On 26 February, exactly one year ago today, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman.
February is a month dedicated to black history, black pride, and black liberation. It was chosen because it contains the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
This is an interesting point on first glance. Why is a white man one of the sole causes for black history month? Commonly, the answer is related to the Emancipation Proclamation and the broader victory of the Grand Union over the Rebel Confederates. In a way, Lincoln is viewed as a founder of the second chapter of our Republic. He turned the slaves into freedmen and stopped the Southern rebellion.
Last weekend, you may or may not have seen the Academy Awards. Every year, the Oscars attempts to display some of Hollywood’s best and brightest films. The most lauded, with twelve nominations, was Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. This was put out by Participant Media, responsible for some of the best in edutainment, such as An Inconvenient Truth, North Country, and Waiting for Superman.
The studio makes a particular point of finding pictures which are educational or informative yet also commercially viable, or, better put, entertaining. Lincoln is undoubtedly their biggest hit yet. Grossing over $244 million dollars worldwide, it has reached a wide audience. Further than this, Spielberg has recently announced that he will be sending copies of the DVD to middle schools nationwide. This may very well become the most viewed biopic in decades.
This just leaves me with one question: where is Frederick Douglass? It is commonly accepted that Frederick Douglass had an enormous impact on Lincoln. So why is it that Douglass is he who shall not be named?
Friends and fellow citizens, would you kindly allow me to draw your attention to something Douglass said on 14 April 1876? This was a speech given as the memorial for Lincoln’s assassination on the same date in 1865. While it is a long, block quote, I think it is worth your time to gain some historical context on both characters:
It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.
He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor.
Strangely, this sentiment reminds me of a strong theme coursing through Union’s Systematic Theology 103 (ST103). Taught by James Cone, it is an imperative of the class to highlight the character and nature of the broader traditions informing liberation theology. Moving from Immanuel Kant’s What is Enlightenment? it follows the line to look at many diverse perspectives in relation to the broad category of liberation. Ultimately, there were two points I took from the course, one of which was from Kant and one of which was from Cone. So what is enlightenment? To Kant, it is to think for one’s self. To Cone, it is that, and it is to mind your blindside.
During the course of that semester, someone asked me if I thought ‘thinking’ was one of the hardest jobs in the world. I said no. I think it’s one of the easiest jobs in the world. In fact, it’s one of those jobs that only the enormously privileged can ever undertake. And further than this, it seems that many people take this job specifically because of its ease. To me, Kant’s point was obvious. As a white male I had been raised all my life to think for myself. That was my birthright. In fact, thinking for one’s self is practically synonymous with thinking only about one’s self.
The second point, to mind our blindside, is significantly more complicated. What exactly is my blindside? What about my own thinking am I unaware of? If I was aware of what I was unaware of I would be aware of it. It is a hard concept simply because it is dealing exclusively in what you don’t know. It is asking you to conceptualize something very difficult: freedom from the known.
To give an example, here is what Cone’s blindside was. Throughout his tenure, Cone developed what is famously called “Black Liberation Theology”. I am not going to classify exactly what that is, but it historically used African American males as its protagonists and the White Man and, particularly, White Supremacy, as its antagonist. You may remember this from the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright and President Barack Obama. What Cone found, however, was that his theology was not necessarily exclusive to white people, but was to African American women!
Very humble and honest about this, Cone acknowledges his theology failed to paint a protagonist of a kind which had been completely unheard from so far. It was not until 1995 when his own student Delores Williams challenged his narrative and wrote Sisters in the Wilderness that we saw a shift towards something completely different: Survival Theology.
This focuses on the simple fact that not only does so-called white theology not address the values of the oppressed people, but it simply isn’t speaking to their realities at all. Their reality is not one in which we can ‘contemplate’ ourselves to higher frames of being, becoming one with reality and so on, but one that is rooted in a deep existential crisis in which people are prey in a hostile and threatening environment. Their only call is to survive.
This theology doesn’t speak to my reality. Mine is, in fact, privileged enough where doing theology is about contemplation (read: beatific vision) and directed practice. It is not truly engaged in this sort of crisis of circumstances. But let me tell you this, I see it clear as day.
During that same class there was an interesting question posed to us by Cone: when you leave the front doors of Union, which way do you turn?
To the right we move downtown. First stop, Columbia’s main campus. Next stop, Lincoln Center. The stop after that, Time’s Square. Head on down Broadway for a good ol’ New York night on the town. To the left, however, is Harlem. Increasingly gentrified yet still impoverished and certainly riddled with crime which just isn’t seen in the same ways when you take a right. Union is located in what comedian George Carlin famously called “White Harlem,” which is also known as Morningside Heights. Hey, at least there’s a popular song named after it! Do the Harlem Shake… Con los Terroristas! As Carlin says, sounds bad!
To be perfectly honest, I usually go right.
