To many we were animals. To some we are still animals.
I cannot walk or drive past Elizabeth Street in SoHo Manhattan without acknowledging that there might be some people in this world that hear my name and wish to God that I were suffering in the deepest abyss. I cannot traverse that neighborhood without reliving the startling sound of gunshots on that strikingly sunny Wednesday evening several months before the new millennium dawned. I remember speaking to my friend and co-defendant years later in a maximum-security prison and asking him, “Why did people die that day? Why did we go?” Was I not standing right outside of the store when gunshots blasted and ordinary folks enjoying their evening coffee and planning to watch the World Series between the Yankees and the Mets, instantaneously became a haphazard cavalry of screaming sprinters to any place that felt safer than the coffee shop? Wasn’t I standing there when those people were scurrying from that place where lives were lost and the calming ignorance of first-hand gun violence was supplanted by a new fear of wanton death? Yes, I was. Yes, he was. I imagined…still imagine that the survivors of that atrocity ask the same questions in their prayers, “Why did people die that day? Why did they [us] come here of all places?”
In the years since that tragedy, I have heard my former lawyer, some family members, and friends ask similar questions, but with a different context. Their question is usually followed by the question, “Why did you all go into a white neighborhood and do that nonsense?” I often rebut, “Would it be somehow better if we created nightmares of lasting trauma in our own ghetto of Crown Heights, Brooklyn?”
This paper is an attempt to complexify and answer that question to my friend and co-defendant. Why do we black folks, in such large numbers, commit ourselves to despicable actions of harm, often illustrated through gun violence towards other black people? This is an articulation of a systemic perspective on gun violence and the correlative intersections of trauma experienced through a historical lens of the black experience in the Americas. It is meant to contribute to the greater understanding of our current epidemic of gun violence in urban settings. Without absolving personal accountability, I conclude that gun violence in urban spaces is a result of a linear legacy of the casual brutality of black bodies and minds; not the reverse—that black people, black youth in particular, are diabolical actors of their own brutality absent of a relevant socio-historical explanation of traumatization.
This research is dedicated to the tragedy of our inability to truthfully name the why, with a hope that we can address the need to heal from a violent past that perpetuates itself in the form of unacknowledged multigenerational trauma.
I am still sorry.
“See this thing that we call “living” is as revolutionary as black gay Joseph Beam’s call for black men to love other black men, precisely because it is a command for us to counteract the very process of annihilation that structural racism and patriarchy have taught us to love and replicate. We are experts in the art of killing because we know what is like to be killed, maligned, have our spirits deadened, our bodies pillaged. We know.’” (Emphasis added)
-Darnell Moore, (Laymon, 2013, p. 75-6)
Seventeen-year old Gakirah Barnes, known on twitter as @tyquanassassin, was gunned down by a barrage of bullets in West Woodlawn, Chicago on Good Friday 2014. Also known as K I, Barnes was said to have been apart of a younger branch of the Gangster Disciples called the STL-EBT crew. Barnes was rumored to responsible for the death of rival gang members from a nearby housing project. A deeper look into Gakirah’s family situation discloses that her 13-year old relative named Tyquan Tyler was killed by a stray bullet in 2012, hence the twitter name @tyquannassassin in memory of his life. Gakirah’s twin brother saw his best friend murdered in 2011, and her father was also shot to death on Easter Sunday when she was only a year old; his burial plot lies nearby her own grave. So by the age of 17, Gakirah was had lived through the murder of two family members and at least one family friend—only 17-years old. Gakirah’s murder was just one of five gun-related murders in Chicago over the 2014 Easter weekend, and one of a total 41 shootings during the same period in the same city. Expressing a warped sense of relief, Gakirah’s mother said to a reporter, “At least I don’t have to constantly worry about what’s going to happen to her out on the street no more” (Swaine). To the mother, and apparently also to Gakirah, death was always a very visible step away; maybe a better predicament. In fact, one week before her murder Gakirah tweeted the following self-fulfilling prophecy, “I Do Wat I Do Cuz I Kno God Got a day 4 me”(Barnes, G.). The cynic would deduce that her ominous feelings were brought on by the lifestyle that she championed. Her twitter profile picture shows pointing her finger in the form of a gun, and her profile has written in all caps, “PAID SHOOTA,” implying that she might be a killer for hire, supported by the twitter handle, @TyquanAssassin (emphasis added).
