Snakes Bite

by Nnadubem G. Muoneke

illustrator Guglielmo Castelli

Issue IX

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While keeping tabs on the Trayvon Martin trial, I couldn’t help but notice a rather disturbing fact: I never believed Mr. Zimmerman would be found guilty, and never did that state of mental accommodation scare me. It is what I have accepted this country to be. In America there exists a culture. Within that culture are anomalies: positive ones and negative ones. In America the culture is as circumstantial as the wind and follows the minority view of selfish interests to an illogical degree. The culture is such that it picks and chooses what it wants at the time it wants it. Inasmuch, one could actually identify the American culture as the embodiment of inconsistency. This is simply a function of American history. From indigents to immigrants, America is a cultural gumbo of beautiful noise with limitless spices to add to the pot. The one difference is: the only ethnicity that arrived here unwillingly, a subhuman piece of property, is the African-American. That fact has shaped the status, perception of, and relationship between them and the rest of America. The African-American: Love ‘em but OK to hate. Universally mimicked but a beacon for ridicule. Befriended in daylight but run from at night. Detested as different but revered when majestic. In America, the good are great and comparable to none. In America, the mediocre are very mediocre. Sheep. Mediocrity has ne’er seen levels surpassed by that which is seen in America. And finally, the bad. In America the bad are merciless, emotionless, non-human brain eaters absent of mercy or empathy. This is nothing more to me than an accepted truth. No different than knowing dogs bark and snakes bite. The fool that forgets that snakes bite will be bitten. Even those who understand that fact still may suffer the consequences. It is just much less likely. 

Growing up as an American child of black African immigrants I always felt different, and in many ways better, than the African-American. Why? Because I had culture. I was an all “A” student. I spoke many languages. I was the child of a Professor. My parents spoke the Queen’s English with Afro-Anglo accents for goodness’ sake! It was my first experience with a police officer in Houston, TX in 1995 that changed that belief in seconds. Strangely enough, the officer didn’t ask me how many languages I spoke, how good my grades were or if I was the child of a foreigner before he swung his club at my head like he was hoping to surpass Mark McGwire’s record for homerun distance. He just whispered in my ear, “You think this is the movies boy?” Then he attempted to separate my testicles from my body and dumped all 245 pounds of me, head first, in the back of my own truck on a freezing Houston night. Then, to culminate the shock, pain and fear of the reality setting in, he told his partner, “He hit me.” (I didn’t.)

My father had always warned me that in America, they will kill a black man for nothing and nothing will happen. I never believed him. I always thought it only happened to ghetto criminals that bring it upon themselves. Well, I didn’t bring it upon myself. 

I didn’t care much for rap music. People confused me for a white kid over the phone. I just never considered myself as “black” until that thud of my head hitting the rusty metal of my truck that night. And after years of my dad’s warnings, I knew one fact…I was what that officer and all of America sees and will always see first: black.

Despite the tone of this diatribe, I do not have the “poor me” complex. I know now what it is. I tell my young son, as my father told me: In America, they will kill a black man and nothing will happen. The only ones that will cry at your funeral is your family. 

It is a fact I want him to remember and I want to remain as chains around his neck that will hopefully keep him alive. Despite what the bad in America think, we cry when our loved ones die. This death can occur in many ways. Physical death may be the easiest to handle. At least it’s over quickly.

The bad in America has tried to kill me many times. What can I say? God said, “not yet.” I was most recently attacked this year.

Preparing for a trip overseas, I picked up a piece of luggage that I would use as my carry-on. I hadn’t used this piece in some time and I’d left a tool inside. That forgotten tool would be the cause of 48 hours of the hell and enlightenment that is a black man’s reality. I had a fruit knife in my carry-on that had been in that bag for over three years. 

As I recall, the last time this tool was in my travel repertoire was when I was playing professional basketball. During my near ten-year career, I went from a complete carnivore to nearly a raw foods vegan. As a result, there were things that became part of who I am that are considered bizarre amongst those close to me. There just aren’t many people whom can grasp that a young, black, former athlete that looks the way I do is, basically, a hippie.

Diet became a large part of my life. The tools used to eat the types of food I eat had to be readily available. Fruit knives were quite honestly the most common amongst my arsenal. If I travelled somewhere and grabbed fruit to sustain me, I needed a knife. Because I didn’t bring one, I spent a lot of money buying new knives in every country I travelled to. I learned quickly to always bring a knife wherever I travelled. I always checked in my luggage. Once I retired, I wasn’t travelling anymore. I was home or at work and knives were available without me having to run to the nearest grocery store. 

