Visceral Valuation: On Realizing That I’m Wearing A Black Body | By Nana Prempeh
Visceral Valuation: On Realizing That I’m Wearing A Black Body
Exactly one week after my arrival in the US, I witnessed a man nearly get shot. By the police. Four squad cars, eight police officers, guns drawn after two quick commands, “Get on the ground!” “Get on the ground now!” It wasn’t a black man. It was a White man on a bicycle. Tanned, but definitely white. Just an ordinary Californian Tuesday. At least that’s what the casual strolling by of the dozen or so white folks suggested. In Ghana, I am not black. I am short. Educated. Low to middle class. But never black. Maybe that’s why it took me about 45 seconds to realize that “Oh! I’m black!” My heart got the message. The 8O8 of a Hip-Hop hook had nothing on it in that moment. The gun was pointed in my general direction after all.
Barely an hour before this, my answer to the question “So how are you liking the US so far?” had been “It’s been fine actually. Everybody here seems so kind and warm.” I had meant it. Felt it. Even though I had already had a preliminary baptism in American microaggression, conducted by the kind courtesy of a middle-aged Asian woman. It didn’t seem relevant. And if it was, that was neither the time nor place.
After a tedious year-long process of preparing applications, I got the opportunity to pursue an MFA at Chapman University. I knew enough about US race relations to feel somewhat prepared to venture into that old and monstrous system. But nothing can truly prepare you for inhabiting the existential experience of the Black body in America. What I found in one week of living in California is that, cultural identity politics within the grand economy of racism, demands from the Black body a perpetual duality of expression. This duality of expression is the currency that will in times mundane and times grave, determine the weight of your existence.
While riding in the front seat of a cruiser, not of the official police variety, but driven by a former police officer, I realized that I was perched on an ease that should have been unfamiliar. It was as if I had been riding with (former) cops in the front of their cruisers all my life. Then he asked me “So when did you start learning how to speak English?” In that moment, time slowed, and I had two choices – 1. Take offence. React against what I’d be interpreting as microaggression. 2. Smile. Take the opportunity to re-orient genuine white ignorance (but is “genuine white ignorance” ever that innocent? Maybe?). I told him that we speak English in Ghana.
If you have ever dealt with an American (regardless of race), chances are that you would have picked up on some brand of unmistakable and unapologetic casual arrogance. The arrogance isn’t necessarily evil. It is an arrogance that partly emanates from America’s hegemonic status within the global politico-economic system. A status, that ensures that several aspects of American lifestyle and living are leached to millions of other cultures and socializations all over the world. For this reason, it is more likely that an American would ask about my country with genuine ignorance than I would of theirs with the same level of ignorance.
However, when you realize that people at the bus stop or on the bus generally opt not to sit by you or close to you, even when that is the only vacant seat, it certainly gets you thinking; is something wrong with me? (Or them?) Is something wrong with me for having to perpetually censor the fullness of my expression, because I don’t know when it would be interpreted as too much? And too much Black in a place that would swiftly move to mute me. The question of whether a Black person is reading too much into a situation or is legitimately being subjected to microaggression embodies the very visceral reality of the Black body’s duality of expression.
The kindest and warmest people I have met in America are mostly white. But it would be folly to utilize that as license to let my guard down. To be Black in America implies to be alert by default. A little nap in the library could mean I get the police called on me. Foul hard in a basketball pick-up and the police could be interrogating me. And from what I have seen, the guns come out after two commands (for a White man). So, while my mother back in Ghana brags about her son in grad school in America, she must of absolute necessity also pray for his safety.
The problem isn’t even that some or most White people are racists. The problem is that the Black body, for survival sake, must be constantly self-censored. The problem is that duality of expression from a Black body isn’t only expected currency, it is demanded. And it isn’t even always valuable. Prince Jones is proof enough. So is Tamir Rice. And Freddie Gray. And Eric Garner. And Michael Brown. And Philando Castille. And Alton Sterling. Amadou Diallo was from Africa just like me, 19 of 41 shots was what his life was valued as.
I am going to make great, lifelong friends here in America. I am going to enjoy the little joys I can afford. But will I ever let my guard down? Will my heart forget what it means to morph into an 8O8 at the casual brandishing of a gun? I don’t have that luxury. The only luxury I do have, is to burn as brightly as I can, and love as courageously as I can.
Nana Prempeh’s most recent works appear in Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine and MoreBranches. Longlisted for the 2018 Koffi Addo Prize in Creative Nonfiction, he is currently an English Graduate Fellow in Chapman University’s Creative Writing program.