‘I will always love Africa, because from the minute I arrived it treated me like a white girl.’—Author Adam Smyer reflects on his visit to the Open Book Festival

The following is an edited excerpt from a work in progress by American author Adam Smyer, whose debut novel, Knucklehead, was published by Akashic Books in 2018. Smyer visited the Open Book Festival in Cape Town in 2018. Here he contemplates his first visit to Africa.

The Call.

I’ve never been anywhere. Half my life ago I relocated from one coast of the United States to the other, but that’s it. And that’s fine. I have no interest in spending my vacation days sampling the nuances of anti-blackness around the globe. There’s enough on my plate here in the US. And my lifelong Emergency Overseas Survival Plan of yelling ‘I’m an American!’ until someone whisks me to safety has been dubious for a while now. Yeah, no. My home is the devil I know. Even in my novel Knucklehead I described a certain film as ‘a tribulation, a rite of passage, kind of like I imagine my first trip to Africa will be’. That pilgrimage has always seemed doomed to fail.

But being invited to Africa as an honoured guest to discuss my life’s work overwhelms my knee-jerk doubt. I make a point of accepting the invitation immediately and going through the five stages of freakout on my own time.

***

The treatment.

I feel it at the airport—not enough to put a name to it, but something. I am excited but tired, and overwhelmed by being Somewhere Else for the first time in my life, fifty-two years in. The result being that I am pleasantly fuzzy, like I’m buzzed. I shuffle along from one line to another with the rest of the herd.

Customs and Immigration is no joke. I hadn’t thought of either customs or immigration as having anything to do with me. Tourism, maybe, if there was a line for that. But there isn’t. Customs and Immigration is what needs to be navigated.

When I finally reach my first counter at the Immigration checkpoint I fumble around for my passport. This is my first inkling that I’m high. I don’t operate this way. I’m Exact Change Guy. I crush lines and counters that are a lot less important than this one. It’s all very military. I expect the official-looking woman behind the counter to yell at me for making her wait, or at least to glare. But she sits patiently. She examines my brand-new, absolutely pristine passport and returns it to me. I explain that I have no idea what to do next. She smirks and nods towards a little gate right in front of me. I grin at the official-looking woman and shuffle through the gate.

She saw me. This is the thought. She saw me for what I am and treated me as what I am: harmless. Another starry-eyed American come home to Mother Africa for the first time. We were easy enough to spot on the plane. But you have to be looking. You have to know we exist. In America, most non-black strangers treat me like I’m about to try to rape them.

I meet up with my driver in the large public area and we head to the hotel.

I almost can’t remember the last time I was not generally perceived and treated as a threat. Not since I was little. Most of my neighbours and teachers turned on me when I was about twelve. I wasn’t big; I’m not big now. There was no precipitating event I can point to. The adults just put me on the Trayvon Track like the time had come to do so. I remember it vividly; the change in how people acted around me was abrupt. Grownups in my apartment building who had previously been semi-deputised to parent me the way neighbours were back then became reluctant to get on the elevator, our elevator, with me. Possessions would be gathered up when I appeared. Like that. It was shocking at first. Then I was angry for a long time. Then I guess I mostly adapted.

Staring out the car window into the Cape Town night, I know that I will always love Africa, always, because, from the minute I arrived, Africa treated me like a white girl.

***

The Whitest Place in Africa.

I love my home of Oakland, California, because even though the people there don’t know who I am, pretty much everyone knows what I am. Oakland is a fairly black city (even undercounted we are 25 percent) but, more importantly, the black people are visible. We take up space. We are not a curiosity (see, e.g., San Francisco). Before today, the blackest place I’d ever been was Baltimore; I have friends there who live their lives around nothing but us for weeks at a time. I only just got here but, even though I heard that Cape Town is considered the whitest place in South Africa, it is definitely the blackest place I’ve ever been, by far. I don’t quite have the words yet, and I’m almost certainly projecting, but it feels like it is the white people who have to assert their right to be here. Obviously they do so successfully, but the onus is on them. Just sitting by myself in this restaurant, it feels like the first time I have not been subject to immediate erasure. My humanity feels so presumed that I suspect I am the only one thinking about it. Because this is Africa. I am in Africa. And you can’t make Africa not black. They tried.