The cynic might be right.
But what if the cynic undertook a more complex and protracted examination of the circumstances behind the many murders of Black lives by the hands of other Black folks. Inundated by a 24- hour news cycle and second-to-second news updates of the most recent shooting, cynics and violence interruption professionals who are working diligently to prevent further acts of wanton violence rarely have the time to take a deeper more composite analysis into the problem of gun violence. Their focus is usually triage—bandage the most recent tragedy and brace for the next one—triage is necessary. Equally important as triage is preventing the emergency in the first place and doing the work of understanding why the emergencies are happening. Politicians and law enforcement officials who are pressured to prosecute the responsible party, also known as the perpetrator, are not equipped with the time, money, or resources to seek in-depth answers to the problem of inner city gun violence. Hence, triage is comfortably understood as community groups intervening in street conflicts, reward notices, arrests, convictions, stop and frisk policies, and racial justice initiatives like President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper ostensibly aimed address the problem of violence in America’s inner cities.
While acknowledging the race-specific problem of non-white boys disproportionately dropping out of school, suspended from school, entering the school-to-prison pipeline, victims and responsible parties in violent crimes, the president’s My Brother’s Keeper falls short of acknowledging the brutally insidious co-conspirator—white supremacy. According to bell hooks, “when we use the term white supremacy it doesn’t just evoke white people, it evokes a political world that we all frame ourselves in relationship to … white supremacy … allow[s] one to acknowledge our collusion with the forces of racism and imperialism” (hooks-Cultural Transformation). Describing the effects of white supremacy on black people in America, Ta-nehisi Coates of The Atlantic writes, “I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust” (Coates). Coates’ commentary presses the need to move beyond triage; to dig deeper.
Is policing our way out of this problem the ‘deeper’ approach? The idea that policing our way out of gun violence coddles itself in convenient ignorance. In 1931, the warden of the Sing Sing prison in New York, George W. Kirchwey, said, “it argues a curious ignorance of human psychology to attach much importance to the doctrine of deterrence…[The belief in] the deterrent effect of exemplary punishment or in their moralizing effect on the community at large is a blind faith’” ((((Bridges, Weis, and Crutchfield, 1996, p. 49). Despite this understanding of the relative failure of arrest as deterrence we have spent and continue to spend billions of dollars beefing up law enforcement and multiplying our prison industry to address the problem of gun violence. Somehow failure has equated to success.
This approach has only resulted in social death by incarceration. This social death has resulted in a myriad of collateral consequences, or social exclusions that exacerbate the strife centered in inner cities. These social exclusions, that overwhelmingly plague black people, include voter disenfranchisement, bars from public housing and SNAP benefits. This “diminution of social status of convicted offenders,” according to Jeremy Travis of John Jay College, all create socioeconomic conditions that add to the feelings of second-class citizenry already perpetuated by white supremacist culture (Mauer, p. 19). In effect, this iatrogenic approach to understanding the crux of gun violence is a nothing more than another problem in relation to gun violence, not an answer.
Moving beyond the triage, a socio-historical examination is necessary to understand why the perpetuation of gun violence is prevalent in urban spaces throughout America. This analysis is essential because imagine if the medical industry did not invest in preventive care and research? Imagine if the way to combat the epidemic of HIV and AIDS was relegated to simplistic and biased explanations like gay men should have sex with one partner, reasoning that the problem and solution to HIV lies within the policing of the gay man’s body. The medical industry might as well join the real-estate business and spend their resources and time investing in cemetery land growth.
Then, what is the answer? Better yet, what is the question that must be asked?
Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” So what is the correct question to formulate? How can we coalesce the thousands of deaths of black life by other black lives into one question? Is there a direct correlation between white supremacy and the contemporary epidemic of gun violence in performed by mainly Black people in inner cities? Is there a positive direction of association between the legacy of white supremacist domination and inner city gun violence?
