Martin Delany, Blake
Ferguson, Missouri, is a town of about 21,200 residents, mostly poor and black, and many of them are living on the run. According to the nonprofit legal organization ArchCity Defenders, “in 2013 the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.” Court fees, effectively a tax on the poor and the over-policed, make up the city’s second-largest source of income. When we think about the American criminal justice system in the twenty-first century, we might picture, first of all, the sprawling prisons where so many thousands are locked down and incapacitated. But the counterpart of so much confinement is fugitive life on a vast scale.
In Blake (1859-1862), a militant novel of slave rebellion, Martin Delany, Jr. described the conditions of the fugitive this way: “The transit of the runaway through this state was exceedingly difficult, as no fabrication of which he was capable could save him from the penalties of arrest. To assume freedom would be at once to consign himself to endless bondage, and to acknowledge himself a slave was at once to advertise for a master. His only course of safety was to sleep through the day and travel by night, always keeping to the woods.”
As Blake goes along, he discovers that living under the constant surveillance of armed, white men has taught black communities how to develop secret networks of communication, strategies of mutual protection and consolation, and even, among a few, the will to insurrection. Blake was talking about South Carolina, but it’s happening in Missouri, too. “It’s not just Ferguson,” we want to say, and that’s true, in a way–police militarization and brutality are everywhere in the United States—but only in Ferguson, just now, is the resistance so fierce, committed, and sustained.
Henry Highland Garnet, Address to the Slaves of the United States
For Frederick Douglass, mobility means freedom. In his classic 1845 slave narrative, he charts parallel movement from South to North, from childhood to adulthood, from abject slavery to self-reliance. Henry Highland Garnet’s radical 1843 Address to the Slaves of the United States—deeply influenced by David Walker’s Appeal is remarkable for its rejection of the lure of mobility. Walker establishes himself as an authority through a travelogue. His very first words in the Appeal tell us that he has “travelled over a considerable portion of these United States, and [he has] taken the most accurate observations of things as they exist” (11). And his travels are not restricted to the boundaries of the present United States, but move across vast swaths of centuries. “[T]he Israelites in Egypt, the Helots in Sparta, and of the Roman Slaves, which last, were made up from almost every nation under heaven” are also part of his comparative framework (11). Walker’s geographical vision offers a terrifying form of homogeneity. Moving doesn’t matter. Although the landscape of black experience should be vastly different depending on where one stands in the U.S., the result of Walker’s wide survey establishes only one truth: American slavery is beyond comparison. Neither geography nor history can place the plight of “the colored people of the United States,” Walker insists. The suffering defies the logic of time and space—it ranges from when the “world began” and need the expanse of timelessness, “until time shall be no more,” to capture its horrors. As we look at images that are indistinguishable from Civil Rights clashes, which in turn echo the horrors slavery imposed upon black bodies, Walker’s timeless, trackless landscape emerges as a tragically apt portrait.
Henry Highland Garnet would append his own call for rebellion to Walker’s appeal in an 1848 book containing both speeches and a brief sketch of Walker’s life. Garnet ends his portrait Walker’s life with the decision not to move: “Walker said he had nothing to fear from such a pack of coward blood-hounds. Said he, “I will stand my ground. Somebody must die in this cause. . . I may be doomed to the stake and the fire, or to the scaffold tree, but it is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation.” Walker did not leave the country, Henry Highland Garnet tells us, “but was soon laid in the grave.” In the wake of Mike Brown, who like Trayvon Martin, was executed for the crime of walking down the street, Garnet’s call—both in his own address, and in his recounting of David Walker’s life, to stand one’s ground is still a revolutionary one. It reminds us of how central the questions of land—of geography—of simply occupying space have always been, and how long these rights have been denied. Paul Gilroy was surely right to point us to the significance and creativity that travel along the routes of the black Atlantic enabled, but Garnet’s casting of Walker’s death reminds us of another element in nineteenth century dreams of freedom–the powerful desire to stand still—to not have to move, and to have ground that counts as your own to stand on.
