Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How We Think About The Dead

The New York Times described Michael Brown as “no angel.” An unfortunate choice of words on the day of his funeral. Especially if you consider (as Vox does here) the carefully worded descriptions they had published about some well-known mass killers. Timothy McVeigh, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, the Columbine shooter, and others were described as "just like you and me." Was Michael Brown unlike you and me?

There is a very subtle mechanism we all insert into our judgments, to rationalize what has happened, to explain why it happened, to excuse it, to justify it. In the case of the white murderers it was a “who could have known?” rationalization. In the case of the young black man wrongly killed a week away from freshman year in college it is a reassurance that “Hell, he wasn’t really innocent at all.” A mechanism to help us not feel so bad about it, or at least not guilty ourselves.

Vox's Matthew Yglesias turns this on its head and asks the necessary question: what might happen to any of us in our own youthful brushes with the law if we were the color of Michael Brown?

We have a long and persistent habit of racism in this country. As William Faulkner said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In his poem Let America Be America Again, Langston Hughes describes how different our inheritance of liberty and freedom and opportunity is depending on our skin color. It resonates especially loudly this month in Ferguson, Missouri.


Langston Hughes, 1902 - 1967

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

American newspaper archives are full of photographs from the last century and before of happy laughing crowds of white people gathered around the tortured, burned, disfigured, hung corpses of black men. The atmosphere is that of a town picnic. Who are those people? They are our ancestors. How should they be described in the New York Times? We know how the men they murdered were described.

A bit of history. A lynching in Omaha in 1919. Our ancestors were there and took part. We can't rationalize that away.

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