“If we were to make the invisible violence of poverty and racism visible, what would we see?”
We’d see Trayvon Benjamin Martin and Emmett Louis Till.
Fifty-seven years stretch between two unarmed African-American minors whom mark the echo of the monstrous black-on-white homicide thanks to the end of a gun.
Visiting from Chicago, 14-year-old Till was unaware that he allegedly violated “unwritten laws of the Jim Crow [South]” after whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Kidnapped in Money, MS on Aug. 28, 1955 by “white thugs”, Roy Bryant and half-brother J.W. Milam, torturously battered Till whom became their prey. Granted a shot in the head, Till was dead. Three days later, his unrecognizable body of a bashed head, protruding eyeballs and cracked jaw was found in the Tallahatchie River. Oh, and the “75-pound cotton gin fan [that clung] around his neck with barbed wire” too. “On September 23, an all-white, all-male jury took only an hour to acquit both men of Till's murder, despite their admission that they had kidnapped him.” Outraged of Till’s homicide, his mother, Mamie Till-Bradley (later identified as Mamie Till-Mobley), demanded for an open “glass-topped” casket to be exposed for all to see the feared corpse.
It was raining that night in Sanford, FL on Feb. 26, 2012, when 17-year-old Martin pulled up his hood as he headed home after making a 7-Eleven run. “Earphones in his ears, Arizona iced tea in hand and a cellphone, Skittles and $22 in his pockets,”neighborhood-watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, was spooked to encounter him walking along the path through the back of townhouses. “Their story begins when Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and pursued Trayvon on foot [against the recommendation of the police].” Zimmerman initiated a physical confrontation that ended with a bad judgment call as Martin was fatally shot,“claiming self-defense”. Though he was charged with second-degree murder, “the jury of six women, all but one of them white reached a verdict of not guilty”.
Shortly after his death, Jet magazine published the funeral containing images of Till’s mangled body. The iconic imagery would shock the conscience of the nation as it not only sparked the battle against Jim Crow, but “ignited the modern civil rights movement”. Identically, “the name “Trayvon”” not only would be “tweeted more than 2 million times” in merely 30 days, but his hoodie would transpire into the symbolical protest of stereotype and biases across the nation.
In my quest, I intend to explore the relationship between competing narratives that critique the notions of #BlackLivesMatter. I ground my findings amid the #BlackLivesMatter movement that’s to serve as my foundational work, today’s incarceration of Jim Crow, the “New Black”, and the underlying realness of black progress.
What began as a hashtag for the rallying cry for black lives has transpired into a national movement known as #BlackLivesMatter. I turn to co-founder Alicia Garza’s editorial, A Herstory of the Black Lives Matter Movement, as she, alongside her partners Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi,not only set forth the birth of #BlackLivesMatter but highlight the latter-day oppression of blacks owing to state violence. Trayvon’s homicide sparked the initiation of the movement which centers on unifying racially mixed alliances in pursuance of challenging “American racism” by means of “demand[ing] changesin policies and institutions—from job discrimination to predatory lending to underfunded schools, to the pervasive racism of our criminal justice system.”
Amid her piece, Garza thought-provokingly professed, “When Black people get free, everybody gets free.”
This kind of honesty is what I find most empowering about Garza’s narrative voice of #BlackLivesMatter as she leaves you open for reinterpretation, re-visitation, and a dash of ambiguity.
Garza affirmed #BlackLivesMatter centers on all kinds of blacks—“Black queer [alongside] trans folks”, disabled persons, “Black-undocumented folks”, etc. Owing to her judgments, Garza acknowledges the reader and includes, “#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important […] We’re not saying Black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways. We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation and we know that our destinies are intertwined.” She further justifies, “[but when] you drop “Black” from the equation of whose lives matter, and then fail to acknowledge it came from somewhere, you further a legacy of erasing Black lives and Black contributions from our movement legacy. And consider whether or not when dropping the Black you are, intentionally or unintentionally, erasing Black folks from the conversation or homogenizing very different experiences.”
Incarceration as “Jim Crow”
Before you begin ranting about how people deserve to undergo punishment for any criminal behavior, Adam Gopnik’s “New Yorker” essay entitled, The Caging of America, persuades us to look beyond that as he concentrates on America’s penal system.