***

Wrecked.

Waheed, my tour guide, drives us to Signal Hill. We stand on a cliff and Waheed shows me key spots from our vantage point.

One of those key spots is where the Dutch first landed. Crashed, really; they only stopped here because they wrecked. And then they stayed. The rest is bloody history. But, honestly, in this moment, I’m not mad at them. Not for staying. I imagine these Dutchmen dragging their drowned-rat bodies onto dry land, retching out the last of the sea water, sitting up, and looking around. It’s paradise. I know the history, but the land is paradise. So they see this, and it’s (a) repair what’s left of the ship and get back on and push off and go back to having scurvy and watching out for sea monsters or whatever or (b) stay in paradise. I’m on Signal Hill looking down on this beautiful day and, while I judge the Dutch for pretty much everything they did afterwards, I don’t blame them for the decision to stay. I sure as hell would have stayed.

We drive and drive and Waheed tells me something about everything we see. Fortunately, I know there won’t be a test at the end. I let the information wash over me. Whatever sticks, sticks.

We visit the Slave Quarter and the South African Museum. It is the former that is beautiful and the latter that is haunted. Interesting.

We arrive at the Slave Lodge museum, our final stop. Waheed warns me that it was not an easy experience. Many people break down in the Slave Lodge, he says. I tell him I’ll meet him outside.

It isn’t easy—one exhibit was a recreated ship hold—but it isn’t anything I don’t already think about daily as I navigate the aftereffects. If anything I find myself slightly more focused at the end. A clutch of brothers hanging out in the staircase gets the most solemn of Nods.

Back outside, Waheed asks me how it was, and I struggle to find the words. Eventually I say, ‘It’s like, America is the wound. Africa is the body. The body is healing.’

An essential feature of American slavery is an abiding lack of remorse. Every ten years or so, Time magazine poses the question whether America should apologise for slavery (whatever the fuck that means). Apparently the answer is no. It was a super long time ago, after all, and it was good for you, and you enjoyed it, and let’s do it again. And somebody did something almost as bad to someone else over there once. Also it never happened. And, yeah, no, seriously, we would like to do it again soon.

Self-defence instructors will tell you, Do not get in the van. You are better off getting shot in the back in the middle of the street than getting in the van. Because, whatever it is that dude wants to do to you at the secondary location, it’s worse than anything he can do to you in public. That’s why he needs you to get in the van. Fight, scream, run. All at the same time if you can. But do NOT go to the secondary location.

I was born in the secondary location.

***

Real Talk.

At 6 p.m. I attend an Open Book panel at a hip bookstore called The Book Lounge. I go in ready to wander around dazed and lonely, because that is how I roll. But a man cramps my style by introducing himself and telling me that my book inspired him to finally start his own novel and tell his story. My heart explodes.

I take an aisle seat in the back. The head honcho gives me a shoutout before he introduces the panel. When he mentions Knucklehead by name, I see a woman across the aisle make that face where you pull down the corners of your mouth and raise your eyebrows. She thinks she might have heard of me. This is officially the most famous I have ever been.

I don’t remember where the panel started out but it ends up with Koketso Sachane and Sara-Jayne King telling us about the hate mail they routinely get from white people who troll their radio shows. Every time Koketso says the k-word the well-intentioned little old white ladies in the audience gasp, mortified. Finally, Koketso says, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t act surprised. Let’s not pretend that we don’t know that this is what goes on. That this is how it is. Pretending is how we let it continue to be that way’. I consciously, physically have to make myself not jump out of my seat with my arms up like he just ran a touchdown and won the Superbowl. I settle for clapping, loudly, which sets off the room.

