“Is this all there is to America?” I thought, as I looked at the slave quarters in the distance.
I wondered, as I stood there on a gray, drizzly day in southern Louisiana, if any of my people had passed through these cabins. In their ugly, unpainted starkness, I felt not uneasy, but weary. Weary of the nation that allowed this thing to happen. Weary of the nation that was allowing evil to happen again.
When I was asked to write for this series, I had to think a long time whether I wanted to do it or not. I like The Immanent Frame. When asked to write about “Is this all there is,” though, my first thought was, eh, I probably should not do this. At the eleventh hour, I reconsidered. I want to have a public record about how it feels to live in America.
Is racism, gun violence, and greed all there is to America? I live in a nation where a black man can lie in the sun for hours, shot by a white cop who said he looked like a demon to him. I live in a nation that says “thoughts and prayers” glibly after every paroxysm of mass murder sponsored by the NRA: Newtown. Charleston. Orlando. Las Vegas. Parkland. I live in a nation where if you kneel to protest, you are called a son of a bitch by the president.
I am disgusted with who we are. I am disgusted with my inability to stop any of it.
I am sick of America’s racist history. I am sick of America’s racist present. I am sick of one nation under god. I actually do not think god wants much to do with this place, if god exists. I want to flee America’s racist future; I cannot imagine America not being anything but comfortable to white supremacists and well-meaning white liberal racists.
This is not my version of “Is this all there is.”
I want more.
With each event of violence, or racism, I step out of myself back to my childhood, where I imagined a different world. Growing up I loved the alternative worlds I saw in Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica. Because it was anywhere but here in the good ol’ USA. Growing up near NASA helped. On television, Kirk could kiss a green woman or Uhura out in space and no one would be uptight about it. Space, as Sun Ra said, was the place.
I might not have seen lots of black people in Star Wars, but when George Clinton fired up the mothership, I could imagine jamming out in space and being free to dance without being censured by a disapproving white person or their respectable black friend.
Space, to me, was freedom. Imagining Sun Ra’s world or listening to Earth, Wind and Fire transported me to another dimension. It probably did not help that I spent lots of time rereading Chariots of the Gods at an age far too young. I watched “In Search of . . .” with Leonard Nimoy hoping that someday those people who made the Nazca Lines or the Pyramids would come looking for me. I hoped that they would look just like me.
There was not a name for the way I felt at the time, but now there is: Afrofuturist. Like the definition, I imagined a future where black people were winning, not losing. I imagined that black people were never enslaved. I imagined all the ancient black kingdoms I saw in the Budweiser series from the 1970s plastered in my grandfather’s bar were still in Africa, instead of those pictures with bloated hungry black children. I imagined that white people were cool, and did not say stupid racist things to me just when I started to trust them a little. I imagined lots of gods and that Jesus was black and beautiful. I imagined planets where black people had autonomy and lived in peace. A future where I could be who I wanted, love who I wanted, be nappy in space, and happy in place.
All of my fantasizing came out of my love of history. History is cruel but it teaches you things. While the sci-fi world animated my soul, reading history made it burn. History reminded me of the millions before me who died at the bottom of the Atlantic. History reminded me that my great uncle who looked white, with blonde hair and blue eyes, was a black man who saw a lynching happen. History reminds me of all the ex-pat African Americans who had to leave America to be creative and breathe just to feel human. It reminds me of how that white Jesus hanging on a cross might be my friend but he might also betray me.
I am caught between my Afrofuturism and my Afropessimism. Which will win my soul?
I do not know, but I can say this: It is exhausting affirming one’s existence if you are not white in America. What other place in the world could elect a president of African descent and then turn around and give the office to an Andrew Jackson wannabe?
If this is all there is in America, then I have to figure out how to continue to live here without losing my mind. I refuse to believe that it is.
When I travel outside of America, I enjoy looking up at the sky. I spend time outside at night. I look up and count stars. I peer into the infinite inky night, hoping against hope that we might not be alone and maybe, just maybe, out in that darkness there is some hope.
If you thought that last word should have been light instead of hope, well, that is the problem in a nutshell.