If I were a black person I imagine it would be annoying, at best, to scan social media after the recent Ferguson grand jury decision and see various opinions and advice, and well-intentioned but ultimately confused soul-searching on the subject from whites. It might be worse to encounter a post defending law enforcement in general, and choosing to do so by characterizing the deceased high school student as a thug.
If one speaks in the spirit of Civil Rights advocacy here, it will inevitably offend some people who know a good cop or a good soldier. Or are a good cop and a good soldier, I’ve known both.
There’s no good way to go about it, and perhaps the only way to write around the thorny themes of this case are to think about simple imagery. Fire.
I am compelled to add yet another op-ed to the burning national conversation because of visceral sensations I experienced while watching black people set fire to buildings in their community along with that heavy sinking feeling that hit when the mother of the deceased cried in despair, and had to do so in front of cameras.
It reminded me of when I started to see the impact of black lives dying by gunshots in a new way the morning I saw Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in a near empty Tinseltown theater. Gucci Mane, the co-star of the film, was cast after getting out of prison; his rap career happens between prison, hospital and psych ward stints for the most part. Korine said he had a part waiting for him when he got out. This was probably a boon for Gucci. Gucci Mane’s character Archie squares off with a white gangster, Alien (from the same impoverished neighborhood; played by James Franco). Indeed they live in a unique subculture–where there are Trap Houses and club promoters who sometimes need to be assaulted — a culture that is invaded by the beach heads of St. Petersberg once a year, by white college students. “The Danger,” so to speak, in Spring Breakers ends up not being Archie or Alien– who grew up poor and hustling– but the bikini-clad college beauties who decide to rob Archie.
Speaking of “the hustle,” 1962 James Baldwin describes the decision to join it in The Fire Next Time:
“The wages of sin were visible everywhere … in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parceled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail…Crime became real, for example–for the first time– not as a possibility but as the possibility.
One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear. It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else–housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers–would never by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities. Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough.
People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the mainstream. The Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards. Negro servants have been smuggling odds and ends out of white homes for generations, and white people have been delighted to have them do it, because it has assuaged a dim guilt and testified to the intrinsic superiority of white people … In spite of Puritan Yankee equation of virtue with well-being. Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law–in a word power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.”
Korine’s twist is to throw the white gangster in the mix. Thus making the new dilemma one of economic inequities, not just race.
In a slow motion sequence the girls empty Uzi shells into Archie and his posse. Korine chooses a slow motion delivery and a melodramatic string dirge by Skrillex to soundtrack the slaughter. In a piece of corporate moviemaking the gunshots would be fired in real time, possibly with edits cutting the time in half, moving the action even faster. This way the viewer can enjoy the action and not be bothered by the death happening. To slow down the shootings as Korine does is to prompt the viewer to see the event in a different way. Mainly, to show you that death is happening right now. One black man falls into the water fountain Archie’s drug money estate could afford. A couple scenes before Korine offers a portrait shot of Archie, child on his leg, with family. Archie simply tells the camera he has to get rid of the competition (Alien). He has to feed his kid.
The slow motion could signal to us: “look who’s going to win this competition anyway.”
I found myself saddened or moved by this scene because it seemed Korine, despite his clownish cinematic trafficking in stereotypes and shock value, had hit on an elemental truth, one that gave the experience of Spring Breakers a surprising moral force. That the black experience is an existential life of deep danger, where the intensity of each day is heightened.
Korine’s subversive and acidic message is that it’s not thugs killing each other, but the college Spring Breakers, the white establishment. One brief allusion to Reconstruction — the plan to rebuild the post-Civil War South with a free black populace — is a scene at the start of the movie, but the girls are drawing penises on their papers and not listening to the story of Reconstruction. Why should they get to know who they don’t need to know?
Or for that matter, in real life, how could Michael Brown be more than a lawbreaker (or a possessed “demon.”)?
The despair is real. If we listen to the voices from Ferguson we are made aware of a relationship between the races that still needs much work. If there was a push to make it work in the ‘60s those voices are growing more distant to us. (I took a Harlem Renaissance and African American Studies class where James Baldwin was somehow not assigned reading.)
Some of the reasons are systemic, a mix of economic or cultural habits and manners. At the most basic level are the assumptions. Where I sometimes substitute teach a student who was giving me a little trouble struck up a conversation after I moved him closer to my desk. He told me he was going to the zoo this weekend to see his family. I said, “OK?” He responded, “my family that lives at the zoo.” He then made it clear he was talking about the apes and the animals, thus making a statement that assumed I was prejudiced. Silent, automatic assumptions and suspicions would keep me and this kid from having any real exchange that day.
