American Brother

Sunday, February 2, 2020 - 8:47pm

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Sunday is my day for laundry. My self-care day. It sounds odd that throwing dryer sheets would be my healing space, but it is something I will always be able to do for and by myself. I find a certain peace in the lonesomeness. And a certain endless possibility within it. In this time, I can be whatever I want. This week, I chose to be a listener, and I sorted my clothes to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 podcast.

In the first episode, she talks about her childhood home. Its ragged form, and its constant need for reparation. Each floorboard is cracked and door unhinged. Her father doesn’t mind, but what he would never let fall into disrepair, was the American flag that flew outside. Jones couldn’t make sense of her father’s pride in something that only ever denied him. 

My brother was stopped by a cop again. By that, I mean my brother was speeding in July when a Black cop pulled him over. The cop’s violent screams piled spit on my brother’s shoulder like some sort of souvenir. Souvenir, in its native space, means to remember. Remember. You’re lucky I got to you first. It’s the reason you are still alive.

My brother was stopped again. By that, I mean that my brother Freddie Gray died in a police van while six Baltimore police, who committed the fatal injury, watched him sink. I mean that my unarmed brother Sam DuBose was shot on his motorcycle at a traffic stop in Cincinnati because the cop didn’t want to get run over. At a traffic stop. I mean that my brother Alton Sterling was pinned to the ground and killed for selling CDs on the street. I mean that they shot my brother Jamar Clark in the head in Minnesota once he had already been handcuffed.

In the head in Minnesota. Like December 26, 1862. Like Abraham Lincoln hanging Thirty Eight Men in Mnisota* once their land had already been stolen. Handcuffed. Hanging. When I think of these 38 men, I think of Sandra Bland. Pulled over because she forgot to turn on her blinker. Arrested because of her attitude. Dead in her cell by that weekend. Hanging. 

Her family had just spoken to her before her death. She said she would not give this up. That she would not let them kill her too. 

And yet, there she hanged. 

I think about my brothers past, and of you, knowing that you probably don’t know their names. Like how up until last year, I had never heard of the Dakota 38, or of Mnisota. I think of how Lincoln was taught to me: the great abolitionist, the liberator of me. I think of what it means to be free. American. Honored. None of these feel like words I can associate with myself. 

American?  

Isn’t that something we created for other people? Land we build to be beaten on? 

It never crosses my mind to tell people I am American. Like Nikole Hannah-Jones, I feel a sort of shame in claiming something that never wanted to claim me. When people ask that convoluted question of what are you I tell them that I am Black and I am Serbian. 

I capitalize Black because I believe it is holy. It recognizes all sides of my Diaspora. It accepts the roots laid for me in Africa without ignoring my Jamaican soul. African American is a settler-colonial term. One that denies my ‘Americanness’ but does not want to understand my African. It straddles me in the Atlantic, stolen from one land to create another whose people deny me. Don’t see me. Or know me. 

I fold my dark laundry through 1619’s third episode, and as I throw my whites into the dryer, the third episode takes me to Wesley Morris’ kitchen, chopping tomatoes, and I feel I’m with him. His Pandora radio plays a genre called yacht rock, and as he listens to these white men, his voice lifts into awe for the homage their music pays to Black music. The body that lives within the music is like this land. Stolen. 

We can recognize the birth of America, but we can never call a Black woman the mother. 

We can recognize the birth of American music, but we don’t ask why this is the only space where  we can be American too.

In the fourth episode, a man named June tells the story of how his bank stole his land from him in 2008. How they forged his signature and cut his loan prices in half so that they could evict him from his home. He talks about how that land was all he had. All his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had. I think about music. How it is all my ancestors had. How singing was what eased a day’s labor. How singing was the Black body’s freedom. Liberator. Protector.

Not our president.

Not our cops. 

Layli Long Soldier speaks on the 17-day ride held in memorial of the Dakota 38. She calls this a poem in its own right. I call Freddie Gray a poem. Sam DuBose a poem. Alton Sterling; poem. Jamar Clark; poem. Sandra Bland. Poetry. American. And I want to ask them if they would fly their flag or let it fall.

*The word Minnesota comes from mni, which means water; and sota, which means turbid. Mnisota is the original spelling of Minnesota.