Featured, Race & Politics

From Mike Brown To Simone Biles: How Yesterday Exemplified Black America’s Complicated Relationship With America

“Complicated” has become a convenient catch-all to describe romantic relationships that seem to defy explanation. So much so that “it’s complicated” has become a popular way to synopsize them completely; distilling months, even years of context down to two words.

It’s also frequently misused, as many — and perhaps even most — of the relationships summarized this way aren’t complicated at all. It’s just much easier to say (and hear) “it’s complicated” than “he wants to be in a relationship more than I do.”

The relationship between Black Americans and our country, however, is so complex and unique so filled with centuries worth of context and nuance and pain and perseverance and strive and survival that “it’s complicated” isn’t just an accurate answer. It’s the best one. The only one. Of course, there’s more you can say. But any summation that wished to be historically (and presently) accurate would eventually come back to those two words.

And no 24 hour span in recent memory exemplified and articulated those complications better than August 9th, 2016. Which, at the time of writing, was yesterday.

Yesterday, of course, was the second anniversary of the death of Michael Brown; the 18-year-old shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri by Darren Wilson, a police officer. The memory of his death, as well as the protests and riots (local and national) and reactions and conversations and movements and careers and federal investigations it led to, dominated our collective zeitgeist yesterday morning and early afternoon. There have been numerous recent examples of America’s general lack of care of and concern for its Black citizens, but Ferguson is perhaps the most severe example of it. Along with the myriad and oft-cited circumstances leading to and created by Michael Brown’s death, it was later determined that racism was so deeply embedded into the city that its economy literally depended on it.

Naturally, these memories about what happened two years ago were not pleasant ones. At least not with those who recognize how easily Michael Brown could have been any one of us. And those who remember the tears we shed and the tears we witnessed Michael Brown’s parents shed. And those who still carried a latent rage about Trayvon Martin and were forced to draw from that same reservoir of outrage again.

And then, as yesterday afternoon continued, another hydrogen bomb we’d have to react to and navigate the fallout from dropped: the DOJ’s report on the Baltimore Police Department. Here it was learned — well, confirmed — that a major American city less than an hour away from our nation’s capital employed a police force that intentionally discriminated against Black Americans.

From NPR:

In one case, for example, an African-American man in his mid-50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years by police, yet none of the stops ever resulted in a citation or criminal charge. Investigators found instances in which leaders in the department ordered officers to directly target black residents.

In one case, a commander allegedly told a lieutenant to order her officers to “lock up all the black hoodies.”

The statistics reveal that the Baltimore Police Department stopped and arrested more people in predominantly black areas of town. From January 2010-May 2014, police made some 300,000 stops — 44 percent of which were in two predominantly black areas that make up 12 percent of the city’s population.

Citywide, the report finds, the Baltimore Police Department “stopped African-American residents three times as often as white residents after controlling for the population of the area in which the stops occurred.”

Ultimately, between Brown’s anniversary and the Baltimore report, there was an entire day’s worth of very public and prominent reminders that we just aren’t very welcome in our own home. That any cynicisms and antipathies we carried towards America weren’t just justified, they’re necessary. Realistically, with all of these memories and all of this evidence, how can a Black person expect to survive in America without regarding it with the same caution and care and worry you would a full-grown tiger leashed behind a chain-link fence?

And then the evening came. And we sat and watched and cheered for Michael Phelps; boasting and tweeting and memeing as he defeated and taunted a rival from another country. (A mere 24 hours earlier, we reacted the same way when Lily King did the exact same thing.)

But the Phelps’ feelings paled in comparison to the joy we collectively felt as the U.S. women’s gymnastics team — led by our adopted daughters/sisters/cousins/friends in our heads Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, and Simone Biles (plus the cookout invitees Aly Raisman and Madison Kocian) — gave one of the best team performances the Olympics have ever seen. They were, to use another now-overused phrase, everything. We felt chills and giddy and anxious and joyous while watching them. And, also, pride. We were proud of them, of course. But, to be honest, a significant part of that pride was a very specific type of national pride. We were rooting for America. We were proud of the fact that it was a team that contained a diversity of complexions and ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds that only America can produce. We were beyond happy for these young women. And equally happy that these young women were America’s. While we didn’t hold any collective negative feelings towards the other countries competing, we desperately wanted the American women to win, and beamed when they did.

