The birds’ chirping that Monday morning sounded like they’re getting themselves organized for the day. Deciding where to fly, whom to pick up along the way, what birdhouses they might visit. I listened to them from my blue reading chair and appreciated the morning sunshine. Two months into quarantine in the District, I’ve paid much closer attention to their habits – the pitch, the rhythm, and the intensity of their chirps, trills, and singing.
But an ornithologist I am not, nor do I aspire to be. Christian Cooper is, however, and has been an avid birdwatcher since he was a child. During this same weekend, Cooper had gotten up early and gone to the Ramble in Central Park for a day of birding. In his birding, he encountered Amy Cooper (no relation, not his cousin), who was walking her dog. A free-ranging dog can disrupt birds’ paradise and posted signs direct owners to keep pups leashed. Both Coopers saw the sign, Amy ignored it and Christian did not.
The interaction between these two divergent opinions played out thirty million times on Twitter courtesy of Christian’ video recording, and his sister Melody posting the video online (shout out to their Shuri-T’Challa tag-team effort): Christian asks her to leash her dog she refuses, he threatens to give the animal puppy treats, and she escalates and threatens to call the police.
“I’m going to tell them an African-American man is threatening my life.” She yanks her yapping dogs collar, nearly choking him.
“African American man” she hisses and points at him, deploying her code-word to indicate her full transformation into the role of White woman in distress.
I see her bulging eyes and pointed finger as I wonder: did it ever occur to Amy that those three words, “African American man,” convey to other people vastly different qualities: strength, intelligence, courage, beauty. Did it occur to her that later on that day, someone might call Christian and ask, “Did you see the northern rough-winged swallow?”
The essential purpose of the Dap Project is to create a space for Christian Cooper to be seen as a birder (and a black man), and for all black men to be seen as who they are. Not violent, not threatening, not unintelligent. But loving, nuanced, thoughtful.
Because to witness one black man dapping up another is to witness a flash of his authentic self. It is to witness one black man saying to the other, as Darnell explained in our first interview, “I see you.” “I see you” like I see myself in this struggle, he says.
Because to witness one black man dapping up another is to witness two black men intentionally taking up space, explained Jason and Malachi, two Princeton guys who refused to fade into the background of the predominantly white institution. Recalling proudly Malachi explained: We were loud, we were joyful, we gave dap like we meant it.
Following the murder of Ahmed Arbery, Ibram X. Kendi wrote in the Atlantic of white people being afraid of black men. He’s hopeful of a different society when he says,
“We can build a different existence for black men—for all feared peoples—
as we all run under the moss draping down for Ahmaud Arbery. We can build an existence wherein when people don’t know us, they recognize that they don’t
know us. An existence wherein people see our tattoos, hair, flash, lyrics as our art.”
The Dap Project aspires to build an existence where the world turns their binoculars on Christian Cooper and sees a beautiful human being.