Presently, our America is notorious for its exceeding number of prisoners than any other country. In line with this notion, Gopnik begins his piece by professing that the duration in which a prisoner is trapped in a cell is a punishment in itself. “It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates,” Gopnik explains which leads him to question, “How did we get here?” As he justifies these means of the relationship between mass incarceration and crime rate, he commends us to acknowledge that mass incarceration is an unethical matter that needs to be re-directed.
As Garza exposes of the “1 million Black people [whom] are locked in cages in this country”; Gopnik does too. He argues that our jails are the “latter-day incarcerations of Jim Crow”. As black men, particularly poor uneducated black men, he draws the comparison that prison is a destined stop for them as “high school and college is for rich white [folks]”. Moreover, Gopnik reflects on novels concentrated on “American punitiveness, including William Stuntz, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice; Robert Perkinsons, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, and Michelle Alexanders, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. Here are significant features of the American penalty dilemma Gopnik shares from these writers:
- “Stuntz argues we should go into court with an understanding of what a crime is and what justice is like, and then let common sense and compassion and specific circumstance take over,” Gopnik clarified.
- Perkinson claims there’s a crossroads between distinct cultural perspectives as “[p]risons today operate less in the rehabilitative mode of the Northern reformers “than in a retributive mode that has long been practiced and promoted in the South.”
- “The system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal cage,” Alexander writes.
Gopnik moves on to state that the reality of the correctional control today stands at a domination of blacks confined to incarceration, on probation, or on parole seven times more often than whites. At the same time, Zimring’s work depicted justifiable means for lessening the epidemic of imprisonment:
- Rectifying “real”stop-and-frisk crimes than the occasional “marijuana possession
- Decriminalizing “marijuana would help end the epidemic of imprisonment”
- Gradually eradicate poverty and/or the ghettos as a means to cure broken families
- “[L]eaving judges free to use common sense (and, where possible, getting judges who are judges rather than politicians)”
Owing to the actions of due process and cruel punishment, I agree with Gopnik’s statement, “[when] the civil responsibility toward the punished is over”, cruelty becomes a routine to the extent in which “we [tend to] lock men up and forget about their existence”. Next, I don’t think it’d regretfully hurt America to do away with decriminalizing “Mary Jane” for the same reasons mentioned earlier. Drawing back to #BlackLivesMatter, time and time again our nation has witnessed the unjust killings of black bodies by the sloppy violence of the police presence as they’ve associated people of color with crimes. In regards to the stop-and-frisk occurrences, its purpose is to stop a crime before it happens, therefore one can’t say that that kind of policing isn’t good. However, I do believe the coded 250s“ugly side of stop-and-frisk [needs] to be alleviated” or there will be plenty more Mike Brown stories bound to arise.
“New Black” Minds
Nowadays, the talk for most black folks is the systemic racism thanks to white people.Still and all, one would be foolish not to acknowledge the progression of the racial ills America once permitted against people of color. However, though times have changed, racial disparities still linger owing to the high poverty concentration “and the economic, criminal, and educational problems that come with it”. To quote a Huffington Post article entitled, 50 Years after the March on Washington, Is Black America Free?,it reveals of the repetitious flawed reality of racial disparities: “Black America is still not free. Although they make up only 13 percent of the population, African-Americans make up 38 percent of the United States' prison population. Almost 30 percent of blacks live in poverty, and 18 percent under 65-years-old lack health insurance coverage. At 13.7 percent, blacks bear a disproportionate share of the unemployment burden, and with only 13 percent pursuing higher education, they make up a small sect of the country’s educated elite.” “Faced with numbers like this”, is it really due to the “cycle of mistrust and abuse of power”, or are people of color choosing to live amongst these burdens? Well, “[it] depends on whom you ask.”
“It’s a mental freedom,” then “29-year-old black entrepreneur” Brian Shields declared to The Huffington Post when examining the state of Black America. ““Do I see the chain? Yeah, I see people trying to put them on me all the time. But I’ve freed myself from them,”” he continued. Just like that, rapper, Common, and the “Happy” hit song artist, Pharrell Williams, created waves after announcing a “new” mindset for blacks to begin embracing—the “New Black”. During an interview with Oprah, Pharrell professed, “The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality, and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on.” In a like manner, Common approached his perspective of healing the racial wounds of this country in a “let’s get past this” manner: ““We know that racism exists…I’m…extending a hand. And I think a lot of generations and different cultures are saying ‘Hey, we want to get past this. We’ve been bullied and we’ve been beat down, but we don’t want it anymore. We’re not extending a fist and saying, ‘Hey, you did us wrong.’ It’s more like ‘Hey, I’m extending my hand in love. Let’s forget about the past as much as we can, and let’s move from where we are now. How can we help each other? That’s really where we are right now.””
