I don’t know what it’s like to be an average Black student at Mizzou in 2015, though I imagine it’s not very different from what it was like when I studied there in the early ’90s…
I don’t know what it’s like to be an average Black student at Mizzou in 2015, though I imagine it’s not very different from what it was like when I studied there in the early ’90s…
Let’s make and keep these intergenerational connections in struggle. #BlackLivesMatter
We are Black professors.
We are daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, godchildren, grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, and mothers.
We’re writing to tell you we see you and hear you.
We know the stories of dolls hanging by nooses, nigger written on dry erase boards and walls, stories of nigger said casually at parties by White students too drunk to know their own names but who know their place well enough to know nothing will happen if they call you out your name, stories of nigger said stone sober, stories of them calling you nigger using every other word except what they really mean to call you, stories of you having to explain your experience in classrooms—your language, your dress, your hair, your music, your skin—yourself, of you having to fight for all…
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My child has a good set of lungs. At two weeks old, as I walked her through Fort Greene, I was convinced that her colicky screams would prompt someone to call the cops, and I’d be arrested for child abuse. Fast forward five years, kid gets a blister at the playground, and during her bath, as I tried to clean it, she let it fly. Hadn’t heard her this loud in five years. I thought, man, someone might call the cops on me. And in Austin effin Texas no less.
Ten minutes pass, she’s calmed down. Then a knock. Wife must have left her key. Who is it? Austin PD. Oh, HELL no! My hands are covered in shampoo. Washing this halo of curled wool takes some time, so I invite the cop in, a look of disbelief I’m sure, but I just want to get back to the tangle of brilliance I’ve just lathered up. He asks me what’s the problem. What? You came here, I think. I assumed someone called because my child was screaming, and she can really scream. I try to explain that she had a blister, and when I cleaned it she screamed, and she can scream. Really scream. He asks my child, still in the tub, a couple questions, but she don’t know him, and this generally loquacious jokester goes silent, refuses to speak. Perfect timing.
Another cop arrives. Now both have their hands on their revolvers, in the house. The second one actually runs into the house, wearing a pair of beat-yo-ass-without-getting-blood-on-my-hands gloves. They sit me on the sofa and ask my kid more questions (at least they have the common sense to ask her questions from the hall and not enter the bathroom). A half-hour passes. Third cop shows up looking like hambone pork chop, hand on revolver, walking around the house. Have we been here before? This is when I think it goes southern sundown town. No, not since I’ve lived here. I give my information. He asks for my license, but I can’t find my wallet. You have a Texas driver’s license? No, New York. Why do you still have a New York license? Hasn’t yet expired. What are you doing here in Austin? I work at UT. What do you do? I teach. You’re a professor? Yes. What do you teach? African Diaspora Studies. (I feel a slight, luscious pleasure as he struggles to spell diaspora, moving his lips with each syllable. I want to just say black studies, but niggas been stomped out for less than trying to make things easier for a cop who don’t know something. And working on that black power studies thug stuff. Let him struggle.) Are you a Jets fan? (The Fuck?! Fuck you! Fuck the Jets! Fuck this shit!). Yes. (This motherfucker trying to ease the tension? He thinks it’s that light of a situation we should compare fantasy teams?) I’m a Patriots fan myself.
A neighbor heard my child screaming as I cleaned her hand. I’m thankful that I have the kind of neighbors who will call if they hear a child screaming like she’s in mortal danger. But also I must…. No! I’m required, by the sheer insanity that is America, to be thankful that this white neighbor’s account of what she heard more or less aligned with my account of what she heard. They left, I breathed, returned to my child’s hair; unscathed, I’d imagine they’d say. And I really do appreciate having neighbors who will do something in this type of situation, but I understand why black people prefer more local forms of interventions, however imperfect, over the state’s help. I’m glad that I have neighbors who take upon themselves such civic responsibility, whatever their motivation. And I’m angry that for over forty minutes, in my house, I had to consider my every movement, measure my cadence and tone to make sure they didn’t betray whatever they might need them to betray, that when I fished my wallet from under a book, I pulled it out with forefinger and thumb so as not to appear furtive, and could only move normally when I removed my license from its sleeve. Then I remembered, niggas been shot for holding their wallet. Fuck was I thinking.
Jonathan Gray’s take on Pres. Obama’s failure to use bully-pulpit to change discourse around Ferguson, MO.
President Obama held a press conference yesterday to address the ongoing crisis in Iraq and Ferguson.
Like many watching and commenting in real time on twitter, I found Obama’s comments on the situation in Ferguson lacking. Ezra Klein attempted to illustrate the source of our frustration: the incredibly polarized political landscape that prevents this president from ‘reaching across the aisle’ and ‘healing the nation.’ Citing Gallup polls and other data, Klein asserts that it is simply beyond this president’s power to bridge not just the divide that colors the way that we respond to racialized policing, but any partisan issue.
