I was driving home after picking up mail from the university office a few days back. My GPS guided me on a different route, which was probably the fastest. There were dark, winding streets. My body became tense while I was driving. I found myself looking in the rearview mirror, hoping that the lights from the car in the back of me weren’t from a police officer’s car. I thought to myself: “Damn, I don’t want to be pulled over.” There are no witnesses. Then again, George Floyd had plenty. I mentally checked all the boxes: I don’t do drugs. No alcohol in my system. No broken tail lights. All registrations are current. I’m doing the speed limit. And I don’t carry any weapons. So why is there fear? It was crystal clear: My Black body is The Weapon; I am What is wrong?
I’m sure that this fear was infused with having just watched the recent video of unarmed Kyle Vinson, a 29-year-old biracial man who identifies as Black, who was pistol-whipped and choked by a white police officer in Colorado. Vinson was heard screaming, “You’re killing me!” While Vinson survived, think of the living hell, the trauma, that he will live with.
I had also recently watched the horrifying video of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man, who was also stopped by Aurora, Colorado, police officers because he “looked suspicious.” What resonates with me are his last words, which included him saying that he couldn’t breathe, that he was an introvert, that he was sorry, and that he didn’t have a gun. Unlike Vinson, McClain died. Like Trayvon Martin, had he not looked “suspicious” to Aurora’s finest, I suspect that he would still be alive.
Add to that the indelibly frozen images of George Floyd’s killing, and you have a recipe for shared trauma. A life lived as a Black man in America is fraught with trauma. The simple act of driving home registered deep dread and panic of imminent death at the hands of those who are ostensibly there to “protect.”
I have watched the video of George Floyd’s death in its entirety at least once. Perhaps it was too much, in retrospect. I feel it causes multiple emotions: anger, fury, outrage. frustration. These states of being do not occur in a series, but are more like an influx.
All of these emotions can be difficult to hold in one Black male’s body. One gets the sense that one doesn’t truly have, as W.E.B. Du Bois claimed, the “dogged strength” to keep one’s Black body from being torn asunder. This pessimism and pain is not only ongoing but may never end.
The white State, along with its deputized citizens, are relentless, and skilled at maintaining white social and civic equilibrium, white normativity and white normalcy against the “chaotic” presence of embodied Blackness. Hence, there will be another unarmed Black body killed later today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the day after tomorrow’s tomorrow, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. Latin: et cetera, communicates “that which remains.”
It is the to-be-killed Black male body that is still there, the prone Black male carcass that is captured on video that is still there, the tragic sense that there is a long line of unnamed Black men that are targeted for death and destruction by the State. We know their names but they are unnamed. After Their deaths. Is there ever a? Before That is not always the case. After? As scholar William Hart writes, “Trayvon Martin was dead before his deadly encounter with George Zimmerman. His execution (I use this loaded word intentionally) was a postmortem event; a ratification after the fact of the facts of black male being-in-America.”
In short, in such anti-Black male heartbreaking situations, there’s a type death Before physical death. Du Bois, in his deeply probing and heartfelt essay, “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” suggests that the death of his first-born child has escaped the BeforeThat is the type of death that lies behind the Veil. He writes of his son’s physical death as an escape and as a mode of freedom. Du Bois writes, “Perhaps now he knows the All-love, and needs not to be wise. Sleep, then, child, — sleep till I sleep and waken to a baby voice and the ceaseless patter of little feet — above the Veil.”
Is this what it means for us, Black men and Black boys, “to be” behind the Veil, that deep shroud that while not having a univocal meaning keeps us in “our place,” a place where the being of Black male existence is fundamentally unstable? While Du Bois is not hopeless, though he certainly knew what it meant to be unhopeful, one can feel the sheer weight of his pain and suffering (and yet a sense of joy) where he construes death as a site of refuge vis-à-vis the death of his first born. Du Bois isn’t bound by a morbid death wish. Instead, he powerfully articulates his pain at being Black behind the Veil in a nation that was/is predicated on the ontological diminution Black male existence. Du Bois writes, “All that day and all that night there sat an awful gladness in my heart, — nay, blame me not if I see the world thus darkly through the Veil, — and my soul whispers ever to me, saying, ‘Not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free.’”
As Black men, as Black bodies, we are, as literary scholar and intellectual Micaiah Johnson argues, the “un-killed,” which, for me, suggests a mode of existential temporal reprieve, a racially precarious mode of existence that isn’t Simply because it is precarious AllNature is precariously finite and human beings are no exception. Our being accelerates the limit of our finitude. Black menOur finitude is speeded up by an epidermal or gendered distorted meaning, which has been historically installed, reinforced by an anti-Black male framework, predicated on whiteness, but not limited to whiteness. The problem is (or being a problem) is not because we are “monstrous” and “dangerous” Black men per se. Rather, our portrayal as the global “Black monster,” the frightening things of nightmares, is because of Relational epistemic, libidinal, patriarchal, aesthetic, ethical, political, social, theological and material white hegemonic orders, and investments that we didn’t create. And yet, we suffer, we bleed, we weep, we mourn, we die, because we have socially inherited the death-dealing weight of the Black male imago vis-à-vis the white imaginary.
