If there is a version of Godwin's law for discussing African American slavery and the Black Holocaust I always try to step delicately around it. Far too often words such as "lynching," "racism," "field negro," "house negro," "plantation," and "slave catcher" are thrown around with casual disregard for the historical weight which they carry.
In following the most recent developments regarding the murder of Trayvon Martin, I keep returning to one thought.
So much of the existential, psychic, and emotional violence inflicted on people of color in this society is prefaced on a basic idea: there are those who "naturally" belong to a political community and others who are perpetual "guests," "outsiders," or "anti-citizens."
The Black Freedom Struggle was many things: primarily, it was about a fight for civic inclusion, equality, and dignity. The Black Freedom Struggle was also centered on a politics of respectability which keenly understood that white supremacy was dependent on a basic premise: the lowest white person is automatically elevated in social stature, respect, and accomplishment over the most accomplished, brilliant, intelligent, and graceful black person.
Of course, these norms have been massaged and "evolved" to fit the "colorblind" post Civil Rights era. They still exist however, and are as ugly, pernicious (and at times) violent as ever.
"Stop and frisk," "driving while black," housing segregation, being harassed and racially profiled while shopping, and the conservative Right wing vitriol which suggests that President Obama is "uppity" or "arrogant," are all examples of how racism is a cognitive map. The white gaze orders bodies and peoples. Racism puts individuals in the "right" place and reacts with hostility to those who dare to step outside of it.
Trayvon Martin is dead because as a black person he did not follow the approved script. Historically, racism and racial violence have done work through the control of public space. Consider how this works literally in the case of Trayvon Martin. He was killed in a gated community, one located in a town that has a history of racial violence and where black people suffered under Sundown town-like conditions.
Knowing one's rightful place also works in terms of social expectations about power--who has it, how it is exercised, and which types of bodies it can be exercised on with impunity. The idea of blackness being ascribed certain traits and standards of comportment, bearing, behavior, and submission relative to "white" authority is naked and transparent in the phone transcript of George Zimmerman's call to the local police.
7:09 p.m. ET
Dispatcher: "Do you need police, fire or medical?"
Zimmerman: "We had some break-ins in our neighborhood ... and there is a real suspicious guy. ... This guy looks like he's up to no good, he's on drugs or something. It's raining, and he's walking around looking about. "
Dispatcher: "Is this guy white, black, Hispanic?"
Zimmerman: "He looks black."
Dispatcher: "Did you see what he's wearing?"
Zimmerman: "A dark hoodie, grey hoodie, jeans or sweatpants or white shoes. He's walking around staring at the houses.
Zimmerman: "He's near the clubhouse right now. Now he's coming towards me. He has his hands in his waistband. He is a black male. Something's wrong with him. Yep. He's coming to check me out. He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is. Send officers over here."
Dispatcher: "Let me know if he does anything else."
Zimmerman: "These a**holes, they always get away.When you come in go straight to the left ... when you pass the clubhouse ..."
Dispatcher: "Clubhouse? "Now he's just staring at me."
During part of this time, Martin is on the phone with a 16-year-old girl. Below is an account of the phone call as relayed to In Session's Sunny Hostin by a lawyer for the Martin family:
Martin told the girl someone was following him, and she advised him to run. Martin said he isn't going to run but will walk quickly. Zimmerman caught up with him, and Martin asked Zimmerman why he was following him. Zimmerman then asked Martin his name and why he was there. The girl on the phone says she heard Zimmerman push Martin, and then the call drops. She tried to call Martin back, but he didn't respond.
What does it mean to be deemed inexorably and permanently "suspicious?" What does it mean to be forever "suspect?" What does it mean to be marked as a "threat" from "the womb to the tomb?" It means to be "black." This is the new/old Curse of Ham as seen in the social and racial imagination of people like George Zimmerman and his enablers in the local police department.
History echoes. Ultimately, George Zimmerman reminds me of those white men riding on the slave patrols, eager, petty tyrants who are looking for any excuse to put their boots on the throat of a black person in order to raise themselves up a bit higher. They live to control public space, and how different bodies exercise their freedoms and liberties in it.
Maybe I just broke a rule about evoking slavery in discussions of twenty-first century American social and political life. But sometimes a little line-stepping is healthy, necessary, cathartic, and appropriate.