This post was originally published on Medium on July 7, immediately after the murders of Alton Sterling on July 5 and Philando Castile on July 6. We're bringing it to you now, with writer Chaédria LaBouvier's permission:
My birthday is July 5th. I used to think that nothing of any great significance — beyond the invention of the bikini — happened on my birthday. It, however, never failed to tickle me with a certain irony that America and I almost shared a birthday. I am highly critical of America, but that is because she is me. In every sense of the word, America is nothing without Black people. America is not wealthy without the Black wealth, human capital and opportunity that it has stolen, pillaged and suppressed. America has no expression without the Black soul that gave it a moral compass first. Without Blackness, without the people who were forced to be Black so that White could be moderately defined, without their unending supply of bodies ready at a moment’s notice for any of this nation’s wars — the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, Reconstruction, World War I, Jim Crow, World War II, the Korean War, Civil Rights, Worker’s Rights, Women’s Rights, the Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, Black Lives Matter...as the actor Jesse Williams said, “There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of.” It is us that marched in the streets, that stood on bloody bridges, that boycotted buses, us who killed and bitten by dogs for the opportunity to eat a hamburger at a Woolworth’s counter so that this nation could look itself — and the rest of the world — in the mirror. Without our belief and vision of what America could be, the promises and aspirations on the Declaration of Independence — “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — would be the delusional aspirations of slave-owning, slave-fucking White men that forgot that some of the colonies had populations that were over half Black.
I am in London now, but I grieve with Black America. The pain that I feel is Diasporic, mitochondrial. And if it were a word, it would be heirloomic. I am in London, because I grieve. I am here because America made me leave. I am here because I am writing a book (proposal) about what America has done to me, my family, Clinton’s children and his grandchildren. America will hear me and she will see what she has done. I grieve because I carry Clinton Allen, my Clinton, my baby, my only brother with me always. I grieve because it was a police officer, Clark Staller, just like the ones that killed Alton Sterling — Howie Lake and Blane Salamoni — that killed Clinton. Alton was shot 6 times; Clinton was 7. Clark Staller tried to run over a suspect with his squad car in 2011 before graduating to murdering Clinton in 2013; Howie Lake was suspended from the Baton Rogue force in 2014 for shooting a Black man multiple times as he attempted to escape the police. I grieve because I am at the part of the book where I write about the magnificent purples and burgundies on Clinton’s un-embalmed body and how my mother fell to the floor, before her son on a metal slab crying, “My life is on that table.” I grieve because he left two twin sons for me to love and fear for. I grieve because I wonder if I’m selfish to want my unborn and unconceived children because I know that I’m offering them a life that may terminate painfully, early and I can not promise them justice.
I have been on the front lines of this, before this country knew that it had a problem, before Ferguson. Me and my pain were the phantoms before Ferguson. The phantoms that umbilically linked to a history of lynching that now is just state sanctioned. This makes sense to me, because as a Black woman, it is my womb that carries the bodies and my hands that bury the bodies of those murdered.
I come from a long line of women, Black women, that cleaned whipping wounds from everyone else’s backs while flies flocked to the bloody, sticky mess on theirs. It was a Black woman, Ida B. Wells, that told this country that they had a lynching problem. It was Black women that tactically and organizationally kept the Civil Rights Movement together. It was Black women that lived feminism before there was a name for it. It was Black women that created Black Lives Matter. It is Black women left to pick up the pieces of the families that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have now left behind. It is a Black woman, Issa Rae, that organized the scholarship fundraiser for Alton Sterling’s family. I’m sure had that not happened, it would have been his Black mother organizing the fish fry to collect the money to bury him. I know, because I have been there and I can tell you exactly what has happened and what will happen all the way from London. I can tell you what happened hundreds of years ago, in the slave cabins. I can tell you what happened 80, 100 years ago when the mobs gathered outside of the county jails in Waco, Memphis, Biloxi and Baton Rouge ready to lynch a Black man and sell his skin as a souvenir strap. I know, because I am this country’s phantom. My memory is long, Diasporic and mitochondrial.
