#IAmMarteseJohnson: Myths of Respectability, Safety and Education
By Jay Dodd
On a fairly warm November night, my two best boys and I were walking across campus from their apartment to my house, in an attempt to satiate our cabin fever from spending all day inside. It was oddly nice out for the season and we stopped underneath some streetlights to take selfies. Blissfully unaware and slightly less than sober, we didn’t even notice a cop car approaching us. When he called out to us we jumped in panic. He interrogated us on where were coming from, what our plans were, what we were doing on campus. Never asked for campus ID or our names, just a suspicion of our being. Shook up and assuming he wouldn’t do something to all three of us, we continued walking away as we attempted to end the interaction. We all but ran away, constantly looking over our shoulders hoping this would not continue. The officer who didn’t even bother to pull over stayed in the middle of the street and watched us as we made it all the way to my doorstep.
While knowledge is power, there is an insidious myth that education is the key in combatting anti-Black violence. I am a child of this sentiment. My mother’s sacrifices got me in the best schools, sometimes hours from my house, and she supported me when I decided to move to CT for boarding school. So many Black college students, from first generation to legacies, are indoctrinated with the idea that education will legitimate their humanity in a nation (read: world) that continually attempts to prove otherwise. Upon entering my undergrad (a small liberal arts non-Harvard school just outside of Boston), I almost believed I would be protected. I believed, naively, that the suspicion, surveillance and policing that Black folk have combatted for years would miss me. That it missed Black boys like me. While I never felt “better” in terms of superiority, foolishly, I felt “safe”.
I am Martese Johnson. I was Black boy in White college. I was upstanding and still unsafe.
The grotesque images of Johnson’s face urges us to revisit any myths surrounding the danger of being Black in this country. Respectability at its most dangerous. Education is only one tool of respectability politics ravaging the Black community. It manifest in the “if you are ‘educated’ you won’t be a target” mentality, one full of fallacies. Education didn’t protect Aiyana Jones from being killed in living room. The success of high school graduation didn’t protect Mike Brown from summertime execution. Education didn’t protect Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, arrested for trying to get into his own home. Honor student status didn’t protect Martese. Here lies a hole in respectability.
Aspirations of wealth, success, and prosperity (whatever way they manifest) can be central to Black imagination, and we must still remember the terror placed on our bodies. How Black children are stripped of childhood, how Black women are read as impervious to violence, how Black men fear the short walk home. These fears run through us with traumatic memories from the days our bodies first came ashore. Some attempt to distant Blackness from the educated or wealthy, these symbols of hegemonic success do nothing to protect the Black folk who attain them. Black college kids are not protected from these fears or danger. No matter what institution they attend.
While our hood cousins get patrolled by local cops, college campuses are no safer. In the yet unfinished dragging of the American police state, reignited by the highest visibility of anti-Blackness in recent memory, a large focus has been placed on police officers at the local and state level. However, additional interrogation is needed for the police/security officers on college campuses. The tyranny of anti-Black policing stretches into ever crevice of our nation. Campus police are as implicit in state violence against Black Folk as any local department.
Black college kids are not protected from fear or danger.
After four years at an institution, I can still be read as suspicious, out of place, unworthy. Martese was a community leader and model student and his Blackness still proved too much. Using a fake ID or not, Martese didn’t deserve such violence, and as we’ve seen it take even less to endanger Black life. Respectability is a myth that can’t save anyone.
More over, why attempt respect from folks who don’t see you as human?
Jay Dodd is a writer and performance artist based in Boston, originally from Los Angeles. After recently graduating Tufts University, Jay has organized vigils and protests locally for Black Lives Matter: Boston. When not in the streets, Jay has contributed to Huffington Post and is currently a contributing writer for VSNotebook.com, based in London. Jay Dodd is active on social media celebrating Blackness, interrogating masculinity, and complicating queerness. His poetic and performance work speaks to queer Black masculinity and afrofuturism.
Photo: Martese Johnson/Facebook