Breathing While Black Can Be Fatal in America
Black people are dangerous until proven or rendered docile
Being Black in America has never been for the faint of heart. White supremacists have dehumanized and demoralized Black bodies for centuries. Denying their humanity made exploiting and destroying them by any means necessary easier. Doing so shielded them from guilt for transforming them into strange fruit.
“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.”
Lyrics by Abel Meeropol
A melody of murder
Abel Meeropol wrote the poem that Billie Holiday transformed into a haunting melody. recorded on April 20, 1939. (He was a Jewish poet also known for adopting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s sons.) Lynching is a modern-day crucifixion. The irony that lynched Black people are on Jesus’ level was lost on their killers.
The irony of putting lynched Black people on par with Jesus has been forever lost on their killers. Theologian James Hal Cone interrogated that irony in Cross and the Lynching Tree.
Like the Romans, White supremacists, too, celebrate each death. Images of people picnicking beneath dead bodies are only a Google search away. Even racists change with the times. Lynching has evolved. Police shooting unarmed Black people has become an acceptable replacement.
Torches are so yesterday
Modern-day Klansmen no longer reserve their demonic delights for darkness. It’s like someone flipped a light on — and they’ve scurried out in the open like roaches. They believe dehumanizing and demoralizing Black bodies is a right. Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis, are among that number.
A leaked video finally led authorities to arrest them for Arbery’s Feb. 23 murder. They’re using video of Arbery allegedly touring a house under construction as justification. Other than being Black, that person doesn’t resemble Arbery. Once and for all — we don’t all look alike. They’re making a predictable play — blame the victim.
Existing while Black is an offense. Doing anything more is often spun into devilish propaganda and conspiracy theories. Of course, the majority has had centuries of practice and the help of junk science.
Carolus Linnaeus, a 17th-century botanist, categorized more than plants. Linnaeus ranked all living things. Black people grouped with gnomes and giants. We’ve always been seen as less than human. Being “grandfathered” into the U.S. Constitution hasn’t changed that reality. The White majority has been lowkey saying, “We brought you into this nation. We can take you out.”
“Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities. For example, New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans (National Constable Association, 1995), the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols. In 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation’s first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.”
Almost a hashtag
That dangerous and inconvenient truth led to an indelible memory. An Upward Bound outing could’ve been my last moment on Earth. Our University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign vehicle began malfunctioning near Bloomington. My silent prayer that we continue driving to Bloomington went unheeded. Instead, we ended up at a Downs, Ill. repair shop. This biracial young man — born to an all-White family (with rural roots) in Champaign-Urbana — knew the risk. My fellow passengers, who were all city dwellers, were unaware.
The repair shop sat on the main drag. Soon, my fellow students and I were getting hungry. Hardee’s sat at the end of a side street to the left of the repair shop. Except for street lights, it was completely dark when our short trek began. Houses lined the street between the shop and Hardee’s. as we walked down the street, a squad car parked kitty-corner (with floodlights shining) appeared.
An officer kneeled behind his driver’s side door — with his gun drawn. My companions acted as though they were oblivious. While God-given instinct saved me, my friends got the other talk that my White mother and great-grandmother never gave me. Unlike Ahmaud Arbery, none of us became a hashtag that night. But, then, we wouldn’t have…the internet was a thing in 1993. We could have been on the long list of names though.
Michael Brown’s Aug. 9, 2014, state-sanctioned murder in Ferguson, Mo. had a profound impact on me. Discernment and reflection led me to Chicago Theological Seminary in Sept. 2016. Brown’s death forced me to ponder how much society values our Black bodies and to what ministry God called me.
Thanksgiving at McDonald’s
The need to do something stayed with me until Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson escaped punishment. A Quarter Pounder with Cheese, fries, and a Coke was my Thanksgiving dinner at a Ferguson area McDonald’s. A fellow seminarian and I drove there to help and speak out. And that, we did. Images of Tamir Rice’s murder flashed across a TV screen.
We helped paint hopeful messages on boards covering busted windows. We made a late-night visit to the murder scene. It was a two-lane street that wound between a few apartment buildings. A makeshift memorial sat in the middle of the street. It sat in the exact spot Brown had lain for more than fours in the August heat. We’d return the next day for a protest. Shutting down St. Louis’ Galleria Mall was another social justice pilgrimage highlight.
Police, politicians, and the media all began following the usual playbook. Somehow, Brown’s history justified his murder — in cold blood. Even if claims he stole cigarillos were true, stealing isn’t a capital offense. Wilson’s claim — the go-to excuse for state-sanctioned murder — that he feared for his life holds no water. He had, at least, two weapons — a gun and his squad car. Wilson never got out of his car and could’ve driven away to avoid any escalation. The thrill of controlling a Black body was too intoxicating. Pekin, Ill. police officers got something out of stopping me twice.
By the grace of God, those encounters didn’t end with my obituary.
Surviving a sundown town
Serving as Pekin Daily Times’ County and Education reporter took me all over two counties at all hours. One night, a Pekin police officer stopped me as I pulled into the newspaper parking lot. Another night, an officer pulled me over after a late county zoning board meeting. Oh, the joys of living in a sundown town.
Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclamation only guaranteed freedom from chattel slavery. It didn’t immunize us from discrimination and racism. Blood of those lynched yesterday and today reminds me of that every day. We are tired.
Say their names
Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Don’t forget them.
Why should you say their names? We must not forget their humanity. Reducing them to hashtags is like reducing them to statistics. Preventing new hashtags and statistics leaves many of us feeling powerless. While keeping their memories alive can be empowering.
Saying their names, while speaking out against modern-day lynchings, is one thing we can do. We can challenge slave codes transformed into policing procedures. We can challenge 1994 Crime Bill-inspired mass incarceration that continues to this day.
Getting out of your comfort zone
But, that means we must be willing to get out of our comfort zone. Wait?! Since when do Black people have comfort zones? OK, we may not necessarily have comfort zones, but we can establish levels of risk. How much will you risk to confront Black bodies’ dehumanization and demoralization?
Living while Black in America is already a risk. Doing what you’re supposed to do can’t even protect you. Behaving, being quiet, or wearing a belt won’t protect you. Black people deserve to live life with dignity and liberty — and to pursue happiness. Affirming and claiming our own humanity is the first step toward realizing that dream.
Even when it seems no one is listening, we must name and proclaim our worth. That means, for those who are able, standing and marching with #BlackLivesMatter protestors. It means speaking out in letters to the editor, petitions, or meetings with our representatives.
It might feel like yelling in the middle of an empty forest sometimes but raising our voices will secure our full liberty and happiness someday. So, lift every voice and sing — in lament and protest — until Earth and Heaven ring.