By All Appearances
On a warm day in late October, I followed Nash up the dim, vaulted staircase of Northwestern University’s old library into a cloistered wing that held the archive. The first time he visited an archive was at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. He didn’t know what to do; he approached the archivist and said he was looking for articles on stop-and-frisk in the 1960s, but she told him that such a thing did not exist. “That’s when I knew I was onto something,” he said. Instead, he began with a box filed under “police misconduct.” The archivist instructed that he stand facing her with the box at a perpendicular angle to his body and examine only one folder at once.
Now, in the Joseph Speer Beck Angling Collection Room, Nash inspected a box with similar precision. He laid a folder on the cold, wooden table and flipped its contents like the pages of a book. The articles, dated August 1968, concerned protests that had erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Clashes with police had left many injured, and Nash was curious if anyone had complained about the brutality. He flipped quickly through the pages, pausing only once on a list of policemen who had been wounded: cut hand, bruised thigh, lacerated shin. It reminded Nash of the notes he took as a prosecutor, meticulously tallying each officer’s injury.
He took another folder from the box, and now something caught his eye. It was a photograph of four black men, each shirtless, on their knees, facing a wall, and an officer pointing a gun at their backs. It looked like an execution, I said, and Nash laughed. “I’m sure it feels like that for them, but it’s only one officer and he’s stopped four people. He’s just making sure there’s no bodily harm to himself.” Nash flipped the page, but I stopped him. Did the photograph bother him at all? He hesitated. Then he said, slowly, “I have a deep appreciation for the law. When I see this, I think, this is an indication of anarchy. This is a breakdown of power, of democracy.” He took his iPhone from his pocket and, holding it with surgeon-steady hands, snapped a photograph of the page. “Yes, it’s scary. I think, ‘This could happen to me.’ I am always afraid that as a black person, no matter where I’ve gone to school, no matter how I’m dressed, I could be singled out—subjected to humiliation and physical threat, or to the fear of being murdered.”
How he carried himself was, no doubt, a material upwelling of his natural temperament, but it was also a method of survival. His nephews, who dress in hoodies and baggy jeans, tease Nash for wearing “young clothes,” as though his conservative, childhood outfits had simply expanded along with him. Nash calls this style his “politics of respectability.” In order to navigate a racial world, he told me, “There’s a certain level of daily performance that you must engage in.”
But wasn’t changing one’s appearance to avoid suspicion a kind oppression in itself? “Yes,” he said, “but you have to make it through life. For me, survival is a form of resistance. When you’re among friends and family and in a safe place, then you can resume being yourself. But when you’re going from point A to point B, your main goal should be to survive.”
Nash turned the page. There was a photograph of a Black Panther, a man holding a gun. “You see,” said Nash, “it’s all a performance. Here we see men in the Black Power movement performing their masculinity. It’s like they’re saying, ‘We may be subjected to police terror, but we will not be afraid.’ They have to show their power. It’s how they resist.” He returned the folder to its box.
“It’s a daily performance, only the stage doesn’t have walls.”