hear a fallen man, and the cop is still barking in anger and anguish. Is he saying “drop the gun” to Isaiah, or performing for the record, as Black twitter has suggested? Confusingly, moments later the officer is heard playing Florence Nightingale, complete with gentle bedside manner. We hope Isaiah survives; issuing aid at this moment is life-saving.

“He just shot ‘em, the dispatcher says to someone off call, who can now be heard on another dispatch call regarding the incident.  “I got you man” the policeman says to Isaiah moments after shooting him, then mercifully: “I’m here for you, ok.”

Now, in the distance, we hear the familiar voice of Isaiah’s brother calling out, “Hey, what’s going on, bro?” “It’s ok” the officer calls out quickly. He never says what’s just happened. Then, “Go to my car, grab the medical kit,” he calls out to the brother.  “You shot ‘em,” the brother asks.  The cop says nothing.

The previous news report on the network nightly news was about Merrick Garland launching a civil rights investigation into my hometown’s police force, just over a year after the police murdered Breonna Taylor on my mother’s birthday. “It’s necessary because, police reform quite honestly, is needed, in nearly every agency across the country” says Louisville Metro Police Chief, Erika Shields. On that area’s local news website reporting this story, the next news story bleeds reads: “ Black gun ownership on the rise,” on no one should wonder why. But, this is America, so the headline finishes with: “But Black gun store owners are rare.” The all-American solution – more peace-makers!

Please stop ignoring our distress, or minimizing our pain with your calls to “go slow.” How slow did Isaiah have to move to avoid getting shot 7 times by a cop who’d just shown him an act of kindness and mercy!?! #BLM #BlackLivesMatter #Seriously #Nokidding

Chauvin’s Guilty Charges #BlackAsiaWithLove

Charge 1: Killing unintentionally while committing a felony.

Charge 2: Perpetrating an imminently dangerous act with no regard for human life.

Charge 3: Negligent and culpable of creating an unreasonable risk.

Guilty on all three charges.

Today, there’s some hope to speak of. If we go by the book, all the prosecution’s witnesses were correct. Former police officer Chauvin’s actions killed George Floyd. By extension, the other two officers/overseers are guilty, too, of negligence and gross disregard for life. They taunted and threatened onlookers when they weren’t helping Chauvin kneel on Floyd. Kneeling on a person’s neck and shoulders until they die is nowhere written in any police training manual. The jury agreed, and swiftly took Chauvin into custody . Yet, contrary to the testimonials of the police trainers who testified against Chauvin’s actions, this is exactly what policing has been and continues to be for Black people in America.

They approached Floyd as guilty and acted as if they were there to deliver justice. No officer rendered aid. Although several prosecution witnesses detailed how they are all trained in such due diligence, yet witnesses and videos confirm not a bit of aid was rendered. In fact, the overseers hindered a few passing-by off-duty professionals from intervening to save Floyd’s life, despite their persistent pleas. They acted as arbiters of death, like a cult. The officers all acted in character.

Still many more rows to hoe. Keep your hand on the plow.

Teenager Darnella Frazier wept on the witness stand as she explained how she was drowning in guilt sinceshe’d recorded the video of Chauvin murdering Mr. Floyd. She couldn’t sleep because she deeply regrated not having done more to save him, and further worried for the lives many of her relatives – Black men like George Floyd, whom she felt were just as vulnerable. When recording the video, Ms. Frazier had her nine-year-old niece with her. “The ambulance had to push him off of him,” the child recounts on the witness stand. No one can un-see this incident.

History shows that her video is the most vital piece of evidence. We know there would not have even been a trial given the official blue line (lie). There would not have been such global outcry if Corona hadn’t given the world the time to watch. Plus, the pandemic itself is a dramatic reminder that “what was over there, is over here.” Indeed, we are all interconnected.

Nine minutes and twenty seconds of praying for time.

Since her video went viral last May, we’d seen footage of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of Chauvin shoving himself on top of ‘the suspect’. Now: During the trial, we got to see additional footage from police body-cameras and nearby surveillance, showing Chauvin on top of Mr. Floyd for nine minutes and twenty seconds. Through this, Dr. Martin Tobin, a pulmonary critical care physician, was able to walk the jury through each exact moment that Floyd uttered his last words, took his last breath, and pumped his last heartbeat. Using freeze-frames from Chauvin’s own body cam, Dr. Tobin showed when Mr. Floyd was “literally trying to breathe with his fingers and knuckles.” This was Mr. Floyd’s only way to try to free his remaining, functioning lung, he explained.

