Updated: Jun 4, 2020
American politics is and has always been one of my least favorite parts of being an American citizen. (Even as a student of Political Science, funnily enough).
On the one hand, the Western ideologies I’ve been educated in for most of my life instruct me to celebrate the democracy, capitalism, and other “freedoms” the United States enjoys. I remain conscious that there are countries in our global community that, even today, do not enjoy these freedoms, and so I should be grateful. Conversely, however, I despise American politics and all it encompasses because so often it seems little more than a tool of divisiveness co-opted by people with self-serving agendas. In conversations about American race relations (pertaining to the African-American community specifically), I often hear the following sentiments about ‘agendas:’
Racially-based police brutality is horrible but, like, not as frequent as people think it is! There are far more African-Americans killed by Black-on-Black violence than killed by White police officers or anyone else. This is a dramatized narrative driven by the Leftist-media’s agenda.
As an African-American woman (hello there!) speaking only for herself, I’m happy to raise my hand and say that violence within my own community is more heartbreaking to me than you could ever know. I am grateful for the plethora of local and national organizations (many started by African-Americans) that exist to nourish Black communities, mitigate violence, and encourage education and support instead. Certainly, growth within the Black community is an ongoing conversation that must remain ongoing if we can hope to progress as a people.
But another conversation must also happen.
Non-Black Americans must have a conversation with each other and with themselves that includes an extensive and perhaps uncomfortable acknowledgment of the history of the United States of America and her Black demography. It’s a history that has led us to the present-day; to burning cities, looted buildings, and armed military personnel marching against the citizens it’s sworn to protect.
Where might that conversation begin, you ask? In any number of places, I suppose, but I would suggest starting circa 1619. While many White Americans tout 1776 as America’s most important year, I look to 1619, (just 127 years after Christopher Columbus’ incorrectly-credited “discovery” of the Americas), and remember that this was the year Africans were first brought to the Colonies (*Note: there is debate about earlier accounts, but this year is often generally acknowledged as the first year on record).
While these Africans were not all slaves (some were, in fact, indentured servants), it did not take long for them to become so as America became a key player in the triangular economic trading system we now know as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. You may be versed in its complexities already, or you may not. Needless to say, this three-point triangle of trade very literally needed African slaves in order to work. To be clear, the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade was a global trichotomy (Hi Europe! Hi Africa!), and I’m not afraid to acknowledge the role some African nations had in the slave trade, but that is not our focus here. I bring this up to make a point. Even in its earliest years, the United States of America relied on Black bodies (and Black pain) to build its economic power and wealth. Millions of Black bodies were shipped like cargo across land and sea for decades, utterly dispensable to those who orchestrated that trade. If an African slave died en route to the Americas or once they’d landed in-country, they were replaced without fanfare. Records of them were kept alongside records of pigs, cattle, and sheep. The message was made clear:
Black life did not matter.
One of the United States of America’s dearest points of pride is that it is the (ironic) “Land of the Free,” a country who got its start when its colonists banded together in a ragtag team and bravely took on a king and the full force of the British Empire. We know that their (notably violent) defiance incited the American Revolutionary War, and the White leaders of that war remain ever-shrined in American history as heroes. Many gave their lives in order for Americans to enjoy the independence they have now had for 244 years, but a lesser known point of fact is that one of the first casualties (if not the first) of the American Revolutionary War was an African-American (Note: he may also have identified as Native American) man named Crispus Attucks, who was fatally shot during the Boston Massacre as he stood against the British with a group of other African-Americans. He was one of the first to lay down his life for the principle of American freedom, yet most don’t even know his name. Why do I bring that sort of trivia into this conversation? To further emphasize a point – in the history books about America’s beginning, Crispus Attucks was not included in that glorious hero narrative. His sacrifice went largely forgotten, it did not matter.
A Black life did not matter.
As many slaves were promised freedom in exchange for their “loyalty,” during the Revolutionary War (the Brits and Yankees both did this, don’t worry!), that message was driven even further home. In the end, America won her freedom, but the African-Americans who helped her win it did not share in it.
We know, generally speaking, that approx. 241 years after the first African slaves/indentured servants were brought to the USA, our young country broke out into civil war. I’m aware of the contentions behind what the Civil War was “really” about, and don’t need to debate them here, but what I do want to call attention to is what happened in the aftermath of that bloody conflict. Sitting President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and, in doing so, he “freed the (African) slaves” by federal law. But after two hundred years of enslavement, many had little to no money or resources and were forced to take menial labor jobs to survive. Further, Black people were “free,” but barred from (among other things):
Suffrage (the right to vote)
Fair judicial processes
As for the fate of those who dared question this second-class status? Many were hunted down and killed by a domestic terrorist group comprised of embittered Confederate veterans; today, we know them as Ku Klux Klan (KKK), or “the Klan.” Notably, this group would perpetrate racially-based violence for decades with impunity. Black people (and sometimes other minorities) were hung from trees and tortured while townspeople watched on like a circus show until they grew bored and went home. These societal norms lasted decades, and although not all White Americans supported this behavior, in their silent complicity, the message remained clear:
Black life did not matter, at least not enough to do something about it.
As many African-Americans came to the sad realization that freedom was little more than rhetoric, many responded with an idea—if White American society would not include them, they would simply build their own separate societies. History shows us that through the early 1900s, Black “havens” were created all around the U.S.A, built on the backbones of Black businesses, Black patronage, and Black dollars.
The response to this audacity of hope?
These Black towns were often looted and razed by White mobs, quite literally erased from history without consequence. There are several instances of this happening, the Rosewood Massacre of 1923 and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 are just two prominent examples. As African-Americans lost what little they’d worked to build (or lost their lives), the messaging was made clear yet again: Black lives did not matter. And while some privileged African-Americans were fortunate enough to overcome and thrive in spite these challenges, droves more were driven to poverty and an economic disenfranchisement that would become generational, which would lead to (among other issues) substance abuse, educational discrepancies, and higher rates of crime in some communities. (Remember this the next time you say all Black people are “ghetto”). At the same time, Black people continued facing physical violence through an incalculable number of lynchings that persisted through the 1900s.
Black life did not matter.
Despite these adversities, when African-Americans were called to show up on the global stage, they came. Thousands of African-Americans served their country in WWI and WWII, respectively. Though their country did not love them, they were willing to fight and die for her. When they returned home, there were no jobs for them, little in the way of gratitude, and even violence for those who dared demand better. In 1947, nearly halfway through the 1900s, a Black Navy veteran named Joe Nathan Roberts was kidnapped from his family’s home in the dead of night and lynched because he refused to call a group of White men “sir” as he addressed them earlier that day. His murderers faced no punishment, and his story became one among hundreds that drove the same message home:
Black life (and death) didn’t matter.
Meanwhile, while White suffragettes fought for their own right to vote, Black and Brown women were deliberately excluded from these movements, with little exception. And, as African-Americans organized with allies to demand change through peaceful civil disobedience in the 60s, they were met with flagrant brutality, often led and sanctioned by the people tasked with protecting them, which created generational distrust in governing bodies and law enforcement agencies. In the end, sure, Black lives were made to matter in America through legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but only because Black people demanded it, risked personal harm for it, and even died for it in some cases.
Black life mattered, but only begrudgingly.
There is a great deal more history I could speak to, but I’d like to move to the contemporary now. I have just outlined--in a quick, cursory, and incomplete way--nearly three hundred years of the same consistent messaging, a messaging that has said, over and over, that Black Lives Don’t Matter. From America’s very beginning, through the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, and into the 2000s and 2010s, the rhetoric and laws have changed, but the past remains largely unacknowledged. We "know" about slavery, segregation, and other atrocities but don't honestly consider their long term and combined impact.
America has a limp, but has not acknowledged the injuries that have caused it. We suggest bandaids and gauze and Advil because we don't want the real diagnosis, we don't want to dig into the real wound. We don't want that surgery.
Someday, the #BlackLivesMatter Movement will be an era in the United States’ past, fit to join the rest that have shaped this country. I hope, when it is reflected upon, that people will not point to quantitative data and stats in their critiques of it. The annual numbers concerning Black deaths in police custody is not a valid argument, or "proof" that Black lives matter in this country.
You see, this is much more complicated than numbers.
This is about much more than racially-based police brutality, or obvious moments of racism. This includes, but is about more than George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones, or any other African-American killed in police custody or killed by a non-Black person.
This is about something much deeper and much older—an ancient pain. It is a pain that began on the beaches of Ghana, Sierra Leone, Côte D’Ivoire, Benin, and other West African countries as African slaves trekked across white sand and boarded wooden ships, clinking in their chains. It is a pain that burns like a Brazilian sugar cane plantation’s sun, and pricks like Georgia field cotton. It comes up when Black parents have to lay out a separate set of conduct for their Black children because the ghosts of the dead sit in our living rooms with us to remind us. It persists as African-Americans sit in cages for decades because of a judicial system that has proven to be less lenient to people of color and a profit-based prison system that benefits when people are incarcerated whether they are guilty or not. It is reborn every time a Black person is harassed, falsely accused, or even killed without warrant by a person who saw the color of their skin and decided that they were a threat and that their life didn’t matter.
In those moments, African-Americans are reminded of that ancient pain, and with it comes an ancient sorrow and an ancient rage.
These pains are not skin deep, they rest in our 244-year-old bones, and they must be reset. It will not be easy or comfortable (a physician will tell you, resetting bones that have grown wrong never is), but it is what must be done if the place I call home is going to have any chance of truly being a “Land of the Free,” or—dare I say it—something better.