Last Saturday evening my thirteen-year-old son and I went to see Marvel Comics’ latest superhero themed film Guardians of the Galaxy. Me being the the uncool dad who does not know any of the new music, does not really get down with sci-fi, who just wanted to spend some time with his son had many questions. He being the sci-fi superhero movie aficionado reluctantly answered them. It was a cool experience, not because I necessarily enjoyed the film, I just enjoyed the opportunity to hang with my son. The older he gets the more his time will be filled with competing priorities, of which spending time with me may not be at the top of the list.
After dropping him off at home, I jumped on Facebook where I learned that a few hours earlier Michael Brown, an unarmed black male in Ferguson, Missouri, had been shot dead by a police officer.
“Damn,” “Fuck,” “not again,” and “Wow” were some of my immediate thoughts. Then I thought about his parents—they will no longer be able to share time with their son, they will not be able to witness how he develops, they will not be able to see what contributions he makes to the world, they will not be able to play with grandkids, and they will not have another graduation ceremony. I was gripped by anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety. I understood like James Baldwin reasoned when closing ranks with Angela Davis “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
I began to think about my encounters with the police. I thought about the first time I had cuffs put on me (15). I thought about the last time cops pointed guns at me, dragged me out of a rental van, and cuffed me for an hour while they illegally searched the van and then tried to figure out why my eyes were red (29). (Mind you I was tired, I had just dropped off a group of young men who I took to a museum and a play.) I thought about the anxiety that I feel when I see police officers. I thought about the prayers that I pray every time I am pulled over. I thought about why I have a distrust of police. I know that not all cops are bad or mean me harm. I have family members that are cops. I have family friends that are cops. However, I am so sick of the murders of black bodies that are attempting to share space in this place we call America.
I know that I’m not supposed to talk about race or I’m not supposed to talk about it as much because MLK had a dream and then Obama fulfilled that dream—we solved the race problem. As such, all the black folks who go to jail or who have not made it to middle class pastures are lazy ass derelicts who need to get their shit together, and if a black body is murdered they probably deserve it because they were drunk, high, too loud, listened to Chief Keef, uneducated, fatherless, in a gang, a thug, a promiscuous twerking thot, sexually confused, or have a mama who did not raise them right because she was worried about finding love or getting her weave done right.
(See: “Dear Millennials: Ain’t nothing post-racial about America” In his weekly read, Michael Arceneaux wonders why 18-24 year olds struggle to see racism—when it’s all around them.)
If I never talk about race again, I still have to live with the realities of race everyday. For you folks who don’t understand what I mean by race, I’m not talking about race in terms of color, I am talking about race as a social construct. I am speaking of the social construct that makes whiteness right and everything else wrong or less than. I am speaking of race as a part of a system of power, as something that is assigned and relegated to particular personalities, something that is politicized, something that speaks of worthiness or unworthiness, and something that assigns bodies to certain spaces. I am talking about one of the ideas that this country was built on is still maintained by.
Millions of us know, like W.E.B. Du Bois came to find out as a child, that “[we] are different from the others shut out from their world…shutout by a vast veil.” We hold on to contempt because many of us are constantly aware of and experience the thin veil that allows us to look at the America full of life, liberty, and happiness, but prevents us from fully experiencing those realities. We know of a darker place which includes the forgot about and where we have to prove that we are worthy of what it means to be American. We try to make it in this world like the characters rapped about by Jay Z and Kanye West in their 2010 song “Made it in America,” because like Greg Howard we know “the United States of America is not for black people.” “We put [this reality] out of our minds,” argues Howard, “and then something happens to remind us.” And of course that something happened last Saturday in Ferguson, Missouri-excellence was murdered, a dream did not get the opportunity to begin because Mike Brown was murdered.
(See: “America Is Not For Black People” – The United States of America is not for black people. We know this, and then we put it out of our minds, and then something happens to remind us.)
But we know that Mike Brown is not an anomaly. From history we can recall the names of thousands of black bodies murdered for the crime of being black. In post-racial America we, unfortunately, have other names to remind us of what can happen when you are black in a “white man’s world”: Ezell Ford, Rekia Boyd, John Crawford, Philippe Holland, Kiwane Carrington, Gabriella Navarez, Denzel Curnell, Sean Bell, Shereese Francis, Kimani Gray, Sharmel Edwards, Kendrec Lavelle McDade, Ervin Jefferson, Remarley Graham, Shantel Davis, Timothy Russell, Donald Johnson, Marquez Smart, Jersey Green, Robert Dumas Jr., Manuel Loggins Jr., Tyisha Miller, Michael Lembhard, Johnnie Kamachi Warren, Raymond Allen, Nehemiah Dillard, Wendell Allen, Patrick Dorismond, Kanthryn Johnston, Duane Brown, Pearlie Golden, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury Jr., Melvin Lawhorn, Miriam Carey, Sheron Jackson, Tendai Nhekairo, Christopher Kissane, Bo Morrison, Aiyana Jones, Tarika Wilson, Stephon Watts, Atwain White, Orlando Barlow, Aaron Campbell, Victor Steen, Steven Eugene Washington, Alonzo Ashley, Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Justin Sipp, Travaris McGill, Dante Price, Jonathan Ferrell, Amadou Diallo, Mark Clark, Fred Hampton, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Oscar Grant, Jesus Huerta, Yvette Smith, Eric Garner…. too many others. No, Mike Brown was not an anomaly, just a reminder of the ubiquitous violence against black bodies.
(See: Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men? The killing in Ferguson was one of many such cases. Here’s what the data reveals.)
I imagine that the folk in Ferguson are sick and tired of the crooked officers of the St. Louis County Police Department. I imagine them singing like Big Mike “Mr. Officer, Crooked officer, why you wanna put me in the coffin sir?” I can imagine their feelings of powerlessness and desire to recompense evil for evil by rioting and looting. I understand that rioting is political. It serves a purpose. It is an emotional and political response to the devaluation of bodies occupying particular spaces in particular times in the face of the hyper-valuation of property, capital, and whiteness. America values rioting. Remember the Boston Tea Party. Remember railroad strikers of the 1870s. Yet, we don’t seem to value rioting and looting of those in Ferguson or any rioting in history acted out by black, brown, female, or non-cisgendered bodies. Rioting is a political action taken when voting, petitioning, and other forms of “acceptable” or “respectable” activities seem to not work. It is a political action used by many for a long time to get justice. As our lauded American hero MLK posited, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Rioting and looting is not for me, not because I condemn the actions of those in Ferguson who choose to do so, but because I have access. I know my city councilman, I am a few phone calls away from my state representative and congressional representative, and I know a few lawyers. I also have much to lose from rioting or looting, but I don’t condemn those who do, I think understand them. Given the contexts of their daily realities, I would probably do the same.
I was angry many times this week when folk on social media began to employ the politics of respectability to shame or distance themselves from the folk rioting and looting in Ferguson. I was angry because if not for grace, a concept that I grapple with, then many of us would be in the same position as the folk in Ferguson who chose to riot and loot in the face of violence on their lives. Sure, stealing clothes, electronics, weaves, food, and other items from stores only provides temporary relief to the pains of hard living. Sure looting reinforces ideas of negative black cultural pathologies , but who gives a fuck when in the moment you are trying to grab hold of some type of power in a country that constantly praises the acquisition of stuff as power. In thinking about this I was reminded of a statement Angela Davis made almost forty years ago in regards to her access and privilege: “I had always thought it was fortuitous that I was among those who had escaped the worst. One small twist of fate and I might have drowned in the muck of poverty and disease and illiteracy. That is why I never felt I had the right to look upon myself as being any different from my sisters and bothers who did all the suffering, for all of us.”
(See: “The Root” Don’t let respectability politics get you to feeling some type of way about Michael Brown. Respectability politics is just internalized White Supremacy re-directed from one black person to another.)
(See: “Black People Are Not Ignoring ‘Black On Black’ Crime” – The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subject—the last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts—they evidence them.)
Many times this week I wondered if my work is in vain. I’ve spent my adult life working with young folk from various economic backgrounds—mentoring them, teaching the rules of the game, getting them hired, training them on how to get jobs, training them on how to keep jobs, training them on resumes and interviews, teaching life skills, teaching them math, teaching social studies, teaching history, teaching them success, and helping them navigate the murky waters of life. I’ve also worked with homeless folks and Katrina survivors helping them get access to resources and jobs. I’ve tried to be an upstanding and respectable black man. But this week I wondered if all of this work to help folk survive an thrive in this world would prevent these folks, mostly black bodies, from being murdered or from experiencing any other form of racial violence. The answer always came back, “no.” I know that if they murdered me or the folks that I have helped somehow the “media” would brand us as thugs, gang members, criminal, or unworthy of life.
I am not an exceptional Negro. At the end of the day I am “still a nigga in a coupe.” This is to suggest that there seems to be no way of escaping the sin of my skin. I think that at the root of my anger, fear, anxiety, and pain is this inescapable reality that most black folk walk with everyday or remind each other of when we forget or that we have to tell our kids –“you still black.” Which is to suggest that, regardless of accomplishments or investments in whiteness, you can still be punished because of your blackness. Which is why almost fifty one years after MLK hoped that one day we could all sing “Free at last,” we rapping “All we wanna do is take the chains off, All we wanna do is be free.”
(See: “J. Cole Mourns Michael Brown in Somber New Song ‘Be Free’” – “That coulda been me, easily,” rapper writes. “It could have been my best friend”)
Note: Thanks to Dr. Treva Lindsey for posting the names of those murdered by police in recent years.