I remember seeing this movie when I was a kid called Thunderdome. It’s one of a series of films about a character named Mad Max. Max lives in a dystopian world where survival is the only objective. The Thunderdome is a literal cage dome where futuristic gladiators face off in hand to hand combat to settle disputes. Expectant onlookers climb the sides of the dome-shaped metal cage to witness the next gruesome battle. They cheer and scream for their favorite fighter at every turn.
There’s a scene in the movie when the crowd (while clinging to the sides of the cage) begins to chant; “Two men enter. One man leaves. Two men enter. One man leaves.” And with it, they voice their expectation that the dome results in death and destruction. It’s not dystopia, but for most African-Americans, life in America is a type of Thunderdome; or better yet, Terrordome. It’s a place that is characterized by a continuous cycle of terror, trauma, grief and upheaval.
We hear the voices of believers and non believers alike at conservative political rallies, and “demonstrations” where they chant evil intonations of their thirst for destruction, and a return to days of old…as if things were better for everyone in those “good ol’ days.” Though safe, secure, privileged and prosperous they scream from the edges of the cage for more action for their benefit. But inside the dome there is constant death and destruction. Some men live, but many men die, and all feel pain.
It sounds like a movie, but for African Americans in these great United States of America, it is everyday life.
Just Get Over It
Recently I’ve had more than one person ask me “Why can’t black people just get over it?” To that question my immediate response is, get over what? I assume they mean slavery, but I pause and think and then realize that they don’t live inside the Terrordome. They can’t possibly understand what it’s like to live in midst of incessant trauma. They don’t understand the constant cycle of terror that black folks have endured ever since those ships docked on the shores of west Africa.
The cycle has persisted since the early 1600s (even before then) and there has not been one single solitary stretch of respite for black folks since. There are many who claimed that the election of Barack Obama served as some sort of signal that we had progressed to a post-racial America. Yet, the steady stream of disrespect and attempts to undermine his administration were regular reminders that, for many others, Obama was nothing more than a house negro…or at best, a White House negro.
And if it wasn’t the constant media lynching of Obama that let you know, there seemed to be a rash of lynchings of black boys during the Obama years. Tamir, Trayvon, Eric, Philando, Michael, Oscar, Terence, Freddie, Johnathan, Sylville…I can’t remember all their names, but they’re all my cousins. We all lived together in the Terrordome. While there are many who believe that there was an increase of murders under Obama, there are many who’ve argued that there wasn’t. They say, “There wasn’t an increase. It’s just that cell phone cameras and the internet are making them into viral videos.” I think they’re right. And those viral videos make it so that we can all witness the trauma collectively. These people understand the nature of the Terrordome.
A few months ago, Tanzina Vega lamented via Twitter saying, “This feels like collective ptsd. The stress of being black in America and not knowing whether you’ll come home alive.” This is the everyday reality of life inside the Terrordome. It’s the sickening sense that you’re always a suspect even if you’re a law-abiding citizen with a professional degree. It’s collective grief that stems from what some have called Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome…and yes, it’s really a thing. It’s the frustration that even your “white friends” don’t get it, or don’t understand. And God help your white colleagues. They think you’re making it all up. They think that Colin Kaepernick is “disrespecting our country and our flag.” We know he’s tired of life inside the Terrordome.
There’s a young black brotha (not brother, that’s a little different) that I follow online quite a bit. His views are often controversial, but he’s an insightful brotha. I like him. He lives in the Terrordome too. He asked a question on Facebook that I understood to be rhetorical. Yet, it sparked an interesting conversation. He asked (though not in these exact terms), what exactly do you as a black person want from America? I assumed he meant white America specifically. I followed the thread a bit, but I didn’t respond.
There’s another black brotha who I follow closely online as well who asked a question that was almost identical to the previous one. Now because his views are usually controversial and often misguided, I responded to him. He’s like a nephew to me. I feel responsible. To him I replied, “They can keep the mule, but I’ll take the forty acres.” We joked about it. That was it. He lives in the Terrordome too.
The irony of this question was in the fact that just a few days prior a white ministry colleague of mine asked me a very similar question. Amidst the rhetoric that suggests that black folks ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is a curiosity of culpability, that leads to such questions. After all, “My ancestors didn’t own any slaves,” they say. “So what do you want from me?!” To him I replied, “I really would like to hear/see you acknowledge that this crap has happened and is happening to us black folks. Grieve with me. Acknowledge that this stuff is painful, hurtful, unfair…etc.” In other words, at the very least, accept that the Terrordome is real and that it’s a terrible place to live.
Sidenote: White Christians are still dehumanizing and delegitimizing the black experience. And it’s even harder to accept the reality of the Terrordome if you think the music in black churches is too loud, or that black preachers scream too much. But that’s another discussion for a different day.
Staying In the Cage
Why not get out of the cage? What’s interesting is that there are many who try and some who do (at least in a sense). For every 1,000 brothas that die there may be one brotha who escapes. And there are the Clarence Thomases, Ben Carsons, Herman Cains, who haven’t lived in the fray for some time. They seem to have forgotten what the fight looks like. And then there are those like Jason Whitlock who press their backs against the inner wall of the cage and join in the destructive chants in an effort to convince themselves and others that they’re not stuck inside. These (and those like them) add to the white noise that makes it difficult to hear the cries of those who are suffering inside.
Even if you try to get out, the incessant redlining, redistricting, gerrymandering and gentrification ensure that you will only get as far as the “system” (or shall we say, systems) allow. It’s systematic violence against terrorized, traumatized, oppressed people. And if that doesn’t do it, your dilapidated school, your jobless neighborhood, your liquor store laden, payday lending, check-cashing corner stores; or the justice department, will with all its stop and frisk and broken windows policing; along with the prison industrial complex and the school to prison pipeline…add more…one of those systems…at some point, will catch you. They are inherently evil enemies that are thrown into the Terrordome to do greater devastation and damage.
In Democracy Matters, Cornel West argues that black folks have never been too terribly distressed by large scale terror incidents like 9/11. There have been so many acts of terror against black people that 9/11 and the like are almost like every other day in the Terrordome. Black males get used to clenched purses and the sound of doors locking while they walk by, even if they’re on their way to a legitimate job. Black parents, though sorrowful, are resigned to the necessity of “the talk” with their boys; not about the birds and the bees, but rather about the boys in blue and how to make it home alive when you encounter them. Burning buildings downtown are closely akin to burning crosses in my front yard. Bombs in public places sound a lot like bombed and burned churches like the one where four innocent little girls lost their lives. So yes, terrorism is terrible. However, this is everyday life in the black community. Welcome to the wonderful world of victimization. Welcome to the Terrordome.
Maybe it’s not fair to be so hard on the American experience. It’s not all gloom and doom. I do thank God for America. I’m thankful for religious freedom. I’m thankful for free public school (as troubled as it often is). I’m thankful for quality healthcare (even though more people need access). I’m thankful for HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) and community colleges that empower people of color. I’m thankful for the blessings that are associated with life in this country. But I’m also mindful of the challenges that come with it as well. After all, this is still the country that looks like a lamb and speaks like a dragon. So let’s all agree that liberty and justice for all has never really been true. And according to West it’s not that America is faultless and guiltless, but rather, that we have thrived because of what he calls the tragicomic abilities of black folks. It’s the ability to take a test and turn it into a testimony.
Going Beyond Limitations
Black folks, along with countless other groups of poor and oppressed people throughout the ages, have consistently demonstrated a determination to defy the limitations of the metal cage and transcend to live life above the fray. Black folks take lemons and make lemonade popsicles for a hot summer day. Black folks take the scraps and throwaways from the slavemaster’s table and make soul food. Black folks take dilapidated schools with outdated, irrelevant and tattered textbooks and make teachers, preachers, doctors and lawyers. Black folks take spray paint, old turntables, speakers and old records (without formal training) and make a multi-billion dollar subculture and artform called Hip-Hop. Black folks take a bad situation and make it better. Black folks take tragedy and trauma and turn it into triumph. That’s life in the Terrordome.
In 1989, the iconic rap group Public Enemy recorded the song “Welcome to the Terrordome.” In the first few lines of the song, Chuck D sums up the essence of the Terrordome experience, and how black people have sought to respond to it. He proclaims, “I got so much trouble on my mind/ Refuse to lose/ Here’s your ticket/ Hear the drummer get wicked…” In just those few words Chuck D extrapolates the tragicomic Terrordome experience. With all the trouble in my life and community, I have decided not to succumb to the evil forces, but rather I’ll sell you a ticket; make you my audience, I’ll make music, and you can listen to my story in a rhythmic, poetic form. That’s the beauty of blackness.
Many fail to survive. Others make music. Yet, all African-Americans live in the Terrordome. And we hope that every ally who sees the struggle will commit to grieving with us (at the very least). These hashtags are very painful, each and every time they pop up in the news feed. And so it’d be nice to have someone acknowledge and affirm your reality, rather than spurn and balk at your grief, anger and frustration. Please don’t try to deny this is real… that hurts. However, if you’re feeling even remotely close to as hurt and as angry as we are, then feel free to pick up a weapon, or at least make a fist and fight alongside of us.
Christopher C. Thompson is Communication Director of the Southeastern Conference, in the Orlando, Florida area.