One of my favorite jokes is about two friends who are pulled over for speeding. The police officer approaches the driver, asks for his license and registration, then slaps the driver for speeding. Then he writes a ticket and slaps the driver again. Before leaving, he walks to the passenger side and asks the passenger to roll down the window. When the passenger does it, the officer reaches into the window and slaps the passenger too.
“Why did you slap me?” the passenger asks. “I wasn’t even driving!”
The cop relied, “I know. But when you get about a mile down the road, I am 100% sure you would’ve turned to your friend who’s driving and said to him:
“I wouldn’t have let him slap me like that. ”
For the last few days I have received a constant barrage of text messages, tweets and instant messages showing me this shirt:
First of all, whoever sells this shirt couldn’t find a Black model? Seriously?
Secondly, we are forever inundated with online super-radical negroes who wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight, raising their black fists in Instagram photos, spreading Hotepness with a closet full of daishikis and a head full of hot air.
Every time I hear some twenty-two year old who’s read a couple of Black history pamphlets and googled “the struggle” to quote the names of their favorite belligerent Black superhero, they always begin talking about how they are “more Malcolm than Martin” as if nonviolence resistance was the mark of some punk and quiet strength is something to be ashamed of. When you ask them how many times Malcolm was jailed for political activism vs Martin, they hem and haw. When you ask them how often they’ve been arrested for political or social activism, they get strangely quiet. That’s when I fuck with them. “So you’ve never seen racism in your life? But I thought you were more Malcolm than Martin?”
Cowards exist in chest-thumping bravado. People who don’t fight a lot love to talk about how they’ll kick your ass. What’s even more, they love to ridicule people who walk away from fights. As it is with cowards, it is the same with this new generation of neo-activists. They love to look radical, and act belligerent, but in the face of oppression they wilt like daffodils.
My grandparents weren’t punks.
My great-grandfather was a sharecropper struggling to make ends meet by working a White man’s land. My grandmother told me that one day, the man whose land they farmed came home and asked why the children were in school, and not out working the land. My great grandfather packed his shit up and left that same day. My great-grandfather wasn’t no punk.
My grandfather was also a working man. He smoked a thick cigar. He built his own house that my family lives in to this very day. He worked his entire life at a paper factory. He also owned his own taxi company in the Jim Crow South in the 50’s and 60’s until he was killed by two White men high off cocaine and gin. My grandaddy wasn’t no punk.
My maternal grandmother worked in that paper factory too. For years. She raised 6 children. She built a church. I watched her waste away and take her last breath in front of me. Just before she died in 1988–before there was an internet or a blog–she told me she doesn’t believe in prophecy or anything, but she had a dream where I was a grown man speaking to thousands of people. My fraternal grandmother died a few years ago well over 100 years old. She never had dementia or lost her mobility. She spent her last years fishing every day. My grandmama’s weren’t no punks.
My grandmother once told me she saw a man hanged. when I asked her “what for,” she told me that the guy was part of a strike, and police stopped him months later and found the sign he carried during the strike in the trunk of his car. She told me the sign was the same one everyone carried back in those days. It simply said “I am a man.” I always remembered the beautiful simple defiance of that statement.
We are now prone to fists. It’s because we are stupid. It’s because we are inundated with basic cable heroes and silver screen protagonists who have convinced us that there is something more noble and more masculine about loud bravado. We fancy ourselves like these fictional characters who throw punches at the villain and knocks out all opposition. I have been in many fights before–both literally and figuratively, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that half the people who say they’re going to fight with you, will run. As a matter of fact, the ones who loudly proclaim how much ass they will kick, will definitely run. Everyone’s a fighter until it is time to fight.
The only reason we exist is because our forefathers endured whatever they faced to get us here. And I, for one, am not sure I could have done it. Those who think their grandparents were passive don’t understand the quiet rebellion of survival. They can’t fathom sitting still while fire hoses rip the skin away from your bones. They would run away from those police dogs. They would have reversed course on the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the sight of baton-wielding policemen. They don’t understand the inner strength it takes to simply suck in oxygen every day in a world where the law, the society the economy, the politics and every conceivable, touchable thing is trying to cave your chest in.
I asked my grandmother what she would do if she had to face people from that factory who would hang her. Maybe she was trying to calm my fears (because I was a nervous, worrisome, asshole of a little kid) but she told me those people would never bother her. When I asked how she knew, she replied, “I worked there for 25 years.”
That is why the t-shirt is disrespectful. We are all collectively miles down the road, telling the our grandparents “I wouldn’t have let them slap me like that.”
There is a story I don’t tell often about my involvement in a protest immediately after the death of Eric Garner. Every activist in the city had vowed to shut down the city’s most expensive shopping center on the busiest shipping day of the year–the Friday before Christmas. When it came time for action, I don’t know whether it was the overwhelming presence of the police, fear or the responsibilities they faced at home–no one did anything. I said “fuck it” and stepped out by myself. I didn’t fault them. I wasn’t even angry at them.
When I stepped off that curb, I was holding the sign pictured below. I was as afraid, and no more brave than anyone else. I just remembered:
I am my grandparents.