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Rebecca O. Johnson: Brothermen

In lieu of flowers.

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Image by Flickr user Croydon girl

By Rebecca O. Johnson

He was sitting on the Number 1 local on a cool summer Saturday. Perhaps he had gotten on at Time Square, perhaps he had boarded somewhere with a working elevator and was spending the day riding the subway. His walker was in front of him, a black hood pulled over his head. For a couple of stops the Brotherman shouted incoherently, angrily. Then he seemed to drift off to sleep. I got on at 96th street and rode all the way to 231st. When the shouting began the train car was mostly occupied by people of color so, for the most part, we didn’t mind. The young white man sitting on the blue plastic bench seat across from the Brotherman looked alarmed, uncomfortable, but what he was feeling didn’t really matter. He could get off this train anytime he wanted. Brotherman couldn’t. For him it was a temporary safe harbor and inevitably a train to nowhere.

I had a brother once. He could have ended up like the disabled Brotherman on the bench a few feet to my right. Instead he is dead. Gone before sixty from the effects of his chronic disease, alcoholism. My blood brother would have been afraid of this raving Brotherman, all darkness, bare legs and rusty ankles poking out of ragged black shoes. My blood brother didn’t leave the house much in his final year or two so he would have been spared all the images of the lives of the Black men he feared. He was a lonely alcoholic mired in self-hatred: hatred of his own blackness, and grief over the loss of every Black male friend he had every known. I see my brother every day on the street, in his many manifestations—the haughty, self-absorbed light-skinned Black man who, balding in his twenties came early to the fashionable shaved head, who attained an engineering job without the requisite degree; the attentive, sleep-deprived father lying on the floor with a wailing son on his belly, a son who would grow to be a loving brother, a scientist, and professor; the teenager who resented working a family lawn service with his father; the teenager who discovered the man who he resented wasn’t his biological father after all.

The man who loved cats, and his standing bass, and all musical instruments.

The man who would talk for hours and the one who wouldn’t speak to me for years on end.

The brother who feared men darker than him.

The brother who died alone when his liver could no longer carry the load.

The Brotherman on the train will probably die soon. His condition is serious: inadequately housed, and probably frequently hospitalized from the effects of poverty, chronic illness and self-medication. His life doesn’t matter much to most people.

The Brotherman on the train will probably die soon. His condition is serious: inadequately housed, and probably frequently hospitalized from the effects of poverty, chronic illness and self-medication. His life doesn’t matter much to most people. Or maybe he resisted the care of others, judged its content and found it lacking. Or maybe he was like the other Brotherman who got on at 125th street, announced himself a veteran—four years a marine—embarrassed to be doing this, but he needed spare change to get something to eat. Swears he doesn’t use drugs and is sober. I keep my eyes focused on my magazine as he asks “who will bless me today with some change?”

I’m off the train and at my apartment changing into running clothes. Perhaps this desire to run that has overcome me is partly in tribute to my brother. He ran track. Both his children ran cross-country. His daughter was all-state her senior year.They all rode bicycles together.
My brother loved to bike with his kids.

He was a good father.

The week of the third anniversary of my brother’s death I began running. I have used one of those smartphone apps, from Couch To 5k, along with a routine based on the recommendation of the New York Times Well blog. It’s supposed to be three days a week for nine weeks to get to a five kilometer run but I have added a longer run than the app suggests on some weeks, and occasionally I only run twice a week so it will be mid-July when I finally reach the end of the runs prescribed on the app. And then I will begin with the Couch To 10k. I’m not interested in marathons, or half marathons. Six point two miles will be more than enough for me.

Obedience is safety.

I do my five-minute warm-up, walking down the hill toward Van Cortlandt Park. I’m heading for relative flatness so I can work on my stride. I do what the voice on the app tells me to do as I begin my run a couple minutes away from the park.

Obedience is safety.

I enter the cross-country trail that will take me to baseball and soccer fields girdled by a running trail covered in gray cinder. As I come to the fields there’s a group of Brothermen using the chin-up bars. The fitness equipment scattered throughout the park seems pretty beat up with signage missing; but I’m not sure how bad it is, really, since I have yet to make it all the way around the circuitous trail that snakes past the baseball diamonds, a sitting area, a dog run, and what seems like endless soccer fields. On Sundays the soccer fields are awash in kids, from teenagers to toddlers, spilling off the grass onto the running trail, kicking at balls. On Sundays I keep my eyes on the path a few feet in front of me, avoiding skinny brown legs in their colorful socks and little cleated shoes, flailing at soccer balls in an amazing array of sizes and colors.

But the Brothermen, the beautiful, shirtless Brothermen, burnished Black walnut, with the rippling chests and abs, and the scrawny ones, nutmeg brown in the sun, trying to catch up, straining at the chin-up bar, and the ones who are a little overweight, sweat coating their ebony foreheads, huffing through the sit-up station, and the ones running, running, on youthful legs. None of them notice me. Why should they? I am a sixty-one year old lady who can now just barely run faster than she can walk. But I am joyful in their presence. They are alive. And I fear for them as well.

