Editor’s Note: Kelly Brown Douglas is a professor of religion at Goucher College in Baltimore County and author of “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.” The views expressed in this column belong to Douglas.
Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Jonathan Ferrell, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin … Emmett Till.
What do we have to do to stop these senseless fatal attacks upon black male bodies? Police body cameras, indictments, guilty verdicts and even DOJ reports are not enough. These slayings are the result of the way in which the black body has been historically perceived in this country, especially the black male body.
In America, the principle construction of the black body is as chattel. The black body was introduced into this country as property, and thus, as a body not meant to be free.
Essentially, the free space was not intended for black people. The free space was deemed a white space. Thus, a free black body was a dangerous, suspicious, threatening and criminal body inasmuch as it is trespassing into a space in which it does not belong.
The 21st century version of the black body as chattel is the criminal black body. The fact that there are more black men imprisoned today than were enslaved in 1850 signals that the transformation from chattel to criminal is complete when it comes to the black male body.
In this regard, the Prison Industrial Complex serves as the new slavocracy. It maintains the narrative of this country that the black body is not meant to be free. It returns the black body to its “proper” space, and the body perceived as most dangerous, that is the black male body, is now adequately contained and patrolled.
The notion that criminals are black males and black males are criminal has been subtly but firmly implanted within the American mind. Thus, to see a black male body is to see a criminal body. A black male body in a free space has to be guilty of something.
Of course Freddie Gray was running from something, and Jordan had a gun, and Trayvon was up to no good; they were black males in a space in which they did not belong – a free space. And so, they were guilty of something: being black males and free.
This is the legacy of slavery about which we won’t speak in this country. It is simply not enough to apologize for slavery. We have to talk about it and its legacy if we are going to end these unwarranted fatal assaults upon black male bodies. It is a legacy that contradicts America’s very sense of itself.
The deaths of the Freddies and the Trayvons represent a profound contradiction for a nation that proclaims to be an “exceptional” steward of “liberty and democracy for all.” With each dead black male, America’s “exceptional” identity is challenged.
This country must decide once and for all if it is to be a slave nation or a free nation, a nation divided by race or unified by a commitment to freedom for all.
There is another challenge, and that is to the religious community. Matthew’s question to Jesus today might be, “But Lord, where did we see you dying and on the cross?”
And Jesus would answer: “Running down a Baltimore street, On a Florida sidewalk. As you did it to one of these black male bodies you did it to me.”
That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Freddies, the Trayvons and all black victims of America’s racialized violence. In Jesus’$2 1st century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power.
At the same time, crucifixion indicated how much of a threat a person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was nothing less than a first century lynching. The tragedy of the cross is the tragedy of the war that historically has been carried out on black male bodies.
It is in the face of Freddie dying in the back of a police van that we see Jesus dying on the cross today. If we are going to understand the extent of God’s love and the meaning of God’s justice, we must recognize the face of Jesus in the face of the Freddies and Trayvons.
Put simply, it is in the freedom of those who are crucified that one can see the justice of God working in the world. To be where God is, is to be where black people are crying out for freedom from crucifying realities.
Fifty years ago, in response to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “Our nation should do a great deal of soul-searching.”
He went on to write, “While the question ‘Who killed President Kennedy?’ is important, the question, ‘What killed him?’ is more important.”
King’s words are instructive as we respond to this current crisis. Our responses must go beyond body cameras, indictments and DOJ reports. We must examine the racialized culture that is America.
This is a culture which has sustained slavery and its legacy of black codes, Jim Crow, lynching, stand your ground laws and the current attack upon black male bodies. Until there is such an undertaking of serious soul-searching and truth-telling, the violent and deadly legacy of slavery will continue.