Back-to-back viewings of the documentaries Slavery by Another Name and The Interrupters remind me of one of my favorite Redd Foxx jokes. The legendary comedian once quipped, “I carry a knife now because I read in a White magazine that all Black people carry knives. So I rushed out and bought me one.” It’s hilarious and sad commentary, sad in its truth, that works on two levels: from one angle, Black people buy into the stereotypes foisted upon them much too easily. On the flip side, Black people never had a say in creating those stereotypes in the first place.
Slavery by Another Name is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name, written by Douglas A. Blackmon, and it explores the history of just how the myth of inherent Black criminality in the U.S. was born by reviving the history of prison leasing contracts, peonage, and the “Black Codes” of post-Civil War America. Ordinances that declared illegal, among other things, speaking too loudly in the company of White women or being unable to produce proof of employment, had the effect of sending Black people not far removed from the legacy of slavery right back to the plantations, into the mines, and on to chain gangs for the economic benefit of a few White landowners.
These laws essentially criminalized the very existence of Black bodies.
The myth-making continues to this day, as more Black men languish behind prison walls now than were enslaved in chains in 1850, largely as casualties from the failed war on drugs. Black girls and young women are the fastest growing prison population among young people in this country, even though they aren’t committing more crimes. Mass incarceration of Black folks has a profound effects on the political, social, and economic power they are able to accumulate and wield. Black youth are robbed of their future before they can see it.
In New York City, stop-and-frisk, the controversial procedure of randomly stopping citizens and searching their person, disproportionately affects Black men. 2011 saw a record number of stops, 684,330 in total, representing a 14 percent increase from 2010. One neighborhood in Brooklyn, encompassing little more than eight blocks, was subject to over 52,000 stop and frisks over the course four years. NYPD’s efforts produced a grand total of 26 guns, arrests of 1 percent of those stopped, and a feeling among the city’s Black youth that they are no more than targets and criminals.
Earlier this year, a Washington Post report about the lopsided issuance of suspensions in Washington, D.C. area schools showed how Black youth aren’t even safe from stereotyping and criminalization while trying to receive an education. Black students are found to be suspended or expelled two to five times more than their White classmates. Back in New York CIty, nearly all student arrests affect Black and latino males. They receive the message early.
Last year, a CBS affiliate in Chicago, reporting on the shooting of two teenagers, interviewed a 4 year–old Back boy who witnessed the shooting. The reporter asked the child whether he was scared of all the guns. “I’m not scared of nothing,” the 4 year-old responded and followed up by asking “when you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?” The child confidently answered “No, I’m going to have me a gun.”
What you didn’t hear in the interview broadcast on the evening news is that he responds to the reporter’s next question “Why do you want to do that?” by saying “I’m going to be the police.” In a less than one-minute soundbite, a 4 year-old was made to sound like a potential violent threat to his community, the community he wants to grow up to protect as a police officer, no less.
The Black Codes haven’t gone away, they’ve simply been adapted for 21st century consumption.
Where Slavery by Another Name is a reminder of how the myth of Black criminal archetype has been created and constantly fed to the community, putting it in conversation with The Interrupters gives us a fuller view of the obstacles facing Black America. In The Interrupters we witness in frightening detail the consequences of Black folks buying into the myths about themselves.
The film follows the organization known as CeaseFire Chicago, a group of community activists composed of “well-trained professionals from the communities they represent with a background on the streets,” as described on their website. Their aim is to reduce violence through a “public health approach to public safety,” which means identifying problems and intervening/mediating, rather than simply being reactionary.
The documentary introduces a score of charismatic, intelligent, talented, funny, bright young people with heart-wrenching stories that revolve around violent pasts. They could have easily been written off as hopeless, and mostly had been as the existed outside of the margins of “proper” society, where few social programs would go to reach them. But the members of CeaseFire choose to go directly into the neighborhoods, the neighborhoods that are their own, and speak directly to those caught up in violence as a norm. They do their best to diffuse situations and appeal to the better angels inside all of these young Black souls.
The Interrupters shows the potential healing that can occur when you stop addressing Black youth through a tragic lens that views them as problems to be solved and start talking to them as human beings. Because if you put the knives in their hands for them, what makes you think they won’t stab?
Of course the issue doesn’t begin and end with the ways in which Black people police their own communities. Without concurrent work to repeal regressive laws and adjust the ways Black communities are policed by the state, only a few of the problems get solved. Without a passion to see things changed, none of them are.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter.