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No, Black Folk Can't Ask for Help

I am black, feared and barely tolerated.

"Black folk can't ask for help." This is the sadness and caution I live with. This is the ethic, mantra and reality that I may die to. The recent killing of Renisha McBride might have inspired this particular essay, but high-profile cases of Jonathan Farrel, Trayvon Martin, Trayon Christian as well as countless taken lives who don't receive a tweet remind me that I'm presumed to be a black menace who has been given less than a benefit of doubt that I'm human.


Renisha McBride, the Detroit teenager who was shot and killed while searching for help, may have done so for an hour before her plea became a death sentence. Attorney Gerald Thurswell who represents McBride’s family said, "She knocked on several doors and no one answered." This is the slogan of our lives.

I, like the shooters, have become numb to the social cancer that is eating at democracy. Killing someone out of fear can be horrifically justified in the name of "safety." The ultimate civil liberty is regularly taken away out of fear of the black menace. But for many, civil liberty is gained in the reduction of black lives. Either the shooter's implicit or explicit biases contributed to the killing of Renisha. Neither is acceptable. But, discrimination, hate and murder have been normalized, and stand your ground laws, stop-n-frisk, shop-n-frisk, driving while black and other violations are manifestations of our willful intolerance of black and brown lives.

We may become aroused for the fifteen minutes that cable news shows may commit to these atrocities. However, everyday someone's innocent life is taken, arrested, stalked, brutalized, fired or threaten in the name of "safety." Jobs and homes are vacated in the name of "reform." And as our hatred transforms flagrant unlawfulness into law, I can't even ask for help.

Hate warps logic and rationality like old floorboards that we think are level. I've lived in urban environments for most of my life and have experienced late-night knocks on doors. In all cases, heart racing, I've tried to gather evidence to assess the situation with viewpoints other than the knock on the door and a body in the front of it. I've yelled from an upstairs window or from another room towards the knocker. In every case, I immediately called the police, but I've never felt so threatened to take a life.

Intense hatred and/or the fear of imminent death lead one to kill a person who is merely asking for help. The reflexive response to shoot is the result of the worst kind of conditioning. The calculation that it's better to take a black life and ask questions later has been normalized at a personal level, and the personal has become law. Worse, black people as being human beings has not been fully conditioned and realized in our society.

But I've been feeling very human over the last few years. Since Hurricane Katrina and its consequent "recovery," I've been forced to reflect as to how I'm perceived. For whom is reform for? People who look like me are not considered part of the public, thus public safety is squarely targeting us as threat. The privileged, imaginative bubble that I'm somehow a member of burst long ago.

Black folk can't ask for help. Benjamin Crump, Al Sharpton, and Dream Hampton may seem like they're seeking justice for individuals, but they are fighting for community survival. No one can escape the inevitability of accidents, driving, getting lost or shopping. Black people should not be murdered or harassed for these things. If a black community can't stand up for one of its members being shot for being innocent, then what can we stand for?

I can't ask for help. But still I must. I must accept my vulnerability in the face of danger. In the very least, I must shatter the façade of invincibility. Could it be any clearer that black men in particular are far from invincible, but we have bought wholesale the superman trope that never remotely reflected our existence. We don't have a "sister circle" for support or even a Mary J. Blige to project our pain. Black men's "supports" are found in hyper-masculine fantasies and fantasizers who portend to have made it in America. To them I say, "Don't get lost in Dearborn."

Even when I wrap myself in the comfortable clothes of hyper-masculinity, if I'm honest I'll admit that I'm naked. I'm vulnerable in my denial. I'm defenseless in my home. The power that we think we have in the forms of money, property, chains, and titles are delusions of grandeur. True power is being safe on one's own land. I can't even ask for help without risking my life. Consequently, I have to find a safe space to at least construct a re-imagined self.

I will say what many black men should say, "I'm scared." I'm scared because I can't readily ask for help. If asking for help means walking through neighboring towns miles and miles away, do so with care, and know the walk is treacherous.

I am Trayvon. I am Renisha. I am black, feared, and barely tolerated. I am resolved to the fact that the only thing that separates me from Renisha is that I learned long ago not to ask for help. But I must keep searching for a safe space to become a member of a community that I help construct.

Image via Shutterstock

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