NO LOVE IN THE WILD
written by: Robert Jones Jr. (Son of Baldwin)
For the past 400 years, black people have resided in the wilderness that, according to James Baldwin, ancient maps designated as the home of dragons. We dismissed those creatures as mythical due to a grave misunderstanding of the definition. Dragons aren’t giant fire-breathing reptiles. Instead, they are cold-blooded human-beings who can, on command, by remote control, render the entire world as cinder and ash. The thick white smoke left in the wake of this carnage is its own evidence.
It isn’t lost on me that I started writing this essay on Juneteenth, a day that is meant to celebrate the emancipation of black people in the United States from the bowels of the vicious enslavement we endured at the hands of our white captors. The celebration is an insulting bit of irony given the old switcheroo of the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution it’s meant to commemorate—“Except as punishment for a crime” is perhaps the most genius of all fine print.
When the direct descendants white captors, have unparalleled control over the definition of crime, write and enforce the very laws themselves, the re-enslavement of black people under these dubious circumstances can appear legitimate to the rest of the world. The United States can thus justify, with impunity, its cruelty in the continued capture and execution of black people by the agents of its criminal justice apparatus.
The black person’s relationship to the country remains as disturbing and troubled as it has been since the first black person was dragged from the slave ships. This should not be shocking. Police forces evolve right out of the plantation system of overseers, patrollers, and lynch mobs. The country—in its endless pursuit of profit—had to find a way to continue exploiting the bodies and labor of black people. We are the people who make the very idea of America possible. The economy is built on our suffering. Black blood is the engine’s fuel. The white supremacist and capitalist enterprises of this nation are inextricably linked. So with the “end” of antebellum slavery came another slave system with the veneer of respectability: the prison industrial complex.
It cannot be said that we have not attempted negotiation. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a practical man. He opted for attempting to compromise with the white supremacist regime given the indisputable fact that black people in America are the minority amongst a majority. But here we are after the Great King Compromise. It has been nearly 50 years since King met with the white establishment, broke bread, and brokered a tenuous peace. For his troubles, he was shot down like a clay duck in a hunting range. The reason? He began to articulate his plans for ensuring they made good on the contract.
Compromise is a farce.
You ask any white person now—right or left—and they will hold King’s corpse up high, parade through the wilderness, and shout: “Progress!” In 1964, white people blew up four little girls; in 2015, they massacred six women. In 1955, napalm was the colored-people eradicator du jour. In 2015, it’s the drone. Can there be any doubt about how white people define progress? Through a marvelous sleight-of-hand, they will point you to Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey as signifiers of progress. They know damn well that these two exceptions—who, themselves, haven’t been spared the sword of racism—are not the normative experience of Blackness in the country. Far more indicative of what it means to live as a black person in America is Aiyana Stanley-Jones—a seven-year-old black girl who was asleep on a couch in her home when police busted in and shot her down. The cops were filming a reality series, you see, and in performing for the camera, Aiyana became a casualty of the hubris inherent to Whiteness. This is normal, but white people have to deny the lived reality of black people because Whiteness can only remain innocent and inoculated under such false claims.
Let me be clear: When I say “white people” and “Whiteness,” I’m talking about identities and systems as a hierarchical and socio-political ideas. I’m not talking about individual white people who may be anti-racist. Though, as anti-racist as they claim to be (and the majority of white folks regularly claim to be), they are curiously and wholly ineffective in their ability to neutralize the anti-blackness their group practices, enforces, and makes the primary nature of the country. Despite the military-grade weaponry and the invasion tactics, a war hasn’t been formally declared (except, maybe, under the guise of President Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs”). In a war, both sides generally have military power. We are being picked off, one-by-one, or, more recently, nine-by-nine. This is genocide—perhaps the slowest and most ingenuous genocide ever enacted. Who, after all, is willing to name it such if it’s done with such patience and aplomb? They have already laid the groundwork for posterity to believe that we did it to ourselves.
What seems unspoken is that white people long for a return to the antebellum period, or some facsimile thereof. They want a return to the lazy days of summer on the veranda, drinking cool glasses of sweet tea, being fanned by barefoot and enslaved girls and boys. They want every black person to be a version of Mammy from Gone with the Wind or Uncle Remus from Song of the South. They want us to pamper them, nurse their children, care for their sick, and keep their elderly company. White people want us to tell them that no matter what they do to us, we remain smiling and grateful. The eternal happy darkies. "Zip /a/ dee/ doo/ dah." Or they want us dead.
They will deny this, too. Denial is how white Americans cope with every adverse situation, every harsh reality, every call to introspection. They don’t like to be implicated. They don’t like to be thought of as a monolith (despite the fact that their institutions operate monolithically and they make a monolith of all other peoples). They become extremely defensive; defensive enough to put on bulletproof vests, strap on machine guns, climb in tanks, and roll arrogantly through streets from Ferguson to Fallujah.
So what must we do in response? How do we reason with an enemy whose definition of peace calls for either our silence or our death? No oppressive power in the history of humankind has ever willingly conceded. The Thirteenth Amendment, Jim Crow, King’s murder, the re-segregation of schools, and mass incarceration have proved that a deal with the devil is an unsound strategy. Should we then arm ourselves and return fire—even though the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association seem to only champion the rights of white people? Do we go buck-fucking-wild and, like the Haitians of antiquity, who, in the late 18th century, threw off the manacles of their masters and put each master’s head on a spike? Do we follow our Palestinian cousins and attempt a massive boycott, divestment, and sanctioning of the U.S. economy, hitting the country where it would hurt most? Or do we self-segregate? But where is there in the world to go where white people haven’t already ravaged, haven’t planned to ravage, haven’t taught the native inhabitants to ravage in their stead? The last time we prospered in segregation (think of the “Black Wall Street” or the early 20th century), they dropped bombs on us to destroy what we’d created. We’re running out of options.