Still, while he accurately captures the forces that limit the president’s ability to ‘bridge the deep divides in American politics,’ Klein’s analysis ignores another choice that President Obama might have made: to challenge the rhetoric around policing, the logics that produce victims like Mike Brown.
President Kennedy did something…
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Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, by Ada Ferrer (New York University), links the historical trajectories of the Haitian Revolution and the rise of Cuban slave society. This new title is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press (December 2014).
Description: During the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804, arguably the most radical revolution of the modern world, slaves and former slaves succeeded in ending slavery and establishing an independent state. Yet on the Spanish island of Cuba barely fifty miles distant, the events in Haiti helped usher in the antithesis of revolutionary emancipation. When Cuban planters and authorities saw the devastation of the neighboring colony, they rushed to fill the void left in the world market for sugar, to buttress the institutions of slavery and colonial rule, and to prevent ‘another Haiti’ from happening in their own territory.
Freedom’s Mirror follows the reverberations of the Haitian Revolution…
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Just witnessed horrific scene, so this is a stream of consciousness but I have to get this out of my head.
I was just walking home, coming up Stuyvesant with my daughter, and after a long day at camp that walk is a chore, so I’ve taken to playing so she’ll walk and I won’t have to carry her. This time, I’m tickling her and she’s screaming and laughing so loud that I don’t really notice an older man across the street shuttling his son into a van. I hear his son, and because my child is laughing and screaming, at first I think the boy is also laughing, that his father is playfully hitting him with the wiffle ball bat, until I notice the lawn chair he’s hitting him with as well, and realize that he’s raining down on his son with that plastic bat instead of playing. And his son’s screams are so guttural that I know this is only the preamble to whatever is coming when they get home. Almost in unison, several people have turned their attention to this shit. I can’t believe what I’m seeing but pick up Yesenia and decide I’m heading over…to do what I don’t know, no idea. And just then another older brother standing next to me speaks up, gets dude’s attention. The father’s face and reaction says it all. He’s knows this is f’d up, but rest on that tired excuse that this is his son, and his son had disrespected his mother, and this is the problem with kids nowadays nobody gets in their ass (as if all the folks in prison were spared the rod), and he’s not having that bullshit. The brother near me asks about his North Carolina jersey; turns out they’re both from there. He asks if he can talk to another Carolina boy (or something like that). It was so bizarre they way the father ambled over, the gait of the guilty in a court far more damning than one of law, a court of his community. He shakes the guy’s hand and almost apologetically takes his scolding. I walked on, recognizing there was nothing I could do or could have done, and this man has handled it possibly in the best way short of more violence. But I can still hear the son, possibly 5 or 6 judging from his size, wailing in the van. His sister, maybe 9 or 10, is playing on her phone, testament to the normalcy of such brutality. This is how we teach respect for mothers? Women? And we’re surprised when such boys grow up and unleash unspeakable degrees of violence on women, men, their own kids? I thought I might have been making too much of it, until, just as I’m about to turn the corner, I see a woman who’s also been watching the whole scene with tears welling up. And then my child starts asking me questions about that man, and what he was hitting that boy with, and is he bad, and I start thinking he’s probably not bad but certainly screwed up, or has a screwed up view of the world, of love, of what it means to be a man and raise a man and to respect women and love a woman or love a man or respect another human being. He’s not bad, but yes, he is, and I hope he goes to jail, but pray no one called the cops, because as bad as it likely gets at home, those kids would probably be irreparably scared if the police come and it’s the usual outcome, because, let’s face it, this is Bed-Stuy and to the NYPD we’re all animals and they’d just be saving a future animal from a full blown one, and assuring the white folks witnessing all this that their kids, the children of gentrifiers who will scarcely remember when Bed-Stuy had black folk around, won’t have to watch stuff like this too much longer; and those kids the police will judge future animals at a glance will miss their father and his twisted sense of love, and still have to figure out love and life and anger and death and the joke those cops would likely make about how easily their father fell or whatever. So, I tell my daughter I hope something bad happens to that man, and I’m thinking that I’m hoping that brother gets so fed up that he hauls off and goes crazy on him, and I realize that I don’t know how else to respond to this kid of mundane, normal, everyday brutality than with equal brutality, and that’s not enough, it’s too much. And what would I have done had she not been with me? What was I going to do with her with me? This will be with me for a while, the inadequacy of it all, of anything I could say or think, the limited range of my moral imagination in the face of an all too familiar familial violence. Hopefully, something that brother said sunk in, and that boy and girl are not catching hell because they embarrassed him on the street in front of all those people and they’re not learning that they don’t do that shit. Hopefully, so that in five or ten years that boy or girl will not have had enough of being embarrassed on the street and living in such constant fear that they don’t fear it really at all but are simply tired of the bullshit so respond with the same bullshit, the only thing they’ve been shown.
