I had occasion to Google one of my pseudonyms last week. I’d Googled my legal and birth names several times before just to see what was out there, but for some reason I cannot explain, I hadn’t Googled my pen name for many, many years. I was surprised in ways both pleasant and horrible. On one hand, my name popped up in places I had no idea were extant, including a brief, but favorable, mention in a reference book available on Amazon. I was extremely pleased to find a published copy of the first article that gained moderate world-wide attention in any medium within a particular demographic. I had the raw copy, but not the edited version.
The Scream – a pastel by Edvard Munch
The reason I have almost always used a pseudonym is because the thought of being famous scared the daylights out of me. I am very private in many ways. The idea of pulling out a credit card in a department store and having my name be recognized always terrified me. I don’t mind taking responsibility for my words at all. I’ve put them in the universe and it is only right that I stand by them or, should I change my mind, repudiate them. But, there are all kinds and levels of responsibility. Now, because my private persona will become better known very soon now, I cannot convey my feelings in the manner I feel them because that would be quite irresponsible. That isn’t a fit of ego. That is the reality of journalism, assuming the journalist in question believes in the ethics of the trade. For better or worse, within reason, I most certainly do. Consequently, should I choose to convey my thoughts and feelings publicly, I must do so in a restrained and reflective manner. In effect, my screams of rage must remain virtually silent.
This is the day after the night we all knew would come, but hoped would not. This is the day after the night that should have scared the crap out of the U.S. and made its people sit up and realize race relations in this country cannot continue as they have. This is the day on the precipice of the beginning after having traversed the end because, no, race relations cannot and will not continue as they were at 7:59:59 p.m. Central time, the moment before St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that a county grand jury to which his office presented evidence declined to indict white Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed black teen Michael Brown by shooting him at least six, and maybe as many as ten, times. Brown was just one of the multitudes of people of color, mostly, although not exclusively, male who are gunned down with impunity in the U.S. even as politicians tout “American exceptionalism” and diplomats smack the hands of other countries for their human rights violations, conveniently forgetting our own.
About 13.2% of the U.S. population was born or immigrated to a country that hates them. Blacks. That is not to say all non-blacks hate all blacks because that is most assuredly untrue. That is also not to say blacks are the only hated group. This country was built on the backs and lives of people of color. First, it was Europeans who robbed, raped and murdered their way onto land that belonged to American Indians, wiping out hundreds of cultures in the process. Then, since Native Americans didn’t make good slaves, Europeans brought in Africans beginning in 1619. Although it may have been illegal due to the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves passed by Congress in 1807, African slaves were still being imported toward the end of the Civil War. I know because an ancestor was brought to these shores and purchased by the man who would become her husband to keep her out of chattel slavery. She is known in our family’s oral history as “the Twi woman.” Twi is a language spoken widely in what is now Ghana, although the ancient kingdom had different boundaries. The first known slave in my lineage to have been kidnapped from his home was North African, probably from the general vicinity of present-day Morocco, and landed here +/- five years of the Revolutionary War. He got his mistress quite pregnant. I hate to think about what happened to him, but her daughter was free and shows up in both a couple of U.S. Census rolls and in a book of local history as a free mulatto who lived with her relatives–most likely her uncles and cousins.
Even millions of slaves weren’t enough to settle this vast country. Therefore, companies turned to China and Japan for cheap labor to work on the railroads along with blacks. As slaveholders had done before them, white supervisors/overseers turned those who would be natural allies against each other because that was the best way to make sure they never combined their strength to gain power. The same thing happened on cattle and sheep ranches where most people have no idea that anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of cowboys and ranch hands were Mexicans, Indians and blacks. Until the late 1960s, all cowboys in western movies were as white as snow. It was only during that time when there was a surge in research of black history overall that many blacks learned we’d played a major role in settling the West, including, very regrettably, keeping American Indians on impoverished, germ warfare-riddled reservations. For that, I am so, so sorry and deeply ashamed. Being a Buffalo soldier should never be a source of pride. Yet, here again, it was a strategy of divide and conquer. To this day, in many Western states, Native Americans are held in lower esteem than blacks. How, pray tell me please, do families who have participated in any one or several of many genocides find any pride in themselves when they look in the mirror? I do not know. My heart hurts at the mere thought even as it rages at the evil that was done out of avarice.
The U.S. economy, education system and, most notably today, legal system are all based on the exclusion of people of color. The exclusion is due to pure racism, certainly, but that is not all. Generally speaking, whites who have exploited, abused, murdered, humiliated and denigrated people of color themselves, or are descendants of those who did, are terrified. Most will never admit it to themselves much less to anyone else, but that fear is there nonetheless. I finally watched the movie Django Unchained. Leo DiCaprio’s character kept asking why slaves never revolted. Factually, that’s not true. There were revolts, especially in the West Indies. It was because of their revolts that slaveholders developed methods to marginally elevate the status of some slaves above others, creating a caste system that helped keep what passed for peace on plantations. In addition to a false caste system, slaveholders took away their property’s native languages and religions. They did anything and everything to strip any perceived shred of humanity they could from us and it worked far too well. We, as a country, bear the scars of this sin. Had there been atonement by those who perpetrated these crimes against humanity, maybe there would not be thousands of Darren Wilsons and God-only-knows how many dead black, brown and red men, women and children. Slavery may have been abolished, but the mindset that perpetuated it lives.
