Interviews and photos by Opal Palmer Adisa
James Robinson, 82 years strong, West Oakland resident, is a retired Contra Costa County deputy sheriff. He began the interview by saying he has seen a lot of injustice against Black people in his lifetime. Growing up in Oklahoma in the era of Jim Crow segregation, he witnessed “white only” and “Black only” fountains, was told to go to the back to enter restaurants, and was once kicked out of an A&W restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi, by a white waitress who said she didn’t care that he was in military attire. The two white soldiers with him were also denied service, because they had come with a Black man.
Discrimination followed Robinson long after the end of segregation and after he had left the South—the type of discrimination that many non-Blacks do not see or think unimportant, but which contributes to a general theme of the African experience in America. A week ago, Robinson relates, “I was at a bar at a golf tournament in north Vallejo. The bartender looked at me and two other Black guys and turned to a white fella and said ‘I see you have been waiting a long time. Can I help you?’ I just had to speak up, and say we have been waiting longer than he has. [The bartender] recognized that he might have made a mistake, and waited on us. But the mere fact that he could do that says racism has not gone away, it is unconscious....”
In defense of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Robinson said, “A lot of people have misunderstood [him] when he kneeled for the National Anthem. If you listen to him, he is saying some very important things about people and that Black life matters.”
Robinson wants to be seen, “As who I am, not based on how anybody else lives, but how I want to live. I am me. I remember thinking as a young man that the most important thing for me to do is to take care of the people around me, at any expense. As I have grown older, I’ve learned that you also have a responsibility to take care of yourself.”
A father of four, grandfather of seven and great grandfather of four, James Robinson’s life matters to at least three generations.
Joshua West, 13, is an 8th-grader at Claremont Middle School in Oakland, an athlete and all-round good student; he spoke with great insights on why his life matters.
“I am aware of BLM. I don’t know why different races be trying to kill Black people. They kill all races, but Black people the most. We are human beings. We all should be treated equally. I just don’t get it....”
West’s response is common to so many young Black men who are truly puzzled by this country’s injustice against Black people.
“My life matters because God put me here for a reason,” he says. “He didn’t put me here just so you could take me out. I want to be seen as that person who always makes you laugh, and who is always there for you. I want to be the person who everybody likes and have fun with.”
A passionate man, 64-year-old consultant James Hadley says his life matters “because of the love, respect and upbringing my parents, their parents and our ancestors have given me. It matters because I have a responsibility to raise my kids and others on the importance of things I have learned: Right, Wrong, Respect, Peace, Love and Faith.”
Hadley speaks about the systemic entrenchment of racism, which is why he supports BLM. “The kind of violence perpetrated by police and others against Black folks and people of color is despicable. Cellphones capture crimes committed against our folks and Grand Juries around this country continue to release these criminal cops. We Black folks are the main target of racist policies that have existed throughout the history of this country.”
Despite living in such a state, we should marvel that many Black men are still gentle and kind and display their humanity—a quality that is evident in Hadley. “I would like to be seen as a good person who helped out and tried to share my happiness, joy and sometimes sadness of being part of the human race,” he says.
For 23-year-old Kelly, a senior Graphic Design Student at the California College of the Arts and a transplant to San Francisco from Washington, D.C., the life of a Black man is, at best, trying.
Articulate and self-contained, Kelly believes, “there’s a silent war against me in the United States due to the high percentage of police brutality and mass incarceration. I do agree, All Lives Matter and should be equally represented. However, I feel, whenever the Black community fights for its overdue justice, everyone wants a part and that results in us being pushed to the side. So, until I see and experience change within my community and how we are treated in America, no lives matter but Black lives.”
Kelly engages with a diverse group in his life and respects who they are and their rights. He just believes that Black folks have to take care of themselves first. He considers himself “a proud, God-fearing, unapologetic Black man.”
“I want to be an inspiration (hero) one day to a Black child who’s seeking guidance in identifying their purpose in this world,” says Kelly, not to be seen “as an animal or as a criminal, but a human being.”
Rapper Clint Collins, 32, is a practicing Muslim who integrates all aspects of his life. “I always want people to look at me and see a Muslim, not the negative picture of Muslims the media tries to paint but actually someone who practices Islam, which is a religion of peace. I would like to be viewed in society as a good person who contributes to making the world a better place. I want society to see a successful, intelligent and strong Black man.”