 

For me, it was a fruit knife. Precisely, it was a mango knife. For TSA it was a prohibited object for carry-on. For HPD, it was a weapon. Why was this mango knife now a weapon? Well, because of the color of the hand it was attached to. Why was Trayvon Martin an “attacker” mercilessly beating up a poor defenseless George Zimmerman? Well, because of the color of the “kid.” If Trayvon was white, we would have remembered the “kid” part. If he were white, the story would have been about an idiot who wanted to play cop that got what he deserved and was too much of a coward to take his ass-whoopin like a man and go home. So…he killed a kid. And because of this circumstantial culture, we justify the illogical. It is, in fact, more logical to say it was OK for Mr. Zimmerman to have killed Trayvon Martin because Trayvon is (was) black and black kids at seventeen at night wearing a hoodie are more menacing than white kids at seventeen at night wearing a hoodie. It would be infuriating but would be more logical than trying to justify a man killing a kid even after he was told to stop following him. 

Again, it is what it is. I knew why TSA stopped me with a knife while trying to board my flight. I too don’t want anyone on my flight with a knife. I knew when TSA turned me over to HPD that HPD would arrest me. I knew why, my knife was now called a weapon. I knew why the district attorney felt charging me with a felony was appropriate. I knew the underlying justification for all those things was the existence of one commonality and although I am not comfortable with it, I still know it. 

An older white man that tried to bring a samurai sword as a souvenir in his carry-on was told by TSA that he couldn’t bring a samurai sword onboard. He had to check it in. Then TSA confiscated it and said, have a nice flight. Strangely enough, the police weren’t called and that samurai sword was never called what it was made to be: a weapon. Yet my knife, which was made for cutting fruit, was (in my hand) called that which it was never made for: a weapon. Maybe it was because I was tall. Maybe it was the long, foreign name. Maybe my beard was my downfall. (wink)

Immediately after TSA checked me out, they turned me over to HPD, as is the law. Not because they cared if I was arrested or not, TSA is told to turn over any violator of the law “carrying prohibited and illegal object through prohibited section of the airport.” It is then HPD’s call to do what they deem appropriate.

 

As I sat in detention, I saw the officer I was turned over to on the phone. I knew he was on the phone with the D.A. and knew he couldn’t think for himself. I knew the D.A. would likely look up my name and see that I was semi-famous. I knew the D.A. would make the decision to waste taxpayer money and arrest me. Why was I so certain of all that would transpire? 

I calmly waited. After a couple of hours, I decided to sit down out of fatigue. Then after some time sitting on that hard bench, I stood up again. When I stood up, the lone black official (a 5’3” woman of intimidating countenance) of the three police officers and the five TSA reps watching over me, placed her hand over her gun and sternly commanded, “Sit down sir!” Wasn’t I the one that sat down of my own accord? Was I under arrest? Again, this was illogical but not unexpected. After a comical exchange that culminated with the officer telling me that I was a large man and she felt more comfortable with me sitting down, I sat patiently and quietly. Pointless, but at least it was honest and I understood. Finally, after some hours, the main officer in charge walked back briskly and confidently toward me and said, “Sir, please stand up and turn around.” Without emotions I did so and put my hands behind my back before being asked. As usual, these officers lock handcuffs on as tightly as possible for reasons only they know. (It is definitely not simply to keep you from getting out of them.) He then said to me that I was being arrested for carrying a prohibited weapon through a prohibited section of the airport. Then he asked me if I understood. I just smiled. I luckily had another officer come over who seemed to understand the insanity that was taking place. He was young and handsome. He was also black. He rolled his eyes when he was briefed and offered to help me let my family know what was happening. I gave him the code to my iPhone and he texted my wife for me verbatim. 

They proceeded to walk me through the airport for all to see and put me in a police car outside. These cars are not made to fit a short man let alone a 6’8” man with his hands cuffed behind his back. Beyond all better judgment of safety, the officers corkscrewed me, gently, into the back of their car and sarcastically buckled my belt. I was lying horizontally. I digress…

 

katana story 

 

Throughout my entire forty-eight hour ordeal, the only time I was truly scared was in the back of that car on the way downtown. The officer was driving in excess of 90 miles per hour, weaving through traffic. All I could concentrate on was getting to jail safely. The fear of getting into an accident and having no way of saving myself from the backseat of this car was terrifying. When we arrived at the jail I prayed and thanked God.

They booked me. 

I was amongst kids, reprobates, criminals and the insane. One guy kept calling himself “the caged lion king” as he screamed at officers and laughed to himself while blurting out randomly, “Fuck! Shit!,” and every once in a while barking. The booking officers continued about their jobs without fear or emotion. It was as if they were giving him the forum to attack, actually hoping he would. It was strange for a petroleum engineer, a husband, and a father of four to be in this place, with these people, for having a fruit knife—sorry, a weapon—in my carry-on luggage.

I was then taken to city jail after my embarrassing strip search and mug shots. 

I saw a few fights. An old man kicked someone in his chest. Officers did nothing. Many looks of shame as the Nigerian doctors and booking officers saw my name on the list and quickly stuck their heads out of their offices to confirm it was me being arrested. As I went through the system, I knew I was just waiting to be bailed out. At approximately midnight, I confirmed by phone that my wife had told my mother to bail me out and she was downtown. 

