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The Burden of the Beast

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“Can’t I live my life/ without ‘em treatin’ every brother like me, like I’m holdin’ a knife?” – Public Enemy, “War at 33 and 1/3”

The other evening I was scouring the Internet looking for quotes to inspire my son for his judo class. I came across a very cool Eastern tale I want to share with you.

Lieh-Tzu wrote: “A man found that his axe was missing, and suspected his neighbor’s son of having taken it. Observing the youth walking around, the man was convinced that his was the walk of a thief. The youth looked like a thief and talked like a thief; everything he did pointed to his having stolen the axe. Then one day the man happened to find his missing axe. After that, he noticed his neighbor’s son wasn’t behaving like a thief anymore.”

Immediately my mind sunk into my life’s journey. I remembered all the times I’d been fingered in department stores, or watched old white ladies who, when seeing me coming down the street, clutched their purses and crossed before the intersection. I also revisited the times white men checked to make sure their wallets were still on them, eyeing me as we stepped out of a crowded elevator. Once my friends and I flagged a cop car down because we had a flat tire, only to be accused of being participants in a drive by. After we were humiliated and made to stand on the corner in a blinding spotlight, one of the victims told them it wasn’t us (surprise!!!!). They then left us stranded with no help for the flat tire, no tow truck — just the cold Bay wind, and a quarter to call whomever we wanted. We had the quarter before we flagged them down.

For all intents and purposes the Black man in America is seen as a beast. It is a myth originally created by slave owners of our ancestors to justify their heinous crime. It was again used during the civil rights movement under the guise that black men only wanted rights to sleep with white women. Every generation of Black people deals with it on some level. The males feel the brunt of it, but the sisters suffer too. Their “beastly nature,” by most accounts, is one of a sexual nature.

I remember as a young teen my dad would tell me how, as a young Black male, my image to the police would change. He said if I ever got pulled over with my friends to “Keep your hands on the wheel, speak slowly and clearly. You are older now and things change a bit.” He never told me officially, but now I realize that was my first day of training on how to react to those who only know me as “the beast.”

Talib Kweli illustrates a thing all Black fathers must teach their sons at some time. In a song entitled “The Proud,” he states:

They make the guns easy to get and try to keep niggaz dumb

Target the gangs and graffiti with the Prop 21

I already know the deal but what the fuck do I tell my son?

I want him

livin’

right, livin’ good, respect the rules

He’s five years old and he still thinkin’ cops is cool

How do I break the news that when he gets some size

He’ll be perceived as a threat or see the fear in they eyes

It’s in they job description to terminate the threat

So 41 shots to the body is

what he can expect

Words this real have never been spoken on wax. Unfortunately, as a young Black male, I have had a member of the San Francisco Police Department put the barrel of his gun to my eye socket for something for which you can’t even get a ticket. It is the burden of Black males to know how and when to react to those who see us as beasts. In the case of the police, it may be by not making a move too soon. Sometimes it is simply by smiling or making eye contact with the couple coming toward you. Other times, it’s in your dress code. I cannot tell you how many times, when I’m sporting a suit and tie and maybe a charcoal gray trench coat, that I have noticed how white people seem to perceive me differently, say, in department stores (or indifferently, meaning they don’t follow me suspiciously).

But let me wear my khakis and a sleeveless t-shirt and some work boots. My athletic shoulders reveal tattoos. My head is shaven. As soon as my 6 ft. frame enters the store, the mall, or the elevator white people scatter like roaches. The funny thing is that sometimes you can forget you are their beast. That’s when it hurts the most. Stepping into an elevator and watching people scamper out you look around like: What is going on? Where is the crook? Only to realize when the steel doors close that the hazy reflection reveals the crook – They think it’s you.

The interesting thing is that among Black males, we often do try to be the beast white people think we are. We stare one another down, we mean mug and ice grill people we’ve never met as if we hate them. I caught myself doing this a few weeks ago. I was in Oakland, near the Coliseum. I started looking around at the broken street signs and decaying roads. I saw lifeless eyes in the car next to me. Other eyes looked at me as if I were prey. In self-defense, I threw in Dr. Dre’s “Chronic Album,” playing the song “The Day the Niggaz Took Over.” I opened my window. I turned it up louder, thinking that, if people could hear the music I was playing, they might think I lived like that, and they would fear me. I felt the need to be feared. That’s so hard for a guy who looks like Steve Urkel to pull off. Two blocks later I took it out. I popped in Yusef Islam’s “Prayers of the Last Prophet.” I figured if was my fate to get shot in Oakland and die that day, I did not want to die listening to Dr. Dre. It just seemed undignified.

Before 911, my friend Ali had a friend who visited Saudi Arabia. Ali asked the guy to bring me traditional Islamic attire of a very fine quality. One day I wore it to an art showing of a local mixed media artist named Keba Konte in San Francisco. (Quick sidebar, folks: There is a section in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, which speaks to the following. When Black folks wear attire more akin to their culture, they are more respected by Whites than those who sport their Brooks Bros. best.) I tested that. I witnessed it first hand, as people of all walks of life showed me the utmost respect. No white men grabbed their wallets. No white ladies clutched their purses. Most people, ironically, did not even think I spoke English.

I mentioned to my wife how amazed I was that wearing Islamic attire was like my being in beast free attire. I stopped at a gas station before heading home, and the guy behind the glass smiled and started rattling off in Arabic a mile a minute. I had to slow him down and explain to him that I was Muslim, but that my Arabic was not good at all. He laughed, said I looked Tunisian (as he was). I told my wife I planned on buying more Islamic attire, and indeed I have a few new pieces.

I went to the gas station few weeks later, wearing khakis and a t-shirt. From behind the glass, that same attendant only saw the beast. He acted less friendly and more guarded. After a few minutes of conversation, he remembered me and relaxed. But the programming was there. The White man has given the programming of how I am perceived, as a Black man in America, to Arabs, Asians and others.

The ironic thing is that, in a post 9/11 America, Islamic attire has become “beast worthy” in the eyes of Americans. So, I can dress one way and be perceived to be Tupac Shakur or some extra from OZ, or I can dress in the Islamic style and have everyone think I am member of a sleeper cell. Ah, decisions, decisions. What to wear, oh, what to wear?

So what is my point of writing this? On one hand it is written to the other so-called beasts out there to say that: you are not alone. You are not a beast. Never let others define you. Never allow yourself to portray the myth. To those who have bought into the beast myth, I ask you to look closer. If you look again, I think you’ll find that, like the kid in the story by Lieh Tzu, Black males did not steal the axe. I will teach my son to never allow himself to be judged as the axe thief, nor will I encourage him to see the thief in those not like him. This article is dedicated to Black men and women around the world who take on this burden daily.

"As a child learning to walk falls a thousand times before he can stand, and after that falls again and again until at last he or she can walk, so are we as little children before God."

-Sufi Proverb

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