More than Black-on-Black Crime
“Everybody’s dying tell me what’s the use if trying
I’ve been trapped since birth, cautious, cause I’m cursed
And fantasies of my family, in a hearse
And they say it’s the white man I should fear
But, it’s my own kind doing all the killing here
--Tupac Shakur, Only God Can Judge Me
Simplistic terms like ‘black-on-black violence’ to describe the tragedies like those of the Barnes family insufficiently describes the problem of gun violence in predominantly black communities. Wahneema Lubian, Associate Professor of African & Africana Studies at Duke University, suggests the phrase, ‘black on black crime’ “introduces inadequate generalizations instead of the relationships; the complex connections that require considerable elaboration in order for us to make sense of crime.” Lubian continues, “[The term] Black on black violence is racism dressed up in common sense narrative understanding. It makes us stupid, and produces at the same time more Black Americans’ singular pathology understandings” (New Black Man). Indeed, what is required to fully understand and address the problem of gun violence in urban settings is that we, “measure carefully all the forces and conditions that go to make up these different problems, to trace the historical development of these conditions, and discover as far as possible the probable trend of further development” (Du Bois). The sequelae of conditions left by the stain of a brutal multigenerational kleptocracy of free labor, rape, abduction, dehumanization, marginalization, and bodily experimentation (Leary, p. 81) encompasses those forces and conditions that is demonstrated as gun violence in the ‘hood. Mathematically speaking:
Multigenerational free labor
+ multigenerational rape
+ multigenerational abduction
+ multigenerational bodily experimentation
+ multigenerational marginalization
+ multigenerational dehumanization
= white supremacy.
The term black-on-black crime ineffectively defines the means by which we engage in the discussion about violence in urban spaces. It obviates a critical analysis of this problem by insinuating that homicide in black communities is a cultural pathology. It absolves white supremacy of culpability. It denies the black community the opportunity to identify that their trauma is engendered by white racism and not by black deficits.
“How many times does a person have to be brutalized to be traumatized?” ---Leary, p. 78
“The influence of culture on intergenerational transmission of trauma cannot be reduced to a single variable having an influence parallel to that of other determining factors.”
--Danieli, p. 466
The DSM-IV (APA, 1994), Criterion A1, describes a traumatic experience in the following:
The essential feature of posttraumatic stress disorder is the development if characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate.
Benjamin Harrison, the ancestor of two US presidents, a regular importer of enslaved Africans from the Caribbean, allowed child psychologists to interview the children of his enslaved African Americans to be interviewed using the Childhood PTSD Parent Inventory (CPTSD-PI). Sixty black children in South Carolina, 30 free and 30 enslaved, were invited to receive a diagnostic interview with Harvard University psychologists. A distinction was made between experiences related to the exposure to slavery and those related to free person life. The unexposed group included 11 never enslaved children randomly selected who had been interviewed in their shacks using the Childhood Posttraumatic Stress Index (Frederick, Pynoos, & Nader; Danieli, p. 576, 1998).
The results of the diagnostic interviews disclosed that fifty percent of the children in this sample who were enslaved had parents with previous trauma. Of the 11 unexposed children, seven has a parent with prior trauma. For the total group, almost 55% of the children parents had a previous trauma. Interestingly, all 11 of the never enslaved children with no Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), no selected symptoms of PTSD, and no aggression in response to the brutality of slavery, whose parents had a previous trauma (possibly enslaved at some point), were re-experiencing symptoms of bereavement related to a previous loss or were re-experiencing specific traumatic symptoms related to a previous trauma. This remarkable study reveals a trans generational transmission of vulnerability “with or without a parental history of trauma” (Danieli, p. 580).
