Over the past week, tens of millions of people across the country have been subject to restrictive curfews. This is probably the first time most living white Americans have been experienced such severe restrictions on their movement.
But it’s no surprise to me. I’m Black, and I know our history.
Black folks have been living under an entirely different reality for a long time. This isn’t just Black history in the U.S. Black history is American history. Black folks have struggled and fought regardless of the legal barriers racial capitalism throws up. Right now, many white people are getting a very small taste of what Black folks have faced for centuries. We need to seize this moment and fight together.
The majority of the time African peoples — “free” and unfree — have been in the U.S., our movement has been highly regulated. During slavery, to travel between plantations, we had to have a note from master. And we couldn’t read the note because it was illegal to teach us to read and write. Of course, we weren’t allowed to run away from slavery. Slave patrols are the origins of policing in the U.S.
Then came curfews and sundown towns. These racist practices were even extended into full exclusion from whole states. Oregon, for example, inscribed in its constitution that Blacks were expressly forbidden from residing in the state. Period. Much of the Pacific Northwest was founded with the express purpose of being a white supremacist utopia excluding Blacks and other non-white folks.
During Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and even into the 1990s, sundown towns were all over the country, not just in the South. From the end of Reconstruction into the 1990s, thousands and thousands of towns literally posted signs saying: “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in ___,” and other such welcoming variations. Jewish and Chinese families were also subjected to similar laws for a time.
“Sundown Towns” by James Loewen, published in 2018, documents the reality of sundown towns and curfews that Black folks have known and experienced for a long time. There’s even a database on Tougaloo College’s website documenting towns that forbade Blacks from being outdoors after dark. Even more towns didn’t have written ordinances but were effectively sundown towns in practice.
This all came on top of the apartheid segregation practices legalized in the United States Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized “separate but equal” treatment under the law. It’s part of the reason the The Negro Motorist Green Book exists — a reference guide Black travelers used to identify relatively less racist towns and businesses in unfamiliar parts of the country.
Our ability to move freely is still highly fraught even though segregation has been legally overturned. Redlining and poverty keep Black folks clustered together. But even if we could leave financially, sometimes we stay for physical, emotional, and psychological security. This is all a legacy of our history.
To this day, it’s normal conversation for Black folks to walk in somewhere and wonder why we’re the only ones in there. And sometimes we leave — especially if the white people there are staring at us. This was always a consideration for my family when I was growing up on the Richmond-Oakland corridor in California. It was even more on our minds if we visited very white areas like Marin, Napa, or Sonoma.
My parents had many conversations while my sister and I listened in about which stores, schools, summer programs, pools, whatever seemed welcoming — which ones didn’t look at us like we were aliens, and which did. How many programs was I removed from as a child because my parents observed racist shit go down? How many times did my parents have to band together with the few other Black parents in our school to confront teachers? More than I count on my two hands.
I learned from my family how to safely navigate public space as much as possible as a Black woman. And all this is just part of our normal considerations, normal everyday conversation. We get asked why we’re here, there, or anywhere.
The curfews are everywhere now and targeting more than just Black people this time. And yet they still have everything to do with Black people. The police murder an innocent Black man in Minneapolis and an innocent Black woman in Louisville, and the state’s reaction, is not to seek justice but to oppress those who demand it. Black people are all too familiar with that reaction, too.
I’m not scared of these curfews. You shouldn’t be either.
Defy them. Together. They can’t arrest all of us.