For black men and women, these are no ordinary things
A broken taillight, cigarette, cell phone, a spoon,
Pocketknife, hoodies in 85 degree heat, skittles, a toy
sword, a toy gun in a children’s park, a toy rifle in a store
that sells toy rifles, a black wallet – and most lethal of all,
your black body. And driving with a four year old in the back
seat, your love in the front seat does not draw the picture
of a family going out to dinner, or coming home after
visiting grandparents, or just out for a drive to rock
your little girl to sleep. Running, jogging, or even just
sitting are no casual events. When the siren flashes each
ordinary thing becomes chance, life or death waiting.
I wrote the poem, “No Ordinary Things” after Philando Castile was shot dead by Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez after Yanez stopped him for a broken tail light on July 6 2016. A most routine of stops and Castile was dead. And since then, a few more routine stops, and a few more deaths of unarmed black men.
For Emily Dickinson a good poem takes the ordinary and makes it extra ordinary. But racialize that poetic sentiment and the ordinariness of being black becomes extra ordinary. The ordinariness of day-to-day licensed activities becomes extra ordinary.
Castile driving home with his girlfriend and her six-year-old daughter – the most ordinary of licensed things – driving home-becomes extra ordinary. So where an friendly officer would have made a silly joke with the six year old before conducting the necessary police business of at worst giving a ticket for the broken tail light, or at best, letting him off with a warning, becomes a lethal encounter. Castile’s death is live streamed via Facebook – the ordinary still extraordinary.
Castile licensed to carry a firearm, Amadou Diallo licensed to carry a wallet, Trayvon Martin licensed to carry skittles, John Crawford licensed to carry a toy gun in a state that has open carry laws in a store that sells toy guns, Sandra Bland licensed to carry her rights. The ordinary in black hands becomes an extraordinary threat.
Rationally I know that chances of me as black person dying at the end of a racist policeman or policewoman’s gun are not high – that is, that for me to be that same exact black person who gets stopped at that same exact time in that same exact spot by that same exact racist police officer who ends up shooting me are not high.
But it can happen because it happens to black people. Imagine a storm where lightning only strikes black people. There is no consolation in knowing that the chances of you being that same exact black person that the lightning strike kills are not high. Being Black in the US is like playing a perverse lottery where instead of winning you do not lose.
Imagine a storm where lightning only strikes black people. There is no consolation in knowing that the chances of you being that same exact black person that the lightning strike kills are not high
That is the extreme, the extra ordinary. In so many ways smaller more generalised non-lethal lightning strikes take place – Castile had been pulled over 49 times in 14 years. And the statistics indicate that to be black in the United States is to live with the legacy of slavery. That lightning strike might not kill, but it will wound, and tear off a wing.
There are of course many ways of being black. Eugene Robinson in his useful but flawed book Disintegration gives us four kinds of fractured blackness – “a Mainstream middle-class majority with a full ownership stake in American society…a large, Abandoned minority with less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction’s crushing end…a small Transcendent elite with such enormous wealth, power, and influence that even white folks have to genuflect” and “two newly Emergent groups-individuals of mixed-race heritage and communities of recent black immigrants-that make us wonder what “black” is even supposed to mean.”
As a Kenyan American I fall in the emergent group, but that is no consolation. Amadou Diallo from Guinea was shot 41 times in 1999 as he reached for the most ordinary of things – his wallet.
So yes, within blackness there are multiple identities that should be celebrated in all their contradictions. But this lightning mostly strikes black people.
In this America, it matters less what kind of black person I am – immigrant, black American, or biracial. The terror of racism brings us under one roof. And there is no consolation that the Republican Party nominee, Donald ‘Duterte’ Trump is by any measurements a racist, sexist and xenophobe.
In this America, it matters less what kind of black person I am – immigrant, black American, or biracial. The terror of racism brings us under one roof
Let me end this way. The one time I have had a police officer point a gun at me was not in the United States. It was in Germany last year. Going back to our hotel after a late night with writer friends, a cab driver accidentally triggered some sort of button that signals distress. A traffic light, a German cop knocking on the front passenger window with gun raised. We survived that encounter perhaps because upon looking inside, he saw a few exuberant and drunken writers – a family of sorts.
Yet, under the same circumstances in New York, I am certain lightening would have struck black once again. Racism in its colour-coded certainty and randomness creates terror. Racism is terrorism. And blue has become the colour of terror.
This essay first appeared in the German Magazine, Kulturaustausch.