My Brother’s Keeper
By Emilie Opoku
January 17, 2024
Civil disobedience is ingrained in the African American identity, and it’s most prominently illustrated in pop culture by black artists and filmmakers.
Let’s take it back for a second to the days where my people were stuck in shackles: to the days when, Black people were worth the voyages across the Middle Passage but unworthy of becoming something more than a commodity. The minds and bodies of my people were weaponized to service their oppressors for capital gain. The African slaves suffered through the intensified labor, bloodshed, and criminalization of their people. Their flowers lay buried somewhere in the vast ocean with the Lost Ones who could not withstand the journey. As my people prayed, salvation from this mortal hell would reach them soon.
The red, white, and blue does not serve me the way it does you.
Brother Martin has fallen from grace in the fight for human equality. We stand at a time where freedom is only available for those willing to break the chains of ignorance and oppression. There’s so much buzz in the air as Muhammad Ali puts his gloves up on a shelf in protest of the Vietnam War. The America Ali comes from, Black America, has no beef with Vietnam. So why should he put his life on the line?
Ali refuses to keep his mouth shut to entertain the masses. He breaks the cycle by refusing to enlist in a war that serves no purpose to his people, my people. Ali puts his successful career in jeopardy to show Black people that nobody should have the power to dictate their actions but themselves. The heavyweight champ invokes his right to challenge a cause he does not believe in, and uplifts the voice of our people.
It’s ironic — America loves its citizens until we point out the fact that life, liberty, and happiness were never equally established for everyone. The New York State Athletic Commission stripped the champ of his title and convicted him for refusing to be drafted. His actions were a direct attack on the country’s character. These radical acts were a sledgehammer, tearing down the pillars of so-called freedom this country has worked so hard to build.
We not gonna let this American hypocrisy hold us down though.
Reality sets in. Two fellow brothers stand on the podium, at the highest point in their careers, waiting to receive their flowers. This is their moment, and everyone’s watching — from London, to China, to Barcelona. Without a man of the people, we recognize time is of the essence. The brothers must act with a quickness. The world is watching as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists high in the air.
The two athletes are stuck at a standstill, between glory and liberation. They stand humble, beloved by their country, yet prepared to lose it all — their awards, their accolades, their flowers — for the sake of humanity.
You ain’t about to play on our time, we are nobody’s commodity.
Our Black bodies are not for anyone’s profit or entertainment. African Americans change the trajectory of how America views them through protest. The entertainment we produce and our Blackness are not synonymous with each other. With their “Black Power Salute” at the 1968 Olympics, Smith and Carlos rejected the idea that Black athletes were merely cash cows for the U.S. These brothers’ “public misconduct,” was an act of courage and righteousness at the expense of taking home the gold and bronze. They could not ignore the reality of my people suffering racism and oppression back home while standing in front of millions — it’d be a disservice.
We finna start a riot in here, they ain’t seen our Black attitude for real.
The stage is set with the infamous rap group N.W.A in the early 90s.
Fuck the police.
Five young brothers sit around the studio, ready to spit bars on the mic. The illest group in the game preaches their Ghetto Gospel. They rap about what it means to be a Black man in Compton, where hate and violence pollute the air like wildfire. The attitude they possess is killer, as they ignite the emergence of West Coast Hip Hop. The America we reside in has chained fences surrounding it, meant to contain the pandemonium within our community — but these boys don’t give a damn.
Instead of bowing down to respectability politics, N.W.A kicks it to the curb. The brothers are dressed in uniform: black jackets, black pants, solid T-shirts, gold chains, fitted caps, and the classic striped Adidas on their feet. They march forward with pride, despite being hated across the country for use of profanity. Ice Cube, Easy E, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren stomp loudly on the wilted flowers near the fence. Rap music is these brothers' form of resistance to the ongoing Black struggle against murder, violence, racial profiling, drugs, and temptations that are targeted at our community.
The outward disdain Black people have for the corruption of police, who incessantly harass our community instead of protecting it, is woven into the lyrical essence of Hip Hop music. N.W.A’s approach to Hip Hop largely relied on reappropriating negative stereotypes forced onto the Black community to make it profitable, allowing N.W.A. to have a better grasp of their narrative. The rappers reclaim a word of hate and spin it into a term of cultural endearment. They talk about selling dope with pride, glorify the violence surrounding them, and bask in a heavy musk of unapologetic Blackness. Our brothers turn to gang violence and drugs to perhaps compensate for being treated as second-class citizens in America. These antics cannot truly be explained unless you’re immersed in our world, and that’s where the discontent sets in.
Y’all don’t wanna hear about our problems, you just wanna dance.
The emergence of John Singleton’s film, Boyz n the Hood, is an act of civil disobedience in the most subtle form possible. Furious Styles sits his boy down, and explains the respectability politics that are necessary to survive in the hood. He teaches Trey how to become a young man, how to interact with the police, and how to love thy neighbor rather than hate. The temptations of the hood — sex, money, murder — is what Trey tries his best not to succumb to. Trey Styles' flowers were stolen from him before they even had a chance to grow. Trey’s temper brews out of frustration with the oppressive systems he’s engulfed in. Women and children hear the gunshots and sirens popping off every other night in South Central. Everyday feels like a never-ending struggle to stay alive, to keep on breathing, and to stay out of the fire. Trey is petrified of falling into these cycles: he fears being another statistic, another dispensable Black body. In the end, his best friend, DoughBoy, is conscious of the fact that people either “don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care” about what’s going on in the hood.
Singleton’s documentation of social relationships, like the father-son connection that Furious and Trey Styles have, humanizes Black people who are more often than not characterized as savage beings. He negates the ideas that Black men aren’t worthy of love, aren’t worthy of respect, aren’t worthy of a fair chance in life just like everyone else.
The love we have for our brothers triumphs everything.
There’s something so subliminal about the multifaceted Black experience — the existence of Black culture is resistance in and of itself. Our people — Martin, Ali, N.W.A., Singleton — fight the power FOR US. The ways in which we see demonstrations across a span of time isn’t for anyone’s betterment but Black people as a whole. The love Black people have for each other is what continues to preserve the African American identity.
America lives in a glass sanctuary, one in which people choose blissful ignorance where it benefits them the most. They cannot fathom the idea of shattering this sanctuary — doing so would mean that they would have to take responsibility for disparities faced across the country. If such an ideal society truly exists — one in which the stars and stripes serve equal for all — then our brothers would not sacrifice their comfort. Black people would’ve earned their flowers centuries ago if they learned to be complacent in the systems that work against them. Our brothers would not abandon their flowers if not to oversee the welfare of one another.
We all we got. We all we need. ■
Layout: Anh Tran
Photographer: Tyson Humbert
Stylists: Jordyn Jackson & Reyana Tran
HMUA: Lily Cartagena
Models: Nick Selesi & Jaden Spurlock