For as long as I can remember, I have felt the weight of the melanin in my skin like uranium. Blackness in America is fucking heavy.
I have felt this every one of the hundreds of times I’ve been pulled over by police while driving for a “routine check.” I’ve felt it every time an overzealous security guard has followed me around a store. I’ve felt it every time I was the only person of color at my place of employment; a feeling made infinitely heavier when you’re management. I’ve felt it on job interviews and housing searches and on dates and in relationships.
Like the electromagnetic force that bonds atoms together, I feel the weight of other people’s blackness too, the collective weight of knowing in my heart long before the verdicts arrived: there would be no justice for Trayvon Martin, for Eric (or Erica) Garner, for Tamir Rice, for Sandra Bland, for the countless names we’ve forgotten and for the names, like my cousin Edmund Deas, that no one ever cared enough to know.
I feel this weight every time I see Americans burn Colin Kaepernick’s jersey for quietly protesting racial injustice. I feel it when I watch shock troops in armored vehicles show up for peaceful protests. I feel it as I watch fortunes built overnight on the sale of legal marijuana, while black men around this nation languish in prisons for selling an ounce of weed. Every noose left on every chair as a “joke,” every N-word either screamed in someone’s face or scrawled clandestinely, every attempt to denigrate black achievement and erase black contributions to art, culture, academia, and every institutional barrier I watch men and women of color dodge every day of their lives like Muhammad Ali dodging punches (and making it look easy).
I taste it in our foods, read it in our poetry, and hear it in our music. The weight of constant struggle. The exquisite linguistic pain of Langston Hughes. The artful use of spices and flavors, designed to hide the fact that we were given garbage to eat. From country to gospel to jazz to rock & roll to rhythm & blues to hip-hop: to feel your feet and hips move involuntarily to lyrics and melody leaden with conflict and purpose.
And on top of it all, the burden of knowing no matter how gifted you may be, the probability of your success ultimately lies with someone else deciding you deserve a chance. Knowing that unless a Branch Ricky decides it’s in his fiduciary interests, Jackie Robinson never gets the opportunity to steal home for the Dodgers in the ’55 world series. Knowing if they can steal it from you outright, they will. Knowing if they can’t steal it, they will appropriate it, taking credit and money, because while black ideas are infinitely abundant, access to capitalization is not.
And I feel it in the diseases which predominantly affect people of color: diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure. Diseases that are not borne of genetic predisposition, but a combination of debilitating circumstance and the unrelenting, omnipresent stress of day to day life.
The collective weight of blackness has enough gravity to pull tides.
The process of learning to love your blackness is arduous, and it starts young. Like most black kids, by the time I was five years old, I’d been made to learn every word of “The Greatest Love of All.” As a child, I didn’t understand why we were given this mantra. Yes, it’s adorable to watch a bunch of kids sing badly and off-key, but as an adult looking at the lyrics, I understand why we were given this anthem. Buried with casual deftness in the very first verse is the reason black children need to be instilled, imbued, inculcated with a deep sense of pride:
“To make it easier.”
To make it easier. Every time they make fun of the beautiful texture of your hair. Every time they tease you about the fullness of your lips. Every time they (in fear of your sinews) compare you to primates. Every time they insult your intelligence or doubt your work ethic, or insinuate you are simply morally inferior; that, for some reason, because of the melanin in your skin, you lack courage, intestinal fortitude, integrity.
Every time you run up against a system hundreds of years old designed to limit your resourcefulness, and every time you are punished for having the arrogance to believe that you can somehow overcome the obstacles that successfully keep so many of your people down.
What no adult tells the children they teach that song is: no amount of personal or collective pride will ever make it easier. You can get stronger, smarter, be more intuitive, develop perception and intuition, but it never gets easier. No matter how heavy the weight of all that opposes you, your only choice is to rise.
Each February in America we acknowledge Black History Month. And every year, we are told the stories of struggle. Of black heroes who fought and died with valor. Of black inventors who, although obscured by history, changed the world. We’ve lost the capacity to feign annoyance when the most sanguine parts of Dr. King’s speeches are cherry-picked and trotted out, while we wait with bated breath to see what insanely racist shit America will pull on this holy day, and remember a leader who fought for the rights of all people, and was rewarded firehoses, police dogs, and eventually with a bullet.
Today I’m choosing to live in the full joy of my blackness. Today I will play my music loud and dance (badly) and feel the sun on my black skin, melanin protecting me from ultraviolet radiation like my ancestors protected their progeny. Today I’ll revel in culture so deep that centuries of excavation by white supremacy still hasn’t been able to plumb its depths. Today I refuse to be loaded down with the weight of other people’s expectations based solely on the magnificent color of my skin. Today I will honor Dr. King’s legacy by restructuring myself on an subatomic level: instead of feeling the weight of endless struggle, I choose to be lighter than air. I will defy gravity and expectations like a slow-motion replay of a Michael Jordan dunk.
Today I will have melanin like hydrogen.