Houston Anthropologist and Black Culture Storyteller Marlon Hall considers the Black experience during the movement of the moment.
I first met Marlon Hall, a lecturing anthropologist and storyteller of Black culture, in February while visiting Houston, Texas, on a scouting trip for a documentary. We sat down over fried green tomatoes at Lucille’s, Chef Chris Williams’ iconic neighborhood restaurant known for its refined Southern fare, sitting in the heart of the Museum District, not far from Third Ward.
“Third Ward is where you learned to be Black,” Hall told me of the neighborhood that has become his community and focus for much of his work, which includes hosting everything from dinner salons to art exhibits on being Black in America. As one of the six historic wards of Houston, Third Ward has largely been known as one of the most diverse Black neighborhoods in Texas and a hub for African American art, culture and music. Some of the most famous Black voices have called Third Ward home, including sisters Beyoncé and Solange, as well as country blues singer Lightnin’ Hopkins.
And more recently, George Floyd.
George Floyd’s death ignited a new national movement to fight racism, Black oppression, and inequity—the latest battle in a war that has always raged in our country. But in Third Ward, the fight against racial injustice is part of the spirit upon which the area was built.
The movement that has developed in the weeks following Floyd’s death will be studied for generations, exposing the ways in which systemic racial oppression was a pandemic of its own long before Covid-19. But for me, and for so many of us, all we know is how we feel right now. And to help contextualize that feeling, I knew I could rely on Marlon Hall.
Did you know the Floyd family, being so close to Third Ward?
I did not know anyone from the Floyd family. I cross-pollinated with Mr. Floyd a couple of times because he was woven into the hip hop community in such a rich and deep way. He was such a physically visible character in the community. You couldn’t miss him. The way he engaged people, the way he moved about a room. He was that kind of guy. He was unmistakably present.
Big Floyd. Man, he was big, he was bold, but also gentle. Which, for me, is why the city has expressed such grief—a gentle giant was murdered. And when a giant is murdered, traditionally speaking, you think of fables or stories like David and Goliath. We have these traditional frameworks of what we think is right about giants. And we believe that giants should be taken down. But this was a big man with tenderness and with a big heart who was taken down by a knee. It completely reorients the narrative of good, injustice and peace.
When you started hearing what happened, what went through your head?
The information didn’t pass through my head; it passed through my heart first. I wondered why this felt different than Ahmaud Arbery, which is so recent. I wondered, “Why did it feel so different?” And for me, it was somebody from home. It was someone who people consistently said they respected, believed and cared for.
The thing that hurt me most about it is that I did not emote with tears of sadness. And that scared the hell out of me. Why wasn’t I sad about the murder of a man from my hometown, by the hand of police brutality? I’ve been wrestling with that more than I’ve been wrestling with anything else. Because honestly, I think my heart has grown impenetrable to the pain of police brutality because it’s so common. It had become an “of course” in my heart, rather than a “hell no.”
I see the nation now standing up and saying, “This will not happen the same way again.” And I’m also acknowledging that it’s not normal. I’ve been sitting down with friends and we’d been rehearsing stories of our interactions with police brutality as if we’re telling fraternal stories. And then there’s always a moment of silence and sadness where we all look at each other and basically say with our eyes, “This shit ain’t normal, but we’ve made it normal.”
Have you ever had any encounters with the police?
Many. I’ve had four that I can remember. Three of them involve guns, and all of them involve physicality or hands were placed on me. One, I was placed on the hood of the car. One, I was knelt down on my knees and asked to cross my ankles and my hands behind my back. And all of them were moments where I thought I was going to lose my life.
The thought that I could die that night never escaped any of those instances. Which is why when Big Floyd was murdered, my heart said, “of course,” because I’ve experienced it, and everybody I know has experienced police brutality. It’s almost a rite of passage for a Black man. You know you’re mature enough to be a man when you were mature enough to be seen as a threat to the police.
I have a nephew. He’s thirteen and he’s 6’2”. And on his thirteenth birthday, my father, myself and his mother had to have a conversation with him about what being big and Black means, despite the fact that he’s not a man. And we had to let him know, “I know you’re technically twelve, but today is the day you’re thirteen.” Which really is just twelve with one more day. “In the eyes of the police, you are a man and you are Black, and therefore you are a threat.”
And my nephew resisted it. He was like, “Y’all talking some old shit.” Because he goes to a predominantly white school in a suburban area, he’s like, “That’ll never happen to me.” Then four months ago, a police officer approached my nephew with his hand on his gun because he mistook my nephew for someone else. And the shock my nephew experienced, he still has not recovered from it. He’s thirteen, bro. But he’s a grown man to the police.
What do you say in those moments, when you do have the chat?
