“Until they become conscious they will never rebel,
and until after they have rebelled
they cannot become conscious.”
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Examining the Historical Pattern of Killing Black People in America with Impunity
It’s simultaneously perplexing, embarrassing, and infuriating to ponder just how normalized the disproportionate murder of Black people (via various murdering entities including other Black people) has been throughout the history of this country—and continues to be. Yes, other racial and ethnic groups have faced episodes of holocaust, attempted genocide, and endemic terrorist attacks (i.e., all lives matter), but nothing as sustained, insidious, socially devaluing, and tolerated as the killing of Black people in America.
I wrote this book with the constructive intention of outlining the “why” behind a very specific problem, a problem that can be synopsized as the consistent impunity (relative or literal) and tolerance (apparent or actual) associated with the killing of Black people in America. An impunity and tolerance so consistent that—although it oftentimes remains unexpressed—Black people in America exceedingly have an evolved, evidence-based expectation of untimely, unwarranted, and unpunished death. An expectation aggravated by what can no longer be an actually surprising conclusion: Black lives matter (i.e., are valued) comparatively little here. Yes, in America (and you could argue globally) Black lives definitely do not matter as much as White lives. This specific inequity is becoming painfully obvious, at least as far as how Black lives are disproportionately threatened, egregiously unprotected, consistently stigmatized, and tangibly inferiorized. What a terrible thing to begin to anticipate, even if only semiconsciously: I could be killed at any moment “for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat.” Moreover, my killer will probably never be adequately punished “for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat.” I wonder at what point in his Black life will my now twelve-year-old son begin to anticipate what for me in forty-two years has become such a heavy psychological load. Or has this anticipation already begun? It would be awesome if by not daring to address it I could somehow make it all just go away—but awesome things are oftentimes not allowed (even when well earned) to certain people. Perhaps the very act of writing this book may somehow ultimately stop someone from killing my child, or at least liberate him from the intergenerational expectation of an untimely, unwarranted, and unpunished death for no other reason than being Black and his skin color somehow being perceived as a threat. People of all races and ethnicities die every day, but in America there’s something terrifyingly normalized (i.e., made normal, natural, orderly, routine, typical, predictable, unexceptional, allowable, tolerable) about the killing of Black people. The normalization of our slaughter seems to somehow echo the invisibility imposed on our lives for no other reason than being Black. There’s been a persistent inequity with regard to the protection of Black versus White life implied by the inequality of consequence and public outcry for taking it. Accordingly, there’s never been an adequate level of dread associated with the intention of killing Black people, which if adequate may have prevented this intention from being actualized far too often. African-American lives—our physical and social existence—have long been treated as relatively valueless, disposable, nonessential, obsolete, unnecessary, removable.
Why is that?
I mean, it’s been a while since I first semiconsciously coupled Kathy Russell’s acknowledgment that “there are few advantages associated with being Black in America” with Richard Carlson’s declaration that life isn’t fair and “perhaps, it was never intended to be” and made it a kind of personal mindful mantra. Yet, I still can’t (or at least couldn’t before writing this book) sufficiently understand why Black people, unlike any other social group in this country, are perceived as killable (i.e., suitable for and/or capable of being killed, executed, murdered, deprived of life) and our homicide consistently rendered unproblematic. Reading history backwards you can easily identify an enduring pattern of profound injustice and Black lives not mattering long predating Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Korryn Gaines, Botham Shem Jean, and Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford. The “whys” underlying the pattern isn’t as effortlessly discernible. Why have Black people been and continue to be killed so disproportionately relative other socioracial groups, including by other Black people? Why have these killings occurred and continue to occur with relative impunity? Why do Black people appear to tolerate being killed disproportionately and with relative impunity by not somehow stopping it?
Studying and then writing about death is difficult—but necessary for survival (i.e., the capacity of preventing, or at least delaying, death). After this work I have a special appreciation for what Ida B. Wells must have felt as she wrote in 1892 how “it is with no pleasure I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so. The awful death-roll that Judge Lynch is calling every week is appalling, not only because of the lives it takes, the rank cruelty and outrage to the victims, but because of the prejudice it fosters and the stain it places against the good name of a weak race.”
“The Afro-American is not a bestial race. If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are of minor importance.”
However, it’s awkward to type through potential tears and research regardless of oscillating sensations of rage and helplessness (or maybe I could more accurately describe it as profound existential anguish and even shame). Death is very hard to write about dispassionately. Accordingly, I now have an enhanced understanding that, to quote James Baldwin, “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” My selfish hopes of eventually becoming desensitized so that I could write more efficiently persistently proved futile, yet I never stopped hoping. And to do so daily for over the 14 months required to complete Becoming Bulletproof really tested not only my emotional resilience but also what I accepted to be my rationale even for writing it.