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By Timothy Patrick McCarthy | @DrTPM  | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Sunday, November 30, 2014.


Ferguson has finally broken us. We can no longer pretend to dream of a better America unless—and until—we reckon with the worst of America. To continue to dream right now is an act of willful ignorance, or hopeless naiveté. This is a fucking nightmare. And we’re all implicated.


During the most difficult times, I always return to James Baldwin, especially his 1963 masterpiece The Fire Next Time—for inspiration and solace, in equal measure. This passage always, always speaks to me:


“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, staples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears.”  


Freedom has always been good at staging a disappearing act. The American Revolution was fueled by freedom (they preferred to call it “liberty” back then), but the original intent was always meant for a small minority. The Civil War brought about a “new birth of freedom”—for 4 million formerly enslaved people who might finally become “citizens”—but that dream was soon deferred by new kinds of racism: poll taxes and black codes, literacy texts and lynchings, white hoods and white nostalgia. Throughout the 20th century, the “New Deal,” “Fair Deal,” “New Frontier,” and “Great Society” all promised African Americans a better life, but they were always the first ones to be thrown under the bus—even when they were in back of the bus or refused to ride the bus—whenever someone needed to be left behind the bus.

The darkest truth of our democracy is that black lives have never mattered nearly as much as white ones have. There’s a reason why the Civil War has been called the “Second American Revolution,” and the Civil Rights Movement has been called the “Second American Reconstruction,” because when it comes to the rights of black folk, America has a long history of getting it wrong the first time around. And the second time around. And this time around.


That’s what I was thinking about as I awaited the long-awaited press conference in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve been teaching a course, “Stories of Slavery and Freedom,” this semester, and I gave my students the day off yesterday because it’s Thanksgiving week; they’re tired and so am I. When I made the decision to give them a break, I had no idea that the Ferguson verdict—and make no mistake, it was its own indictment—would be coming down this week. But it did. And it got me thinking about all the legacies of slavery and freedom that we’ve been studying this term: the unspeakable tragedy of the Middle Passage and how it forced African people to make the most hideous decisions about life and death; the uncertainty of the Atlantic World and how it required some black people to broker their existences and identities in the fleeting hope of avoiding lives of perpetual bondage; the uncharted territory of people like James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Phillis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano who tried to write themselves into existence against all odds; the uncommon courage of people like Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, Prince Hall, Daniel Coker, James Forten, Russell Parrott, Prince Saunders, Robert Alexander Young, John Brown Russwurm, Samuel Cornish, and others who were the first to speak out against racism in the new nation; the undeniable radicalism of David Walker, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, David Ruggles, Henry Highland Garnet, Solomon Northup, Sojourner Truth, William Wells Brown, Mary Ann Shadd, Martin Delany, Harriet Wilson, Harriet Jacobs, and so many others who dared to defy a slave nation built on both white supremacist and patriarchal practices. I could go on. That’s the thing about the long black freedom struggle: it’s long, it’s black, and it’s a constant struggle. The rest of America would do well to learn this history.


As I waited for the “inevitable” in Ferguson, I couldn’t help but wonder: when and where did America’s fear of black men—boys, teenagers, grown men, every one of them—come from? Did it come from the Haitian Revolution, the most successful slave rebellion in the modern world? Did it come from Nat Turner, who led the largest slave rebellion in American history, one that killed about 60 whites but also led to the reactionary and indiscriminate murder of even more blacks? Did it come from Uncle Tom, who got too close to Little Eva in that famous work of fiction that clearly cut too close to home? Did it come from the 178,000-plus black troops who fought against the Confederacy in the Civil War? Did it come from the nearly 3500 black men who were lynched between 1882 and 1968? Did it come from Bigger Thomas, or Emmett Till? Did it come from the black folks in the 1960s who finally got fed up after waiting for 100 years (or was is 200? 300?) for freedom? Did it come from losing Martin and Malcolm—the yin and the yang of anxious white fantasies—at the same time? Did it come from the “deadbeat dads,” or “gangsta rappers,” or “crack addicts,” or “big ballers,” or “the first black President”—or was it Cosby who finally pushed America over the edge? Or is it all of the above? Like Langston’s raisin in the sun, history explodes with questions right now, but this one haunts me: Will America ever know the origin of it all—why Skittles and Swisher Sweets make white people so crazy they commit murder?


But enough of history. If we knew our history, or cared about it, we wouldn’t repeat it so much. So here’s what’s on my heart tonight:

Grief and relief. My heart breaks for Michael Brown’s family—and all black families who have to deal with the terror of mourning the loss of a child stolen from them. Since August 9, 2014, when their unarmed son was murdered by Ferguson police office Darren Wilson, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., have been living with a grief that none of us who haven’t lost a loved one in this way will ever be able to fully understand. It’s especially hard for most white people to comprehend this kind of loss, because we don’t die this way. The only reason I can empathize with this at all is because I helped to raise a black child, my brother Malcolm, who spent much of his childhood navigating a treacherous world where he was harassed by police officers going and coming—Cambridge cops who followed him home when he was going to his mother’s apartment in Central Square, and Harvard cops who followed him home when he was coming to my apartment in Quincy House. (I won’t even talk about the appearance he had to make in front of a juvenile court judge when he was 12 years old after defending his best friend against a white bully on the playground.)

