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Pokemon GO or not to GO: A Response to Omari Akil’s Warning to Black Men

I’ve wanted to be a Pokemon Master since I was 8-years-old.

My older brother and I, since we had a subscription to Nintendo Power, were lucky enough to get the original promotional VHS for the Pokemon franchise back in 1998. We watched that video over and over, mesmerized by these creatures’ names, their powers, and by the promise that one day those creatures could be ours. We didn’t stand a chance. And sure enough, in October of 1998, shortly after the games launched in the U.S., we had it; a shared copy of Pokemon Red version. We spent hours and hours playing that game together, hooked up to the T.V. through our Super Nintendo and Super Gameboy. That first journey was filled with so many memories that I’ll never forget; agonizing over which starter Pokemon to pick (the correct answer is and always will be Charmander); the joy of finally catching a Pikachu in Viridian Forest; getting through Rock Tunnel without Flash by walking against the walls; and spending way too much time prepping for the Pokemon League, thinking that if you lost you had to “start over” (like, the entire game). It’s a journey we took together, and one that I’ll never forget.

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Since then, I’ve played just about every Pokemon game that’s been released. I’ve been with the series from 151 Pokemon, to the now over 700, and could name just about all of them. I’ve been there from the heavy metals, through precious gems, back to colors, over to letters, and I’ll still be with them in November when they take to the cosmos. Through remakes and spinoffs, TV shows and movies, from Team Rocket to Team Flare, I’ve been there. From the highs of finally taking down the league champion, to the heart-break of losing a comrade near the end of a Nuzlocke run, I’ve been there. At 25-years-old, I’ve known and loved Pokemon for longer than I haven’t.

So, it’s safe to say that I was a little excited when I first learned about Pokemon Go.

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Like most kids who grew up with Pokemon in the late 90s, I spent time imagining what the world would be like if Pokemon were real, if we could see them around us, battle and trade them in the real world (mind you, the consequences of that would likely be catastrophic for pretty much everyone involved, but that didn’t matter to us, we just wanted to ride Charizards). It may not have been every kid’s dream, but it certainly was a lot of kids’, and it definitely was one of mine. Pokemon Go obviously doesn’t make Pokemonreal, and even in their augmented reality you can’t reach out and touch them (yet), but even so, the prospect of there now being Pokemon out there, all around us, was too good to pass up. I downloaded the app as soon as I possibly could, with a file found in some shady place on the Internet hours before the official release, and set out to catch my first Pokemon (Charmander, naturally). For a moment, I was 8-years-old again.

Shortly after, I learned that Alton Sterling had been murdered, and the youth was sucked right back out of me. It was, and still is, a strange sensation, to vacillate between being the fullness of childhood excitement, and the hollow rage that comes with at the sight of a terror seen so many times before. I wondered first, I think, if I should watch the video. I thought that maybe I should log off of Facebook and stay away from Reddit, knowing that the storm would make landfall soon enough. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, to take my eyes off of the screen. Even as I discussed with my partner the benefits of self-care, the non-necessity of watching ourselves be murdered over and over again by those sworn to make us feel safe, I had to be there. Or rather, it was here with me, thick and hot in the air. I think I stayed up until 4:00 AM that morning, long enough to feel that weight double with the death Philando Castile.

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Throughout that time I reconsidered the prospect of Pokemon GO, to myself and aloud to my partner. I wondered whether it was alright to participate in something so carefree at a time when death felt so close. I wondered if it would even be safe for me to participate. When the officers were gunned down in Dallas, I wondered whether there would be retaliation: would officers be on high alert? Would I look suspicious, walking around even my own neighborhood in the evening? If I were stopped, could I explain what I was doing fast enough, or clearly enough, to diffuse the situation? Could I speak?

In truth, I experienced much of what Mr. Akil experienced in his recent article entitled “Warning: Pokemon GO is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man”. He discusses there the precarity inherent in being a Black man outdoors in general¸ but particularly in times of crisis (re: The Summer). His apprehension is completely justified. For many Black men, the question is not one of fear or uncertainty, but of risk and dread; chances are, you will have a run in with the police. That officer’s mood or stress level could be the determining factor in whether you leave that encounter angry and ashamed, beaten and bruised, or whether you leave that encounter at all. In short, outside ain’t no adventure for everybody.

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However, as I stayed inside, glued to my computer screen in fear and awareness, something inside me became restless. My social media feeds reflected that restlessness; half of my peers raged at the lives were being stolen, while the other raged at the GO servers being down. How could people still feel joy in the midst of all this heat and darkness? How could they laugh? Why did they get the Sun and the Moon, while I sat alone with so many others, waiting for the next tragedy?

I think the absurdity of that situation made me laugh. But as I sat with the absurdity of our existence, I realized that it could not be my place to be inside. Not me, who had waited seventeen years to do what I could do now. Not us, to whom every day alive is a revolutionary act. Our place can’t be inside. If the deaths of the past week and months and years have shown us anything, it’s that no matter what you do, no matter how polite or civil you may be, young or old, joyous or solemn, to exist as a Black person in America is to risk death with no justice. We may either face this risk cowering in fear, or we face it as Masters of our own lives. I refuse to let the actions of those who would do harm to me keep me from my joy, from my childhood. We owe it to ourselves and to those who we’ve lost to live and live beautifully, outside, so that the world can see us, and fear us if they may.

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So, while I understand the sentiments expressed by Mr. Akil in his article, I must add to his warning a challenge, to Black men in particular; know the risk, and go out anyway. Do not succumb to fear. The world is full of exciting things — and now, even Pokemon! You owe it to the kid in you, and all the kids to come. Be the best, like no one ever was. I hope I see you there.

(Thanks to my partner, Crista Carter, for pushing me to write this. Love you girl.)

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