Collins, whom I have known for at least 15 years, has a big heart. If you wonder why his life matters, he sums it up best:
“My life matters because I’m a Black man in America and I haven’t done anything for it not to matter. My life matters because my ancestors were stolen from their homeland and forced into slavery and I’m living proof that the ones who fought for freedom didn’t do so in vain. My life matters because I positively affect so many other people’s lives and I’m always trying to make the world a better place. My life matters because my mother and grandmother told me it does.”
Amani Chatmon of Oakland, 16, a junior in high school, possesses a wisdom beyond his age. He realizes that when Black people are “witnessing innocent Black bodies harshly and unjustly being killed without any recognition of actual loss of life—this is where the outrage is coming from.” A diligent student and a hard worker, Kahlil’s life matters because, as he declares, “I have so much to offer to my family, my community, my country and my race. As a Black young man I have a responsibility to study my history and analyze the situations that are happening in the present and come up with a way to better the future, not only for myself, but for the people around me. I have a vision.”
A wisdom seeker, Kahlil says, “I want to be seen as a humble and knowledgeable king who isn’t scared to combat corruption. I want to be seen as an equal, but I need the world to recognize the power my people possess, as well as the historic depth.”
Seventeen years old, handsome and charismatic, Oakland student Jordan Dabney puts it succinctly when he says why his life matters. “I have potential to do amazing things in my lifetime, and to bring joy to a lot of people throughout my lifetime. But honestly, I shouldn’t need a reason to matter other than the simple fact that I’m alive. I live, therefore I matter.”
“I want to be seen as an individual with choices, and I want people to respect that these choices put me in control of my life, successes and failures,” he adds. “I also want to be seen as someone who has the potential to contribute positivity to all of my communities.”
An up and coming designer from Philly, 23-year-old Marc Singleton, a senior at the California College of the Arts, wants to be seen “as a popular role model in the Black community. But I value how I see myself more. I just want to be content with myself and the work I have produced that helps, improves and inspires other’s lives.”
Raised with a sense of community and responsibility, Singleton knows his life matters “because of the sacrifices of others before me. So, making others’ lives matter gives me a sense of completeness. Being able to open doors for my brothers and sisters in career fields they never knew were obtainable.”
The quest to be seen and be recognized as a man is a long-standing petition and demand of Black men. There is a famous picture from the ‘60s of a Black man wearing a placard around his neck which reads: “I am a man.” I know and recognize this image of manhood in the life and worldview of 31-year-old Ozem Roberts, assistant manager in the media services division of an Oakland educational institution.
Roberts gets right to heart of the matter about the value of his life. “My life matters because I live to love, teach and encourage others. I matter! I’m a believer of hope, change and growth from all angles. I want to be seen as the strong person that I am.”
Oakland resident and father, 37-year-old Yousef is grounded in community and family and draws his strength and identity from that foundation. “My life is very important as I have a family that depends on me,” he affirms. “I have young boys that I have to lead into becoming young men.”
About the larger question of his individual self-worth, he says, “I want to be seen as a human being, as a role model, a positive person, a hard worker; not as a drug dealer; not be looked at like I’m going to steal your purse or break into your car.”
Certainly, a goal of BLM is to shatter the stereotype of all Black men as criminals. There are countless Black men, such as Yousef, who go to work daily, provide for their families and live decent, honest lives.
It seems appropriate that the youngest should have the last word.
DeMarcus Thompson, 13, is also an eighth grader at Claremont Middle School, whose eyes glow as he confronts these issues. He appears very present in the world and has given my questions a lot of thought.
With a rushed breath he says, “We do a lot of good things. We don’t just do bad things because we are Black, so we should be equal to everybody else. It shouldn’t be different. My life matters because I am a good person. I have a family that loves me, and I have people that look up to me, and I feel that I’m going to do something good with my life. I want to be seen as a good person, a humble person. I want others to see me as something good when I get out of college. I don’t like to see people depressed. I don’t like to see people be put down. I just want everybody to be happy.”
DaMarcus is the voice of tomorrow, so we need to listen and keep him safe so that his voice indeed matters and the beaming light of happiness evident in his face spreads and helps to light the world.