I attended a panel before participating in my own in order to get a feel for the rules of engagement. Now I know: there may be real talk.

***

Kitty Litter.

It happened more when I was younger. But I can’t tell you how many times, usually right after I have run it down about something, and I am all satisfied, because I have truly just explained exactly how the world works and why, the beneficiary of my opinions (usually an older black person) has given me a look I couldn’t read and said, ‘You should go to Africa.’

I got it from all over. It wasn’t a compliment, but it wasn’t quite an insult either. And the advice, while confusing, was sincere. But none of that had anything to do with whether the advice was good.

‘You should go to law school’ was a standard remark I heard growing up, because I was a little smartass. I don’t think it was usually intended as actual good advice that I should follow. But it was good advice, and being a professional smartass enabled me to eventually pay off the student loans I took out to go to smartass school.

In contrast—I thought—’You should go to Africa’ was inapplicable at best. More likely, it was just another way to tell me I’m not black enough. Sheeeit—I’m not black enough for America. But I am beginning to understand.

And I now understand why every white person I have ever known has eventually shared with me their story of that one time they were the only white person someplace. Because it scarred them. I apologise for my previous lack of empathy. It is a terrible thing to feel out of place, perhaps unwelcome. It is normal and understandable to relive the moment from time to time for the rest of your life. It is trauma.

I felt unwelcome for fifty years, from the time I was a baby until a couple of days ago. I remember, I would be out with my mother and some random old white person would attempt to make aggressive contact with me and my mother would land on them and shred them until they went away. That happened a lot. And the onslaught continued, every day of my life, until I got off that plane full of Dutch people (and a couple of starry-eyed Americans) and started wandering around Cape Town International. I have not felt unwelcome since that first stoic Immigration officer couldn’t help but crack a brief smile over my helplessness.

And the only way I can think to describe what a load off this is, is to think of it like a physical load. A bag of cat litter, say. Not the tiny ten-pound bag that our three babies would ruin in an hour. But not the ridiculous Farmer Brown forty-pound bag either. It’s the medium one—the twenty-pounder [ed’s note: that’s about nine kilograms]. It occupies all of one arm, but you still have the other arm free to carry more groceries or unlock the door or whatever. It’s doable.

You can live your whole entire life carrying that bag. My mom has. And, like her, you can succeed while carrying it. If you are strong enough, and coordinated enough, and lucky enough, and if you plan out your actions far enough in advance, and accurately anticipate the actions of others, you can do everything that someone not carrying a twenty-pound bag of cat litter can do. Work. Laugh. Win Wimbledon. Deliver the State of the Union Address. If you are really good, you can almost make it seem like you are not carrying anything at all.

Of course, most people aren’t going to be able to do that. Regardless of talent, compensating for carrying a bag of cat litter every second of your life without faltering even once is going to take more than a little luck. Even if it were just the ten-pounder. Also, I note that mine is the twenty-pounder and I am privileged. Incredibly so. Protective parents. Great schools. Mentors. Opportunity. Luck. Some of my people are rocking the forty-pound bag. I can’t even imagine. My medium-sized bag was getting to me.

I think I now understand the look on my elders’ faces as I displayed my pain to them. I’d thought I was laying out what was wrong with the world and exactly how to fix it, but I didn’t even notice that I was carrying a twenty-pound bag of cat litter. I thought that gravity was uneven, or that juggling was a myth, or something. Maybe I thought I only had one arm. I was holding that bag tight and I knew that something was wrong but I couldn’t see the bag, or even feel it. Or, rather, I thought that feeling was me.

It occurs to me to never leave Africa again. After all, I am already here. I am in Africa. Granted, if I had to live a real life here, I wouldn’t spend it in a hotel restaurant writing, like I have been. I would have to get a job, and wash my own towels. Somebody wouldn’t like me. Maybe I would get caught in the rain at some point. But I would do all of those things with two hands. I would not be unwelcome in every square inch I have ever occupied. That part makes all the rest of it seem doable.