But when I don’t, there is one thing that stands in my mind the entire time I haunt the streets of Harlem: I am safe. People ask me frequently if I feel safe living in New York. Coming from Minnesota, people have a mental construct of the city in which white people everywhere are getting mugged, pick-pocketed, or worse yet. But that simply isn’t the case, at least not to my experience so far. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel as if the NYPD are explicitly looking out for me. Fortunately, the NYPD works for people like me.
Treyvon Martin’s death was a tragedy. It is largely being discussed along racial lines and I think ultimately that is a good thing. The problem here, however, is his assailant is not white. That said, he executed Martin while standing guard over a neighborhood of predominantly white people. Why is this important? Because it implicates all white people in a broader problem of racism.
In my estimation, I can sympathize with Zimmerman. It is commonly noted that our media paints a stereotype of the young black male and certainly makes him look threatening. Conditioned over a long period of time, engaged in a culture of protecting white people from this imaginary villain, I can see how someone could make an antagonistic gesture which may have escalated the problem further than it needed to go. Sadly, Martin’s life was the Iron price. For our gross manipulation of the dignity of real human beings we sacrificed, once again, another young black child on the altar of racism.
In response to his death, people in New York and other places nationwide protested as the One Million Hoodies. Named after the fact that as Martin was buying Skittles at a convenient store, he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and that seemed to be enough to start the altercation. Whether that’s true to the facts doesn’t really matter. Martin’s death is not an isolated incident. It is the death of a particular child but it is also a symbol of the One Million Hoodies murdered before him.
Some people are quick to point out the fact that Martin had been in trouble at school, even suspended, and also that he had smoked marijuana recently enough for it to be in his system. I guess my only question in response is: so what? This is ultimately the biggest difference for a young white or black man. For one, this is enough to end their life. For the other, maybe it’s just a fun day in high school. How terribly bizarre.
I don’t want to put the blame on Zimmerman because I don’t think he’s exclusively at fault. Yes, he shot Martin but he’s a dead man himself. His life will never recover from this. If he is not seriously punished by the coming court trial (which he very well may not be), he will surely be condemned by what is an already made-up cultural verdict. Ultimately, people have already decided he’s guilty. To me, the real guilt is on the broader white culture for perpetually allowing these incidents and for perpetuating false images which directly inform this nonsense and hatred.
Liberation theology is one which is meant to be, simply, liberating. It is one which is to set people free from bondage. Frederick Douglass is America’s patron saint of liberating Freedom. He points out an immortal truth about the myth of progress: no one man has gotten us there. We need to remember the women, the children, and anyone else who remains invisible on the quest.
Historian David W. Blight paraphrases Douglass when he says, “We are not to be saved by the captain… but by the crew. We are not to be saved by Abraham Lincoln, but by the power behind the throne, greater than the throne itself.” I think Martin’s death needs to be remembered as broadly as possible. Not as one particular child but as all children who have to worry about what many white people don’t even think of: Survival.
There’s a level of reality which simply doesn’t resonate with the privileged. That is exactly why Martin’s death needs to be used as a wake-up call.
So, without further adieu: wake up white people!
You need to know that this is a daily struggle. Not one which just happened this one time in February. It’s all times in February. It’s every day in every month. And as Biggie says, “if you don’t know, now you know…”
Now, Frederick Douglass was not totally opposed to Lincoln. Do not get me wrong. In fact they had a very fruitful relationship and had mutual respect for each other. But at the end of the day, Lincoln did not free the slaves. To perpetuate this great lie limits the reality of not only the rest of the people involved broadly but also the particular heroes of that narrative like Douglass himself.
When the trial finally comes about, don’t get tricked by talking points of Martin’s drug use or adolescent aggression. Don’t mind that Zimmerman looks lighter or was in a position of power. Mind the bigger idea: this happens all of the time. Racial oppression happens constantly in a plurality of forms. This is just one example of it.
But most of all, mind false narratives. Mind the history: Lincoln was not alone in his endeavor and would have plausibly never accomplished anything had Douglass not pushed him from the side. Mind your blindside. Do not get tricked into thinking Sandra Bullock saved the poor, helpless black child and put him through college so he could play for her alma mater. Is that Charity? That’s The Blind Side.
Zimmerman was just looking at Martin with his blindside. He saw someone who wasn’t really there. In reality, it was a just a young kid in a hooded sweatshirt getting some skittles. And probably, Martin saw Zimmerman from his blindside thinking this guy is in a power position and a threat. In reality, what I see is a scared man who made a terrible mistake.
What I want to see from this situation is more Frederick Douglass and less Abraham Lincoln. This kind of racism is a white person’s problem but it’s a black person’s burden. It’s going to take people to own up to the facts. To recognize what sorts of systems they perpetuate and what sort images they hold in their heads unfairly. But I tell you, if you think of the Civil War and fall into the trap of imagining Lincoln as the white savior of black people… time to wake up.
So here are some final words from our sponsor: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”
Do the Right Thing. Put on the Hood.