That inheritance, that indelible mark of “criminality,” often feels, though, as if it has weighed our bodies down forever. It is that feeling that I had in my car the other night — IThe problem is me, the forbidden. Du Bois understood that the gravitas caused by an epidermis was a misdeed or a crime. He wrote, “I realized that some [white] folks, a few, even several, actually considered my brown skin a misfortune; once or twice I became painfully aware that some human beings even thought it a crime.”
The future doesn’t look any better, either. I am not optimistic. If we are the unkilled, then we also cast an invisible shadow that covers all those Black boys, Black men, and Black bodies that have yet to be born. Notice how the unkilled refers to something that is neither the endlessness of life nor the absolute nullification which is death. The prefix, “un,” means not. More specifically, the sense of “not” conveys how the Black body waits in line, so to speak, To be killed. To be within that mode of “not” is precisely not (quite) to be; one is paradoxically, but always terribly and revoltingly, both dead and alive. The Hamletian disjunction (“to be or not to be”) is too clear-cut, there isn’t room for a muddied, racially lived logics where, as a Black male, I am the Being of notThe Not of being. Hart calls this mode-of-being-Not-being, “an in-between thing, a tertium quid.”
We are taught as Black men that our agency is responsible for the psychic, cultural, and historical wreckage that surrounds us. These are lies, modes, projections, bad faith and scapegoating that white people use ritualistically. EscapeIt means that their humanity is bought at the cost of demonizing Black bodies. The psychic architecture of civil society is what is because some of us (too few to name) are Black. In this way, Black male racial embodiment is instrumentalized for the purpose of white America’s sense of itself as “virtuous” and “civilized.”
Our alleged self-generated debris and wreckage can best be stated in terms of someone else’s waste or refuse, which accurately signifies a foul-smelling odor of lies upon lies, a history of white shit that white people, through processes of mythopoetic obfuscation, fail or refuse to smell.
Whiteness is achieved in this manner. NeedsThe Black male body is for its own social ontological integrity and coherence. Toni Morrison, the literary figure, is well aware of this socio ontological dependency and voraciousness. Not. Through the conceptual lens provided here, I would argue in stream with Morrison that it is whiteness whereby “the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.”
It is this NotThis is the core of whiteness. It forces us to ask a profound existential question: What whiteness is without that? Not, without anti-Black racism, without the Black man/person functioning, as literary figure James Baldwin would say, “in the white man’s world as a fixed star”? Perhaps the answer is painfully clear to white America — It is empty
It is important that I don’t only refer to white people who identify themselves with the KKK, Proud Boys or Boogaloo movement. It does not necessarily mean that one is fighting against anti-Blackness just because one is white. One is still white, after all. I would argue that to be a “good white” is more like the “benevolent” slave master who feeds me well, provides me with plenty of clothes, who doesn’t whip me, who advocates on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet, I would say to these “good whites”: You still don’t stop to see how my Blackness continues to function as the underside of your everyday white modes of being-in-the-world, how your unquestioned humanity is predicated upon my being as Black, as the “wretched,” the “sub-person.” I hear you. “But I am a poor white.” I get it, but that doesn’t complicate the binary. The binary is still there. You are considered a failed white person based on your own standards.
It is important to remember that the concept of a failedBlack person or failedBlackness is not the exact same as whiteness. Indeed, there is no “failed Blackness” within the white imaginary. Failing would be an indication that Blackness is in some way hindered from moving forward based on a real sustainable promise. But there is more that could be at stake. Blackness and its relationship in failure would be more than a missed opportunity. It would also be more than not receiving an economic promise.
Blackness, on the other hand, is always without any genuine ontological (human), grounding. Blackness, ipso facto, is the site of nullification, where one’s humanity is not simply suspended, but structurally barred from the human (read: white humanity). To be poor and white is still being white. Whiteness can be removed from those who are poor. To be poor and Black is to remain Black. Blackness can be removed from poverty; one remains the wretched, abject.
When I think about my identity as a Black man I remember the history of Black people who were killed under death-dealing forms anti-Blackness. When I think of George Floyd, I am haunted by his death, his pain and suffering, and the memory that he called for his mama.
What memories should you or should you have if you’re white? What do you think of the history and crimes committed against Black bodies by white people?
Baldwin suggests that part of the problem in answering these questions is Baldwin. He writes that “people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
Baldwin is right, I believe. Let me clarify: This trauma must be carried by white people. White people must not stoop to the level of indifference shown by Derek Chauvin when he killed George Floyd.
To white people, I say: Chauvin is my burden; carry him. I’ve already got too many postmortem Black men and Black boys to carry. Hell, I’m just trying to drive home in peace without that traumatic weight. How does your whiteness, or whiteness, allow you to breathe? And to drive without fear? Even more powerfully and hauntingly: What about if you can breathe because others cannot?
If this is true, and I have come to the nontrivial conclusion that it is, then the relationship is one of parasitism; you get to breathe in the capacity of those who are “spirit-eaters.” The consumptive, gastronomical implications are intentional. Our Black spirits (Latin). spiritusIn order to live, you must inhale (or breathe).
I challenge any white people reading this: Guilt is not a nonstarter. It is too easy. Simply breathe. Breathe. Your lungs will expand and your chest will feel bigger. It is so easy to feel the power and violence of whiteness. That is what whiteness provides — breath, life, “innocence,” humanity, bodily expansion into a white America, a white world meant for you. It is a place where you can be yourself. Stand firmAnd where Black men are reduced face-down by their black counterparts On the ground.