The United Negro College Fund is known by its famous slogan, “The mind is a terrible thing to waste.” While it is formally attached to the UNCF, this evocative motto, created more than 40 years ago, speaks to a larger dynamic: the sacred space that is the mind among minority sectors in the United States, especially among African Americans.
Throughout history, black men have possessed a distrust and disdain for those in the medical profession. (Many can attest to hearing their father, grandfather, or uncle state, “I’m not going to no doctor;” “All they’re trying to do is kill me;” “What do they know that I don’t?”) When thinking of the reasons this might be, my mind recalls the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment conducted by the U.S. government on black men in Tuskegee, Ala., from 1932-1972. In this experiment, black men were injected with the syphilis virus, given no treatment, and left as test dummies for the benefit of white men.
Years later, then-President Bill Clinton issued an apology to the nation, concentrated on those impacted, for the U.S. government's role in the murder of hundreds of black men in Tuskegee.
Recently, our country witnessed the killing of 17 individuals in Parkland, Fla. Since this tragedy, we have seen protests across the nation: victims protesting the Florida legislature in Tallahassee, meetings with Donald Trump, a forum on CNN between students and current Members of Congress, the March For Our Lives, and more. All warranted, justified, and worthy of the support of American citizens as we band together against assault rifles and in favor of gun reform.
Yet for many African Americans, while support has been rendered, eyebrows have been raised. We think back to Ferguson. Our minds recall Baltimore. We reflect on the vilification of black teens and young adults in New York and New Orleans. Where was all the support for “us” when we were calling for reform?
The deaths of Mike Brown, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and others sparked national outrage, not among all people, but among black and brown people. It’s a reality we know, and have known all too well. As a black man growing up in America, you’re given “the talk” by your parents on the do’s and don’ts during a police encounter. Put your hands on the steering wheel; don’t move; answer “yes sir” or “no sir”; be polite; don’t respond or react suddenly … the list goes on. But this does not guarantee you’ll come out alive. Case in point: Philando Castile, a law-abiding citizen pulled over by a cop for what he believed was a non-functioning tail light, shot and killed before his fiancé and daughter as he was reaching for his license and registration. Orders followed, and still murdered at the hands of police.
What does this violence do to the minds of black boys and men? What does this do to the minds of black girls and women? What does this do to the minds of black people at large?
I could continue with stories like Castile’s into infinity. But we must address the question at hand. And the answer is simple but complicated.
The simple answer to what this does to the sacred mind is: fear and anger. Fear, that at any moment as a black man your life can be taken, with or without cause. Anger, because what else do we have to do to prove our humanity here in the nation our ancestors built, fought, and have continued to fight since day one?
And the complex answer is itself more questions: When will it end? How, what if, can we, will we ever, when?
The late James Baldwin wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” No, this does not mean picking up something and throwing it. No, this does not mean picking up a weapon and killing an individual. No, this does not mean to go out and burn everything down.
Yet it does mean that at every turn, we’re asking, “What the hell? Again?”
What it does mean is that when we fight it’s dismissed, but when it happens to “them,” suddenly it’s life-changing.
Whether it’s a mass shooting, drugs, crime, education or what-have-you — the situation of the Negro, the plight of African Americans, is secondary to that of the white majority. And as a minority in America, that causes the mind to no longer stay sacred. Disillusion and displeasure seep into the very space which one is to control.
The media’s coverage of current youth-led protests of the killings of Parkland students is damning in comparison to the coverage they rendered during the youth-led protests of the killings of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray. Despicable terms like “thugs," “hoods,” and “miscreants” were placed on young black people who’d had enough, who were tired of being treated as second class citizens.
The space known as the mind was penetrated and damaged. Black people could no longer maintain clear head space, clouded now with anger and disdain.
How can this cease from occurring, when the images of neglect and dismissal continue to flow before our eyes daily?
And to think, we went from Obama to Trump, in what conservatives like to call a “post-racial society.”
The sacred space of the mind in black men and women in 2018 must be reclaimed, reexamined, recalibrated, and reignited for the fight that is ours. The sacred space of the mind must be armed, prepared, and fit for battle. The sacred space of the mind must be, always, encouraged and reminded of the victories that have occurred and will occur. The sacred space of the mind must be maintained and unapologetic in its sanctity and vigilance. The sacred space of the mind must be authentic and sincere to who you are and whose you are.
The sacred space of the mind must be so, so that, as the late Rosa Parks so fittingly said, “…That when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”