Stacie McCall Whitaker - Stone Coast, Maine

Woke

Written By: DeLon Howell

A giant, grizzled man bursts from the ground as if rising after having been buried alive,
his only visible parts those he’s managed to free: his bearded face, mouth agape as if screaming
or gasping for air; part of a hand, only its fingers and thumb jutting from the ground;
one arm, gnarled, sinewy, and taut, its hand clawing skyward;
part of one emaciated leg, bent at the knee; and only the foot of the other.
The rest of the man lies buried underground.

 

At the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers in Washington, D.C., lies a beak-shaped stretch of green—a peninsula called East Potomac Park, where on weekends many locals take their leisure. When I was a child, my father would sometimes take me there. My favorite part of the park was Hains Point, the park’s southernmost tip, named for the way it juts into the water where the two rivers meet. Even as a child I could lose myself in the murky chop of the surrounding waters, staring in one direction past the Potomac into Northern Virginia, and in the other across the Anacostia into Southeast D.C., where we lived. But what I loved most about Hains Point was the sculpture that resided there.

Every visit to The Awakening inspired in me the same initial reaction of awe, if only for its fantastic scale: seventy feet across and, at its highest point—the one free arm—seventeen feet tall. Even as a lanky youngster, it inspired fantasies of a real-life Gulliver’s Travels, with me playing a Lilliputian sitting in the partially emerged hand or pretend-tickling the exposed foot.

The face of The Awakening, however, was never a place for play. It stilled me. The way he bore his teeth. The way the eyes stared upward, steeped in fear. Whenever I think of The Awakening today, it’s his face that rushes to mind, and the story it tells of anguish and struggle and pain. As a child, I was afraid of it, perhaps because I couldn’t yet understand it. As enamored with the sculpture as I was, that part of The Awakening I could never touch.

Perhaps I wasn’t ready.

 

June 17, 2015, Charleston, SC

Nine Black churchgoers are gunned down during their weekly Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, Reverend Sharonda A. Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Reverend Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson are later dubbed the Charleston Nine.

 

It began with the shooting in South Carolina. The following morning at my desk, I glimpsed the CNN headline emblazoned across my computer screen in big, black, bold letters—CHARLESTON CHURCH SHOOTING—but didn’t read any further. I thought, Not a good idea. Not here. I know my sensitive constitution. That afternoon, however, I needed to make sense of the hushed tones and overheard snippets—“Did you hear…” “It’s a shame…” “I can’t believe someone would…” I readied my finger on the mouse, chided myself again—This is not a good idea—then clicked anyway.

Nine dead in their house of worship. Nine who could easily have been from my own family—also from the South, also devout worshipers—dead in their safe place. I couldn’t finish reading. I needed some air, some space to breathe. I rushed to the elevator, my vision blurred, thinking, Not here. Not here. On a walk around the block I ran into a coworker, Sharon, a Black woman—a sista, mother, grandmother. Perhaps the Universe placed her in my path knowing she was precisely the person I needed, because the closer she drew, the closer I came to breaking.

“Hey, D. How you doing?” she asked, like she did every day. Every day that was not that day.

“This South Carolina thing…I…” was all I managed before the torrent of tears choked off the rest.

I knew these people, the Charleston Nine, or people like them. People I was raised with, broke bread with, held hands and prayed with. These people were my tribe. They loved and laughed and sang and cried. That someone had reduced their humanity, their existence, to a gross social construct, then disposed of them like nothings shook me. Scraped away my sense of safety and value as a Black man in America, and burdened me with a heaviness, a grief, I had never carried before. But I carried it then—for them and for me.

 

In his manifesto, the shooter claimed he was “truly awakened” by the Travyon Martin case, that he “was unable to understand what the big deal was,” and that Black people (though he used an uglier word) were “stupid and violent” and “the biggest problem to Americans.” His actions, the latest in a stream of similar acts of violence reported that year, pulled back a curtain for me, exposing a truth that until then I had not seen. Or had chosen not to see. Stirred something in me I couldn’t yet name.

Something in me had also been awakened.

I’ve never felt the full weight of my Blackness until now. I’ve often been exempted from my Blackness as if it were some un-distinction, some criteria against which I am constantly measured, yet fail to meet: “You talk White,” or “You’re different from other Black guys,” or “You’re not really Black.” Perhaps it’s because of these exemptions that I’ve thought it possible for others to view my Blackness as I wanted it to be—inconsequential. That, like me, others might view it as the canvas on which the creation exists, and not the creation itself.