—Anna Mae Duane
Ida B. Wells, “The Negro’s Case in Equity
I’m sure Ida B. Wells is a rather obvious choice of a writer who might help us to understand Ferguson, but Wells and her work against lynching come most readily to my mind. Her well-known Southern Horrors is more often cited, but a short essay, “The Negro’s Case in Equity,” from The Independent, published April 26, 1900 speaks to something that disturbs me more about the aftermath of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson: the problem of apathy. At the end of her brief article, she writes, “In the present apathetic condition of public sentiment, North and South, this is what the negro gets who attempts to ‘defend the law and his rights.’ Not until the white editors, preachers and teachers of the country join with him in his fight for justice and protection by law can there be any hope of success.” It is a privilege not to have to care about Michael Brown or the people of Ferguson or all the other black men and women and boys and girls who have been murdered in overtly racist attacks during an era that claims to be “post-racial.” Most of my friends, colleagues, and family have been following the recent events of Ferguson, sharing their outrage on social media, searching for concrete ways to contribute to antiracist causes, and worrying what this pattern of violence means for their own families’ safety. But on the news, on social media sites, and in the comments sections I see glimpses of an appalling apathy about black lives. There are various voices who presently take up this role of Wells’ by pointing out that apathy, identifying it as privilege, and trying to counter it with the imperative to work for change.
Mattie Jackson, The Story of Mattie J. Jackson
Lucy Delaney, From the Darkness Cometh the Light
The two texts that come to mind when thinking about the literary history of racial strife in Ferguson, MO are Mattie Jackson’s The Story of Mattie J. Jackson (1866) and Lucy Delaney’s From the Darkness Cometh the Light or Struggles for Freedom (1891), both published in and about African American women’s struggle for civic visibility in Missouri. Both in the terrible shooting death of Michael Brown and in the protests that have followed, the question of who is seen as a person worthy of care and concern and who is considered a threat to the same is at the forefront. Although the battle in Ferguson is being played out through new media technologies–with a high premium placed on pictures and video of the scene in Ferguson, documentation of spent teargas canisters, and eyewitness testimony–the complicated role of visual documentation recalls these earlier texts in which two enslaved African American used the institutions and racist assumptions of the state against the state to gain their rights. Written at the close of the Civil War, in her narrative Mattie Jackson relates her experience of applying to the Union troops for aid when they establish themselves in her neighborhood at a nearby arsenal during the war. After years of abuse from her master, Jackson sees the presence of the Union troops as potential salvation and makes her way to the Union enclave for aid on two separate occasions. On the first, she and a fellow servant are turned away from the arsenal gates without being acknowledged. A few weeks later, after suffering a brutal beating at the hands of her master, Jackson makes a second attempt. She is immediately admitted into the arsenal and granted temporary protection. Acutely aware of the effect the sight of her injured body has on both Southern and Northern white onlookers, Jackson first refuses to change her clothes when her master demand that she do so (shifting the shame of abuse from the locus of her body to that of his offended gaze); then she deliberately wears her stained, bloodied clothing to obtain help from the Union soldiers.
Jackson’s actions reveal her awareness of the requirement that she provide visual evidence of her abuse for her request for aid to be taken seriously; moreover, she manipulates the requirement that she put her injured body on display such that she gets the help she needs and exposes the limits of Northern sympathy in both soldiers and readers. Perhaps less dependent on visual evidence, Lucy Delaney’s narrative nevertheless demonstrates what was necessary to be seen as a citizen in the eyes of the state. Her narrative recounts her mother Polly Berry’s legal suit for her and her daughter’s freedom, which depended on proving that she had been born free in Illinois, kidnapped into slavery, and, thus, that both she AND Lucy were free. Because the law dictated that the child’s status followed that of the mother– a way of ensuring the law that any children resulting from the master’s sexual exploitation of black women would remain outside the protected patrilineal family structure– proving Lucy’s status as free depended on proving her mother’s rightful status as free. Like all cases of African Americans kidnapped into slavery, the fact of Polly’s kidnapping in the first place reveals that she was seen– at least by the kidnappers– as someone interchangeable with a slave. The legal suit insists on establishing Polly and Lucy’s civic visibility against the view of the kidnappers, who fail to see Polly’s citizenship because of their racist view of dark skin as equivalent to enslavement.
