selfish

Written by: Imogen James

I just wanted to write a short foreword before you read this piece. The Black Lives Matter movement is something that has always been close to my heart. I was lucky enough to be educated in school about the Civil Rights Movement, the Slave Trade, and all the bad parts in between. This piece was inspired by the struggles I saw growing up in the literature and media around me, through films and music. The road is long, hard, painful, however there will be a day when racism is impossible to get away with, where people of colour don’t have to look over their shoulder their whole lives. We are carrying on this fight. When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, those riots led to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. There could always be something good around the corner, which is why we cannot give up. 

RIP George Floyd and all of whose names we know, and of those we don’t know. I will never understand, but I stand with you. 

‘Selfish’

The clouds were selfish tonight: they absorbed the sky, leaving faint trails of pink and blue in their wake, lined by the frayed trees. The silence is cut, as glowing sticks fly past, a blurred mirage of pointed white outfits and words thrown into our front room, swaying my granddad on his creaking rocking chair. 

The rock, a large, ugly mass, shattered through my window, blanketed in slurs and flames. And just like that my life changed.

Our home wasn’t much, but it was ours. The day they took it away from us sparked not only our charred walls, but a fire inside me. I remember sifting through the carcass of what was once my bedroom, finding nothing but ash and the occasional sea coloured marble. It took us days to salvage all we could – already having little to our name – my life became a half charred Bible and a sweatshirt knitted by my granny last Christmas. Of all things to survive, it was an itchy ill fitting sweater. It took us even longer to cease my mother’s tears. They painted lines on her face through the grey sprinkles of ash cloaking her. 

That was the first time I started to notice I was different, just as a boy about 12. Yes, I had never sat next to the other boys on the bus, or walked in the same parks, but it had never really mattered to me. I felt like I fitted in, they always laughed with me, although I found this a little strange as I never had to say anything to make them laugh. Still, I laughed along. But then my reflection grew darker and I was no longer just a boy. 

As I grew, bitter thoughts churned in my head, words burning on my tongue and fists uncoiled only when I was at rest, which seldom happened. I started off with little things, even having the courage to throw a piercing look their way was enough, calmed my thoughts for a moment. But then that summer little Joey from down the road was lynched. Seeing him hanging from the tree like a bitter fruit struck a chord within me and I flew forward, practically foaming at the mouth. Those gathered around jeering were stunned into silence at the spectacle as I ran into the crowd fists flying with reckless abandon. I had the one that strung him up in my fist, held to my face inches apart. And I started hitting. Hitting. Hitting. Spitting. Crying. Breathing. Collapsing. Hurting. Screaming. 

They locked me up for that. I stumbled into the jail, and saw a man like me. He was shouting at the officers, being dragged away in cuffs, but all the while smiling as if this is what he wanted. He looked at me, eyes glinting and said simply, ‘I’ll see you on the front page tomorrow then.’ And I got it. Attention. That’s what we needed. Not small acts of pitiful revenge. Large movements. A real fight. If that’s what was needed, that’s what we’ll do. 

I wasn’t a big fan of busses, so when I saw Rosa Parks on the cover of the paper, face full of pride and anguish all at the same time, I started walking. And so did my neighbour. And my cousins a few towns over. And the lady who I bought the paper from. And the man who I wave to on my way to work. And then we were allowed on the bus, anywhere we wanted. I sat right at the front. And I smiled for the first time in a long time for myself; not for the smartly dressed white man skipping the queue in front of me, or to thank the smartly dressed white woman for letting me walk past her on the sidewalk without calling me names I wish to not repeat.  I smiled for me.

***

We gathered, mist thick in the air, the top of the bridge eerily fading away, like our identity. This was a chance to get it back.  Marching, the drumming sound of footsteps in unison split the tension in the air, and our steps became mingled with the beat of horse’s hooves and shouts of the ‘bull’. They thundered over the crest, and our support went with the wailing wind. Smoke burst, as did lips, staining the concrete crimson as people fell to the ground. It was clear our numbers were not as large, but hell, were we determined. Every step I took, on the road my ancestors had slaved to build, was another step forward. I wouldn’t run. I was surging against them all, a fish going upstream. Until they started crashing into me, a bloody handprint running down my Sunday best, a garment of clothing dropped at my feet. I was staring in the face of my jailer, and I walked right out of my cell. 

I kept walking, for many, many years. Although my ancestors did a good job on the roads, there were still bumps. Much like the one my Ade was developing. I know the world around me is chaos, but she is my peace. It is no longer just a fight for me; it is a fight for my family, for my child to grow up sitting next to the others on the bus and to play in the same parks. 

By now we were riding out the 50’s and 60’s in Chicago. Despite our colour being hated, our culture was celebrated. Walking down the narrow streets, buzzing with a strand of jazz music here, vibrant dancing there, and well, there was nothing quite like it. It helped me keep going. After spending over a third of my life fighting to be the same as the white man, I often felt like giving up. But times like this, evenings listening to the sounds of the sax pouring through me, reminded me I have an identity. My colour may be dark but my culture is bright. That never lasts for long however.

The ever so familiar sound of ‘authority’ rang in my ears, megaphone making the voice resonate and bury even further under my skin. I guess the peaceful approach was finally fading. There was a time when I would’ve run forward to join the fight, but as I aged my ideas aged too. I see what we are lacking in peace, but violence certainly won’t even it out. So for that week, we sheltered in our meagre flat, allowing the uproar to pass as we listened to shrilling screams and wild window smashing, hoses blasting and lamenting sirens. The cities that we built began to be torn down by us. 

The clouds were selfish tonight: they absorbed the sky, leaving faint trails of pink and blue in their wake, lined by the frayed trees. The silence is cut as my daughter runs onto the porch, hair stuck to her face from salty tears, “He’s done it again, dad!” And I looked forward to my remaining years, as I saw a black man, just like me, sitting at the same desk as Johnson did when he granted us our freedom, and signed America into his hands. 


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