Unfortunately, this study is a work of fiction. No such study exists. No one ever interviewed enslaved children during slavery. No one cared. A similar study, however, was conducted soon after a man opened fire on a crowded elementary school playground in February 1984. One fifth-grader was killed and one passerby was killed and more than 14 others were injured. One month after the shooting, 77% of children present at the playground and 67% of the children inside of the school building had moderate to severe PTSD (Danieli, p. 575). Without minimizing the travesty of this event, the evolution of overt white supremacy that included the transatlantic slave trade began in the 15th century with “the importation of the first enslaved Africans into Virginia in 1619” (Rawley & Behrendt, p. 9). The evolution of this cold-blooded domination of black bodies continued in an overt nature through the 1960’s with advent of the civil rights movement. That was only 50 years ago. Could we reasonably expect 500 years of oppression to be erased from the traumatic memory of black people? Could we expect centuries long systemic and state sanctioned white racism to be abolished with the Civil Rights Act of 1965, or the inauguration of President Obama, who has said, “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America” (Walsh). Could we expect the trans generational demonstration of white violence towards black people not to be internalized as normal? as learned hopelessness? as learned helplessness? as trauma?
Henry Bibb, an ex-slave wrote about his biggest fear of enslavement, saying, “But I could never look upon the dear child without being filled with sorrow and fearful apprehensions of being separated by slave holders, because she was a slave, regarded as property. And unfortunately for me, I am the father of a slave…It calls fresh to mind the separation of husband and wife; of stripping, tying up and flogging; of tearing children from their parents, and selling them on the auction block. It calls to mind female virtue, virtue trampled under foot…When I remember that my daughter, my only child, is still here, destined to share the fate of all these calamities, it is too much to bear…If ever there was any one act of my life while a slave, that I have to lament over, is that of being a father and a husband of slaves” (Dr. Leary, p. 114). Mr. Bibby’s lamentation is reminiscent of young Gakirah’s mother who was somehow relieved that she no longer had to worry about her daughter’s life being taken away at any moment in the streets of Chicago. This common ominousness of child mortality to violence though centuries apart are alike.
Yes, Mr. Bibby was in fear of slave owners violently separating his daughter from him, or worse raping here. Yes, Gakirah’s mom was in fear of her daughter succumbing to her lifestyle as a member of gang member. But, the similarities reside in the social self according to sociologist, George Mead. In Mead’s The Emergent Self, he describes a highly socialized self that “can only exist in definite relationships to other selves” (Mead, 160). He further claims that, “it is impossible to conceive a self outside of a social experience” (Meade, 160). The savagery of white racism conditioned enslaved Africans who became enslaved African Americans to internalize, even replicate the violence perpetrated against them—not towards the system of white supremacy, but towards themselves.
Blacks were commonly understood to be less developed than whites—less than human. Well-respected French Enlightenment writer, philosopher, and historian, Voltaire, found it laughable that blacks and whites could have originated from the same monogenesis. He said, “It is a serious question among them whether the Africans are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys came from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker: a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence. A time will doubtless come when these animals will know how to cultivate the land well, beautify their houses and gardens, and know the paths of the stars: one needs time for everything” (Voltaire). (Emphasis added). Even someone who is considered one of the greatest thinkers in human history was violent in his portrayal of black people. Nevertheless, his perceived credibility had the dubious effect of perpetuating a ideology that encouraged hate, violence, and dehumanization.
According to Mead, “the self-conscious human individual, then, takes or assumes the organized social attitudes of the given social group or community (or some section thereof) to which he belongs” (Mead, 168). Not only were blacks taught to think less of themselves, but whites were also taught to think less of blacks. We can deduce that the essence of white supremacist ideology has deleterious on the dominated and the dominator. Both races have passed down the genetic material of white supremacy.
