For reasons that are hard to explain, the horrific, scarring, soul-destroying events of the past few days have reminded me of the events of three years ago, in late 2009, when a friend and colleague – the wonderful Don Belton – was murdered.
I’d spent Christmas Eve with Don and a small group of friends and family, at what was a wonderful, even slightly raucous party. The vast gap between that pitch perfect evening and the news of his death cannot be bridged.
This piece was originally posted on Historiann’s website as “Our Holiday Murder“. Given that it was written in the days that followed Don’s death, when so much was up in the air, and so many rumors abounded, it wasn’t a journalistic account. (For that, one might start here).
Just one person’s attempt to make sense of something cognitively unmanageable. I re-post it here without any edits.
I see and hear a lot of that “making sense” on the news these days, as we learn more of Newtown. And it all resonates, reminding us all just how violent this place is, and just what the stakes are for everyone. But for all the one-dimensional talk of “angels” and “heros,” I wish we could commemorate what was really lost and what can never be recovered: fabulously complex human beings.
Two days after Christmas, Don Belton, an Indiana University Assistant Professor of English, was murdered in his kitchen. More precisely, he was stabbed five times in the back and several times in the stomach and the chest. Belton was a small, black, gay man with a wicked sense of humor, and could easily have been a character in a Wallace Thurman novel. He was a renowned novelist and scholar of the HIV/AIDS experience. He was gentle, thoughtful, and sweet: when he arrived in Bloomington two years ago, he asked one program secretary for a campus map, and then offered to pay her back for it. For now, his murder is a cognitively unmanageable fixture of our day-to-day. For the foreseeable future, it will force us to think carefully about the intersection of race, class, and sex in our college town.
The murder weapon was a “peace keeper,” a popular knife in the Marine Corps, featuring a plain, double-edged, seven-inch blade and a black rubber handle, an unadorned and utilitarian weapon. It was brought to Don’s house by a twenty-five year old white man, Michael James Griffin, who was an Iraq war veteran. The local paper, fleshing out Griffin, has documented his “reaching out” to veteran’s groups for “help,” as a part of his attempt to return to civil society after an indeterminate period of time abroad. His service record is not yet public. More recently, he did odd jobs and yard-work for IU English department faculty, a not uncommon blurring of the borders between town and gown in this small, small town.
After he killed Belton, Griffin stripped off his bloodstained clothes, changed into a spare set of clothes he’d brought along, and ran errands, before returning home for a nap. Griffin’s two-year old child was removed from the bed, sleeping soundly even as the father was arrested. And once arrested, he signed a confession, admitting to these details.
Griffin, who weighs well over two hundred lbs., and who, at six feet tall, would have been at least five inches taller than Belton, has admitted that he went to confront Belton to discuss a supposed sexual assault. That is, he has suggested that Belton assaulted (or raped – the specifics of his accusation are as yet unclear) him. When Belton refused to apologize or show remorse, Griffin pulled out this knife – this relic of our last, bad war – and put an end to the older man’s life. The multiple stabbings, and the absence of theft, have led the police to classify this as a “crime of passion,” and Griffin seems determined to use the “gay panic” defense.
Race and sexuality have set the terms of all public conversation about the murder, no matter its politics. A search of blogs and online comments reveals a crystallizing consensus with two components and zero factual evidence: 1., that Griffin has PTSD; 2., that Griffin was gay and didn’t know it until he was approached by Belton, his dark would-be lover, and then later regretted whatever had transpired. Much has been made of Belton’s diary, which the police read during their search of the murder scene, and which refers to the author’s happiness that a “man named Michael” had entered his life. In the prim universe of Indiana, this tantalizing diary entry – briefly mentioned in a police affidavit – is read as proof of a consensual sexual relationship between Belton and Griffin.
