Ferguson, Missouri

Continuing Ferguson's Literary History

[by Meredith Wiggins]

After the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, staff and contributors of Avidly put together a list of texts that they called "Ferguson's Literary History" - books, essays, and poems that offer context for the continuing climate of racism and racial violence in the United States.

The list received renewed attention in the wake of last week's grand jury decision not to indict Wilson for killing Michael Brown. The article made the rounds again on social media, encouraging readers to seek out the works of thinkers like Ida B. Wells, Martin Delany, and William Wells Brown. Here, I suggest two additional titles for the list.




Black Men Must Be Bionic

[by Kevin L. Reeves]

 Editor's Note: Warning: This piece contains a link to a video of an officer shooting an unarmed black man.
In any situation, if a white police officer is moved to kill me, he knows he could do so with impunity. He knows this. He’s known it for many years. His socialization in these United States taught him the ways of race relations at an early age. With them, it’s an implicit understanding. He knows if we are engaged in any kind of non-lethal struggle, or if I dared to react in a way that is displeasing to him, he’d be free to take my life without consequence from the law. My innocence doesn’t matter. He understands that, for me, being unarmed doesn’t matter. Standing over my blood-soaked and bullet-riddled body, he’d be justified in his actions. After all, I was black and I was bionic.

When it comes to encounters with white police officers, even under seemingly innocuous circumstances like a traffic stop, our lives are uncertain. Keeping our lives in these situations depends on our willingness to be subservient and our ability to remain calm: extremely calm is best, not a twitch or the slightest hint of anything resembling action. This helps, but how much it helps depends solely on the constitution of the white police officer. Is he a moral man? If so, what is the basis for his morality? It’s unlikely that he sees me as he sees himself, but what matters most is if he believes in the bionic black man. Belief in this ethos is deadly, and with it being so very hard to tell where the officer’s belief lies, it is always best to remain extremely calm, praying that the officer is pleased by his power over such a remarkable being. Unprovoked, you stand a good chance, but under any duress or provocation, it’s very likely you could become a trophy, stuffed and hung up on the wall of the officer’s psyche. 

There are two ways the belief in the bionic black man can be deadly. The first, and less common situation, is when the young and uninitiated white police officer first encounters a black man in a tense situation. Having never been under duress, if the officer believes that man to be bionic, lethal force being applied is nearly a sure thing. When the officer faces the slightest threat (or even, very often, misperceived threat) he’ll use lethal force.

Again, it doesn’t matter that the black man is unarmed. If the officer believes the black man to be bionic, he understands that man will have no trouble swiping the officer’s gun with his superhuman quickness. Bionic black men don’t even have to go after the officer’s gun; they have the power to crush the officer’s skull between their two hands. With these abilities, the officer’s training is nullified. For how can the expert training of the police, prepped to remain poised and schooled in the art of discernment in the face of danger, conditioned and drilled for hand-to-hand combat and tested for marksmanship, contend with a superhuman being?

The second and most common occurrence is more sinister. The seasoned white police officer believes in the bionic man, but not in the same way as the uninitiated. He knows I am not bionic. Certainly not: more than any other, seasoned white police officers have the most physical contact with black men. They know we are fully human and that our limbs bend and our bodies contort like any others under force and heated pressure of conflict. But the seasoned white officer understands his rights in this country and as an officer of the law. He understands the power of perception and myth. In fact, he is himself a myth builder and perpetuator of the myth of the bionic black man. It serves him, as the construct of race continues to serve the wealthy, the powerful, the poor white, and the insecure. He knows that all he has to say is, “I feared for my life.” No matter the circumstances, this phrase absolves him, for he is white and he knows that the greater majority of the country, both white and non-white, believe in some version of the bionic black man.

George Zimmerman, a fake cop, armed and in pursuit, a man over a decade older than the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, appealed to this belief. His target, a skinny teenaged black boy, didn’t stand a chance; for Zimmerman understood the myth well. He understood that all he had to say was that he feared for his life and that it would activate the collective schema of the bionic black man in the mind of the country. Instantly, the skinny teenaged boy armed only with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea becomes a menacing bionic man of superhuman abilities rather than a scared boy, justly defending himself from an armed pursuer. No, he was a bionic black man leaping out of the bushes and using his clearly unfair advantage to threaten the life of the innocent white man.

I am 35 years old, six feet and two-hundred-thirty-some-odd pounds, and if I ever lost my cool around police officers, it’s quite likely I’d be dead. I am perceived to be bionic, so losing my cool (meaning, exhibiting normal frustration from racial profiling or any other unjust or unnecessary action by the police) could be deadly for me. I know this. I know that I shouldn’t ever show anger or aggression in the presence of white people, certainly not in the presence of a white police officer. Anger and frustration are human emotions. But I am not perceived to be fully human, and I know this and so do officers of the law.