This system of white supremacy has been exposed by writer and scholar, bell hooks. hooks has produced a body of work that propagates the concept of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that evoked a political world that we all frame ourselves in relationship to. hooks explains in her book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, “enslaved black males were socialize by white folks to believe that they should endeavor to become patriarchs by seeking to attain the freedom to provide and protect for black males, to be benevolent patriarchs. Benevolent patriarchs exercise their power without using force. And it was this notion of patriarchy that educated black men coming from slavery into freedom sought to mimic. However, a large majority of black men took as their standard the dominator model set by white masters”. Note that the stain of slavery, according to hooks, did not result in a state of equanimity. The domination experienced at the hands of the white slave master was internalized by the enslaved. Reifying Dr. Leery, “ How many times does a person have to be brutalized to be traumatized?” (Dr. Leary, p. 78). The decadence of white supremacy passed down through the centuries of this American experiment exists today through the self-detrimental performances of internalized hate fueled by a vacant self-esteem. In her Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. Leery describes vacant self-esteem as “the state of believing oneself to have little or no worth, exacerbated by the group and societal pronouncement of inferiority” (Dr. Leery, 129). She continues, “It is important to note that vacant self-esteem is a belief about one’s worth, not a measure one’s actual worth” (Dr. Leery, 129). We have already established that trauma intergenerational, so we can conclude that the generational exposure to white oppression has had long-term effects on the black experience in America? Can we not, at least partially, place the culpability of the feelings of lessness into this pathology of white racism? Correlatively, can we not also see the interconnectedness between the violence performed upon black people and the replicative nature of that same violence meted out by black people by black people, using hooks’ explanation, “white supremacy … allow[s] one to acknowledge our collusion with the forces of racism and imperialism” (hooks, Cultural Criticism).
“And they wonder why we suicidal running round strapped”
—Tupac Shakur, Only God Can Judge Me
—Tupac Shakur, Only God Can Judge Me
The numbers are stark. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency (OJJDP) have ranked homicide involving firearms as the leading cause of death for African-American males ages 15-19 since 1969 (Gun Violence in the US). Equally troubling is that “the rate of firearm deaths for Black girls and women ages 10-24 from 2008-10 was more than 6.5 times higher than white women and girls,” according to the African American Policy Forum. Black people are harming themselves at a feverish pace and no one is actually placing guns in their hands and commanding, “go shoot.”
After George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Fox News commentator, Bill O’Reilly of the show, The O’Reilly Factor, offered his analysis of the problem of gun violence in black communities. According to O’Reilly, “The civil rights industry will not take on the black crime problem because that would require black culture to change. Any thinking person knows that the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case was an unintended consequence of fear. Zimmerman thought Martin looked suspicious because of the way he looked…Young black men commit homicides at a rate 10 times greater than whites and Hispanics combined. They blame the barbarity of guns or poor education or lack of jobs. Rarely do they define the problem accurately” (Holloway). Is there validity to O’Reilly assertion that the civil rights industry does not define the problem of gun violence accurately? Yes and no.
The sardonic intonation of a civil rights industry by O’Reilly implies that racial justice advocates are insincere in their efforts. His facetious remark devalues the importance of racial equity in this country and assumes that civil rights is commoditized function of America business perpetuated under the guise of the need for justice and equality in American society. Essentially, he is claiming that the centuries of white supremacist domination no longer exists and has no effect on systems and structures today—that the trauma does not exist. He is diagnosing a culture of pathology on black people by obfuscating the role that whiteness, the systemic internalizations of white supremacy, plays in what he opines is “an unintended consequence of fear.” He is blaming black people for everything that plagues the race today, as if black people have conceived a understanding of self outside of a social experience that is intimately linked to the legacy of slavery—a legacy synonymous with the criminality of whiteness. O’Reilly conveniently forgets that if America responded differently to the needs of black citizens decades before, the poverty rate for blacks today would be greatly diminished. A diminished poverty rate would enable black communities to have more economic power. More economic power would incite less people to involve themselves in the illegal drug trade. Less involvement in the illegal drug trade would result in less of need to purchase firearms to protect your money or drug product. Less purchasing of weapons would result in less shootings. This trail of reasoning leads us right back to white supremacist domination.
O’Reilly, however is vaguely right on one accord. Civil rights leaders, voluntarily or assumed, as in the case of President Obama who is tagged as a civil rights leader simply because he is black and in a position of power, do not do a good enough job of making the socio-historical correlations between whiteness and contemporary inner city violence. Most are focused on triage. Many are not articulating the there is pervasive stress that is black people experience everyday by living in a racist society. Many are not doing a good enough job of helping people find a sense of purpose, meaning and affiliation (Danieli, 396). So many people, because of the immediacy of triage, are inadvertently pathologizing the wrong problem. Black people, black youth in particular, are not genetically programed creatures of violence. Innately, white supremacy and the varying displays of its power are anthropomorphically violent. The clearly defined problem is white racism and how black people experience the resulting trauma today.