Donald Winnicott, “Delinquency as a Sign of Hope”
A 1967 essay by the British child psychologist Donald Winnicott, “Delinquency as a Sign of Hope,” proposes that bad or anti-social behavior betrays an underlying optimism. Winnicott’s idea is that a child may be deprived of some of the things it needs to flourish, it may suffer from withdrawals or failures of communication, but by expressing itself in a “delinquent” way, the child nonetheless must imagine that its world (its family, its school, its playground) is a safe enough place that the expression of its frustrations will in some way be heard. Delinquents have hope; they can be helped. On the other hand, complacent children–those who do what they’re told, who never act up, who don’t scream and cry and rage–they have no hope; for now, they are beyond repair.
Here as always, Winnicott’s imperative to other care-givers is to listen. He reminds us that so-called “bad” behaviors are not the work of bad people; they’re the work of good enough people put under terrible pressures. Those of us living with less or different pressures need to be able to hear the optimism that beats beneath the cries of protest, like the sound of the ocean crashing in a sea shell, if only we pull it close enough to our ear.
People who protest are full of anger. That anger is an achievement. It means that all is not lost, that no matter how racist and venal and fucked up our circumstances are, people want them to be better. Listen to that.
—Jordan Alexander Stein
Herman Melville, “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century”
Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.
* * *
Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.
The final couplet of Melville’s poem “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century” has been with me as I’ve followed the news from Ferguson. The “poisoned well,” the history, present, and futurity of US racial violence; the “Good Man’s” efforts, a refusal to dismantle those structural conditions. Not everything fits the case in this poem–I am not sure how indolence and energy have earned their positions, unless we think of indolence as the proper response of officers of the peace–but the “ancient brutal claim” is made again and again. The gnostic refusal of matter cannot transcend the brutality that attends the building and maintenance of states.
Charles Dickens’s American Notes
When Charles Dickens’s American Notes appeared in 1842, it infuriated American reviewers, who resented not only being depicted as Britain’s backward cousins but also, and particularly, Dickens’s climactic chapter excoriating American slavery and enumerating the acts of violence that both constituted it and radiated from it.
But the moment in American Notes that haunts me today is a different one. During the 1842 tour of the US that would give rise to the book, Dickens took an excursion through “loathsome, drooping, and decayed” Five Points, New York’s most notorious slum. The celebrated author understandably took precautions: “But it is needful, first, that we take as our escort these two heads of the police.” They take him through decrepit streets and straight into a stifling, overcrowded tenement:
Ascend these pitch-dark stairs, heedful of a false footing on the trembling boards, and grope your way with me into this wolfish den, where neither ray of light nor breath of air, appears to come. A negro lad, startled from his sleep by the officer’s voice—he knows it well—but comforted by his assurance that he has not come on business, officiously bestirs himself to light a candle. The match flickers for a moment, and shows great mounds of dusty rags upon the ground; then dies away and leaves a denser darkness than before, if there can be degrees in such extremes. He stumbles down the stairs and presently comes back, shading a flaring taper with his hand. Then the mounds of rags are seen to be astir, and rise slowly up, and the floor is covered with heaps of negro women, waking from their sleep: their white teeth chattering, and their bright eyes glistening and winking on all sides with surprise and fear, like the countless repetition of one astonished African face in some strange mirror.
Much could be said about this moment, with its play of blackness and light, its sudden animation of rag heaps into human beings and equally sudden transformation of those human beings into an optical illusion, a mass of spare parts from a ghastly minstrel show. And particularly visible, in this moment, the “negro lad” who knows the officer’s voice and knows just as well that the cop “has not come on business”—a boy who knows the routine and is chalked up—preciously, here—as a criminal. But Dickens quickly passes along, with a knowing admonition that “there are traps and pitfalls here, for those who are not so well escorted as ourselves.” His hurry is understandable: he is about to witness a stunning dance routine by Master Juba, the African American dancer who, with the help of Dickens’s account, would become an internationally renowned performer. And then, at the end of his tour of Five Points, he will stop by the notorious prison known as the Tombs (you might remember it from Melville’s “Bartleby”), to which he reacts with outrage: “What! do you thrust your common offenders against the police discipline of the town, into such holes as these?”