Mike Brown died 150 feet from Officer Wilson’s police car, which was the site of the confrontation and first two gun shots. That is half a football field away. Half a football field away from the initial conflict and the officer’s car. Mike Brown ran. He ran because he feared for his life and his freedom. He made it half a football field away and then something happened. Clearly, Brown must have become bionic, an altered beast, myth becoming a reality. Suddenly, Brown went from running in fear of his life to turning around, an all-powerful being, menacing, threatening, and fearless. And with Mike Brown in his bionic state, it was then Officer Wilson’s turn to be in fear of his life. So he fired at Mike Brown ten more times.

How else do you put down a bionic man?

Kevin L. Reeves is a writer living in Chicago. He is the author of s.m.i.l.e (2011).

Flashback, Fast Forward: Michael Brown as America's Brute Negro*

[by Maryemma Graham]

Initial thoughts . . . Like many people, I have been hard pressed to make sense of the senseless, to believe the unbelievable. Darren Wilson shot again and again and ultimately killed unarmed college-bound Michael Brown. Wilson, due to the opinion of the Ferguson grand jury, will not face criminal charges. There was no probable cause to indict Wilson, they concluded.

The facts are simple, the case complex, it appears. Or is it? More importantly, why was I expecting something different—this time? We’ve seen it all before: violence seems to have no boundaries where, in this case and in far too many others, our black youth are concerned.  They, and we, are targets, their/our lives don’t matter; we are expendable.

I am outraged on far too many levels. For one, I am a mother of two young black men; my family and I can testify what it means to have one’s son barely escape these heinous acts. I resist the temptation to tell a(nother) mother’s story because I want our focus as mothers, fathers, siblings—as an entire human community—to be on the Brown family’s loss, the loss of a family who still tells us to fight the good fight, to be peaceful protestors, to agitate for change in constructive, meaningful ways. 

As the sights and sounds of Ferguson, MO, called from our televisions, it was hard for most of us to have even a fitful rest on the night after the verdict.  The sounds that were loudest were those of Lesley McFadden’s plea not to have Michael’s death be in vain. I agree and want to respect her words.

Afterword. . . My outrage as a teacher-scholar runs deep in my veins. I cannot resist mining the fields of knowledge. What lesson do I see here?

I recall one of our models of engaged scholarship, Sterling Brown, who told us much about a practice so fundamental to American culture: recreating the other as stereotypes who then become the people we think we see and to whom we react. In 1933, Brown wisely named seven of the most distinctive American stereotypes for Negroes, stereotypes that have pervaded the literature since the beginning. One of them, the "brute Negro," once a mere invention, too many Americans have accepted as a reality.

Wilson did not need to go to school to accept the stereotype as convention. It was already part of his language, and he spoke in terms apparently familiar to the jury. Here is part of Wilson’s testimony: “When he stopped, he turned, looked at me, made like a grunting noise and had the most intense, aggressive face I’ve even seen on a person.” (1)

And there’s more. “It [he?] looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. . . The only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan . . . That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt.” (2)

Michael Brown’s family and the Ferguson community knew Michael Brown as a gentle giant. Darren Wilson and the America he represents saw him, as they continue to see far too many of our black youth, as that brute Negro, to be hunted and shot down because of the threat to civilized society. 

“We are profoundly disappointed that that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions,” said the Brown family in a written statement. (3) No wonder those who commit these crimes are not required to pay. These actions have become socially acceptable behavior. The killing of Michael Brown is the consequence of America’s inactions.

We should all be enraged that history so often repeats itself; that we fail to engage the reality of the past and present in ways that make a real difference; that we use the tools of jurisprudence to maintain a broken system; that we allow the Michael Browns of the world to die when our inventions disguise the truth. 

Our insensitivity to our tragically complicated past has indeed turned lying into “no probable cause.” It has made irresponsible acts of human violence a cause for celebration. 

When Wilson confused Sterling Brown's literary observation with a matter of fact, he murdered an unarmed teenager.

This is the house that "post-racism" has built, one in which we all must live together.

(1) Cited in Vox, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014.

(2) Cited in news.yahoo.com by Jason Sickles.  Accessed Nov. 25, 2014.

(3) Ibid.

*Sterling Brown, “Negro Character as Seen by White Authors” Journal of Negro Education, 1933. An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Brown identifies 5 stereotypes rather than 7. Thank you to the reader who caught the error.

