Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refined and join the angelic train.
—Phyllis Wheatley, “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” 1773
I write when I need to work out my thoughts. Most of my essays and columns are me talking to myself, and presenting my ideas to others to have them critiqued and refined.
After watching another black person be murdered on video, there’s been a lot on my mind to work out.
The United States Government made the negro a citizen, will it protect him as a citizen? This is the problem. It made him a soldier, will it honor him as a patriot? This is the problem. It made him a voter, will it defend his right to vote? This is the problem. This, I say, is more a problem for the nation than for the negro, and this is the side of the question far more than the other which should be kept in view by the American people.
—Frederick Douglass, “The Race Problem,” 1890
I’ve been trying to figure out what to feel besides despair. Body cameras and cell phones were supposed to be the answer. No police officer would kill an unarmed black person with evidence being gathered in real time. As it turns out, they will, even the ones who aren’t cops anymore. At this point, I’d almost rather that they’re turned off, so that my social media timelines don’t force me to watch the state-sanctioned murder of people who look like me over and over again.
The democratic doors of equal opportunity have not been opened wide to Negroes … They live too often in terror of the lynch mob; are deprived too often of the Constitutional right of suffrage; and are humiliated too often by the denial of civil liberties. We do not believe that justice and common decency will allow these conditions to continue.
—Mary McCloud Bethune, “What Does American Democracy Mean to Me?,” 1939
I’ve also been trying to work out what to say about this. What’s the turn of phrase, the analogy, the statistic I need to deploy? Do I appeal to reason? To emotion? To shared humanity? How do I convince people to care enough about black people’s lives to not simply tsk-tsk or cheer when a racist loses her dog, but actually do something to help?
When I feel like I can’t find the words, I do what all writers do: I look for inspiration. I started reading various black writers and civil rights leaders, looking for that “Aha!” moment, when I would see the words that sparked my own brain. As I read the brilliance of others who came before me, I realized with awe that these great minds, writing hundreds of years before me, have already made the arguments far more eloquently than I could hope to.
The government views young black and brown people as actually and potentially the most rebellious elements of this society. And thus the jails and prisons of this society are overflowing with young people of color. Anyone who has seen the streets of ghettos and barrios can already understand how easily a sister or a brother can fall victim to the police who are always there en masse.
— Angela Davis, “Speech Delivered at the Embassy Auditorium,” 1972
So I guess what I’m trying to figure out is, why the hell am I writing this? America didn’t listen to any of these titans of literature and thought. America didn’t listen to Eric Gardner five years ago when he said he couldn’t breathe. America didn’t listen to George Floyd as the life was crushed out of him.
Why should I believe that you’re going to listen to me?
Jamil Ragland writes and lives in East Hartford. You can read more of his writing at www.nutmeggerdaily.com.
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