In America, we pride ourselves on being a “melting pot.” There are few thoughts more appetizing than a hearty stew prepared over an open flame. A metal pot blackened and scarred by flames relentlessly lapping against its cast-iron skin while it holds together and maintains the integrity of the stew’s contents. Yet, in our metaphor we have focused too long on the ingredients melding together, and forsaken attending to the pot.
Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Toni Morrison expounded on the ugly truth about the idea of America as a melting pot in the splendid documentary about her life, The Pieces I Am. Morrison, who grew up in a poor and working class neighborhood populated by a diverse collection of immigrant families, explains that an efficacious device for forming a shared identity in the rapidly growing country, was contempt for Blackness. What the different groups, Germans, Christians, Jews, Catholics, Irish, Italians, and so on, could coalesce around was their non-Blackness. Not being Black provided them a perch, a shared social position above Blacks, who would always be exposed to the fire that brought the stew to life and provided America with its sustenance.
In other words, if you aren’t Indigenous, your family immigrated to this country. Upon arrival they shared one commonality with almost every other immigrant group arriving on these shores; their feet would never touch the bottom of society as that was where America had relegated Black people. In Stamped from the Beginning, a seminal text that lays bare all of America’s racist receipts, Ibram X. Kendi highlights how Black people in the early 20th century routinely joked that when immigrants arrived to America, the first word of the english language that they learned, was nigger.
I return to this analogy of melting pots for a reason. America is a country of consumption; it craves sustenance on such a constant and aggressive scale that it ignores how the meal has been made. All it wants is to be sated. And if that means relentlessly exposing countless Black bodies to the fire, so be it. The wonderful hearty stew that is America, sits upon a disproportionate number of Black people killed by police officers. It sits upon a disproportionate number of Black people incarcerated in the American penal system, a big business that directs billions of dollars to private vendors and corporations. It sits upon the low-wages and consistently higher rates of unemployment Black people have endured due to a history steeped in discriminatory policies. It sits upon the racial health disparities that allow a virus like COVID -19 to rage through Black communities killing them with supreme efficiency.
The billion dollar business of college sports is a constant and infuriating reminder of Toni Morrison’s accurate description of the melting pot. Black athletes form the cast-iron sides and catch the fire while holding together, through the money they generate, a system enjoyed by a majority of white student athletes. Black football and basketball players toil, and as a result other families can send their children to college to run, golf, sail, and play field hockey.
The influx of social media and camera phones provide that Americans certainly can’t turn aways from the spectacle of Black bodies continually subjected to the fire of oppression. We saw this in the cell phone video of Chris Cooper, a birder in central park whose request that a white female comply with park rules and leash her dog. In her mind, he spoke out of place and as a result she wielded the weaponry of Black stereotypes and summoned the lethal resource that is law enforcement with hope that he would be subject to his rightful position, suffering the fire. We saw this in the videos of the unarmed George Floyd, mercilessly asphyxiated by a police officer, and the unarmed Ahmaud Arbery hunted down by armed white men — we witness them being killed, and yet some people remain unconvinced that the lethal consequences of racism in America are experienced disproportionately by Blacks.
These kinds of encounters are a demented right of passage for Black people. I’ve repressed countless instances of my personal experiences with racism. The instances involving law enforcement are hard to disremember. As is the case for me from an incident that happened just after I moved to Athens, Georgia to pursue a PhD. A white woman called the police and falsely claimed that I threatened her after she rear-ended my vehicle. To add insult to injury, when I called 911 to report the incident, the dispatcher cut me off and told me she was already aware of the situation and snapped that I shouldn’t be approaching people in a threatening manner. Having been drilled for the racist scenario of being falsely accused of something simply for the fact that I am Black by diligent parents. I took a deep breath and maintained my composure, but even with all of my effort, it was the white passenger in my car who witnessed everything and was able to verify to the police officers who rushed to the scene to question me, that the woman was blatantly lying and the sole aggressor.
Blackness has been strategically and methodically cast as subhuman throughout the history of American and global thought. The images that we continue to see, faces of deceased Black people killed at the hands of civil servants that their tax dollars support, remind us that the bottom, the fire, is a place reserved for Black lives. So when the inimitable Toni Morrison explains the gut-wrenching and ugly reality of the melting pot, she astutely articulates the horrors associated with being Black in America.
There is a widespread misconception, however, that cast-iron pots are indestructible. Anyone who has seen one explode or crack while cooking knows very well the awful mess it creates. Cast iron sides break, and we are left with dangerously exposed sharp metal edges and scalding inedible muck. Protests this week are cracks starting to show: we are at the breaking point.