As a child growing up I can remember numerous conversations where two Black adults might be bickering and one might insist that the other had to do something or other. The response to this mandate was often, “I don’t have to do nothin’ but be black and die.”
The response was meant to underscore two immutable conditions — our race and our mortality —as the only certainties in this life. However, today the phrase “stay black and die” has a very different meaning for me. Today, I think of being black guaranteeing one’s death … often a premature death!
It is impossible to ignore the growing focus of anti-black responses throughout the nation. We have gone from “driving while black” to “riding while black” (on the Napa Wine Train) to “smoking (in your own car) while black” (Sandra Bland), to “being broke down on the road while black” (Corey Jones), to “using a cell phone while black” or “being a surly, disrespectful teenager while black” (Richland County, South Carolina) to what I would now describe as “just being black” as cause for violent responses that can and do lead to death! This latest incident (i.e., video of girl being thrown across the room by the school resource officer) has sent me over the edge, around the bend, and into apoplexy. I can’t remember the last time I was this upset and angry about something/someone I don’t even know. I am frustrated by the incident. I am upset about the reporting. And, I am angry at the black people who insist that this child did something that made the response of this officer justified.
Earlier in the week I had the pleasure of attending an overflowing lecture by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. I have loved reading of Stevenson’s work at the Equal Justice Initiative and was eager to hear what he had to say. One of the main lecture takeaways for me was Stevenson’s statements that “we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” and “a child is always a child no matter what s/he has done!”
Nothing that child in Richland County, South Carolina, did was deserving of the treatment she received. NOTHING! I am a mother, a grandmother, and an aunt. I have seen the range of crazy teenaged girl responses. I have been as pissed off at them as any adult can be. I have witnessed my share of stupid decisions, smart mouth-back talk, lying, stealing, cheating, and disrespect and STILL, none of that justifies the level of violence aimed at that CHILD! She was not a danger to herself or others. She may have been disrespectful, even profane, but had her own mother done what that officer did, SHE would be the one sitting in jail today.
I am also deeply troubled by the seeming response (or lack thereof) of the other people in the video. I know … I know we don’t have the entire context. I didn’t have the entire context when I learned Baltimore’s Freddie Gray died being transported in a police van. I just know he went in the van alive and came out dead! What is the responsibility of a teacher to manage a classroom and get students to comply? Why did this degenerate into a power struggle that required the adults to win? Where was the threat?
The additional trauma that has made me weary of this incident is the apparent numbness exhibited by other students in the class during the video segment. The students bow their heads, avert their eyes, and for the most part remain silent (it was later revealed that one student did speak up and she was arrested for doing so). The students’ responses reminded me of the scene in the film, “Twelve Years a Slave” when all of the other enslaved African Americans refuse to render aid, look at, or even acknowledge Solomon Northrup who is hanging at the end of a noose and “dancing” on the tips of his toes to avoid death by asphyxiation! The self-hatred and erasure is palpable. Our humanity is literally being sucked out of us. And then people wonder why we kill each other?
I can hardly describe how mortified I am by some of the reporting and responses by black people who claim, “she just should have complied.” Complicity got us off the shores of Africa and on to slave ships. Complicity got us telling slave masters about those plotting escape and insurrection. Complicity got us agreeing to buy from stores that would not hire us. Complicity has us living in substandard housing and accepting horrendous schooling. I am sick of black people who perpetuate this “blame to victim” discourse. Our tax dollars pay for police services just like everyone else. We should not be their victims just because we are black. And we should not sit silently by while this continues.
This incident should move us past “hash-tag activism.” So, before you say, “Well, what can I do? I am providing the contact information for the superintendent of schools, principal and the school board members of Richland County, SC. Let these people know that we will not participate in our own destruction. We will not just “be black and die!”
Spring Valley High School phone number: 1-803-699-3500
E-mail addresses for Richland School District 2 in South Carolina:
Board members: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com