One thing I told my nephew is that the privilege of being Black that comes with resilience, does not come without an opportunity to affirm that resilience. The concept of conceptual physics teaches us that without friction, there is no movement—that applies to us. We expect friction when we progress; it’s the nature of the gravity of being Black.
I was like, “You’re going to start making more moves because you’re older, and as a Black man, that’s going to come with a certain amount of friction. Sparks will fly around you that you don’t believe will create a fire, but you never know when the sparks that come with being progressive and Black will burn you.”
What sort of healing have you been doing?
I’ve recently given myself permission to feel. My mentor, Bill Crenshaw, always tells me, “Marlon, we only let go when we know we are held.” And many people like me—African American men and women—had not let go until we knew, systemically, that we would be held. The systematic protests across the world have given us permission to emote. We feel like our issues and our concerns are being hailed by the general public in such a way that we can finally fucking feel what it feels like to be Black.
For so long, I thought that to be Black meant to struggle. But that’s not what it means to be Black. That’s just the system. The system creates the struggle, not the being of Black. Finally, I am able to disassociate my struggle from my being long enough to find healing in between the two.
But people who are now aware and using their platforms and their voices to say, “Police brutality is not normal. Systemic oppression is not normal,” has allowed Black people to create some dissonance, some space, between the struggle they experienced and the people they are. And in between those two is our humanity. And in our humanity, is the capacity to mourn. So, man, right now, I feel like for the first time in my life, I can let go because I feel held. The more people hold protests, the more I feel held to be human. The protest organizers out there, they’re not just holding space for their voices to be heard. They are literally holding the souls of Black folk long enough for us to emote, and I’m grateful.
It’s been a moment of clarity for many non-POC folks who have the luxury of seeing the world without a racial lens. It’s a burden on so many brown and Black communities to have to navigate the world through racial lenses. Why is there now an awareness over racial injustice when it has always been there all along?
One of the ways in which anthropologists wrap their minds around a particular culture, and specifically that culture’s evolution, has a lot to do with technology.
Our technology has out-evolved us. We are less human because of the evolution of our technology. Our technology has made us cavemen anatomically, but also socially. We’ve been so focused on our own thing that we haven’t seen the world around us. The world slowed down long enough to catch up to its own humanity. We were moving so fast that we left our humanity behind. We awakened to what it means to be human through this limitation of our technology.
I believe people awakened to their humanity by slowing down long enough to experience the pain and suffering of social injustice and systemic oppression through racism. What’s different is the pandemic; [it] gave us time to quiet down long enough to hear the great arguments people have been making against white supremacy, and for white privilege being spent toward the greater good rather than to hoard it.
We experience our deepest moments of humanity in times of stillness and quiet, and that’s what we’ve done. Now, we put injustice on the stage and we let it perform before us while we gather in response and chant. It’s a human desire to be in proximity to other human beings around something larger than us—something bigger than us.
It’s just time; the time is now—a thing that’s more spiritual than it is scientific. It’s just time.
Does this change anything with your work or how you see the world? Or does it just validate what you stood for?
Today, it more than validates me; it inspires me. The other day I tweeted, “I have been more Black all day today than I have been since I was in middle school.” I didn’t have to code-switch—a term that’s used to describe how people on the fringe of the majority change the way they speak or change the language they use when in the midst of white folk to be accepted.
It feels really great, but also, makes me know that Black people have something to contribute to the sum total of human flourishing. And if you invest in our development and freedom indirectly, you invest in the development and freedom of every human being.
How does this change Third Ward?
We [in the Third Ward community] are connected to each other, but we’re also discovering more of our neighbors who had simply just come and gone—people who came to gentrify our community—and we welcome them. Because that’s how we are; we welcome people. Now, they are becoming more invested in our community, because now people are investing more in Black businesses.
Certainly, Black people have come together, but also white people in our community have finally accepted our invitation to be a part of our economy. Not just [to be] a part of our community in terms of where you live but to spend their dollars in our communities as [a] way of combating [the] system [of oppression].
[Chef and owner of Lucille’s, Chris Williams’ business] has grown because of the protest’s sympathy. The protests have asked people to invest in Black businesses. There is a spiritual transformation as we grow closer together, and there’s a community transformation as people who have other ethnic stories are now coming to become a part of our community. But there’s also an economic transformation. More money is coming into the Black community because people are beginning to invest in Black businesses and spend their money there.
Are you hopeful that it remains sustained in the long-term?
I’m hopeful because of the investment people are making in me now, whereas they once ignored me. I don’t think it’s going to continue the same, but it will be different because many of us are seeing these investments as a way for us to grow something toward the future. But I’m naturally an optimist.
Do I believe that people will maintain their enthusiasm for supporting Black lives and seeing them as something that matters? No, it won’t remain the same. But I believe that what Black people will do with the investment that’s being made in this moment will produce a return in our community. And again, when Black folks grow, the sum total of human flourishing grows with it.