Nine minutes and twenty seconds. Could you breathe with three big, angry grown men kneeling on top of you, wrangling to restrain you, shouting and demeaning you, pressing all of their weight down against you? 

Even after Mr. Floyd begged for his momma, even after the man was unresponsive, and even still minutes after Floyd had lost a pulse, officer Chauvin knelt on his neck and shoulders. Chauvin knelt on the man’s neck even after paramedics had arrived and requested he make way. They had to pull the officer off of Floyd’s neck. The police initially called Mr. Floyd’s death “a medical incident during police interaction.” Yes, dear George, “it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate.” Today, at least, there’s some hope to speak of.

One in a million!

I think that I am becoming one of THOSE Black people. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I think that I am becoming one of THOSE Black people.

I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who doesn’t speak about race in mixed company, at least not casually, and certainly not in any space not specifically determined for such a conversation. If the invitation doesn’t say ‘race’ in the title, then I most assuredly won’t be bringing up sexism, racism nor classism, nor religious chauvinism – even if social status is evident and apparent by the time we get there. It’s too complicated, and I’ve been the unwitting sounding board too often for too many illiberals, or just folks who hadn’t ever really taken any time to (attempt to) put themselves in anyone else’s shoes – not even as a mental exercise to forward their own understanding of our world and its complexities. 

Hurt people hurt people

I am an empath, and so shifting through perspectives is more organic to me than seems ‘normal’. Empaths more naturally take that Matrix-style 360-degree snapshot of any given scenario, distinct from neurotypical folks. I am also ‘a black man in a white world’, a gay man in a straight world, a Buddhist man in a Christian world, so I supposed I have made it a survival tactic to see the world through other’s eyes, knowing full well most hadn’t even considered I’d existed. It’s only other empaths who aren’t so surprised how we all got here across our differences. I have not had the luxury of surrounding myself with people just like me, and yet this has rarely made me feel unsafe. 

This snapshot is also a means of connection: I like people and usually see similarities between people where they usually show me they’ve only ever seen differences. This isn’t to imply that I am colorblind or don’t see across differences. Naw, it’s that I am more interested in sharing hearts, no matter how deeply one has learned to bury and conceal theirs. Hence, I usually respond with “why” when told something ridiculously racist or sexist, and ask “how come you think that,” when something homophobic is said; and then I patiently listen. I genuinely want to know. I’ve observed that this response can throw people off balance, for they’ve become accustomed to people either joining in or ignoring their ignorance. Really, no one ever purely inquired how’d you become so hate-filled!?!

I wear my heart on my sleeve for I know how to recover from the constant assault and barrage of disconnection. Yes, it saddens me that so many have been so conditioned, and convinced for so long that we are so disconnected.

They want our RHYTHM but not our BLUES

Now, with my elite education and global aspirations, I often gain access to spaces that explicitly work to exclude people from any non-elite backgrounds. It’s not that I want to pass as anything other than myself, it’s just that I am often surrounded by folks who rarely seem to have considered that someone could – or would – simultaneously exist in a plethora of boxes. I can’t fit into any one box other than human. Yet, I used to try to fit in, to avoid standing out as a means to shield myself from the bullying or peering eyes and gossip as folks try to figure out in which box I reside – a classic tactic of projection. 

I am a dark-skinned Black person with a nappy head and a stereotypical bubble butt. I neither bleach my skin nor straighten my hair, so I am identifiably Black up-close and from afar. I don’t even hide my body under baggy clothes, so even my silhouette is Black. I’ve lived, worked, studied and traveled in North America, western Europe, west Africa as well as north, south and southeast Asia, so I’ve taken 360-degree snapshots of radically different societies ‘seeing’ a Black man, and oh how radically different the reactions. I’m becoming one of those Black people who notices this, but won’t speak about race in mixed company because as an empath, one sees how defensive people become when raising race. I went through a phase where I would more readily speak about gender, then draw the parallels to race and class, for most folks can only handle one form of oppression at a time (fellow Audre Lorde fans may appreciate that pun).

Me, looking at myself being looked at as ‘different’. Hoi An, Vietnam. January 2021

Hello, my name is: Diversity.

