The Negro’s mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.
-Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro, 1933
Our ideas of danger and safety, like love and hate, are transient and move with us wherever we go. Nothing is more dangerous than the idea of safety, and our obsession with preserving it. The irony about this danger is that it manifests itself in people who have not been threatened in the ways they’ve imagined—but in more proximate ways, ways they aren’t even aware of. Today, the one year anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin, I am reminded about who was really in danger that night. And it makes me think about my own safety in a different way.
A friend of mine expressed that he wanted to move to Brooklyn and asked me if it was safe for him to move to Bedford-Stuyvesant. In all of my years living in Bed-Stuy I had never heard of a person not already living in Bed-Stuy express a desire to move here—especially a white person. People were proud of being from Bed-Stuy, but that was only after they were able to get out. But I realized that my friend was not alone.
Out of the blue, there were white people moving into the very neighborhood that we were encouraged to move out of. People were working their whole lives to get away from Bed-Stuy and yet, he wanted to live here. I wasn’t interested in knowing why he wanted to move to Brooklyn, I knew why: white kids think black people are cool. From the mouths of my white friends, black people are cool because they’re threatening. And by living in a neighborhood that was considered a threat, they too would be threatening. This I knew so I wasn’t interested in why he wanted to move to Bed-Stuy. I was more interested about why he felt it wouldn’t be safe for him.
“Why do you think it’d be dangerous for you?”
“I don’t know, the way people have described it. People getting robbed and stuff… Isn’t the slogan in Bed-Stuy ‘Do or Die’?”
I laughed at the question. Not because his question was a light-hearted matter, but because his question weighed so heavy on my heart, only laughter could lift the burden of having to answer his question. It became my duty to explain to him just how safe it was for him to move to Bed-Stuy.
“What you don’t realize is that it you would be safer in my neighborhood than I am.”
“Because they don’t know you. They know me; they know that I know the rules. If they robbed me, they know no one would care and they know that I know this so there’s a good chance that I would not call the police. If they even touched you, without you having to say anything, the police retaliation would be crazy. They would just leave you alone.”
He didn’t seem to care about what was happening to me. He was just relieved that nothing would happen to him. This brought me back to my summer at Columbia.
I attended summer school there and I realized that, in my attendance, I was not there. What I mean to say is that I did not exist to the people at Columbia—at least, not in the way I was used to existing. At white institutions I was used to people paying attention to me and it was no secret why: it was because I was black. There was always a silent amalgamation of fear and wonder for my skin, which I became used to. White people were usually shocked that I was wherever they were. This was especially true when I occupied the same space that insinuated we were equals; their faces were beyond their control in asking, “How did you make it here?” But Columbia University was different altogether.
The white people there did not care less about my presence. They were neither afraid nor curious. They weren’t surprised. They figured that if I was at Columbia, regardless of how I got there, I belonged there. What I mean is that they left me completely alone. There were no security guards rushing up to me badgering me about my ID, the students were not intimidated about where I came from, and people who worked in the school, from faculty to staff, never once made me feel like I didn’t belong there. “What is wrong with everyone?” I said to myself. Had twilight made it so dark on Morningside Heights that no one could see me? Or were people refusing to look? Either way, I made it my business to be seen.
Whenever someone was going into a building, I’d rush ahead of them and open the door—hoping they would say something. Anyone who seemed to be lost, I felt it my duty to help them even if I did not know how—anything to prove that I belonged there. It was never implied that I didn’t deserve to be here—nor did I feel that way– and yet, to prove to myself that I belonged, here I was acting like a nigger. I got angry, real quick. What angered me more than how quickly I became a nigger, was how instinctual it was for me to do it. Being a nigger felt natural.
“What the fuck am I doing?” I thought to myself. Immediately it started to make sense why I was invisible at Columbia. As long as I was worried about how I looked, no one else would have to. Security guards would not have to harass me for ID because my ID would be out from the time I got off the train. Other students would not be intimidated about where I was from because I would assure them how safe it was for them–even if it wasn’t safe for me. Faculty and staff would not have to make me feel like I didn’t belong because I would go above and beyond to prove I did. Columbia would not have to make me feel black because that would be my job—and because I was good at it, I proved I belonged there.
Because of Columbia I understand what power is. Power is not coercion; it is cooperation. The eye does not have to see for the spirit to feel. Although Columbia is in Harlem, power wills that there is no Harlem in Columbia. Rather than walk through, the people of Harlem are more comfortable with walking around Columbia to get to the other side because they know where they don’t belong. Power does not have to use a camera for people to get the picture. Power is the reason Columbia isn’t even considered Harlem but, instead, Morningside Heights—and more recently “an extension of the Upper West Side.” Without ever having to speak, power is already heard.
“You mean Stuyvesant Heights?”
“Stuyvesant Heights? Who told you that?”
“I heard that’s what they’re changing it to.”
There was a time when I didn’t believe in the proverbial “they.” I do now. Whoever this “they” is, “they” are the reason why rent—cheaper for white people who can’t afford to live in Manhattan—is becoming increasingly expensive for people who have lived in Brooklyn their whole lives. “They” are the reason the police are now on every corner on Malcolm X. I know “they” aren’t here for me. Had that been the case (if “they” had been here for me) I would feel safer, but I don’t. They’re here to make sure that those kids, who thought Bed-Stuy was threatening, call their friends and are able to say, “It’s safe for you to move here, it’s affordable and the people are so nice—nothing like I thought.” Slowly but surely the people who lived here their whole lives no longer know where they are and the people who are just moving here are telling you, “You’re not in Bed-Stuy anymore—they’ve changed it a long time ago. You’re in Stuyvesant Heights.” And the only thing you can say is, “So I’ve heard.”
There could be, after all, a far-reaching safety in not knowing your place. I just know that not knowing your place is where the danger lies.
–Yahdon Israel, Live from Bed-Stuy.