Jordan Davis and Unarmed Blackness

Why is it so hard for some to see our humanity? I just don’t understand. Don’t get me wrong, I could give all sorts of intellectual answers around how such views developed, and particularly how pre-existing anti-black logic took a nasty turn on this side of the Atlantic in the 17th century. But those answers don’t seem to suffice at times like these.

No matter the situation it seems that the image of God remains veiled within black skin in America. All I can do right now is remember our symbolic sons and daughters that stand in for the millions that have lost their lives over the past 400 years for no other reason than because their mere blackness constituted a ‘presumed’ threat in someone else’s eyes. I especially note these 5 names down below because in 2013 they have been (re)etched on the collective hearts of all those that seek justice for the oppressed and for those that hope and fight against the anti-black prejudice that results in the senseless violence and loss of life we have all become way too well adjusted to.

As we remember, let us not do so in despair, but instead let’s commit to digging deeper in our organizing, resistance, and struggle against white supremacy and anti-blackness. I am more convinced than ever in the Way of the Lamb whose victory will have the last word. We can not defeat a system if we continue to live by its rules and mode of being. Let’s rally against racism and the senseless violence America lives by, trusting in Jesus to show us how.

 

We remember Jordan Davis

We remember Trayvon Martin

We remember Renisha McBride

We remember Jonathan Ferrel

We remember Oscar Grant

 

And we remember those in our own communities that were killed, yet had no champion, and for whom most people will never hear about.

 

Pain Medicine: Trayvon, Simon of Cyrene, and Jesus #MennoNerdsOnLoss

For several weeks I have been telling people that Zimmerman would not be found guilty. Silly folks all around me had convinced themselves that the evidence would result in the outcome of a guilty conviction. Most thought 2nd degree murder was possible but figured that Zimmerman at least would be convicted of manslaughter. I insisted that American history from 1619 all the way up to the present had data predicting another, less satisfying outcome. You see, I wasn’t going to get my expectations up, only to be crushed like I knew folks all around me were doing. So I did what I have been trained academically to do, to analyze and interpret the data from a more objective stance. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been very clear that the Zimmerman case is all about race, racial profiling, intimidation, and senseless and unnecessary violence. Trayvon Martin, still a child, became another victim of white people’s gaze of suspicion that has been cast on black bodies. However obvious that was, I still knew that America (dominant culture) was (and is) unwilling to admit to itself that it is sick, and that same pathology is what killed Trayvon Martin.

So when I finally heard the verdict ( a bit late, cuz I was socially unplugged), I found myself deeply confused with my own response. There I was, the one trying to not get emotionally set up for devastation, and I broke down and cried. Simultaneously, an anger burned deep down to my soul. All I could do was look at my two beautiful sons and consider what type of world they would grow up in. However, I was also confused with myself and why at this time I felt so broken, even when I had been telling people this was the most likely outcome.

Well, I think, deep down, I wanted to be wrong. I wanted to believe that America was able to come to grips with the oppressive racism and the long history of black vulnerability in this land. I apparently had outwardly and intellectually rejected the idea, but deep down in the black community is an optimism (most often rooted in naivety from the dominant culture but sometimes flows from a deep spiritual hope) that would not accept the obvious reality and state of the collective racial dynamics in the U.S.. Either way, I had bamboozled myself and played the fool.

Many black folks (and other people who stand in solidarity with our suffering) are broken. Big cases like these are very important in the black community. They are significant because often they are used as symbolic thermometers to measure the racial climate that we are living in. A win in the suburbs of Florida is a win in Philly, Chicago, Detroit, NY, and L.A. . Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And so, Trayvon became our symbolic Sons, because we know that if someone can racially profile and hunt down Trayvon and not be found responsible, then all young black men are at risk of being gunned down because of white suspicion. Through the country, racial profiling is already an out of control epidemic, as black men are being harassed and stalked legally because of the xenophobic fear of black men among the dominant society. NYC right now is the most infamous for this right now, as the ‘stop and frisk’ program has been exposed as an unprecedented systematic tool of harassment aimed disproportionately at young black and brown men, whom statistics vindicate as having done nothing wrong. While many wrongly try to associate racist policy with the south, the truth is that throughout the country and especially in the North, black and brown youth are instantly seen as criminal and therefore are vulnerable to being grabbed, seized, searched, and often arrested without due cause.