“For these are all our children.”
With sensitivity, I must mention the pain that is experienced by the survivors of the daily shootings through neighborhoods today. This trauma is real. Not all parents share the sentiments of Gakirah’s mother. Not all parents, in fact, most parents are not relieved when they learn that their son or daughter was gunned down. The website, Empowering Caregivers offers the following advice for parents who have lost a child:
If your child has died, you will likely experience several common reactions of bereavement, but to a greater degree than normal. You may go into shock or even deny at first that your child has died…if your child’s actions partly caused his death, you may even be angry with him or her—and the fell guilty about your anger.
The pain of losing a child, or anyone to wanton violence is a lifetime hurt. I know this personally, both as someone who is associated with the murder of two people and who works with harmed parties of gun violence. The immediate hurt may subside, but it never disappears, and neither do the interchangeable feelings of guilt and anger. In the daily experience of violence there is no time to consider the macro analyses of the role of white supremacy in the violence experienced. I know this.
When I was shot at the age of 18 by a friend the only thing that I was concerned with was whether I would walk again. When the families of the deceased were murdered on that fall evening in 1999 in SoHo, Manhattan, they did not and should not have to care about the socio-historical explanation behind the murder of their son or partner. When 13-year old Gama Droiville was shot in the head by stray bullets while standing outside of a pizza restaurant in Brooklyn who would dare ask his parents to think about slavery and its connections to their son losing his right eye? (Paddock & Moore). The parents of 15-year old Hadiyah Pendleton, who was shot and killed n Chicago while standing with friends after taking final exams, should only have to mourn in peace and not wonder about the ills of Americas dark past (and present) (WGNtv.com). I know this.
The intention of this argument highlighting white supremacy as a co-conspirator in the wanton violence that persists in predominantly black communities is to problematize the conversation around inner city violence. Simplifying the problem as a war on gangs or street crews misdirects energy and resources to funding streams that work against goal of reducing gun violence. Because of this we simply perpetuate pain every time someone else gets shot. We want to explain why mothers of teenagers like Gakirah could feel like death are a relief from the everyday worry of her daughter living.
There is an implicit trauma that is being expressed by this mother. Further, there is also an underlying anguish that is articulated by the Gakirah’s of the inner city that embrace the expectation of a violent death before exiting adolescence. A study by Brezina, Tekin, & Topalli summarizes that “anticipated early death is linked to crime, in part, because uncertainty over future survival promotes a disregard for the future consequences of one’s actions, a focus on immediate rewards and benefits, the development of a ‘here and now’ orientation, and attraction to risky behavior” (Piquero, p. 3). Other researcher have determined that there is “a general sense of futurelessness that may characterize the world view of some of these serious juvenile offenders, views which are, in part, influenced by important demographic and neighborhood perceptions (Piquero, p. 21). Hip hop artist Jay-Z expressed this summary in his 1997 song, Where I’m From:
“And niggas is praying to God so long that they atheist…And life expectancy so low we making out wills at eighteen.”
--Where I’m From, Jay-Z
Almost 25 years before Jay-Z voiced those frustrations through song, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five similarly gave insight to his surroundings as a resident in New York City.
A child is born with no state of mind
Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smilin’ on you but he’s frownin’ too
You’ll grow in the ghetto livin’ second rate
And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate…
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from going under
--The Message, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Through these lyrics I further the argument that a more concentrated historical analysis is required to get to the crux of the epidemic gun violence. Billie Holiday croons her frustration with the murder of black bodies in her song, Strange Fruit. In 1939, she describes the epidemic of the lynching of Black bodies:
Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is the strange and bitter crop.
--Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday
These vivid narratives black life as told by black contemporaries begs the question posed by Dr. Joy Leary, “how many times does a person have to be brutalized to be traumatized?” The lynching of black bodies as an intimidation mechanism by white supremacists in the US after the Civil War has been well documented. The Chesnutt Digital Archive reported that Mississippi clocked in 581 known lynchings from 1882-1968. Black people were already conditioned to torture and violence by the system of chattel slavery. The façade of freedom through emancipation and the end of the Civil War only served to further white supremacist hatred of black life. Torture continued. Traumatization continued. White supremacy continued.