Though the New Black claims to be a touch stone for the generation, others offensively say it sounds like an old routine. To begin with, the message of the New Black mentality derived by “out-of-touch celebrities” often discloses a disconnection of the Black experience. For instance, endless sarcastic tweets were “shared under the tag #BlackCelebsBeLike” as a means to target famous individuals for ignoring the collective problem of the damaging systematic racism. In his transcript, The Curious Case of the "New Black": A Conversation, Jason Parham shares with us the conversation of the notions of the New Black with “culture writer, Michael Arceneaux, self-proclaimed New Black,Stephanye Watts, and staff writer for Jezbel, Kara Brown”. In an attempt to unravel the misunderstanding of the New Black, Kara Brown—who claimed that the term New Black reminded her of a “certain type of black person who has existed forever”—couldn’t fathom why “the Pharrells […] think they've reached some sort of Blackness Enlightenment that the rest of us are still waiting on.” Moreover, Michael Arceneaux expressed that between Black haves and Black have-nots, the actions of white people still “impacts how much money you can make; whether or not you can vote; get hired; how likely you are to be pulled over, or in some cases, shot in cold blood by some coward with a badge; or in Pharrell's case, how long it might take you to reach No. 1 on the Hot 100 because these days black music sells much better with a white throat.” In the other hand, Stephanye Watts didn’t understand the backlash of New Black because as she too agreed and stated that, “New Black is just a rip off of New Negro, a one-hundred year old term that still defines a group of people within our race,” she believed, “New Black is about action. It’s saying, “White people don't care, so let me do some self-care until they can't ignore us any longer." Look at the civil rights movement.”
Asthe entire conversation was thought-provoking, so were peoples’ comments at the end. Though there will be individuals who claim the concept of New Black is a false narrative of the collective black experience, one mustn’t ignore that we each are unique individuals that undergo distinctive experiences. That said, in agreement to Batousi’s opinion, “…yes the legacy of being Black is a forever-more stigma. But does it have to be?” Well, in line with Bataousi, whether it’s a New Black or old Black thing, it’s all equally a wrongdoing to try dictating the happiness and definition of such mentalities.
While some say it’s a thing of the past, others say not so. One can agree that black progress has undoubtedly made strides. But has it really? Well, “leave it to Chris Rock to break down 400 years of American race relations in one incredibly insightful joke”.
In a conversation with New York Magazine, Rock critiqued of contemporary American notions of race relations and Obama’s presidency among other things. But shockingly enough, he blatantly stated that black progress is a myth: “when we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”
He then continued to explain “how it isn’t black people that need to be progressing”.
“To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress.” Let that sink in. “There [have been] black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years,” he clarified.
In line with Rock’s declaration, James Baldwins’ piece entitled, A Letter to My Nephew, exposes of similar truths. Owing to blacks being marked as a “fixed star” in the white man’s world, Baldwin’s “forgive them for they know not what they do” argument encourages “you” (James alongside all black people) to navigate a racist world by accepting whites with love no matter their racist baggage. Moreover, Baldwin touches upon the comparison of the terms “integration” and “acceptance” to “live with” as a means toteach his nephew to know that there’s no need for blacks to have to be accepted as they’re no different to whites. Consequently, plenty of whites are ignorant to accept these truths as they’re still chained to the inferiority of blacks.
On the whole, we shouldn’t have to say in 2015 that the lives of black people matter. But touching upon class conversations, Garza’s words, “When Black people get free, everybody gets free,” certainly reflects the battling build-up of a kind of history that never goes away. At the same time, whether we acknowledge it or not, race relations in America has progressed. But now, our nation is seemingly becoming parted by two kinds of black: “those who desperately cling to color as the excuse for their every shortcoming, and those who” simply make “shit” happen as they make equality come to light for themselves. That said, the complex attitudes of racial injustice just leads me to wonder when the black person will ever be granted the life they’ve ceaselessly been fighting for.
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