And this all happened mere hours after waking up to the memory of how Michael Brown’s lifeless body looked while laying in the middle of the street for hours, and then spending the next several hours vacillating between Ferguson-related thoughts and Baltimore-related thoughts. Both stark and unambiguous reminders of our centuries-long status here.

This is what is it to be Black in America. It’s a perpetual state of ambiguity and ambivalence. Of dual consciousness and cognitive dissonance. Of cursing it and cheering for it within the same hour span. Sometimes within the same sentence. The same breath. Of recognizing the beauty and the power and the potential of our country and wishing to exalt in it while simultaneously wanting someone to come and burn it the fuck down.

It’s…complicated.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • brothaskeeper

    Intensely complicated.

  • Other_guy13

    Black America’s relationship with The USA is basically like me and my fathers. I’m thankful he brought me into this world and although he consistently reminds me he can take me out….I basically got by on my own so I only show him love on the holidays and his Birthday and really try to steer clear unless there’s an emergency….because it’s really hard to forget history but you also can’t escape it either.

  • KwameF

    And then Gabby forgot to put her hand over her heart, instead they were clasped at her waist and she was no longer a respectable patriot in the eyes of some. Like you said, its complicated.

    • Other_guy13

      Yet DT can insinuate an Assignation and he is a unifying patriot….so complicated these here USA streets.

      • LadyJay?

        So now you are a model?

        • Other_guy13

          If you paying….absolutely

          • LadyJay?

            Me, pay, you?!? You dey mad.

          • Mochasister

            You look like you’re giving a presentation.

            • Other_guy13

              Actually I was about to toss some paper into a trash can for the 2016 Work Olympics. I lost that event but won Gold in the Office Putt Putt event. Just tryna make America proud n ish.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      That was some b.s. Pan the crowd at any game and you will see folks standing at attention without their hand on their hearts.

      • Cleojonz

        I said the same thing. They did the anthem every day at the meet I was at last week and as I looked around the crowd plenty of folks had their hands by their sides.

    • Ess Tee

      That is just so dumb. There is no expectation of hand-on-heart during the “Star Spangled Banner,” so those fools picking on Gabby need to fall off a cliff.

      • miss t-lee

        Thank you.

      • Brother Mouzone

        those fools picking on Gabby need to fall off a cliff……………………………………………..
        And land on some sharp jagged rocks on the way down with a gang of hungry crocodiles waiting at the bottom.

    • I have a feeling that young Gabby didn’t “forget” anything.

    • America was quick with the blame. Americans of a certain vintage will not see Gabby’s gold and will only imagine some villainous blackness behind Gabby’s mistake.

      https://hhharris.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/hearing-angels/

      • Cheech

        Some Americans of a certain vintage (fewer each year) are itching to remember Mexico City 68.

        A smaller subset know Smith and Carlos were right then and would be right today.

        • Cheech
          • DBoySlim

            SN: The white guy in the pic ( I forget his name) got penalized for supporting the U.S. runners.

            • PhlyyPhree

              Peter Norman
              http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/24/sport/olympics-norman-black-power/

              Supposedly, it was his idea for Smith and Carlos to share the pair of black gloves (hence the different fists being raised) He broke records but they turned him into a pariah and he was never allowed to participate in another games because he was wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights Button and supported Smith and Carlos

            • Cheech

              Yup. He was an Australian named Norton. He encouraged them to do it and spoke out in support. He was forever shunned by the Aussie Olympic committee. When they had the 2000 Sydney games they didn’t call him.

          • Mochasister

            That was righteous. Although from what I understand they did get backlash.

      • Mr. Postman

        She did not make a mistake. She did nothing wrong.

    • Cj

      Yeah, last Olympics they tried to crucify her and by they I mean faux news. They of course had some c00n on there talking about why she decided to wear hot pink and that it was soft patriotism and that that type of ideology was complicit in our country’s unpatriotic sentiment. They conviently left out that the greatest factor which is probably state sanctioned murder of black and brown bodies. Plus, she was overseas representing her country abs that in of itself is patriotic, meanwhile they were probably home sitting on the arses doing nothing.

      • LMNOP

        Right, like Gabby Douglas just won America a bunch of gold medals in the Olympics, who the fuck are you to be calling her unpatriotic?

        • Gibbous

          When they play the National Anthem for you, you can do as you wish.

          • exactly!!! At that point its essentially her theme music. She and her team mates are the reason anybody is hearing the anthem that day

          • Nik White

            It’s not like she was doing the NaeNae!

