Who Is This We Who Aren’t Ready for a Nigger?

This text was written in response to artist Joshua Dylan Rubin’s work, “Battery Park 3 #3, oil on panel 4 9/16″ x 5 7/8,””  and was performed at Tom’s Etching Studio in London in August 2016 as part of the exhibition, 3459. 

Battery Park 3 #3, oil on panel 4 9/16″ x 5 7/8″ by Joshua Dylan Rubin

Who is this “we” who aren’t ready for a nigger? Not me, not we. It seemed the whole world was ready for a Black man to take his place in the White House – watching, waiting, hopeful.

The period leading up to the 2008 US presidential election was one of suppressed hope. Post 9/11, but pre- post-racial America, we were living through uncertain times in which anything could happen and anything did. A man by the name of Barack Hussein Obama had come from nowhere to become the Democratic nominee for president – the second black man to challenge for the highest office having gone head-to-head with only the third woman.

Suddenly, the image of a man with a strangely familiar face and even stranger name was everywhere. There was the public – the newspaper articles, the magazine features, the television news coverage. And there was the private – the conversations between family and like-minded friends, the hope that became evident through the t-shirts and pins and other memorabilia. And in my local corner store where I bought magazines and candy, there one day appeared a gold-framed picture which assumed pride of place on the wall behind the Somali shopkeeper. In it were Barack, Michelle, and the two kids, the soon-to-be first family. It looked as if it had always been there, in a tiny shop in Hackney in east London thousands of miles from where this David and Goliath narrative was unfolding. Somehow, from Day One, he was our president as much as he was theirs.

*

A day after the election of the first Black president of the United States, I was in Paris with a man swept up in the burgeoning romance between the two of us and the world. Everything suddenly seemed possible – a clandestine love, requited, if only for a time, and hope for the 21st-century realisation of Martin Luther King’s 20th-century dream. Stars and stripes were emblazoned across the city as the image of the new president peered out from billposters and newspaper kiosks, shop windows and home windows. Everyone was in love if only for a time. As I wandered around a church somewhere on the Left Bank, I noticed that I was being followed by the shadowy, hunched figure of an old woman. I stopped to look back, and she grabbed my hand, clasping it longer than would be considered normal. She placed a one-euro coin into my palm, fixed my gaze and whispered, “Congratulations. Obama. God bless you.” My companion did his best to contain his laughter and, arm in arm, we left.

But we knew the honeymoon would soon come to an end – perhaps he was one of the ‘we’ who weren’t ready for a nigger – and not just for us, but for the rest of the world too. How long would it be before Obama’s blackness was blamed for his ineffectiveness, rather than the obstructionism that prevented him from doing and being more? We lived in fear of physical and political violence and we knew that he would pay and that we would too. We just didn’t know how heavy the toll would be.

Roll call of our fallen:

  • Oscar Grant, 22
  • Trayvon Martin, 17
  • Eric Garner, 43
  • Michael Brown, 18
  • Akai Gurley, 28
  • Tamir Rice, 12
  • Walter Scott, 50
  • Freddie Gray, 25
  • Alton Sterling, 37
  • Philando Castile, 32

And on, and on, and on…

Having a black president hasn’t saved us from the all-consuming fire of rage; rather, it’s inflamed the “we” who aren’t ready for a nigger.

Black people are shot and killed by police at two-and-a-half times the rate of whites. Despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans account for 24 percent of those fatally killed by the police. In 2015, the number of black people who were shot dead by police was 258. And this figure doesn’t take into account the trigger-happy neighbourhood watchmen who equate hoodies with hoodlums and Skittles with guns, and those who feel it’s their right to stroll into a church and slaughter the innocent.

Perhaps we weren’t ready for a black president. Perhaps we never will be. Change is inevitable; acceptance of that change – particularly when it would mean the acknowledgment of the loss of your own supremacy –  isn’t.

Who is this “we” who aren’t ready for a nigger? Is it “we, the people” or “you the individual”? Is it the same “we” who aren’t ready for a female president? Is it the same you? One thing I know, it will never be me.

© Sylvia Arthur, 2016