Jesus, be a portal to another universe.
But even if we could get to another universe where there were no more white people, leave this current wilderness, we would still have to contend with a mass of traumatized black people with Stockholm Syndrome, who have been held captive at the foot of white supremacy for generations and whose minds have been thoroughly colonized to carry out white supremacy’s bidding even in the absence of white people. This other universe, then, would have its share of Clarence Thomases, Ben Carsons, Bill Cosbys, Stacey Dashes, and Umar Johnsons. Wolves in sheep’s clothing; thieves in the temple; spies who sometimes pretend to love us; the African nobility who sold us to the Europeans in the first place. How do we not become darker versions of the patriarchal, misogynistic, ableist, queer-antagonistic capitalists we’re hoping to escape?
Jesus, please tell me that this nonsense is not stuck in the human DNA.
Or maybe it’s Jesus himself who is the problem. “The slave and master cannot pray to the same god,” Dr. John Henrik Clarke once said. When they do, it’s clear that the god being beseeched is loyal to the master. If Jesus is nothing more than propaganda to keep us docile and tame, to convince us that our misery is proof of piety, that our masochism will be rewarded in some intangible afterlife of frolicking and milk-honey seas, then perhaps it is best if we heed Ms. Sofia’s advice to Ms. Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: “Girl, you oughta bash Mister’s head open and think about heaven later!”
All signs lead to war. And it’s a war we are doomed to lose. We are outnumbered and out-gunned. That’s a material fact. It is, perhaps, why so many black people have already surrendered. It’s perhaps why so many black people are trying their very best to be white. Many of us have been assimilated into a society where we also function as perpetual scapegoats. It’s a push-and-pull existence: they love our culture, but they despise us; we grovel for their approval, but this isn’t what Baldwin meant when he told us that we must “love them.” He made it rather clear that love was the power that we’d utilize to force white people “too see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality, and begin to change it.” Thus, not so much a hand open and extended as an open hand to slap across a face.
It’s clear that we are just as confused as white people are in regard to what love really means. I was debating with members of the community about the act of forgiveness, particularly in the wake of the Charleston Massacre and the terrorist who claimed nine lives. I was asked to think about how forgiveness can be used to release rage and make room for other, more productive emotions. I wondered who the quelling of that rage actually serves. Some of our wisest sages have indicated that rage has a negative effect on the person holding it, but none on the target of the rage. Maya Angelou advised us to be angry, but not bitter, that anger can be used for a collective and productive action, but bitterness induces lethargy. So I reckon that it is really more about what you do with the energy rather than having the energy itself.
The Haitian ancestors who unchained themselves were filled with unbridled rage. Harriet Tubman forgave no one and had a shotgun to prove it. Nat Turner forgave himself for what he felt needed to be done. With that in mind, I told the community members that if your forgiveness comes without a plan for economic boycott, then the peace of mind you claim forgiveness affords is in jeopardy. If you forgive, but you have not begun a coordinated effort to divest from the agencies and corporations with their feet on your neck, then your forgiveness is foolishness in disguise. If your forgiveness is freely given, but you've failed to articulate an effective strategy for sanctioning those vampiric institutions that thrive on black blood, then your forgiveness is nothing more than a fancy euphemism for inertia. If you have forgiven and left all means for your survival up to Jesus, then you have merely discovered a clever way to be a coward.
How much more seriously would the oppressors have taken our calls for justice if instead of offering our forgiveness, we stopped riding the MTA or the MARTA? If we, instead, decided that until the Charleston Terrorist is convicted, we would stop patronizing malls, would stop going to the movies, would stop watching TV, would not buy a single disposable item. If the only measure of power black people in America have is as consumers, then we must wield it for our own benefit and uplift. If we cannot, then we are a lost cause. Meanwhile, the only thing our forgiveness has made clear to the world, repeatedly, effectively, is that “niggers” know their place. Forgiveness is a beautiful concept, but it didn't save an 87-year-old woman from being shot down like a dog as she prayed to the heavens. I would ask where Jesus was then, but I know well the Christian sophistry that allows him and his father eternal freedom from responsibility.
Forgiveness in a vacuum is masturbation. Wasted seed bears no fruit. Don't forgive and then look up to the sky. Forgive and have a plan for action. White Jesus isn't going to save us. We’ve got to save ourselves.
Black people ain’t got nobody but Jesus, the old saying goes. I’d like to suggest a revision. Black people ain’t got nobody period. But it is way past time that we, at the very least, had each other. Love us. LOVE US. Because “yonder,” as Baby Suggs Holy shouted from the tree stump in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, “they do not love our flesh.”
It’s strange, indeed. White people seem to both want us here (because we provide context to their Whiteness, give their imagined superiority definition) and don’t want us here (because we remind them of their own debased state of being—debased, mind you, by their own inability to reckon with their history and their unmitigated crimes against humanity). That duality, that dichotomy, is what fuels their anxiety and thus their malice. Whether the solution comes through amity or ferocity, acceptance or revolt, reconciliation or bloodshed, it must come now and it must be final. These are no uncertain terms. This must be known as well: What white people do to us, they eventually do to themselves. What is visited on the black person is but a premonition of what will become of the white person. The humanity lost through the action of anti-blackness will be the death visited upon the white person’s door. But this is not a message white people can acknowledge. For the petulant are impossible to adore and even harder to convince. There is no compassion to be found in the wilderness and no love in the wild themselves. So they don’t have a sound basis from which to begin to comprehend.
But they gon' learn someday.