I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who never questions people when they describe their backgrounds as ‘good’, when all they really mean is moneyed, racially and religiously homogenous. Many get all defensive when I reveal that my entire education was radically diverse by design, from second grade through my master’s. I know I had a “better” education than them because I was taught inclusion alongside people who were similar and different from me – and we went to each other’s homes.

I don’t look in the mirror and say ‘hey diversity’; I just see the face I was given, and do with it what I can. Yet, I have often been called upon to speak on behalf of many people. I offer my opinion, or relay my observations, and suddenly I am a spokesman for the gays, or the Blacks, rarely just me. So, what’s it like being on the inside of cultures of power? Darnit, I shan’t ask that either! 

What’s the Capitol of Insurrection? #BlackenAsiaWithLove

A week ago, I was writing -hopefully – about the peaceful transition of power. I was thinking to myself that even if Georgia’s run-off election didn’t release the American senate from the hooves and cleaves of the CONservative right, that somehow, the world would be in a better state now that dialogue-oriented ‘liberals’ were leading the administrative cabinet. This week, however, I am writing about a failed coup d’etat in the United States. 

Lynch mob

Much of American history is steeped in the struggle for freedom. To be clear: WE have never, ever been free in America. None of us. Sure, relative to where I sit right now in S.E. Asia, the fact that I am talking openly about politics, and speaking ill of other people’s nasty votes, attests to this relative freedom I enjoy just by having that bald eagle on my passport. The fact that it’s a national pass-time to be critical of power, all the while coveting it for myself, points to the hypocrisy with which each and every American struggles internally. It’s not that people of other nations don’t share this struggle, but it’s just that we Americans do this in the world’s richest, most ethnically diverse nation. And ‘the problem we all live with’ persists. 

By signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln didn’t defeat white supremacy any more than the Declaration of Independence defeated tyranny and injustice. “With great power comes great responsibility,” goes the Spiderman mantra. Yet, here I am on my knees, in tears, crying for the death a of a democracy that’s been in decay ever since my people were brought to those shores in shackles, owned by those mentally enslaved by white-washed Jesus.

Unfortunately, it would be facile and naïve to pretend that this American moment isn’t painful. It hurt me, personally, to see the siege of our Capitol, live and in technicolor, more vivid than any dream I’ve dreamt or nightmare about this very scenario. And I have had both dreams and nightmares about the siege. My mother’s parents grew up southern, Black, poor and politically disenfranchised as a matter of everyday practice under Jim and Jane Crow. It’d would have been nothing for a lynch mob to tackle any negro attempting to vote. That was business as usual, even as they conscripted my grandfather into the army to go to Europe and fight Hitler. The irony has never, ever been lost on any of us. 

Many days, in my daydreams, I’ve often wondered what it’d be like if a bunch of freedom-loving folks just stormed the Capitol and occupied the seats of power until the elected leaders conceded to formally grant our freedom. Yet, I would never want to see the mass graves they’d have to dig should any negro or negro-loving white person even gather to talk about storming the Capitol – let alone share plans and munitions. Besides, I am an earnest follower of non-violence and genuinely believe liberation is found therein. Instead, we’ve spent years – decades, nearly a century of recorded history – warning the world where white supremacy would lead us, if left unchecked. I’d be as rich as Jeff Bezos if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that racism was dead, and that I was dredging up hate by insisting we speak about it. Yet, here we are. Whatcha gonna do now?

A homemade shrine in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Bang! Smash! Pow! Representation Matters. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

A superhero walks into a bar.

A reporter walks up and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

*

A superheroine walks into a bar.

A reporter walks up to her and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

*

A Black superheroine walks into a bar.

A Black reporter walks up to her and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

*

A Black superheroine walks into a bar.

A Black woman reporter walks up to her and offers a drink.

They end up spending the night together, and a love affair ensues.

That’s Black Lightning.

*

Superman and Lois Lane got to love one another, and

Wonder Woman fell in love with the first man she met.

For generations of Sci-Fi and superheroes,

Everybody was straight and white.

The Star Trek franchise has been imagining a fairer future since the 60’s, but

It’s only now -on the newest Star Trek show – that

Yellow, black, white, red and brown people portray species from throughout the galaxy.

Finally, things as fickle as religion or gender identity aren’t barriers to love.

*

I earnestly wonder if it was the creators or the audiences who couldn’t see anybody else loved, but straight white people?!?

That only straight white men could save the day.

Representation matters.

Which superhero did you see at first?

My MAGA #BlackAsiaWithLove

Back in 2007-8, I didn’t spend too much time watching the build-up to the presidential election. Until then, all I knew about America was that we’d yet to atone for our original sins: Enslaving one group of people, annihilating another, while lying and bragging about freedom, justice and liberty for all. Naw, America hadn’t never been great in any way I’d like to try again. My America had never been that, so nothing about 2008 betrayed that notion, even Obama’s candidacy.

Flash fast forward to a year later, for once in my life, America was finally great. This isn’t to suggest that America had suddenly become great, but electing and inaugurating Obama was a sure flash of greatness, a threshold that we’d crossed which distinguished us from the entire history of the nation hitherto. This is why the world celebrated the Obama candidacy – distinct from his actual presidency –the will to break from the white supremacist pattern of our original sins.

My MAGA Day 1:

There weren’t massive protests against president Obama on his very first day. Nay, his successful campaign was lauded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Flash further forward to now, and we have a president who picks with his allies, bullies his party members, dismisses people of color, chides poor people, taunts the media, teases any woman in his presence. We can’t call any of this ‘character’…unless it’s preceded by a bunch of bad adjectives, like his favorite for a non-compliant woman, “nasty.”

During Obama’s 8-year presidency, when it came to addressing ‘the people’, I could see that our leader was demonstrating what it meant to MAGA. He was capable of nuance even in cultural timebombs! When a white cop arrested an upstanding Black professor on his own porch, Obama invited them both over to the White House for a beer, and ostensibly to signal the need for racial reconciliation in critical justice in general, and, in particular, in Black folks’ dealings with the police. Later, when a Black teen was murdered by a rent-a-cop, Obama wept, and lamented that that could have been his son. ‘They’ chided him for racializing the issue. ‘They’ never see patterns, so entrenched are they in the myth of their own individuality.

Throughout Agent Orange’s presidency, when we being gunned down repeatedly by cops -in our own homes, out jogging, playing in the park, driving down the street, shopping at Walmart – 45 remained silent… that is until we took a knee. Back then, circa 2016, he and his klan caught all hell fire. When we started more openly defying white supremacy, ‘they’ had our names in their mouths like liquor. They ain’t had nothing to say about the value of Black life until that undeniable 8 minutes of 46 seconds of the symbolic hooves on our necks! Some say that was the breaking point.

Flash forward to today: Agent Orange may have to be carried out of the White House – in cuff hopefully – as he refuses to concede. What’s more, the nation has elected our second Catholic president, and our first women of color as vice president, and she’s the child of immigrants, too. Has America woken up from that sad slumber?

More Grotesque Black Death #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Each time I turn on the news I see more black death.

It’s grotesque. In my country, ‘Merika, there are peaceful protestors all around the country combatting police violence. Initially, when George Floyd was murdered, these peaceful protests spread across the world, as folks rose in solidarity for peace against white supremacy in America. Many more Black bodies have died in dubious police circumstances since. In the popular rhetoric, sadly, the peaceful protestors are held to account for the violence sweeping our streets. One of Dr. King’s major battles was to convince a people who’d been born into a nation of violence, how to be peaceful; we are a nation born of violence. Dr. King believed and taught that “non-violent resistance… [is] a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” (King, Stride, 80). That was just to boycott the local busses  in the 1950’s. Working people choosing to spend their hard-earned money as they pleased, and still Jim and Jane Crow showed up to verbally and physically harass each one of them. By the 60’s Black university students worked in solidarity with students of all colors to teach, preach and practice non-violent civil disobedience.

It’s in bad faith to focus on the rioters and overlook those attempting to exercise their first amendment rights. I say “attempting,” because even the lone Black woman in Kentucky house of representatives, Attica Scott, can be arrested in our hometown for peacefully protesting #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor, #AtticaScott4Ky. Without the 1st amendment, there’s no second. And let’s not forget all those anti-mask protestors that showed up at city and state halls around the country – in 2020 – armed to the teeth, so-called peacefully protesting any ordinance to protect ‘us’ from the spread of CoVit. How peacefully will the po-po resolve this conflict instigated by their own violence? The white supremacist way, of course. Look at 45, head hood and chief of their klan. “’Cause God’s stopped keeping score,” as George Michael sang.

