Skip to main content

Knees on Necks

It was sometime in the late eighties. I don’t remember why I was walking down Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but I was within a block or two of where I lived at the time.

What I do remember, vividly even now, is approaching the corner of Amsterdam and 92nd just as a group of three or four Black kids, all pre-teens, were rounding that same corner and bounding toward me. They were horsing around, as kids that age do, and one of them — the shortest, maybe ten years old — wasn’t watching where he was going. He was moving fast, looking in the wrong direction, and had no idea that I was there, closing in on him.

Before I could do anything to avoid it, his head slammed into my left hand, just where I wear my watch. It had to hurt. It didn’t do any real damage to either of us, but it spun him around so that he could actually see me for the first time. It also spun me around so I was facing him.

My first thought was that he might be hurt, and I blurted out “Are you okay?” He nodded right away, in a relieved and strangely grateful way. He saw that it was an accident, saw that, yeah, I was an old White guy but I had not hit him intentionally. No harm, no foul.

But it was in the split second before that nod, before he understood what had just happened, that a look came over his face — a reflexive cringe — that I carry with me to this day.

It was the cringe of a small person who is no stranger to getting hit without warning. Who gets hit too often, and expects to get hit again. There was weary resignation in his eyes, as if to say “Damn, what did I do now?”

I thought of this last Thursday as I watched Al Sharpton deliver the eulogy at the funeral of George Floyd.

We New Yorkers have known Reverend Al for decades. Around the same time that kid was slamming into me, Al was out there, getting in our faces, demanding and commanding the public eye.

Now seen mostly as a sober and deliberate MSNBC pundit, we remember Al fifty pounds heavier and larger than life. To New Yorkers, he was the quintessential civil rights firebrand, a flamboyant but reliable presence at protests, rallies, demonstrations, anywhere there were Black lives not mattering.

Always polarizing, sometimes buffoonish, never boring, Al was a showman, and cameras always managed to find him.

Thursday’s eulogy was a throwback to that time. Strident and mesmerizing, he drew on all the call-and-response preacher chops he has honed over his lifetime.

His best set piece — which has since received much attention — was a litany of the many things Black people could have done, could have created, could have accomplished, if only White people would “Get your knee off our necks.”

And there it was. With one deft turn of phrase, Al conjured, from George Floyd’s abominable death, the perfect metaphor for 400 years of oppression:

Get your knee off our necks.

Seen through that lens, I now have a better understanding of the look on that kid’s face. It was the look of someone with a knee on his neck.

To White people — those who are well-meaning and carry a modicum of social conscience — racism is an abstraction. It’s something we learn about in school. Something we see as an unfortunate legacy, a holdover from a darker time in our history.

But we don’t really notice it. We’re sort of embarrassed by it, especially when we consider how we benefit from it, as our forebears have for generations, which is not something we’re comfortable with. So we’d rather think about the progress, which is slow, but hey, these things take time, right? Setbacks are to be expected, right? Besides, we voted for Obama, right? Twice.

To Black people, there is nothing abstract about it. It’s an everyday background hum, not so much of hostility — though there’s plenty of that — but of condescension, patronizing tones, and covert exclusions. It’s going through life with the knowledge that nothing about you — no effort, character trait, social contribution, talent, or expertise — will ever matter more than your color.

That kid on the West Side would be in his forties now, and I wonder how he turned out. I wonder if he got a decent education. I wonder if he avoided the destructive, often deadly hazards that far too many in his demographic faced. And face to this day.

I wonder if he still lives in the City, and if he stayed safe from the virus. I even wonder if he was marching last Thursday, and if he wore a mask. If he saw the video of Reverend Al’s eulogy. If he took something good from the moment.

What I don’t wonder about is that knee on his neck. I know it’s still there.


Berkley MI

Tuesday, 06/09/20

Comments

  1. I came around a corner once and 4 black young men were on the other side coming around the corner towards me. All of us got startled. Then we all just laughed and walked on.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Three Perfect Examples of Both-Siderism You Might’ve Missed

Let’s take a trip down memory lane, all the way back to three weeks ago. I know, it seems like at least half a year, but the invasion of the Capitol on January 6 has still not been fully absorbed. So let me direct your attention to a 60 Minutes segment from the Sunday immediately following that very dark Wednesday. Leslie Stahl did a thirteen-minute interview with Nancy Pelosi about the events of that day. Roughly twelve minutes was spent on a tour of the ransacked House chamber, with Pelosi recreating the scene — her office invaded, her computer stolen, her staff under the table for two hours in the dark. And that idiot with his feet on her desk. This is common knowledge now, but it was still a blur that Sunday. The razor in the apple came just before the ten-minute mark in the clip. Now sitting across from Pelosi, discussing the road forward, Stahl made the outrageously disingenuous claim that “You are not known as a person who compromises.” Which Pelosi was having none of

Coup d’Etat for Dummies

As coups go, this was pathetic. The mob acted on Trump’s orders, as if there were some sort of plan. Given that “Trump” and “plan” should never appear in the same sentence, what were they thinking? Suppose they actually did stop the certification of the electors. Then what? Did they think this would magically give Trump a second term? Or make him president for life? Or that they could shoot Nancy Pelosi, hang Mike Pence, strafe the floor of Congress with AR-15s, then go out and party? What was the fantasy? It’s an important question, because several thousand of these morons assembled, on Trump’s whim, to act out that fantasy. Maybe they thought Trump would reward them. Give them medals, or at least pardons. If so, they haven’t paid much attention for the last four years. Loyalty is something Trump leeches from others. He never, ever returns it. It’s a quid with no chance of a pro quo . Trump stiffs everybody. A bunch of these morons are now looking at multi-year prison ter

Alexei Navalny is a Whole Other Kind of Tough

What are we to make of Alexei Navalny? What are we to think of someone who makes himself a willing martyr to an impossible cause? How do we get our brains around this strange amalgam of Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, and Joan of Arc? First, he gets poisoned with a deadly nerve agent, ordered by Putin, the world’s most dangerous man. He wakes up from a coma in Germany. He recovers in a mere six months, though it’s unclear to what extent he’s still affected. Then, as long as he’s in Germany, he might as well go rummaging through Putin’s carefully crafted past. He makes a video exploding the myth of Putin the super-spy — the one where Putin intrepidly defends Russia from his Cold War post in East Germany. Navalny replaces that myth with the reality of Putin’s real job at that time — a petty bureaucrat in the minor leagues of the KGB. But that’s just the beginning. The same video goes on to expose — with stunning drone footage — what is surely the most corrupt piece of real estate on the p