On a spring day in Farmington, Maine, as I was walking downtown, I made my way through a line of cars that were waiting for the light. In front of me was a large Confederate flag flying from the back of a white pick-up. I crossed the street, not looking at who was driving the truck, and went into the store. As I went about my business, I felt stunned; my mind stirred with thoughts and feelings, memories and speculations. I felt fear, and anger, and curiosity; worry, and defiance, and humiliation.
As I stood at the register, I chatted with the older white woman behind the counter. “Hi, how are you today?”
“I’m good, how are you?,” she replied. I paused, and then I told her about the truck with the flag.
She said something like, “Oh, yes, we have some of that around here, but don’t let it upset you. Don’t let it get to you.”
I appreciated her gesture, her attempt to comfort me. At the same time, her gesture made me more uncomfortable. She was asking me to respect that person’s right to fly that flag and shrug it off like everybody else. What she failed to see, or perhaps ignore in a gesture of "colorblindness" wrapped in the First Amendment, is that I am not like everybody else who walks in the shadow of that flag. I am from "away;" my hair is coarse; my skin is dark brown. I am a black man in Maine. In so many ways, I am not like everybody else around here. But I want to belong here. In so many ways, that flag represents the denial of my rights, my belonging.
It is impossible for me to blend in, to hide my black body, to "not let it get to me." I don’t have the privilege of hiding from history. Because I am conscious, I know what it is; I know its name. It rides in the back of a pick-up truck, it proudly stalks around town like an alpha predator. It clings to me like a nightmare, while it seems like everyone else is walking through a dream. I point at the thing and say "Look!," and the crowd replies, "Yes, but…"
When I hear "Yes," I feel heard. When I hear "but," I become invisible; my life doesn’t matter. It's this "but—," this disbelief in the truth of black bodies, this tolerance for something that is ugly and intolerant, that is the terror that "everybody else" allows to walk in their midst: a casual terror that I cannot escape any more than I can escape my own body, my own consciousness. A terror that makes all lives matter less. I struggle to wake up from the nightmare, and the dream that is its mirror image. I struggle to make my life matter, for black lives to matter, so that all lives will matter.
Editor's note: Jones now lives in Burlington, Vermont.