My Pain Isn’t Just ‘Black’ — It’s American, Just Like Yours

If our fellow Americans saw us as Americans — as equals, and not as Black people first — they wouldn’t need to ask what we want. To quote James Baldwin: You know exactly what I want.

Early Monday morning in Louisville, just after midnight, standing in the parking lot of a local convenience store called Dino’s Food Mart, the Kentucky National Guard, who’d been called in by the state’s Democratic governor to keep the peace, watched as local police shot and killed a 53-year-old business owner. The restaurateur was standing close to his place of business (YaYa’s BBQ) at the time. He wasn’t endangering anyone and was connected politically, a close personal friend of the Louisville Metro Council president. In fact, like the police, he was there to ensure his business wasn’t destroyed in the face of the city’s “civic unrest” and civil rights protests of the death of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman also wrongfully shot dead by the police. 

There is, though, one detail that ought to help make sense of this entrepreneur’s death: David McAtee was a Black man

Which, of course, is further evidence that — no matter what he built or owned, how successful he’d become or who he knew in the community — the only thing that really mattered was the color of his skin. And as with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Taylor and an inexcusable number of other Black people, McAtee’s premature death was due to this pre-existing condition, which was used to justify the violent anti-Blackness of his sworn protectors. 

Now, too, we’re learning that of the Louisville police officers who were responding to the protest with orders to disperse it, not a single officer was wearing an operational body cam. Not one. They all had them turned off. Which suggests they planned to break up the protest of a wrongful death at the hands of the police and not document how they did so. This only came to light because they ended up killing one of their fellow citizens instead. 

From the moment when he was shot and killed by police, until Monday afternoon, McAtee’s body was left lying outside on the ground. Left out in the sun and elements. The reason given was that it had now become forensic evidence. Essentially, his bullet-laden corpse was the best chance McAtee had to get justice for his murder. 

This continues to happen: Black people being killed by the same people who take an oath to protect and serve Americans. The thing is, we’re Americans, too. This injustice, then, is happening to Americans.

My man James Baldwin — who you should definitely be reading at this critical juncture of American history — was quick to point out that he was an American. He was an American who was also a Black man. He didn’t see a contradiction in those terms. He was actively both. John F. Kennedy was Irish, Catholic and just as American as Baldwin. Yet, we all know that Black Americans aren’t seen as Americans, not fully at least. There’s always that hidden asterisk that applies to Black *Americans (*some exclusions may apply). 

It’s most evident when our fellow Americans ask us what it is we want. If our fellow Americans saw us as Americans — as their equals, and not as Black people first and foremost — they wouldn’t need to ask this question because they’d know what we want: the same things that every American wants. The problem is, what we want is incumbent not on us changing, but on other people changing.

“Your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history, in the name of your gods, in the name of your language,” Baldwin told Esquire in 1968. “That’s why you keep saying, ‘What does the Negro want?’ It’s a summation of your own delusions, the lies you’ve told yourself. You know exactly what I want!” 

I don’t have time to convince someone that they’re the problem only to have them deny it, not while my people are dying. I don’t have time to go ‘round and ‘round about if they’re to blame. Instead, I want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them and look at what we must fix together. Because I’m looking to save American lives, and I’m only willing to discuss how we do that. Besides, if you and I are both Americans, that should be solid common ground.

If that doesn’t inspire patriotism, then what good is it? If you tell me to believe in voting — to believe in the fact I’m an American, and that I have a voice as such — don’t be surprised when I use that voice to demand that whoever is killing Americans must stop that at once. 

I am an American, and I will be treated like one.