(What follows is a meditation on the contradictions of having to appeal to the same system that oppresses you for your rights, freedom, and basically, life itself. Inspired by current events, past events, and, sadly, probably future events, as well as the song lyrics above: “Side Effects of You,” written by Emeli Sandé, a politically-conscious Black British singer/songwriter and sung by Fantasia Barrino; and the other by Beyoncé, also co-written by her. Like Assata Shakur says in her Autobiography, “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” What does it mean when the remedy makes you sicker than when you started treatment? What does it mean when the cure is worse than the disease?)
“I was looking for a cure to pull me through
Tried to decide which medicine to use
And every bottle had your name on the label
Doctor said you keep me stable
So now, I’m taking three a day to make me smile
They said I should wait and try it for a while
So I’ve been ignoring my symptoms
And the small print on the back of my prescription
What I’m gonna do with fever over 98?
You hold me and my body shakes
See nobody told me, nobody told me
The side effects include
Losing balance falling down
Sleepless nights whenever you’re around
Nobody told me, nobody told me
The side effects of you”
-Fantasia Barrino, “Sides Effects of You” (written by Emeli Sandé)
“You’re just like poison
Slowly moving through my system breaking all of my defenses with time
You’re just like poison
And I just don’t get it
How could something so deadly feel so right?
I’m not sure what to do
It’s a catch-22
Cuz the cure is found in you
I don’t want it but I do
You’re just like poison
My affliction, I’m addicted, I can’t lie
Kiss me one more time before I die”
-Beyoncé, “Poison” (Beyoncé credited as a cowriter)
It was late in the evening and we all swallowed the miracle medicine; the new wonder drug. On the bottle where a skull and crossbones should have been was proudly, in bold letters: American Dream. The instructions were simple. Take once with food, before bedtime. Patient should wake up feeling stronger. Intensify your daily activities, work hard, and the world will be yours. It was up to us. No questions, please. Save them for later. Just drink this. It’s safe.
No one noticed the small-print, practically too tiny for the naked eye to make out; especially at this hour, especially with the low light. But we believed them. And why shouldn’t we? They were our neighbors, our friends, even our family. They wouldn’t lie to us (would they?!). And what’s more, they drank it too. We watched them break the seal and take a gulp. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Which is which has yet to be determined.
(What we didn’t see: “Warning: Only compatible with whiteness, male bodies, masculinity, heterosexuality, etc. For patients exhibiting any other characteristics, side effects may include lowered job opportunities, unfair and unequal treatment, intimidation, persecution, forced coercion, police brutality, abuse, violence, and - sometimes - death.)
It wasn’t until later that we started to feel sick. Dizziness. But maybe that was the sense of losing opportunities once considered within our grasp. Hallucinations. Or maybe that was our own sense of qualifications and experience being denied us by others. Chills. Maybe that was just us being frozen out of dialogue, conversation, society. Pain in our chests. But again, maybe it was just the pain of our hearts breaking. Headaches. Or maybe it was the pain of our dreams being ground to dust. At any rate, we hurt!
And by the time we recovered our faculties enough to venture outside and take a look around, to cry out for help, to call 911 (although we already had a slight sense of it being a joke at this point), we saw all the gold and silver, all the money, all the wealth had been snatched. There was nothing left for us. We’d been out of work for a time - no one can be sure how long even - and we’d been completely phased out. Forgotten.
We went to the hospitals and were refused treatment because we had no money. We went to the banks and were turned away because we had no capital. We went to the capitalists and our job applications were rejected because we had no work experience. We went to the workers seeking solidarity and were shunned because they wanted to keep their jobs and couldn’t upset the ranks. We were shit out of luck. We were the people of color, the queers, the feminists, the homeless, the young folks, the independent thinkers. We we were, in fact, the side effects of a system set up to oppose us. “We were never meant to survive” (Audre Lorde). They said the system couldn’t fail us, and we asked, pleaded, counted on the system to save us. But they had already developed new medicines, new remedies, new tonics to deal with these new side effects. Those side effects being us.
It wasn’t until then we realized the American system was toxic. We had taken medicine. We had drunk the kool-aid. We had all been poisoned. But some of us were lucky. “Some of us did not die” (June Jordan). And those of us who did and do not profit from the system - and many of us that did and do profit from the system alike - owe it to those that did not have our same luck (because all it is is luck anymore), that could not fight off the poison in the ways we did for whatever reason, that were in the wrong place at the wrong time, that were x, y, z, TO DO SOMETHING.
Some of us want to destroy property, and some of us have literally been property according to the Constitution of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence only declared some of us independent. We aren’t free and we never have been. There’s no back-tracking. We can’t add in what was never there. We can’t be an afterthought - it’s been hundreds of years coming and some haven’t even reached the thought yet, let alone the afterthought. And that’s why we’re side effects and will always be within this system. We’re used to being side effects - feeling unwell has become status quo. To the point that we’ve forgotten it’s a side effect of a system hell-bent on destroying us.
The system considers us side effects. It demeans and devalues our lives. They throw us out with their trash. They consider us exceptions, but we are actually the rule. The rule of how justice is denied to those that don’t conform; denied those who have always been and will always be incompatible with the magic medicine of the American Dream. Which is why: