already weary. Was already heavy hearted. Was already tired. Where can
we be safe? Where can we be free?” I excerpted these words from a tweet that
Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s younger sister) posted on June 18th at
6:49pm, the evening after Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African
Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, slaughtered
nine people, and wounded another. I felt the yearning and
exasperation in those words. I sensed a tinge of desperation underlying
her words too. And since the murder of Trayvon Martin, I’ve come to
know these feelings well.
I’ve asked myself those two questions every
time another person of African descent is murdered or assaulted or
emotionally broken in the very spaces they are supposed to feel safe
and free, and by the very people they long to trust, with whom
they simply co-exist, and by people who swore an oath to
protect and serve them. I have lived in some of the most dangerous and crime-ridden places in America — Newark, N.J. and New Orleans, La.,
to name just two — yet I have never feared for my safety and my life,
and the lives of my teenage son and partner, in the ways that I’ve come
to do in the past several years.
(Photo by Kaitlyn Veto)
Trayvon Martin was killed, they would leave the house, and I would
always yell after them, “Bye! Love you! Be careful!” in the way that
mothers and lovers do. In the years after Trayvon’s death, I say these
words and I mean them. I say them with the fear and dread that I
imagine filled my southern ancestors’ minds and spirits too when loved
ones walked out of their front doors. I say them knowing that it is
possible that they might not come back because someone might find them
threatening, shoot them, or kill them.
But I have never truly feared for my own life.
Now, I do. In 2015, my fears for my male loved ones and for myself
intensified, and the Charleston massacre proved to be a turning point
for me. I’d like to tell you why.
Trayvon’s death, and George Zimmerman’s acquittal for his murder, I’ve
thought deeply about the significance of black life in America. And
since the inception of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I have
considered the impetus behind the hashtag and the catalyst for the
intense activism that accompanied it in the streets and on social
media. All the while, tragic things have happened to black people, and
some of it was even recorded for anyone to see.
I have watched a video of Oscar Grant being shot while prostrate and unarmed, sitting on the floor of the BART Fruitvale Station. I’ve seen another showing Eric Garner being
choked to death as he pled with his captors for air because he couldn’t
breathe. I have read about the exoneration of their killers.
I’ve watched another video showing 51-year-old Marlene Pinnock being
straddled by a California Highway Patrolman as he pummeled her face in
with his fists while she tried desperately to shield her body from his
blows. I’ve listened to his superiors and investigators explain away
his violent attack. She was resisting arrest and this was all to subdue
her, they suggested. Yet, she can be seen on film trying to escape him before he pinned her to the ground.
Michael Dunn shot Jordan Davis,
a seventeen-year-old boy, while he sat in his friend’s car in a gas
station parking lot. Dunn murdered Jordan because the music in his
friend’s car was too loud. Another man, John Crawford III, was murdered inside an Ohio Walmart. North Charleston police officer, Michael T. Slager, shot dead yet another man named Walter Scottas he ran away. His crime was a broken brake light.
Even a jaywalking female professor, a bikini-clad teenage girl, and an 11-year-old boy on his way to football practice pose threats to community safety it would seem. In fact, in the town where he lived, Miami Gardens, Florida,
the police conducted nearly 100,000 stop-and-frisks between 2008-2013.
They targeted 56,922 people, the equivalent of nearly half of the
city’s population. Some were as old as 99 and as young as 5, and none
of the stops led to arrests. One man was stopped 200 times, even while
he was at work. The
harassment got so bad that his employer allowed him to sleep inside the
store and installed cameras in order to film these acts.
almost a month ago, nine praying and faithful women and men were killed
because a white supremacist and racial terrorist believed that they
were a threat to the country and the sexual purity of white women. All
of this brutality and bloodshed, even the routine denial of basic
rights afforded to American citizen, black people have endured many
Progressive moments, violent reprisals
I were in a room with Solange, I would tell her this: America is not a
place where black people can be safe, and it is not a place where they
can be free. Not if things stay as they are. Not if things stay as they
have been. Because stepping back and taking a long view of things leads
the rational individual to the sorrowful conclusion that, for most of
our nation’s history, black people have not been safe or free, even
when the law said they were. For much of our nation’s history, black
lives have not mattered. And recent events strongly suggest that in the
eyes of some, and perhaps many, they still don’t.
