By LENNOX FARRELL
Must normal life today for a sane Black person feel like some out-of-body experience? Like being wide awake in a nightmare where the ghosts of a recurring past jostle for attention with headlines – current and strident? For sure, being Black and aware is to sometimes think that the phrase, ‘Black humanity’ is an oxymoron … and no hyperbole here.
So, we’d heard about the shooting of yet another Black youth with a pedestrian sounding name, Michael Brown; shot this time in a pedestrian sounding place, Ferguson, Missouri. Without knowing all the fleeting details, you knew how the script might unfold. Would it likely include a 19-year-old Black woman shot in suburban Detroit on a porch by a White man afraid for his life? Or a Black youth, judged guilty of wearing a hoodie, shot after being followed near his home in a gated Florida community?
The frequency with which these killings occur is not experienced by other youth – White, Asian, Jewish etc. The pedestrian realities of being Black can deaden your sensibilities.
Thus, from experience acquired through learning how to remain SWB (Sane While Black), one must know when to hold and when to fold. So, absentmindedly, one might follow the demonstrations pro and con of urban Black communities being occupied by police in martial gear flinging teargas.
I didn’t engage even after the unusual foci of national and international media; and some tactical condemnations of America’s racial realities being made in China, Russia and Iran. I stayed absentminded, but balanced. However, what irked me despite my intentions to stay put even though I have several grandsons aged between the twos and the teens, was the recurring spectre of this ordinary young Black man left for four hours to lie where he had been felled by six police bullets. From 12:01pm to dusk. His body, refused by the police to his grieving family; his body handcuffed even in death behind police yellow tape. Four hours? Would a feral dog, dead in the road, have had more regard than this Black teenager?
That spectre troubled me. What purpose was served leaving him lying face-down as road kill on a busy roadway, his broken body leaking blood and spilling brains in mid-street in mid-afternoon in mid-America? It did not make sense. What did make sense was none of the officers calling an ambulance; one only happening by on another urgency. After all, of what use are medics after taking two headshots, dead-on? It also made sense, spiteful if not unexpected, that shortly after his folk built a make-shift memorial where he’d been felled that an officer’s police dog pissed on it, and another drove his police vehicle over it. Is gross insensitivity a synonym for rank stupidity?
It also made sense that in reacting to the responses of Black communities to the shooting, police departments nationwide earnestly sought advice from other departments with experience – Florida’s – on how to manage ‘racial unrest’. Not on how to end anti-Black racism. No, how to best manage racial unrest.
Top policy priority here: manage racial unrest, not racial antagonisms. Are these people preparing in advance for more of the same?
After other killings in which the shooters were scared for their lives, the standard claim is made: one that transforms victimizers into victims and victims into victimizers. It therefore now made predictable sense that the officer in this situation was also in fear for his life. Michael Brown was not wearing a hoodie. However, having the weight and size of a fullback, he was guilty. It must be a terrifying reality being a constant threat to oneself because one is perceived by others to be a stomach-churning threat. What do you do? Pretend you’re not present, clearly out-of-place and hopefully also out-of-body? Do you compromise yourself, initiating soothing small-talk? Looking cultured, as others shift their purses? Their kids? Why when others feel unsafe, you are required to feel even more unsafe?
It was then that the spectre of Michael Brown arose from the gore on the road. Ignoring all the police yellow tape, it spoke in language and imagery that had to do with festivities. Yes, those associated with ice-cream, picnics, souvenirs, families, photo sessions. In short, the spectre spoke of normalcy, the normalcy of lynching. Michael Brown’s body was a spectacle, a carnival of death harking back to the abnormality of Jim Crow normality.
Lynching was another American Declaration of who has, and who doesn’t have, legitimacy. Michael Brown’s spectre was a link to conjugating the racial tensions of a past imperfect. For example, the public lynching in the 1930s of two other Black boys: Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, Indiana.
That other spectre had inspired Abel Meeropol, a Jewish communist who, protesting the killings of these two youth, had written a poem, its lyrics and memories later put to music, Billie Holiday’s haunting “Strange Fruit”. I had, myself, first heard a recording in the mid-1990s anti-Apartheid days in Toronto. These had been days of White South African police point-blank killing Black South African youth in Soweto. Then as now, “Strange Fruit” testified that:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south, The bulging eyes, the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
At a carnival of public lynchings – some were by invitation only – in addition to the foods, the music, the gaiety, the family photos taken with, and the souvenirs sliced off, the burnt Black bodies, a clear message was being sent to those not yet roped and hoisted. It proclaimed who had, and who didn’t have legitimacy. In my opinion, that is why, after the shooting, and the spectacle of a Black body spread dead in the street, it was the police officer, who, without making any appeal, raised almost a half-million dollars from kith and kin across the globe.
These vast and growing disparities of legitimacy in America, disparities of unavailable and available means and access, are up-front visible when comparing the different communities of Blacks, and those of Whites, demonstrating. The Blacks, cluttered in dollar-store communities now embalmed in tear gas, carry the predictable placards: “No Justice No Peace”. The more affluent White communities, however, demonstrate driving wide-wheeled, big-cheeked vehicles, the police respectfully protective alongside. Their slogans, equally predictable but effective, don’t have to be loud. Unstated, and clear, these say: ‘we support our own … we have the means, we control the access …’