Black Boys and Black Men Are Human.
Black men are not animals. I do not own a copyright to the following video, I do not include it to make money from the video, but I am sharing it as part of a class that I teach.
I am about to say something radical in content, implication, and application: Black boys and men are human beings. Yes, I mean that punctuation mark. Black men are human beings. Period. That means a certain percentage of them are geniuses, a certain percentage are pretty lousy, a certain percentage are feminists, a certain percentage are misogynists, a certain percentage are Christians, a certain percentage are Muslims, a certain percentage are atheists, a certain percentage are star athletes, a certain percentage are couch potatoes, a certain percentage are gay, a certain percentage are homophobic, a certain percentage love children, a certain percentage never want any children, a certain percentage are drug addicts or alcoholics, a certain percentage are child molesters and domestic abusers, a certain percentage are military members who are proud to protect and fight for their country, a certain percentage are lazy, a certain percentage never stop working, a certain percentage are rural, a certain percentage are urban, a certain percentage are criminals, a certain percentage are blue collar, a certain percentage are white collar, a certain percentage are college graduates, a certain percentage are high school dropouts, a certain percentage are healthy, a certain percentage are always patients. But you know what all of these “percentages” are? Humans. They are humans like any other population in America.
Watching the police video of a police officer, who is sworn to “serve and protect,” put his knee on the throat of George Floyd as he pleaded to breath caused me nausea. A similar incident occurred in New York,when a Black man, Eric Garner, was put in a choke hold by a policeman. He begged for air until he could no longer breathe. These men died at the hands of the law.
What struck me as particularly heinous was the way the police handled these men. We know the reason: they were Black men, so they are always-already criminalized. But here’s a thought: if these policemen had choked a dog the way they choked these Black men, would the public outcry be greater? Yes. If these were dogs in training, the public outcry would have been deafening. But, in the United States of America, a supposedly meritocratic society, coram deo, in broad daylight, these Black men were murdered. They received less mercy than a stray dog at an animal shelter would receive. And I could list the number of innocent Black men who were murdered by the police in the past five years. I could list the names, the ages, and the geographical locations. The geographical locations are important, because Black people have a way of demonizing Mississippi to the point of racial distraction. But as the wife of a Black man, the mother to a Black son, the sister of Black brothers, the daughter of a Black Vietnam veteran, and the grand-daughter of a proud Black World War II veteran, I just cannot right now.
In order to understand, why cops, with body cameras and ubiquitous cell phone use, continue to kill innocent Black boys and men, we must go back to the invention of capitalism. Before capitalism, the economies of the West were feudal. Land and wealth were passed down from generation-to-generation, and one’s only hope of securing upward economic advancement was to marry well.
Then came the invention of capitalism. Capitalism carved a middle class for Europe. Here’s the thing about early capitalism: it was mercantile capitalism. In simple terms, it was more like a machine. In order to operate, machines need cogs. Well, enter Black men. Science, religion, philosophy, and economics converged to support a capitalist system that needed massive cheap labor in order to install and sustain it. When the indigenous populations were almost obliterated and indentured servitude became too expensive for those in the wealthy classes to pay for it, African men were suggested by members of the clergy.
In order to justify using human beings as chattel slavery, Black men were not only dehumanized, but objectified. They were turned into the cogs that made the machine of capitalism “go.” Black male slaves were sold at premium prices, because their labor was valued. Harvesting the first cash crop in the new world, sugar cane, was physically demanding, back-breaking labor. Later, it would philosophers and theologians who would beastialize and animalize Black men. Scientific racist would legitimize the rampant racism that came to characterize New World slavery.
The results of legitimized racism were widespread and immediate. In a world that was configured as a Great Chain and everything in that world having a place, the Black man was placed closest to animals. Sometimes, he was the missing link. Black people were at once object and animal: exotic enough to construct “zoos.”
The use of “human zoos” was not relegated to the United States. Sometimes, our European counterparts are far too comfortable assigning racism to the United States or Britain only. We should all be reminded of Sarah Baartman, Hottentot Venus, and what the French did to her body. Furthermore, human zoos populated Europe as well. The zoos’ holdings were not limited to men, but often included women and children. Here is a photo of a little girl in a Belgian “zoo.”
During slavery, Black men specifically and Black people in general were animalized. Post-slavery, a new stereotype of Black men developed: that of the Black rapist/criminal beast. With new technology, this stereotype was taken up and amplified.
While D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is celebrated and still being taught in America’s universities for its cinematographic breakthrough, the content of it was cliched and trite. It’s aim was destructive, and the subject matter betrayed the underlying anxieties of white men concerning their own masculinities. It reunites the North and the South after the Civil War through the violent suppression of perceived Black male criminality, thirst for political power, and insatiable craving for white women sexually. This film turned the ballot into a phallic symbol, the white woman’s body into an object of cultural/moral purity worth dying for, and the Ku Klux Klan into a band of heroes. It is a soothing, cinematic comfort blanket for white men who were facing honest economic competition and political challenges for the first time in America’s history.
I, too, teach Birth of a Nation, but as part of a Black masculinity in literature course. It is not for its cinematic breakthrough, but for the actual content that I have my students watch and comment. Animalizing Black men and killing the Black male body became normalized in American/Western thought.
Legally, the dehumanization of Black people were encoded in American law. Let us not ever forget that Black people were counted as 3/5 human. And if we’re looking to explain the criminal element in African Americans, understand that criminals are not stupid. They know that while Black life and Black property matter to individuals and family/community members, in the court of law, they get less time (sometimes, no time) for theft of Black property and life than they would for white property and life. Black property/life are undervalued or not valued at all in our legal system; and therefore, they do not expect to do the crime for the time.
The rhetoric of Black animalism is so prevalent, that it has been used by governmental and academic entities to describe the plight of Black men. Black men are “endangered species” was first used in the 1980s by the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This phrasing was quickly taken up by Black academics in books and publications like the one below.
This rhetoric is so prevalent that I recently almost lost a friend behind it. Having heard this as a public school student, I have ALWAYS HATED this language. Black men are not an “endangered species,” because they are not animals. My friend, who is older than myself by about 19 years, was fire-hot mad at me for saying that Black men simply are not an endangered species. Before I could explain my thinking, he exploded in anger, unleashing a long diatribe about how, as a woman, I could not possibly endure or understand what a Black man goes through on a daily basis. When he calmed down I simply stated, “Black men are not ‘endangered species,’ because you’re not ******* animals in the first place. If you’re not an animal, how can you be put on the endangered species list?” He was silent. Though a highly-educated, rational man, he had never thought of that. He had simply accepted the dominant culture’s view of a Black man as an animal. Even when this type of rhetoric is well-meaning, it is still dehumanizing.
As the world transitioned from mercantile capitalism to what we now have, Black men were treated first as obsolete parts of a broken down machine. What to do with them? Well, racism has a convenient answer for all things, and this post is already long enough. The police, who do not have unsullied histories of the racists in their ranks, are a reflection of those interests they truly get paid to protect. Are those interests mine? Are they yours? Whose interests are they? Really? Who is being served and protected when an innocent Black man is choked out on the streets of America?
This comes from my personal diary, my professor’s diary, my class notes, and research. If you like it, clap back (press the hands).