Under the Overpass: Anti-Blackness

Under the Overpass focuses on politics, current events, and social commentary from a black, crunchy, granola perspective. Myshell chooses the topics. Michael writes the commentary. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and not endorsed by myshelltabu.com or its owners.

You have just walked under the overpass and, down here, we’ve been thinking about blackness — not to be confused with black-ish — but they’re sorta related in that play-cousin kinda way.

Black people are everywhere. You would think that ubiquitous presence would remind others that we were the first people on the planet and cause them to give us the dap we deserve. It’s the infrequent Black sighting that begins with “Hey, my primordial sister, thanks for making the rest of us possible!” Instead, Black bodies are too often shot on sight. Reason be damned, weapon unfound, and jury decisions unfounded.

Being Black can be bad for your health.

The socio-economic and political externalities of walking around in a Black body require an extraordinary amount self-care. Or technologies of the self, as Michel Foucault would argue. The process of identifying and implementing strategies to undergird the thing inside us that makes us who we are. Technologies to enliven the spirit. Practices that can build our internal infrastructure in a world performing synchronized explosive demolitions on Black bodies like we’re vacant buildings. Stop me when I start lying.

Encountering blackness makes people lose their minds. Not long ago, I was entering the elevator in the university building where I teach English literature. I was wearing a blazer, carrying a satchel full of graded papers and rocking eyewear thick enough to suggest that I know my way around a book. A middle-aged white women literally moved deep into the corner of the elevator, brought her purse close to her bosom, angled her body to give me the Floyd Mayweather raised shoulder and looked at me like I was Lil Wayne on that syrup.

Her reaction sent my emotions swirling. I recall clearly that I had been having a good day. It was a sunny spring semester which has a way of putting you in a good mood because it’s a signifier that summer break is near. I was feeling good. Then I was not. First, I remember feeling embarrassed. I was embarrassed because my blackness had made this strange woman act so strangely. Her crazy was my fault. My skin had victimized her. Then I caught myself. And got mad. I almost said, “You have NOTHING I want.” But I didn’t. In part, I was silenced by the potential repercussions of exploding my rage on her. In part, I was silenced because I was hurt. I didn’t have my guard up, so her actions hit an emotional chord. A tender one. One that most of us keep well protected as we engage white folk at our jobs, talk to police officers with our hands in full view on the steering wheel, order from the waiter, raise our hands to answer the question in class and clear our throats to speak in meetings. When the white gaze is on us, we feel the weight, potential danger and stress that it brings. That’s why many of us don’t feel comfortable socializing with our white colleagues. Why some of us feel such a rage at any perceived slight. Why we medicate alone on Hennessy, Cognac, and Hendrix Kush. It hurts to have people judge us on sight. Worse when they start firing. It’s painful and tiring walking through the world with a black body when the world is drunk on anti-blackness.

Anti-blackness can be best understood within the framework forwarded by theorist Jared Sexton: In a world structured by the twin axioms of white superiority and black inferiority, of white existence and black non-existence, a world structured by a negative categorical imperative – “above all, don’t be black” [quoting Lewis Gordon] – in this world, the zero degree of transformation is the turn toward blackness, a turn toward the shame, as it were, that “resides in the idea that ‘I am thought of as less than human’” [quoting Tavia Nyong’o].

Although some of us may not use the term anti-blackness in our daily interactions, our daily interactions inform our perfect understanding of the term.

The irony of anti-blackness is that most of us would rather be black (according to my unscientific polling, involving unrepresentative sample sizes comprised of me and other cats over the years). Despite living in an anti-black world, we love us some us. The flavor of our nomenclature. The soul lineage from Al Green to Anthony Hamilton. The articulation of Barbara Christian’s intellect. The through line to Erica R. Edwards. Vorris L. Nunley on a dialectical roll. Allen Iverson’s crossover. It’s extension through Kyrie Irving. The courage of Barbara Lee. The fierceness of Maxine Waters. The hipness of my teenage daughter. The soul of my 2-year-old baby girl who calls Malcolm X, “Uncle X” because he feels so familiar to her on vinyl.

Anti-blackness can kiss our black asses.

The people who are pushing it on the world, and supporting its unsavory regime, aren’t really encountering Black people. They’re encountering the trope of Blackness. Theorist Vorris L. Nunley describes a trope as, “Distinctive concentrations and constellations of dense cultural and experiential energy. Such energy enables certain effects with certain audiences through visual, verbal, written, or gestural performativity. Tropes alter, heighten, and increase constellations of cultural signs.” The woman in the elevator didn’t encounter Michael Datcher, she encountered a constellation of cultural energy that included her stereotypes about Black men. That cultural energy created a heightened affect in her body when she was forced to share an elevator space with the trope of blackness —- in the form of a blazer wearing English professor.

George Zimmerman didn’t encounter Trayvon Martin, a teenage boy with a high-grade point average who was his father’s best friend and had a weakness for Skittles, Zimmerman encountered the trope of blackness.

Officer Darren Wilson didn’t encounter a college-bound teenager with dreams named Michael Brown. He encountered the trope of blackness.

The trope of blackness can kiss our black asses, too. We’re keeping it one-hundred, here, here under overpass.

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