The communication divide is complex and much more vast than anyone’s desire to actually deal with it. In 29 years I have not met a white person who describes themselves as a “racist.” Yet Ferguson happened. After Ferguson, the debates that reflexively come pouring onto the Internet have an air of defense about them. Reflexive, meaning they are acting on their first thought, not the 4th or the 10th. A white person’s first thought is that rioting doesn’t do anything. Maybe a second thought is that a third party is making all of this happen (the media, the Liberals, the Conservatives). Maybe another reaction is that Michael Brown reached into the car, and thus put himself in danger, and that’s the risk he took. These are positions, free for the taking, but in my opinion they exist in a dangerous place. When you take these shallow positions, you absolve yourself from asking deeper questions. And these arguments don’t point the way forward.
A most troubling brick wall in the conversation: Officer Wilson seems to have his story down pat, and is not sorry and has said as much on ABC–leaving an untended, invisible wound throughout the black community.
Despite technological progress and despite first world comforts, there is in society a universal icing-over of the soulful intellect or the critical spirit that would make a better conversation happen and empathetic understanding a goal. How is it that after so much sound and fury is poured out about Ferguson, there is still nothing more rhetorically creative happening than shifting share of the blame, making excuses, or mourning?
(Bright side: multiracial protests in the major cities indicate a past-due righteous indignation about the American power structure, and hopefully mark the way forward to prevent another Ferguson or prevent other abuses to voting rights or economic opportunity for low income Americans.)
Another friend of mine suggested that members of the news media are only interested in the situation in a cynical way. That they are provoking riot situations and are uninterested in ways to heal or uplift. If this holds true for people who identify as Leftists or Liberals, then we are in trouble. The last I checked Civil Rights, in particular the white world’s relationship with the African American world, has been a cornerstone of Liberalism since the revolutions and bodily sacrifices made in the 1960s–Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy — the big names. In The Life and Times of Robert F. Kennedy, Kennedy chronicler Arthur Schlesinger bends over backwards through many chapters to claim that this man was on the right side of Civil Rights. As he was fighting for this, Lyndon Johnson scrambled like a possessed roughneck to have his name on the Voting Rights Act–an action still trying to be undone by today’s power brokers.
If people of the Left are not deeply distressed by Ferguson then there needs to be a major re-branding of liberalism as we know it today. In the black community, it will have to happen from the ghetto up. Hollywood, unlike in the 1960s when James Baldwin, Belafonte, and Marlon Brando held hands in protest, seems to have its celebrities on lock down for the most part. Pharrell raises that chip and says Michael Brown was acting like a punk. What does Oprah think about it? Forest Whittaker, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, our literary men Junot Diaz and Colson Whitehead, Don Cheadle, the guy from Captain Philips, Morgan Freeman’s voice sounds like God, but what is he saying about Ferguson? Octavia Spencer is worried that they will riot, Wil.I.Am was on Jimmy Fallon (NBC) hawking the new watch he designed as Ferguson burned on CNN. Curiously, Garth Brooks days later cancelled his Tonight Show appearance out of respect. Talib Kweli was a voice earlier on. But Kanye, loud for Katrina, is quiet on this. People give the supercilious and sartorial Don Lemon crap but he’s down there for CNN with his gas mask holding up somewhat of a mirror and is prepared to get shoved around by Ferguson cops. Tupac, with his unique mind, rephrased Baldwin and carried an uncommon anguish about being pushed into celebrity land where your words have to get past the gated community first. The cinema community, with Fruitvale Station’s Ryan Coogler and Spike Lee, is making its statement in an underground way. Despite our conflicting thoughts on celebrity culture, it is our culture, and their voices and lack thereof are influential.
At any rate, prophetic images have been a part of film and literature for some time. Two weeks ago those images erupted onto the news of the world, landing on the front pages in London, Germany and prompting Vladimir Putin to point and say ‘see they can’t lecture to us about human rights.’
James Baldwin prefaces his Jeremiad with fire. Laced through his prose is the belief that unless there is a real emotional union of white and black, and in some households and workplaces there indeed is, then that fire will come as it did in Missouri. His gift to this discussion, and to literature, is that he spoke like the rare thing he was: a tireless fighter and a born lover.
“And when I sat at Elijah [Muhammad’s] table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s–or Allah’s–vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty? … If we– and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others– do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!’”