From Mike Brown To Simone Biles: How Yesterday Exemplified Black America’s Complicated Relationship With America

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

"Complicated" has become a convenient catch-all to describe romantic relationships that seem to defy explanation. So much so that "it's complicated" has become a popular way to synopsize them completely; distilling months, even years of context down to two words.


It's also frequently misused, as many — and perhaps even most — of the relationships summarized this way aren't complicated at all. It's just much easier to say (and hear) "it's complicated" than "he wants to be in a relationship more than I do."

The relationship between Black Americans and our country, however, is so complex and unique so filled with centuries worth of context and nuance and pain and perseverance and strive and survival that "it's complicated" isn't just an accurate answer. It's the best one. The only one. Of course, there's more you can say. But any summation that wished to be historically (and presently) accurate would eventually come back to those two words.

And no 24 hour span in recent memory exemplified and articulated those complications better than August 9th, 2016. Which, at the time of writing, was yesterday.

Yesterday, of course, was the second anniversary of the death of Michael Brown; the 18-year-old shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri by Darren Wilson, a police officer. The memory of his death, as well as the protests and riots (local and national) and reactions and conversations and movements and careers and federal investigations it led to, dominated our collective zeitgeist yesterday morning and early afternoon. There have been numerous recent examples of America's general lack of care of and concern for its Black citizens, but Ferguson is perhaps the most severe example of it. Along with the myriad and oft-cited circumstances leading to and created by Michael Brown's death, it was later determined that racism was so deeply embedded into the city that its economy literally depended on it.

Naturally, these memories about what happened two years ago were not pleasant ones. At least not with those who recognize how easily Michael Brown could have been any one of us. And those who remember the tears we shed and the tears we witnessed Michael Brown's parents shed. And those who still carried a latent rage about Trayvon Martin and were forced to draw from that same reservoir of outrage again.

And then, as yesterday afternoon continued, another hydrogen bomb we'd have to react to and navigate the fallout from dropped: the DOJ's report on the Baltimore Police Department. Here it was learned — well, confirmed — that a major American city less than an hour away from our nation's capital employed a police force that intentionally discriminated against Black Americans.


From NPR:

In one case, for example, an African-American man in his mid-50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years by police, yet none of the stops ever resulted in a citation or criminal charge. Investigators found instances in which leaders in the department ordered officers to directly target black residents.

In one case, a commander allegedly told a lieutenant to order her officers to "lock up all the black hoodies."

The statistics reveal that the Baltimore Police Department stopped and arrested more people in predominantly black areas of town. From January 2010-May 2014, police made some 300,000 stops — 44 percent of which were in two predominantly black areas that make up 12 percent of the city's population.

Citywide, the report finds, the Baltimore Police Department "stopped African-American residents three times as often as white residents after controlling for the population of the area in which the stops occurred."


Ultimately, between Brown's anniversary and the Baltimore report, there was an entire day's worth of very public and prominent reminders that we just aren't very welcome in our own home. That any cynicisms and antipathies we carried towards America weren't just justified, they're necessary. Realistically, with all of these memories and all of this evidence, how can a Black person expect to survive in America without regarding it with the same caution and care and worry you would a full-grown tiger leashed behind a chain-link fence?

And then the evening came. And we sat and watched and cheered for Michael Phelps; boasting and tweeting and memeing as he defeated and taunted a rival from another country. (A mere 24 hours earlier, we reacted the same way when Lily King did the exact same thing.)


But the Phelps' feelings paled in comparison to the joy we collectively felt as the U.S. women's gymnastics team — led by our adopted daughters/sisters/cousins/friends in our heads Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, and Simone Biles (plus the cookout invitees Aly Raisman and Madison Kocian) — gave one of the best team performances the Olympics have ever seen. They were, to use another now-overused phrase, everything. We felt chills and giddy and anxious and joyous while watching them. And, also, pride. We were proud of them, of course. But, to be honest, a significant part of that pride was a very specific type of national pride. We were rooting for America. We were proud of the fact that it was a team that contained a diversity of complexions and ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds that only America can produce. We were beyond happy for these young women. And equally happy that these young women were America's. While we didn't hold any collective negative feelings towards the other countries competing, we desperately wanted the American women to win, and beamed when they did.

And this all happened mere hours after waking up to the memory of how Michael Brown's lifeless body looked while laying in the middle of the street for hours, and then spending the next several hours vacillating between Ferguson-related thoughts and Baltimore-related thoughts. Both stark and unambiguous reminders of our centuries-long status here.


This is what is it to be Black in America. It's a perpetual state of ambiguity and ambivalence. Of dual consciousness and cognitive dissonance. Of cursing it and cheering for it within the same hour span. Sometimes within the same sentence. The same breath. Of recognizing the beauty and the power and the potential of our country and wishing to exalt in it while simultaneously wanting someone to come and burn it the fuck down.


Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



And then Gabby forgot to put her hand over her heart, instead they were clasped at her waist and she was no longer a respectable patriot in the eyes of some. Like you said, its complicated.