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Black ‘archival’ pain: the blurring of Black pasts and a Black present

Incessant Black death across American ‘history’ reveals an open-ended archive of anti-Black state violence. Black people keep dying, and while past and present differ they simultaneously blur.

Ferguson, MO. Justin Norman/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them.
―Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography

I dream often. Mostly when I’m sleeping, but sometimes when I am awake, too. My dreams are lucid. Sometimes they are of things to come. I’ve been told that I have premonitions. My best friend calls me a seer. Who knows. I see a lot. I dream a lot. Once I dreamed that I was lying in a casket. It was one of the scariest dreams I’ve ever had. There I was standing outside of my body looking down at myself—lifeless—in a box. I could hear the screams of my mother loudly. My grandmother, too. It was scary. I could not speak to those I loved, and they could not speak to me. When I awoke, tears ran down my face. I realized that my dream could be a reality at any given moment.

I could be killed. Here one second, and gone two seconds later like Tamir Rice.

…Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, Denmark Vesey, Martin King, Mary Turner.

No time to fear for my life, or the life I thought was mine. Black people aren’t allowed to have lives in America. We aren’t allowed to claim ownership over our Black lives. Our lives are not our own, and we often cannot live for as long as we want.

There are those who will “dismiss the shards”, as Toni Morrison put it, and will claim lack of understanding as Black people take to the streets demanding a right to live—unbothered—by the pressures of white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy. America is broken. It has never been whole, and yet, it sells the false image of progress and postracialism despite its preoccupation with racialized and sexualized brutality.

Every time a white police officer pulls me over, my heart pounds at rates that can’t possibly be healthy, my palms sweat profusely, and I conjure up enough strength to hit the video button on my cellphone for fear that I may have to document my own murder. I panic, I roll down my window, alert the officer to every single one of the moves I am about to make, and pray to God and the ancestors that I make it out of the encounter alive. I think about all the things my mama, who is now a retired police officer, told me about being respectful to officers even when they are not respectful to us.

My mom is a Black woman who wore her police uniform faithfully for twenty years. Her job was what kept our lights on in our single-parent household. And yet she was also victim to racist and sexist oppression on a police force that purported “to protect and serve”. Some of her comrades used sexual innuendos to dehumanize her and objectify her body, and others left her in life threatening situations to fend for her own Black woman life. My mom was a police officer who loved and still loves her community. She worked hard to make sure that no one had to end up in jail without due cause and she sacrificed her job on numerous occasions to report fellow officers who were corrupt, abusive, or predatory in our community. Police officers like my mom are rare. So when she would tell me how to endure police encounters, I believed her. I trust my mama’s words often when I am stopped incessantly on northern city roads as a Black man with a fairly new black car. Yet, I cannot stop thinking about Sandra Bland and Sean Bell and Jonathan Ferrell, who were blinded by the flash of police car lights and are now no longer with us. 

I am an activist in the movement for Black lives, and I come to this work as the son of a retired police officer and as the godson of a police sergeant. I am also a minister, a writer, a scholar, and a survivor of many things. Everything I do in the movement for Black lives is a testament to these identities. As Alicia Garza, one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter, commented last year, “Black Lives Matter is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression”. We are living in a neo-slavery state where state sanctioned violence cripples, mangles, and destroys Black life across geopolitical borders.

The past is not done, and it is not over, it’s still in process.
―Toni Morrison, Wellesley College Commencement Address (2004)

We can connect the abuses that Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass endured while enslaved to the dangers told by antilynching campaigner Ida B. Wells-Barnett: “those who commit the murders write the reports”. Fannie Lou Hamer’s recounting of the horrors of Jim Crow Mississippi before the 1964 Democratic National Convention is eerily similar to the prophetic messages of Rev. Osagyefo Sekou in Ferguson, Missouri: “I need a gas mask more than my clerical collar”. In New York City, in Charleston, in Oakland, in Atlanta, and across the globe, young, queer, gender nonconforming, transgender, poor, working class, educated, noneducated, disabled, differently abled, and Black folks from all social strata unanimously exclaim: “Please don’t shoot me dead, I have my hands on my head”.