Back then leading the cause of segregation, we had white supremacists like 4-term Alabama governor George Wallace, and Birmingham public safety commissioner, Bull Connor, (in)famous for sending in fire hoses and attack dogs against children peacefully protesting. Right now, there are all kinds of icons named after ole George. Just a few years ago, I went to my little cousin’s high school basketball game in Tallassee, Alabama, and the public high school gym was named after good ole George’s wife, who’d held onto his governorship for a bit because law forbade him from serving consecutive terms. It’s as if only a few strong survivors believe us when we speak about how white supremacy has its hooves on our necks. It tuns out 8 minutes and 46 seconds changed that.

George Wallace literally blocks Blacks from entering the university

Read, will you, what good ole George said in a 1986 interview about sending in troops to squash the peaceful protests in Birmingham, after those four little girls got bombed in the 16th Street Baptist Church, on a Sunday in September 1963. As you’d expect, no one was held to account. The good governor says:

I sent Colonel Lingo there because they were, there was some trouble there, we tried to maintain law and order, we’re not trying to maintain segregation there, it was a matter of law and order, and uh, as I recall that nobody got hurt in any of the things, in the demonstrations, uh, except that whoever those evil mean, minded men were who had something to do with the blowing up of that church.”

Alabama segregationist Bull Connor ordered police to use dogs and fire hoses on black demonstrators in May 1963.

Sound familiar? Sounds like 45. Like then, today’s protestors are regularly intimidated and assaulted by the police and troops. This too often seals the cycle of violence instigated by the police, who are further instigated by the commanders and their chief.

It’s grotesque, and understandably, even more grotesque to look at, if you’ve rarely looked at it before, tucked it away, and not thought about it because it did not impact your daily life. “It’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate,” and you sang along. You knew it was happening, but your eyes betrayed you, and because you didn’t see it in your neighborhood, in your schools and streets, you let your faith in humanity go.

You let yourself believe that we, Black people, did something to deserve to be the nightly feature on the news: Weather, sports, celebrities, national headlines, and the local Black criminal; that’s literally fed into our homes each night on the news. And if you’ve been spending your time with Fox and ilk, then certainly you’ve been trained in a language that pits them against us, and posits losers and sinners against the righteous folks like you who are just trying to make it in this world. How could the Blacks live such a radically different existence? You lie to yourself and say that they can’t, that all the opportunities they lose are theirs alone. It’s all down to individual decisions, just like you. We each chose our own fates, right? There’s no system, and certainly no systemic oppression. F #MeToo, too, you say… at home with only the family and kids to hear. The kids repeat it at school, grow up and vote like that. They cycle repeats, whiteness is rendered, effectively, invisible. Only the Blacks are not acting right.

If only these 4 Little Girls had acted right, right?

It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

It’s Autumn, and my hometown is on fire. [Theme song: When You Gonna Learn, by Jamiroquai]

Jay Kay sang: “Yeah, yeah, have you heard the news today?”

Me: Yeah, yeah, my hometown is on fire.

Protestors in downtown Louisville, my hometown.

My hometown is on fire. In March, SWAT-armed officers served a warrant, and an EMS worker ended up dead. The deceased was Black and poor, and lived in the poor Black part of town. The officers adhered to the codes of the ruling caste. The media covered the death matter-of-factly. The tag line is: “Breonna Taylor was an innocent person in her own home.” So, by extension, all the other victims were not innocent, and therefore deserved to die. Only Jesus’ death warrants defense…and outrage – according to the actions of the folks who James Baldwin called those who believe themselves to be white. So, Breonna, George Floyd, all of them…these were justifiable killings? Yeah, yeah, casualties of the race war where white supremacy has always had the whip.

My hometown is on fire. The mayor put the city on lockdown days ahead of the grand jury’s announcement, not Corona. Trucks block traffic now; windows were boarded up days ago. All to announce that (only) one of the shooters would be indicted, and on the lower end of charges. The officer was initially denounced and fired, and (only) now charged with “wanton, reckless endangerment.” None of the charges relate to Breonna’s death, so that’s exactly what the courts won’t be able to address.

