Once again we are here, carrying an unprecedented amount of pain from seeing black people disappear. We constantly view videos or hear stories about black people dying—about black people being murdered that really just cements the reality we already know. In this country we are disposable. And despite the amount of love we show for one another in these times of mourning, this country does not bat an eye at our death.
Read the stories of free communities of color in the first half of the nineteenth century who lost family members and friends to kidnapping day after day. They petitioned slaveholding state governments to protect their kin from kidnapping and being forced back into slavery. The black community had no power against the Fugitive Slave Law, slave catchers, and kidnappers and no way to protect ourselves from social death. Freedom was never guaranteed, but fought for on a daily basis. Free people of color had an unprecedented amount of pain from seeing their kin disappear and no one bat an eye.
Read "The Red Record" by Ida B Wells. In a time when it feels like we have almost no control over how or when we die, it is important to remember her words. “During the slave regime, the Southern white man owned the Negro body and soul. It was to his interest to dwarf the soul and preserve the body…with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he was killed…no white man has been lynched for the murder of colored people…” The Equal Justice Initiative has now estimated there were over 4,000 lynchings in the United States between the Civil War and World War II. Ida B. Wells was not only petitioning the government to intervene in the murdering of black people but was pulling on the pathos of the American consciousness. America has never had a firm stance on black life and the country’s ethics have shown that it often supports the slave regime. In a country that continued to disenfranchise black voters, Ida B. Wells targeted the American consciousness through graphic portrayals and a quantification of lynchings. Almost facing death herself, she dealt with it by mobilizing non-black voters and disenfranchised blacks through narrative and data. Even after she first published her book in 1895, black people continued to feel an unprecedented amount of pain from seeing black people disappear. Despite some recording the last lynching in 1981 of Michael Donald by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, we know all too well of a similar (at the very least) experience today.
As recent as last week, archaeologists state that the 95 dead bodies found in Sugarland, Texas were from the Imperial State Prison Farm where black prisoners were leased to work on a plantation for the Imperial Sugar Company in the early 20thcentury. Among the dead were black bodies that died at ages 14 to 70. Black people dying in convict-leasing prisons was more common than black people who were lynched. The state that often unlawfully arrested and incarcerated us and sold us to private companies was a major player in the deaths of black people. Black families lost their children, their fathers, and their mothers. What we don’t know is if families even had a chance to give them a proper burial or if they were forced to deal with death like Africans on slave ships. What we do know is that the government was a decision maker in how and when we died. Once again, there was an unprecedented amount of pain from seeing black people disappear.
I could continue with more historical narratives from decade after decade because there has never been a moment in our history where black people were not subjected to death and an immense amount of pain. This pain manifests in so many ways. It is the commanding voice of Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Alton Sterling’s children, who spoke on the lack of charges brought against the police officers who murdered him at point blank range. In her speech in March 2018, she proclaimed “We have nothing else in us to cry about now, because, guess what, we all knew what it was just like y’all knew what it was going to be.” Being black in America is knowing the courts will not indict people who kill us unless the people who are killing us are black. We know what will happen when we die because we have been experiencing it for centuries. Listen to Allysza Castile, Philando Castile’s sister, describe her pain after another trial in June 2017 did not indict the police officers who killed him. “That was my brother, that was my mentor, that was my father figure, that was everything. That man worked hard every single day—every birthday, every Christmas he was the one that made sure I had gifts. He didn’t deserve to die the way he did and I will never have faith in this system. I will never have faith in this system.” That anguish, that emptiness, that hopelessness is a feeling that has been passed down generation after generation. It reverberates across the black community and even when it is not your family member who disappeared, you still feel it. It’s a mix of fear that it could happen to you or someone close to you, a desperate plea for it to stop, and a rage from the world expecting you to continue life as if it never happened.
This week we lost a young sister named Nia Wilson at the age of eighteen. She was stabbed and killed at MacArthur BART station, a stop that is central to Bay Area transit and that many black people pass through every day. Wilson’s killer, a white man, is in custody, but he is still alive. He was found almost a day later at Pleasant Hill BART in the suburbs. What is it about white people that protects them from death as black bodies drop dead and turn in their graves? In 2006, unarmed Sean Bell was shot at 50 times, almost half hitting him, by NYPD, but Wilson’s killer is still alive. In 2009, unarmed Oscar Grant was killed at Fruitvale BART in Oakland but Grant's killer is still alive. Sandra Bland’s death in 2015 in Waller County Jail, Texas, was mysteriously ruled a suicide after she was unlawfully arrested at a traffic stop, yet the arresting officer is still alive. In 2015 a police officer shot and killed Sam DuBose, a father of thirteen, in the head at a traffic stop and then received $350,000 in back pay in 2018, and he is still alive. We can never forget the six black women and three black men who were slaughtered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 and the white man who killed them walked out alive and is still awaiting his sentenced death penalty. I haven’t even mentioned the host of black transgender women who are killed without many even turning their heads to listen about it such as Amia Tyrae who was found dead in a Baton Rouge motel on March 26, 2018. All of these black bodies are withering away faster than God intended and we are left here to carry this burden just like generations before us.
While we wait for the courts to decide if our souls can be squeezed into justice this time around, we deal with black death day in and day out. These deaths can be traumatizing and this blog may even be triggering. When I heard of Wilson’s death, I immediately thought about my wife who travels through MacArthur BART every day. I thought about how she would watch every white man’s hands to see if he garnished a weapon. I thought about the fear she had of possibly being subjected to violence both as a woman and a black person. Two years ago a black woman from our university was shot in the eye for refusing to dance with a black man in Brooklyn. Now we live on the other side of the country where a white man slit a young black woman’s throat on the train platform. It is impossible not to deal with this pain.
I realized that one way I dealt with it is by trying to forget the atrocities committed against our people. I intentionally didn’t keep up with the trials. We all knew we wouldn’t see justice. I intentionally stopped watching the news. How many more times would they criminalize us after we were killed? Apparently, another time since KTVU, a local Bay Area television station, blasted a picture of Wilson with a fake gun across our screens. I intentionally focused more of my life on thinking about happiness and self-care because I refused to carry the burden of the world on my shoulders. I listened to more upbeat music that didn’t talk about the issues and only made me want to dance. I tried to create a new world for myself because living life through death is painful. Seeing our people disappear is painful. I still believe self-care and joy are very necessary forms of self-preservation and peace, but the pain of Nia Wilson’s father—the pain of generation after generation—cannot continue. We cannot continue our lives with a requirement that we teach our children how to deal with death. No amount of education, stature, or money can save us from experiencing this pain. Let your rage be heard, let it be felt, let it burn for the sake of our elders and our children. Refuse to tolerate it any longer. Refuse to forget it in a month from now. Refuse to pretend like it is just a part of life. Refuse to die. Take it into your jobs, take it into political office, take it into the streets, take it into your church. Use your rage and stop death in black communities. Organize and don’t wait on anyone but yourself.