Don Belton’s humor, so richly understated and satirical, and so evident in his smile, has been read as proof of his corruption, his threat to good white boys like Michael James Griffin. Our public – equal parts faculty, staff, students, and locals, all living in one of the most depressed parts of the country – have labored to interpret Don’s official portraits, released by the university to accompany the coverage, and the causal photos provided by friends and colleagues. Some find menace in a black face, or read predation in a black smile, but these ephemeral, throw-away images – produced in assembly-line fashion on “faculty picture day,” or a consequence of some fleeting shot at a party – have been queered by the public in a very strange way. They’ve become deep evidence of character, and have made it possible for an alternate narrative to emerge, in which the older and wiser black gay man takes advantage of a drunk and straight veteran, and shames the younger man so deeply, so thoroughly, that an honorable response is required. “Did he frequent playgrounds?,” some have asked, along with, “Did he ever rape anyone else?” Bloomington, some forty miles down Rt. 37, “the Dixie highway,” from Indianapolis, is the threshold of the South, so the reach for Honor is not terribly surprising. The tragedy comes, of course, in finding that the man you knew, now gone forever, has been reduced to an official, high-resolution photo or a snapshot, his text available for all to read, and their readings completely out of your hands.
Because Bloomington is the quintessence of a small college town, everyone knows everybody involved. A good friend, who works in neighboring Bedford, taught Griffin jujitsu. Another friend, who teaches at IU and who has been quoted in the local paper, has received emails from former students who know both Belton and Griffin. A former neighbor, stopping by before New Year’s Eve, admitted that she had gone to high school with Griffin. In the comments section of the online local paper, Griffin, his girlfriend, and Belton are discussed with intimate familiarity – that is, with details offered by people who knew them better than the reporters. The dumpster where he dropped off the bloody clothes sits somewhere between the Chili’s restaurant where we take out kids every so often, and the Barnes and Nobles we use regularly.
As the IU faculty celebrate the grace of our colleague, they’ve also reduced him to a metaphor for peace, love, and understanding. In death, of course, that might well be his legacy. But in life, he was a complicated, clever, compartmentalized person. One image reproduced locally in the town newspaper, the student newspaper, and faculty blog shows Don singing Christmas carols with friends. The image was circulated as a counterpoint to the assumption of menace, and was meant to show him as he was in life. On Christmas Eve, the night that photo was taken, Belton, was prepared to depart for Hawai’i, the first real vacation he would have taken in years. When I asked him “why Hawai’i?,” he joked (with a self-mocking laugh) about the burden of the middle passage, and of the crushing psychic weight of slavery, and suggested that as a consequence of these factors, the warm breezes of the tropics were better for him than winter in Bloomington, when the town closely resembles some “Soviet gray fiction workshop.” Then, with typical warmth and festive commitment, he set out to spike the eggnog. While the police searched for Griffin, Don’s cell phone sat nearby, buzzing. His suitcase was open on the bed. His friends in Hawaii later wrote to say that, as they anticipated his arrival, they’d bought him sunglasses, and had left those out for him. I prefer to remember him in this richly textured light: slightly tipsy, joyfully belting out Christmas standards a little too loud, thinking about waving palms and the release of the islands, and scheming to get everyone else a little more drunk than they’d planned to get. For obvious reasons, this portrait – my portrait – isn’t easily shared right now.
Don Belton, who understood irony, might have joked that this was a bad academic movie in the making, stealing its plot points from In the Valley of Elah, American Beauty, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. But there is little irony in Bloomington right now. Shortly after the murder, IU faculty members – some who knew Don, and some affiliated with the LGBT community – organized a silent vigil at the town square. It was impressive, with maybe several hundred people in attendance. Holding candles on a sub-freezing, dark day, they encircled the old courthouse on the proverbial small town square. In heartbreaking fashion, the entire English department seemed to be in attendance. “Justice for Don Belton,” insists one website. And while I agree, I worry about the absence of our nuance in the face of a complicated, evolving story. Within the symbolic surround shared by our faculty, “Justice” here seems to mean only conviction and punishment for Griffin; while outside of the loosely guarded walls of the campus, in deep red Indiana, it is assumed that justice has already been delivered to Belton.