But I will leave Africa, and I will come home, and I will be happy. My bag of cat litter will be waiting for me at San Francisco Airport; I’ll grab it up like it’s nothing and float home to my wife and babies and job and whatever. But I know that I will never forget that it’s there. I will always feel that thick plastic bag crinkling up against my chest. At least, I hope I will. It’s counterintuitive to me, but I think it’s probably better to know.

Africa is like me. It’s been through so much. So. Much. And it’s still here. It’s even happy, usually, despite everything. It’s not perfect but, under the circumstances, it’s doing pretty good. And it hasn’t given up. And it’s still getting better.

We are people of the mighty mighty people of the sun. I just made that up.

***

Showtime.

I’m set to appear on a panel about PTSD. Someone really took the time to match up the authors with their areas of expertise.

My publicist Jennifer and I are running late. We get to the theatre and the lobby is packed with a sea of beautiful happy people of almost every imaginable race and age. It feels like New Year’s Eve. Jennifer reaches back to me and I take her hand and she plows diplomatically through the crowd. She can see where we’re going because she is a head taller than most everyone else. In her wake, I smile back at the pretty people.

Jennifer pulls me past a guy at a velvet rope in the corner of the cathedral-like lobby and down a long concrete hall backstage and around a corner and up metal steps past gear and props and busy techs and then around another corner and up to the wings of a bright cold stage. I stroll to my chair like this is my life. There is nothing to it but to do it.

The traumatised panel opines on trauma. We all make salient points, myself included.

During the Q and A at the end, an audience member asks me whether I think that America would benefit from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Before I can think about my response, Rehana Rossouw, sitting next to me, says, ‘Why would it? It didn’t work here’. I turn and gawk at her. I’m speechless. That doesn’t happen often.

I love these people. I love this place.

***

Africa!

I can’t describe what it feels like to wake up in Africa except to say that it feels like waking up in Africa. I snap out of my hard-earned six hours almost rested. My internal GPS locks in pretty quickly now. I’m in Africa! Like Christmas morning when I was little. After rolling around in a bed I don’t have to make, I hop up and pull back the heavy curtains. Table Mountain smiles down on me. I have the Circle of Life playing in my head.

I know that this is ridiculous. Africa is not paradise. Somewhere in Africa, a black person hates their job. I know this, but to that theoretical African I say, At least you were born in Africa. You could have been born in the secondary location, surrounded by millions and millions of people who act like you are weird because their ancestors had no decency. All day, every day. A psychic onslaught that no parent could completely repel. Millions and millions, standing in front of your class and on the TV and taking your pulse in the hospital, acting very convincingly all the time. So convincingly that on some level, without even realising it, you believed them a little bit. You could have all of that, and hate your job, African black person. Trust.

***

It’s late. I’m in my room, reading Twitter. I have been following local and national news for weeks. My second-favourite thing about South Africa (after Mandela looking well pleased on all the currency) is this story, which has occurred in some form more than once since I started paying attention: White man calls black man the k-word. Black man beats white man up. The police are called. ‘What happened?’, the police ask. ‘He beat me up!’, the white man says. ‘Is this true?’, the police ask. ‘Yes,’ the black man says. ‘Why did you do that?’, the police ask. ‘He called me the k-word,’ the black guy says. ‘Is that true?’, the police ask the white guy. ‘Yes,’ the white guys says. ‘Well, then, we don’t know what to tell you,’ the police say to the white man. The police leave, empty handed. Frankly, it is disturbing how South Africa, the country my generation loved to hate, has surpassed us. It’s like the Death Star has universal health insurance now.

David Chariandy texts me to come down to the hotel lobby and have tea with him and some other writers. I respond that I will put on some pants and pretend I am a normal person.

