He looks just like me. His profile reads similarly. Mid-20s. Former college football player. Engaged to be married. Working hard to build and sustain a life. But none of that matters for people like Jonathan Ferrell or me. We’re dangerous. Our existence is synonymous with violence and physical harm and non-compliance. We are simply a threat.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve obtained both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. And it doesn’t matter that I got both from an Ivy League institution. It doesn’t matter that I’m a minister and an artist who has dedicated my existence not to violence or physical harm, but to loving my neighbors, spreading peace and speaking life. My resume doesn’t count, because it’s not written on my forehead. I am simply a problem.
You may think I’m paranoid. And you’re right.
If it’s not someone who looks like me, who has bought into the lie that we are all threats (even to each other), who emulates white supremacist violence against black bodies; it’s a white civilian who finds me to be “suspicious.” If it’s not a white civilian who may very well get away with taking my life through a plea for self-defense, it’s a police officer who, for whatever reason, cannot seem to find a non-volatile way to engage with me. Or rather, we can’t seem to find a non-volatile way to engage with each other. So, yes, I am paranoid. But I’m not the only one. We all are. Our paranoia is perpetuated by the lies that exist about me – the lies that find roots in the soil where I was bred to be a brute or buck, thought to be unfazed by a tazer to the back or a single shot to the chest, or 4 to the body or 10 or 19 or 41.
Every day that I muster strength to step out of my humble abode is another day I could get shot. Snuffed out. Regardless of my dreams or my plans or my pedigree. I could get shot because of the signals my skin sends.
What makes me more paranoid is that I see a system so clearly that other people tell me is just a figment of my imagination. Am I, indeed, making all this up? Am I somehow identifying with a pathological narrative in order to reap those privileged benefits of struggle? I guess I should forget about what my dark skin says to people because, after all, we live in a post-racial society that readily associates black men with a President before it associates black men with danger.
Or maybe I should just rely on my faith here. As if I’m not already doing so. Or maybe because Jesus never talked about westernized concepts of race, I should find the spiritual fortitude to disregard this black stuff altogether. Mine and my ancestors’ faith journeys have nothing to do with our experience as black folks. And black folks certainly haven’t had any unique perspective on the story of Jesus, because there’s no connection between the black experience of being outcast and lynched and Jesus’ experience being persecuted and crucified. Those silly Womanists.
I mean, come on.
This constant state of fear even infiltrates my art-making process and commandeers content creation. Recently, I wrote and recorded a song entitled, “Black Paranoia/Black Vision.” And I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it – whether to release it while it feels “relevant” or whether to save it for my next big project, which may not come out for a while. But sadly, it doesn’t matter because for black paranoia there is no expiration date on relevance.
I am not one of the ones who has been killed. I’ve actually only had a couple of traumatic run-ins, which may be fewer than my black compatriots. But my paranoia stands because I remember the names. I carry the stories with me. I’m steadily reminded that, at any point, I could become the subject of a highly blogable tragedy. Each day the pendulum could swing permanently to insanity, but to survive and thrive I must do the daily work of going sane. In the midst of a history-informed, fear-induced, and death-tested paranoia I must still live. I smile wide. And I laugh hard. My paranoia does not own me. But right now, it is a pervasive presence that is immensely difficult to escape.