moments when they have seemed to matter — Emancipation, the Civil
Rights Era, and even Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 elections for example
— were really hiccups in a much longer, more dreadful history of
disavowal, which denied African-Americans full citizenship. Immediately
after these progressive moments, black people endured waves of violent
reprisals, which affected their political, economic, and legal autonomy.
ago, historian Edmund Morgan argued that our nation’s revolutionary and
democratic ideals were largely predicated upon black exclusion,
subjugation, and enslavement, something he called the “American paradox.”
If, as Morgan suggests, American conceptualizations of democracy
and citizenship were predicated in large part upon the enslavement
of African-Americans and the denial of a black citizenry, how did the
definition of American democracy and citizenship change when those
African-Americans were legally freed?
1921 the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma was attacked by whites
and a district known as “Black Wall Street” was razed. This is a
postcard of the fire. (Source: McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa,
via Wikimedia Commons)
how could a group of people who were appraised, bought, and sold as
property, and legally owned by other human beings, become citizens? On
the surface, the 14th Amendment
addressed this question because it granted African-Americans full
citizenship. Yet, on the ground, racial discrimination and brutality
continued to curtail freedpeople’s ability to claim the human and
political rights afforded to white Americans and to demand protection
from widespread hostility and violence.
the heels of Emancipation, slave-owners routinely assaulted and
sometimes murdered newly emancipated people who exuded a hint of
self-respect. After freedpeople toiled in their fields for months on
end, plantation owners robbed them of their earnings and threatened to
murder them where they stood if they did not leave their land. They
forced freed men, women, and children to watch as they perpetrated unspeakable acts of violence upon and against their loved ones.
State governments developed and implemented laws called Black Codes,
which essentially made it a crime to be black and free, all while the
Feds watched or turned away. When African-Americans tried to move out
of the South, some white southerners foiled their plans by assaulting
or murdering them, and when others created all-black communities with
hopes that they could be free and safe, residents were massacred and their communities were burned to the ground.
the first half of the 20th century, black men, women, and children were
lynched, thousands of them, for alleged rapes, murders, sly words or
looks, whistling, their successes and achievements, and sometimes for
no reason at all. Their tortures and murders were performed as public
rituals attended by crowds that could number in the thousands.
Employers would give their workers the day off just so they could
witness the mutilation and destruction of black bodies. Newspapers notified
readers about lynchings that were going to happen well beforehand.
These public tortures and murders of black people were memorialized in
pictures that were later made into postcards.
who were present at these lynchings, which they sometimes referred to
as “barbecues,” wrote notes on the backs of these postcards and mailed
them to their friends and families via the United States Postal
Service. Few perpetrators were brought to justice even though the faces
of attendees could clearly be seen, and hence identifiable, in the
images taken at the scene. African-Americans pled with the federal
government to protect them, submitted close to 200 anti-lynching bills,
and all of them eventually failed. In 2005, the government decided to apologize for not coming to their aid.
a litany of horrors might seem to offer an indictment of individuals.
Yet these events, and many that followed, are not suggestive of a few
bad apples spoiling the whole bunch in the barrel. They tell us that
something is horribly wrong with the barrel. And that barrel was
constructed and maintained by our federal and state governments. These
issues are not just about people hating people. They are about a
cultural and institutional context which facilitated, created, and
perpetuated racial inequality, consistently adapted to black people’s
attempts to circumvent the constraints imposed upon their autonomy, and
a legal and social structure that continues to sustain it.
