The Root's Clapback Mailbag: Fire and Light

Illustration for article titled The Roots Clapback Mailbag: Fire and Light
Illustration: Oscar Bustamante

I heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him to listen for a while
And there he was this young boy, a stranger to my eyes

I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd
I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud
I prayed that he would finish but he just kept right on

He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair
And then he looked right through me as if I wasn’t there
But he just came to singing, singing clear and strong.

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“Killing me Softly” is about America.

There will only be one clapback today.


This week I participated in a special edition of TIME.

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I also wrote something on voter suppression, which surprisingly prompted some backlash.

From: P. Wilson
To: Michael Harriot
Subject: Caucasians?

Not all “conservatives, autocrats and Caucasians have concocted an infinite number of insidious-but-lowkey-genius workarounds to suppress the Black vote.”

If you believe this, why are you still here?

And this:

From: June
To: Michael Harriot
Subject: I thought you hated America?

Why do you care who wins an election if you hate this country so much?

From: Sara
To: Michael Harriot
Subject: Who are you helping

I have read a lot of your writings but there is one thing I don’t understand. If you believe blacks cant stop racism then why are you always writing about racism in a black blog?

It seems to me that your goal is to turn more blacks against this country and against whites.

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Dear all,

I am the most patriotic person you know.

I do not hate this country. I love America.

When you speak of America, you’re talking about the pure-hearted Founding Fathers, who founded a nation that had nothing to do with white supremacy. You’re thinking of a flawed-but still exceptional land of opportunity where all men are created equal. You’re talking about an idyllic myth that never existed.

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But here’s the thing.

I believe in that America, too.

How can I say that?

Well, if you ever happen to meet someone who grew up on the south side of the tiny town of Hartsville, S.C., you will notice four things:

  1. They are obsessed with smoke detectors.
  2. They probably know American sign language.
  3. They probably know someone named Kwamé.
  4. They don’t give a fuck about their high school.

Why?

Well, the answer is The First Kwamé.

There is an inordinate amount of people from my neighborhood named Kwamé but The First Kwamé grew up a few blocks away from my house. He is still a neighborhood legend. He was a few years older than me but he had a brother who was my age who is one of my best friends to this day.

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I did not like Kwamé.

He was tall. He was smart, he could dunk a basketball without taking a step and he could throw a football into the horizon. Kwamé was also good-looking. He wasn’t just regular handsome; this nigga was remarkably handsome. He was so handsome that the most heterosexual men in the neighborhood would describe him as: “Fine as fuck.”

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I did not like Kwamé because Kwamé was too much Kwamé.

Kwamé was also hearing impaired.

He used to make fun of himself and say he was “deaf but not dumb.” Because he was the star athlete, and the handsomest nigga you ever saw, almost everyone in my neighborhood learned a rudimentary version of American sign language just to communicate with this pretty motherfucker. But the reason that Kwamé is a neighborhood legend has nothing to do with his looks or his athletic ability.

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Aside from being charismatic, Kwamé loved children. I know everyone says they love children but this dude actually did. His mother ran a daycare center so this nigga basically helped raised all of the kids in my neighborhood. And because his father was a preacher, basically everyone knew him.

In 1985, Kwamé was one of the best quarterbacks and basketball players in the country. But because he was hearing impaired, he didn’t get a lot of attention from larger schools. Kwamé was tearing up the record books during the final year of Butler High School, the town’s all-Black high school that was set to be closed. The next year, all the students in town would attend the white high school whose quarterback, who couldn’t hold Kwamé jockstrap when they played Little League. That quarterback was set to go to Clemson while Kwamé didn’t get any offers from white schools.

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Perhaps it was because of Kwamé disability but during that time, Black QBs didn’t really play big-time college football. But every year, for the last football game of the year, the Black high school would play the white high school for town dominance. This was going to be Butler’s last game and Kwamé’s last game, so everyone was going to be there. Plus, because both teams were undefeated, it was Kwamé’s last chance to prove that he wasn’t inferior to the white quarterback. It was basically going to be a contest of Black versus white.

Kwamé never played.

According to the neighborhood legend, Kwamé stopped by his mother’s daycare center after practice and discovered that she was asleep in her office. He tried to wake her up but couldn’t. As he dragged her outside, he noticed that some of the kids were still asleep, even though it was pretty late for nap time.

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He couldn’t call 911 because he was deaf but Kwamé somehow knew they were passed out from carbon monoxide poisoning, so he started picking up kids, two and three at a time, and shuffling them outside. When passersby saw him, some helped his mother out while a few others called the fire department. Eventually, even the people who were helping Kwamé stopped because they were overcome by the fumes.

Kwamé kept going.