The archive of Black history blurs with the pervasive attitudes and conditions of the contemporary moment. The direct and immediate traumas of anti-Black racial animus taking place in the current moment mirror the secondary and tertiary traumas in the Black communal archive. Black prophetic words of old that exposed the depravity of racial-sexual violence ring true or even louder today than they did in times past, and Black freedom fighters continue borrowing from Black communal archives—not the white imperial archive—to cultivate contemporary movement survival strategies. One must ask if there is any intrinsic difference between past and present, and one must also grapple with the possibilities and limits of a liberated future. When Black people continue to be hypersexualized, brutalized, raped, and lynched by state nooses, cycles of racial-sexual oppression continue to choke Black bodies to death.

Everyone now knows former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s name, but far less know the name of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw who raped thirteen or more Black women between 2013 and 2014. These survivors will now have to live their lives with the physical and psychic scars of their assaults. What makes matters worse is that our society does not view racialized rape and sexualized racism as a form of state sanctioned violence. In 2016, Black women continue to be sexually violated by neo-Klan members and white supremacists in blue. Historian Danielle McGuire has written extensively about racialized rape during the Civil Rights Movement, and many more scholars and activists, such as Black Women’s Blueprint, have documented the sexual abuses that plagued American plantations and continue to ravage Black communities today. However, what are we to make of a police state that protects officers who not only kill, but rape, too, and are not held accountable?

Hortense Spillers warned us in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987):

“The captive body, then, brings into focus a gathering of social realities as well as a metaphor for value so thoroughly interwoven in their literal and figurative emphases that distinctions between them are virtually useless. Even though the captive flesh/body has been ‘liberated,’ and no one need pretend that even the quotation marks do not matter, dominant symbolic activity, the ruling episteme that releases the dynamics of naming and valuation, remains grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation so that it is as of neither time nor history, nor historiography and its topics, shows movement, as the human subject is ‘murdered’ over and over again by the passions of a bloodless and anonymous archaism, showing itself in endless disguise” (68).

Spillers is still right almost twenty years later. The American grammar book necessitates the demise of Black flesh—albeit through racial, sexual, imperial or white supremacist violence. Funeral after funeral, Black body after Black body, outcry after outcry, and Eurocentric notions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationhood continue to suffocate Black people to the point of asphyxiation. Eric Garner said eleven times that he could not breathe and Staten Island police officers in New York choked him until he could speak no more. What is the value of Black breath—the literal and figurative moving and freeing of lung space—in communities that are downtrodden with pollution, food deserts, economic genocide, lackluster schools, low-paying jobs, and the beast that is police brutality? 

The movement for Black lives will not end until the movement for white power is dismantled. When whiteness is decentered as normative and superior, and when Black people are honored and affirmed without question, then, just maybe then, Black people will stop taking to the streets to protest, to shut down state highways, and to take over university offices and the like. When gun-happy cops and bible-thumping vigilantes lay down the idol of white supremacy, then organizations like Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the Dream Defenders will have no need to keep lists of the hundreds, if not thousands, of Black folks murdered each year by police. When Black children—like Aiyana Stanley-Jones—can live pass the age of seven, then Black mothers will not need to march down the halls of our nation’s very white capitol.

The movement for Black lives has picked up an age-old, ancestral mirror from the hands of abolitionists and freedom fighters in our anti-slavery past, and this movement is beckoning America, “the beautiful”, to look at its ugly self. America, however, turns a blind eye to the traumas of Black and brown communities that it has enacted. But as Ella Baker taught us, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest”. Freedom is not reform. We do not want a reformation of structures that are inherently anti-Black. We want these anti-Black structures to be abolished. Black people are tired of being given scraps and broken pieces. We need a whole new fresh start—one that acknowledges our past and present, and honors the visions of the oppressed to construct a (Black) grammar that does not sadistically mutilate, commodify, and dismember Black flesh and Black people.

About the author

Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a writer, scholar-activist, minister, and freedom fighter from Newark, New Jersey, who works at the intersections of faith, criminal justice, and social movements against racial, gender, and sexual violence.


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