by Samuel James
by Samuel James

Protestation Nation

All these protests… A lot is being said about them, and it seems everyone’s got an opinion, but from what I’m seeing and hearing, a whole lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about. So I thought I’d compile a tip list on how to understand everything that’s been going on.

  1. Inform your opinion.

That’s it. It’s a quick list. That’s all you’ve got to do. Go down to the library and pick up something by Dr. King or bell hooks. You’ll start to get it. I promise.

Before you do that, though, I’m going to tell you something you should know, something that may be controversial: You cannot know what it is to be black in America if you are not black in America.

To some of you that is perfectly obvious and not controversial in the slightest. But there are others who are arguing with me in their minds already. If that’s you, then there are a few more things you need to know.

The first is that I, like most black people who enter into these sorts of conversations, have had these conversations many, many, many times. Inevitably something is said to the effect of, “I’m not black, but

  1. I was bullied as a kid.”
  2. I can use my imagination to understand what it would be like to be black.”
  3. I understand human behavior.”

But the problem is,

  1. Being bullied as a kid is not the same thing as being bullied as a kid plus living in a country that was built upon, and continues to benefit from, the free labor and continued destruction of your lineage and others who generally look like you.
  2. No you can’t. You can imagine what it’s like to be a unicorn. That unicorn can live in a fantasy world entirely of your making, in the most flowery, transcendent fields of your mind. But black people are real and we have to live in a very real world in which your imagination on this topic is as relevant as a unicorn.
  3. Someone at your job is mad at you and you don’t know why. This is because you do not understand human behavior. Also, you are not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I know this because I never have to have one of these conversations with an anthropologist or a sociologist.

If you’re not a black person but claim to understand what it’s like to be black in America, you sound like someone whose knowledge of aviation is limited to having once seen a picture of a plane, yet is now telling a pilot how to fly. Only worse. Much, much worse, because while being a pilot is a complicated job, race in America is exponentially more complicated, with many more lives at stake.

But here’s the good news: Though you can’t know what it’s like to be black in America if you are not, that’s not necessary in order to help. The closest person to me in my life is a woman. I am not a woman, but that doesn’t stop me from helping her in time of need, defending her if necessary or loving her. I am capable of doing all of this because I listen to her talk about her experiences without superimposing my own. I don’t tell her that something didn’t happen to her just because it didn’t happen to me.

So, what is protest, anyway?

A protest isn’t necessarily designed to do what you think it’s designed to do. Some protests are meant to rally the public behind the cause. Some are meant to disturb the public. Some are meant to develop unrest in a way that inspires lawmakers to take specific actions. There are many reasons for, and ways to, protest.

Some people figure, Why bother learning when I can have an opinion without all that effort? Don’t figure that. If you see a protest, find out why they’re protesting.

If even this is too much to think about and you’re more of a law-and-order type of citizen, then I suggest you accept that the First Amendment contains the freedom to assemble for a reason. You also might be interested to know that in the spring of 1981 there were weeks of protest culminating in several straight days during which protesters blocked traffic from entering as many as nine major routes into Boston. The protesters were police and firefighters.


Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.