I hop on the A at Utica Ave., in Brooklyn, and no sooner than I sit down does a short, heavy-set brother move to sit exceptionally close to me, smiling. He asks, “Did you see us annihilate them?” His accent throws me, though it is clearly African. “What?” I am confused, a bit defensive, until he says, “The match! Did you see us beat the U.S.?” And it hits me. He’s Ghanaian. The Black Stars had just eliminated the U.S. from the 2006 World Cup. I am still in my Black Stars jersey that I had purchased in Ghana the month before. I settle into the conversation. “You think we have a chance against Brazil?” My change in attitude does not mask my doubts about bringing down a giant. “We are not afraid of them,” he declares without pause, enunciating each word in a crisp, exacting manner. “We do not care who takes the pitch, we will slay them like we slayed the United States.” We talk football and Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien all the way into Manhattan.
My attraction to Ghana and support for the Black Stars grew out of a sense of connection that began when I read Kwame Nkrumah’s autobiography, Ghana, in an African history course. I adopted a Ghanaian first name in honor of the first sub-Saharan African country to kick out the British. I’ve often wondered whether a family genealogy would reveal ancestral ties to present-day Ghana, whether my mitochondrial DNA could help locate some distant relative there. I envy those who have made such connections, imagined the tangible, specific, locatable tie to the continent providing them some form of closure. After centuries of having your history systematically obscured and hidden, an empirical link is nothing short miraculous.
Such an obscure miracle of connection, to borrow Kamau Braithwaite’s phrase, often involves a good deal of complexity. Some years ago, I watched a news story about an ancestry service that promised the victims of the European slave trade it could identify, through genetic testing, specific people on the continent with whom they share a distant ancestor. The possibility to know who your people are was, if nothing else, brilliant marketing. One segment of that story followed a young brother who went to Liberia in search of the kings and queens he was certain that he descended from; he took it in stride when he discovered that his folks lived in huts and used a hole in the ground by a distant bush to relieve themselves. A sister from Britain went looking for family and answers existential in scope, only to leave crestfallen when that family demanded she start carrying her familial weight and pay for their grandmother’s medications. Diasporas, it would seem, are not without a sense of irony.
During my freshman orientation at Central State University, a small black college in Ohio, along with learning the names of buildings and the school’s history as a black college founded by black people, us freshmen learned that answering a simple question like “where you from” required greater geographical dexterity than “Kansas City” or “Detroit.” “Where were you from, before that?” Such were the ways of the chew-stick crew, self-appointed sages who assumed the responsibility of awakening us from our mental death. “Africa” got you a pass, but a true sign of consciousness involved something along the lines of, “I don’t know where I’m from, because I only have his-story.” Such rituals sought to soothe the wounds of slavery and colonialism, their rather idiosyncratic measures of value and validity tending to create their own solipsisms. This one Nigerian kid laughed, “If I gave them the name of the city where I grew up, they would have no idea where in Africa it is.” When he said as much to our resident Shazza Zulu, money didn’t miss a beat: “See, even our African brothers have no knowledge of self.”
Were genetic testing or a genealogical search to locate my ancestry somewhere else on the continent, I doubt my support of Ghana would change. My connection, obscure and unmoored as it may be, maintains not because it merely awaits empirical verification, but because such connections are, quite possibly, only valuable as a practice. Were my mother’s line to lead back to present-day Ghana, it would not be Ghana to which I would have ancestral ties, but some previous political formation on that same stretch of land. And this might have been Kwame Nkrumah’s singular genius. In his autobiography, Nkrumah remarked that Marcus Garvey “did more than any other to fire my enthusiasm.” It was an enthusiasm that led him to envision Ghana a pan-African beacon, and drawing on Garvey’s Black Star Shipping Line, to emblazon a black star on the Ghanaian flag, name Ghana’s shipping line the Black Star Line, and dub its national soccer team the Black Stars.
It is my only trip to the continent, and I am at the Elmina slave castle in Ghana. I was to have visited the day before with a group of academics but fell sick, so came alone this day. The solitude allows me to commune with the ancestors unimpeded by small talk. My guide says little—identifies the holding pen where women were kept, a whipping post, the still visible signs of dried blood. He guides me into a dimly lit anteroom whose sloped ceiling forces me to walk hunched over—a design, he says, meant to prevent slaves from running. I make my way into the smallest room yet, which I must step down into. There are three local school-aged boys there with a teacher, a Ghanaian woman on her first visit to a slave castle, and a white couple laying flowers at the far wall. Though there are only a few of us, the room feels cramped, hinting at what my ancestors must have felt as slavers set anchor off shore, waiting to fill their holds with stolen lives.
I step, only slightly, into the slim 3×5 opening marked “Door of no Return,” and am overwhelmed by the horror that began here. What could one of my great grandmothers and great grandfathers have felt as they passed through this door and walked along the narrow plank extending out to shore. I hate crying, but I know they walked through this door, or a similarly built one at Cape Coast, possibly Gorée Island.
My tears begin to build and I pull myself from the door to give my emotions their range, when one of the young boys walks up to me and, in precise, exacting English, declares, “It is very bad what your people have done to my people.” At first I wonder what possibly could my group have done to this boy the day before? I know academics can be imperious, but surely not to small children? “Excuse me?” “Slavery,” he clarifies. “It is very bad what your people did to my people.” I can’t help but laugh, relieved for my colleagues, amazed at his boldness. “Oh no, son. You should say that to them,” and I point to the white couple. He looks at me quizzically, and noticing my Brooklyn t-shirt asks excitedly, “You are from Brooklyn? Are you African American?” The locale provides a history that, even at eight or nine, makes the connection obscured by my complexion. “Our teacher is from Brooklyn, do you know her?” I don’t recognize her name, and assure him that Brooklyn is big enough that I likely don’t know her. He seems unsure but poses for a picture. He asks if I like Mos Def. He reminds me that Freddy Adu is Ghanaian. We shake hands, and his teacher scolds him for bothering me. I return to my hotel in time for the bus back to Accra. The next day on Oxford Street, I find a vendor selling football jerseys and buy one. I am ready for the World Cup.
Charles Edward Penn, my grandfather, had five girls. A stoic black man from rural Tennessee, I imagine he was jubilant when I came out, his first grandchild, a boy. When my biological father split before I turned one, my grandfather poured into me everything he likely considered unfit for his daughters. At nine, he made me put down my action figure dolls and compelled me to play and love baseball. I remember, too, holidays with him in the kitchen wearing an apron and baking cakes and pies. Obviously, manhood was nuanced. He also played enough country music that I know an unfortunately large number of Charley Pride songs, so he was no saint. Yet I grew up calling him Daddy. Still do. Interestingly enough, this is something I share with my mother, who also is not his biological child.
This Father’s Day, my thoughts about the man I call Daddy carry particular significance. Our father-son conversations suffered from his extreme economy of words, and rarely involved any kind of exchange (“listen to your mother”; “be careful who you hang around, cops don’t care who did what”; and this gem when I was thirteen: “You can do what I say, or we can get out of this car and I kick your butt, and you’ll do what I say. Your choice”), but his example of fatherhood made it clear that biology means little. At a time when black families were supposedly steeped in matriarchal pathology, his love of family paid scant attention to bloodlines and family resemblance.
In what now seems like a yearly ritual, black men publicly declare that we are good parents, such declarations often having less to do with asserting our manhood than expressing our frustration with the myth of absent black fathers. While an apparent supernatural phenomenon for the larger American public, the sight of a black man with his child is so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable. Of the black men I know (family, friends, and colleagues ranging from poor to upper-middle class), I can only think of two who are absent fathers. This is by no means a simple and straightforward issue. There are many black men who are uninvolved and/or poor fathers, though this is hardly a uniquely Negro ailment.
In a way, I understand why black fathers still seem novel. The life story of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, weighs heavy with the pain of his father’s absence, and resonates with the experiences of a number of black men and women. He has made fathers taking greater responsibility a regular theme of his speeches (at least to black audiences). Hear enough stories about black boys killing black boys, see a few unqualified statistics about black marriage rates, and the problem can seem self-evident. This helps explain the appeal of Pres. Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, the sense it gives that the federal government is finally taking the plight of black men seriously. Yet the thinking behind MBK is nothing new. The idea that our problems will evaporate when black men assume their parental responsibility has fueled many a Sunday sermon. In the 1990s, it helped the Nation of Islam draw over a million black people to the Million Man March, and sparked efforts all over the country to establish black all-male academies to provide black boys access to black male role models. MBK hasn’t so much proposed something new as it has placed Presidential imprimatur on an old idea.
But if new wine in old bottles still gives a buzz, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that such proposals trade on the same notions of single black mothers as inadequate parents; high crime rates, sagging pants, and thug music symptoms of a pathological culture that will disappear when men become men. It’s a belief rooted in racial stereotypes and desperation, and ignores the fact that black men have always raised their kids.
Maybe it’s an irony of slavery, Jim Crow, and the second ghetto that black men like my grandfather (and black women more generally) have never restricted their ability to love to the precincts of their DNA. This includes black men caring for the children of white men who either raped black women (quite a long history there), or, like my father, simply didn’t care (equally long history). Too many of us, myself included, have suffered abuse from stepfathers and boyfriends to be romantic about this, though abuse is hardly the monopoly of non-biological parents. Still, we hear far too infrequently stories of black men who invest themselves and their time in their non-biological children.
I first thought seriously about my grandfather raising first my mother, then me, when I was twenty-three. I had met my ex-wife whose daughter, Cheyenne, was one year old. When Cheyenne was two and declared me her daddy, I didn’t think twice about the responsibility I had assumed. At nine, she learned about her biological father and wondered what that made me. A father, I told her, is someone who loves you, helps raise you, and teaches you how to be a good person. I explained that my Daddy was actually my grandfather. She said that she knew why we did not look alike. My explanation seemed inadequate, but she’s never again asked if I was her father.
This past December, Cheyenne graduated college. Like other fathers when their child’s name was called, I stood and screamed in joy and amazement at the intelligent, smiling, beautiful woman dancing across the stage. I took photos, my mother fawned over her, my sister made inappropriate jokes like only an aunt can do. My four-year old adores her big sister who takes her to the movies, lets her drink soda, and plays videogames. My grandfather dotes on them both, and is far more generous with the cake and ice cream and occasional twenty-dollar bill than I ever remember. Sometimes family is a patchwork. Black families often are.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy
Granddaddy would argue with TV
umpires, squatting Toni Peña-style
on replays to prove the runner out,
stomach swollen from Budweiser.
Wondering why I preferred catching
fireflies to Dave Winfield taking one
— low & outside — over Fenway’s
Green Monster, would curse my grandmother,
“I ain’t raising no fag.” At 9,
closet thing to a son, he decided
to make me a man & teach
me how to work a baseball glove
till it gave easy as my hand.
Showed me how to turn sweat
& dirt into a poor man’s oil,
rubbing the leather stain-brown.
After a month under the T-bird’s
front wheel my glove laid flat. I carved
my name in the palm like granddaddy
said all legends do. Broken in
from years at short-stop in the
Tennessee Black League, his glove fit
tight around those calloused fingers,
swallowing balls like a Venus Flytrap.
He skipped grounders hoping
I’d learn to scoop them into
double plays. “Get your glove down,
LIKE THIS!” Made the ball whistle,
a bottle rocket exploding
in my glove. We played well past
the warning of street lights, the ball
in & out of shadows, my bony arm
slumped under the weight of my glove,
the bruise on my forehead raised
for a week.
The black man is a “phobogenic” object, provoking anxiety.
The length of black life is treated with short worth.
Yasiin Bey (formally Mos Def)
(Notebook: This post began as my thoughts on the larger meaning of the defense’s closing arguments, and after the verdict became something more)
Watching the Zimmerman defense attorney Mark O’Mara’s closing arguments Friday was nothing short of surreal, what I imagine it might have felt like had I entered Dr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and found myself in a Manhattan theater in 1915. The death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman for second-degree murder in that death is most assuredly about race, and more than half way through his closing O’Mara addressed the proverbial elephant, though in a way that echoed strongly the themes from that most classic of American cinema, The Birth of a Nation. And O’Mara’s closing argument was replete with lightening.
Making reference to defense witness Olivia Belatran, a young white woman whose home had been broken into by two young black men while she huddled in a locked upstairs bedroom holding her child and an inadequate pair of scissors, O’Mara assured the jury he did not present her for sympathy. “When you put a face on what was happening at Retreat View,” he explained of the series of burglaries in the months leading up to February 26, 2012, “she’s it. She’s really it.” Making audible what had remained unspoken until then, he next presented a poster-board silhouette of Trayvon Martin with a hoodie, followed by a grainy 7-11 security camera photo of Martin, then another of Martin bearing his modest chest: “This is the person, and this is the person who George Zimmerman encountered that night.” And holding yet another of the pitch-black path where Zimmerman ultimately killed Trayvon Martin, he drew the point finely as possible. “It was out of this darkness that Trayvon Martin decided to stalk, …plan, pounce” on his client.
Like The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed Reconstruction-era freed black men roaming the earth without chains, lawless, and lusting for white women, O’Mara dialed up the face of the vulnerable white woman terrorized by black teens unleashed by the same darkness that Zimmerman confronted. With considerable rhetorical skill and calm, O’Mara told a story almost as compelling, getting his point across to those six women jurors, five of whom are white: Zimmerman killed the horror you do not want to confront. Watching the trial in public, I found myself averting my gaze lest someone mistake a glance in the direction of a white woman for reckless eyeballing. Having just learned the jury found Zimmerman not guilty, it’s hard to see how O’Mara’s framing did not do its job.
