The killing hasn’t stopped. Tyre King, a 13 year old boy, was shot by police in Columbus Ohio on Wednesday, September 24th. Police allege that upon chasing Tyree and one other male after responding to a call about a group of people demanding money, including one armed with a gun, he pulled out a gun and one officer shot him multiple times. The gun that police allege Tyree pulled was a BB gun. Two years ago, on November 22, 2014, right before Thanksgiving, Tamir Rice, a 12 year old Black boy, was killed by police after someone called the police about a “man” with a gun in the park. Although the caller said the gun was probably fake, literally seconds after pulling up to the park, Timothy Loehman shot Tamir. He was holding a BB gun. As I was writing this piece, three more videos of police killings of Black people have surfaced. The men who lost their lives are Terrence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, and Alfred Olango.
Police violence against Black people is just one type of state sanctioned violence that claims untold numbers of Black lives every year. If our lives aren’t being taken by police or vigilantes, local government officials are making decisions that result in the lead poisoning of water and soil. The people of Flint, Michigan, and recently East Chicago, Indiana, are suffering from the impacts of lead poisoning, including long-term health problems, housing instability, and psychological trauma. With over 500 homicides so far this year, the people of Chicago are continuing to deal with violence: not only community violence, but also the violence of poverty, closed schools, and lack of access to mental health care.
As the world has seen, Black people are not, and have never, just taken the blows that come our way. The Movement for Black Lives, or Black Lives Matter movement, was ignited by the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and it continues to evolve and sustain itself by utilizing a variety of strategies to demand some form of justice for victims of state violence, including direct actions, protests, and policy and advocacy. In August of this year, a coalition of organizations named The Movement for Black Lives, released a radical, comprehensive, and transformational platform demanding an end to the criminalization of Black people, reparations, investment in Black communities and economic justice, community control of institutions in Black communities, and political power, along with specific actions that must be taken at the city, state, and federal level to make these demands a reality.
There have always been artists and writers who have used their gifts to expose injustice, challenge our complicity and complacency, and move us forward to radical change. In a 2013 talk hosted by The Opportunity Agenda in 2013, artist Favianna Rodriguez stated that “Art is where we can change the narrative, because it’s where people can imagine what change looks and feels like.” From Langston Hughes, to James Baldwin, to Audre Lorde and Nikki Giovanni, our legacy of wordsmiths has done exactly what Favianna stated, change the narrative and help us imagine what change can look like. Four books released this year continue in the truth-telling tradition of the writers mentioned above. These books provide invaluable information, necessary historical context, and important personal narratives that illuminate many of the issues addressed by the Movement for Black Lives platform and the work of local, grassroots organizations across the country. If you are someone who is struggling to understand the meaning of the direct actions and protests you encounter in your city, or the connections between various issues our just want to understand the root causes, then these books are for you.
Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond by Marc Lamont HIll
Marc Lamont Hill’s new book explains in a straightforward style, the historical context of tracial violence in America, including police violence, mass incarceration, and lead-poisoned water. He discusses the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland in the context of the segregation, white flight, and economic plunder of Black St. Louis communities, the negative impacts of broken windows policing and stop and frisk in New York City, and the patriarchal norms and racial stereotypes of Black women that increase their vulnerability to state violence. The nobodies that Hill names in his book are the groups of people that we as a society have considered disposable, inhuman, and exploitable: the unemployed who have lost jobs, working class communities without clean water, people experiencing homelessness, those who are incarcerated, among many other groups. By the end of the journey through the history of segregation, privatization of public goods, and policing and prisons, we are left with a profound sense of hope and even excitement about the possibility of transformational change in our society because of the hard work of grassroots organizations who utilize a combination of traditional organizing strategies and social media engagement to educate, raise awareness, and inspire action.
Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education by Mychal Denzel Smith
Mychal Denzel Smith, writer for The Nation (and featured in Brooklyn Magazine’s Street Style feature back in September), details his evolution and growth as a young Black man in America against the backdrop of the post-racial promises of the election of Barack Obama and continued anti-Black state sanctioned violence. Mychal begins the book by describing George Zimmerman’s story of the night he killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Sanford, Florida—“a story as old as America itself”—illustrating how Black men’s death at the hands of white people is justified because of Black men’s inherent violence and criminality. He continues discussing Trayvon Martin and how he didn’t get to grow up, figure out who he was, make mistakes, evolve, love, hate, fail, try again, live. Any black boy in 2012 could’ve been Trayvon, just like any black boy in 1955 could’ve been Emmitt Till. Mychal’s life could’ve been violently ended by white supremacy at 17, but he wasn’t; he was able to live and tell his story, unlike the thousands who weren’t able to. Along with Trayvon Martin, Barack Obama is another main thread that runs throughout the book, and Mychal’s critical engagement with Obama’s presidency, and what it meant and hasn’t meant for Black America, is greatly appreciated.
Angels with Dirty Faces by Walidah Imarisha
Walidah Imarisha intertwines her personal history—particularly her experience with sexual violence—and the stories of her chosen brothers Kakamia and Mac, a former member of a notorious New York City Irish gang, to force us to question the nature oftrue justice, healing and accountability. As the stories of Kakamia and Mac illustrate, people who are incarcerated each have their own unique history with how society’s systems have worked or not worked within their lives. But there are also similarities between the two, even though they grew up in different eras. As Walidah states, “prisons are not about safety, but about control and containment of potentially rebellious populations.” It’s politically fashionable to lament about the number of people held in U.S. jails and prisons, feign shock at the racial disparities that exist, and even to advocate for the release of people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.As others have so eloquently stated, even if all people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses are released from jails and prisons, the U.S. will still have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Both Kakamia and Mac participated in harming other people’s lives, even ending lives—how do we hold them, and others who seriously harm our communities, accountable, outside of a punishment and retribution model that reproduces the same violence?
The Fire This Time: A New Generation of Writers on Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward
“You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.” These profound words by James Baldwin from his great work, The Fire Next Time, inspired Jesmyn Ward, writer of National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones, to gather some of the best thinkers, writers, and artists of the 21st century to write about race, Blackness, and history in this current political moment. Broken into three parts, “Legacy,” “Reckoning,” and “Jubilee,” the essays—by Wendy S. Walters, Carol Anderson, Garnette Cadogan, Claudia Rankine, and many others—reckon with ugly history and present of many facets of our country, including slavery in New England, the white rage that undergirds racist policies, racial profiling and fear of Black male bodies, and the constant mourning of Black lives lost. They weigh the impact of centuries of racism and white supremacy in America. In the last essay, Edwidge Danticat’s “Message to My Daughters,” she writes in a letter to her children: “The world is before you…and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” This book will inspire others to continue the work of freedom fighting.