VIOLENCE, BULLYING AND BEING BLACK IN AMERICA
After hearing about and watching the video footage of Will Smith’s slap-down of Chris Rock, I felt the need to stop what I am doing and write. I see a fair number of occultist and ministerial friends and associates, many of whom are white, talking about it, and decided I should weigh in as an African American man.
I am a Black man, and I come from a place, in upstate New York. I was from one of the projects there, and went to public school through part of middle school. I was and am not a natural fighter. It is an instinct I had to cultivate when I got into high school and became heavily invested in martial arts. Doing so toughened me right up!
But before all of that, I got regular ass-beatings at school. Usually by big gangs of other Black kids. Most times I was on the ground, getting the shit kicked out of me. I have a specific memory of a large group of about twelve kids chasing this white kid I didn’t know and myself. When we both realized we were running from the same people, we stopped running and stood back to back, fending off all those kids until teachers came over to stop the fight. I made a new friend that day. These endless cycles of violence came to a head when a young man many times my size slammed me on the gym floor. I ended up with blood in my urine. When the doc told my mom, I had to admit to her that I was being bullied. Not one of my finest days.
There was this one time, in grade school, however, where I did stand up to my bully. It was a boy around my age who kept hitting, slapping and poking me every chance he got. Teachers were around, but he always did it just out of their eyesight. If I protested too much, I got in trouble and he stood there with cheese grins looking blameless. He belonged to the same gang of kids as the guy who body slammed me.
As fate would have it, one day we were both waiting for our parents to pick us up after school. He kept slapping me in my head. When I was a kid, lunch boxes were still made of solid metal. The kind of metal that has cool cartoon characters on them. The kind of metal that did not easily bend. I balled my fist around the handle of it, and with a loud cry swung for his head as hard as my little body could muster. That kid levitated in the air, spun around and collapsed to the ground, holding his head.
The vice principal came outside and saw the whole thing. I thought I was fucked! But he looked at the kid, then me, and said “Good job, kid!” and walked back inside.
I was stunned. But I began to understand something. I began to see that people around us usually know what’s going on, but choose not to say or do anything. Sometimes they want to see what we will do. If we will come into our personal power. I had to learn about my own power my own way.
Now, some people are going to trip off the fact that I used violence to end repeated violence toward me. But let me be clear: I am not a pacifist. I do indeed believe there are times to catch hands. To put up your fists and fight. Especially if a home is invaded, a person is assaulted, or a bully is left unchecked. It has been my experience that a bully rarely stops from conversation and reasoning with them. They bully because no one stands up to them. They run on fear.
But when someone does stand up, they don’t know what to do. I continued to experience this. Even after I transferred to a local private school, where I was the only Black male most of my years there, the white kids continued to bully, intimidate and humiliate me.
Do you know when that all stopped? When I started taking karate. Not because I became violent (which I never did), but because the martial arts changed how I walked in the world. It changed how I dealt with problem people. A so-called white friend tried to sneak up on me when I was on one knee getting stuff out of my locker. He wanted to test me and try to hit me when he thought I wasn’t paying attention, to prove my karate training wasn’t shit. Imagine the look on his face when I spun around and threw a punch within less than an inch from his genitals. Then a good friend (who was also being bullied) and I started training together and did a karate demonstration at a show-and-tell night. We threw each other around and did other choreographed moves that made it very clear we knew what we were doing. Neither of us had a problem the rest of our high school tenure.
The nonsense even continued into my first year of college. A white kid, who was very drunk, threatened to beat me up. He made it known that he was a second-degree black belt. I told him I had a black belt too. He kept talking smack as he walked away from me. The next week, I was leading the karate class at school, as the head instructor. Who walks into the gym dojo but this guy. I bowed at him and invited him to join us, to show us his second-degree expertise. He went white as a sheet, did an about-face and walked out as fast as his legs could carry him. He never came back. I had to explain to the class what happened and why, because they saw the whole thing. That day many in the class came to understand the power of the martial arts.
I am not saying all of this to toot my own horn. I am showing a snippet of my early-life struggles with bullying and aggression/violence that swirled around me for a solid 18 years, and how I was able to cope with it and to a degree, rise above it. It took the threat of violence, and my posture toward bullies to make it clear that I could follow through against their aggression, for them to finally stop. Where I am from, most of the people I grew up with are dead, addicted beyond repair, or six feet in the grave. Almost all of them. Where I am from, threats, humiliation and violence are serious subjects and nothing to play with.
When I heard about Will Smith and Chris Rock’s debacle, it brought me back to these moments and the choices I made. I do not regret any of them. Most times I was able to stop the violence toward me before I had to raise my fists to end it. But a few times I did have to let someone catch hands (or, as the case were, a lunchbox!). I have understood from those young years that sometimes all people understand is a beat-down, a punch in the face, a kick in the groin.
