I began work on 'wishful thinking' on March 2, 2000 after having revealed to my students my lack of surprise around the acquittal of the officers who shot Amadou Diallo to death. I knew, intellectually, that I had to work against the notion that black people were expendable. Part of me, though, wanted to curl up and nod to myself, "I thought that’s what would happen." My students’ disappointment cut out at me from their eyes. I knew that I had to do something. I began to write, trying to find the words to speak to my anger that would also counter the ideas that enabled the killing and acquittal to happen.
During the time of my writing, Keith and I had the fortune to meet sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp, whose work has always moved me, but whose presence during this time was also a gift. We had fruitful discussions with Sokari Douglas Camp about being black in England and the US and about our responses to our nations as three individuals. She spoke about the antagonistic relationship African-Americans seemed to have with the United States. Douglas Camp was affected by the hopelessness she encountered in North Carolina. It was as if she had to work to shake the sense of doom she perceived. At the same time, her hope and joy was also infectious. Her presence was a gift in many ways, but particularly in that her positive energy made me think that the life I want to lead is possible.
She reminded me of my friend Alyson Jones (now Jackson), who used to warn her friends: "thoughts are things." The negative words we speak, she taught, add to the negative energy we encounter in the world. Words are tangible vibrations, and should not be taken lightly. We must choose our words carefully, because if we choose wrong our words can worsen a situation. If we choose right, however, our words can create a way out of no way.
In Karla Holloway’s Codes of Conduct, there is another reminder of the force of our actions. She warns: "not all of our children come with the resilience it takes to survive color in America." She describes how her Michigan community responded to the murders of black children in Atlanta in 1981 by placing black armbands on the children:
Our purpose had been to help them understand their membership in a national community of African Americans who cared about our common dangers. To display their kinship to the Atlanta children. To indicate to an urban community far removed from Atlanta that we too were vigilant, and wary. We wanted our children to know of our activist history and their legacy and to feel secure in the presence of their parents and community elders. We could not guess, nor did we anticipate that some of them could feel dangerously vulnerable and could come to associate that vulnerability and fear with the color of their skin (140,141.)
Far too often, the response to the dangers we face as black people in the United States works in this way. In the effort to display our common concern in the face of our common dangers, sometimes our actions end up making some of us feel more vulnerable.
On March 7, I stood on the steps of the chapel at Duke University with some of my own students and others from the Black Students’ Association for a memorial service for Diallo. In the distance, I spotted a man dressed in black, wearing a sign on his stomach with a picture of Diallo and the word "target" written on it. His hair and mouth were covered, leaving just enough room to see his eyes and brown skin. I understood this action as a way of forcing onlookers to deal with the vulnerability of being black in an environment in which your right to live is placed below other people’s right to fear you and kill you based on that fear. Even so, when I saw the man with the word "target" across his chest it felt like acceptance rather than a form of resistance. As for me, the sight of a black person physically marked as a target is an image I wish I could erase from my memory. I mourn for all of us who have internalized how others see us so much so that all we can do is give those images back.
My sadness over Diallo’s unnecessarily spilled blood and the sense that his death was the latest but not the last of a long series of events were part of the apathy and desperation I had been feeling since his death. The acquittal of the officers only added to the heaviness I felt. By the time I went to the memorial service, I had already started writing, but the event reinforced the feeling I had going into the writing that my words could not re-open barely healing wounds only to leave them open. My task would be to face the horror that so many people act with the belief that black lives are worthless without reinscribing this worthlessness in my writing.
I have written one thought to counteract each bullet fired at Amadou Diallo. There are three kinds of thoughts presented here, all of them are meant to replace an idea that violates humanity with an idea that acknowledges humanity. All of these thoughts are in the present tense, though I am writing for a kind of future-present. One kind of thought is an acknowledgment of things that are. These are things I know and love about real individuals, groups of people, or people in general. Another kind of thought is an acknowledgment of things that can be. These are things that may not be true for the people I have in mind at the time of writing, but may be true by the time someone reads my words. The last kind of thought is more obviously addressed to individuals or specific groups of people. I will not say that they are things that are not or things that cannot be for the people I have in mind. For these thoughts, my act of writing is not about the truthfulness of the statement, but rather, about rejecting a negative force, refusing to be marked by the words. This third kind of thought is also in some ways lumped into the second kind of thought. With the belief that "thoughts are things" and the understanding that I send my words to the future, I also think that for some reader from some time, these things can be.
My final thought is about forty one. The number of bullets is so memorable,
so talked about, because it tells us how intent the shooters were on killing
Diallo and that he had no chance of survival in that situation. At the
memorial service (it was more like a memorial protest, memorial performance)
at Duke University, we simply counted to forty one. It exhausted me. Forty
one is a lot of bullets. I chose to write down forty-one ideas to underscore
this point. I had no idea, however, how long, how many forty one was going
to be until I began to write. It was frightfully difficult to write down
forty one things. Writing this, then typing this, then editing the html
for this made me feel like it was an endurance project. Every time I got
tired, I had to remember why the number was purposeful. I encourage you
to do something forty-one times for the experience.
This text is in memory of Amadou Diallo, whom I never knew, and dedicated to black people who survive him. It is especially for the students who made me write, in honor of the necessity of their lives: Thaniyyah Ahmad, Abena Antwi, Troy Austin, Izoduwa Ebose, Hillary Fowler, Chevon Haswell, Kevin Lewis, Johnnie Lyles, Gladys Mitchell, Julia Mitchell, Akil Ross, Jamyon Smalls, Zeporah Sykes, and Gideon Thompson.
mendi lewis obadike