Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia Starbucks before they ordered. The store manager called the police on them. The police arrested them for trespassing. This did not happen in the pre-Civil Rights days. This is very recent. How do you get arrested for trespassing in a public place? In We Speak for Ourselves, D. Watkins calls this a “Black Tax.” He says that such incidents happen over and over again and, unfortunately, not many go viral. The ability to spread these incidents far and wide via social media is one of our best remedies at this moment. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a great tool and a step in the right direction.
Most people in the United States believe that racism is a thing of the past. It is very often said that slavery was so long ago! And the Emancipation Proclamation was issued 155 years ago. But, D. Watkins strongly disagrees with this premise. He says that things may not be as bad as 155 years ago but a lot needs to be done. He argues, after slavery came the Black Codes, a set of laws passed in many southern states during 1865 and 1866 that placed limitations on black freedom. Some of the laws prohibited black people from owning firearms, voting, gathering in groups of worship, and learning to read and write. Blacks then suffered from the separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws that dominated until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
Many would still argue that all this is old news. We did elect a black president with the perfect teeth, and he served two terms, which means that equality is finally real. D. Watkins argues that this does not prove the argument. Soon after the second term of President Obama came to an end, the Americans elected an openly racist president who assembled a staff that is outright racist or turns a blind eye to racists. Chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow hosted a publisher of white nationalist literature at an event, and Darren Beattie, a Trump speechwriter resigned after news surfaced that he had attended a conference for white nationalists. Someone painted “NIGGER” on LeBon James’ Los Angeles property: someone painted “Kill Niggers” on the African Burial Ground Monument, which has been described a “sacred space in Manhattan” by the National Park Service; and a white employee in Philadelphia’s US Mint building placed a noose in a black employee’s work station.
Watkins says that he is not rich enough to be disconnected from his roots but popular enough to get a few invites to private parties and events with top black thinkers, celebrity protestors (this is a real thing), and the rest of the mouthpieces for the contemporary black experience in America. Many of the people at these functions don’t associate with black people who aren’t famous. Hence their narratives are lopsided. D. Watkins writes, “Many of these narratives don’t tie into a big part of the black experience in this county, which is wrong on an extremely profound level.”
We Speak for Ourselves, is an eye-opening, spine-chilling account of racism in America. It is an indictment of the American history and culture written in the voices and language of the victims. Unlike many other African-American celebrities, D. Watkins lives close to African-American reality and has not broken links with his past which makes him a credible voice on the questions of racism and the problems African Americans face in today’s America. As the editor-at-large for Salon and a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project, he brings new perspectives and nuances to the debate on racism in America. D. Watkins is a powerful voice for civil rights. We Speak for Ourselves is beautifully written and meticulously researched.