In Mark’s Gospel account, in chapter 15 verse 21, we are told about a man name Simon of Cyrene who was observing the crucifixion process being carried out by the Romans. What was it about this North African man that fastened the eyes of these soldiers of the powerful Roman Empire onto him? Was it that he was darker than the others and therefore became more visibly ‘the Other’ to those Westerners? Was there an ethnic tension involved that brought undue attention to this man from Cyrene? Those things we can only ponder, but what we do know is that this man lacked protection and safety from the ever-reaching arms of the oppressive Roman empire. He was vulnerable and therefore was seized expectantly. Today, we remember Simon of Cyrene, who is only mentioned in this one verse and no where else, because he in many ways symbolizes the modern African diasporic experience. At mere sight, our bodies are the site of vulnerability in a foreign land, lacking protection. Therefore, we are seized. We were once seized for labor and we are now seized out of racial fear. And like our dear brother Simon, the end story of how it will all turn out is unknown, a hazy future that continues to haunt us. With such unknowns, we are left broken and often forced into death-dealing despair.

But for those that are hurting and struggling today, here is some pain medicine. God has and continues to hear the cries of the oppressed and violated. God, took on human flesh so that he once and for all could overcome the death-dealing and sinful forces that oppress and do violence to the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable. Jesus did not just take on human flesh, he took on Doulos flesh, in the Greek that is Servant/Slave flesh. Jesus did not come as emperor, governor, or as a part of the wealthy elite. Jesus did not come as one who benefited from the privileges of Roman society. No, Jesus was a poor Galilean Jew under Roman oppression, and who was under Roman suspicion and threat throughout his ministry (Luke 13:31), and ultimately died being accused of being a threat to the empire, dying a poor revolutionaries death, also known as crucifixion. That is to say that God took on the story of the vulnerable as a type of solidarity with those that suffer violence and vulnerability as way of life. God knows your pain and has joined in your struggle.

More than that, Jesus at the site where Rome exercised its legal and decisive power (blasphemously choosing to extend life or take life as though it had divine status, and as though Rome had the final say) exposed the powers of this world for what they are. They are stripped and unveiled as mere impostors. And so their greatest threat, death, which is supposed to be ultimate finality, doesn’t actually have the last word. Jesus conquered death and the cross through resurrection. And God invites us to be part of his Resurrection world that overcomes the violence and oppression of this current world and to participate in the world to come, where the vulnerability of young men like Trayvon (and our loved ones) will no longer happen.

And so, as we struggle today, let’s not struggle in despair, but in a hope for what is to come. A hope that stirs deep in our souls as we struggle for justice and peace with our backs straight and our heads lifted high, because God is with us and will vindicate us, no matter what the courts rule, the laws enforce, or how people respond. Today, we proclaim that Jesus our liberator, in solidarity with us, reigns and is victoriously marching us towards Zion.

This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on the topic of Death, Loss, Pain and Grief, July 14-30, 2013. Check out our page on MennoNerds.com  to see all the other posts in this series.

In It For the Long Haul: Gracialized Vision & The New Black Panther $10,000 Bounty

Well, whether some like it or not, we have been thrust into a national dialogue on race, violence, and the legal system. I can’t lie, I can often get very frustrated by the same old story being played out over and over again. How many more young black males have to die? Since slavery has ended thousands and thousands of black men have been killed, being seen as disposable, in contrast very few black killings happened during slavery because we were seen as valuable property. Ida B. Wells, a brave and courageous black woman, spoke up and brought national attention to the lynching crisis that exploded after slavery and went well into the 1900’s (Last recorded tree lynching took place in the 1980’s). In the 1950’s, Emmit Till’s murder became a national symbol after the country reacted to the images of Emmit Till’s 14 year old deformed dead body that was placed on the cover of black magazines. Originally from Chicago, Till was visiting family down south when he was dragged from his uncle’s home, beaten, and had an eye gouged out. He was eventually shot in the head, and had barbed wire and a heavy cotton gin tied around his neck as his body was disposed of in a river. His crime, supposedly whistling at a white woman.

There is a long legacy of black life being disposable and unvalued in American life. While there have been tons of senseless murders that have taken black life, some particular names have continued to shape Black American historical memory, probably because of the details surrounding each situation. Let’s remember some folks who have had their lives abruptly ended because of America’s pathological racism. Michael Donald, lynched in the 1981, James Byrd’s dragged to death behind a truck for 3 miles in 1998. Amadou Diallo shot at 41 times (hit 19 times) while unarmed and pulling out his wallet in 1999. Sean Bell was shot 50 times and killed the night before his wedding in the Bronx in 2006. Oscar Grant’s murder while handcuffed and on his stomach by a cop in Oakland was recorded by several camera phones and uploaded online in 2009. And more recently of course we have been mourning the death of Trayvon Martin while also dealing with the unarmed shooting of Ramarley Graham last month. There are so many other folks who have lost their lives similarly, but these names for most are familiar and recognizable names which remind us how vulnerable it is to be a black male in America, and also how the legal system often fails to uphold justice for ALL.

How should we (Black Christians) respond to such a legacy of racism or to the apathy towards black life? The New Black Panther Party supposedly has put out a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman. While I can sympathize with their frustration with our legal system and the reality of how many black people never find justice in it, I continue to believe that we can not utilize the same violent tactics imposed on us if we desire to see a new humanity usher into our world. That said, I find the legacy of the Black Panther Party and the spirit of Nat Turner and his violent slave rebellion as very natural and normal responses to injustice and oppression. While I reject the use of violence, I do share that same spirit of frustration with racial injustice in America. In fact, sometimes, that same natural response emerges in me in greater amounts than other times. I hate the negative ways black people are treated and the apathetic and cold responses that come from some in the dominant culture. And it is hard not to project those feelings onto all people who participate in the dominant culture.

And then I am reminded of the Oppressed and Crucified One being made a public spectacle and shamed on the cross. Jesus, like many other vulnerable Jews at that time, experienced the weight of an unjust and violent system that didn’t value Jewish life. According to all the gospels, Jesus was a threat to the Jewish-Roman power system in Jerusalem. In response, they employed their technique of public torture and humiliation, which was always just as much about intimidating the masses as it was to punish the individual. James Cone in his most recent book, rightly compares Roman crucifixion to American lynchings of black men. This offers us a helpful glimpse culturally into the horrendous nature and role of crucifixion in 1st century Palestine. Yet it is there hanging on the Cross that Jesus cried out…

 Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

He didn’t demonize them, he didn’t call for a violent revolution like Peter or Barabbas. He graciously asked the Father to extend his forgiveness to them. The vision of Christ was a gracialized vision, in that those that his eyes laid on, burdened him, in that even those who were oppressors in the traditional sense, were ultimately enslaved and broken people needing to be shown the way back to the humanity originally intended by God. It’s as though his gaze continually made distinctions between the horrendous acts that he opposed, and the people who were enticed and enslaved by those systems which temporarily benefited them. His ability to see oppressive dominant peoples through gracialized gazes allowed him to make the root of the problem opaque and highly visible, that is he saw the evil systems and forces that enslave humanity rise to the surface, while graciously seeing the transparency of all humanity which desperately is in need of a Victor and Liberator. This doesn’t mean that Jesus responds the same way to all people, it is very evident in the Gospels that Jesus takes sides with and extends extra compassion towards the socially marginalized. However, folks like the young ruler and Zaccheus, who both hoard wealth, are both given the opportunity to accept the grace being extended towards them which would liberate them from the grips of this world. Just like then, some now will accept and some will not accept such grace, but that is not our issue to worry about, that is between them and God. Our responsibility is to hold firm to that same gracialized vision Jesus did, in that we see EVERYONE as needing liberation from invisible yet powerful forces.

I am not sure how much longer this national dialogue will go on. We continue to be the United States of Amnesia, quickly forgetting recent history, or as Dr. King called it, “a 10 day nation”, which moves on to the next big thing after 10 days. But for me, I am in it for the long haul. I will be like a persistent poor widow demanding justice from an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). And as I confront empires, systems, and forces that enslave people and oppose God’s Kingdom, my prayer is that God would help me have Christ’s gracialized vision towards others, especially for those in the dominant culture who participate in oppressive practices and who are blind in their ability to see Jesus in those they harm (Matthew 25:31-46).

The Hoodie (Revisted and Expanded): Racialized Gaze and Trayvon Martin

 About 2 years ago my wife and I stopped for pizza way up in the Souderton/Telford area (philly suburb outskirts). We were in the area already and had received a strong recommendation for this particular place. As we walked into the restaurant, we immediately received stares from everyone in the facility, adult and child alike. Once seated, my wife who is white, and who tends to not always pick up on glares from others as quickly as I tend to, immediately said to me “whoa, did you feel that!”, and of course I responded by saying “uh, yeah, of course I did”. Our presence there was disruptive to whatever norms that were typically played out in that building. It was summer time, and I was wearing nothing but a T-shirt and shorts. And my black skin was bare, on display, and held social meaning beyond ethnic difference. I could not hid or cover myself from the racialized gazes that looked at me and projected meaning onto my black body. I honestly do not know what exactly was running through the minds of the people who rudely stared at us as we came in and took our seats. Was I perceived as a threat or did I appear suspicious? Was it taboo to be an interracial couple in their minds? Or maybe it was just my hyper-visibility as other, and different. I will probably never know precisely what those stares meant, other than that they were not welcoming glances. My body had once again become an object to be observed and interpreted, which was not my first experience with this, nor my last, but yet certainly a memorable one.

Since college, I have learned and mastered the importance of manufacturing a public image when I go out. Yup, that’s right, I intentionally choose clothes to wear to manipulate how I am being perceived by others, particularly by the dominant culture. What you must understand is that I do not have a choice, as a young black male I must always know how I am being perceived by others, and play into that, to not know could prove detrimental. For example, since graduating college, most people probably conjure up in their minds an image of me in which I am wearing jeans, a button up shirt, and a sports coat. However, when I was in college, my uniform of choice was most often a hoodie and jeans. I loved and continue to love hoodies. There is something familiar and comfortable about a hoodie for me.  The hoodie for me goes beyond comfort, and begins to transcend into my own self awareness of identity, formation, and social place and posture in the world I live.  The clothes I wear, in many ways, has as much significance to me as space does for Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination. My hoodie communicates to me, reminding me of who I am, how people perceive me, and how I defiantly respond to the racialized gaze.

One of the most encouraging things that happened during my last year as a student, was when two separate white female friends of mine on campus admitted on separate occasions that they were afraid of me when they first met me freshman year. They also admitted that it was ridiculous for them to have felt that way, because after all I was Dru, and everyone who knew me loved being around me. My only caution was to make sure that this revelation would be applied to humanizing all black males rather than making me the exception to the rule.  I actually applaud these two young women for their courage to admit to me what I had known I was experiencing more broadly throughout my time there as an undergrad. The racialized gaze that interpreted my young black male body in a hoodie as dangerous and suspicious until proven otherwise, is not merely a Christian College problem, but it pervades the racialized American experience, in that black male bodies are always seen as more threatening than their white counterparts. The same act performed by differently pigmented people, especially when hoodied up, is interpreted as two completely different acts. This is the case even when merely walking down the sidewalk of one’s own Christian College Campus as a Bible major.

This narrative has been lived out over and over again with different characters. Hoodie or no hoodie, there is a gaze which has been racialized to see dark skin and make it opaque, in that it cannot be hidden. The visibility of dark skin on human bodies in America immediately makes one the other, but not mysteriously other. Nope, the dark skin is believed to be known, understood, and mastered. Dark skin can be interpreted not only as uniquely visible but uniquely suspicious and threatening. The racialized gaze imposes this storyline on unfamiliar bodies. The hoodie allows one to shut out those who gaze at you while also making one hyper visible and apparently more readable in the minds of the dominant culture.

Trayvon Martin’s last moments become transparent when we are honest about the racialized American experience that plays out over and over again. Zimmerman saw an unfamiliar black body and based off of his own words, he reinterpreted Trayvon as suspicious. Trayvon, just a child, adorned in his hoodie both blocked the direct gaze of Zimmerman and yet nonetheless became more victim to Zimmerman’s racialized gaze. Zimmerman believed that Trayvon was “they”, the other, who “always get away”, in reference to his belief that young black men had recently committed crimes in his neighborhood. Trayvon’s presence then is a disruptive presence for Zimmerman, and so he believed that he must be removed out of his gated community. Zimmerman took on this responsibility himself, convinced that he knew Trayvon. Zimmerman could not see a child terrified for his life before him because his racial gaze impaired his vision.

Let’s be honest, while I believe Zimmerman is guilty of murder and our justice system needs to respond accordingly, he did not create the racialization that is in our country, but rather he is a byproduct of hundreds of years of racism in this country. Since the 1600’s, people of European descent in America have been gazing upon the African, seeing only 3/5’s a person, uncivilized labor, inferiority, and danger in those beautiful black bodies. This impaired vision is societal. The hoodie in black urban communities in many ways is a response to the racialized gaze. We covered ourselves up and defiantly hid ourselves from view. We controlled who saw us and who didn’t. Yet the racialized gaze only grew. The hoodie reminded us simultaneously of the stereotypes projected onto us by the dominant culture andalso the rebellious spirit born out of the urban hip hop culture. It taught us to resist. So, the hoodie for me then has interwoven well with my embracement of the subversive prophetic tradition and my anabaptist leaning. Consider how Jesus often utilized and borrowed the revolutionary terminology of the Zealots, calling people to take up the cross. So too can we as Christians employ the hoodie with it’s hip hop subversive spirit to begin to challenge the criminalizing gaze that is fixed on black bodies in America. We can ALL cover ourselves with symbolic hoodies from the racialized systems and stereotypes that disrupt justice, by resisting with a faithful prophetic witness against hegemony, tyranny, and oppression in all forms as followers of Christ. 

I Am Trayvon!


Trayvon Martin and the White Christian Leader’s Response

To My White Christian Leader Friends:

For those who are not familiar with who Trayvon Martin is, he is another young black male (a teenager in this case) who has fell victim to a racialized lethal attack while unarmed, by a man who has about 10 years and 100 p0unds on the boy, and who also happened to be carrying a gun during the attack.  The racialized gaze which interprets black male bodies as suspicious and dangerous bodies, played out once more. This time, Trayvon was not armed with a wallet or cell phone (other apparently dangerous looking accessories when  being held by black bodies) but a pack of skittles and a can of soda. Apparently, the man who shot him had called 911 because Trayvon looked “suspicious” and that something was wrong with him. Deciding to ignore the advice of authorities, this vigilante decided to follow the young boy and then proceeded to fatally shoot him. Several witnesses have claimed to have heard the young boy screaming for help right before the gun went off. However, no arrests have been made, and the vigilante is claiming self defense, because this young boy armed with skittles and a soda obviously is a threat to a grown man armed with a gun, who himself decides to follow this child. At the minimum, does not the loss of this child’s life deserve an arrest and a hearing in court?

Black life continues to carry little value within America’s dominant culture. I wish that this was an isolated event, but in reality, with unfathomable regularity, there are these events that remind me over and over again that black bodies and black life are not valued in our country if they are not entertaining America. Simultaneously, I hear directly from many white Christian leaders, who claim that they want to break the pattern of racial division in the Church, not making the same mistakes of their ancestors, and wanting to have a more racially diverse and representative group. While I think all of those things are great, I sometimes wonder if people actually value black bodies and back life, or if it is merely just trendy and cool to have (or at least claim to want) a racially diverse group.

One thing I have noticed, since the few years I have been blogging and using twitter, is that when these racialized tragedies occur, my less pigmented brothers and sisters in Christ tend to often be ridiculously quiet. While many black and brown Christian leaders speak up and out about the senseless violence, (internal and external) very few white Christian leaders have anything to say on the subject matter. In fact, it at least appears as though many are so disconnected from black life, that they are business as usual throughout the tragedy and protest.  The question must be asked, can my brothers and sisters from within the dominant culture expect racial diversity in their communities while they enact no type of solidarity with those who are vulnerable under an unjust system? Restated, how can a person want to be racially inclusive and yet not care about the livelihood of those same people they want to attract? At quick glance, one could see this happen and assume that the outward expression of desiring a multicultural community is really masking the same old racially apathy that has been passed on for generations.

My challenge is for White Christian leaders (particularly those who have stated verbally their desire for racial diversity) to make solidarity with their systemically vulnerable black and brown brothers and sisters, standing with us as we expose and shame these atrocious acts.  Please, research it yourself, then talk about it within your own sphere of influence, deciding how you can best make a stand in solidarity for love, justice, peace, and reconciliation in your communities and nationwide. And for those who have shared their concern, ignore this, this was not meant for you, your solidarity is appreciated.