Everyone needs to say something.
Here is Gordon Park’s image of life at Camp Nathan Hale, a Salvation Army camp for the poor on the shores of Lake Coventry, CT, taken in 1943. The image of a young, mixed group of boys, gathered together under a stylized teepee, is a reminder of the way that race-relations are just that: dynamic relations, struggles over power that take shape from the hard edges of identity, and from the presence – spectral or literal – of deeper, complex histories.
I thought of this image in the wake of this week’s terrible – and, sadly, predictable – events, and at the start of a day on the road to see friends and new family.
Thought of it because, in many ways, it reminded me of my own childhood, my own set of relations, the compositional charm of the quaint, mixed-race ensemble my parents so heroically built in a small town, way out in the Jersey sticks. This week’s events makes their creation – and our embodiment of it – seem, in two words, strangely revolutionary.
It reminded me, too, of people coming together – like these boys, with their serious faces and their sobering thoughts – in a world saturated by racial feeling and structured by racial power. I have friends on the ground in Providence, RI, and Portland, OR, and everywhere in between, almost all of them, it seems, walking and talking and writing their way through the events in Ferguson. There is a lot of grace on display in the pages of The New Yorker and Salon and The Atlantic, and a lot of compassion in the arm-in-arm marches and homemade signs of the week’s protests.
There were other things to note. The image reminded me that this week has been structured by the absence of justice in a nation of laws, an absence as notable for the young white women of the University of Virginia as it is for the young black men of Ferguson. And it provoked me, as well, to recall that we mobilize over Ferguson in the midst of a troublesome holiday, one which repeats tropes about “natives” that date back to Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, and that relies on stereotypes “proudly” displayed on football helmets and in grade school textbooks.
I got down – as many did – as the findings of the grand jury were read. And then I noted, in private affirmation, that we don’t let lynchings go quietly now: we mobilize against them, we connect and collaborate on the public stage, or we intimately commiserate via text or phone call. We pass along stories and pictures. We do things that were not possible in the heyday of lynching or at the height of massive resistance.
When I sit about the table this Thursday to celebrate a holiday whose affective resonance I adore but whose political history I detest, I will be thankful for that. For our collective doing and mobilizing and writing and thinking and talking. For our solidarities and our friendships. For the work we do – in the classroom and on the streets – to foster more conversation and more action in the wake of something so terrible. For our determination to not let it go.
In a confrontation that began with a little bit of jaywalking, a police officer came to see a young black man as a “demon” and shot him dead. Though they were nearly the same height, the officer felt that the young man’s strength and size were so much greater than his own, and assumed that lethal force was required. As I write this, the officer’s voice is in my kitchen, drifting into my living room from the radio. The young man is gone. The officer’s voice is haunting. He would “do it again,” he says. If this is legal, it is not just.
This is not new. Dynamic struggles over power. Deeper, complex histories.
Everyone needs to say something.