There was never any thought in my mind that Darren Wilson would be brought to justice by the State of Missouri. The decks were stacked in his favor. Do not forget that Missouri was a slave state. In addition, according to the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School site on lynching, 122 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968. Fifty-three were white and 68 were black. In contrast, Delaware, also a slave state, had one black person lynched in those 86 years. That is comparable to Maine, a non-slave state, whose sole lynching was of a white person. Mississippi had the most: 42 whites; 539 blacks. So Missouri wasn’t the worst, but it most certainly wasn’t the best. The same systems of inequity and dehumanization remain today.
In a guide to the Yale University-New Haven Teacher’s Institute curriculum course “The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950,” instructor Robert A. Gibson writes, “The United States has a brutal history of domestic violence. It is an ugly episode in our national history that has long been neglected. Of the several varieties of American violence, one type stands out as one of the most inhuman chapters in the history of the world [–] the violence committed against Negro citizens in America by white people.” Gibson went on to define lynching as mob violence by hanging, gunshot or other, exceptionally sadistic, methods. Whatever the method, lynching was a form of terrorism meant to express hatred and keep blacks in line.
No agency keeps official statistics about police violence. Those figures are not collected by the FBI like other crime stats such as rape, assault, robbery, homicide (by non-law enforcement, that is). Even if they did, reporting crime statistics is voluntary. Somehow, I don’t expect police to tell on themselves and invite scrutiny by a member of the Justice Department actively doing their job. The corraling of the numbers has been left to individuals and media. The Root lists 20 black men and women killed from 1999 through 2013, the year the list was compiled. The site hiphopandpolitics.com has compiled a chart with 29 people who were killed by police/security, 16 since the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
The last few months in my own state, Ohio, have been less than stellar when it comes to police violence of questionable justification against blacks. Six Cleveland police officers were acquitted last June in the 2012 shooting of unarmed driver Timothy Russell and his passenger Tanisha Williams after a car chase that ended in a hail of 137 police bullets and involved nearly half of all of the Cleveland Police Department’s officers on duty at the time. John Crawford III was shot in a Walmart outside of Dayton last August because some white guy was scared by Crawford walking around the store with an air gun–store merchandise–and called police to say that Crawford was pointing the gun at people. The police then shot and killed him while he was talking on the phone with his girlfriend. The caller later recanted his assertion of Crawford pointing the gun but the cops were not indicted. The Justice Department is investigating. In the most tragic of all recent incidents, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed just this past Saturday by Cleveland police while in a playground with a toy gun after someone called the cops to say that, even though the gun was “probably” not real, Rice was pointing it at people. The Cleveland Police Department has said the toy was indistinguishable from a real gun because the orange tip on toy guns was removed. If the caller knew it probably wasn’t real, why the hell couldn’t the police figure it out?
Police shootings under extremely questionable circumstances have replaced the mobs. More accurately, when all is said and done, the “mob” has become the legislative, judicial and, particularly, the executive branches of local governments. The practice of using lynching to control and terrorize blacks has become so engrained that it isn’t even recognized for what it is by the perpetrators. Heaven forbid anyone should call them racists even if they describe the victims as “thugs” or looking like “a demon” as Darren Wilson and his supporters have described Michael Brown in overt and continuous efforts to dehumanize him. After 400 years of racial violence and injustice, people of color are just plain emotionally exhausted. Wilson’s lack of consequences has told us in no uncertain terms that it is open season on us. Is it any wonder that there was arson and vandalism after the Ferguson announcement? If we are continuously told that our lives don’t matter, what do we have to lose anymore?
I promised myself when I was still a teenager that I would not allow myself to die of natural causes in the U.S. Even then, I knew that there were a great many people who hated the fact that I existed and presumed that I was either going to be an “exception” and amount to something or just like those “other” people who looked like me, forgetting that those “other” people who vaguely looked like me would have had one hell of a hard time buying a house or, at that time, even renting in my ‘burb. It didn’t matter that the resident blacks were, for the most part, either in the traditional professions themselves or children of professionals. Ironically, we were the home base for thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union. They did not come here as racists. It was something they gradually learned as new immigrants assimilating into American life. The persecuted became, in too many cases, the persecutors. The paradigm is in no way exclusive to Soviet Jewry. Those who developed racist beliefs and behaviors were only following in the footsteps of immigrants before them.
To remain still long enough to be forced to acknowledge the cacophonous scream echoing in my brain causes physical and emotional pain. I have roots in the U.S. that go back to before there was a U.S. and yet I am the interloper. My Native American, European and African ancestors built this country but I, as a person of African-descent, am literally demonized for living on the American soil my ancestors tilled. I hate racists and I loathe bigots in any form. I do not and will not apologize for those feelings. I had hope that I would see a racially- and culturally-appreciative society in this country in my lifetime. I don’t have that hope anymore. There are millions of people of good will here, but most will not stand up and fight for the equity of all for many reasons. Fear plays a significant role, but so does ignorance. There is a great deal of fear involved in racism and bigotry, especially when it is those who are afraid of retribution for their sins and the sins of their ancestors. The fear is that if people of color were to ever gain real power, a reckoning might be at hand. Well, maybe. Then again, maybe not. Everyone is not intellectually or spiritually predisposed to think in terms of retribution. Some of us only scream silently.