The Audacity of Hope: Surviving Blackness in America

[sg_popup id=”1″ event=”onload”][/sg_popup]I can tell you that I stand at the crossroads of queerness, motherhood biases, the expectations of my gender, Black hatred, religious intolerance, and public and mental health crises. I can tell you fifteen ways in which this America isn’t meant for me. However, what I fear most is standing as a mother of a Black child who still has the audacity to hope.

In 2004, then Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech at the DNC Convention that would end up propelling him into the White House. The title of the speech was “The Audacity of Hope.” That day, now some 13 years ago, Obama weaved Black church and jazz into a message that was needed at the time and is still needed today:

Obama America

“There’s not a black America, and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

This optimistic sentiment is in itself audacious. At the heart of his message, Obama was asking us to reclaim the ideals of American inclusivity.

Today, however, those ideals are cracked, if not entirely broken. America is more divided than ever.

“To this day he never knows what doors his accent might close off. My father’s America is fundamentally different than the one politicians speak about.”

I fear that the division is a gift passed on by the forefathers of this nation. It is in our laws and in our way of thinking. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. And the pudding is orange and uses five or six superlatives in one sentence.

I have never known what a unified America looks like except within my children. They hold entire worlds within their bodies. As Black boys, they must fight and cling to the fragility of their childhoods. What does hope look like in an America where a boy’s kindness is sometimes seen as forward, as rude, or as another symptom of his blackness?

Before coming to America, my father sold water bottles in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire to save enough money for the journey west. When he finally came to this country, he worked for years as a cab driver while going to school. He eventually became a Peace Corp Volunteer, got his Master’s in Public Health, then took a job in Liberia. My father is an example of the “American Dream.”

Along the way to achieving this dream, he dealt with severe racism. To this day he never knows what doors his accent might close off. My father’s America is fundamentally different than the one politicians speak about.

The bottles my father sold was his entry fee, his penance for dreaming so large. After he and my mother divorced, I still had to collect bottles for change in order to eat at night. That was the luck of my birth. My inheritance. When I look at my son, I wonder about all the ways that he will have to buy into this America. I wonder if the hope itself will only bring about pain.

“I have to tell my son not to stand too close to anything. To not be too seen. That is my America.”

Why is so much of the American Dream suffering?

Many people tell me that my nine-year-old son is endearing. Not too long ago, a man he had just meet called him cariñoso–being full of affection, he gave the man a hug goodbye. My son likes to read books everywhere and all the time. He is a Minecraft scholar. He has developed a love for language and writes the most charming essays.

I reckon with the fact that he is in a country so rich of culture and opportunity that he is able to have access to all of these parts of himself while far too many people do not see him as a child. I once watched a woman in her 50’s talk to my son as if he were an adult, holding him to those same expectations that he should understand the complexity of her feelings and be responsible for them as well.

I felt nauseous for days because this is what might kill him. I didn’t know how to explain all the ways she posed a threat to my child. Not when she thought he was the danger. In a society that rapidly matures their Black children, my son’s intelligence and kindness can be seen as presumptuous.

If I seem paranoid, it’s because I have reason to be. I’ve watched store owners jump over crates to stand by my son just to make sure he didn’t pocket a bag of chips when all he was doing was telling me his opinion on the colors of the bag. How could he be more American? I have to tell my son not to stand too close to anything. To not be too seen. That is my America. An America full of constant fears.

As I listen to Obama’s speech, I think of its beauty and its holes. I think of how little there is to say about politicians and their words today. While I’m not sure if they are speaking to me, I’m certain they are talking about me.

The 2016 elections showed that there is a different America for everyone. I already knew my America was different when I tell my children, against my better judgment, that they have to work twice or three times as hard to maybe get on equal footing. This sentiment only robs them of their childhoods. We are asked to hope in the face of unrealistic expectations.

blackness in america

Why is so much of the American dream suffering? I remember Obama’s speech today because the hope I have is indeed audacious. After so many televised Black deaths, after the rise in recorded hate crimes, after seeing the school-to-prison pipeline at work, after understanding that no real change can come unless there is a change in our laws–I still ask my son to be a child.

13 years later, in all his sincerity and faults, the political rhetoric is that President Obama is still to blame for our troubles. His kindness was and is questioned. He became suspect the moment he went up on that stage. He stood in for all those minute ways America hates Blackness.

