We’ve all been there. You’re standing over here, and they’re over there, not too far from you. It’s a public space. They’re screaming. You aren’t. Maybe it’s awkward, because there are only a few people around, or because for whatever similar reason you don’t blend in. Or maybe it’s crowded. They’re usually not addressing you, and eye contact feels dicey. Perhaps they’re getting arrested, or they’re railing against the world as though no one can hear them, giving thundering voice to an anger you too have felt, though probably for different reasons. 

Whatever the circumstances, the person yelling is almost always of a different class group, race, level of mental health or medication than you, the listener. It just seems to turn out that way. You have to reach a little (or a lot) to get around to grasping where this person’s coming from, and sometimes it’s impossible. 

For myself, I have on more than one occasion been the witness to various black American men expressing their rage at feeling helpless. Most of the time it’s a scene involving arrest, with handcuffs and batons and other such stark symbols of agency stifled. Other times it’s between two folks fighting or a few, talking big, puffed-out with veins bulging, young people pretending they’ve never known fear, with no idea how better to express themselves or solve their travails.

When confronted with these scenes I find myself thinking about legacies. How for much of our nation’s history, blacks were not allowed to buy homes, because that’s a way of accumulating wealth and passing it on to your children.* How blacks were not allowed to learn to read, have access to the same schools, banks, or transportation, or all the other insidious ways an entire people has been handicapped in plain sight. These carefully manufactured designs toward suppression are the causes, and they’re often hidden (as best as possible), but the final effect is crystallized in the rude and tragic poetry of one man’s inarticulate roar. 

“I’m supposed to have smarts, and stuff,” a fellow told me years ago on the 13. I still think about that line. We were joking around about a whole host of topics, but he was dead serious for that brief sentence, and I remember the pause that hung in the air following his words. He knew there is supposed to be more, should be more that he can touch, and the reasons why have been kept from him… but he could sense it nonetheless. We have the capacity to imagine a better world, even if we have never seen it. 

In a word, what I’m trying to say here is that angry yelling black guys tend to put me in a state of somber reflection. Go figure. I’m not sure what this says about me, and right now I’m not sure I care; my focus is on the fact that I’ve seen people deprived of agency and driven to incoherent displays of aggressiveness rather more than should be ideal. 

Which is why I was taken aback when I comprehended the words this guy was yelling.

I was on my break at Rainier and Henderson, shoveling down kale salad with chopsticks and bent over Tolstoy’s War and Peace (so good!)Across the street was football practice, the high school stadium’s high-beam halogens and cries of victory and defeat illuminating the night. Parents and others stood about the fringes on either side of the fence. Somebody was calling out to another, a friend by the sound of it, and they must have been far apart in distance because this guy, who didn’t exactly look like he was living easy, was hollering. Except his hollering was not the kind that makes me sad.

I’M FORTY-EIGHT YEARS OLD AND WE AIN’T GOT THAT MUCH TIME LEFT ON THIS URF! LE’S BE CIVIL TO EACH OTHER AND ENJOOOOOY THA AIR WE BREATHE! THA’S WHY I DON’T SMOKE, THAT’S WHY I DON’T DRINK. YOU SNAP YO’ FINGERS IT COULD ALL BE OVER LIKE THAT! LE’S BE GOOOD TO ONE ANOTHER, BRUH! PEACE AND LOVE, 2019!!!”

I wish I had caught the rest. It was beautiful, friend. Magical. He doesn’t know how he inspired me so. Change can start one person at a time, one step at a time, simply in the act of being our best selves. When the chips are stacked against us there are still decisions to be made, choices, for which we nonetheless bear responsibility. Of course, it’s not in my purview to critique the rage I describe above. Every response to being black in America is a valid response. 

But this guy.

“She took life as it came, and made the best of it,” reads a line I’ve forgotten the source of, but which I treasure. On this night, he was the example to follow. In the face of everything, all of it, it is a mistake to turn away from the generative and rejuvenating possibility of Joy. There is always joy. You might feel I’m not qualified to say so, and you would would be entitled to that perspective. But tonight I didn’t say so.

He did.

*It’s difficult to overstate the vastness of ramifications this has had. I’m referring both to the “whites only” housing rules pre-1968, as well as the subsequent rampant lack of enforcement of LBJ’s otherwise well-intentioned Fair Housing Act. By now we all know the impact of withheld education; but housing discrimination fans out to all aspects life just as pervasively, reinforcing segregation on the commercial, industrial, and personal levels, affecting access to everything from schools to hospitals to nutritious food, zoning lines for voting, the ability to save, invest or inherit land, as well as the fallout ghettos have in their proximity to crime, disease, statistical tendency toward single parenting, limitations on public spending, a decreased tax base and so much more. In their now-legendary 1988 study, sociologists Nancy Danton and Douglas Massey argue, extremely persuasively, that the fundamental cause of poverty among African-Americans is residential segregation. Interested? Yes, there’s a book about it.

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Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.