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Black Lives Matter

Institutionalised racism isn't just about the headlines you read or the grand jury verdicts that inspire protests, it's something that infects the consciousness of black people everywhere.

by Wilbert L. Cooper
05 December 2014, 5:00pm

A postcard showing the 1920 Duluth, Minnesota, lynchings

There were times in my youth when I felt ashamed of my skin. I felt like God Himself had cursed me by placing a cloak of steaming hot shit around my white bones. I was marked; everyone could see it. Even on my best days, even when I was at my most jubilant, that weight of identity was always there. No matter how hard I tried, I could never escape my race and the burdens that came with it.

My school classmates were predominately white, and even in the supposedly enlightened days of the 90s - Michael Jordan! The black Power Ranger! ​My Brother and Me! - they never let me forget I was different. I was called a nigger in the schoolyard, dead raccoons were left in my front lawn, and kids would talk about my "rat hair." My teachers seemed to be offended when I displayed cleverness and suggested I should get held back or get placed on Ritalin regimen for my "hyperactivity." Or they just sent me to detention - it was easier for them to punish me than to deal with me as a normal student.

My "friends" didn't treat me any better. Once, when a group of white boys I had invited over to my house saw what an impressive collection of action figures I had, they purposefully destroyed them, cutting off heads and limbs and even pissing all over the room to make sure I never forgot that a black boy like me didn't deserved such nice things. I was so ashamed of the whole affair, it took me a whole day to finally tell my parents what the kids I "played" with had done to me in our house.

When I look at back at my early school days, I can see the lost road I might have traveled.

At a certain point, I just gave up. No one wanted me, no one would treat me like I belonged, so why would I try to play their games? In the midst of primary school, I stopped  trying altogether and I let my grades fall. I became more introverted. I started getting into more trouble, acting out to actually earn my demerits because I figured I was going to get them one way or another. I got so many detentions at one point, I started looking forward to it. It felt comfortable and had become kind of routine.

It took a lot of love to pull me back from the brink. When I look at back at my early school days, I can see the lost road I might have traveled had I not had my parents, a few key teachers, and some powerful books and art that allowed me to recognise my value as a person. It shouldn't take all that for a child to realise that he is loved, that he has something to offer - but then again, there's a lot of stuff in this world that shouldn't be there.

I found my spirit and a love for myself in the words of Malcolm X, whose autobiography my mother recommended I pick up from the library. I read it twice. I found it in the Public Enemy, NWA, and Geto Boys cassette tapes my father would play before he dropped me off at school as a kind of call to arms to prepare me for the oncoming onslaught against my personhood. And I found it in the nudging of some caring white teachers and administrators who recognised I was drowning and understood why. They made efforts to add the history of my ancestors to the curriculum and took the time to remind me that, regardless of what people may have said, I was smart and had something positive to contribute.

Racism is powerful; racism is an invisible force that flows through this country like blood through veins. We all know this, or we should. We see it in the deaths of men like  ​Eric Garner , ​Mich​ael Brown, and ​Trayvon M​artin, and in the way their killers walk away unscathed. But institutionalised racism isn't just about the headlines you read or the grand jury verdicts that inspire protests, it's something that infects the consciousness of black people everywhere. 

The dogged concept of the subhumanity of the black race, a myth dreamed up by whites who wanted to excuse the imprisoning, raping, and murdering of my people, has survived far longer than the institution of slavery it supported. We see it in the way cops police our streets like they're an occupying force; we see it in the  way we kill each other day in and day out, exhibiting a blatant disregard for the lives of our brothers and sisters.

When I was  a lost little black boy growing up surrounded by whites, I hated being me. I thought my life didn't matter. l was wrong - but how else was I supposed to feel? What else are the lost black children of today supposed to feel when they hear that black men and boys are killed by white cops and it isn't a crime? What are they going to think when they learn about how Michael Brown's body was left lying in the street for four hours after an agent of the government unloaded a gun into him?

In the wake of that kind of injustice, we must remind young people that the dysfunctional system that produced the grand juries' decisions is not ours. It has nothing to do with black people. Police departments, the courts, the political structure at large - these are institutions that did not value black lives when  we were slaves, and do not value us today. This sounds like something radical, a bit of political extremism that we should avoid saying in order to avoid terrifying the moderate whites. It's not. It's simply the truth. 

When I was a child, I believed what people told me. I even believed it when they called me a nigger.

What we need to do is turn to each other to lift one another up and revisit the works of people much smarter than I am, like  ​Huey P. Newton​Frantz Fanon​James Baldwin, and ​Malcolm X. We need to reconcile this system, this corruption, this warping of values, with the truth and unshackle the black mind as well as the black body from all forms of oppression.

When I was a child, I believed what people told me. I even believed it when they called me a nigger. I lacked the will to be angry about the way I was treated. I wasn't myself. It was only when I recognised my self-worth that I could stand in my skin and demand something better for myself. I am marked, but I am not ashamed.

This country, black president or no, will never treat a black man as a man. It's time for a complete overhaul. And I'm emboldened by the action taken by people who have protested against injustice. But there are still so many of us who, instead of being galvanised by these recent events, have been broken - reminded once more of the system's blatant disregard for black life. If we ever hope to ignite a change that burns brightly and fiercely and turns our crooked institutions to ash, we must make ourselves into sparks. That means, for a start, loving ourselves. 

Your life matters. No cop, no grand jury, gets to decide otherwise.

Follow Wilbert Cooper on ​Twitter. ​


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