The New Deal overwhelmingly excluded African-Americans from
every program which provided white citizens with social and financial
safety nets. In many ways, their descendants are still dealing with the
consequences of that exclusion today. Black soldiers were murdered just
for wearing their uniforms when they returned home after surviving
vicious and prolonged battles abroad, wars waged for freedoms denied to
them by their country. In the South, they experienced high rates of dishonorable discharges,
which disqualified them from the entitlement programs offered to
servicemen via the GI Bill. For those who could take advantage of the
benefits, de jure and de facto racial discrimination made it difficult and, in some cases, impossible to do so. Federal housing programs and practices made it perfectly legal to deny black people housing through redlining practices and racially restrictive covenants.
a host of ways, states made and enforced laws that abridged
African-Americans’ “privileges and immunities.” States and their
representatives repeatedly deprived African-Americans of life, liberty,
and property, without due process of law. They also denied
African-Americans equal protection of the laws. Thus, in at least three
important ways, some states routinely violated the 14th Amendment rights of African-Americans throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
‘White man’s flag’
protest at the Arkansas state capitol against admission of the
“Little Rock Nine” to Central High School, 1959. (Library of Congress
via Wikimedia Commons)
long after this, as legislative victories were won in the late 1950s
and 1960s, and the effects could be felt and seen in the 1970s and
1980s, white southerners moved quickly to remind black people that the
cause of the Confederacy was alive and well. They violently resisted
the integration of local schools, even going so far as to harass black
children and adolescents. They named new parks and buildings after
notorious southerners like Tennessee slave trader, Confederate general,
and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest. As a matter of fact, the Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, signed a proclamation, which declared Monday July 13, 2015 “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.”
Southerners also embraced the Confederate flag with renewed fervor, and in the days and weeks following the Charleston massacre, they’ve begun to do the same.
We don’t need to debate the racist meanings behind the flag itself,
because the flag’s designer, William Thompson, addressed that issue
long ago. In an April 1863 editorial that Thompson wrote, he laid bare
the rationale and vision underpinning his creation. He stated that “as a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race” and, Thompson elaborated, the Confederate flag “would be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.” That’s Thompson’s emphasis, not mine.
Alongside these local developments, a federal war on drugs took shape, states passed highly punitive and discriminatory legislation, and the federal government followed
suit. With the exponential growth of an inmate population too large for
prisons to readily accommodate, a government-sanctioned prison
industrial complex expanded across the country, and the mass incarceration of black people, especially men, and later women, crippled thriving families and communities.
Worse still, Christopher Petrella, one of Berkeley’s own graduate students, conducted astudy which
found that massive prison privatization has led to a disproportionate
number of young (vs. old) African-Americans being incarcerated in
private, for-profit prisons. This is happening even as the feds and
local governments are modifying and repealing the legislation that led
to the mass incarceration of older generations in the first place.
Petrella’s findings led him to conclude that the reasoning behind this
disparity has little to do with the criminal activities of these
groups; it comes down to the higher healthcare and staffing costs
associated with housing older inmates.
an era marked by events that would seem like the fulfillment of black
hopes and dreams — the election and re-election of the first president
of African ancestry — black people have been reminded of the
ever-present specter of racialized violence and terror. In the two
years preceding Barack Obama’s election, for example, there were between 50 and 60 noose sightings or noose-related incidents reported in locations throughout the country, including the North. This map shows some of them. During his campaign, election, and re-election, images of Barack Obama’s face in crosshairs and effigies of the president swung freely within public view. One was even hung in front of a church by its pastor. Since his 2008 election, white supremacist and militant groups grew by 813%. Yes. 813%. That’s not a typo. They’re declining now, but the numbers are still staggering.
a long view of history makes it hard to deny one fact: black life has
possessed little value in the eyes of the nation since emancipation led
to their decommodification as human property. Here’s an example of
what I mean. On October 15, 1864, two South Carolina slave-owners,
Martha and Henry Bailey, sold a fourteen-year-old girl named Hagar to
Frederick Richards for $3,500. Now, that might seem like a small sum to
pay for a human being. But in 2014 money, Hagar would cost $54,400. In
the course of about a year, Hagar possessed no monetary value. With
Emancipation, this process of decommodification happened about four
million times, and the values of many enslaved people like Hagar went
from thousands or hundreds of dollars to zero overnight.
Washington D.C. was a notable exception because in April of 1862, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act provided
Unionist slave-owners with the opportunity to request compensation for
their human property, and many did. They received up to $300 for every
freed slave. Those who lived beyond D.C. received nothing.
end of slavery, then, compelled America to reimagine black value beyond
conceptions of property. It seems to me that Americans have been
struggling to determine the value of black life, and black people,
since then. The incidents I outlined above suggest that, some citizens
of this nation and some representatives of our government do not
consider that value to be very high.