I have said it before (most notably in the video of the 14-police officers taking down the one-legged man) and I will say it again. This — police brutality, the American criminal justice system, the epidemic of mass incarceration, the hoarding of goods, resources and opportunity — is an issue of White supremacy. White supremacy is the belief that White people are better, more deserving and all means to preserve that are legitimate and right. Whiteness is not a race so much as it is a position. And it — White supremacy — is insidious, it is toxic and it is murderous. And to say anything other than that truth would be a lie to comfort the most narcissistic in our nation.
In every sense of the word, America is nothing without Black people.
It is not enough to have a conversation about what can Black people do. We have done enough. The failed promise of assimilation saw Black people bussing their children into hostile schools, over-achieving parents exhaustively performing a song and dance in equally hostile corporate environments, desperate and aching to live up to their end of an undefined deal. We, Black people, have been what makes America great. The relentless spirit of perfection, of progress have come from us; White people — and specifically, White men — and those invested in its supremacy have literally stood in the doorway (I am thinking of George Wallace now) of every movement of social progress in this country. We have had to send federal troops to allow Black children entry into schools and White people have sent tanks into residential neighborhoods as Black people exercised their First Amendment Right. White men have condoned the killing of children and gay men for the right to keep assault rifles on America’s streets — and have sworn to continue to stand in the way of gun reform progress. So when we proclaim that America is the most advanced country in the world, who are we talking about? Who are we talking to or better yet, who are we trying to convince? Which America are we talking about?
I do know that without Black people, America would be nothing. The very people that they wish to exterminate are the people that this country could not live without. We have given America a lexicon to express itself and a beat to keep it all on rhythm. America would be mute without Black language. As stated before, we are this country’s moral compass. We have served as the unfailing foil for fantastical narratives about Manifest Destiny, the birth of a nation, super-predators and a militarized police while Whiteness demands and reflect so little on itself. It is the same level of delusion that allows slave-owning, slave-fucking White men to create a founding document based on freedom and independence and expect nothing hypocritical in their words or attempt. America may have been founded by exceptionally brilliant minds, but mediocre men. This may explain why we have yet to disabuse ourselves of our addiction to the middling. Yet, Black people must be exceptional in their talents, superhuman in their achievements and impeccable in their mimicry and proximities to Whiteness. Yet, we all tolerate low expectations of Whiteness — and it becomes the bar of measure. The low expectations of White humanity are legitimized through elaborate legalese, but its moral mediocrity at best. A grand jury could not find just cause to even allow Daniel Pantaleo, Eric Garner’s killer, to stand trial. I suppose last week the judge in Baltimore thought that Freddie Gray severed his own spine. And despite shooting a man pinned against the ground and a car in the chest, Alton Sterling’s killers feel “completely justified” in the killing. It is as Claudia Rankine wrote: “Because White men can’t/police their imagination/Black men are dying.” America must do better, but we are all dying until White people, particularly White men want more from themselves. We are literally dying from their low expectations of their humanity and potential. We are dying from their criminal, moral mediocrity.
I know so many people that are absolutely gutted. I wish that I had more answers, more solutions, but I don’t. All that I have is a pen. But, I decided a long time ago, that that pen, would be in service of Clinton. I promised him, as I wrote his obituary, as I picked out his final pair of socks, as I supervised his last haircut as I fixed the cross in his hands and lowered him into the concrete vault and finally into the ground, that I would do battle for him, for the rest of my life. That I was but one woman with one sword, but I would be writing and swinging until the Death for what I knew to be right, what I knew to be human dignity.
So I am writing, writing, writing. And my pen becomes sharper and it glistens.
Top photo: Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr Creative Commons
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Chaédria LaBouvier is a writer of culture and politics. She is a contributing writer for Elle.com and New York Magazine. Her main areas of focus are police brutality, the politics of beauty and fashion, art and White supremacy. She is working on her first book and research on the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat to be released November 2016.