I was wrong.

My Blackness buries me, blinds people to who I am underneath it. It triggers assumptions and reactions based on preconceptions of It, rather than truths about Me. No matter my individual manner of dress or speech or conduct, I am Black first, and a person second…if at all. My Blackness casts a long shadow from which it is impossible to escape.

 

One evening, some friends and I had gathered to watch Game of Thrones, when the conversation landed on the TV show Black-ish.

“Have you seen it?” someone asked me, as I was the only Black person in the group.

“No,” I replied flatly.

“Why not? You have to see it! It really is funny. I mean…what’s that actress’s name? What don’t you like about it?”

“The name alone offends me,” I said. “I mean, what is that? Black-ish? What’s that supposed to mean? If you ain’t this one way, then you ain’t really Black?”

“Oh, D., you ain’t really Black anyway,” Daniel chimed in.

Daniel is Korean. What could he so definitively know about what is or is not Black, enough to tell me—someone who lives the experience—you don’t really qualify? He likely meant it as a compliment, the same as people who say you’re so articulate or you’re so well-spoken, as if a Black man speaking the Queen’s English were a phenomenon worthy of comment. I laughed it off at the time. I shouldn’t have. I should’ve broken the atmosphere of friendly banter and advised him not to speak on topics he couldn’t possibly know about. But I didn’t. I let it lie, in order to keep things light.

From the South Carolina shooter’s manifesto: Black people view everything through a racial lense [sic]. Thats [sic] what racial awareness is, its [sic] viewing everything that happens through a racial lense [sic]. They are always thinking about the fact that they are black.

With all that’s happening in this country now, choosing to relegate my Blackness to something like white noise has become difficult, impossible. More than ever, more than the schoolyard taunts about my dark skin that drove me to skin-bleaching creams—hoping for relief from what I believed, then, to be the worst my Blackness could bring—I feel the burden of it settle over me like a cloak of white-hot sand. I browse a store or attend a museum, and I am monitored. The seat beside me on the Metro is taken last. On my approach, parents pull their children closer, women grip their purses tighter. Crossing the street, door locks engage. At times, the fear I sense in others—the apprehension, the discomfort—is so palpable, I change the way I navigate my Black body through a space to assuage them. Rearrange myself to accommodate them. Sometimes I hate myself for it. Other times, I hate them. Most often, it just…hurts.

 

Once, while visiting family in North Carolina for the holidays, my cousin and I went to the local JCPenney—shopping for a housecoat for my grandmother. My cousin scavenged rack after rack as I stood by, not helping her.

An older White man—late 50s, early 60s—eased up to me. “Excuse me,” he said. “You’re not from around here are you?”

“Uh…” I said, wondering what he meant, how he could have figured that. Because, in jeans and a T-shirt, I wasn’t exactly fashion forward that day, didn’t look any different than anyone else around here. “I grew up here, and in Washington, D.C.,” I told him, even though I’d been living in Los Angeles for a year or two by then.

“Ah,” he said, as if suddenly solving the riddle of me. “You don’t carry yourself like other…people around here.” He quickly added, “I hope you’re not offended by that.”

At the time, I wasn’t. I thought of the incident as little more than odd, and even smiled politely (as is the Southern way). Now, however, I’d ask, What do you mean by that? Sans smile.

Two things bother me about that interaction (aside from the fact that whenever someone says, “I hope you’re not offended by that,” they’ve most likely said something offensive). First, the pause. I’m no fool. I grew up in the South. I know how Southerners inject volumes of meaning into what isn’t said. I’ve spent a lifetime watching people dance around that uncomfortably large elephant in the room, and I can hazard a good guess as to what the man left out: Black. You don’t carry yourself like other Black people here. Second, and even more bothersome than the pregnant pause, is why a White stranger in Penney’s was watching me so closely to begin with.

It’s that phenomenon that exasperates me most. The feeling of being closely watched but never seen. I’ve awakened to that gaze, that burden. Perhaps it’s always been the case and I’ve been oblivious to it, refused to acknowledge it—a preservation of my sanity, I suppose—because, as James Baldwin wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Perhaps I found sleep preferable to being woke.

