Last week, I watched Part 1 of Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson on PBS. It got me thinking. A little over one hundred years ago, the “Fight of the Century” pitted the brashly black Johnson against James Jeffries, the revered champion who reluctantly came out of retirement to reassert the physical and tactical superiority of the white male. Jeffries became, as author Jack London anointed him, the “Great White Hope.”
Throughout the night following Johnson’s 1910 victory on America’s Independence Day, race riots punctuated the national landscape. Boisterous black men became the typical target of vengeful white mobs. The venerable New York Times soon sought to reassure its white readers that, contrary to prior editorial claims, physical prowess did not translate into elevated social status, while the L. A. Times reminded its colored and Negro citizenry that nothing had changed as far as their scripted lives were concerned.
In too many ways, the American social fabric did remain unaltered. Indeed, the next black man to box for the heavyweight championship had not even been born at the time of Johnson’s ascension. It would be another twenty-seven years before Joe Louis, the more muted “Brown Bomber,” would be even granted a chance at the throne.
It is perhaps difficult now to imagine how deeply the psychological need for racial superiority in all things anchored innumerable white communities. But, today, one has only to glance at the comment section of any story involving race to become reacquainted with a familiar litany of charges against all black males. Still, it is interesting to note that only after Johnson’s victory could physical strength and intimidating arrogance be added to the list.
In 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black male from Chicago who was “big for his age,” could not possibly understand the unwritten rules he was about to break when he traveled to Money, Mississippi to visit relatives “down South.” A city boy who attended an integrated school, the outgoing Till could not appreciate how engrained the lines of racial proscription were, nor could he anticipate the depth of the insecurities plaguing those white males hellbent on enforcing them.
While the exact account of what happened when he entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market differs, what is clear is that Till, in some untenable way, did not display the proper deference to the white woman manning the store in her husband’s absence.
Later, after being kidnapped and beaten by two or more white men, Till refused to “assume the position” of inferiority his tormentors required. In his youthful defiance, Till, according to his murderers, called them names, declared he was their equal, and even boasted about being acquainted with white girls. These were unforgivable sins. As one killer explained in a 1956 Look magazine article published shortly after his acquittal, “As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place.”
This battle for “place” is as fundamental to American history as its wars. In 1994, after the mid-term elections witnessed the return of a Republican house majority for the first time in fifty years, the media buzzed about the resurgence of the “angry white male.” It seems the latter half of the twentieth century had unleashed a slew of pretenders coveting the “all-American” title which seemingly belonged exclusively to this one essential demographic.
In his book Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel terms the backlash “aggrieved entitlement.” He writes:
Raised to believe that this was “their” country, simply by being born white and male, they were entitled to a good job by which they could support a family as sole breadwinners, and to deference at home from adoring wives and obedient children. And not only do their kids and their wives have ideas of their own; not only is the competition for those jobs increasingly ferocious; they’ve also been slammed by predatory lenders, corporate moguls, Wall Street short-sellers betting against their own companies and manipulated by cynical elites into believing that their adversaries were not the ones downsizing, outsourcing and cutting their jobs, but those assorted others — women, immigrants, gays, black people — who were asserting their claims for a piece of the pie.
On February 6, 2012, Trayvon Martin, at seventeen, could not possibly have been prepared to become the boogeyman George Zimmerman needed. When the armed Zimmerman elected to pursue Martin by car and on foot, he must have suspected the law would see him as the helpless victim and Martin as the obvious threat.
When Martin, with his menacing “hoodie” and brazen cache of Skittles and Amazon tea, decided to face the strange man following him, rather than lower his head and keep walking to his father’s house, he did not realize that “stand your ground” laws in Florida and twenty-five other states were never crafted to include his perceptions, or his safety. Trayvon Martin was the whiff of “imminent death” the Florida law empowered Zimmerman to erase. It could never be the other way around, at least not to the jury which acquitted him.