The anxiety I feel about this trial is not really about this trial, but about the possibility of America. Pretty much every black person I know (both personally and virtually), and likely most of the white folk I know, shared in the outraged that George Zimmerman had killed an unarmed black teen and went free for forty-four days without arrest. We followed the case, noting each twist and turn, our experience of relief at Zimmerman’s eventual arrest and the reading of charges surpassed in recent history possibly only by our elation at Barack Obama’s election, as a black man, to the U.S. Presidency. The Zimmerman trial momentarily allowed for something a bit more profound. Its verdict confirms something far more troubling.
The trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin served as a sort of test for whether, to paraphrase LeVar Burton, America was America, or if it might surpass itself. If the criminal justice system would, for once, hold black life in a semblance of equivalence to white life? Maybe this explains the pitiable responses from so many of us toward the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, the young Haitian-Dominican woman on the phone with Martin seconds before he was shot. Betraying our general anxiety that Jeantel is not the right kind of black to represent us, her presence had the unintended consequences of peeling back the sutures of black excellence and revealing our still raw scars of class, color, and ethnic conflict. Concerns that she threatened the case seemed to hinge on the belief that if she had somehow spoke differently, lost weight, and lightened up before getting on the stand the jury would found her believable. The trial’s importance rested on the possibility that America might finally acknowledge our humanity and allow us to walk home unarmed and cloaked in that most cherished of American principles of jurisprudence: presumed innocent. It was impossible for Jeantel to have ever threatened that possibility.
Deep down, I never expected a guilty verdict, but I hope for one. Last year, I joined the chorus of calls for Justice for Trayvon Martin, watched closely, waited on, and exhaled at Zimmerman’s eventual arrest. But what possibility did it all portend, what cost comes with investing in retribution for Trayvon Martin’s death, when doing so renders his death and what contributed to it the singular issue of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, and not the larger complex that framed and sanctioned it. If this had been the time when a white person (or a not-quite-white Latino) was held accountable for their response to the phobogenic black, what would come next? What value would we have gained? Put differently, what would our inclusion in a system whose logics, protocols, and rationales are premised on the very notion of our bodies as ever-present threats to home and hearth? Could we have really moved forward as equals in a system where among the available legal arguments to the defense was to present black boys as always threatening to pounce from a dark alley — even when we’re walking home, minding our own business, and fearful of the armed grown man following us?
I join in the anger, the pain, and the frustration that so many are experiencing right now. And we should all be outraged. Hugging my three-year-old daughter, I fought back tears, relieved she’s too young to get what’s going on, so I don’t have to try to explain. My anger, our anger, our frustration, my resignation is not because we’ve been let down, not because we were convinced that this time, it would be different. We should always be outraged with a group of people, no matter how small or large, or a society, no matter how great and democratic, invalidates the humanity of anyone, commits an injustice against anyone, devalues any life, diminishes love, and serves up pain and hatred as justice and truth. We should have expected no more than this from the United States of America, and we should remain pissed as hell that this is the best we can hope for.
The horrific conclusion that is the acquittal of George Zimmerman leaves in place a larger issue than this vigilante. Even had the jury miraculously found him guilty, what the entire process continued to occlude is our ever addressing the institutional practices and logics that made Martin and black people more generally (especially black men) a source of anxiety. The judicial system (from the police to the courts to the prison industrial complex) necessarily excludes itself from culpability and responsibility, as it is the institution from which we seek justice for its wrongs. Even neighborhood watch programs turn on the same policies, legal precedents, and juridical beliefs that render us constant threats, even if members of those communities and neighborhoods. More fundamentally, this same racialized system operates not only to shield white crime from ever factoring as a problem, and black crime a problem only when it bleeds into the fabric of the nation — the New Orleans Mother’s Day parade massacre and the scores of black children killed in Chicago both fail to register on the national consciousness in anything like the horrors of the Boston Marathon bombing or the Newtown murders at Sandy Hook Elementary — but from our very ability to call into question these practices as a fundament of American democracy and jurisprudence.