Aminatta Forna is there! The other night the three of us were supposed to go out for drinks and I bailed at the last minute because my battery was completely empty. I regretted that but really had no choice. I mention my insomnia—it predates this trip by about a decade—and it turns out that Aminatta is a former sufferer who has done more than a little research on the subject. Her suggestions resonate.

Efemia Chela, a lovely Zambian-Ghanaian writer [ed’s note: and Contributing Editor at The JRB], says that Africans often forget that black people are a minority in America, because ‘you are always fighting above your weight class’. It is the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me.

***

The Most South African Thing Ever.

It’s the last day of the Open Book Festival.

It is time for the panel I have most looked forward to attending: a discussion with Chris Steyn, an investigative journalist and co-author of a new book, The Lost Boys of Bird Island, that describes a paedophile network of high-ranking apartheid-era officials. How shall I describe the fallout. How about this: the other co-author, former police detective Mark Minnie, was also supposed to be here, but he committed suicide less than a month ago. Apparently the suicide was coerced.

I have been looking forward to the panel but I am not sure I am going until I go. There is about as much security as one would expect at a book festival. If one author has already been murdered (allegedly), I don’t think you have to be a writer to imagine a bomb under the seat of the other one. But I go, because I am here and this is happening. I left my fear at home.

I snag a seat in the balcony. The lady seated next to me is very nice. The moderator, Marianne Thamm, is a badass I do not recognise only because I am not from here; she looks like Annie Lennox but reminds me of Christiane Amanpour.

There is a last-minute fill-in for Mark Minnie—a sweet, nervous-looking Coloured woman (it’s okay to say ‘Coloured’ here; it refers to a specific people who call themselves that) who was also involved in the investigation of the child-rape ring [ed’s note: it was Maygene de Wee]. She is speaking in Afrikaans, and there is no interpreter. I don’t mind; it is a trip just to be here. The air is electric. And soon the nice lady next to me is interpreting, whispering in my ear. It is the most exciting panel I have been to in an exciting week.

A young black woman also in the balcony stands up and speaks: ‘It is not appropriate to have a member of the panel speaking Afrikaans without an interpreter! Not everyone speaks Afrikaans. We speak eleven languages here; English is the compromise!’ This instantly rouses shouts of support and opposition in equal measure. The moderator states that there was no time to arrange an interpreter. The protester does not accept this. She raises her first and cries out a slogan in yet some other language, and people here and there start clapping. A debate about the origins of Afrikaans follows—many, like me, associate it with evil white people, but others are saying that it was invented by Coloured people, based on Dutch, so that the Dutch wouldn’t notice it but wouldn’t understand it either.

I am euphoric. This feels like the most South African thing ever.

Eventually, having made her point, the protester sits down and the panel resumes. The questions from the audience, and the applause they elicit, indicate that a surprising number of people do not believe the allegations in the book. Not just don’t believe; like, deeply reject. I am observing an existential crisis. People are defending the character of these men. The chaos is simultaneously civil and heated. I don’t think Americans know how to do this.

The panel is about to end. A woman in the front row stands and turns to us and begins to speak. She can barely speak because she is crying so hard. There isn’t time for one more comment, but everyone, even the moderator, is silent and still, because we are all there together.

Fighting through her tears, the woman tells us who she is and who her husband was. I don’t recognise any of the names but clearly everybody else does. She and her husband and the rapists were all bigwigs in apartheid together.

‘I knew these men! We spent time in each other’s homes! For years!’ She is sobbing. I feel sick. ‘And that is why I know that everything in this book is true. I saw … things. We never spoke of them. But we knew!’ None of us can believe this is happening. The woman tells us some of what she saw. She testifies until she is done, and when she stops the room erupts in applause.

And then the house lights come on and we all stagger out of the room. I can’t believe I almost didn’t come to this.

I had a question, and I really wanted to raise my hand and ask it. But I didn’t dare. This is the furthest above my cultural pay grade I have ever been. I am an American; anything I say can and will be wrong. And my Prime Directive this trip is to not make my hosts regret believing in me and taking a chance on me. So I keep my hand down and my ears open and I listen and I learn. But this is my question.