The devaluation of black life is directly related to social sense of self that their neighborhood and economic environment condition them to internalize. This devaluation is experienced in many forms. In an op-ed piece on the Youth Matters blog, Coretta Scott King is quoted as saying, “suppressing a culture is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence. Discrimination against a working man is violence. Ghetto housing is violence ignoring medical need is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence” (Youth Matters). Yes, quoting Ta-Nahesi Coates, “it would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success”(Coates). The trans generational development of an external locus of control among most black people is a logical conclusion. After all, following the 1857 Dred Scott case, U.S. Chief Justice Roger Taney inveighed:
[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.
--U.S. Supreme Court, Dred Scott v. Stanford
How can we dispute the correlation between black self-esteem and gun violence to white supremacist ideology? This opinion by Chief Justice Roger in the Dred Scott case is clearly an example of the “social process that [is] responsible for the appearance of self” (Meade, 161).
Which came first: The Chicken or the Egg?
The purpose of this analysis is to give those of us who have time to wade through this maze of inner city gun violence a richer knowledge base to inform the daily efforts to eradicate this epidemic.
We must seek to identify the real causes of this violence to prevent this violence. This unpopular assertion that the system of whiteness, the interlocking prism of domination through which we all see the world, is rarely, if ever, mentioned in city government, police precincts, or community-based organizations working to quell the storm of gun violence. I have sat in every one of the aforementioned rooms. I have worked on the street level with some of those folks that have already engaged in gun violence—I have engaged in gun violence. I have strategized with elected officials and community organizers around this topic. I have interviewed members of gangs who have participated in gun violence. Seldom is the idea of white supremacy, and never the phrase, brought into the conversation.
In April 2014 I interviewed Brooklyn city Councilman Jumaane Williams and Shanduke McPhatter, executive director of Gangstas Making Astronomical Changes about their work around gun violence. On an episode of Both Sides of the Bars, I asked Councilman Williams, who has a reputation of calling out racism when he sees it in action, why felt so comfortable bringing issues of race and class in relation to the issue of gun violence. His response, “I just try to be comfortable telling the truth” (Both Sides of the Bars.). Mr. McPhatter, one of the first members of the Bloods street organization in NYC, mentioned that his involvement with the sect spurned from the oppression of correction officers on Rikers Island, the largest detention colony in the world.
Commendably, both Mr. McPhatter and Councilman Williams, two black men from Brooklyn, alluded to the problem of white racism as a contributing factor of the epidemic of gun violence in inner cities, but I wish there were more of them. There needs to be more people that name the problem of white supremacy. Echoing bell hooks, “[R]acism does not allow for a discourse of colonization or decolonization, the recognition of the internalized racism within people of colour, … the term racism keeps white people at the center of the discussion. When we use the term white supremacy it doesn’t just evoke white people, it evokes a political world that we all frame ourselves in relationship to … white supremacy … allow[s] one to acknowledge our collusion with the forces of racism and imperialism. Does the naming of the problem itself fix the problem of gun violence? No. It does, however, provide a complexified and more nuanced approach for addressing the root of the problem.
We must identify the correlation between the trauma of slavery and all of its sadistic remnants displayed by whiteness as the independent variable in cause of gun violence. While not leaving out actual mental illness as a contributing factor to the problem, I conclude that there is correlation there as well. The results of the CPTSD-PI in the school playground shooting illustrate how PTSD, a form of mental illness according to the DSM-IV, illustrates how trauma is transmitted. Though there has never been a diagnostic evaluation of any enslaved Africans or African-Americans, that one school shooting study, allows me to deduce correlation.
Absolution of accountability for murder and other forms of community violence is not the purpose of this paper. Enriching our approach to addressing gun violence so that we can move beyond the triage is a necessary next step—a next step that is not without my need to always express that I am sorry.
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