    • miss t-lee

      This is such a non story. You’re not required to have your hand over your heart during the anthem.

      • Cleojonz

        Plus she was clearly singing along. So WTF?

        • miss t-lee

          Exactly.

    • JennyJazzhands

      The hand over the heart is for the pledge of allegiance. Unless I’ve missed something. ..

      • Merlyne

        I just learned today there’s actually a law stating that you must place your hand over heart during the playing of the national anthem. Who knew?!

        https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/36/301

        • JennyJazzhands

          Get out of here. I thought you were just supposed to sing it.

    • Brother Mouzone

      The people who had a so-called problem with that are people who were looking for an excuse to hate on Black excellence…period, point blank.

      • Question

        And they say that Black Americans need to integrate themselves further into American society – but Wypipo will never miss an opportunity to question a Black American’s American-ness. If anyone deserves to be called a patriot, it is US because despite what we experience in this country, we still have no qualms about representing our country, dying for our country, fighting for our country, knowing that we still are treated as less than equals in 2016.

    • Hugh Akston

      she didn’t forget*

    • SororSalsa

      Nobody said that BS when Michael Phelps busted out laughing in the middle of the national anthem last night. I haven’t seen very many people on the podium with their hand over their heart at this olympics. But wypipo just gotta wy…..

    • NonyaB

      That was such utter and total bullsh*t and I’m so mad she even apologized. I woulda issued a 2-point statement:
      1) Hand-on-heart is for pledge of allegiance
      2) Avoid misconceptions by researching before assuming the wrong things (insert link to google or govt site) while I focus on the gold.

    • Jaris Cole

      Veiled racism in its usual form, calling someone “unpatriotic” (said person is usually a POC).

      • CheGueverraWitBlingOn

        That’s all it is. It’s the ‘she should be grateful, because…..’ attitude that is a thinly veiled form of inherently denying Blacks the citizenship and humanity to which they are entitled as Americans.

    • TD

      They need to leave her alone and let her be great like she is. Now, I love my boy Phelps but no one has said a word about him LAUGHING during the National Anthem after he won the 200 Fly. I don’t recall him having his hand over his heart either. White Privilege anyone?

      The gesture is not mandatory, and I believe the Surpreme Court ruled on that.

  • Medium Meech

    The tension between being black and American plays out in complicated ways. Simone Biles relationship with race and identity is no different:

    https://theundefeated.com/features/the-difficulty-of-being-simone-biles/

  • CookieGugglemanFleck

    AKA White Aly and White Madison. Although “white” might already be implied with those names :/

  • All the lines that we worry about…it’s a wonder that we even get to breathe.

  • kareemsota

    This here for the win. Beautiful and perfect.

  • ALM247

    And what’s sad is that it’s always been this way. The lack of reciprocity is so ingrained in the U.S. that many people don’t even expect more.

    How many of our grandfathers, great uncles, etc. fought in Vietnam and other wars for a country that would step on them just as soon as they arrived back on U.S. soil?

    We give and give, and I constantly see comments of hatred on Facebook, news sites, etc. accusing us of faking and taking.

    According to some people, we aren’t owed reparations, but we apparently owe gratitude for being brought here and “rescued” from our original homes.

    I always wonder what people told the African Americans who did survive the horrors of slavery, the ones who bore the daily pain of rape, torture, forced separation from their families, beatings, etc…..the ones who should have received reparations.

    No matter how many literal or metaphorical beatings we take, we keep on pressing and keep on showing up and showing out in positive ways for a nation that appears to often care less whether we live or die.

    It’s a game. It’s a contest to see how far and how for long you can continue to fend off and ignore the apologies and debts that you owe to millions of people who have been wronged. And no matter what happens, we always end up with the short end of the stick.

    • Theft is the traditional relationship between America and black people- our bodies, our properties, our culture, our political rights. American freedom was founded directly on black slavery and the nation does not know how to move on from such an arrangement.

      https://hhharris.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/hearing-angels/

    • Hugh Akston

      “How many of our grandfathers, great uncles, etc. fought in Vietnam and other wars for a country that would step on them just as soon as they arrived back on U.S. soil?”

      i remember watching the documentary on Tulsa…there was one that got me bawling…i couldn’t stop the tears…this WWI vet got out in the street during the attack and thought that he could put his uniform on and he would be spared…to no avail…he was killed

      it doesn’t matter what you do..in this country…you will be a sub-par human to them…no matter your achievements

      • grownandsexy2

        I’ve seen photos of vets hanging from trees, still in uniform.

