Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The Charleston massacre: What is the meaning of black life in America?

By Stephanie Jones-Rogers

“Was 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.

BlackLivesMatter poster
(Photo by Kaitlyn Veto)

Before 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.

Since 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 Scott as 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.

And 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 times before.

Progressive moments, violent reprisals

If 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.

The 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.

Long 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?

postcard of Tulsa burning, 1921
In 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)

Besides, 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.

On 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.

Bad barrel

In 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.

People 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.

Such 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.

In 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’

1959 protest against Little Rock Nine
A protest at the Arkansas state capitol against admission of the “Little Rock Nine” to Central High School, 1959. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet, 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 a study 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.

In 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.

Taking 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.

The 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

Through 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.

Our 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.

Dylann 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.

The 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.

From 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 this view.

Tough questions

The 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.

We 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?

Admittedly, 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.

Yet 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.