In 7th grade I was an awkward bookish kid with rage issues. I played clarinet in the school band, wore hand me down clothes and second hand shoes. Everything in my life was some kind of fight, so I avoided conflict whenever I could. But with a backstory like mine, fights inevitably came.
The choreographed ritual before every fight went like this: me and the other boy would start posturing, looking each other up and down as we squared up. Then we’d circle, one’s shoulder pressed against the other’s adjacent shoulder – this, before first punch was even considered.
Of course our dance was a stalling tactic. Nobody really wanted to fight – but somebody said something, or scuffed some new shoes; and wolf-tickets like those could not go unredeemed unless you were a punk. And I wasn’t gonna be no punk. So we danced – would-be warriors marching around in meaningless circles.
It was especially meaningless for me because anyone could see I was not ready to fight. There is a universally understood motion that signals the intent to fight – you throw your books, jacket, whatever you’re holding to the ground. This is why have expressions like “they ‘bout to throw down.” But my hands were full. Throwing down wasn’t something I had the liberty to do.
I was poor, and understood the severe consequences of this simple action. The clarinet was a cash sacrifice; Mama had designs on using the store’s year-end buyback policy. Schoolbooks were state property, if they were damaged, or disappeared that meant a bill. School clothes had to last, so it was understood that jackets didn’t get thrown on the ground to be trampled during a scuffle. To cast aside everything I held, and engage in this fight would mean throwing down my Mama’s sacrifice and a certain degree of security in my home. Throwing down signaled a willingness to lose more than the battle at hand. Because if anything was stolen, broken, or torn as a result of that fight, win or lose – I’d have hell to pay.
Friends offset the cost of sacrifice. When you have friends, you can throw down and trust somebody would rush up to the edge of the fray – gather your things, pick up the pieces and pull them out of harm’s way so that you can fight. Somebody will have your back. Awkward, bookish kids with rage issues have nobody. Nobody was picking up my pieces. Nobody had my back. I was never really free to throw down. And so, I got my ass kicked.
Sometimes you go into a fight knowing full well you are going to get your ass kicked. Our heroes go into fights knowing they could die. Still, they push through the ritual, circular comfort of marches and embrace a painful and radical reality – that one way or another, for change to come the fight must become violent. Of late we seem to prefer our revolutions double-spaced, or image-based; but blood alone moves the wheels of History. Mussolini said that. Nobody wanted to hear it from him either.
I was on the phone with my friend when she encountered an article about two Black boys who were “mock raped” by some white boys in middle school. There was video, and outrage, but little action. As she unwound the tale, we co-scripted scenes of how we wished the community response had gone down – school-doors blocked by mad, Black parents, furious fathers telling every child or white parent that approached that nobody was getting in or out until the superintendent of schools was contacted and the principal took appropriate measures to ensure the safety of our Black children.
It was a beautifully powerful scene, but one doomed to our imaginations. Because people gotta go to work – and aint nobody trying to go to jail. These facts are not a condemnation of the people, but an indictment of our times. Most of us simply can’t afford the kind of militant vigilance that our desperate situation requires. In too many homes if revolution demands incarceration or death we have no plan of care for those left behind. We desperately need revolution but have not set up supports that allow people to be revolutionary.
We’ve lionized our Black martyrs so much that we forget the consequences they faced while they still lived. Martin Luther King had four kids and was the primary earner of his household. And he was arrested 29 times. That’s twenty-nine times when bail that might have taken food from those children’s mouths and shoes off their feet– had to be paid.
In 1956 King’s home was bombed. In 1958 he was stabbed and nearly killed. And yet in 1959 he resigned as pastor of his church to focus full attention on his civil rights work. King wanted to fight; he threw down.
King walked into his fight knowing he would lose. He spoke often about his premature death, most famously on April 3rd, 1968 when he prophetically proclaimed “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now,” King spoke those words with four babies aged 12, 10, 8 and 5 and a wife depending on him – and he wasn’t concerned about longevity. He was ready to throw it all down. But greatness alone would not have made his sacrifice possible. King had an ace.
I might never have known that Harry Belafonte was an armor bearer for King had he and the King estate not had a messy dispute over some letters Belafonte wanted to auction through Sotheby’s. The King children had already distanced Belafonte when they disinvited him from attending Coretta Scott King’s funeral upon word that then President George W. Bush, (of whom Belafonte had been vocally critical) would be attending. Bridges were burned. Feelings hurt.
This was understandable on Belafonte’s part when you consider that in her memoirs Coretta Scott King had written of him; “whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open.” It’s naïve to think that tragedy and trouble did not mean at least on some level dire financial straits. To imagine otherwise would be to misunderstand both the sacrifices of the civil rights movement and the realities of Blackness for most of America. Harry Belafonte had Martin’s back when things got tough. When the fight needed a cash infusion Martin wrote a letter and Harry threw down. When King was assassinated it was Belafonte who was trusted to be the executor of the estate. Picking up the pieces.
There is a conspicuously masculine subtext to throwing down – an innate conflict that sits at the intersections of being a “good man” and being “a real man” in that oft maligned, but very honest sense of the word. Throwing down suggests a kind of manhood that leaves the home in good hands and steps out into the world to face challenges with dire consequences. This is a manhood whose responsibility does not end at the threshold of his home but begins there, because the man who walks in this manhood takes responsibility not for the children he brought into the world, but for the world he brought his children to. The covering of this responsibility extends to anyone under his care.
The sacrifices required by this degree of manhood were possible because the cultural conversation of the time did not vilify absent men whose absences served the community. Men could leave the home, walk away from wife and children and put themselves in mortal danger and still be good men. I confess that I hold my manhood cheap when I consider the sacrifices of good men who threw down in the face of certain death, leaving their families, and the particulars of their care to someone else for long, indefinite periods. This care was often left the women of the movement but sometimes to other men they trusted to have their backs when they’d fallen.
In her eulogy of Muhammad Ali, Attallah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcom X said, “While he and I had a treasured relationship, the genesis of this love was through the love of my father. Muhammad Ali was the last of a fraternity of amazing men bequeathed to me directly by my dad.”
I don’t know that our generation is equipped to answer that revolutionary call to manhood, or be the fraternity Shabazz spoke of, or even a community that stands behind those who are willing to throw down. We’ve become captives to the comforts of our lives, the respectability of smaller responsibilities and the selfishness of personal agendas that serve ever smaller groups within groups. We’ve become would-be warriors marching around in meaningless circles.
Our people, King once said, “will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. Life’s most persistent and nagging question is ‘what are you doing for others?’ ”
I guess what I’m asking is – if I gotta throw down, will you watch my stuff?