Of course, if the abuse of “police discipline” engenders Dickens’s righteous anger, police discipline also structures Dickens’s descent into Five Points poverty—and in particular black poverty—in the first place. It’s police discipline that smooths the celebrity’s path through a violent neighborhood, police discipline that opens rooms filled with sleeping women to Dickens’s curious sight, police discipline that induces a boy to illuminate the scene and terrify the sleepers, police discipline that frames the sublime optics of kaleidoscopically multiplied black faces, unrecognizable as individuals. It’s the violence that stays off the page that enables the charming (if occasionally disturbing) vignettes on it. I’m left uneasy in the company of the nineteenth century’s most famous well-meaning white guy, who notices the cops escorting him for a few fleeting moments and then forgets them—and the way they enable not only his perspective but also his necessary, if self-satisfied, indignation. Dickens saw American Notes through enough reprints to see American slavery abolished and find himself in a comfortable seat on the right side of history. I’m not at all sure that things turned out so well for those women on the floor—or for the boy with the candle.
Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition
According to an August 18 Pew poll, “by about four-to-one (80% to 18%), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion, but “whites, by 47% to 37%, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.” As I read this poll, I keep thinking of Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 The Marrow of Tradition, a fictionalized account of the installation of a white supremacist government. The novel’s main plot doesn’t parallel the story of Ferguson, but Chesnutt’s novel contains a systematic analysis of how public opinion and the public sphere itself are thoroughly racialized.
Marrow spends much time in the minds and meeting rooms of the white supremacist conspirators, allowing us to see their plans for manipulating white public opinion to the point that nearly every white citizen is willing to tolerate or even participate in a pogrom of the city’s black citizens, especially its leaders and its most critical voices. They do so by printing newspaper stories about the town’s African American citizens asserting their personhood by “talking back” to white authority figures, looking unashamedly at white women, and refusing to step off the sidewalk in deference to whites. In the logic of the plotters, the town’s blacks must die for these transgressions, just as Michael Brown died because he would not leave the middle of the road when ordered. To provoke the white “riot” that is the climax of the novel, the white newspaper editor republishes out of context a satiric essay about black male desire. As sensationalized and decontextualized as the photo of Michael Brown flashing a peace sign or a video of him leaving a shop with some cigarillos, Chesnutt shows how this editorial imprinted in white readers’ minds an indelible image—it seems too weak to call it a stereotype—that made the black man always already guilty, always already deserving of death.
Chesnutt’s novel brilliantly delineates how such mediatized images can form a racialized public opinion, just the kind of public opinion that is evident in the Pew polls. The Marrow of Tradition was positively reviewed by the most influential literary figure of the day, William Dean Howells, but Howells also remarked that it would be better if it were not “so bitter.” It is hard to imagine a novel about Ferguson that would not be at least as hard to swallow.
William Wells Brown, Clotel
Long considered the first African American novel, this text offers an encyclopedic, and often disjointed, account of how slavery and racism dehumanizes, isolates, abuses, and murders African Americans. Less coherent narratologically than, say, Chesnutt’s seamless and beautiful _Marrow of Tradition_, this novel’s form captures the horrific inconsistencies of slavery. It is full of loose ends, asides, incomplete stories, characters suddenly introduced and discarded (often literally discarded by whites), newspaper accounts, ideologically-skewed medical and legal discourses, and more. The novel is messy and unwieldy in exactly the way the social insanities of slavery and the national institutions built on slavery were messy and unwieldy: the book, like the South and the nation, is full of people lost to justice, lost to society, lost to themselves, lost to the traditional life-narrative of birth-adulthood-old age-death, and lost to time itself.
