Commemorating the happiest I’ve been in nearly six months, for the longest I can remember: from January, 2012:
A week ago, for Martin Luther King Day, a friend and I organized an event for my dorm floor in which we discussed and addressed issues of race, inequality and discrimination, both in terms of their historical narratives as well as their modern day relevancy. The aim of the night was to observe the legacy and influence of a man and movement that fashioned a positive trend in America’s racial relations.
Framing the discussion were reminders of the rebarbative nature of micro-aggression, white privilege, and oblivion to the historically informed gravity such a day has as part of an ongoing narrative in American discourse: the casual way in which one floor-mate reduced the potence of King’s effectiveness down to what she called “a day for black people”; how the floor of one dormitory across campus concocted a celebration of the day by eating chicken and waffles; how one peer remarked on how she may have transcended the need to learn about, discuss, and challenge her own preconceptions about race because she grew up in a liberal, though remarkably racially and socio-economically stratified city; irreverence fashioned by arrogance. It had hardly peaked 1PM and the day had rasped at my consciousness. I was reminded of the role of loaded-for-bear, militant, one-man salvo I felt obligated to assume as a tenth grader coming into consciousness of pervasive manifestations of oppression and discrimination, from the more blatant and obvious displays—a black vehicle carrying a car of strangers who spat, at a confused teenager definitely too old to be trick-or-treating but chose to do it anyway, with as much as vitriol as they could muster, all the bite and verve they could accurately slew in my direction while driving thirty-five miles per hour, the word that floated in my unconscious as a specter of a not so distant past of hatred, but one that often haunts, “Nigger”—to the more subtle and structural. All racked within less than six hours.
The day was another notch in the genealogy of my coming-into a positive racial identity. It brought me back to Audre Lorde: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” No expectations. No threats of claims of affirmative action. No burden of representation. No diffidence masquerading as self-confidence. What it means to be black—Black. Not black-wan-lusterless like faded jeans, obsidian, coal-stones, the shat entrails of a carbon life that once was. But black like cosmic, vast, the unperceivable darkness that exists at the far-corner of an unlit bedroom, black like the vacuum of space, sharp, unfettering, infinite like absence. Pellucid. Unmistakably sharp and clear like a fricative “eff” segued into intent “fuck you.”
I recently read David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech entitled “This is Water.” Crudely boiled down, it’s about the extent to which our default registers of perception worship a reality that sets us up to fail, to feel disappointed, to feel unfulfilled, to, as Wallace tacitly suggests, die a multitude of deaths before we’ve been buried. We can free ourselves from that reality, we can choose to prioritize attention and awareness and discipline, to “care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” We can choose to, in Wallace’s terms, “de-center ourselves.” And at those times when I can feel myself casually reclining into my desk chair and simultaneously into a mild fit of sadness—when I feel a splitting headache creeping in—a deeper recline—overwhelmed, distant, eyelids sagging, head tilting back—I can choose to imagine and construct a time and place and world in which the kaleidoscopic light emitted from the Swarovski-crystal ornaments on the living room end tables of my Aunt’s country estate refracts inimitably against the brass neck of the table’s lampshade, then splays itself deliberately against the windows at the back end of the living room—a bricolage of light and color: the soft-fulvous underside of a ripe peach, opiate-violets, the tawniness of worn-in leather, assaulting yellow, ingenuously optimistic blue, maternal green, colors too often suppressed under the lithesome choux-film threshold between the perceptible and unperceivable register. Or perhaps a world in which the facial tick of one of my best friends—the beautifully subtle way the right side of her upper lip tweaks upwards when she smiles, a simper comprised of what could be the prototypical definition of naif exuberance suffused with post-coital jolly—is magnified and always salient. A world in which the air is always lightly salted.
It is always there, innocent prisoner to a numbness that mantles. I can sit here, eyes now fully closed, lost in Panglossian infiniteness—the quiet comfort of the not-present—let out an acrid, resolved sigh, and indulge in a humbled state. I can choose that—this—reality.
Dr. King and Lorde encourage us to recognize and value, much like Wallace, the fact that we can choose our own terms, that we can fashion our own reality, manifest promising futurity, a new consciousness, a race-positive identity; I can choose to de-center, to not be a naive, parochial drone. To be, fully, unendingly, unapologetically, conscious. To cultivate an existence limned by the often ignored though beautifully remarkable prospect of a brighter something.