I used to tell my cousin not to dance in public. More than that, I used to argue with him about it, and when he wouldn’t stop, I’d walk several paces ahead of him to create a visual distinction between him and myself to any onlookers. In the parking lot at a Wegmans, in line at the bank or grocery store, or even in the hallway at my job– this guy’s dancing. The heel-toe, pop locking, ‘tutting ’—all of it, all day, everywhere.
Seeing him dance in public moved something deep in the pit of my stomach—the same way that it did when I was a middle schooler and I happened to lock eyes with a teacher from the back of the class just as a classmate– who hadn’t noticed we’d been caught–passed me a note. The reason moments like these shook me so much is that I (a 13-year-old kid) typically had two strikes on me before I ever entered the classroom. I had been constructed as a problem—apathetic about learning, disrespectful for challenging authority, and condescending because I diminished the quality of the teaching I was forced to endure. So, something as innocuous as note-passing carried, at times, stiff penalties, like detention and trips to the principal’s office, and lower grades; but it always meant that I would face a public berating–often for minutes at a time–from teachers who perceived my “misbehavior” as a calculated personal affront (See: Ferguson, 2001). (I’ll spare you a drawn-out analysis of racial disparities in school discipline.)
My primary reason for drawing this analogy is to illustrate the kind of visceral aversion I had to his dancing. But, it wasn’t really about dancing, just like it was never about the notes. In hindsight, it was about my fear of how white people would perceive him and me; because of my proximity to him, I knew white folks would assume that we were together (i.e. the same kind of Black person). I know that I am not the first person to warn against dancing in front of white people—I’ve heard older Black folks mention this, which leads me to believe that this is a time-honored Black faux pas. The concern, I imagine, stems in part from the attempt not to reify stereotypical images of coons and darkies whose vices for alcohol, sex, and fun found them engaging in drunken public minstrels. (This is my guess.) However, if I’m honest– I know that what is typically afoot when we tell Black young folk not to dance in public, or run in the grocery store, or “act-up” in the doctor’s office is that in these moments, many of us are reminded that white folks require us to police (I mean arrest) our bodies—bodies that have been constructed as problems before they even enter a space. A public dancing body is a body that moves agile and freely—that when connected to Black skin— ALWAYS signals a potential threat to white folks. (Now this is not to suggest that white folks don’t love to see Black people perform a dance that is intended to be a spectacle; this kind of dancing, however, represents restraint—contained “freedom” often in an “appropriately” designated context.) Not only does the body move freely, the public dancing is almost always happy, and conveys a certain mastery of one’s physique. All of these things that dancing represents and reveals about a Black body are– for different reasons– dangerous to demonstrate in the presence of white folks. Really, Black folks can’t be happy in front of white folks?? Yup—that’s what I said. Just ask these new millionaires. Black bodies in public are feral, unsafe, and unyielding; if left to their own devices, they are certain to infringe upon white safety, purity, and civility.
As I’m writing this, some little Black girl is undoubtedly getting snatched in the aisle of a grocery store for being too much of a little Black girl in front of some white folks. We are policing our young people hoping that if we sanitize, arrest, and whiten their public displays that we will help them and ourselves avoid the sting of social ostracism, backlash, and mistreatment. In other words, we are hoping that we can evade the recognition of our Black….. That’s bullshit….. Fuck that. They murdered Philando on camera, with his seatbelt on, in front of his nuclear family. You don’t get too much more respectable than that. Philando’s mom, Valerie, said everything. She said it all. I’m going to take tonight to reflect on her words and start my tomorrow in that spirit.