Reflections on #Ferguson: Baldwin's "The American Dream and the American Negro"

Today, in the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, the HBW Blog turns, as so many have done, to the words of the prophet James Baldwin:
"It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace...has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you. The disaffection and the gap between people, only on the basis of their skins, begins there and accelerates throughout your whole lifetime."
These words, taken from Baldwin's "The American Dream and the American Negro," were delivered in a 1965 debate with William F. Buckley. A clip of Baldwin's speech is embedded below.

Hands Up Walk Out

On Monday, August 25, students, faculty and staff from KU took part in a #HandsUpWalkOut Demonstration in honor of Michael Brown.  Megan Kaminski, assistant professor in the English department, organized the event.  Kaminski read an excerpt from Audre Lorde's poem "For Each of You," published in Lorde's collection From a Land Where Other People Live (1973).

For Each of You

Be who you are and will be
learn to cherish
that boisterous Black Angel that drives you
up one day and down another
protecting the place where your power rises
running like hot blood
from the same source
as your pain.

When you are hungry
learn to eat
whatever sustains you
until morning
but do not be misled by details
simply because you live them.

Do not let your head deny
your hands
any memory of what passes through them
nor your eyes
nor your heart
everything can be used
except what is wasteful
(you will need
to remember this when you are accused of destruction.)
Even when they are dangerous
examine the heart of those machines you hate
before you discard them
and never mourn the lack of their power
lest you be condemned
to relive them.
If you do not learn to hate
you will never be lonely
to love easily
nor will you always be brave
although it does not grow any easier

Do not pretend to convenient beliefs
even when they are righteous
you will never be able to defend your city
while shouting.

Remember our sun
is not the most noteworthy star
only the nearest.

Respect whatever pain you bring back
from your dreaming
but do not look for new gods
in the sea
nor in any part of a rainbow
Each time you love
love as deeply
as if it were
only nothing is

Speak proudly to your children
where ever you may find them
tell them
you are the offspring of slaves
and your mother was
a princess
in darkness.

The University Daily Kansan covered the #HandsUpWalkOut demonstration in the Tuesday, August 26's paper. That article can be found here.

Ferguson, Missouri

From the notebook of a visitor to Earth

Dreams of harmony and peace or absurd visions of the end of time are legitimate constructions of human imagination. If you are dealing with pure cinema, they are effective. Such spectacles appear to confirm the implacable universality of violence, the murky origins of terrorism, and the marriage of reason with insanity. They are primary features of life on planet Earth. Women and men may satisfy their fantasies by imposing gender and by speaking of amoral Nature in their own images. They are free to tamper with Nature in efforts to make a more living-friendly "world," and they may succeed for brief periods of time. Ultimately, they fail. They manufacture abstract and material "worlds" that are mercurial, that speak back to them of their cosmic insignificance in visual and audible languages which negate interpretations. 

All that is happening in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 is merely a rerun of tribally-motivated antiquities. A frantic male of one tribe, believing himself to be authorized by the Holy Bible, the United States Constitution, and the codified laws of Charles Darwin, murders a male of a different tribe. People who identify themselves with the dead male react naturally. They are shocked. They grieve. They enact counter-violence, the only procedure that is paradoxically understood and misunderstood in a nanosecond by the American body politic. Violence is very obedient to folkloric injunctions to increase and multiply. And American  as well foreign mass media take special delight in the production of misinformation about how violence procreates. In the historical tragedy entitled the United States of America, the George Zimmermans and Darren Wilsons are proclaimed to be  the stars of the show, the militants who keep democracy safe for those who are wealthy enough to buy it.  The Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins and the thousands of unarmed dead who were the targets of tragedy are treated as  footnotes in the smallest print on the playbill. In the sacred narratives of universal violence, this is proclaimed to be natural. According to such logic, the American Nightmare that has decentered the American Dream; the death-bound mission of Europe; the family squabbles between Palestinians and Israelis and the diabolic plots in the Arab/Isamic winter of the Middle East; the progress of environmental destruction in Asia; rampant neocolonialism and unique ethnic hatreds on the continent of Africa; outbreaks of such health threats as Ebola and yearly variations of influenza; the refusal to acknowledge the humanity of indigenous peoples in Australia and yhe actuality of global climate change-----according to such logic, all is quite normal on Earth.

Unfortunately, this superb logic is not a part of the education of Americans. The majority of them dwell in the darkness of believing that a meek savior will serve peace and harmony at the  Finality Feast of Thanksgiving. Our transparent wisdom obligates us to tolerate their eternal ignorance but to act otherwise.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

August 16, 2014

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