The Vague Gospel of Blackness, or My Thoughts on Night 1 of the DNC

Michelle O-DNC 2016

Let me say, first, that I never thought I’d use this space again. The last post was nearly two years ago, and I have found little amusing in my world about which to opine. But, as per usual, the American presidential election season has brought me out of that near-silent, internally numb kind of outrage. It is with great pains that I have written any words at all these last two years, which I spent in an agonizing though secret kind of mourning (I was the sole black person, among faculty and students, in the English department at an institution where I recently earned my masters degree).

But I’m back now, to say that collective and generational trauma is real. I have been thinking about it since the murder of Michael Brown, and the burning of Ferguson. Thinking, and mostly not writing about it. Because what was there to say? His wasn’t the first black body in this country to be sentenced by gunfire rather than by the rapping of a gavel, and I knew he wouldn’t be the last. And when I thought of his body, left in place on the pavement, untended, unloved, I went deep into myself, and must have said, on some subconscious level, that I had nothing useful to write about the travesty, and the others, beyond a few grappling, ultimately defeatist Facebook posts (Twitter, the space for necessary rabble-rousing, long abandoned).

It was in that quiet space that I realized my silence preceded my birth. Black people had been used to being quiet, it was collective and generation, and if you were the one who wasn’t quiet you were often shunned, particularly if you were a woman. You were taught that your agony was to be internalized, turned to strength, taken to the lord in prayer, taken to the lord in prayer, taken to the lord in prayer.

What we witnessed last night was a sermon. It was a Grade A Sunday sermon, but it was a sermon all the same. Not one overt mention of black lives matter. (Do they think they can win without us? Or maybe they think we’ll continue to be complicit in our own marginalization, that they can muzzle us by pointing out The Alternative, ad nauseam, and we’ll all cast our little compliant votes. They must believe, deep down, like so many of us that we should be thankful for little quiet anecdotes about bright-eyed black children who wonder about POTUS’s hair texture, or vague but well-placed phrases, like “protesters in Dallas.”)

Make no mistake about it, last night, blackness became the gospel. Michelle Obama’s speech inspired weeeeeells, and uh huhs, and yes, girls, across all social media platforms, and yet just like the gospel of Christ, blackness became an ideal rather than a real, living, breathing experience in that speech (“just because we’re magic…”). It hurts me to say it, but blackness was reduced to brief highlights wedged in between talk of all the other struggles the country faces.

Last night it became exceedingly clear to me that I, we, must not be appeased by the mere mention of black lives. I must say, we’ve never really had a choice, we’ve never really demanded anything, we’ve never really made it expedient for any party to reckon with the affects of the past on far too many of our current black situations–on our jobs, in our neighborhoods, and our schools. I must say, I’ve been a Democrat simply because they are the party that’s not anti-black. But I must say, I’ve never seen a president who was openly pro-black, in word and in deed/policy. I must say, even when we’re in crisis, no one dare says, “you know what, let’s focus on this issue that’s disproportionately affecting black people.” Is it too much to want to vote for someone who will say our names? To wish there was a legitimate choice?

The full gospel truth is that we don’t get to choose between the party that loves us and the one that hates us, the one that’s evil and the one that’s good, but the one that hates us and the one who acknowledges us, sorta, kinda.

I’m sorry, but I must say, I can’t raise my hands to that. I can’t sway, and clap, and lift my voice in praise (“Hallelujah!”) over a kind of vague blackness that’s mythologized for political gain, but not real enough to be addressed with proposed policy. My grandmother and mother have voted loyally Democrat, because they carry trauma in their bodies, memories of far worse conditions, and the belief that the vague gospel of blackness is better than nothing. But I must say we deserve more. We deserve a real choice.

I’ll be sitting with pursed lips and arms down at my sides like some of those delegates last night, as the convention continues.