Like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Malcolm was a black teenager. And like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Malcolm was a good kid who always worked hard to live a good life against the odds. Malcolm’s mother and I both had “the talk” with him early on: be polite, come right home, don’t wear a hoodie. Unlike Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Malcolm is still alive, and we all count our blessings every day. But we also know that Malcolm will always be “at risk” in America, even though he shouldn’t be, even though he doesn’t deserve to be. After the grand jury’s verdict last night, I texted Malcolm: “I love you.” After telling me he loves me, too, he responded: “Shit won’t change.” It breaks my heart that he feels this way, but who am I to tell him he’s wrong?


Rage and resignation. Our system is broken. No one who lives in cities can be naïve about cops. I’ve lost track—ever since my days in Rudy Giuliani’s New York City in the 1990s—of the number of protests I’ve attended in response to instances of white police brutality against innocent black people. The Ferguson spectacle is yet another trigger warning for the nation, an indictment of the entire system. Make no mistake: the grand jury proceedings, Robert McCulloch’s announcement, the police behavior before and after August, even the President’s late-night press conference—taken together, they represent a wholesale incapacity of our system to deliver real justice when it comes to white-on-black violence. Indeed, McCulloch’s press statement was a textbook performance in white supremacy, bookended with empty expressions of sympathy for a real family in deep grief.


Given the long history of this kind of behavior in America, it’s hard to understand how ordinary citizens—perpetually alienated, rarely represented or respected—are supposed to act during times of crisis. When there is no legitimate recourse within powerful institutions that insist on representing themselves as “representative,” there is no other choice but to rage against the machine, peacefully or otherwise. I feel this rage in my bones, even more so when people in power call for “peace” and caution against “violence” even as they refuse to hold themselves—and their peers—to the same standard. I worked hard to get President Obama elected, many of us did, and I recognize how constrained (and obstructed) he’s been by the tenacity of American racism. It’s real. But watching him deliver that lifeless statement in the wake of the Ferguson verdict, feeling his constraint in a way I have never felt before, I can’t help but think that we’ve all fooled ourselves into hoping that the “first black President” could change anything. My late mentor Manning Marable once cautioned: “a black face in a high place does not mean there is racial justice.” I’ve never fully resigned myself to the truth of this until recently. When historians mark the death of Barack Obama’s Presidency, it will not be November 4, 2014. It will be November 24, 2014.


Hate and hope. On occasion, I have been known to say: “I hate white people.” This is meant to be provocative, of course, but it’s also a genuine expression of what I too often think and feel. Some of my white friends understand what I mean when I say this; nearly all of my black friends do. But let me be absolutely clear about what I mean: of course I don’t hate all people with white skin (for instance, I love my mom and my dad, and some of my best friends are white), but I hate the fact that so many white people have a possessive-obsessive investment in whiteness; I hate the fact that so many white people do not—and cannot—understand or appreciate or empathize with what black people live with on a daily basis; I hate the fact that so few white people know anything about black history; I hate slavery and segregation and how both continue to shape our lives, in every school and neighborhood in America; and I hate it when white people get so defensive every time anyone criticizes white people or challenges white privilege.


This is what I hate. November 24th was another moment of reckoning for white America: on which side of history do we stand? I realize this may come across as “divisive,” so let me also say this: I was buoyed that night by how many of my white friends—hundreds on my newsfeed alone—were also outraged by what has happened in Ferguson. That shared outrage, which I frankly didn’t expect, gave me the energy to get up the following morning and keep fighting for this country.  


Black lives and white lives should matter to each other. We are inextricably bound in America. For better and for worse, we always have been and always will be. We may wish to deny this fact, and even hope for our separation, but we do so at our own continued peril. If there’s anything that’s clear to me about this country, it’s this: despite our best efforts at separation, we have failed miserably. Ferguson is yet another reminder—this time for worse—of this longstanding truth. The dilemma that confronts us, still, is whether we will destroy one another before we learn, at last, to love each other.


In the wake of Ferguson, let us not be distracted or deterred from the work that remains unfinished. As James Baldwin concluded in The Fire Next Time:

“Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relative conscious whites and the relative conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others—do no falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”


Fifty-one years ago, this was as much a challenge as it was a prophecy. It remains so.



Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Ph.D. is an award-winning scholar, teacher, and activist. He holds a joint faculty appointment in Harvard’s undergraduate honors program in History and Literature and at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he is founding director of the Sexuality, Gender & Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. A historian of politics and social movements, he is author or editor of five books, including The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition (2003), Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (2006), and Stonewall’s Children: Living Queer History in the Age of Liberation, Loss, and Love, forthcoming from the New Press.  


The Fire This Time

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