My friends are like family. Which means they don’t seem to care much about trigger warnings. They just go ahead and send me things:
• mixed-race jokes
• porn-inflected jokes
• gender-based violence jokes
• the occasional mutilation joke
• jokes about misogyny and missing teeth and pain and other assorted cruelties.
And I know why they do it: not because they secretly hate me and think I’m a bit too detached from my world to be bothered by a disembowelment when set to uninteresting music, but because I’m as likely to ignore the violence as break into a full-throated analysis of one thing or another.
I know what you’re thinking, because I think the same thing from time to time: I need better friends. It’s true, but I love them all (if not equally), so what can I do? People need some way to deal with the pathology of the society of which they are a part–a society from which they hope to remain apart. It is a futile hope. And their apathy–ours, really–is nothing short of Macchiavellian. The justification, poor as it is, does work. Family, amirite? (I call people “darlings” and “beautiful badasses” on here, so it’s whatever.)
Anyway, I was minding other people’s business on social media, when I get a version of the image on this post–just the child on the left. I only saw the child on the right this morning on a Crisis Magazine tweet. My first reaction was, “cute kid.” I didn’t take the bait. I responded with a bit of cynicism–“we keep expecting these people to do right by us”–and kept it moving.
Reaction (❤, mostly).
I didn’t say that if the child on the left makes it past the age of 12, learns the principles of black liberation, has “The Talk” (birds, bees, bullets), and avoids Hotep fallacies, coconut oil, and kale, he’ll be as much a “survival expert” as his apparent counterpart. And that his apparent counterpart–framed as a conservative, capitalist, colonialist, imperialist mashup in the shape of a boy cut to fit a sweatshirt–not only views his blackness as a thing to be conquered, but also as an aspiration. No, he doesn’t want to be black–why would he? Rather, he is a projection of a whiteness I recognize. A child made to portray a desire for the condition of being “the coolest monkey in the jungle.” Not in the Jane Goodall sense of cool, obviously (chimps are apes, after all).
Because we know neither of those children resides in any real jungle, we can (must) assume that the metaphor is what matters here. Viewed in such a way (and because symbolic language is not what it is but what it might be), it’s reasonable to look at this child on the right as a prefabricated hipster conservative, and his gaze as a parable of inevitable gentrification. Stoops and corners, like ruins in the memory. Eminent domain, and the bodies made to represent it. Bodies designed, as it were, to desire and be displaced from it.
I didn’t say that I was thrown back–because all sweatshirts are a throwback, in the age of clima-cool. In an age of breathable clothes worn by bodies that can’t breathe, I saw this child (the one on the left) as representing something of a hybrid–a visual prelude-postscript to a very particular set of issues that plague contemporary life. In short, you could say I saw him as a superhero. I saw him, foolishly, as a young Luke Cage: developing his love for sweatshirts from a young age, causing trouble in the concrete jungle of Harlem or Bed-Stuy (or wherever black bodies are stripped of their black minds and black spirits, wherever they’re either forced or inclined to run and fight for their lives with hands up or throats clenched or hearts broken, wherever death–black death–is not a metaphor, but a reality). A young Luke Cage, before becoming a caricature of our suffering, before Black Panther shows up, takes the wheel, slaps the #Oprah2020 out of our mouths, and redeems us all.
And why not? Escapism (like desensitization and terrible Whatsapp etiquette) is a strategy for people like us. From “Flying Africans” of Modernity and Black Antiquity to the elemental Earth, Wind & Fire.
We fly. We stay fly. We be fly.
It’s how people like us, who seem to have no power, deal with shit. And I’m no different, so you can believe I’d go with Luke Cage who, before he was bulletproof, badass, or beefcake was not unlike the child on the left. Black.
And when Black Panther comes like Black Jesus, I’ll make of this sweatshirted child a young T’Challa on a visit to America, throwing shade as an unapologetic embodiment of a Signifying Monkey in this prison industrial complex of language–with its marketplaces and parlors. Before that happens, though, I try to get my mind right. I turn the conversation inward.
Me: Why Luke Cage, which was immediately (and ultimately) disappointing?
Also Me: Because I’m bound, like everyone else, by the symbols I’m given. And there aren’t enough black Jedi.
Me: Why not read this image as an homage to Trayvon Martin?
Also Me: Because while the easy imposition of black death and white superiority on children’s bodies causes me anxiety (almost as if it were prophecy), trauma is not a badge of honor–nor is resilience synonymous with recovery. There is blood on all of our shrines.
Me: Why not remix the irony of red-green colorblindness and ridicule the construction of race as an example of a dilapidated discourse, as an uninhabitable idea?
Also Me: Because the “red-black-green” progression from Martin to Luke to Cool is as much a “semiotic slight” as “sleight of hand”–a move from child to man to child; a broken promise that takes us forward from bullet riddles to cages to jungles, as if it were progress. Because “the red, the black, and the green” is how many of us learned to spell “Justice.” Because it is a nostalgia that mirrors the tragic-comic-absurd of throwback sweatshirts in contemporary culture over the past decade. Oh, Luke. If only your projections could save us.
(Also Also Me: Wait, darling, T’Challa is coming. Again. And Carnival. Wait.)
Me: Why not reach for the image of Trayvon, a child who would be 23 next month, pluck him out of the memes that made light of his black death, bring him forward in time, forward into 2018, imagining him as a smaller child now, bending time to give him more time, giving him a restart on his clock, summoning my mystical manipulation of time and flight and travel to save this child’s life before his love of candy and iced tea?
Also Me: Because I’m waiting for a future, a mothership prophesied in Soca and Funk, sanctified in Fire and Water, and reified in Black Magic. Because I’m not yet what I’ve longed for.
Me: Why not scoff at the absurdity of false equivalency and the problem of signs?
Also Me: It was an interpretive choice, obviously. And a self-care choice, as well. Because black death is as much a reflex for us as for those who would destroy us. Because I only appear to respond to an absurdity with an absurdity, something like a phenomenon to offset the silliness of sacrificing the image of children to the diseases we’ve learned to worship. There are children, lodged between #BoycottHM and #BoycottHandM. Boys, as it turns out, being anything but themselves.
There’s a larger, simpler point: it’s impossible to escape from a trap that I set for myself, no less possible to remove my skin and burst into flames. A trigger warning, after the bullet, in between the ceaseless volley of hurts that we must negotiate–often, and unfortunately, at the cellular level–for people like us.
People like us, who know the trigger is the weapon–that language is a perfect violence, one we cannot boycott. And so it is, that with all perfect violences, the perfect villains will often look just like us. Until they don’t.
Let the church say, “Ase!”