Smaller and smaller. And smaller.

This just crossed my desktop. Want to make some “sense” of the Philander Castile catastrophe? Want to see Minnesota through the eyes of a relatively well-known black person who lives here and “should” be exempt from the casual and pervasive daily racism of Minnesota Nice? This brief essay will help you understand—just a little— what it must be like to live in a state that demands that its POC stay small.

by Marlon James

There are some Minnesotans who want to rebrand this state as North. It’s become something of a movement, and I can’t help but think how apt that is. Because we are the most northern of the north, especially in the many fucked up ways the state views and acts on issues of race, and not just in asserting that second amendment rights were only meant for white people. But Minnesota’s call for “north” status reminds me of legendary comedian Dick Gregory’s take on American racism, still the most succinct and dead on analysis of race in American society I have ever read. He wrote in a 1971 issue of Ebony:

“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.”

Which for me always meant that in the south, white people can look back at their own personal cast of The Help, with genuine affection, but if Viola goes and opens a beauty salon for white people, we’re surely going to burn that motherfucker down. While in the North, Viola will get all sorts of grants to set up shop, just don’t set up in our neighbourhood and drive the property values down, and don’t be surprised when an officer beats down your husband because though we met him seven times already, he was still the threatening black guy lurking around the neighbourhood and not opening the door to his own fucking house.

But I should have known that a man as wise as Gregory meant so much more. And I did not realize until just now, that big can mean literally big, and close can mean 20 feet away, and how 10 years of living in Minnesota as a “big, black guy” has led me to a gradual though futile “reduction” of myself to get closer. I have a big global voice, but a small local one, because I don’t want to be a target, and resent that in 2017, that’s still the only choice I get to have. I have a rule of leaving the party, or social space as soon as I see five white people drunk, because the only person who will remember that moment when everybody got hella racist will be me. I have a self-imposed curfew of when to ride my bike home, when to leave the park. I would rather risk my life riding late at night on the empty and mostly dark greenway, than riding on the street with Police officers looking for whoever matches a description. I go out of my way to avoid police, because I don’t know how to physically act around them. Do I hold my hands in the air and get shot, Do I kneel and get shot? Do I reach for my ID and get shot? Do I say I’m an English teacher and get shot? Do I tell them everything I am about to do, and get shot? Do I assume than seven of them will still feel threatened by one of me, and get shot? Do I simply stand and be big black guy and get shot? Do I fold my arms and squeeze myself into smaller and get shot? Do I be a smartass and get shot? Do I leave my iPhone on a clip of me on Seth Meyers, so I can play it and say, see, that’s me. I’m one of the approved black guys. And still get shot?

And when I do get shot and killed, do black and brown people take it as a given that the cop will get off, tune out of the story from this point, and leave the outrage at the inevitable verdict to white people? Because white people still look at fear of black skin as one of their rights, and god help you if that skin moves. Because cops, the lethal arm of this society, along with neighborhood watchdogs, and white neighbors with phones, get the privilege to always act on any fear, no matter how ridiculous, and society always gives them the benefit of the doubt and the not guilty verdict. Because brewing fresh outrage every morning is not a privilege people of colour get to have. The situations that cause outrage never go away for us. It never stuns us, never comes out of the blue. We don’t get to be appalled because only people expecting better get appalled.

Because get big but don’t get close, also means don’t be “big, black guy,” and I remember one of the reasons I worked out to lose weight, was to not be big black guy. Get big but don’t get close, also means it doesn’t matter how famous I get in this city, because cops probably don’t read, don’t listen to liberal bullshit on MPR, so don’t get close to any of them. Get big, but don’t get close means never dating someone in law enforcement ever, ever, ever. Get big, but don’t get close means, that there are certain neighbourhoods I simply don’t get to walk through at night, because that first scene in Get Out has happened to EVERYBODY. At least don’t go walking without your white friend visa. Get big but don’t get close, means I still feel safer with a white person around, and usually a white woman since they are far more likely to challenge the cop on unconstitutional bullshit while it is happening, (another scene captured perfectly in Get Out) than the white guy, who will be the loudest shouter of how fucked up it all was, as soon as the cops are gone. Not that she is any more woke than white dude, but because the idea that her rights could be punched right back into her own face would never have even occurred to her. But if cops assume that you might be sleeping with her, things could get unspeakably worse.

Get big but don’t get close can mean that even a thin black man complying with the law can still be seen as a justifiable threat.

Get big but don’t get close can mean we’re hearing too much of you, so get your loud, angry voice out of my face, black lady. Get big but don’t get close can sometimes mean don’t get big the way we get big. Or it can literally mean NIMBY. So if it’s Minnesota you run a highway through the Harlem of the Midwest before it could ever have its renaissance, then wonder why if the state is doing so good, how come it’s black people are doing so bad. Get big but don’t get close means everybody is so proud of their liberal credentials, so proud that they don’t see colour, that they never see the absence of it. Because well to see that, one would have to get close.

Get big but don’t get close means that I’m more famous than most people of colour in Minnesota, and yet in ten years I have only four close friends who were born here. In ten years I have only seen the home of five people. And I like to think that I’m insulated by academic privilege, but Skip Gates was fucked with in the North, as was every person Claudia Rankine writes about in Citizen. I would bike to work in full academic regalia if not for police assuming that I probably stole it anyway, and of course, shooting me. I don’t trust law enforcement, even when I need to call on law enforcement, and every person of colour in this city has to deal with the very real possibility that to call for help can mean that you are the one who gets killed. So, white person, I’m sorry but I can’t be the guy who calls the cops when something is happening to you, because their first assumption will be that I’m the guy I called about.

I’ve been through Jamaica in the 70’s and 80’s so I know what it feels like to think the police are simply predisposed to think the worst of you. A friend of mine once bought fully into the idea of black men fed to him by a local cop (They “want” to be in jail, you see) until the night a cop dragged him out of his own home, threw him to the ground and stepped on him. One of the reasons why the word empathy pisses me off, is not that I think it’s impossible, it because I know most white people won’t do the work. You will never know how it feels to realize that it doesn’t matter how many magazines articles I get, or which state names a day after me. Tomorrow when I get on my bike, I am big black guy, who might be shot before the day ends, because my very size will make a cop feel threatened. Or if I’m a woman, my very mouth. And a jury of white people, and people of colour sold on white supremacy will acquit him. And even me hoping for hipster points on my fixed wheel bike, is countered by them thinking I probably stole the bike.

When Jamaican bus conductors want to pack an already full bus, they shout to the passengers to “small up yourself.” I don’t know what to do in this city to get smaller. But as I said in my third paragraph, that’s futile. It’s futile because I’m never the one with the measuring stick.


[Marlon James is a Jamaican writer. He has published three novels: John Crow’s Devil (2005), The Book of Night Women (2009), and A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Now living in Minneapolis, James teaches literature at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.]


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