Tools of self-preservation
all of this, black people, and their allies, fought for their survival,
and battled for justice. Generations of African-Americans have devised
tools for self-preservation, which helped them endure persistent
attacks on their freedom, they passed them onto their children, and
subsequent generations have adapted them accordingly. They were, and
continue to be, resilient because they have always had to be. They did
this because, long before the hashtag, they believed that black lives
mattered very much. But they weren’t fighting for just any kind of
black living. They envisioned the kind of black life that could only be
possible if it was devoid of hostility, terror, brutality, and
injustice. It would only be possible if the nation acknowledged
African-Americans as full citizens.
national narrative tells us that they won that battle. Yet now, in the
last few years, events have come to light, which, in the eyes of an
historian, show that the racial terror, brutality, and disempowerment
of much earlier times are taking hold once again. Black people cannot
be safe or free in America when they are standing on train platforms,
walking home after picking up Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea from the
convenience store, allegedly selling a few loose cigarettes, strolling
the aisles in Walmart, jaywalking, attending a pool party, driving with
a broken brake light, or, as the events of June 17th showed, attending Bible study.
Roof’s massacre of those nine God-fearing African-descended
Charlestonians drove this point home for me. For an hour, he sat among
them as they glorified the Lord, studied His word, prayed, and talked
about His grace. For sixty minutes, Dylann Roof experienced their sense
of peace, their kindness, their Christianly love and acceptance of him.
He saw the best parts of these people, something that almost made him
change his mind about what he was going to do next. But even this
wasn’t enough to spare their lives. He murdered them, taking the
occasional moment to reload his weapon five times, and each time, he
murdered more of them.
events that unfolded in Charleston are symptomatic of wounds unhealed
and words unspoken. The massacre of those nine black people in the pews
of Emanuel AME Church, and the murders of many more before them,
signify that, for a very long time, African-Americans have existed as
outsiders in their own country, in spite of their widespread and
longstanding devotion to American principles of democracy.
the outside looking in, their embrace of America is all the more
baffling in light of everything they’ve suffered and everything they’ve
survived. It would be easy to ask why anyone, whose ancestors have
endured as much as theirs have, often at the hands of their own
government, would still love their country, and still hope that they
could be considered full members of the polity. Yet, many
African-Americans believe that this nation is just as much theirs to
claim as anyone else’s, if not more so. They understand that without
their ancestors, their bodies, and their labor, this nation would not
be what it is today. And, as the latest slew of books about American
slavery and capitalism has unequivocally shown, there is much truth in
time has come for us, as a nation, to have an honest, and probably
painful, discussion about the plight of black people in this country.
We need more than “a conversation about race,” something that political
pundits have so frequently encouraged that it has become cliché to even
say it. We need to talk about the history and meaning of black life in
America, from settlement to the present. We need to reckon with their
captivity, their multi-generational enslavement, their traumas, and
their struggles. We must simultaneously recognize their patriotism,
their contributions, and their triumphs, in spite of systematic and
repeated attempts to rob them of the freedoms promised to them.
must also ask ourselves some tough questions like: Is there something
inherently contradictory about the idea of an African-American
citizenry? Can the descendants of enslaved African-Americans be
full citizens in the United States? Does it threaten to
destabilize our notions of American democracy and values? Most
importantly of all, what are we, as a nation, prepared to do in order
to make America safe for African-Americans? What are we willing to
change in order to make true freedom and full citizenship possible for
African-Americans in this country?
activists have already begun this hard yet fruitful work. They have
initiated the talks, and in their own unique ways, they have begun to
think about how to address the questions I pose here. This piece is my
interjection into that conversation. I don’t consider it to be the
final word on any of the subjects that I could only begin to touch upon
in a blog post. And I admit that I don’t have all the answers, nor do I
have the power or resources to take on these issues by myself.
I do know that it is imperative for us to do this. It is time to face
our anger, our disappointment, our sadness, and our shame. And all
signs are pointing us in this direction.