“…It was the corroboration of their worth and their power that they wanted, and not the corpse, still less the staining blood.” James Baldwin, “To Be Baptized,” from No Name in the Street, 1972
I have been asked by many people to take a close look at the Michael Brown shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri and offer my opinion. I felt it best to take a step back and really absorb all the circulating currents of opinion and matters of fact before I made any personal pronouncements. This is my best attempt to answer that call, hopefully soberly, responsibly and with as much restraint as I can muster in the face of this deeply American tragedy. This is inherently a blog about food and food culture, but anyone who regularly reads this blog understands that it also is a blog about social and cultural justice. It is clear to anyone who knows the African American experience and tradition—to speak on it demands the celebration of the best of our cultural and historical legacy, scholarly excellence, and absolute commitment to social and cultural responsibility. This is a raw piece—it’s not meant to be perfect—far from it. It’s just how I feel. My condolences to the Brown family. There is profanity in this blog post.
I received a nasty tweet last night; a tweet with a food theme in fact. Michael Brown’s bleeding corpse with pictures of food transposed around it—fried chicken, bananas, watermelon, with Kool-Aid to wash it down. My chest hurt and then I stared into space and before I knew it, I vomited. It was not nausea—it was anger mixed with revulsion and memories from lives only my cells know.
I want you to understand something—I’ve been on multiple plantations and urban sites dealing with slavery. I’ve felt the Ancestors in the fields. I’ve seen the auction block and the whipping post and the hanging tree. I embrace it, I own it, and I live it through food so I can say “Never Again,” with confidence. I do the work that I do to educate people about the genesis of America’s original sin—I consider myself steeled. This however, was different—this was personal; that body could have been me.
Swirling around us are accusations, whispers and rumors about a “gentle giant,” named Michael Brown. Michael Brown cannot be defined by the politics of respectability or the politics of backlash. He cannot be dismissed with smirks and allegations he was just a “thug.” Michel Brown is dead. He was on his knees, with his hands up in a gesture of surrender and he was shot six times and then left in the street, his blood merging with asphalt, his life draining out with his future, the dreams of his parents and the hope of his ancestors. That’s what surrounded him—not racialized food icons.
I cannot convey to you how debasing it is to be expected, by convention of racialized submissive behavior to offer conciliatory pardons and excuses for Michael Brown’s less savory choices and behavior (or those of disaffected youth looting in his community for that matter). What is clear is that he will not be tried by me or anyone else for alleged misdeeds prior to his death. What is further clear is that he was not worthy of death for the activities behind said allegations nor for walking in the street. The same country where some white folk are celebrating their “right,” to bear firearms in Targets and Starbucks and pointing rifles at Federal agents (a la Cliven Bundy) without reproach, dares lecture Black America about the legalized lynchings of its sons for petty theft or perceived slights against police and governmental authority. The same country where people are thrilled by movies about white collar crime on Wall Street and the theft of millions on the same, has robbed people of their savings is the same country where “stop and frisk” jukes the stats uptown while the real crooks downtown go wild and unrestrained after their rape of the American dream.
But I digress. Michael Brown is not alone—Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, so many others—all of these humans–as Rep. Steven King of Iowa unfortunately put it—“of a single continental origin,” were my brothers. In the spirit of the Torah, “my brother’s blood cries out from the earth.” I’m here to tell you what their blood is saying to me…
A Declaration of War
Several weeks ago Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, the very state that held my maternal ancestors in slavery and from which my grandparents left under the duress of legalized terrorism and inequality (and swore to never return), declared that there was a “war on whites.” This tremendously irresponsible and inflammatory statement was followed up by typical platitudes: “It doesn’t make any difference what your skin pigmentation is,” Brooks said. “In America this is the land of opportunity. You can excel provided you’re willing to study hard, work hard, take advantage of the opportunities that are presented in our country. And there are plenty of people who have been able to establish that this race issue should be way behind us.” Mo Brooks, I’ll put my Alabama Confederate ancestor against yours and ask the question, “Is the race issue behind us?” I’m the good black, so that means I’m okay right? Rep. Brooks, perhaps if you wanted a repeat of Red Summer, baby I think you got it.
Few in the national media connected the dots between the heated, racialized rhetoric of what civil rights activist Rev. William Barber of North Carolina has called , “the third Reconstruction,” with the recent spate of confrontations between police and African American men, women and children. My maternal grandfather of blessed memory, not the most militant man in the world, recalled to me how he often witnessed the police come and brag about “how many niggers they killed,” in the streets of his neighborhood in Birmingham. “They harassed us in blue by day and in white by night.”
