Now Everyone Speaks Black

Back in the old days, the 1990s-2000s, when I taught international students studying in the United States, many would comment that they didn’t understand racism because they did not “have” it in their nations of origin. I always found the holes in their logic interesting, as when German students didn’t register the experience of Turkish citizens, or when Brazilian students argued that discrimination in their society was based on class (even though the majority of those enjoying holding privileged positions happened to be phenotypically white), or when British students believed that the UK, unlike its progeny across the pond, had moved beyond race.  

Times have changed. The murder of George Floyd has been a catalyst sparking South Koreans to protest at the US embassy holding signs reading “No Pride in Killing Black People” while the Pakistani Pasban Democratic party marches with posters of Floyd’s picture captioned “Let Him Breathe.” In Frankfurt demonstrators’ placards declare “Your Pain is My Pain,” and those in Marseille assert “Laissez-Les Respirer (Let Them Breathe).” The signs at rallies in London draw a direct ideological line of descent reading, “Racist Amerikkka exists because Racist UK Birthed It.” In responding to Floyd’s killing speakers of many languages now speak black. They comprehend that statements from “I Have A Dream,” to “No Justice, No Peace,” to “Black Lives Matter” embody the larger question, What gives one human being the right to deny the humanity of another?  

The language of black advocacy encourages respecting mutual humanity: Frederick Douglass, “Those who have undertaken to suppress and crush out this agitation for Liberty and humanity, have been most woefully disappointed.”1 Fannie Lou Hamer, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”2 Lucille Clifton, “come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.”3 The language of black activism asks “how come?” How come you can live in privilege and wealth while I can’t earn a living wage? How come your children can be educated while mine are left behind? Why can you vote and not me? Why is the infrastructure in your neighborhood maintained while mine is left to rot? Why do you hate me just for being who I am? Across the world these questions resonate. On a micro level the outpouring of feeling is about Georg Floyd; on a macro level it is about human justice. Once you learn to speak black the connections between all the hierarchies of the world that seek to keep some necks under the knee of others become too apparent. You become keenly aware of the disconnect between feeling human, while your humanity remains invisible to the society around you.  

I am grateful that my students come from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. As we read black literature together, I see how they edit the writings of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Claudia Rankine and many others to the details of their own lives while making meaning across racial, ethnic, and geographical divides. 

I’m not sure we are all truly in this together, yet, but I think we are getting there.