I am a New Yorker. Ever since 9-11, I have felt like I have an X on my back. This feeling does not replace the vulnerability I feel as a Black woman in the United States. It increases it. It grows my unease, my dis-ease.
Who is the best contact person to take my child home if the bridges are destroyed or blocked off while I’m on the other side of the East River? What if a subway attack takes place just as I am transferring trains at Grand Central? How do I communicate with my child’s school if phone service is disrupted again? What are my son’s school’s evacuation sites?
I think about these things the way some mothers think about what to make for dinner.
I keep a bag with copies of identifying documents (like birth certificates, licenses, passports), along with clean socks, canned food and a flashlight ready to go. I am not really ready to go. Who would carry the cat if we had to walk to New Jersey or Westchester or out to Laguardia or JFK? I think about things like this.
In addition to my fear of gun violence in the US, of police violence in the US, and of the culture of violence in the US, I am, since 9-11, also afraid of violence from abroad that is directed at the US.
And yet, I know my fears are not greater than, or more important than, any other mother’s anywhere in the world. Indeed, when I consider the more than 43 million refugees across the globe or the one student among the 80 savagely attacked in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, the one whose eyeballs were removed and skin sliced away, I think that these victims of state-sponsored terror all have mothers. These women I do not know I pray for. And as I pray, I realize my fears in fact express a kind of privilege, a privilege to fear that which so many other mothers actually experience.
I am not still as I pray for these other mothers. I teach. I advocate. I write. I persist.
I am a New Yorker.
I am a woman. When I first heard that hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls who had been preparing for their April physics exams in Chibok were kidnapped by armed gunmen, I was scrolling through Facebook. I know exactly why I did not hear about this assault on young women through news reports. I know exactly why I did not hear about this abduction until it was nearly June. The reproductive organs of these students made them targets. Their wombs made them prey. Their skin color and their nationality silenced their screams.
No one heard about them outside the Nigerian community until one man adapted a chant he heard from protesting families seeking aid in the children’s recovery. Ibrahim Musa Abdullahi changed Bring Back Our Daughters to Bring Back Our Girls, tweeted to his few hundred followers, and word spread.
The multi-hued response to the terror in Nigeria fortifies me. Like the Black Lives Matter direct action protests following the Grand Jury decision not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, folk have crossed racial lines to advocate.
Online support has not, however, pushed the world into Nigeria itself. Humanitarians from across the globe have not descended upon that region to scour across national borders and recover the missing girls. Instead, the attacks on the people of Nigeria have only intensified, grown, and destroyed more.
As many as 2,000 residents of Baga, Nigeria, were killed January 3, 2015. Satellite images reveal a 4 square kilometer town that was burned to the very ground. Again, I first learned of this latest atrocity through social media. I immediately joined the ranks of people tweeting about Nigeria, and I was relieved when CNN began covering the situation there. More needs to be done, however, and I fear the terror experienced by ordinary folk in West Africa will not compel a multihued, multiethnic humanitarian multitude to direct action until, like Ebola, the terror spreads.
I do not want this terror to spread. I want it eliminated. But until folk in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world begin to connect the dots between their own day-to-day experiences and the experiences of brown girls in West Africa, these young women and the families who love them will remain under siege.
Women are under siege. Every woman everywhere is more vulnerable when 200 girls can simply be snatched from school. But this should not be the reason we seek to liberate these girls. We must liberate them because they are our girls. Our girls.
And this is all why I am not Charlie.
I am a Culture Worker. Despite my grief in the wake of the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices, I also felt body-shaking rage as violent, racist images of Black and Brown people produced by Charlie Hebdo scrolled on my feeds in the wake of the attacks. Drawn with the supposed intent to dismantle systems of thought that foment resentment, fear and hate, these vile images only supported them.
But they do more than that. Exaggerated Features, stereotypical language, even tails: These cartoons will never help bridge the spaces that divide us. Instead, they dehumanize people like me, and, like the images of Brute Negroes and Sapphire Jezebels that were recycled from the plantation era to dispossess Black men, women and children of their very humanity during the era of mass policing and incarceration of the late 20th and early 21st centuries; these Charlie Hebdo cartoons dehumanize people of African and Middle Eastern descent. Iterations of Black and Brown people as monkeys also prevent white people from fully expressing their own humanity.
Because people of color are not presented as fully human, the drive to partner, ally and invest creative power in coalition-building is diminished. Because of these kinds of images, love is diminished. The gaps between us widen. Instead of simply helping where help is needed, white people must take great cognitive, emotional and spiritual leaps across those gaps to fully utilize the incredible resources of The West and engage in direct action.
Of course, even when white people are not making those leaps, people of color are already mobilized. Movements to achieve true liberation already exist. But silence disables marginalized peoples. “The West” does not hear us, even when we are neighbors, crying out across the town square. These gaps, these spaces that have not been bridged, enable the terror that strikes tiny communities in Nigeria and tiny offices in France. These gaps enable the same terror that strikes Black children in urban America to strike white children in the suburbs.
These dangerous images that perpetuate lies get into everyone’s heads, get into us. Those victims of the Charlie Hebdo offices should be alive. No one should die for images, even vile ones.
But, let’s be clear: Whole nations should not be degraded just to get a laugh.
Laughter is a privilege.
I am a Citizen of the World. I am a Black woman, a New Yorker with certain privileges, a writer who also teaches, born and raised in The West. Multiple identities intersect in me. As I consider the many more ways I am apt to self-identify, I feel myself connecting to others with similar and different identities, and I feel more intimately connected to them. This intimacy makes me feel more human. I would like all of us to acknowledge, to deeply feel, this humanity.
This humanity is funky. The feet of this humanity are cracked and brown and bare to the earth. This is not the humanity of Opi-polished toes. This is the humanity of trek and march and pound and pound and pound the earth. This humanity is not airbrushed. This humanity is fresh air.
This is our humanity. If a child cries in Newark or Newtown, deep in Chibok or near the Champs Elysees, this child is crying for us to summon our humanity and protect her. We are all intersectional. Feel the lines of humanity zing through you. Resist images and ideas that fuel distrust and despair. Light the path to recovery.
So many chose to be Charlie; but I am crying out, choose to be our children instead.