Sunday, July 14, 2013

From Ernest Gideon Green to Trayvon Martin: The Struggle Continues

Last night I was involved in a moment where history met with artistic re-enactment and vice versa. I was involved in the "The Little Rock Nine Project" and Ernest Gideon Green was in the front row. Mr. Green was the first Black citizen to graduate from a desegregated high school in America as a part of the Little Rock 9. Since he was the first of the 9 to graduate he is the Rosa Parks of schools and has gone on to be a civil rights icon, successful businessman, and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton. I was helping out with the dramaturgy of the piece which premiered at Nuyorican Poets Cafe last night. As the piece concluded with his graduation and Green's decision to walk across the stage to receive his diploma despite death threats and attempts at his life, the actors began to sing a song about how the events unfolded that day and how he made a decision to stand. From the first row of the audience Mr. Green stood up. He stood alongside the actors as they began singing directly to him about the day. And as each series of actors spoke to him, he became an actor in a piece about his life. You could hear the collective gasp and weeping in the audience.

I was reminded of the power of art to reflect and interact with history. Afterward, Mr. Green spoke about the work that was done and the work that has yet to be done. As the audience filed out of the theatre, the news of the Trayvon Martin trial was echoing through people's phones and social media. George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. Despite the fact Zimmerman admitted to pulling the trigger and that he pursued Martin, who was a non-violent pedestrian moving down the public space of the road, the court of US law saw that George's fear of a Black youth walking past him was sufficient enough to warrant murder. Zimmerman now gets to go home, resume his life, retrieve the murder weapon from police evidence, and possibly make millions of dollars off the homicide in endorsements and book deals from the conservative media.

I have been absorbed into the collective outrage on social media and amongst my friends. The anger is justified due the historical context of the murder more so than the individual perpetrator. Zimmerman just happens to be the latest killer in a long-line of American patriarchy who violently act out against disadvantaged groups and then claim themselves to be the victims. I was reminded of this line of defense when looking at the Little Rock 9 and the outrage from the Southern governors at the time who were both instigating violence against Blacks while claiming to be the victims who have lost their freedom.

And yet there stood Ernest Green. 50 years later after all the assaults, threats, and attempts at his life. Many of his colleagues did not make it. But there he stood on stage. Still standing after all these years. Many others will continue to stand because it's needed. It's not an act of willpower but a gesture of grace under assault. Now more than ever we need to stand, but not against Zimmerman. The stand must be taken against the system which allows someone like Zimmerman to psychologically justify murder based on racial fear.


White Supremacy is not only the promotion of racial superiority, but of the inferiority of others as it pertains to their body, mind, and basic humanity. It's woven into the fabric of this nation and has been an underpinning psychological motivation for civil wars, lynching, and hundreds of years of hatred. It's obvious to see how White Supremacy plays out in a case like Zimmerman. What's not as obvious is how it plays out within the Black community.

Right now in Chicago, hundreds of Black youths are being murdered. They are being murdered by other Black people. These killings are happening mostly on the South Side of Chicago. The deeper question is how the same White Supremacy that can give the world the Zimmerman acquittal can produce the steady onslaught of death amongst Black populations mostly at the hands of its own people. The insidious nature of White Supremacy is that it's an unspoken belief which is often taken up by others regardless of their racial background. When I see life disrespected in such a systematic way it cuts to the matter of the system in place.

It's a very real feeling among Black people that their lives are worth less than others because of White Supremacy. It's a feeling promoted by the society at large and pass down to the next generation. In the past, it would be the job of the church and parents to inoculate Black children against this crippling virus. Now it appears as if the next generation is not only unprotected but picking up this disease both outside and inside our communities.

The devaluation of Black life is something that's been well-documented. Hip hop culture promotes it, Viacom streams it, and both Black and White audiences pay for it. There is a collusion going on and yet no one wants to speak of this obvious perilous choice both sides have made. It is too profitable and shameful. Furthermore the tasks of overturning this White Supremacist collaboration appears to be too costly and complicated.

In order to begin undoing the system of White Supremacy it's going to take a lot of serious, continued, aggressive efforts by all races. It's not about letting Zimmerman off the hook or explaining it all away by saying 'Black people need to get their families together.' It is about keeping it on the psychology which drives the system and influences people. It's very cold work that removes weekly faces of outrage that distract us from the larger issue. Zimmerman and Paula Deen aren't the larger issue. The thinking which ties them together as much as Jay-Z is the larger and more provocative issue.


Personally, I'm a fan of Jay-Z. I love many of his songs. But I can't deny that there's a strange tone of White Supremacy in hip hop culture by devaluing Blackness. Even more complex is how Blackness is only validated within the context of consumerism for many of us. Buying stuff makes up for the lack of life worth.

On the same night of meeting civil rights leader Ernest Green and hearing about the Zimmerman acquittal, I was walking back from a restaurant in the Flat Iron district. I passed by the 40/40 club. I was hit with another level of awareness by all the men and women in flashy suits. I asked my friend -who happens to be Black- what the 40/40 club is about and he said 'everyone pretends like they're in a rap video.' I began wondering why all these things were blending together in my mind on this day: Mr. Green, Trayvon, Jay-Z. On a deeper level it feels intermixed.

If Black devaluation isn't an American way of life, then how we treat each other so poorly? How can I walk by on the night of Zimmerman's release and see dozens of Black women in tight skirts and skyscraper heels teetering their way past the velvet ropes with the ambition of someone buying them a $500 bottle of champagne. There were no riots or protests here. Trayvon's death was a blip on the consciousness of these men and women. It appeared that Black death and White Supremacy were well-accepted by this group and their escape was to the club.

On that historic night, what would happen if Jay-Z shut down the club and demanded that people pay attention to something other than his marketing brand. As a Black man from the Marcy Projects, does he owe anything to young men and women who look like him and are getting gunned down by policeman, their own brothers, and random vigilantes? Does this debate even register in this world and why not?

It's going to take a lot more than yelling at Zimmerman or castigating Paula Deen. The troubling issue is that it's much easier to expiate our fears on to a few individuals rather than address the larger system we are working in. There are no forums to consider these questions, much less to pursue answers to the insidious nature of White Supremacy, Black Devaluation, and Commodification. Only shouting and rage at figureheads. I suspect that all our noise is merely a rehearsal for the next Trayvon incident, the next Fruitvale Station shooting, the next brief register of race consciousness that will be subsumed beneath blind, calcifying outrage.

This problem is deeper than a man and more complicated than a case. But if we -as a nation- cared for Trayvon then as much as we hate Zimmerman now, we might be able to stop the cycle of White Supremacist violence in the near future. 

1 comment:

Owa said...

Well said, bit alas, ineffectual. I happen to see an Italian film c1970--about the history of insftitionalise American slavery. In the openning scenes a white planter exclaimed: "God is white. As long as he remaines so. We will prevail."

We are induced under the Ghost spell-- the Gospel both whites and blacks.