What this post is not—is an indictment of all law enforcement—of any ethnicity. That’s as ridiculous as indicting every Black male as a criminal. I don’t think that most people feel that way, we well understand the social contract. They want to be able to trust law enforcement, they want to be able to support and depend on them. We have witnessed the militarization of law enforcement in convergence with a reverse, alleged declaration of war on whites. What’s wrong with this picture? And, why is the 24 hour news cycle media not calling this for what it is—a recipe for social dissolution built on 7 years of sustained, celebrated, financially rewarded hate speech churned out against you-know-who and all those that look like you-know-who.
We are paying a horrible consequence for silencing the leader of the Free World on matters of racial justice with deep importance to the world, our country and our people. We have turned the other cheek in such a way as to invite shots rather than slaps. When POTUS said that cops acted “stupidly” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for resisting arrest on the steps of his own home, he was right; so right that it was a moment more thrilling to me than his oath of office. Hope! Change! Vindication!
And then he had to back up off of that power. At the mercy of his party, backlash politics and law enforcement lobbying, he had to retract his gut reaction and put a beer in the hand of a man who humiliated the world’s foremost scholar of African American history and culture. (You should at this point re-read Mo Brooks’ statement about how to succeed in America–hint–double standard…) Glenn Beck famously said of the incident; “(here is) a guy (President Obama) who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don’t know what it is…” Dr. Gates said, “I’m sorry,” the President said, “I’m sorry,” Glenn Beck just got another million for offering up more red meat. From that moment on, I knew the stage was set for a long season of disappointment and dishonest dialogue about healing America’s oldest wound. If there is one thing I know to be true—it is this—and I have lived my life with blunt honesty about this—Black people do not benefit from lying to white people about how they really feel about injustice. We missed an incredible opportunity at the beginning of the Obama presidency to confront head on overreach by law enforcement vis-a-vis people of color!!! You can count the minutes from that incident to the afternoon of August 9th on Canfield Ave. in Ferguson, Missouri.
B(l)ack to the future.
Rep. Brooks declares that there is a “war on whites” and remains uncensored for his inflammatory rhetoric, and yet there seems to be a pursuit of an offensive war on people of color in the streets of America—women dragged naked from their apartments, women beaten to a pulp on the LA freeway, men cornered like hunted lions in Staten Island, young men shot dead for perceived slights against what some like Glenn Beck, believe to be the last bastion of white power. Geopolitics and the global economy are not on the side of white America, neither are demographics or the unifying principles of language, faith, social issues politics or aesthetics. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know or feel—this is what he really means by the “war on whites,” the eclipse of white heterosexual cis-male hegemony in the face of a New American Order where obfuscation of competing narratives is obsolete and we are more multigrain than white bread.
“Give Me your tired rhetoric, your poor attempts at pacification, your yearning to yell logical fallacies…”
Give it to me. Or what did the uncouth Ferguson cop say on CNN to the African American protesters, “Bring it you f—g animals!” Tell me all about “absentee fathers” Joseph Epstein—because you’re an expert on Black people if I ever saw one (shandeh!). Please say, “What you (people) need to do…” (Thanks for the paternalism) and “What you need to tell your people is to stop…….” Tell me all about how Black men are far more likely to commit this crime or that crime…and hold a mirror to my face about Black on Black crime vs. white on Black crime. Tell me about myths of low IQ’s, poor academic performance, a failed attempt at instilling pride through Black history and Afrocentric culture; please tell me everything about what you might feel to be the “real” root cause. Rap music, the “n” word, drugs, liquor—give me your tired rhetoric, your poor attempts at pacification, your yearning to yell logical fallacies. You might well be Black, or white, or brown or “yellow” but it is all nonsense and distraction because let’s put it in terms you can understand, Michael Brown is dead and he could be any of us –even me.
The Good Black
If you really believe in “the good Black,” let me offer you a cautionary personal tale. A few years ago, a friend of mine was taking to me to synagogue on the commemoration of Tisha B’Av. He’s white, I am obviously of a certain “continental origin” and a car almost hit us on the passenger side of the vehicle. I was the passenger; the person in the car was driving erratically. I said nothing—but I grimaced and frowned. My friend got agitated, but did not drive in an aggressive fashion.
The unmarked car suddenly put on a siren and we the driver began to glare at me—through me—with a look of absolute disdain. He was ready for reprisal. We were pulled over—not on the side of the road, but into a parking lot. He got out of the car, pulled his gun and told my white friend, “TELL YOUR PASSENGER TO PUT HIS F—G HANDS UP ON THE DASHBOARD AND NOT TO MOVE THEM! YEAH MOTH–KER YOU’RE SO G–DAMNED BAD! WHAT’S THAT MOTH—KER, A GUN?”
