Progress. There’s no word America loves more to describe the racial climate in this country than progress. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we should celebrate the progress we’ve made,” many say. Barack Obama’s presidency, Oprah Winfrey’s empire, and Halle Berry’s Best Actress Oscar are a few of the receipts usually offered as proof that this great nation is slowly but surely headed for the post-racial promised land. Yes, America loves her some examples of good ol’ progress.
Personally, I’ve never been interested in the progress “we’ve” made in race relations. Progress is what my stylist makes over two hours when she’s braiding my hair. I see progress when I’m cleaning out my closet. I appreciate the progress my son made from the beginning of the school year to the end. But when it comes to Black people oppressed, exploited, and murdered under the system America has constructed, perfected, and maintained primarily to ensure our economic and social disenfranchisement, I have no pats on the back for this so-called progress people like to brag about.
This month marks 72 years since this country’s conscious allowed a 14-year-old Black boy to be put to death in an electric chair. And earlier this week, this country proved the extent of the progress toward racial equality it’s made over seven decades when the Department of Justice announced no federal charges would be filed in the case of the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson.
On January 11, 2013, the young Valdosta, Georgia native was found dead inside a rolled up mat in his high school gym. Johnson’s body was bloody and his face was mangled. Local officials claimed he died in a “freak accident” after getting stuck in the gym mat while trying to get his shoe. Tuesday, the DOJ issued a statement saying, “After extensive investigation into this tragic event, federal investigators determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson’s civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime.”
If a federal organization ignoring all that doesn’t add up in the mysterious death of a Black child is what we’ve progressed to, I’m inclined to believe that progress is no more than folklore.
The first time I saw Kendrick Johnson’s face, I smiled at how handsome he was. The next time I saw it, I had to turn away. An autopsy picture of this once beautiful child’s monstrously distorted face was juxtaposed with a harrowing similar picture of a 13-year-old Emmett Till’s disfigured face from his 1955 autopsy. After more than 60 years, Black boys are still being denied the humanity in death they are stripped of in life.
Once my utter shock and disgust subsided, I was left with the thought of that child, a Black boy the same age as my little brother at the time of his death, dying so horrifically. I was pained by the thoughts of the unbearable grief and sorrow his parents must have felt seeing their baby for the last time like that. I was enraged by the careless “investigation” that so quickly concluded that Kendrick had died from “positional asphyxia.” I was consumed by questions, wondering how this young, healthy boy–a “three-sport athlete”–was trapped so easily in this mat that he supposedly died. I wanted to know how the sneaker officials claim he was trying to retrieve from the mat got stuck there in the first place.
There was blood on a nearby wall in the gym that investigators insisted wasn’t Kendrick’s. The shoe investigators claim Kendrick was trying to retrieve wasn’t collected for evidence. The opening of the mat was much narrower than Kendrick’s shoulders. Kendrick had allegedly gotten stuck in the mat when there were other students in the gym. How did no one notice?
The questions were abundant. The answers are scarce. The more details were revealed, the more convinced I was that this child was murdered. Like Kendrick’s father, I was and remain positive that “they know something happened in that gym, and they don’t it to come out.”
The horror story continued to unfold when Kendrick’s family commissioned a second autopsy from an independent source that found the teen had “suffered a blow to the right side of his neck that was ‘consistent with inflicted injury.’” But that was hardly the most disheartening finding of the pathologist. While conducting the autopsy, Dr. Bill Anderson also found that “every organ from the skull to the pelvis was gone.” Kendrick Johnson’s heart, lungs, liver, brain and other vital organs had been removed and his corpse stuffed with newspaper.
Still, after an investigation launched two and a half years ago, our community is still left with more questions than answers. It’s a familiar place. Black lives have never mattered in this country, but even more, neither have Black deaths. That the DOJ saw fit to simply conclude an investigation instead of persisting until there was a definitive explanation of what happened to this innocent child, and those responsible brought to served justice, confirms that fact.
It’s not the evidence that’s “insufficient,” it’s America’s assessment of the value of Black life. What’s insufficient is America’s commitment to ensuring that Black people, especially Black children, are afforded the humanity and dignity we’ve been denied for centuries. What’s insufficient is the outrage among all Americans, but especially among white Americans, whose fatally cavalier attitudes toward Black suffering enabled an investigation, which was at least careless and at most a collaborative cover-up. What was insufficient was the 17 years Kendrick Johnson lived. What is insufficient is the sleep Kendrick’s parents get nightly as their attempts to rest are pierced with the reality that they will never see their baby graduate or get married or buy his first house. What is insufficient is that those entrusted and qualified to piece together the details of what really happened to their son have nothing more than to offer them than an obligatory statement of sorrow and a shoulder shrug.
What’s insufficient is this so-called progress. Things aren’t getting better for Black people. When in 2016, with all the technology and resources at our disposal, a federal body, partially funded by the tax dollars of parents of Black children like Kendrick Johnson, is content to simply throw in the towel, there’s no progress. When a Georgia school and local government, partially funded by the tax dollars of Kendrick Johnson’s parents, aren’t uncompromisingly committed to demanding answers for one of its own, there’s no progress. When the death of a child with such obvious red flags is labeled accidental, and there isn’t collective upheaval, there is no progress. When no one is made to answer for the body of a Black child being looted for organs, there is no progress.
Full personhood, and the corresponding legal protections that come with it, is not a status we can afford to wait for the oppressor’s gradual progress to improve. Moreover, the progress constantly heralded isn’t much more than propaganda when lives of Black people are still so undervalued, and their deaths still inconsequential. In a country truly making marked progress in its treatment of 40 million of its most marginalized citizens, Kendrick Johnson’s family would not still be fighting for justice.
LaSha is a writer and blogger who is passionate about Black people. Find her on Twitter @knflkkollective.