Yes, in these days of outrage and grief, with the horrendous shootings, and the endless torturing repetitive broadcast of the videos that document their murders at the hands of law enforcement, and sometimes at the hands of other Brothermen who are in law enforcement but these men are alive and claiming that which mainstream society most fears: their bodies. And in these moments of heightened attention to how Black men die, I am conscious of the pitiable state of how too many of our Brothermen live. What is the distance between this exuberant care of their bodies to raving pain on public transportation or shilling for change? From athlete and father to broken and dying alone on a worn out, stained couch? Whether considering the experience of men educated, industrious and insightful or trifling and emotionally disturbed, I fear that the systems that assign value to the existence of this country’s citizens find all Black men’s lives count as little as those of the men murdered by police. Bullets are a symptom. It is the very structures of our culture and our economy that kills Brothermen, that helps make the struggle for meaningful lives so difficult. Structural violence underpins and upholds the mechanisms of the economy that have evolved out of the founding of this country; from the destruction of indigenous peoples and the subjugation of the slave trade, to today’s devastation of ecosystems, violence has become so intrinsic to what we call success that it is invisible and as pervasive as the air we breathe, But in very specific ways, violence has been and continues to ravage the lives and imaginations of Black men.

There is a special effort to control the Brotherman. The Sistren are not exempt from the devaluation of worth experienced by our brothers. We just deserve our own essay. The male Black body has experienced a more public, more concerted and insidious violence. Why else would Black boys of all class backgrounds and at increasingly younger ages, be taught to deploy the obsequious manner of the indentured servant when encountering law enforcement? And how does it benefit society when the disproportionate punishment of Black boys and teens for minor infractions drives them out of school and into the hands of the juvenile (in)justice system? What is it but systematized cruelty that a Black man can be reported, accosted, detained, shot or killed by vigilante and law enforcement alike for working and protecting a client, drinking coffee, shopping with his children, walking or exercising in his own neighborhood?

But even within the general state of discontent of many working-class white Americans, there is still the expectation that they will benefit from their status as the ones for whom this country exists.

This has been an election year where white citizens, as they have exercised their franchise, have expressed their displeasure at feeling undervalued. There has been great alarm at the shrinking life expectancy of white middle-aged people (it’s not like Black life expectancy has gone up all that much, rising one tenth of one percent to 75.2 years in 2014, while white life expectancy went down to 78.8 years in 2014, from 78.9 in 2013). There is a compassionate rush to address a worsening addiction crisis among them. A worry about the existential pain that I suspect is at the root of their perceived bodily discomfort. I am not naive enough to believe that our economic system and its corporate interests actually care about any of us. If it did those interests would allow our politicians (because, let’s be real, they need the permission of those interests to do anything that truly benefits the polity) to create, for example, a healthcare system that provides quality health and wellness services to all residents, regardless of ability to pay, rather than one that operates more like an extractive industry with a mining license, using our bodies as the source of its profits, rarely curing but always getting their percentage before we die. But even within the general state of discontent of many working-class white Americans, there is still the expectation that they will benefit from their status as the ones for whom this country exists. And rather than seeing the true source of their misery, they are encouraged in so many ways to fear the Brotherman, to see him as a threat unless he is a source of their entertainment. The Brotherman panhandling, wandering, shouting, the ones dead at the hand of law enforcement or their other Brothermen, it has been argued, are the ones who did not have the family support, or could not escape or muster the enormous effort it takes for a Black man to avoid the status into which they are born in this country.

In her book Working Cures, the historian Sharla Fett posits a valuation of Black bodies based on a principle of soundness, rather than wellness:

Soundness in its most basic sense concerned the health of a slave, measured in his or her capacity to labor, at the time of sale…. Not limited to the physical body, the concept of soundness extended to mental and moral dimensions of slave health as well…. Through the concept of soundness, slaveholders—and physicians in their employment—defined slave health as the capacity to labor, reproduce, obey and submit.

How is money made today through the use of the Black body? If the Brotherman’s body is not useful in the spectacularly profitable ways we witness on the basketball court, the playing field, the music stage or the field of battle, and if he can’t conquer the overwhelming barriers to an effective education and employment, then he better find some way of putting his body at the service of some low paying, frequently dehumanizing labor. And if he can’t figure out how to make his body the instrument of profit for someone else, than the state will do that for him. His perceived idleness will be punished by incarceration, increasingly in privately owned prisons, where the profit from his body is guaranteed.

And after incarceration, or foster care, or dropping out of school, or leaving the military, when addiction, and chronic illness, homelessness and madness set in, a Number 1 train to nowhere becomes a respite. These are the Brothermen whose eyes we don’t want to meet, who we pretend we don’t hear asking for change, who maybe once rippled with strength, were scrawny and striving or haughty with achievement. These Brothermen are the daily embodiment of the struggle we must engage with to restore true value to Black lives, not based on profiteering, but on the dignity and freedom from fear and violence that human existence should bestow on all beings. I hope in his final moments my brother remembered that dignity, and may all the Brothermen, accomplished, incarcerated, brimming with health or broken by disease, know this peace.

Rebecca O. Johnson is a writer and activist who splits her time between Akron Ohio and New York City. Rebecca’s published works documents the lives of people dispossessed by society—racially, economically and spiritually and have appeared in Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters, Obit Magazine, and Sojourner: The Women’s Forum among other publications.

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