BY JEANETTE LENOIR
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Ida B. Wells lived, she was an anti-lynching crusader who wrote about the terrorism and oppression Black folks lived under in America, a place where racism still functions as a well-oiled machine. Racism is so ingrained in our cultural make-up; even AI systems in search of alien life must undergo DEI training to work against our own inherent prejudices and discrimination practices. If history hasn’t been truthful enough, and the on-going and indiscriminate shooting of Black boys hasn’t been cruel enough, Ralph Yarl’s shooting will take its seat alongside similar racial shooting incidents as a “normal” node in American history. And accordingly, the human rights work Wells took up in her living days, like Harriet Tubman before her, marches on with other freedom fighters.
What is America to a Black boy? Langston Hughes searched for an America that cared for him and his people. He dreamed of a nation truly beholden to the words that captured principles rooted in a new humanity, and that all men are truly created equal. The truth of the matter is that America was never going to be America to him when he so eloquently captured with poetry, a broken heart and a broken promise to a people: “O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, but opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe. There’s never been equality for me, nor freedom in this homeland of the free.”
And so we must ask America as Hughes did in 1935: Who are you that mumbles in the dark? Tell the world what America is to a Black boy.
In a 1939 song, Billy Holiday sang of lynching’s as strange fruit hanging from Poplar trees. Even so, the beautiful melancholy melody escaping her soul didn’t turn America’s hate for her sun-kissed children, instead anti-lynching laws sat shelved for more generations to bear witness to the callousness being inflicted upon Black souls, symbolically speaking of our worth without words. What is America to a Black boy, indeed.
This question is as old as the slave trade that trafficked millions of Africans to European and Native American shores. From Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X, Black people have consistently sought compromise and solutions to remove barriers that deliberately obstruct their salvation in America. Imagine burning down Black Wall Street, denying Black people an education and basic human rights, all while declaring, E Pluribus Unum.
As we prepare the nations’ soil for future crop to grow, the question before the next harvest must be answered to stop the spread of this strange fruit we call racism. What is America to a Black boy, is the question. James Baldwin found his answer and salvation in Paris back in 1948, but considering the American market in 2023 and navigating our societal changes like the insincerity and hypocrisy of racial justice, one can easily conclude that America to a Black boy is the shooting of Ralph Yarl, a sweet 16 year-old kid stereotyped as a scary Black man.
What is America to a Black boy is answered in accidentally ringing a door bell of the wrong address and getting shot in the head for it. What is America to a Black boy is demonstrated in the nearly 100 years it took for Congress to make lynching a crime by finally passing the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act. What is America to a Black boy is witnessed with the assassinations of our Black leaders, holding true to the American promise that sicced J. Edgar Hoover—whose name still adorns the FBI building—on Black people to “Prevent the rise of a messiah” who could unify and electrify the black movement.
What is America to a Black boy is expressed with chokeholds, stop and frisk tactics, a knee to the neck, no-knock warrants, deliberate economic barriers to retard upward movement, health and human services without Black fathers in the home, and blatant inequality in every sector of our American lives and culture. Today, being carefully Black in America requires more than being Woke, The Green Book or even knowing your place in common society; it is also knowing the sting of America’s spiked tongue outside of the home and familiar Black spaces.
We are living in biblical times. But just like Moses led his people to freedom, we too shall find our way to a new Canaan and the promised lands revealed in the dreams and hopes of our ancestors. The racial shooting of Ralph Yarl, a high school honor student and aspiring musician who hopes to attend Princeton, is a stark reminded that America remains the pioneer on the plain where Black people continue to seek a home where true freedom reigns and their children can live in peace.
When state delegates reached The Three-Fifths Compromise in 1787, our subjugation was emblematically absolute, paving the way for reparations for former White slave holders, the formation of the KKK, and the birth of Jim Crow and Slave Codes. Today, Black people continue to live in a quasi freedom loving land that turned its back to their needs, and their children into dangerous stereotypes. The disrespect of African Americans runs so deep; Donald Trump ran on a platform to “Make America Great Again” and won.
The 1963 March on Washington wasn’t about a Black man’s dream. It was about reaching tangible reparations in many forms, including jobs and freedom. The call was also for racial equality and a more just society. Clearly, we still have mountains to climb because the unjustified fear and loathing in an old White man’s heart when a Black boy rang his door bell by mistake, is homegrown American-made racism. And when more than half of the country voted to “Make America Great Again,” refuse to see the wrong in flying Confederate flags and calling for the return of the “good ol’ boy” days, how can this country honestly envision a better future and build out the blue print of a shared humanity.
America to a Black boy is the enduring folklore of a troubled and weary people, one that is constantly being created and recreated to suit new situations. It is the cyclical nature of history and the ugly truth of racism. Despite the many opportunities to loosen the grip on hate and intolerance, racist Americans refuse to budge. Even so, and regardless of any demands or sway of a nation, America can only be America when Black boys are valued, not feared.