I did not want the burden of the social translations that black people so often have to do automatically on so many internal levels while engaging in discourse with whites in this country. There are things we learn to do almost subconsciously in order to keep some whites comfortable enough around our blackness. Things like gauging their actual level of interest or understanding of black culture in order to know how far to take a particular conversation before things get awkward. Things like letting them know you hear them trying to say they do in fact see black people. Things like anticipating their questions and responses when they see you with a new hairstyle or come across some element of black culture in your life. Things like using your voice intonation, your word usage, and your bodily gestures to signify that you can hang with them without it being “obvious” that you are a black person in their white world.
Very often, black people work to make white people at ease by layering away any unease we ourselves may feel. It is hard work to translate yourself daily to someone else who most likely lives life without ever being fully aware of how their very existence has been the basis for determining what is “normal” in America and much of the world. And yet this painful and ongoing work of translation is second nature to those of us who have always had to figure out ways to be seen and understood in a world where the white experience is assumed to be the default.
I wanted to sit in the pain and horror and soul-breaking sadness of a movie like 12 Years A Slave with another person like me—someone who is reminded every single day that we are black in America. It doesn't matter our descent—first-generation Nigerian-American like me, or someone with family here since the Atlantic trade. Our personal narratives do not matter when we walk into stores that cater to consumers of high socioeconomic status (Barney's). Our accomplishments do not matter when we’re randomly accosted by police (Henry Louis Gates). Our leadership (Obama), our strengths, our beauty, our innocence (Trayvon), our fears, our needs (Renisha McBride), our humanity all take second seat to our skin, skin that in all its beautiful, nuanced shades is simply seen as “black.”
I did go see 12 Years a Slave, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, alone. I sat in the sparsely occupied theater with seven other people: four white men, two white women, and one black man. And for the duration of the ads and the movie previews I tried to brace myself for the experience. I kept whispering to myself, “It’s a movie. It doesn't happen anymore. It's a movie. It doesn't happen anymore.” I could not remember the last time I felt so physically tense and uncomfortable at the beginning of a film. Scene after scene, my body did not relax once. And when it was over, I was so grateful I had come on my own. Not because of any increased animosity toward white people, or any steaming anger toward a system of injustice; mainly because in the moments after the film I simply could not speak. I needed space to process the images I had seen, the dark silences I had heard, and the slow leaking of my own raw emotion I did not even know I had been holding on to for the previous two and a half hours. I have always been awed by how humans can experience both a deep numbness and extreme pain at the same time.