Those who believe themselves t be white will defend their rights against these dead Black bodies

My hometown is on fire. Locals who believe themselves to be white char the memory of the victim, each victim, individually. For Breonna was not perfect, nor was Trayvon, nor George Floyd, nor Sandra Bland, nor countless others … all just human. Not even Amadou Diallo was a perfect-enough-victim for ‘those who believe themselves to be white’. Each family of each victim has had to fight the system individually, as if in a vacuum. Little attention to this incident was paid until the bodies mounted around the country. Everything changed when people of all races marched together, looters rioted and property was lost. Only then did “voters” take notice.

My hometown is on fire. The police have never been held accountable for such deaths. Apparently, the deceased liked bad boys, and was a victim of circumstance. White citizens – the so-called “voters”  – resist seeing the systemic causes to these deaths. Just a few weeks ago, after MONTHS of national outrage and protest, the police reached a 12-million-dollar settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family. Every Kentucky tax payer will pay for our collective neglect. My hometown held it down, made the world say her name.

My hometown is on fire. Say her name. “Say her name,” is now a moniker for another fallen Black body. Where whites see no systemic problem, there can be no systemic solutions. Please, “stop it going on.”

Protests in my hometown, Louisville, KY

For the Trayvons, Since Blackface is a weapon #BlackenAsiaWithLove

2 April 2012 Hanoi

 

The real Blackface that’s the weapon is the minstrel show,
The Blackface that labeled me out,

Showing people a side of me never seen

But projected onto me,

Such that when so many see my own Blackface,

They see that other

They see that other one.

The one told to them over their kitchen tables.

The one sold to them at the movie show –

Hoop dreams

Baller creams

Holla dolla-dolla bill, y’all.

‘Cause we also know that there are real Black faces

That see those minstrel black faces

Staring them back in the face,

So blinded by the light that they cannot see their own.

 

That’s one side of Trayvon’s story-

Then we all know how precious of a story this really is

That a mother lost her darling son

That a grandmother lost the one who used to babysit for the other gran’kids

That the little cousins are still unclear about where that dear boy is.

 

Blackface means that as soon as your voice starts to drop

As soon as that fuzzy hair starts to sprout all over

As soon as your knock knees start to look bold

You’re no longer a kid

Your childhood is lost

And you must learn to act in ways that would make most sane adults stumble

You learn how not to offend white people

How to speak in a soft voice

Or perish

How to walk slowly, with an unassuming gate

Lest you appear as a threat

With the knowledge that any of these threatened folks can annihilate you

Wipe you from this earth

Where only a generation or two ago

Men hanged like tree-ripened fruit

Aged on a rope in an instant

From kid prankster

To adult menace in a matter of moments

We’ve all seen that photo of one of America’s last lynchings

Not nearly the first

Not nearly the haste, carnage and human waste that made people cease.

 

In 1930, not in anywhere near the deep south

Not from one of our southern willows that sway

But in the mid-west

In Indiana, less than a 150 miles from where Michael Jackson was born

And less than 30 years before he came to be,

So that years later when he sings about hate in our multicultural hearts

Or smashes a window in the video

Enraged with anger

Mad from hypocrisy

The sort that we all know all too well

The gap between the promise and dream.

The reality versus the verses etched all around the capital,

Versus the slave hands that laid those very stones.

The women folk whose very gender made them slaves

And the Black women whose faces made them chattel –

But exploitation of a sexual kind

Yes, we all know too well

What a Blackface can do

How a Blackface can scare you

Even when it’s yours.

So, we now the rage Michael felt,

The hate he seemed to have fought though lost,

Internalized but never giving up.

Yet he was born into a world that hated Blackfaces

Where his was a real threat,

Lest he learn to sing and dance.

The hate is real life minstrelsy.

 

It’s that same song and dance that we as boys learn to perform

And I am tired of dancing

Trying to make nice when people approach me as cold as ice

Smiling and trying to behave

While all their body language tells me that they are scared to death of me

And that they see my Blackface as chilling.

We all know that all the Trayvons in this place

Learn from an age too early to have to teach kids such harsh cruelties of life

That by 13, he could be nearly 6 feet tall and that factor alone endangers his life

Were he to play sports and his body develop.

He would stand no chance of being treated like anything other than a gladiator.

So it’s even more ironic that Trayvon was a scrawny boy they called “Slim”

Seems there’s no real way to win

Though I think that if we as a people can get through this

If we as a nation can have this conversation

The one mothers like Trayvon’s have with their sons

For we all know how people react to Black

 

We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

Screenshot 2020-06-30 16.14.40

First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

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