“They used to carry torches when they came to lynch us,” was what my godfather confessed to me as we sat down for lunch in now-gentrified Harlem, just days after white supremacists had stormed the city of Charlottesville, Virginia.
He did not look me in the eye when he said it. But, as we sat in the outdoor section of a fancy new cafe overflowing with young white urban professionals and located directly across the street from New York City housing projects overflowing with socially and economically disfranchised black and brown people, I knew instinctually that his spontaneous reflection on the red record of the American South had been compelled by the Tiki torch–wielding thugs who initiated their acts of terror by surrounding the St. Paul’s Memorial Church, mere steps from Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.
Many of my friends and colleagues had gathered there as an interfaith, interracial, anti-racist community of prayer on the night before the peculiar brand of American white supremacy would leave three people dead and many more seriously injured. The new millennial nightriders encircled the church chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” and “white lives matter!” Only this time, they did not come costumed in the dreadful white sheets that color the blood memories of my kin—my godfather’s recollection of “king cotton” in Arkansas; my grandfather’s beginnings as a sharecropper in South Carolina; or even my northern-born mother’s more benign remembrance of packing wax paper meals for travel south of the Mason-Dixon line because Jim Crow had decreed that Black people could not stop to eat just anywhere.
These nightriders (or perhaps I should say, “white walkers” as in the manner of Game of Thrones, they steal our children by night) did not show up wearing the blue police uniforms or even the dark business suits that respectively traffic in the contemporary death-dealing tactics of state and corporate-sponsored anti-Black violence and economic injustice, which often wordlessly, though consistently, articulate that “only white lives matter.” Instead, dressed in khakis and polo shirts, blue jeans and baseball caps, they shouted their racist and anti-Semitic vulgarities across the university quad with “American as apple pie” precision.
Proponents of racist post-racial social perspectives often demand the dissolution of affirmative action. Such perspectives insist upon uninterrogated homogeneity, which deceptively claims that “we are all immigrants” and swears by the universality of the imago dei. But as long as God is imaged as always white, male, and clean, as opposed to poor, displaced, and executed by the state with his hands up while his mother watches from afar, like so many Black men and boys, the image of this white God and the story of a Black Palestinian Jew named Jesus just do not add up.
The truth is that Jim and Jane Crow did not die at the Woolworth’s lunch counter or at the water fountains in the city parks.
No—Jim and Jane Crow had grandchildren.
Their rage, though pictorially memorialized in Charlottesville in ways that prompted an unbelievable ethic of disbelief in much of bourgeois America, is the weapon of mass destruction that regularly compels the assault on Black life. White rage is consistently deployed, not only in small southern towns, but in the very air that enlivens the racist fabric of the church, academy, and society, while asphyxiating ebony, mahogany, and sable flesh through hegemonic practices that silence and invisibilize.
I can’t breathe.
Because Black Codes persist everywhere—from subaltern sacred spaces to the ivory tower.
The echoes of the slavocracy reverberate.
Contemporary restrictions of Black mobility that become known in a reality where Black people can be killed with impunity for walking while Black, driving while Black, going to school while Black, going to work while Black, and even praying while Black, are but one manifestation of this fact.
He said, “They used to carry torches when they came to lynch us.”
I heard, “The more things change, the more things remain the same.”
This is what it is.
Emmett. Addie Mae. Carolyn. Denise.
Michael Brown, Jr.
The Emmanuel Nine.
This is what it is.
The stench of premature grave clothes.
The rot of the crypt.
The stink of Black blood.
The anguish of our misery.
And while some, like Tina Fey, and another 53 percent of white women voters who did not believe black women the first time, will eat cake as a balm for white supremacy and Black death, there are Black women who will not with a subtlety, so subtly refuse the sweet tastes of white sugar. Like Kara and Bree, Takiyah and Patrisse, they will climb flagpoles and topple confederate monuments of clan and stone that memorialize the way of Black tears and subjection.
This is our dance of freedom; and this dance is the prayer that enfleshes God in the world—breathless and perspiring, but not missing the beat of our own beating hearts.
Amidst the sacrilege of white terror that invisibilizes Black Harlem in order to erect new millennial monuments of white power—from sidewalk cafes to Whole Foods to more and eager police—and that wreaks havoc on Charlottesville for the sake of maintaining old monuments of white power—confederate statues, flags, and such—the Black body choreographed toward liberation continues to discover the secret of its militant rock in the face of social and political condemnation, anyhow.
It is certain that they will carry torches again when they come to lynch us. With cafes and fancy cakes, it is certain that more will die.
Nevertheless, “anyhow, anywhere” Black joy has been theorized in the immanent eschatologies of the spirituals and the Blues. It has been made incarnate in the songs and preaching that have propelled African American Christian traditions across the centuries. I imagine that such joy echoed the sounds of the faithful as they worshipped together at St. Paul’s Memorial Church that night, enlivening them toward justice.
Black joy is palpable. It materializes in the funk of the trap where rhythmic and inscrutable epistemes are revealed by the pulse and sway of Black bodies and souls that move over and over again.
They tell us in the revelation that comes in the “so dark that you cannot even look,” that what is ain’t what ought to be, or in the womanist wisdom of my grandmother, that “trouble don’t last always”; precisely, because this is not all there is.