Last year, 2019, we marked 400 years since Africans were brought to Virginia and America’s “peculiar institution” took root. Since then, in the annals of American history, there has been systematic oppression and brutality against the descendants of Africans in America.
My father was born in North Carolina in 1926, but grew up in Virginia. As a teenager he served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II. One of his uncles, my great uncle, served in the U.S. Army during World War I. When World War I ended in 1919, my maternal grandfather came to America by way of Panama — he had worked on the Canal — from Barbados, through Ellis Island. That same year Claude McKay penned his famous poem, “If We Must Die,” about that year’s large and violent race riots, and for those who equate riots with Black people, note that these violent race riots were perpetuated by whites, going into Black neighborhoods, beating and killing Black people.
I was born at the very beginning of what one historian has called the Decisive Decade, the 1960s. I was 7 years of age when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. From that year, 1968, I remember two things: one, the adults saying, “They [white people] killed another good Negro male,” and two, “Burn, baby, burn!”
Once again, cities in America are burning. The racial embers are always burning, ready to be stoked.
The fires this time were stoked by yet another killing of an unarmed Black male by white police officers.
“Burn, baby, burn!”
I smell the fires and they conjure up my memories from the ‘60s, and then the mid-70s, when I’m 15 and attacked by a white cop. Despite my family history in America, going back to 1805 in the Carolinas, probably way before that, but that’s how far I’ve dug up the roots of my family tree, in Beaumont, NC, as a Black male I can still be in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Such was that day when I was 15, despite being in an inner city neighborhood familiar to me, a place where I belonged, because the police were looking for a Black male for some crime unknown to me.
I don’t like the fact that traveling down memory lane has these violent markers, but it’s a fact of my existence, and many other Black and Brown men in America, since 1619.
Is this finally that moment in time when “justice rolls down like waters” and washes away America’s Original Sin in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd?