Here's a riddle. Read it, and don't look ahead!
Two people are walking down the street, alone, at night, in an "urban" area. Person A is headed east. Person B is headed west. They both notice each other. What happens next, and why?
Your answer will say a lot about where you're coming from, but you should not feel ashamed. "Political correctness" does a lot of shaming, and so does anti-racist discourse in general.
We used to use a less generic version of this scenario when I and several other grad students, under the tutelage of my advisor, ran discussions as part of the "diversity" component of freshman orientation at University of Chicago (we called it something else, but that's what it was). In that scenario, Person A was a black male. Person B was you. Is that what you imagined? In the orientation, we asked students if they would cross the street. This has, in fact, long been how green, entitled young people are introduced to an urban university setting. If you're uncomfortable, they tell you, then cross the street. Be extra aware of your surroundings. This is a crash course in "street smarts."
The freshmen would always get really uncomfortable at this point because many of them knew in their hearts that they would cross the street, but to do so is not "politically correct." They would often then make naive--not ignorant--statements about how the man was dressed, or how old he was, or what he looked like. Both times I ran these sessions (over two years), the same thing happened: eventually, a young black woman would announce that she, herself, would cross the street in this scenario, and the rest of the students would appear incredibly relieved. But then, ideally, there would be a male student of color in the session as well, who would describe how being treated that way makes him feel.
So, who was Person A in your scenario, and who was Person B? Here are some options:
- A: a robber B: you
- A: your daughter B: a rapist or kidnapper
- A: George Zimmerman B: Trayvon Martin
- A: Emmett Till B: "a white woman"
- A: a "gangbanger" B: a rival
- A: Henry Louis Gates B: a policeman
Misunderstandings caused by bias range from the profound to the ridiculous. When the graduate students who ran these sessions would debrief about this topic, there was always tension. The female students would profess their ambivalence about this particular scenario, given their own fear of walking alone in Hyde Park. Other students would also profess ambivalence: of all my friends living in Hyde Park over the last 8 years, only about half a dozen of them have been assaulted, but the fear of it looms. When I spoke with my 11th graders this year about the same scenario, they had similar feelings. They said that they, as Person A, always cross the street when they are alone, if Person B is a stranger of a certain age, dress, and gender. They also said that it hurts their feelings when they are made to feel like they are Person B, and another person crosses the street to avoid them. We talked about this puzzle in a discussion of Trayvon Martin's death, him of the hoodie, iced tea, and Skittles. My students told me that they thought Trayvon could have been one of them.
I've been thinking a lot in the last month and the last week about both Trayvon and Derrion Albert, as well as another child whose name achieved infamy in death: Emmett Till. I have been mourning the children that we've lost in Chicago and the country. Derrion Albert became famous, in his death, as an example of youth violence. Last year, Harper High School, a CPS school in the Englewood neighborhood, lost sixteen students to violence.
Are these children martyrs? Maybe. A martyr dies for a cause. An end to structural racism is certainly a cause, but it's a cause that is so ongoing that we all have compassion fatigue. Instead of noticing that we are not living in a post-racial society when these things happen, we get angry at the President for pointing out that he, too, is black, that Trayvon could have been his son. We get angry at the President for saying that the police officer who arrested Gates did a "stupid" thing. We excuse Gates because he was a Harvard professor wearing a three-piece suit. We excuse the officer because Gates is black. Beer summits take place. Meanwhile, children keep dying.
When James Baldwin was writing, we did not yet have compassion fatigue, and he wrote with compassion and rage about the deaths and murders of his closest friends and more distant acquaintances: Eugene Worth (d. 1946), on whom he based the character Rufus Scott, who, in Another Country (1963), commits suicide by leaping from "the bridge named for the father of his country"--the George Washington Bridge. Medgar Evers (d. 1963), to whom he dedicated, along with the four girls killed when a terrorist bombed a church in Birmingham in 1963, the play Blues for Mister Charlie, which was based on the death of Emmett Till (1954). Malcolm, d. 1965. Martin, d. 1968. Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, 1969. The unknown thousands killed by lynchings or in race-related uprisings in Detroit (1943 and 1967), Harlem (1919, 1935, 1943, 1964), East St. Louis (1917), Los Angeles (1943, 1965, 1992), Oakland/Berkeley (1967-68), Ole Miss (1962), Tulsa (1921), Newark (1967), Washington, D.C. (1919 and 1968), and Chicago (1919, 1951, 1961, 1966, 1968).* Many of these cities had further issues with race-related protests-cum-violence after Baldwin's death. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991. L.A. again in 1992. Detroit again and again. Oakland in 2009. And Ole Miss....last month!?!? Is it possible?
It says something, to be sure, about our "nation of nations" that we boast the longest list of "ethnic riots" in this Wikipedia article. If Baldwin were alive, he would take one look at us and say something like: "Post-racial society, my ass." Outside the U.S.? We're considered by many not a racial utopia (which is what I was brought up to believe, being biracial), but, rather, a racial dystopia, where if you're young, black, and male, you have a better chance of ending up dead or in prison by the age of 25 than you do of going to college.
Baldwin wrote Blues for Mister Charlie between 1954, when Till died, and 1963, when Evers died. It was first performed in 1964. Baldwin made Richard Henry a cross between Till, Evers, and his friend Eugene Worth--Richard is a young adult, 20-ish, who has spent some time in the north trying to become a jazz musician, and has come back home south, addicted to drugs and penniless. I sometimes wonder why Baldwin didn't make Richard a child. Till was 14 when he was murdered "for whistling at a white woman." Perhaps Baldwin wanted the actor playing him to be really good. Perhaps even Baldwin couldn't stand the idea of putting a 14-year-old on stage and then having the audience watch while he is murdered by racism.
Much of the history of racial violence in Chicago takes place at the beach. This is not a coincidence. Chicago's beaches were informally segregated for years because no one wanted black boys to wade in the water with white girls. The "myth of the black rapist," as it is called, has probably killed more black men than the Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined (though those wars are also killing predominantly black, brown, and poor-white American men). Thousands of men, women, and children were lynched in the South in the hundred years between the end of the Civil War and the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Many of these were black men, and the majority of them were accused of raping white women, touching white women, or just looking at white women the wrong way. Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird isn't just a fictional character. He's real. I first learned about this kind of injustice from children's literature. I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry at 10, and To Kill a Mockingbird at 14 (and then once a year, every year thereafter, for a long time). I credit those books (and my Grandpa Barton (nee Bortugno) and my mom) with teaching me to hate racial injustice at a very early age.
But there is a problem with Blues for Mister Charlie, as with Native Son and Invisible Man, and it's this: those great black male authors, my heroes, were sexist! Bigger Thomas stuffs a white woman's body in a furnace and then beats a black woman to death with a brick. Ellison's Jack-the-Bear sexually manipulates a rich white woman. In Blues, Jo Britten, the white woman that Richard Henry flirts with--on purpose, to make her uncomfortable--is a stupid harpie. And Juanita, the black woman whom everyone is in love with, is a magic negress: Richard loves her, Richard's father loves her, all of the other students love her. Even Parnell James, the Atticus Finch-esque newspaper editor, is in love with her. All of them think that she can fix their lives. Perhaps the worst version of racist-America-as-white-woman was LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's Lula in Dutchman. Man, I love-hate that play. Lula, a symbol for America and the very first manic-pixie-dream-girl, murders Clay, a young black man with all the world before him. Racist America sure is a femme fatale. What about the black girls and women? What about Sweet Lorraine, and Alice Childress, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Walker, and Paule Marshall, and Ann Petry, and all the unknown babymamas? Many thousands gone, indeed.
But I'm still thinking about martyrs. The Southern Poverty Law Center's list of Civil Rights Martyrs ends with King's assassination. Could we or should we think of Derrion and Trayvon as Civil Rights Martyrs? I know that Derrion's name has been coming up a lot in talks of school closings in Chicago. I have a friend in the history department at U of C who also made this argument last spring, when U of C had a conference on how to write the history of Jim Crow, now that we live in a "post-racial" (sarcasm) society. Toussaint Losier, who has spent his entire graduate career advocating and agitating for workers' and prisoners' rights in Chicago (and therefore I don't think he'll mind my using his name), gave a brilliant (to my mind) paper about mass-incarceration, referring to Michelle Alexander's bestseller The New Jim Crow. But the introduction to his paper was about Trayvon and the response to his death.
What have we learned from the deaths of these children? This summer, Rahm Emanuel went on the CBS Evening News and begged the gangbangers to go into the alleys and shoot each other up.
"We've got two gangbangers, one standing next to a kid. Get away from that kid. Take your stuff away to the alley. Don't touch the children of the city of Chicago. Don't get near them."Man, you sound tough on crime when you say shit like that, Mayor Rahm. When you talk about "family values" like some sort of drunk (on power) Reganite. But you forget something. Gangbangers are children, too. Anyone who has watched The Wire, or actually worked in a Chicago Public School, or read an article about the death of a teen promising that the dead teen was not a gangbanger, but rather an honors student, knows that the ones who die are usually the children. Calling them "thugs" is an attempt to make their lives worth less than the life of another human being. All due respect, Mr. Mayor, but gangbangers don't deserve to die any more than any other child does. SIXTEEN dead in just one Chicago high school in one year. What must it be like to grow up knowing for certain that someone you know, maybe someone close to you, won't live past 18?
The group CeaseFire has been doing amazing work trying to get the word out about this, in part through the incredible and sad PBS Frontline documentary The Interrupters. I showed The Interrupters to my students, and the reaction was mixed. Some of them were fascinated, some thought it was kinda boring. After all, they're living in it. If you're a young man in the neighborhood where I teach, you can't wear a hoodie, they told me. At least not with the hood up. If you have your hood up, people will stop you and ask you who you are, which means, "With whom are you affiliated?" Children on the south and west sides of Chicago plan their routes to school so that they don't cross gang boundaries. They won't walk to the library if it means someone will not-recognize-them and jump them. I have students who have joined gangs just so that they'll feel safe walking around their neighborhood. "Gangbangers" is a term that dehumanizes them, turns them into criminals, when a lot of them are just kids trying to survive.
On the last day of school last year, my principal told our students to stay safe and stay indoors. That is the hell that our children are living in, Mayor Rahm. So yeah, it makes me pretty angry when you end funding for the "Culture of Calm" program that was started in response to Derrion Albert's death, just because it hasn't fixed structural racism in three years. And yet you pour money into charter networks that will treat the children like they're already criminals, making them wear uniforms and walk in single file, not speak unless spoken to, cover up all their tattoos. And then you, Mayor Rahm, and you, President Obama, and you, Arne Duncan, do photo ops at these schools, elementary schools with silent hallways, where the kids raise their hands "crisply" and SLANT, just like good little robots. And the teachers and principals say that it's all for the children, that this is how children succeed. They're wrong. That is structural racism. Teaching students how to love dead white poets, how to eat at a restaurant, how to "do school." It's true that they need to learn to play the game. But they need to play the game in order to change the game.
But shame on you, Mr. President! The "melee" that killed Derrion Albert was caused by school closings that included kids from Altgeld Gardens, where you once worked as a community organizer. Remember where you came from, for once in your life!
When I was in my second year of graduate school, Lauren Berlant told me that I needed to write with more rage. My hero(es) for this kind of writing are Baldwin (and Berlant). If 16 dead children in one school in one year doesn't fill you with rage, then maybe it's true that you're not paying attention.
*I'm sure I've left some out. See here and here for somewhat comprehensive lists.