Black people and our collective hustle to survive

The police killed another Black man on Tuesday. His name was Alton Sterling, and he lived in Baton Rouge, La. For most Black folks, trying to make it from paycheck to paycheck is a hard reality. The perils of poverty, anti-Black racism, intergenerational traumas and compounding structural inequalities make the day-to-day hustles (whatever they might be) necessary.

For Sterling, selling CDs outside the local Triple S Food Mart was his hustle.

Sometimes the hustle looks like Black women making lemonade out of sour lemons, as Beyoncé notes. Other times it looks like elders cooking up their best dishes and selling them from their kitchen windows. The hustle might even look like 12-year-olds buying penny candies from the corner store and reselling them for five cents to the other kids at recess.

Whatever it looks like, Black folks have always had to hustle to keep the lights on, keep food on the table and keep our sanity in a world that does not love us. Unfortunately, all too often we shun the hustle, without questioning why Black folks have to hustle in the first place.

The rapper Cassidy once said: “I’m a hustler, I’m a—I’m a hustler, homie.” Truth be told, his hustle wasn’t any different from Sterling’s hustle—nor is it any different from those of the Black folks in the academy or even on Wall Street. To be clear, all these hustles have different implications and politics attached to them, but what is irrefutable is that we are all trying to brave a capitalist, White supremacist society that demonizes us, strips us of resources and kills us slowly—like in Flint, Mich., where the water is brown. And sometimes in less than two seconds, as with Tamir Rice; or while we’re sleeping, like Aiyana Stanley-Jones; or the night before our wedding day, as with Sean Bell.

‘Hustling’ is a word with many connotations. For many of us, respectability politics would have us believe that hustling is inherently destructive. When some hear the word, they imagine a ghettoized dungeon of crime and drug abuse, but if we are honest, we’re all ‘hustlers’ trying to make it.

Alton Sterling, like so many of us, was trying to make it. Those CDs were probably his only source of income, or they could have been a part of his side hustle. Whether it was primary or supplementary income, selling those CDs was the means by which Sterling could have enough change in his pocket to feed his family. What else are Black folks to do when the threat of poverty is pervasive, all while the criminalization of the poor and the homeless, especially in the South, is in flux?

And yet, “He has a gun. He has a gun,” were reportedly the words uttered from the lips of one of the officers holding Sterling down to the ground after violently tackling him. Those officers didn’t understand Sterling, nor could they conceptualize his hustle. In the video of the incident, the heavy-set, tall, dark-skinned Black man is rendered helpless. In fact, he is crying out for help, but Black people are never given help.

As I watched, I heard the words of Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe,” even though those were not Sterling’s last words. Garner and Sterling could have been brothers. They are brothers. One was selling loosies in Staten Island, N.Y., and the other was selling CDs in Baton Rouge. Both were suffocated (literally and figuratively) by those charged “to protect and serve.” Indeed, there is an ancestral echo that permeates the ears and the heart while one is watching the videos of Black folks killed by the police. Our spirits know what it feels like to see our kin slain even before we hear the gunshots, and our eyes recognize the blood long before the red stains our kin’s clothes.

It is that same spiritual connection to our dead that propels the masses to the streets to cry for justice. In Ferguson, Mo., seeing Michael Brown’s dead body lie in the middle of Canfield Green for four-and-a-half hours was the accelerant that reignited this current iteration of the Black liberation movement. Scores of protesters took to the streets in New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles and other parts of the world, such as Toronto and London. In Baton Rouge, freedom fighters have taken to the streets chanting, “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace.” The people’s anger is righteous, even as the police do unrighteous things.

In May, Louisiana Gov. Jon Bell Edwards signed the ‘Blue Lives Matter Bill’ into law, which expands the state’s hate crime statute to include the supposed targeting of police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel. The co-optation of Black Lives Matter and the sanitization of BLM’s stance against police brutality aligns directly with the prophetic forewarnings of BLM co-founder Alicia Garza, who stated in October 2014, “When you drop ‘Black’ from the equation of whose lives matter and then fail to acknowledge it came from somewhere, you further a legacy of erasing Black lives and Black contributions from our movement legacy.”

This erasure makes sense, given that Louisiana sends more Black people, especially Black men, to death row than any other state; has a 19.6% poverty rate (pdf), which is approximately seven percentage points above the national average; and is known as the world’s prison capital.

The master’s tools had long been in effect in Louisiana, and Sterling was killed for being a Black man solely hustling to survive.