The story goes, that when the fire department showed up, they discovered a gas leak and kept everyone away from the building. Some say they were afraid of an explosion. Kwamé reportedly tried to explain, in sign language, to the firemen that there were still two children inside the daycare center but the firemen said it was empty and kept everyone outside. Other people tried to “translate” for Kwamé as he allegedly tried to tell them that they had to get everyone out and turn off the gas before the building exploded. But the firemen just stood around, knowing there were probably more kids inside.

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Kwame still went back in.

Seconds later, the building, the church and the daycare center exploded, killing Kwamé.

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No one else was injured.

Kwamé died shuttling 22 kids to safety, literally saving the lives of an entire generation of his neighborhood. Many of those survivors have kids named Kwamé. And just as some immigrants pass down their native languages to their children, I’d wager that more Black people in my hometown know American Sign Language than almost any other place in the world.

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For years, conspiracy theories spread around the neighborhood that the gas leak was intentional. Some people even say that the firemen let Kwamé go back inside because they didn’t want him to play in the big game. None of that is probably true. Firefighters are trained to keep people away from gas leaks because of the possibility of an explosion.

But Kwamé knew there was going to be an explosion and still went back in.

After Kwamé’s death, the schools consolidated but we never assimilated. To this very day, Black people in my hometown don’t participate in homecoming activities. There are still Black class reunions and white class reunions. The Black class reunions are still held at the site of Butler High School. People say we hate our school just like people say I hate America.

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I love America.

Black people have demonstrated their love for this country more than any other group in history. We disproportionately fought in every war while white men took home the spoils. We are the ones who sacrificed our bodies to nooses to make this a more perfect union. When white men were content with what they had done, we were the ones who pledged our allegiance to a Republic with liberty and justice for all.

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America is not land. It is not an ever-evolving Constitution or an idyllic history. America is not a land of opportunity. It is not a dream or an idea.

America is just people.

And I believe in America more than you.

That’s why Black people keep going inside this building knowing we might die. It’s why we keep screaming that you should turn the white supremacy off before everything explodes. But you’re content to just stand around looking because you know you’re safe.

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What does this have to do with anything?

According to a lawsuit filed by Kwamé’s parents, the firefighters knew about the leak and should have turned off the gas supply line before it sparked an explosion but every firefighter testified that they didn’t hear a fire alarm. Three bystanders who understood ASL testified that they translated Kwamé’s desperate pleas to the firefighters.

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“The lights are flashing!” they said he signed. “Turn off the gas before there’s a fire!”

It turns out, that, because Kwamé was deaf, his parents outfitted the daycare center with a special smoke detector that flashed lights instead of making noise. But apparently, the only smoke detectors they could find also came with a feature that detected carbon monoxide. Because they were busy the day of the explosion, no one in the daycare center noticed the lights warning them that there was a dangerous level of carbon monoxide.

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Kwamé noticed it because he was deaf.

But the firefighters denied this. They claimed no one told them to turn off the gas. They said no one told them there was a leak. They blamed Kwamé’s parents for having an “inadequate smoke detector.” They even said there was no definitive evidence that a gas leak caused the explosion, but the parents still won the lawsuit.

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How?

Because white people believe in the myth of exceptionalism.

The people from the white part of town still wax poetic about their school’s undefeated season. They believed they were superior. In the official record books, you even will see that Butler High School lost one game that year even though it was actually a forfeit. They believe they know the true story because they know the white history.

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See, Butler actually played that game but it was forfeited at halftime when a fight broke out. Years later, during the court battle, when those firefighters claimed they still don’t know what caused the explosion, Kwamé’s parents pulled out a newspaper photo taken just before the fight broke out.

In the picture, the mayor is handing the key to the city to four firefighters who bravely “helped rescue” 22 children from a fire after the firefighters “discovered a water heater gas leak.”

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Those motherfuckers knew.

When his parents won that lawsuit, it was like a victory for everyone in my town. But I sometimes wonder if his parents think of all the things their son could have become. I wonder if they find all the subsequent Kwamés a comforting enough legacy. I wonder if they feel bitter about the 10-year-battle to prove that they weren’t responsible for their son’s death or if they just wanted to lift that burden of injustice off their entire community.

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And that, dear friend, is also why you think I hate America.

Because I knew the First Kwamé.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

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DISCUSSION

geraldob
Baldwin'sApprentice

Periodically I repeat this rather sobering fact.

After five centuries of continuous examples of what white supremacy looks and sounds like, white folks still can’t come to anywhere close to a consensus on whether someone like David Duke, or George Lincoln Rockwell, or Rep. Steve King, or even Donald Trump is racist. But they can always tell instantly, from 50 yards away, with their backs turned, while wearing a blindfold, when a black person (like Michael Harriot) is even the tiniest bit racist against white people!

Things that make you go hmmmmm.