The View from Massa’s House: Engaging an International Lens while being Black in America
Last week I posted my completed Pfizer card on FB. I wanted to let everyone know that I had gotten my 2nd vaccine. The meta-message: I’m responsible, I’m relatively safer now, be like me and get some.
I posted my completed Pfizer card on FB because I was considering the relatively narrow cultural context in which I typically operate–a country in which there are people who continue to refuse vaccination on both sides of the political spectrum for a host of reasons–some complex, some overtly asinine. I wanted to speak to them all. I wanted to say to those on the asinine side of the political spectrum that it’s time we stopped treating facts like “build-a-bears” and get on the same goddamn page. For those who are aware of medicine’s nefarious history, I wanted to encourage them to both never forget, while calling them into a community space that places our collective health over our individual fears.
Meanwhile…I had taken a break from the news. Coming off the Trump years of constant analysis, fact-checking, meaning making, and constantly engaging talking heads, I’ve spent the last few months engaging more Wu-Tang, Evan Winter, and Winter Soldier than NPR. I watched the Chauvin trial only as it concluded, and beyond that, I was fairly checked out. So when my colleague, Kavi Rao lamented what was going on in India and elsewhere around the world, I had to google it.
THIS is when and how my intersecting interests in social justice, pop-culture, current events, and historical context creates an infuriatingly complex stew in the very soul of my bone marrow. This is when the questions come up that have no answers. Above all, this is when I am most keenly aware that I live in massa’s house.
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I posted my completed Pfizer card on FB without once considering how I was fighting a cultural war sans acknowledging the humanitarian / socio-political crisis right in front of me. While I was posting, I failed to consider the people all over the world who would love to post their card but can’t because there’s little-to-no access. I was fronting for the camera, seeking to contribute to the normalization of vaccination in the US, without regard for the normalization of access that comes with living in the US.
Living in massa’s house, I get massa’s scraps and thus have access before many on the larger plantation. My inability to hold that fact in front of me at all times renders me…less. Less compassionate, less human, less connected, less humane…like Chauvin himself.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the myriad of ways that choosing to post my completed Pfizer card is nothing like Chauvin choosing to kneel on the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes. I am not speaking to my actions v. his. I am speaking to the mindset that informs them–a mindset that many of us share even as the actions we take can vary greatly. I draw this comparison for the same reason King explained the heart of every Black protest from the March on Washington to the formation of BLM Plaza: “to dramatize a shameful condition.” Otherwise, we constantly risk being beset by a narrowing world-view in moments wherein the culture war immediately in front of us can blind us to the larger complexities in the world beyond our immediate purview.
He wasn’t practicing protocol, he was likewise fronting for the camera. He had chosen sides in a culture war and used Floyd’s Black body as a pedestal upon which to trophy-ize himself (think: big game hunters) and demonstrate his domination and thus his allegiances. He knew that precedent was on his side, for not only did he live in massa’s house– he was among massa’s favorite children.
Whenever I seek to demonstrate my side of the ongoing culture wars here in the US without taking into account the global context in which I operate, I too kneel upon the necks of billions who would, if able, declare their choices just as boldly were access, and thus choices, an option.
I am speaking to the indifference of distance. I am physically distant and thus more readily indifferent to the plight of India, Brazil, and South Africa. Chauvin was psychologically distant, and thus, more readily indifferent to the plight of George Floyd. And even while we’re both surrounded by the pleas of witnesses, our distance renders us both insulated from their urgency and the end result is the same: death.
Three days after the Chauvin verdict was handed down, I caught the season finale of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” and I had SO many feels. ***SPOILERS AHEAD***
Anthony Mackie (a Black actor) is the new Captain America (“Cap”). Cap’s monologue toward the end of the episode could have easily been for the Bill Gateses and the mega-pharma companies of the world, whose relative inaction on vaccine distribution remains mired in patent debates. Cap argues that there’s “a common struggle now,” wherein people are “begging for you to feel how hard any given day is” because we are collectively facing “a force so powerful, it could erase half the planet.”
Similarly, when Cap was told he simply didn’t understand the complexity of responding to global crisis, I was reminded of the complexity inherent in holding the impacts and implications of global crisis while being Black in the US–both the empathy and indifference it can spur–as he responded, “I’m a Black man carrying the stars and stripes. What don’t I understand?” It is in this land of immense power and wealth that I have been shaped. I am therefore not immune (nor should I be), to the “millions of people who are going to hate me for it…the stares, the judgement.” And yet, like Cap, “I’m still here.”
To live in massa’s house and lose sight of the plantation, even for a second, is perhaps the greatest single indictment of cultural hegemony’s allure, AND of our individual failings which allow it to thrive. Since my initial awakening to the impacts of cultural hegemony on members across the African diaspora, I’ve had mixed feelings about my American identity. I am painfully aware that while we’ve been here for over four centuries, we were never meant to be citizens in the eyes of the colonizers.
So long as I live here in the US, I have a responsibility to fight the good fight at home and abroad–to use my voice to raise awareness within these borders and beyond them. To lose sight of the global context in which I operate, while accessing the resources that global kleptocracy provides, is to narrow my world-view in ways that contribute to the death of billions.
Because my choice to post my vaccine status is encouraged, I will not be tried by a jury of my peers. In fact, I’ll get a LOT of likes ‘n’ hearts. However, there are juries of public opinion all over the world that may feel both glad to see another person vaccinated, but also enraged by my apparent indifference to their plight.
Yet all is not lost. I write this both as catharsis and clarion, a collective call to raise awareness through our own channels of influence and social engagement. Like Cap, I come to this fight with “no super serum. No blonde hair or blue eyes.” Like Cap, the “only power I have is that I believe we can do better.” Moving forward, I’ll strive to do better. I’ll strive to remember what it means to live on the plantation–particularly because I live in massa’s house. I’ll strive to remember the world beyond the plantation and name that world so far removed from the resources and norms by which I am both marred and bolstered.
To live in America as a so-called minority is to know the worst of the best. Water, water everywhere and only a few drops to drink. It’s easy to forget that for many others, the water is still harder to come by. As long as that’s true, we’re all the worse for it. As long as we name it, we can see it, and potentially do something about it….
Delma Jackson, III is a Senior Fellow with CWC. His focus is on facilitating system change on campuses and in institutions through transformative practice and the power of story. He received his undergraduate degree in African-American Studies and Psychology, and his Masters in Liberal Arts with a concentration in American and African American Studies at the University of Michigan. He regularly lectures on a variety of socio-political topics with a special emphasis on intersectional approaches to social justice.