Of course, Zimmerman and his attorney did not formally seek “stand your ground” protection at his trial, though state law mandated its inclusion in jury instructions. Martin’s death was the result of simple self-defense, they claimed.
Similarly, then forty-five-year-old Michael Dunn argued self-defense to justify the murder of Jordan Davis some nine months after the Martin tragedy. Also seventeen and black, Davis made the critical error of mouthing back at an armed, belligerent white man who had, by his own admission, been drinking. In fact, Dunn and his fiance, heading back from his estranged son’s wedding, had stopped at the gas station convenience store to purchase more alcohol.
On November 23, when Dunn demanded that Davis and his friends turn down the music in their car rather than simply ignore their teenage antics, or move his car to another parking spot, or enter the convenience store with his fiance, he no doubt felt he was merely asserting a natural right to his preference for immediate peace and quiet–even in a public space. The profanity-laced lyric thumping out of Davis’ car no doubt jarred his middle-aged ear.
Dunn’s own trial testimony reveals his escalating anger and dismay at Davis’ verbal audacity. “Are you talking to me?” Dunn recalled asking Davis. An eyewitness stated he heard an agitated Dunn declare, “You’re not going to talk to me like that.”
From his writings in jail, it is clear Dunn saw Davis and his friends as nothing more than “thugs,” a popular euphemism for the N-word. The young Davis had no right to question his entitlement, no right to ignore his command, and certainly no right to curse him.
After an unusually long, thirty-two hours of deliberation, the jury–which included nearly every subgroup except black male–was finally able to reach a verdict of sorts. The jury elected to convict Dunn of three counts of attempted murder for leaving his vehicle and firing at the fleeing car holding the fatally wounded Davis and his friends, friends who, after all, had said nothing to him. The jury simply could not ignore the blatant evidence in that circumstance.
But for the petulant Jordan Davis, who dared to verbally defy aggrieved Michael Dunn, justice remained elusive. It is telling that the jury could not reach a unanimous decision surrounding the only death that occurred on that horrible day. They could not even agree to the lesser charge of manslaughter. Clearly, in at least one of their minds, Davis’ “attitude” precipitated and justified Dunn’s deadly response.
When it comes to race, this notion of “attitude” is synonymous with “knowing your place.” Despite all the progress we have made as Americans–and we have–there remains this intractable core of “nostalgics” who intend to drag their mud into the 21st century, no matter what. Till, Martin, and Davis, like Johnson before them, failed to follow someone else’s script, and, in today’s gun-obsesseAmerica, that oversight can be a death sentence.
As a teacher of mostly brown and black teenagers, I am continually motivated by the need to fortify them against an onslaught of enabled fear and imminent danger they refuse to even see. “Times have changed,” they tell me. Perhaps they have. Yet most of my students state they would have simply seen Dunn as an arrogant “old head” trying to impose his will on them. They, too, would have refused.
Personally, I am not a fan of loud, boisterous hip-hop. I have pulled into gas stations where one or more teens saw themselves as DJ’s for the world. The sound intrusion has annoyed me, but never enraged. I have been there myself and remember when my friends and I, black, white, and otherwise, searched for all sorts of ways to be noticed and heard.
In our youthful quest for newfound “freedoms” and adult respect, we were not always considerate of our more settled neighbors. Such is the passageway of youth. But I never, then or now, saw those generational clashes as a springboard for murder. Nor could I have ever cowardly slunk away after firing ten rounds into a stranger’s car in order to soothe myself with pizza and more alcohol, as though nothing untoward had occurred.
When I read about all the incredible passions surrounding Jack Johnson’s title bout, I can only shake my head and marvel at the insanity. When I read about the twisted justifications of Emmett Till’s assassins, or the self-righteous logic of Trayvon Martin’s stalker, or the victim mantle Dunn is so determined to climb, I realize that when it comes to race (and especially black males), there are still far too many Americans whose eyes are so obstructed by hate and judgement they simply cannot see straight—until it’s time to shoot.
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)