It's Time to Listen: "We Don't All Look Alike," a guest post by Carl Ellis, Jr.
A quiet rage has been inside me since the shooting of Michael Brown on August 15 — a rage I kept under control as I tried to be objective and resist being manipulated by the strident and predictable rhetoric surrounding this senseless killing. However, as I watched Michael’s funeral, that rage burned hot. It brought to mind the senseless and tragic deaths of other young black men: Eric Garner, age 43 on July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, NY; Trayvon Martin, age 17 on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, FL. I couldn’t help recalling the horrifying murder of Emmett Louis Till, age 14 on August 28, 1955 in the Mississippi Delta. His body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River after being beaten and shot in the head. The image of his mutilated and bloated body is still seared in my memory.
Before you write me off for strident and predictable rhetoric of my own, you must know that these killings are not the only ones that have me incensed. I am likewise enraged by the murders of thousands of young African-American men in places like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, where the killers happened to be black. I have lost personal friends in “drive-by” shootings, simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the case of Emmett Till, the motive was clearly racism. The cases of Michael, Eric, and Trayvon certainly involved racism, but other important factors were involved. Racism alone cannot account for the countless black-on-black murders that happen with regularity across the country. In the final analysis, the race of the one who pulls the trigger makes no difference because the result is the same: one more dead African-American young man, gunned down for unclear reasons.
Part of what outrages me is the self-appointed and opportunistic black gatekeepers who continue to frame all of our tragedies only in terms of racism. By so doing, they cannot account for black-on-black murders because they don’t fit their “racism-is-our only-hindrance” scenario. Obviously, racism is an ongoing issue we face, but it is not the only issue. Surely we have a long way to go as a society, but most would agree that while racism is alive and well, it is not the monster it once was. The specter of the past is quickly being eclipsed by a clash of value systems.
We are in the midst of a cultural crisis amongst ourselves, and the events in Ferguson have illustrated it. Part of this crisis is today’s ongoing battle between those who are “life affirming” and those who are “life denying.” The former are pro-black because they are pro-human and the latter are anti-black because they are anti-human.
Generally speaking, life-affirmers are the dominant influence in any culture. However, lately life-deniers have gained an inordinate influence in African-American culture. Acting as wolves in “black” sheep’s clothing, they disguise themselves as pro-black, while carrying and pursuing an anti-black agenda.
The peaceful protesters in Ferguson seem to have been motivated by the violation of their life-affirming sensibilities, and rightfully so. The root of the community’s unrest was decades of frustration with the American justice system that had failed them for so long.
At the first sign of unrest, life-denying troublemakers, mostly from outside of Ferguson, rushed in to exploit the situation. They included:
1) The opportunists — Those with no concern for justice or truth, who attempted to manipulate Ferguson’s vulnerable citizens with inflammatory rhetoric. Their chief concern was getting into the headlines to further their grievance industry agenda;
2) The criminals — Those interested in immediate personal gain by looting, burning and stealing property from Ferguson’s vulnerable citizens;
3) The nihilists — Agitators interested in the destruction of the social order for destruction’s sake. They deny that anything is valuable, neither Ferguson lives nor Ferguson property, or peaceful Ferguson values. These nihilists tried to provoke police violence with gunfire and by hurling Molotov cocktails and bottles of urine.
These anti-black intruders and provocateurs had no concern for the tragedy of Michael Brown’s killing aside from the gain the case provided for their own agenda. They neither had respect for Michael’s family nor interest in the true advancement of African-Americans. They were like a tsunami that overwhelmed the situation — sweeping others up in a dominating dynamic of their creation.
The opportunists consistently and willfully ignore the anti-black criminals and nihilists. Recognition does not fit their narrative, and to make such an acknowledgment would expose their own anti-black agenda. If criminals and nihilists began thinking for themselves, or even began to think better of themselves, they would realize they too are being exploited, robbing the opportunists of their base for a lucrative, guilt-manipulating hustle. Thus the opportunists’ survival necessitates framing issues like Ferguson only in racial terms.
For wisdom, we need to look past the rhetoric of the opportunists to the original ideologues of modern blackness, and how they defined blackness itself — men like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick. They all stated that being “black” involved more than the amount of pigment in one’s skin. “Blackness” was a state of mind, involving the values one lived by. To that end, Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga sought to buttress blackness with a clear set of values. In 1966, he created Kwanzaa to connect African Americans with their African cultural roots and to enshrine life affirming values into black consciousness: values such as faith, purpose, self-determination, and cooperative economics, to name a few.
In essence, the pioneers of modern blackness were all in agreement that in order to be black one had to think black, and to think black was to affirm life in the most positive of terms. A life-denying lifestyle had no place in the matrix of early modern black consciousness; such thinking was recognized and condemned as anti-black. Today, those distinctions have disappeared.
We rightfully protest, then, when those in the dominant culture sweepingly state, “We all look alike,” “Ferguson is looting and burning its own community,” and other erroneous statements that consign black people to a monolithic status. We are not all thugs and degenerates. I propose that this mentality led to the initial militaristic overreaction of the police to the Ferguson protesters — overreactions that provoked more waves of anger that became its own vicious cycle. Much of the news media also played the “we-all-look-alike” game as they rhetorically conflated “peaceful protesters” with “rioters.”
We don’t all look alike; no group is monolithic, and we cannot all be lumped into the same categories. Unfortunately, we treat ourselves as if this misguided notion is true when we include life-denying imposters as if they are “authentically black.” We continue to make this mistake in the name of “political correctness,” and Ferguson teaches us that this is to our detriment.
Michael Brown himself stands as the hinge-pin between these two positions. He has come to exemplify the struggle between authentic blackness and anti-blackness, between the affirmation of life and its denial. Michael Brown, like so many other young black men, had one foot in pro-blackness as he was headed for college, and the other foot in anti-blackness as he was seen on video stealing from a convenience store. Despite the best efforts of his mother and father, he was without a value-based sense of blackness, and he was “at risk” because he was culturally adrift — primed to be cut down by the forces of "they-all-look-alike-ism."
Had Brown not been cut down, he may have grown into a more life affirming position; perhaps as an internationally renowned neurosurgeon, a nationally syndicated newscaster, a White House cabinet member, a military general, a preacher of the Gospel, or perhaps as a simple and ordinary man who loves his wife and leads his family well, like so many who sit in our congregations every Sunday. Sadly, we will never know.
It is time to rediscover the values that originally empowered “blackness,” allowing it to become the paradigm-shifting positive force it was from its inception. To do that, we need to rediscover biblical wisdom. Wise application of the Word of God to our life situations, our identity and our purpose was the powerhouse that gave 19th Century African-American theologians the foundational truths upon which historic and modern “blackness” was built — theologians like Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, Rev. Alexander Crummell, and Rev. Henry McNeal Turner to name a few.
We must mourn the heartbreaking death of Michael Brown and others like him across the country. As we do, we must also recognize that these unnecessary deaths are part of a cultural death — the death of blackness itself at the hands of life-denying, anti-blackness.