Jordan Davis’s murder was as American as apple pie; its main ingredient is a strange fruit grafted from European imports. One part cave-dweller logic in which darkness represents danger because there is no time for the sophistication of nuance. “Honestly, sir,” he told a detective. “I’m at a loss to justify what I did in the second volley…” One part obsession with class status and aristocratic land ownership. His life was going well, he told detectives, because he had a great job and a house by the beach. He shouldn’t be in trouble. One part insistence on the right to armed protection of said status. He went to the glove compartment enraged by the “threatening” lyrics of rap music, the language of Black tricksters who glory in stolen access to White symbols of success and brag about stepping out of place. I imagine his hand shaking at the word “Maybach.” One part allegiance to the social construction of manhood. Would Jordan Davis be alive if Dunn’s girlfriend hadn’t been close enough to hear that her man couldn’t stop the music? One part fixation on the Black phallus, real or imagined. When informed that there was no gun found on the scene, Dunn said, “Did he have a stick? Because he stuck something up.”
Jordan’s murder was as American as genocide. It is woven into the fabric of this nation, changing names and shapes with the times. Smallpox blankets, police badges, chemical dumps, gun control laws, crack cocaine, minimum wage…There are hundreds of ways to kill off inconvenient people and the state has studied them all.
Jordan’s murder was as American as willful illiteracy. People who had been raised in the shadow of Emmett Till’s bloated body couldn’t see the similarities between the cases. The jury refused to read the signs. The state attorney refused to even mention the signs although that strategy lost in the Zimmerman trial not a year ago. But Angela Corey didn’t want to win.
A working class, White man kills a Black boy for sassing him, and a literate response to this crime would be heavy enough to crumble the Statue of Liberty. A literate America would notice the threads between race, class, and nationalism. A literate America would make demands that its government is ill-prepared to meet. A literate America would support allegiances between the groups whose rights have been historically denied, would see racial stereotypes as a distraction from necessary alliance between the poor.
But literacy without a plan of action hastens a nihilism that is hard to overcome. I know this because I have been wondering what to do with my hands since the state snatched the boy who called me “sissy” when “sister” was too hard to pronounce. Because I am literate, I knew that he going away for being a danger to “Big Pharma.” One by one, the state plucked the boys from my youth for their insistence on providing a counter-market for dangerous but affordable pain relief. I sat in the sentencing hearing thinking of auction blocks and the way blood binds us, the way that pain travels along these invisible ties. I felt the gavel fall. I wept into my hands and thought then, as I feel now, that they were useless.
I was wringing these useless hands when the Zimmerman trial jury announced their verdict. I was doing the same when the Dunn trial jury announced their verdict, their difficulty in deciding whether drunkenly shooting an unarmed man was murder. Jane Velez Mitchell wondered about Angela Corey’s strategy. “Where were the baby pictures?” she yelled. “He was an adorable kid!” I stared at my hands and heard a ringing in my ear. I imagined that Jordan’s baby photo would look a lot like my brother’s: smooth brown skin, a face that was all eyes, eyelashes that were probably praised for curling and later accused of concealing a threat.
I remember a lecture by Howard University professor C. Jules Harrell the day after Michael Jackson confessed his plastic surgeries to Oprah Winfrey. Professor Harrell argued that the surgeries were necessary to his stardom. America, he said, love Black boys when they are adorable and small. He showed us a picture of a chubby-cheeked Michael with a smile that seemed easy. “But teddy bears become grizzly bears,” he said, showing us an age progression of the same photo. He looked like he could be my uncle. “Americans shoot grizzly bears.” Jordan’s murder was as American as the California grizzly bear, hunted for years and then never seen again.
Someone, please tell me what a mother of a Black child is supposed to do with her hands. Tell me that opposable thumbs are for more than gripping guns.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta. Tweet her: @afrenchwriter
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