Roger Bonair-Agard, A Few More Words On Trayvon

9 Apr

Roger Bonair-Agard


—  for my young-blacks

I joke sometimes that I’ve become, officially, an old man.  I no longer walk quite the same gauntlet of tough-guy that young men must walk.  I don’t get, very often, the same sized-up glare that we men (especially men of color) wear as shield; that we wear to remind us that we are indeed men.

Most often I wear a beard now, and while my body is in decently good shape, there is enough grey flecking that beard and dappling the edges of my hair, that young men will often now nod at me and refer to me as ‘Sir,’ or in my native Trinidad, as ‘Uncle.’ Those who read my own shielding tough-guy grill, or the young men whom I teach in jail or in rougher-neighborhood schools might call me O.G., itself an honorific of respect accorded to dudes who were once in the game, or their mothers.  I am an old man, and many days grateful for the fact that it means I don’t have to think about getting into a fight when I enter the bar, a club, when I pass a group of young men on the street.

More importantly for me, I see young people now – again particularly young people of color, as my children.  Like the president has now famously said, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon Martin…” and I often think that this boy could be my son, this could be my daughter, and increasingly now I’m seeing them all wearing hoodies.  When I say that I’m seeing them wearing hoodies, it is not that they’re wearing them more out of homage to the slain young man who is also my child, but that I am seeing them more.  Suddenly the fraught nature of the lives of young black men, always a central idea in my head, always an occupying thought when I am gauntlet-ed by white institutions of power, is stark in my head, realer to me than ever before.

The debate about the role of the hoodie in Trayvon Martin’s death is the silliest, saddest debate ever – thank you Geraldo.  It ascribes blame to a young man and the loving parents who fund his existence for having the temerity to buy him an article of clothing, that might shield him from wind, rain and cold, and also have the added effect of making him anonymous.  It attempts to lessen the responsibility of the man, who stalked the boy for several blocks, left his car, against the advice of the police, and shot the boy to death.  The people who use this argument – some of them black, sadly – have found, in 2012, yet another way to suggest that young black men should not have the same rights as white ones.  They suggest that we make targets of ourselves by certain clothing choices, as if our black skins weren’t target enough.  The evidence is clear and the hoodie has nothing to do with it.

The discussion I’m trying to have here has little to do with hoodies, but let’s back up a little bit and you’ll remember – those of you who might also be O.G.s – how much the hoodie was part of white suburban skater culture in the 80s.  In those days, apparently the hoodie didn’t make anyone seem like a thug.  But then again, thug apparel in those days might have been Cross-Colors and Karl Kani apparel, overalls with one strap off the shoulder and a leg rolled up.  Overalls are not today, nearly as thuggish.  The irony of these Grand Wizard white men (or perhaps this is not irony but a coincidental recognition) telling me that I look thuggish if I wear a hood, is not lost on me.  And as such I see my brothers who symbolize unity with other black men across the country by wearing hoodies, as an anti-Klan unit.

With that, let me get back to what I mean by when I say I see young men more and more often in hoodies.  It is that I see them and I love them more than ever.  I see them and know they are mine.  They are my children, my brothers, my protected and my protectors.  Having been taught like everyone else to maintain a sharp eye and alert demeanor around black people, having fought to insulate myself against the self-hating insidiousness of such thinking, having fought to be and become a man and to see my brothers as men, being constantly enrolled in the fight for my own person-hood, against those who would see me as thug, sexual beast, athlete or entertainment, the simple symbology of the hoodie as given us by the Trayvon Martin case has done for my vision a most unexpected thing.  I now see and love my brothers more clearly.

A few days ago, I was riding home on my bicycle up a major Chicago street.  It was late – past midnight.  The streetlights were on but the trees make interesting shadows with the lamps late at night.  There is a theatrical dappling effect of light and shadow. It wreaks havoc with vision if you’re as stupid as I am to not have headlights, and not be able to see the potholes.  Maybe it also made me invisible, and so now when I think of the 40-ounce bottle of beer that was flung out of a car and crashed at my feet, I have to remind myself that they might not have seen me there at all.  But that isn’t what I thought at first.  I was filled with an incredible sadness, a loneliness.  I realized that there is no way for me to process anything that happens to me, any injustice against my body, outside of the lens of the assault against blackness that seems to have been ratcheted up in America today.  I was not filled with rage.  I did not turn my bicycle around and pedal furiously after the car – an earlier version of myself would certainly have done that.  I just rode the rest of the way home suddenly tired and saddened, that this is what it had come to, that my body, which I had long suspected wasn’t completely mine had suddenly lost all value in the world.  Long dispensable and viewed as white America by property – the white American subconscious has not transcended this idea yet – like the housing market, the value of my body had now hit rock bottom.

White panic in the face of a black president is a real thing.  What might have been veiled by the smug authority of believing that there were just some social places we couldn’t rise to, is now unveiled by the panic that we might get there and, well… act the way they have, lo’ these last 500 years.  The rhetoric used to attack Obama, the openness of the bigotry in the language of talk show hosts and presidential candidates reflects this.  Whiteness in America feels besieged by niggas and they’re having no more of it.

It is why so many can come up with justification for the absolutely unjustifiability of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, and it is why the police still refuse to arrest George Zimmerman.  It is why too that it is important that what I feel now when I see my young brothers in hoodies, is a massive instinct toward protection and love.  We are only valuable to one another now and so we must make ourselves most valuable to one another.  The hoodie is not cloak for nefarious activity.  It is a swaddling garment.  It must keep us warm and safe, all us messiahs unto ourselves.  It is important to understand that they are coming for us.  We must educate ourselves and realize that our greatest vigilance has to be against the language and behavior of those who have been really clear about the disposability of our bodies.  We have to prepare to defend ourselves, as the prophet Malcolm said, ‘by any means necessary.’  Our bodies are under siege.  It has come to this.  Take it from an O.G.  Take it from your Uncle.

Roger Bonair-Agard is a veteran of the spoken-word scene and a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion. He is the author of Tarnish and Masquerade (Cypher Books, 2006) and co-author of Burning Down the House (Soft Skull Press, 2000). His most recent book of poems is GULLY(Cypher Books, Peepal Treet Press, 2010). Roger moved to the United States from his native Trinidad and Tobago in 1987. Intending to begin university and eventually pursue law, Roger found himself instead exploring the seediest sides of New York City life. From Harlem to Broklyn to Washington Heights, his poems explore the intersection between his twenty plus years as an immigrant in America and the Trinidad from which he came.

Roger has appeared three times on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour amongst other television and numerous radio appearances. For the last ten years he has worked with the youth at Urban Word in New York City, and for the last seven with the youth at Volume in Ann Arbor and Poetry Youth Organizations in Seattle, San Francisco, and the Adirondack Valley, NY. He is the co-founder and Artistic Director of the LouderARTS Project in New York. He has also been Adjunct Professor in the Creative Writing Department at Fordham University. Currently Roger is writer-in-residence with Vision Into Art, and Poet In Residence with Young Chicago Authors. He teaches poetry at the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago, IL. Roger is also a Cave Canem Fellow.

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