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Local musician Alfred Howard: ‘It’s a risk simply to be black’

Alfred Howard, a 42-year-old poet, songwriter and author from North Park
Alfred Howard, a 42-year-old poet, songwriter and author from North Park
(Photo by Kristy Walker)

Fear of being killed is a part of life for African Americans

Alfred Howard, a poet, songwriter and author from North Park, posted this on social media on May 31, and it is reprinted here with his permission. Listen to a version of this song at alfredhowardwrites.com .Howard will donate 50 percent of song proceeds to the Black Visions Collective, which since 2017 “has been putting into practice the lessons learned from organizations before us in order to shape a political home for Black people across Minnesota.”

I looked in the mirror last night and noticed I was black.

I don’t think about this often, though I guess it’s everyday.

A better way to put it is that I don’t acknowledge it often. I don’t break any laws these days, but when a cop is behind my car I tense up as if I did.

I think about it in the age of pandemic when I wear a mask that doesn’t allow me to disarm people with my smile. A tool I never consciously realized I employed, but did so every day to make folks feel comfortable, it was a situational instinct, never got a second thought. Now all I have is my somnolent eyes to convey my innocence, my passivity. I hope that’s enough.

I think about my blackness when I try to talk my mother down from a worried cliff, the ledge on which she lives, plugging the same lecture into a thesaurus over and over again to make it slightly different. A lecture constructed with words that I no longer believe, propped up by the weak kickstand of my breaking voice as it runs out of the steam needed to convey anything real and true. But one that once helped her sleep at night like a child’s Band Aid on a gunshot. One that suggests that if I tiptoe through America I’ll make it out alive, as if careful steps through a minefield was enough.

But last night when I looked into the mirror I saw the death magnet of my black skin. I felt a sudden inability to breathe, I felt the specter of the man’s boot on my neck as I gasped for a mother’s help to protect me like a maddening mantra of last hopelessness. I thought of every time and scenario where it could have been me because it could have, and I was for a moment so paralyzed that it felt as if it was.

It’s a risk simply to be black in a way that some will never understand. I’m a practitioner of peace, but as these fires light up the night sky, I pray they illuminate a situation that lives behind a veil of darkness. This disparity is real. The fear I have is based in reason and logic, not paranoia. And even if I’m a black man to most, I’ll always be a NIG**R to enough. And this is not alright.

So until it is:

The mercury rising like a summer in flames
The symptom of fever is all that remains
I feel the short breath of another man’s pain
Of a mother who weeps through the night
An ocean of tears can’t undo the embers
Of a moment in amber we all will remember
When the wind blew in a tempest of tempers
And the truth was exposed to the light

And we all breathe the same air
And I feel ashamed here
And only love can pull us out the dark
And if it’s one it’s everyone
Someone’s daughter someone’s son
Etch their name into my breaking heart

Won’t wear a mask but a hood’s not constricting
I refresh the feed cause the news is addicting
And 2020 vision is a blinding affliction
Can you see by the light of the fire
Cause it’s all still burning in the morning edition
And the talking heads speak but I can’t really listen
And the leader breathes gasoline speeches at friction
And there’s no consequence for the liars

And we all breathe the same air
And I feel ashamed here
And only love can pull us out the dark
And if it’s one it’s everyone
Someone’s daughter someone’s son
Etch their name into my breaking heart

My lungs are collapsing it’s so hard to breathe and his lungs were
collapsed by the weight of policemen
we’re stuck in a trap of this antique machine
Built on our sweat and our blood
Cause we’re standing knee deep in quicksand history
If we don’t turn around this is how it will be
Must the forest be ash before you need the trees
Can we turn this around with our love

And we all breathe the same air
And I feel ashamed here
And only love can pull us out the dark
And if it’s one it’s everyone
Someone’s daughter someone’s son
Etch their name into my breaking heart


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