What does it mean to be a witness?

I raise my brown hand in a cinema of white faces. This is one of those rare instances where I feel extremely black, whatever that means.

I don’t have the answer, my puzzled identity only allowing me to answer questions with more questions.

We have just finished watching the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro and are now in a Q & A session with academics who can tell me all about Baldwin and the black experience. It should be noted that all three of these academics, hair soft enough to fall in front of their faces and gangly legs tucked up underneath each other in a neoliberal posture, were white.

All of them make good points, and I nod in agreement but get lost in their words. Their own nods express a comprehension even though they struggle to find the right words.

The woman says “Nigger” out loud. I flinch.

We are all witnesses witnessing a history of witnesses. Witness. I ponder the word. It implies passivity.

How can you sit there and drink in histories of racial hatred and human suffering like you drink your second glass of wine?

I wonder what they feel when they see the names TrayvvonMartinTamirRiceSandraBlandMichaelBrown

I can’t breathe. Can you? Is it hot in here or is it just me?

When you see footage of a white man spitting at a black woman do you feel the hot saliva dripping down the back of your neck and seeping through your veins?

If you look closely, you’ll see the markings of where my father was lynched. And his father. And his father. And his father.

It must feel great to roll around in the mud knowing you can get in the shower. Cool off, you deserve it.

When you hear a gunshot, do you turn around? Do you feel the death of a thousand Negroes right down into your very soul? Breathing your last words By Any Means Necessary before you close your eyes?

“Do you think an individual has more potential to influence social change as a witness or as an active participant?” I ask

She likes my question. I feel pleased that I have pleased my oppressor.

She says it is a good question and would be curious to hear my response.

Suddenly, light flashes before my eyes. Another film is beginning to play. A man on a bicycle is singing happily. The sound eclipses the darkness.

I am silenced. People leave. I walk to the train station alone and consider buying cigarettes, menthols specifically because I want to start a habit. I ring my Dad who pretends to speak in a thick, Jamaican accent. I need to keep my mouth occupied to stop the words from spilling out.

Later, I scream into my pillow that is not satin so my hair chafes against it because that is the only way to articulate what I could not sit in the cinema with the wine drinkers we-may-as-well-go-its-something-to-do-on-a-Friday-night-I-heard-good-things-about-it-on-Facebook-Baldwin-this-and-Baldwin-was-a-homosexual-don’t-you-know.

Who cares what I had to say anyway? I’m just a witness.


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