If we can take anything redemptive from this horror, if any such possibility exists, it would have to be Rachel Jeantel. What never came out in her testimony (I guess it never occurred to anyone to ask), but what the public learned subsequently, is that her friendship with Martin was precisely because he violated those very same premises that cast him as a source of anxiety and her as a threat to racial respectability. Trayvon and Rachel were friends, she related through her attorney, because he never made fun of her complexion, her size, or how she talked. Their friendship stemmed from their ability to see one another as human beings, to love one another (not romantically but) as people who could see one another, and who could function from a vulnerable place where love functions as nothing other than honoring another’s life and presence, one another’s existence on this earth. Maybe we can take from Trayvon what he gave, the ability to see who we are. That the jury, the justice system, the racialized arguments of the defense, and the swell of support for Zimmerman throughout this whole ordeal, could never recognized his humanity should continue to enrage us. Shouldn’t surprise us. Shouldn’t appear to us as something new. This was no great revelation. And still, his very humanity and his ability to recognize it in others should spur us on to recognize his and ours, and channel our outrage into something a bit more than continued investment in this system to correct itself and ever see us as human.
Watching Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin fight back tears and struggle through an unimaginable range of emotions in talking about their son Trayvon Martin’s death, I recognized an expression I’ve seen only once before. It was the same look on my mother’s face nearly twenty years ago, when my brother died after being shot: empty, confused, lost. Like Trayvon’s parents, my mother had no reference for how to handle that depth of pain, for how to help her other children confront the unimaginable, while simultaneously planning a funeral and having to wrap her mind around never seeing a son she had seen nearly everyday for eighteen years.
Trayvon Martin’s killing at the hands of vigilante George Zimmerman, and my brother’s murder, are similar yet quite different. Both were teenaged black boys, and both of their killers remain free. Both were adored by their families and friends, had gregarious personalities, and their losses have left loved ones searching for answers to explain the fulsome lives cut so horribly short. And their deaths have revealed to those closest to them the fabric of a social order where the loss of black life figures less as a rupture than as an intricate weave in the pattern.
Treyvon Martin’s killer was an overzealous, self-appointed neighborhood watch captain apparently intimidated by a black body in a hoodie and in possession of processed sugar; my brother’s killer a neighborhood thug who, loosing a fight, decided killing someone would restore his twisted sense of manhood. Both killers claimed self-defense, twisting the details of their respective nights so as to tap into a reservoir of racial images where black men are perpetual threats to social order, life, and morality. That Zimmerman is a white Latino and my bother’s killer black does not detract from the similarities of their stories of fearing for their lives. Nor does it matter that as much as Trayvon Martin’s and my brother’s deaths resemble one another, they are qualitatively different. Indeed, despite the differences surrounding their deaths, that their killers drew on identical modes for devaluing black life raises the most troubling questions about the American racial imaginary.
I must admit to being somewhat troubled by the national response to Trayvon Martin’s death, specifically, how that response has hinged on the same racial ideology that guided both Zimmerman and my brother’s killer. For me, their cases raise uncomfortable questions not so much about their killers, but the measures by which a black life might, in one instance, warrant national outrage, and in another might be better left on a pile of unprosecutable cases.
I share the outrage that has prompted scores of blacks, Asians, Latinas/os, and whites to don hoodies in protest for justice and the arrest of Treyvon Martin’s killer; the Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin in New York; students in south Florida high schools walking out of class and forming human TMs on their football fields; the Miami Heat posing for a hoodied photo, with various other NBA superstars and the NBA Players Association following suit and demanding justice for Trayvon; and the scores of other Million Hoodies protests taking place across the country. Our collective outrage grows from the frustration of knowing that Trayvon Martin was gunned down by a vigilante frustrated because someone he assumed was on drugs and up to no good would be yet another “a**hole” who would get away.
But what if Trayvon Martin had not been a “good” kid? What if he had a juvenile record? What if he had a felony assault case pending against him? What if all these were true, and he still only had Skittles and a bottle of iced tea, feared the man pursuing him, and cried out for help until he was killed? Fortunately, these counterfactuals are not the case, and we can have such a widespread discussion about racial violence, stereotypes, and their real life consequences. We can have these discussions because Trayvon’s character allows for such outrage.
But when a black life does not fit the script of the proper, respectable black who does not deserve such violence, such killings rarely spark moral outrage. Black life remains in its place outside the judicial order, stripped of all sacramental qualities. The killing of black people no longer requires, as it once did, the ceremony of the lynch mob, nor the sanction of guilt by a court of law. It has long since become routine, mundane, ubiquitous.
At the risk of a sacrilege, at issue is not whether Zimmerman was racist or hated black people. Outside the hate crime provision that would allow federal prosecution, whether he used a racial slur is largely irrelevant to the question of where and how black life fits into the structure of race in America. The claims and convoluted reasoning of Zimmerman’s father, lawyer, and friends that he is not racist, even if true, do not change the fact that Zimmerman operated within the matrices of race that deems black life a perpetual threat which only deadly force can halt. That Zimmerman was a vigilante helped bring this case into our national consciousness. But as Mark Anthony Neal explains, rather than an individual act, at issue is “the way that black males are framed in the larger culture…as being violent, criminal and threats to safety and property.”
