There are quite a few free negroes in Memphis. I am proud to be one of them. It is a risky path to take, but there is nothing like freedom. I wake up every morning knowing that no matter what, I’m going to be my authentic self. I learned the hard way that swallowing the poison of racial microagressions can make you ill. Silently bearing actual racial aggression can kill you. It made me ill to resist the urge to fight the blatant disrespect and disdain I experienced while I was a professor. I have no idea why I chose that path because until that point, I was free. There was something about getting a tenure track job that shackled me somehow. When I decided to leave that place, I looked down and found that the lock really was on my side of the door.
There are a lot of scared and trapped negroes in Memphis, but I’m not sure they know it. In my time here as an adult, I have heard black people with positions of power and influence and those with no power at all shame and belittle black people living in or near poverty in the most self-hating ways. Intra-racial social class dynamics in this city disgust me, and they are rearing their heads in this critical moment in our city.
When a young black man can stand in front of a room full of people, point to his peers, and suggest they would be out robbing houses if they were not present for a public meeting, he is saying he is not free.
When grown educated black folks, can suggest that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would not engage in civil disobedience and disrupt the normal functions of a city, they are not free.
When a black professional woman can publicly decry a focus on systems over individual responsibility, she is not free.
When an interim police director can make a protest about the systematic state-sanctioned murder of black people about gang violence, he is not free. Nor are the people free who call for circumventing a search process and praising him for doing his job by calmly escorting them from a protest in attempt to end it.
So very many of us are in bondage.
I offer this brief questionnaire to help people self-diagnose. If you are a black person who can answer yes to any of these questions, please look down and unlock the door. (CAUTION: Freedom is not free. Not everyone at every level of our American systems–economic, political, etc.–can put their freedom on display in the same way. Prices may vary. Consider your budget and select the right strategy. Being free and being reckless are not the same thing.)
- Do you police other black people’s dress, talk, or “choices” because of what white people may think?
- Are you middle income or higher (or aspiring) and have mocked blacks living in poverty or who are part of the working class for their dress, talk, or “choices”?
- Are there a lot of white people in your work place who think you’re friends although you find them annoyingly privileged and/or racist?
- Do you think you are in a position to help those children in those neighborhoods but think the opportunities your children have are inappropriate for them?
- Are white people genuinely happy to have you in the room when there are going to be difficult conversations about poverty, justice, and race in Memphis?
- Do you find yourself at odds with black people who attempt to introduce those people into consequential meetings and conversations?
- Do you think that your blackness makes you a legitimate spokesperson for people in communities in which you never spend time? Or in which you haven’t lived since you were a child?
- Have you ever characterized black people in a way that if a white person did it you would call them racist?
- Do you think that your beating your child is different from what slaveholders did to control our bodies and reinforce their ownership of us?
- Is poverty and crime due solely to the poor choices of individuals?
If you are black and you answered yes to any of these questions, get free.
If you are white (or of any other racial or ethnic group) and you answered yes to any of these questions, well, that’s not surprising. Stop being racist. Deal with your bias.