It was my prayerbook. It had G-d’s name on it, beautiful gold Hebrew letters gleaming at me on a sunless day. In kippa, dress clothes and non-leather shoes, headed to synagogue, I had a gun at my head by a police officer calling for backup…which curiously never came. He never asked my friend to put his hands up. Said friend got out of the car, handed over his ID. I was far from trembling, afraid or submissive when he returned—gun drawn—to my side of the vehicle—I was Nat Turner mad. He patted me down and even threw my kippa on the ground. No reason, no cause. He loudly pronounced my name over the radio, confident he was going to turn a glare—a reckless eyeballing– into an arrest.
Surprise! No moving violations on the part of my friend, the driver, no weapons on me, no rap sheet, nothing. Jack shit. The policeman got nervous. I was not a good catch. He softened his approach with awkward verbal retreats until the tense conversation ended in “Have a nice day.” No apologies, no attempt at breaking down his wall.
I was not appeased. But I was too scared to say anything or file a complaint. I knew the man’s name for all of seven days. Then I forgot it. I had heard stories about the Blue line. I didn’t want any further harassment; I put it away—I didn’t speak about it—until now.
I do the work that I do because I am well aware of the power food can have in telling human stories and reaching people with uncomfortable or powerful truths they might otherwise not be amenable to. I have a multicultural faith, a multicultural family, a multicultural life, and I come from a multicultural blood line. I will not allow this or any other flashpoint to tear my family apart–so we will come together for the good. I feel I have a mission in this world, much like Michael Brown might well have felt as he contemplated who he would be once he graduated technical college. I use food and this history behind the food to tell us how we got here and to encourage us to never find our way back to the places that derailed the dream we as the American people offer so proudly to the world.
Afraid in My Own Skin
Michael Brown, I am so heartbroken because I know how some of these idiotic people see you. I’m Michael too. I’ve been big, fat, scary, black and worthless too. I know that you were not, and I am not–really big fat, scary, black and worthless—but the social media commentary—scary, fat, big black guy…keeps coming up and it outrages me that we feel like big game in the eyes of people who hide behind screen names and Twitter handles. (Too bad the fact you will always see me with a book in my hand makes me scarier than if I had a football.)
I am afraid that had that cop been turned up one more notch I would not be writing this—I’d have been big fat, scary, Black, worthless and dead. Oh, and by the way, this is one of six negative encounters with law enforcement I have had where I was in no way held in the commission of a crime, arrested, or held until being tried for a crime. I was the passenger with a white friend, and it was alleged I was a drug dealer because we were at a gas station, “a little bit too long.” I was on a bus and every Black male was asked to present his ID and had his bag searched. I have been stopped for walking while Black and pressed up against a wall.
Wanna know the worst part? When the people passing you on the sidewalk look at you with a presumptive glance that they believe you wouldn’t have gotten in trouble if you hadn’t done something wrong. You are guilty until proven innocent, and even then you ain’t so damn innocent. You are the good black, the good boy, and by god you might just get your reward in heaven if you just suppress your jungle anger and just suck it up and forget that this moment has a dark past and that 2014 and 1619 have just been linked together in an ignoble chain. This is the moment Mama and Daddy gave you “the talk” about; and nothing prepared you for that look you get from the onlookers as you, the consummate “Other,” get a hand in the crack of your ass.
Beyond Race, Toward Hope
I hate the word “race,” it is inept and woefully inadequate. Its usage—and I freely admit having to rely on it here at times—is completely out of pace with science, our collective ethical spirit, and intellectual truth. Ethnicity—a far better term in my opinion speaking to a deeper lexicon means that we have our self-described niches based on ancestry. Ethnicities have their histories, patterns of experience and cultural cues. We have been here before, and we will continue to be here as the African American people until we break the wheel—by voting, by lobbying, by economic boycotts and by learning the law as good if not better than those that are tasked with enforcing it. With our books, with our ballots, with our boycotts, we can cut the hanging tree down and use its wood to make a coffin for “racial” injustice.
I am trying to be hopeful. I see Americans of all colors putting their hands up saying “Don’t shoot.” Solidarity is spreading from rally to rally; there are new kids on the block—and they don’t want the bitter fruit of the past. The old canards that this is a race war a la Mo Brooks have no truth here—we are embracing anyone who will embrace us, loving anyone who will love us, respecting anyone who will respect us, and we want desperately to believe that we—in our protest, in our pursuit of justice through the courts of law, in our demands for information—are the epitome of what it means to be American.
To my foodie friends: throw your hands up! Listen, we do ourselves no favors when we pretend that food is a respite from the matters of the day. Where do we go when we want to feel better and hash out our grievances and vent? We go to the table. Given that I am often the only Black guy, or one of five Black people period at many food events, I want you to know what this harassment means when you see me/us encounter it. I want you to step out of the fantasy that food is freedom from socio-cultural politics and just remember to be aware of the cues and clues that injustice and inequality are ever close and we must all be vigilant.
But I ask, as James Baldwin once asked, “How much time do you want, for your progress?”
Please don’t shoot!