Nearly two years ago, “Marlon James Day” was celebrated in Minnesota, a special honor bestowed on the Jamaican-born Minneapolis author who had just won the prestigious Man Booker Prize — Britain’s top literary honor — for “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”
Minnesota, a state with a strong literary community, was especially proud that a writing teacher at Macalester College in St. Paul had earned one of literature’s most coveted honors for his fictionalized book about the 1976 attempted killing of reggae king Bob Marley, its aftermath and the CIA’s role in political upheaval in Jamaica.
”I thought it would be considered as one of those experimental novels that no one reads,” James told the New York Times after winning the award — a unanimous decision though many reviewers had considered him a long shot to win. That win magnified the reach of his voice many times over.
Last weekend, James took to Facebook to voice his frustrations about racism in Minnesota as a “big, black guy” who has lived in the state for a decade. His essay was titled “Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller.”
” … I’m more famous than most people of colour in Minnesota, and yet in ten years I have only four close friends who were born here,” James wrote. “In ten years I have only seen the home of five people.”
His comments were posted a day after a jury’s June 16 acquittal of police officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop north of St. Paul last July as demonstrators took to the streets to protest the verdict.
After being pulled over, 32-year-old Castile informed the officer that he had a weapon in the car. He had a permit for it. Soon after, the officer fired seven shots at Castile. As he lay dying, another passenger in the vehicle — Castile’s girlfriend — livestreamed the aftermath on social media, attracting massive national attention.
Castile was a longtime employee of St. Paul Public Schools. At the time of his death, he worked as a nutrition services supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School.
In his Facebook post, James said that being famous hasn’t made him feel any safer in Minnesota.
I have a big global voice, but a small local one, because I don’t want to be a target, and resent that in 2017, that’s still the only choice I get to have. … I go out of my way to avoid police, because I don’t know how to physically act around them. Do I hold my hands in the air and get shot, Do I kneel and get shot? Do I reach for my ID and get shot?
Do I say I’m an English teacher and get shot? Do I tell them everything I am about to do, and get shot? Do I assume than seven of them will still feel threatened by one of me, and get shot? Do I simply stand and be big black guy and get shot? Do I fold my arms and squeeze myself into smaller and get shot? Do I be a smartass and get shot? Do I leave my iPhone on a clip of me on Seth Meyers, so I can play it and say, see, that’s me. I’m one of the approved black guys. And still get shot?
… You will never know how it feels to realize that it doesn’t matter how many magazines articles I get, or which state names a day after me. Tomorrow when I get on my bike, I am big black guy, who might be shot before the day ends, because my very size will make a cop feel threatened. Or if I’m a woman, my very mouth. And a jury of white people, and people of colour sold on white supremacy will acquit him. And even me hoping for hipster points on my fixed wheel bike, is countered by them thinking I probably stole the bike.
By early Tuesday, the essay had received hundreds of “likes” and been widely shared but received only a few comments.
“After reading this Marlon, I am convinced one must come to London and work,” one man wrote. “This constant theme of being a target cannot be healthy for you …”
Said another commenter: “Wow dude … wow … wow.”
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