Georges Perecs’ taxonomy of space in Species of Spaces got me thinking about the spaces I have occupied and/or the spaces I have witnessed.
In America we have separate spaces for Black people and for white people. It is not the era of Jim Crow. It doesn’t have to be. This is America.
I grew up in one of the Black spaces of New York City called Lefrak City. I listened to R&B music and was present for the birth of hip hop. The faces that occupied the spaces around me were Black faces. There were Black matriarchs and Black men. There was Black people’s food: fried chicken and mac and cheese (these are not myths nor stereotypes—they are cuisine that came up North from the South during the Great Migration—which—in itself—was a change of spaces—but I digress). The people in this space, my childhood space, who were in charge, who called the shots, were Black people. I occupied an internal space of Black power and control within a larger space of white dominance. It was like an illusion whose idyllic nature I did not realize until I was older and learned what the space of America truly was.
In 1984, Jesse Jackson ran for President of the United States. I knew the history of Black Americans. In Lefrak City I had a front seat to and was given lessons on the continued oppression of Black people. I imagined, at 13 years old, that if Jesse Jackson won, myself and my family would occupy a small space in some Black family’s home (like Anne Frank in the attack) once Jesse Jackson had the power to obliterate the white oppressor and bring justice to his people. We had many Black friends so I knew we would be okay once the assault began; we would travel from apartment to apartment and live in closets, kept safe by the Black folk who we grew up with, who patted me on the head, fed me from their spoons, and whose children I played with in the streets.
In 2016, I met a Black woman who wanted to marry me and have my child. The space she occupied was a world apart even if we sat or lay side by side. White women were nurturing and friendly to me. They liked me. I made them laugh. White women were her sworn enemy and, at every turn, were planning her destruction. I, unwittingly, unknowingly, and insensitively occupied a space of privilege and she occupied a space two spaces below that privilege—being both Black and female. She threw things at me, very often, from below. She wanted my child hoping the baby would inherit my skin color and my hair texture; she wanted to ensure that her baby did not occupy her space but, rather, could readily slide into my space.
I work in a high school in Harlem New York (a space in NYC that is being invaded via gentrification). My classroom is big. It is decorated with rugs and a growing collection of framed pictures of former students. The walls record the history of the children (a portrait of Malcolm X, a framed newspaper front page of Obama’s victory). There are plants and there is artwork created by myself and students. The space is designed for the Black students I serve. I pick up the garbage in that space. I have seen other classrooms; balls of paper litter the floor, paper hangs ripped off the walls, stacks of student work lay abandoned in piles on the teacher’s desk. Some classrooms are bare—as though the rapture long ago pulled up all he goo students and all the good teachers. These spaces are not meant to teach Black children. These spaces are designed (garbage and papers or empty walls) to say, “YOU DON’T MATTER”.
Last week in America, the Justice Department announced that it would not press charges on Officer Panteleo, the white cop who killed a Black man who was allegedly selling loose cigarettes. The first portion of the explanation as to why no charges were being held was a citing of the size of Mr. Eric Garner versus the size of Panteleo. Eric Garner occupied much much more space. He was a big Black man. A Black man in America is not allowed to occupy so much space: so much height and width—it is imposing to small white men. The Justice Department then transitioned into the hold; according to them, Panteleo only meant to subdue Garner by encircling the space around Garner’s neck. Garner’s size and the space around the two then colluded to turn a subduing gesture into a chokehold as the space between the cop’s forearm and Mr. Garner’s neck dramatically decreased as the two fell and collided with a store window behind them. Most importantly, the Justice Department cited that all eleven times Mr. Garner screamed, “I can’t breathe”, the space around him was clear—no officer was touching him at that point.
This is America.