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My great-great-grandfather Ernest Barber Sr. was born in Catawba, South Carolina on April 15, 1889. His grandfather was born in 1845, and his grandmother in 1830. They, too, lived, worked, and died in Catawba, but they were born into slavery. Ernest Barber Sr. died in 1976.
I was born in January 1979.
Slavery in America is only a few generations away from all of us—in my case, its direct reach extends to three years prior to my birth. Most Americans mark their birth year by a TV show they remember, or a popular song. I mark it by how far away slavery was from my body.
My mother grew up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a 25-minute drive south of Charlotte. She and her siblings worked as second-generation sharecroppers, a form of legalized slavery that occurred after the Civil War, during Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era. It’s a system that “allowed” African Americans to farm land for a landowner. A quota was usually set on the quantity of the harvest, which “allowed” the workers to be paid. If the quota was not met, workers would accumulate a debt that needed to be repaid, in their lifetime or the next—all while paying a rental fee for farm equipment “provided” by the landowner.
Sharecropping enabled Southern White Americans to maintain their superior status. These superiorities weren’t just financial—they were social, and in most cases, spiritual. During this time, many African Americans were constantly working off debt, which meant very few obtained wealth or owned real estate. Because debt was accrued, more work had to be done—and so the situation persisted over generations.
As a result, many children were deprived of education, and forced to leave school after the eighth or ninth grade. Families needed all hands on deck to work against that debt.
In addition to stress and back-breaking labor on that front, add in terror in the form of lynchings, beatings, and overall disenfranchisement of people of color for just being people of color. Leading the call for these actions, many times, was law enforcement, with the intent to maintain “social order” and to sow fear among the communities. The property that police now protect used to include my people.
On May 25, 2020—just three months after Ahmaud Arbery was killed on February 23, 2020, and a little under two months since Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police on March 13, 2020—a Minneapolis police officer saw fit to set his dead-weight on George Floyd’s neck as he was hand-cuffed over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.
The American experiment includes an indoctrinated system of hatred for people of color. Like the code of a virus, it replicates into every cell of our society’s body.
There will be statements from people who are not Black and brown seeking that one needle in a stack of needles to use as justification for the officer’s actions. “Cops are just doing their jobs”; “Maybe the guy shouldn’t have resisted”; “It’s a bad neighborhood”; or, my favorite, “Not all cops are bad”—statements that offer nothing close to empathy, sympathy, or even a basic human acknowledgement of “That’s bullshit!”
We internalize that silence. We add a few more logs to that fire. We boil that pot a little longer and we add another loss to the many already accumulated over the years. Now many of us feel we shouldn’t trust anyone who isn’t us.
Elders are held to a very high rank in the Black community, particularly women. Led by their voices of wisdom, we work to remove that distrust like weeds from a field, even as new ones are daily planted. We eliminate feelings of hate that have been at a steady rise since that first cargo of Africans arrived in America in 1619. We still open our homes to strangers. I think of Mother Emanuel in Charleston, the church where I was baptized, and where Dylann Roof murdered nine worshippers who welcomed him to their Bible study group on June 17, 2015. Where I was raised, we receive Gullah/Geechee parables from the ones who’ve also experienced these trials: “God watches over babies and fools,” or “Every frog praise ee own pond.”
Yet, as I write, I feel like I’m going batshit crazy, and I can’t see a better moment at the end of this. My faith in others to see the humanity within me, my son, my wife, and all other descendants of Africans like us is teetering. I’m fucking angry, I’m frustrated, I’m confused, and I’m scared shitless. For the first time, I’m at a point in my life where I’m not afraid of dying—something I’ve always been preparing for. My fear is losing my wife or my son to the hands of a person who would refuse to see their humanity and worth.
It’s deplorable for anyone living in the United States of America in the year 2020 to have these thoughts. It’s unfair for me to have to explain to my son when he is of age and size that he is no longer cute little JoJo. I will have to say to him, “Son, you are now a perceived threat to society—here’s how you must carry yourself.” This is his reality. This is my reality. This is my father’s reality, and was his reality when he gave me the same talk at age 11.
In the throes of all the emotions of being Black in America, add more anxiety in the form of COVID-19. Yet, even within the confines of quarantine, racism against and disenfranchisement of African Americans have reared their ugly heads again. People of color are contracting the virus at alarming rates due to preexisting conditions, which can directly be linked to slavery and the effects of Jim Crow laws.
But who wants to hear that? I’m sure these may all sound like excuses because “slavery happened so long ago.” “Systemic” is such a harsh word. It breeds privilege for those who can manipulate it for generational gain, and leaves others in generational struggles just to get footing. Slavery in this country was legally ending just as many of our colleges, hospitals, and other institutions were being established. They’re all built on the same foundations.
Parenthood, COVID-19, and being Black in the face of law enforcement? That’s some cold shit to deal with all at once. As a parent alone, I could seek help from any person. But as a person of color, I could scream as loudly as possible about the help I may need without getting a response. I could also, in that same breath, be shot for misinterpreted aggression—as was the case with Jonathan Ferrell, who was killed on September 14, 2013.
This is my reality. This is my wife’s reality, as well as our two-year-old son’s. I will not disown my anxieties, but I will continue to survive. I will continue to express my love for humanity and all its differences.
Five years ago I was thrown into the craft beer industry after my homie and I had a small idea about creating a beer- and travel-focused digital platform. Since then, I’ve worked in a few breweries, and I’ve made tons of friends. I’m fortunate to be aligned with an industry where I am vastly underrepresented, yet ironically always feel accepted. Still, my anxiety peeks its head out, nudging me to become a Certified Cicerone. Sure, it’s a noble title to have, but for the only Black guy in a room full of beer fans, I feel it’s a chance for me to be heard in a way my white peers automatically enjoy simply by virtue of their presence.
Most of my friends in the industry don’t look like me, don’t face the same anxieties I face, and may know little about how it feels to be “the only one in the room” all the time. For me, working in breweries has reassured me of the good in humanity. Still, the realities my people face en masse are pitted against the realities I face as an individual trying to make my way in the world and find positive spaces—a form of dissonance that can be hard to resolve.
Currently, there is smoke rising above many cities across the country, and many thousands, if not millions, of people have taken to the streets all over the world—all in protest of the most recent lynching of Mr. George Floyd. I’ve shed a few tears seeing all the faces that don’t look like mine who are on the front lines, and at seeing businesses in various industries taking a stand and choosing to be on the right side of history.
I feel I can live with my life being hell. I can deal with the anxieties of pandemics, racism, and parenthood all at once. But what I can’t live with is leaving gas in the tank in my attempt to make a better life for Joseph Satchel Lemon. I want to teach him how to love his neighbor and strangers, but most importantly, I want to teach him to love himself—even in the face of ignorance.
Words, Jamaal LemonIllustrations, Colette Holston