Tuesday, November 25, 2014

African American Horror Story

I took a certain offense when New York film critic Armond White labelled Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s “12 Years A Slave” as torture porn [1]. My assumption was that the film, which received such high praise from the majority of other critics, starred one of my favorite actors Chiwetwl Ejiofor and put forth an effort to discuss a part of American history that is usually overlooked, maligned and misunderstood, was predestined to receive the highest of accolades and respect, particularly from African American audiences. This was, however, before I actually saw the film and found myself uncomfortably bored at yet another impotent effort to shed light on a sensitive subject by combining highly provocative images in hopes that their high incendiary level alone would substitute for plot, character or discussion. By the time the end credits rolled, my arms were as tightly crossed as they were when the opening credits appeared, and as I observed other movie goers in the audience wiping tears from their eyes from what they found to be a moving dissertation on American Chattel Slavery, I just replayed the images of anonymous black skinned caricatures in different states of extreme dismay that I had the displeasure of experiencing for over two hours and whispered to myself, “When will my life as a Black Man be seen as an intentional spiritual presence and not simply as a metaphor, a joke or a threat?”
I experienced the same exhausted world weary feeling of malaise when the verdict was recently announced that Caucasian officer Darren Wilson was cleared on all five charges for shooting African American Michael Brown. I put my head in my hands and thought, I am not a tragic allegory of American injustice for Liberals to cry over or Conservatives to point a finger at… I’m a fucking human being… with all of the fears, joys, humor and concerns of anybody else. I eat McDonald’s, watch music videos and am concerned about (what’s left of) my hair like everybody else. And when I see the resounding essence of Black men reduced to a two hour liberal elite propaganda minstrel show or a court case number shat through a system built to evacuate and expel, I find it hard to believe there was a stop gap anywhere in the process that acknowledged the full bodied, red blooded, conscious, funny, flawed, thoughtful, father, brother, uncle, son, human being standing right there behind that label of “Black Man.”

I remember taking a course back in college titled, “The African American Experience” that was less a lesson in African American history but more so an exploration into the cultures of people of African descent. During the progression of the course, it became predominately clear that one of the objectives was to somehow acknowledge the boundaries of African American culture in an effort to better answer the enigmatic question of, “What is Black”? Or rather what does it mean to be Black? It’s a question I still amuse myself by trying to answer this very day, less trying to pinpoint a concrete palatable answer but more so a meditation on personal and shared histories and experiences. And it is those shared histories and experiences that become the building block for philosophies which in turn create community. And over the years, as we have turned on our radios, flipped on our televisions sets, logged into our Facebook accounts and observed bigots, dogmatists and law enforcement agencies (and sometimes an amalgamation of all three) pacified for killing Black men (and women), that too has become a part of our history, our lexicon, our community. A part of the African American Experience, no matter the class or social status, is the first hand, reasonable horror filled threat and annoyance of being misconstrued solely on the basis of your skin color.

And this is the needle swift pain that pierces the spine of all “socially aware” minorities. This is the menstrual cycle we all sync up on; the vaporous fear that what we represent socially will supersede who we are personally. That the person who we are, simply driving down the freeway [2], shopping at Hermes [3], going to the corner store to get a bag of Skittles [4] is not camouflaged by some misconceived, misguided stereotype that results in a citation, a refusal of services or death. That all we are, all we have been, and all we can be… can be slaughtered, in cold blood, in plain sight of witnesses, and even videotaped… with full amnesty given to the henchmen.

Last night, demonstrators set the city of Ferguson, MO ablaze to reflect their rage at the refusal of the grand jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson, alighting approximately 25 fires with 10 cars burned at a dealership as well as a pizza shop, beauty supply store and two auto parts stores. "Those are dreams," Ron Johnson, the Missouri State Highway Patrol captain who oversaw Ferguson security during earlier protests this summer has said in response. "Those are small-business owners, and we've torn those dreams away." And while I concur with Johnson and cannot condone destroying small-businesses within the community, I also understand the inclination to give a volatile message that the lives of Black men are not simply disposable morality tales for the amusement of ego driven law enforcement agencies. A life was lost here, not a name, not a number, not a character; but a human being with thoughts, emotions and feelings with a mother whose anguish is river deep and mountains high.

The story of the African American, much like the story of all ethnicities, is a patchwork of inspirational allegories and horrific truths. And when people ask why demonstrators would destroy their own city when the verdict was announced, I tend to think that for better or for worse, it’s to make sure that Michael Brown has a place in that book, and hopefully that people will see the 18-year old young man that stands right behind that name.

[1] Steve McQueen defends 12 Years a Slave over 'torture porn' criticisms 
[2] Driving While Black
[3] Oprah and the View from Outside Hermes' Paris Door
[4] Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts

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