        • Mochasister

          And they wonder why we are not more “patriotic.”

    • Asiyah

      May I ask a serious question? I’m sorry if I’m disrespectful to anyone here who is in the armed forces but why would any Black American join the military considering how this country continues to oppress them? Now with the Vietnam War we know there was a draft, so I get that, but today we still see Black Americans willfully joining. Why? Again, I’m sorry if this is disrespectful. I’m trying to gain understanding.

      • grownandsexy2

        A fair number of people assume that people join because of patriotism. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reasons are as varied as the people that join. You would be surprised at the number of black folks I met who were running from something, (bad home life, segregated small towns, a romance gone awry). These were mostly women. I don’t consider myself patriotic by any stretch of the imagination. I actually joined on a whim (I was young), and for the free education. Some black men and women join because of the job opportunities, training and free travel.

        • Asiyah

          Thank you for your reply. And yes, I assume many join out of patriotism only because of the narrative put out there by many White Americans. I know a lot of hood kids who joined the military when I was in HS and they never seemed very patriotic to me. Of course, this was before 9/11.

        • Mochasister

          I don’t know too many Black people that are “patriotic.” At least not with the same blind, fanatical patriotism that so many white Americans have. I think that are a lot of us are patriotic in the sense that we are not trying to perform acts of terrorism against this country and that most of us try to live and let live. To me that is being patriotic.

          • grownandsexy2

            I can’t think of any black folks that are patriotic. If they are, they’re not shouting it from the rooftops.

      • Epsilonicus

        Because in many ways, it the closest thing to a meritocracy America has. Still lots of racism but in many ways, better thab civilian society

      • I’ve had the honor of coaching and mentoring many of my former students as they go through college. A particular conversation stands out.

        She’s a junior at the University of Arkansas and, since I’ve taught her Civics in 9th grade, has always wanted to be a cop. She called in last week in professional crisis. She did not want to be a cop in the current climate. She wants to protect and serve her people, not be part of a system that fleeces and kills black men and women and children. She is now seriously considering enlisting in the Air Force after graduating.

        Some people simply want to spend their lives protecting people, which is why military service is attractive. They need a place to go.

        https://hhharris.wordpress.com/

        • Asiyah

          Interesting. Thank you for your response.

        • Mochasister

          I can’t say I blame her. It’s a shame that their profession has been so sullied by the acts of some rogue cops.

      • In the early years of my time as a soldier, I asked myself that same question. Like grownandsexy2, I joined on a whim also. However, it did my heart some good to see SO MANY black soldiers in positions of power! Sergeants, officers, generals – to me it was seeing black people “doing good”. Alas, that truly was the only good that I got.

  • “If you’re black, America’s like the uncle that paid your way through college – but molested you”
    -Chris Rock

    • ALM247

      Chillingly sad, but true

    • Other_guy13
    • So accurate. America has done much wrong to us, but it isn’t like we haven’t gotten anything out of the deal. So complicated…

      • CheGueverraWitBlingOn

        Given up far more than we’ve gotten. And it’s only been able to ‘give’ us what it has because of what it’s taken from us.

    • Abena

      That feels true. Yet, at the same time there is much undue “historical credit” given to America/white people and white institutions as intelligent dominators, who corrected the errors of a broken system and not enough credit to black people as savvy victors who’ve managed to steal into positions and power not meant for them.
      Black history is one of amassing economical and political power, instead of perpetual war-torn revolution. I think a large part of that is due to the double-sided hand of a capitalism. But regardless of who afforded what opportunity, there’s definitely not enough respect for black folks utilizing an economical system wed to social racism and success because of talent and strategy….

      • Well said… though I’m just barely smart enough to understand it, lol. I agree that it does minimize the gains we’ve made due to ingenuity, sheer effort, being in the right place at the right time, and, most importantly, who we know.

      • LMNOP

        So, are you saying that America is more like the uncle who says he paid for your college education because he gave you $20 once while you were in college, leaving out the part about how you repaired his computer because you had a computer repair business?

        Even though if you had just picked up his computer and smashed it to pieces, it would be the least of what he deserves for molesting you.

        • Tracylroberts2

          <<n:i. ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????:::::::!!bu52a:….,….

        • Ruthbjames3

          <<eo. ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????:::::::!!mu334b:….,….

    • Mochasister

      One of the most apt descriptions of Black people’s relationship with America that I have ever read.

  • Kas

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