Photo by Kent Atwell
Photo by Kent Atwell
As we wait for the verdict in the Zimmerman case to be announced, I find myself hefting the weight of that word “wait” once again. It has such a long and heavy history in the lives and thoughts of black Americans. It keeps coming back like a bad spirit or a zombie. Wait. Wait. Wait. Will it ever go away?
The most famous words about waiting are Dr. King’s. Familiar as they are, they’re worth remembering today:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; … when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has been advertised on television, and see tears welling in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing unconscious bitterness toward white people; ….when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued by inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
Reading these words again today, waiting for a verdict that is sure to disappoint, can anyone not see the ghost of Trayvon Martin walking through them? Trayvon as a six-year-old boy being schooled about white folks by his parents? Trayvon as a teenager feeling clouds of bitter understanding – W.T.F?!? — forming in his mind? Trayvon in his last moments on the night of February 26, 2012, living as always at tiptoe and never knowing quite what to expect next: like, who is this creepy-ass cracker following me?
Once again we see the old claim of acting in self-defense put forward with the bland “innocence” that so enraged James Baldwin – whites’ denial of the fact that white racism has created the spectral, hooded blackness against which Zimmerman felt he had to “defend” himself.
Until the word “intent” recognizes that white racism shapes whites’ actions and attitudes in ways they are not conscious of – but are nonetheless accountable for – black Americans will go on waiting for justice. Until the word “malice” is understood to include racist fear among its meanings, many black Americans will go through life at tiptoe, fearful because they are feared. Until racism itself can be put on trial, we will all go on waiting — waiting for the verdict that finally puts an end to our waiting.
July 5: the day Frederick Douglass gave his famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
To commemorate that day, I turn to the voices of
john a powell:
“For it is not the light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, it is thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” – Frederick Douglass, 5 July, 1852
I’m not an Obama basher (quite the contrary), but for me one of the greatest disappointments of his presidency is that he has failed to mobilize or even encourage the anger many Americans to the left of the Tea Party are feeling today. In fact, as a number of observers have pointed out, Obama with his message of “hope” and “change” has served as a safety valve that vents our anger, not as a catalyst that sparks it.
I understand the bind Obama is in as a black president. I know he has to keep his cool. But a cool leader can energize a hot crowd, and Obama has done very little to reach out to his supporters and get us riled up.
Watching the angry people of Egypt this week, I’m reminded of these words of Malcolm X’s:
“When [the people] get angry, they bring about change. When they get angry, they aren’t interested in logic, they aren’t interested in odds, they aren’t interested in consequences. When they get angry, they realize the condition they’re in – that their suffering is unjust, immoral, and illegal, and that anything they do to correct it or eliminate is … justified. When you and I develop that type of anger and speak in that voice, then we’ll get some kind of respect and recognition, and some changes from these people who have been promising us falsely for too long.”
Two of the points Malcolm makes here are subtle. One is that anger itself can cause people to “realize the condition they’re in.” Ordinarily, we’d suppose the opposite – that people first realize their condition and only afterwards get angry about it. But Malcolm says that in fact anger is the prompt: anger wakes people up, anger gives them the energy to start analyzing their situation, anger produces thought that otherwise might not arise.
Malcolm’s second subtle point is that “respect and recognition” are just as important as things like health care, education, jobs, decent pay, and so on and so forth. What he’s pointing to here is the enormous importance of dignity. Here in the US we talk a lot about freedom and equality, but shouldn’t we be talking just as much about dignity? Do freedom and equality really have much importance to a person whose dignity is constantly denied or insulted?
Putting these points together, we see that the anger Malcolm refers to is really a specific kind of anger: it’s indignation, the indignation that arises when our dignity has been denied or threatened. Notice that the two words share a common root – that the word “dignity” is folded into “indignation.”
(In The Time Is Always Now, I discuss at some length the way black American writers and activists have thought about indignation and the importance of dignity.)
Stephane Hessel’s manifesto, Indignez-vous, is a call to all of us to get angry in this specific sense: get indignant because some people are stepping all over your dignity. You know who I mean, don’t you?