What is so shocking about the leaders and architects of apartheid raping children? I mean, of course they raped children. However evil you have to be to rape children, you have to be at least that evil to enforce apartheid. If it came to light that Mengele and Eichmann and Goebbels kept a compound in the Alps where they let off steam by raping and torturing Jewish boys, would that shock you? Would it lower your opinion of them? How could anything lower your opinion of them? If you are the Minister of Defense for PW Botha, I kind of assume that you are a serial child rapist as well. It all begs the question: How bad do you think apartheid was, if, somehow, this is what crosses the line?

I am naive, and I am ignorant. But I am not stupid. I don’t think that South Africa is a perfect society. But it’s all relative.

PW Botha was a nazi, and Jacob Zuma was a criminal. Yes. But they are gone. And the President of the United States is a nazi and a criminal right now. South African apartheid as the world knew it is over. And, just as I left the States, the federal government was raiding the homes of Latino US citizens and confiscating their passports for no reason. And there are children in cages.

There are children in cages.

Watching these earnest people struggle makes me want to cry. The various factions might think that they are at odds, but to my mind they share a common goal. If only because genocide has now been ruled out. Most of the people in this country are trying to figure out how to move forward, while my own country flies happily backwards.

***

85 percent.

Obviously, I have been listening to Gil Scott-Heron since the plane landed. Getting dressed for dinner with Koketso and his wife, I switch to Rakim. I am listening to Rakim in Africa. It is undoubtedly the blackest moment of my life. I feel myself level up accordingly.

I am black enough now. Yay.

But, I ponder, even before this happened, it was always something that was going to happen. It was always something that I would do.

Oh. I freeze, shirt half-buttoned. I am black enough because there is no such thing as black enough.

When I boarded that first plane to Amsterdam, I was 85 percent black. A personal best. And now, at this moment, standing here, I am just black. I’m not 85 percent black or even 100 percent black because that is not a thing and it never was.

Since September 10, 1990 (the day The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air first aired) it ain’t been no thing to see a nerdy brother or whatever. But during my formative years–the ’80s–there were six kinds of black people. Six. Total. Look it up. By ‘look it up’ I mean watch any Spike Lee movie made during that time. They might look ham-handed now, but in truth they are authentic, nuanced depictions of a ham-handed era. All black folks in America consisted of the six kinds of black people, my girlfriend Sonya, and me. (Lord, thank You again for Sonya.) And that’s it. I mutated accordingly. Sure, now there’s Afropunk, and it’s wonderful, but it came decades too late for me. The only Afropunk I’ve been to so far, the park was full of gorgeous young black people dressed as anime characters hula-hooping and, along the edges, the shell-shocked aging rockers who’d paid for the thing. All of us were there solo, and we never made eye contact. Being five years ahead of your time might be awesome. Being thirty years ahead of your time fucking sucks.

But, just as Henry Louis Gates Jr teaches us that there is more genetic diversity within the African continent than there is between Africa and everyplace else (because we all started in Africa, and most stayed, and only some left and walked to Asia or wherever and reproduced), I think there is more black diversity within Africa as well. If there are types of black people here, it is a lot more than six. Since I arrived, I have sensed from strangers no expectation whatsoever as to who I am or what I am about. Only curiosity. In America I swim in expectations and projections. From everybody. I get around by surfing on them. Sometimes I drown. That sea is simply not here. There is only air where that is supposed to be.

