A Writer On Being A Black Man In Minnesota

Jun 25, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Over the last two weeks, three police officers have avoided conviction in the fatal shootings of black men. A day after Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted for killing Philando Castille, Man Booker Prize-winning writer Marlon James offered his thoughts on being a black man in Minnesota. He's originally from Jamaica but has been teaching at Macalester College in St. Paul for the past 10 years. His essay is titled "Smaller, And Smaller And Smaller," and it's gone viral. Marlon James joins us now from his office in Minneapolis. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARLON JAMES: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is it about this moment that made you want to write this so directly?

JAMES: I think it was the frustration and the familiarity, the fact that this is not the first, second, third, fourth, fifth or tenth time that this has happened. And it's funny 'cause I don't walk around with a sense of dread. But it occurred to me how easily I could've matched the description of something else or someone else and how easily I could be dead because we're now in a situation where cops in the company of seven or eight still feel threatened by a guy several feet over with his hands up.

So we're just kind of not sure where to go. We don't know what to do. We don't know how to stand. We don't know how to sit. We don't know how to speak. We just don't know what to do other than sit back and just hope this will pass.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you mentioned, there just seems to be a moment of, what do we do? How can this change?

JAMES: Well it's like what Claudia Rankine says in "Citizen." You know, until our white brothers and sisters start policing their own imaginations, then these will continue to happen. One thing we forget - and funnily enough, it was a policeman who pointed this out - for nearly every situation where the cops show up, there is somebody who called. There's a person calling and saying there's a thief breaking into his house. There's a person who looks at somebody who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years and say they think some black guy is lurking around.

And we don't talk about people policing their own imaginations before the police show up and escalate it. And I think that's something we have to look at, as well. Who are these people making these calls? Who are these people saying they feel threatened? I think nobody gets off the hook.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this essay, you really talk about Northern white culture. And you pull a quote from Dick Gregory. He says "Down South, white folks don't care how close I get as long as I don't get too big. Up North, white folks don't care how big I get as long as I don't get too close." That seems to be speaking to what you're talking about.

JAMES: That - yeah, I mean that, in a lot of ways, was the impetus for the whole essay, I guess. What I see here is a lot of what I call the dude-I-don't-see color problem. The problem being colorblind - the problem being, I don't think about race - is that you never see the absence of it. So if you're at a party of a hundred people in 2017, and everybody's white, that's a pretty messed up party. I don't care where you are.

I still think Northerners feel they have a sort of moral advantage over the South. At least they fought on the right side. And it's weird that we're still talking about North and South and Civil War and all of that. But I think there's a certain belief, certainly among the North, that a lot of the stuff about race they've dealt with. And they really haven't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's been the reaction to your essay?

JAMES: Well, the reaction for some people has been, you know, surprise and sadness and sometimes outright shock. I think, sometimes, even though I am black, I think because I have a certain level of academic privilege or because I'm well known that maybe these things would have escaped me. And for the most part, they do. But that doesn't change that when I jump on the road, I'm riding my bike. I'm wearing my worn-down T-shirt and shorts. I'm just another person on the road.

I also think that there is a kind of guilt, I guess, because this is not the first time they're hearing what I'm saying. They've heard it from other people who say it every time somebody's killed or victims don't get justice. The question is, when do we stop talking and start to work towards change. And to a huge extent, mainstream Americans, white Americans have a big role to play in that.

I think there is this kind of idea that communities of color have this major role to play in the end of discrimination. That's like saying women have a role to play in erasing rape. They don't. Men need to stop raping. It's a very tricky thing - still waiting on guidance from the victim or potential victim on how to move forward. I think people need to start thinking about what to do instead of asking victims how to do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marlon James is the author of "A Brief History Of Seven Killings," which won the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Thank you so much for joining us.

JAMES: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNBITE OF LRKR'S "CHILEAN SUNSET"") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.