On Friday, Amanda Gorman was followed by a security guard en route to her home. She looked “suspicious,” apparently. Once it was clear that she indeed resided in the building in question, the guard did not acknowledge any kind of culpability on his part regarding the surveillance, according to Gorman. “This is the reality of black girls: One day you’re called an icon, the next day, a threat,” she Tweeted. Yup. That’s the reality of Black people as a matter of fact.
And it makes me wonder if all those folks who posted her poem and picture on Facebook after she read at the inauguration, are also sharing this somewhat less “uplifting” news. Or has their focus already shifted elsewhere? And what about those teachers who leapt at the chance for a “teachable moment,” incorporating Gorman’s inauguration poem into their lesson plans? Are they also teaching their students that Americans who look like Gorman get followed, stopped, questioned, and more on a daily basis? Or is that not part of the curriculum?
I wrote this in my blog on January 26:
I am somewhat nervous about our country’s response to Amanda Gorman. Mostly about the White people’s response. We do this to African Americans a lot. We lift one up and celebrate them — as long as they keep us somewhat comfortable while still allowing us to show just how supportive we are of “them.” And then… There are so very many stories of talented, brave, intelligent Black Americans being lauded one day, and forgotten — or worse — the next.
I am not prescient, only someone who pays attention to history’s patterns. Frederick Douglass? First lauded as a great orator for the cause of abolition, Douglass soon tired of the paternalism of William Lloyd Garrison, the White abolitionist. Feeling more like part of a dog and pony show, not the intelligent and experienced representative against slavery, Douglass finally went in a different direction. He was fortunate to escape (once again) the White man’s tendency towards feelings of ownership.
Jack Johnson, world famous boxer, revered by Black and White fans alike. He made a lot of money in the sport, and in subsequent business ventures. He also showed a disdain for the racist norms of the day. He even married a White woman. Johnson was ultimately arrested under the guise of the Mann Act, “aimed at moral reform …its ambiguous language about “immorality” resulted in it being used to criminalize even consensual sexual behavior between adults (Wikipedia). Johnson ended up in the Leavenworth Penitentiary.
Rosa Parks? Well, we all know what a “great” African American she was. Mrs. Parks received numerous awards and even had a street named after her. Feted by various organizations and individuals throughout her life, she was almost homeless at the end of it. Since the 1970s she had struggled with ill health and financial troubles, often relying on local groups’ charity to keep her afloat. In 2002 a church took up a collection in order to pay her rent after she was threatened with eviction.
Hank Aaron, Marian Anderson, Arthur Ashe, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry… So many famous Black Americans have been “done dirty” by White folks. Whether by individuals or institutions, through active assault or simple erasure, far too many African Americans have been lifted up and then dropped directly to the curb when no longer useful to us. And so often the surrounding narrative is shaped such that the responsibility of said downfall rests on the Black American’s shoulders. Mike Tyson, as yet one more example. Yet, the real responsibility quite often rests squarely on the same shoulders that once hoisted up these so-called heroes.
I hope Amanda Gorman survives this life she’s been given. I hope she doesn’t get handcuffed and pepper-sprayed like the 9-year-old girl in Rochester last month. Or attacked by a mob of White supremacists like happened to Berlinda Nibo in LA in January. I hope the next time Ms. Gorman gets followed home — and she will — that the worst thing that happens is a lack of apology. But it doesn’t look good. And it hasn’t for some time. And we really need to be cognizant of these trajectories next time we decide to hoist someone up as an icon. I mean, will we still be there when others begin the process of tearing them down? It seems to me the least we can do.