Many of my interactions here have reminded me of something, but I have not been able to place it until now, staring out the window, ‘I Know You Got Soul’ bumping. I am reminded of that Eddie Murphy Saturday Night Live sketch where he puts on whiteface and infiltrates white people. That is exactly what it’s like here. It’s normal. I’m not talking about when I walk into the hotel lobby and the staff says ‘Welcome back, Mr Smyer’—that’s dope as fuck but that is people being the best at what they do. I’m talking about when I am a rando wandering around town by myself and interacting with other randos. It’s a city, but, compared to what I’m used to, in Cape Town strangers are just friends I haven’t made yet. Emphasis on ‘compared to what I’m used to’. I’m used to having been hated since before I was born by non-black people, and being distrusted on sight by black people.

I have never known The Secret Black Handshake, and I never will, and I never needed to, because it is not real. That’s just some black American fuckery some of us came up with because we were born in the secondary location and we don’t know what’s going on. It’s like Kwanzaa. If there is no Secret Black Handshake in Africa, then there is no Secret Black Handshake at all.

I am black. That’s it. I am staring at Table Mountain and I’m black and nothing will ever make me not know that ever again in my life.

My God.

***

The treatment.

Back in the States. I like having Africans on my Twitter feed now, because sometimes when there’s a picture of a smiling black guy he’s the Finance Minister of someplace and not just the latest black guy to get murdered by the police.

***

I’m back six months now. None of my Africa revelations have faded; they have only been reinforced by observation. It’s true what they say, about how home looks different when you’ve seen something else. Not worse, necessarily. Just less inevitable.

Lately I’ve been snagging on the term ‘white privilege’. I’m not the only one, of course. I know a white guy who is positive that there is no such thing as white privilege because he has been to jail for doing crimes. But I’m not talking about that nonsense. I have come to suspect that the term ‘white privilege’, like the term ‘microaggression’ is, consciously or otherwise, yet more coddling of the fragile white psyche.

Because it’s not a privilege to not be murdered by the police in your own backyard. It’s not a privilege not to be assaulted by your teacher. It’s not a privilege to not have elected officials calling for your genocide. Those things are terrorism.

A while back, my mom had a medical emergency. It was fine. But later I was shocked when she told me that the crisis happened at about midnight but she didn’t go to the hospital until the next morning. I opened my mouth to scold her. And she said, ‘I was not interested in learning what EMTs do to old black women in the middle of the night.’ Terrorism.

I go out to go to work and to go play music and to do readings and to watch friends play music and do readings and to exercise and to run errands and most times I step outside my house I consciously contemplate the possibility that some nazi with a badge will murder me on video and not even get in trouble. It probably occurs to me every single time, but the fact that it is legal to kill me is so fundamental to my consciousness it’s like keeping track of every time you think of gravity.

That is something other than the absence of a privilege.

Now I understand the onslaught. The unrelenting attack that started everywhere all at once. The spontaneously fearful neighbours. The elementary school teachers who had no choice but to give me good grades but in the Comments section consistently alluded to ‘behaviour problems’ that, when pressed by my parents, they could rarely substantiate. The cabbies who wouldn’t stop for a child in a suit on a date. The NYPD beat cops who robbed my cousin and me when we were teenagers. The girlfriend’s parents. The lady on the bus passed out cold for twenty minutes before she wakes up and sees you sitting there and frantically rifles through her plastic bag of chicken beaks to see if you stole one. The post-college boss, telling you not to bother applying to law school because law school is hard. The golf question on your bar exam. The law partner that is supposed to be interviewing you but no one is watching him so he just sits there. The standard cashier procedure of greeting the customer before you, dealing with you in complete and stony silence, then greeting the customer after you. The Walking Dead. The almost-daily physical aggression (nothing micro about it) that can come from any non-black person at any time with zero bystander intervention. The Oscars. Finally I understand the psychic warfare waged on us every minute of every day. Because I got free of it for a week—motherfuckers left me alone for one week—and it changed me.

If you haven’t been, perhaps you should go to Africa.

  • Adam Smyer is an attorney, martial artist, and mediocre bass player. Knucklehead (Akashic Books), his debut novel, was the sole title shortlisted for the 2018 Ernest J Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. He lives in Oakland, California with his wife and cats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *