As I write this, I sit in a cafe in the city of Blantrye, the second largest city in Malawi. It’s a beautiful country–from the people, the scenery, and the mood that fills my soul. But what’s most beautiful is how I fit into this space. This is the land of the resting place of my grandparents, of their parents and grandparents as well. I have seen almost 60 acres of land in my family’s name. I have seen a giant monument in the capital in honor of the late president–designed by my uncle. I have gone back to my native village that my family has lived in for generations, and where a long line of Bandas have served as chiefs. I have heard stories of my grandparents, and how my grandfather–the man who I am named after–served this country as founder of the first black political party in Malawi, and then served as one of the first foreign servicemen upon Malawi’s independence as an Ambassador. In the states, my history is always clouded by slavery, Jim Crow, and the refusal of basic human rights. In Malawi, my history is that of chiefs, public servicemen, and humanitarians.
Just the other day, I attended an event with Malawian politicians, diplomats, and other higher up officials. I was sitting in between the CEO of The Nation–the leading Malawian newspaper, and a Malawian Parliament member. Immediately after introductions, we began discussing politics, and they asked me about my critique of Malawi compared to the States. I didn’t need to tell them my credentials, what I studied, who my family in Malawi was, and yet, my opinion had value. The same was the case when I walked into stores, no one questioned or followed me. When I came to Africa, I no longer was seen as a black man, and blackness was no longer negative–I became a man who happened to be black, but I was an individual person first.
In contrast to all of this was that only a few weeks prior to this trip, I was walking in my own neighborhood, and was pulled over by the police, asked my name, and then had to prove my identity by showing my identification. I knew I was in the right. But what I also knew was that just a week prior a man in Staten Island died under the same circumstances, so I didn’t talk back. I’ve always known, but more so now, that every situation for a black man is a proving ground. In the classroom, I am proving how smart I am, that I deserve to be there. And then in the streets, on the basketball courts, in the barbershop, I have to prove how down I am to the code of the street to blacks. It was that dynamic that killed Michael Brown. He was a scholar, going on to college, but he may have presented himself to what the outsider would label as a “thug”. To be black in America means to constantly wrestle with that internal struggle of being who you are, and risking death, or subscribing to perceptions of ignorance and bigotry in order to survive.
When you are black in America, it’s only when you leave America that you really understand what it means to be black and in America, and then the idea of never returning becomes completely reasonable. The label that “black” puts on the imagination–it chains it up. I’m beginning to understand that now. When you see an African navigating through the states with pride, you aren’t seeing arrogance, you are seeing someone who has never been told they must see life through certain socially constructed limitations.
Now that I am in Malawi, I can say with certainty: black lives in America are extremely undervalued. It’s hard for anyone who isn’t black to imagine a reality that can produce the events of Ferguson. But for anyone who is, we know well the context that it is placed under. When you look at an American history, you see how black lives have been mistreated, and you almost become desensitized to a system that has always regarded you as a second class citizen. I think that is the same realization that made it so easy for James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, W.E.B Du Bois, and so many other prominent black leaders to leave this country. There is something very poetic about being so distant from the events that are taking place in Ferguson that define the African American experience, but then being so close to the land that defines my African experience. You see the veil you have been trained to live under, but you acknowledge how free those are who have no idea what that veil is.
You can’t ignore the historical context that sparked the American race riots in the late 1960s, and thus the protests in Ferguson. I can only imagine, but I am almost certain that when you grow up in a world that says if you make the wrong facial expression, walk into the wrong bathroom, say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and if you attempt to register to vote that you could be killed–that says something very real to you. When you see what little leaders you have had that speak to your needs be gunned down, that says something to you. When you see everyone older than you telling you to work hard, to play by the rules, only to still be denied equality, this all says something to you. It says your worth will never be valued because of attributes of your own being you have never had any control over.
Anyone who judges what is happening in Ferguson as a singular event is not only misguided, but extremely fortunate to be able to look at history from such privilege. The atmosphere that killed Michael Brown was the same that let George Zimmerman get away with killing Trayvon Martin, it was the same air that allowed a Stop and Frisk policy to control the NYPD for decades, the same that allowed legislatures to continue to deny blacks the right to vote, it allowed Rodney King to be beaten to death, it allowed racially restrictive housing covenants to be seen as acceptable practices, it was the same atmosphere that killed Emmett Till, that separated blacks and whites under Jim Crow, that passed Plessy v. Ferguson, that allowed blacks to be hunted down like dogs and publicly hung like a circus act, that had blacks hiding under their beds as the Ku Klux Klan would burn crosses outside of their homes–and that saw our value as being higher in chains than without for almost 250 years. A world that leads a college bound, and unarmed, 18-year-old boy to be gunned down eight times doesn’t seem much different then the world we have been continually trying to reshape since the first slaves arrived in 1619 Jamestown, Virginia.
To be black in America means to constantly have events like Michael Brown remind you that your imagination of what you can be will only be allowed to go so far. That your odds at success–let lone, survival–are only predicated on how lucky you are. When I see the anger of those protesters, I don’t judge, I am only just reminded of the history of an America that produced such frustration.