While I was waiting at the bus stop on Wilshire Boulevard one afternoon, an older Black man in his 60s—grayed, weathered—shuffled passed me, staring at the ground in front of him, muttering over and over again, “I’m so fuckin’ pissed, and I don’t know why. I’m so fuckin’ pissed, and I don’t know why.” I didn’t want to be like that.

 

One evening, after a particularly taxing day at the office, I was working on my laptop in the park behind my building. The park separates the six-lane, bumper-to-bumper, commercial artery of Wilshire Boulevard from the multi-million dollar homes of tree-lined Hancock Park. While there, I noticed a few passers-through—an older woman walking, a gentleman with two dogs, a construction worker from the apartment site across Wilshire, and a few others—but I was the only person there for any considerable amount of time. It was peaceful.

A couple of hours went by, and a security guard appeared at the edge of the park. He was on his cell phone looking around, visually sweeping the place. I recognized him as the Tuesday night after-hours guard, an older Black gentleman, bald and friendly. We’d never had a conversation, but had exchanged pleasantries. After a few minutes, he meandered in my direction without walking directly toward me—the way a child might approach a squirrel, feigning nonchalance in an effort to avoid alarming it. He eventually came within a foot or so of the table where I sat, still cradling his phone.

“Hey,” he greeted me.

“Hey.”

He looked around. “You…uh…been here for a while?”

I reached for my bag, thinking the park might be closing, despite dusk being a long way off. “Oh. Is the park clos—”

“Nah, nah.” He paused. “Somebody called to report a guy in the park.”

I looked around. I didn’t understand. Even the security guy furrowed his brow.

“Uh…okay?” I was still dressed for work, engrossed in my laptop. Surely, I wasn’t the guy.

He patted the air in front of him, as if to put me at ease and indicate that I could stay put. “You’re fine. You don’t have to go nowhere. Stay as long as you want.”

“Okay.” I shook my head. “Why do you think…”

He tilted his head, smiled the smile of a reality so funny it isn’t, a reality so funny it hurts. “You know why.” He pointed to his hand, brown-skinned like mine.

In trying to make sense of that day and other days like it, I’ve tried to resist falling on race as an explanation. But fuck, what else is there? If I am considered dangerous for sitting in a free, public park—dressed in chinos and a polo shirt—working on my laptop in the late afternoon, if my mere presence causes that much fear, no place can ever be safe. Not a park, nor a Bible study. Think of what happens in situations with greater stakes: A minor disagreement. A traffic stop. When the one with unfounded fear is issued a weapon and granted discretion to shoot—to kill—whenever they feel threatened by what they believe you to be, before you’ve uttered a single word? What happens? Their fingers stay close to the trigger. Too ready to pull it.

Reach for your wallet, raise your arms too quickly, allow a little too much irritation into your voice at the prospect of being stopped—again—and you become the aggression they expect, fear. They already know what kind of person you are—your violent tendencies, your aggressive nature—and there can be no benefit, for there is no doubt. So, what happens?

Trayvon Martin happens.

Philando Castile happens.

Alton Sterling.

Gregory Gunn.

Akiel Denkins.

Freddie Gray.

Walter Scott.

Laquan McDonald.

Akai Gurley.

Michael Brown.

Yvette Smith.

Jonathan Ferrells.

Tamir Rice.

Sandra Bland.

A list that defies exhaustion.

 

When I was a child, The Awakening frightened me as much as it enchanted me, with its depiction of the giant man escaping from the ground. Or was he being consumed by it? I see that sculpture now with open eyes, and can no longer tell. I experience my Blackness in that way too often now—with every new story of another Black body in a bag, the weight of centuries. From the outside, it is a void into which my personhood disappears. I am feared, avoided, guarded against. I am Black and nothing else. From the inside, my Blackness is the mask that frames my experience of the world. But unlike the child that I was, afraid to touch the anguish in the giant’s face, I am now ready to bear it.

About the Author

DeLon Howell - Creative Nonfiction: Woke / Stonecoast Review Literary Arts Journal - Winter 2016, Issue 6

DeLon Howell lives and writes in Los Angeles, where he works in communications, occasionally participates in readings, and workshops regularly with a trusted crew of talented writers. This is his first publication.