But Brown’s kaleidoscopic novel meditates, too, on what slavery does to whites. It’s message is clear: If whites want to escape the spiritual and physical consequences wrought by the violence they inflict, directly and indirectly, on all those they classify as “black,” those same whites must take an active role in stopping the violence. If we translate this to Ferguson, this part of Brown’s speaks to the white Missouri police. And at Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder, who angrily claimed that blacks need to obey without question what he blindly called the “Anglo-American” tradition of “jurisprudence” in this country. Basically, Kinder was admitting out loud that the institutions of America are indeed racist, though he was clearly so invested in that white ideology that he couldn’t see that others do not see “Anglo-American” justice as any kind justice at all.
Brown’s novel is about the tragic victims of slavery (Michael Brown, Jr.), about the murderous racism of white America (Kinder, the Ferguson and Missouri police forces, and their white supporters across the nation), and about the chaotic social and literary disorder and fragmentation that white violence generates (the myriad random assaults and arrests, the cat-and-mouse pursuits of the police and protestors through the streets of Ferguson, the fragmentary newsfeed of Twitter and other on-the-ground social media). It is also about black protest, black dignity, and black power—the Ferguson protestors. But just as importantly, the novel is about those whites who have the power to end the deadly madness of racist violence in America and actually try to do it. So far, I don’t see anyone fitting that description coming forward in Missouri.
Frederick Douglass, “The Claims of the Negro Ethnographically Considered”
His everyday life. Our everyday life. Ferguson has made visible many things that only the most privileged have been able not to see. Weirdly, I think there’s something beautiful (rather than blasphemous) about Ferguson keeping company with all the other jabber on social media. This is everyday life: weddings, babies, commuting, lunch, riotous upwelling of anger, faith, and calls for justice. Let’s keep that in the stream, every.day.
James Baldwin, Baldwin’s Nigger
“What happened in Detroit is perfectly logical and the lesson is plain. What happens says, ‘If I can’t live in this city, you can’t live in this city either.’ When a city goes under martial law, everyone in the city is under martial law. But we all know who’s in the streets of America. We know to whom you are referring to when you talk about crime in the streets. Only one person’s in the streets, and that’s me. And they’re plotting to shoot me, in the name of ‘freedom’—and I’m supposed to agree. No, no, no sir. I won’t be a part of this no more. Alas, the party is over.”
The reason black people across this country get fired up about white on black murders in a way that they don’t about black on black murders is because there is an understanding of how justice works in this country between black and white people. If I decide to kill a kid in my neighborhood, I’m going in with the understanding that me pulling the trigger is a sanction on my own death. The moment I decide to kill someone is the moment I decide to be murdered because I understand that this kid has a brother, or a cousin, or an uncle who wants to equalize what has just happened. We’re equal in this way. We’re equal in the sense that we have access to the same resources to bring about justice in the ways we want—whether we want to take matters into our own hands or whether we decide to involve the police. What often happens in the perception of black on black killings is that the person deserved it. And this sentiment is often endorsed by the people who are supposed to protect us—the police. The manner in which black on black crime is handled by police says that “whatever happened, it was deserved.” The people in these communities feel that sentiment, so they go out and solve their own cases. As convoluted as this is, there is an agency. There is a peace that you come to when you know that whatever is done to you, you have the capacity to strike back with equal force. One of the reasons why many of the cases involving black on black murders go unsolved is because they’ve been solved by the people who these murders matter to.
When people talk about black on black murders in relation to white on black murders, it’s a buffer argument. It’s a way to debilitate the fact that even in death, we’re not equal. It suggests that black people die at the hands of black people in the same ways that black people die at the hands of white people, which is simply not true. Blacks actively practice more restraint when blacks are killed at the hands of white people because we realize that white deaths mean more to this country than the black ones. Darren Wilson being killed wouldn’t be justice for Mike Brown because Darren Wilson would die the victim (where that’s not his role in this—Michael Brown is the victim) and I think that’s the only reason Darren Wilson is alive. Baldwin understood the complexities: even in protest, blacks must navigate the possibility that power is eliciting their rage to certain ends.