It was October 3rd, 1995. It was relatively warm in Seattle. The weather hadn’t turned cold and damp yet, so I wore sandals and skorts my aunt bought me from JCPenney. My second-period class, Japanese 2A, had just started. Listening to the announcements, I coated my lips with another layer of MAC’s Fetish lipstick. I loved the color. My best friend put me on to MAC back in June, one the same day she insisted on plucking my eyebrows for the first time. Lashawn had not steered me wrong on either count. The tone matched my skin perfectly and tidying up my eyebrows made my eyes stand out. I glanced at my compact mirror, making sure my lipstick wasn’t out of bounds when the regular announcements were interrupted by momentous news:
The verdict was in.
Closing arguments had wrapped up, and the climax of the ‘Trial of the Century’ was here. My instructor, Cardo-san, turned the TV to CNN so we could watch as the verdict was read. Cardo-san was a character. On my first day of school, I was shocked that my Japanese instructor was not a native speaker. Cardo-san was a good ole boy stationed in Japan during his military days. He’d married a Japanese woman, immersing himself in the culture. He became fluent in Japanese, obtaining all the credentials needed to teach it.
Cardo-san stood rigid, hands clasped across his slight belly. The verdict was read. As the words ‘not guilty’ rolled off the lips of the foreman, an audible gasp went up from the class. In an instant, Cardo-san was transformed; his skin so flushed that he resembled a pomegranate. I could see every vein in his head pumping. Cardo-san said nothing, but he didn’t have to. His rage was apparent.
I was suddenly aware of my difference at that moment. While my high school was 33% Black, the Japanese classes were not. Most of my classmates, regardless of background, opted for French and Spanish as they were more manageable. I scoffed at the idea of learning either language. The rebel in me chafed at going with the crowd. But at that moment, I regretted my choice to stand out. Had I been in French or Spanish that morning, other Black students would have been in the class. I wouldn’t have been reminded of the racial fault line the verdict exposed.
Black Americans’ relief and joy was palpable, blanketing us all. That week, my Black classmates, family members, church, and wider faith community were all elated. Black America had emerged victorious! OJ’s acquittal was a vindication for US as well.
It was payback for every Black man that had been unfairly lynched or railroaded by the criminal justice system. This was our revenge, and we deserved it. It was payback for Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Nine, Willie McGee, and the thousands of black men lynched to maintain the white supremacist order through the South and Midwest. Perhaps OJ Simpson was guilty of killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. But…so what? That was the unspoken implication that undergirded their cheer. After all, white men had gotten off with killing black people for years. One Black man getting away with murder? Well, that was justice and fair play.
However, there was one Black American I knew who did not cheer and celebrate OJ’s acquittal.
I stopped by Mama’s house to visit her a few days after the verdict. Though she had successfully overcome her addiction when I was in the 8th grade, I opted to continue living with my maternal grandmother. Comfortable with the routine of Grandma’s home, I didn’t want to move again. But I still deeply loved and cared for Mama, so I saw her frequently. I generally spent the weekends with her and my younger siblings. I enjoyed these times with Mama because we had extensive intellectual discussions where she listened to my opinions. Mama was one of the few adults I could converse with, and I always looked forward to our talks. So, I was eager to hear her take on OJ’s acquittal.
“Mmmm, you want to know what I think” she paused, sucking her teeth sharply in disdain. “You know what I think? I think this is all DISGUSTING”, she snapped, gesturing towards the TV.
“EVERYBODY KNOWS HE KILLED THAT WOMAN!” she thundered.
“He beat the hell out of her while they were married! Ain’t no way someone other than OJ killed Nicole. He stalked her and wouldn’t leave her alone even after they divorced. And there ain’t nothin’ for us to be happy about him getting away with it!”
I found comfort in Mama’s displeasure over the verdict and her refusal to celebrate the acquittal. It spoke to the unease I felt watching my community rejoice and unify around a Black man who didn’t deserve it.
Yes, I was aware of the bloody history of extrajudicial slayings of Black men. I was aware of how the criminal justice system is frequently used against Black Americans. I felt a sense of allegiance to my community and the struggle. But I also felt an abiding discomfort when the pictures of Nicole Brown Simpson’s bloody face were shown. Yes, the historical injustices against my people were wrong. But my gut said that didn’t make the domestic abuse and brutal murder of this woman right. I couldn’t disregard OJ’s violence in the name of racial justice any more than I could ignore Eldridge Cleaver’s record as a serial rapist. Hearing Mama’s unequivocal stance, contrary to our community’s popular position, meant so much to me. Mama would operate off her sense of internal principles even if they brought her into conflict with her tribe. I gained a new level of respect for her that day.
I have thought of the OJ Simpson acquittal and its immediate aftermath frequently in subsequent years. The lesson of my community’s reaction and how it echoes in our unflinching support of Black male celebrities lingers with me. There is a heartbreaking, painful epiphany I’ve had over the years:
We don’t all have the same goal.
I’ve had to put aside the ideology of my youth and am no longer beholden to racial solidarity. I now understand that achieving an equitable, just system isn’t the objective for us all. Some don’t seek the destruction of an unfair system. They want to be the ones in charge of it and would happily mimic their oppressors if they had the power to do so.