What Obama taught me with that speech was not to hope in America and its politicians or laws, as he may have wanted, but in my children and all the ways they are human.

Black boys, like that Black man: It is audacious, it is bold, and it is American to remain good in a society that vilifies you.


Can We Live: Summerhill Restaurant Aestheticizes Poverty and Pain in Brooklyn

Summerhill BK Misses the Mark

Gentrification: When superficial representations of Black culture and poverty replace actual Black culture and poverty. When Blackness and poverty become synonymous. Gentrification has never been about safety. It’s about aesthetics because, at its core, gentrification is reductive. There’s nothing more reductive than Summerhill, a new restaurant, and bar in Crown Heights–a majority Black community–that is asking Black and Brown people to perform for the same White gentrifiers who are robbing them of their homes and their humanity.

Becca Brennan, the owner of Summerhill (who I will refer to as “Becky” for clarity), shows us that violence and poverty are so readily consumable when served on marginalized bodies. On Summerhill’s menu is a “Forty Ounce Rosé” served in a brown bag. For context, Rosé is an historically high priced and elite wine, while 40s are malt liquors stocked in the bodegas of low-income communities. By placing this on the menu, Becky is repackaging poverty to be hip and profiting from it. She is in the business of stealing convenient parts of Black culture and putting them on display. By the same token, she is locking these communities into poverty. She is doing this by shifting the definition of poverty for her needs.

To be clear, “brown bagging” alcohol isn’t Black culture. Alcohol was hidden in brown bags to stave off police harassment. The men who brown bag at block parties are much more than poor; a lot of them are richer than most of us, on a real bank account level. They are also funny, pained, happy, stressed, and empathetic. But why am I explaining to you the nuances of Black lives in 2017? Walking into Summerhill is nothing like experiencing Black Culture. Instead, it’s like stopping to take a selfie with a dying brown child just to prove that you saved one.

A lot of us still hold childhood fears in our bodies. I don’t know what yours are, but for me, I still worry about having to find extra bottles so that I can make extra cents from the bottle tax to help my mom out. I still have a deep fear of poverty because it is a constant feeling of oppression that sits in my body. It is a feeling that has no room for simplicity. We also hold a lot of beauty. I am always thinking about my mother’s passions for poetry and her love of dance and music. So who am I? Should I be kicked out of my own body and have you replace me with a museum of only my traumas?

In Summerhill, you are able to sip on the culturally appropriated Rosé next to a faux bullet ridden wall built in an attempt to recreate the crime filled streets that were there before. I associate bullets with blood and death. I associate it with trauma. Becky associates it with a great time at the movies. I have family members that have been shot. As a society, we watched as Philando Castile was shot right before our eyes. There is nothing more triggering than walking by a cafe that celebrates the way some of our friends and family have died on your way to work. As a Black person, I’m tired of having to relive pain for a White person’s pleasure and monetary gain.

I almost wonder why this celebration of Black and Brown deaths isn’t an obvious form of racism, colonialism, and cultural oppression to everyone. One reviewer of the spot described it as, “Exactly what this neighborhood has been waiting for!” They are suggesting that before Summerhill and other gentrifiers, there was no community, everyone in the neighborhood walked with their heads down mourning for redemption. So long as gentrifiers continue to suppress humanity for the sake of profitable death, many people will remain gleefully ignorant. Then I remember that aside from the general ignorance, gentrification is the granddaughter of racism. And Granddaddy liked to go to the local park and watch us hang.

Summerhill restaurant is not a form of closeted racism. It isn’t even a new form. It’s complicit. I remember a Brooklyn that no one would go to. In fact, I’m from the Bronx, where a lot of my friends, who are also gentrifiers, still won’t visit. Maybe it’s because they picture me kicking away crack needles so that my kids can play on the concrete. Or maybe as artists, they won’t come to a place perceived as artless. Yet, here I am still living my best life as an artist. Being a mother to an artsy kid, enjoying my Dominican cafe and my Mexican tortas. We should not have to wait for our foods, clubs, and pain to be a White secret before it becomes true living. It’s already real for us. You cannot tell me differently.

There’s a Haitian saying that provides a different perspective on a people that are often described as poor or the poorest: Nou two riche pou yo ka di nou pov. We are too rich for them to call us poor.

Can we live?