Why they felt the need to move me from city to county, I don’t know. On the way, they had me see some idiot who told me what I was charged with. It was a felony and all the legal mumbo jumbo that came with it. Somehow from there on the way to county, I saw my charge sheet and it now said: “Possession of a pistol in prohibited place.” I pointlessly asked the nearest officer, why my charge was incorrectly noted on my sheet. She stoically said, “The charge is the charge.” It took a lot of energy to finally get them to concede the charge was wrong and they’d find out why it was erroneously documented. They then walked me into a windowless van in which I had to sit sideways while chained to four other inmates as we started for county jail. The whole thing was a bad joke. 

 

Upon arrival to county I had to strip again. Basically I went through the same thing I went through at city. I felt like Natalie Portman’s character in the movie V for Vendetta. I was being processed for hours. No sleep. No food. The tactics they used on every inmate there reminded me of how my father described the military during his time in war: done only to frustrate. In a place that was paid for by taxpayer money, how could they afford to keep this rundown building so cold?! It was 100 degrees in Houston but not one room in city or county jail was warmer than 60 degrees. Why?

My ordeal was a roller coaster. One I will never forget. The officers there argued with my mother that I was not a citizen, so she was looking for me in the wrong spot. It wasn’t until she screamed that she bore me in Michigan in 1978 that the officer felt he made a mistake and arrogantly turned the phone over to another officer to rectify his mistaken assumption. I was forgotten and saw tens of people come in after me and leave before me—this entire time I had long been bailed out. 

I didn’t eat and they wouldn’t feed me. After eating the way I have for so long, I have violent reactions to processed sugar. Weak, tired and hungry, I told this to the county jail medic, to which she said, “This is America, everything is processed.” 

Monkey. 

I raised my head and responded, “Are bananas processed? Are oranges processed? Are apples processed?” She gave me a dumbfounded look and I lowered my head. I did not eat or sleep for 33 hours. They claimed the food they had is what was available. However, in many logical circles, what they feed the inmates there would not be classified as food. “This is jail,” I was told numerous times. So that means people cease to be human? 

After losing my paperwork—freezing, hungry and tired—I found the energy to engage, once again, with the futile. I went to see if I could get an officer to tell me why I was still here 33 hours after I had been bonded. I say it was futile because normally officers do not pay attention to inmates; they provoke them, tell them to sit down and shut up or altogether ignore them. They did it to me once before: I’d decided to sit with my hands in my shirtsleeves to stay warm, while quietly waiting to be released. The only reason I got up was because I hadn’t talked to my wife in 15 hours, I was in a room with no phone and I knew she was in downtown Houston worried and with my one-year-old child waiting to see when and where I would be released. Downtown Houston at 4 am is not a place one would feel comfortable leaving a woman and a child alone. So I got up and got an officer’s attention. I asked him if I could please call my wife as I had been in that particular room for 15 hours and hadn’t spoken to her since and she may be worried, in danger, or both. He sternly and rudely responded, “Last name?” When I told him, his voice softened and he said, “Oh. Come out here with me for a second. I’ve been looking for you.” 

What?! He’s been looking for me?! If it weren’t such a shame it would have been funny. 

As they started to “process me out,” one lady looked at my sheet and her eyes got huge. She looked at her colleague and said, “I’m not touching this one. You see when he got here? I ain’t getting in trouble.” Finally, one officer called me over, stamped my paperwork and scooted me out as quickly as she could. The Harris County jail spit me out in downtown Houston at 5:45 am—no phone, dirty and penniless. I was again amongst those unlike me and in an uncomfortable situation. I borrowed someone’s phone and luckily found my wife just leaving downtown and crying uncontrollably. I wasn’t personally distraught: I felt bad for her. This was foreign to her but normal to me. We went to court and the case was thrown out in seconds. Thanks taxpayers!

 

I never pitied myself. I knew what the bad in America is capable of and why. But my wife is not from America. She has lived as deluded as I did long ago. We are children of distinguished Africans. America would never do the same thing to us as they do to African-Americans. Today she believes what I’ve known for years: There is no African or African-American or African-Caribbean or mixed-African or African-anything… There is only black.

There are brothers in suffering like the Mexican- and Native-American and they similarly accept unfortunate realities that blacks do, just from a slightly different perspective and genesis. I saw children being treated like, and being tricked into becoming, criminals during my torment. These kids went from cocky and stupid to scared, crying, angry and belligerent. They went from ignorant kids to criminals before my eyes. Who made them criminals? A kid watches too much TV and does something stupid. When those in a position of authority have the opportunity to teach and keep that kid from folly, they instead provoke them to fear, anger, and finally, to survival mode. These kids are then tagged: Criminals. What choice did that child have? 

What I saw being done to kids while in that jail was by far the most disturbing thing I witnessed.

 

Why was my fruit knife a weapon? Why was the samurai sword not? Why did they try to charge me with a felony? Why were almost all the inmates there the same race? Why is it OK to treat them like animals? Why did I even go through what I did? Why was Trayvon no longer a kid? Simple. Dogs bark. Snakes bite.


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