Had George Zimmerman been an undercover or off-duty police officer, I seriously doubt the outrage would be so widespread and morally persuasive. Is this overly cynical? Perhaps. But the outcry over Sean Bell and Oscar Grant, both unarmed when they were killed by police officers who were subsequently acquitted of wrong doing (though the officer who killed Bell has been fired, a far too belated and inadequate response by the NYPD), extended little further than the cries for justice coming from black people in New York and Oakland. The family of Ramarley Graham, the unarmed Bronx teen killed by a NYPD officer in his grandmother’s bathroom, has said that they will hold marches every Thursday until a movement mounts around their son’s murder. The family of Byron Carter, Jr., is currently suing the Austin police department for his shooting death, pointing out that he was unarmed, sitting in a car, and had committed no crime. Bell, Grant, Graham, and scores of others have all been tainted with a tinge of guilt, not because of anything they were doing or had ever done in the past, but largely because the police are always already seen as justified in using deadly force again black bodies. Any imperfection in the black body’s past merely helps complete the sovereign cipher.
Black women fare no better in this racial matrix. As we have seen recently, medical practitioners and police often neglect black women’s medical concerns and emergencies, assuming either they are engaged in illegal activity, as when Anna Browns was recently arrested in a St. Louis hospital emergency room for trespassing and died shortly thereafter in police custody, or are dismissed as mentally unstable, as when Esmin Green died on a Brooklyn hospital waiting room floor, where she was laying for over an hour before anyone even checked on her.
My brother was not, by the measures that sparked outrage over Trayvon Martin’s death, a “good” kid; put differently, by the cruel calculus that requires black people approach sainthood before garnering national sympathy, he fell short. He lacked the framing to make his murder anything more than a family tragedy — gang violence at worst, in the wrong place at the wrong time at best. And while his killer was neither a vigilante nor law officer, that same calculus and limited moral imagination operated to make his death merely another tally in a tired and statistically misguided argument about “black-on-black” crime. My brother’s killer was another young black kid. It is a story so common it is largely unremarkable as a cause for outrage, outside the black community.
When something like Trayvon Martin happens, a question I always hear, without fail, from other black people is why don’t we make the same noise when the killer is black. It is a question born of such frustration that it belies its own reality. Black people do raise their voices in protest when we kill one another, we demand justice, we march, we protest. But young black men killing other young black men is no longer compelling like in the 1980s and ‘90s, when it fit a script of broken black communities and homes, absent black fathers and endangered black men. What was rarely heard and remains little discussed (though not among black people) is that such deaths are routine because they are irregularly punished. Black men who kill other black men (or put more accurately, black people who commit violent crimes against other black people, especially domestic violence and rape) often know they have a greater a chance of escaping prosecution.
It is important to remember that the very racial elements that made Trayvon Martin’s killing tragic and cause of national outcry are the very elements that render invisible the killing of less “respectable” black men by vigilantes, police, American citizens, and other black men. The racial imaginary that prompted Geraldo Rivera to blame Trayvon’s sartorial choice of a hoodie as equally responsible for his death as Zimmerman, that prompted Sanford police to accept an armed vigilante’s claim of self-defense, that prompted St. Louis police to arrest a homeless black woman seeking medical attention, is the same logic that locates a black person killing another black person at the margins of the judicial order, prompts judges to sentence black defendants more severely when their victim is white. It is the same American racial imaginary that convinces black criminals that they are far more likely to get away with killing a black person than with killing a white person.
If Trayvon Martin’s death sparks a serious discussion about the dangers of stereotypes, hopefully that discussion considers the default settings of race in America where blackness correlates as criminal, ignoble, predator, guilty, and whiteness as noble, honorable, defender, innocent. Hopefully it goes beyond a mere concern for how stereotypes mistakenly implicate decent young black men, honor students or college graduates, professionals and dedicated family men. Hopefully we begin to challenge the view of black women’s bodies as lascivious, available, innately criminal, simultaneously diseased and impervious to pain and violence. Though I am doubtful, hopefully it brings into focus how those stereotypes, how the structures of racial oppression sanctions the death of black kids with juvenile records, who have poor grades, who buck authority, who are angry because of their life circumstances, who are too easily reasoned away as deserving death. I’m too cynical to believe it will happen in my lifetime, but I hope there emerges a world moral imagination equally as outraged at the racial structures of feeling that would sanction my brother’s death as Trayvon Martin’s, that would be equally moved by my mother’s tears as by the Sybrina Fulton’s outrage, conviction, courage, and compassion.