What little I know of what occurred is that Rock has made it a pattern of shit-talking Jada. Some people are shocked at Will’s response from just Chris Rock’s words. But this is really a moment of cultural education. You see, Black people are big on respect. REALLY big. We grow up being constantly reminded to respect elders, and each other. That the predominantly-white, racist world is hostile enough to us as it is that we don’t need to be adding to it by turning on each other and cutting each other down. Of course, we still do turn on each other, as my own story shows. But we are supposed to strive for otherwise because it is for the good of the collective, the already-embattled African American community.
This is even more so when speaking of Black men’s relationships to Black women. Not only are we taught to respect women, but to also protect them. And no, it is not some sexist, toxic masculinity thing like I hear so many people knee-jerking about Will. It’s not about that. It’s about knowing that our women, our sisters, our mothers, our wives are also in this hostile world that continually denigrates their humanity in ways even worse than our own, ala American Slavery. It goes back at least that far. There are so many places to point to that, that I don’t know where to start. So I encourage everyone reading this who doesn’t know to do the research and learn.
I remember when I was in college, there were several months where white male students on campus thought it would be fun to harass Black women students. The school I went to had a strong party/drinking culture that was equally matched with a strong rape culture. The administration and campus safety’s response and concern was lackluster. We were determined as the Black and Brown community that the assault on Black women would not happen on our watch. The Black men immediately went into action on campus and formed a daily/nightly escort. We met the sisters wherever they were on campus and walked them home, for months.
So, the problem with Rock’s tasteless and baseless joke is that it is not just a joke. It is tapping into some deeper, historical shit that he should have known better than to do. And for anyone who wants to defend what he said as just a joke, I want to point out the fact that Rock actually did a docu-comedy called “Good Hair.” In that movie, Rock explored the phenomena and importance of Black women’s’ hair! He does indeed know better, from his own work. But he made a choice, and made it more than once. So that slap was a long time coming.
Now, I am not Pollyanna. I know that our society seems to have lost its sense of proportionality with violence and responding to violence. Stories abound of bullied kids finally snapping and bringing an assault rifle to school and offing everyone in sight. So something has definitely changed from my day when kids largely used their hands and feet to fight, put someone on the ground and the fight was over. There is a thing, now, about violence having to go to the extremes of ending life that speaks to something deeply broken in America.
I think what I am hoping for is a deeper conversation about being Black in a country that still responds violently to us every day, and then looks at us like there’s something wrong with us when we have enough and take matters into our own hands. I think I am hoping for more honest talk in and outside of the Black community about how we treat each other, and how sometimes, when we become upwardly mobile, we start to take on norms and strange freedoms alien to our culture, like humiliating and disrespecting a Black woman with a health condition for a “good” joke. Let me also be clear, in the Black culture I grew up in, it is not the least bit abnormal to get slapped or punched in the face for disrespecting a man’s woman/daughter/sister/wife/mother. Especially a person’s mother! It is understood that, if you say and do certain things against a sister, you will just catch hands.
I am aware that is not the norm in other cultures, especially Euro-American/European ones. I do not think nor do I believe everyone else in the world needs to adopt our ways. But I do think people need to gain better understanding of how we do what we do, before they judge it, no matter how famous or unknown the African-American who does the deed is. My two cents.
I just read this on Facebook and this resonated. What happened at the Oscars has larger repercussions in the Black community, amid discussions we’ve been having for decades, that white people do not know about, and this story sums it up very nicely. He touches on a lot of issues that a lot of people are missing in their enthusiasm to jump on the “let’s bash a black man” bandwagon, or their zeal to give advice on how Black men should conduct themselves in public.
There are things happening in our culture, things that white people see us do and don’t understand, but think they do, coming from their deep well of apathy, ignorance, delusion, and propaganda about Black culture. A lot of the things come out of a response to generational trauma, and what happened on that stage is the culmination of many decades of frustration for Will. I feel bad for him, but I’m not angry at him, because I understood it. I understood where that slap came from. And I think Chris did too.
If you’re white none of this concerns you, and none of us are looking to you for your opinion on how we behave with each other. Especially if you don’t know anything about how things work in certain Black communities, then anything you say about this is going to seem like self serving respectability politics, performative, and/or anti-black.
I know white people got opinions and feel some kind of way, but I’m asking y’all to be quiet and listen to what we are saying about this. The arguments about what happened are also going to play out publicly. You can watch it, and read it, but your contribution to our discussion has not been asked for, and is not needed.