Tough Talk: Stop Complaining About Troy Davis And DO Something

Troy Anthony Davis

It has been four days since Troy Anthony Davis was executed—murdered—by the state of Georgia, despite the recanting of witnesses in his case and all other kinds of holes in his case. Many of us signed petitions, while others (like my close friend Howard University Professor Tony Medina and twelve HU students) physically protested the executions; still Brother Davis was executed. Many of us are sad, bewildered, shocked, and angry.

Alright, we’re upset–now what?

Many of us African Americans—including me—were on the fence about the death penalty. We have a saying down south (where I’m from): “He needed killing.” But after the emotional devastation I experienced over Troy Anthony Davis’s state sponsored murder, I am now one hundred percent against the death penalty, even when the accused or convicted is guilty. And I decided to do my small part to abolish it. Here’s what you can do.

Number One: Educate yourself. This is the easiest first step.

There were a lot of my White friends on Facebook and Twitter who were completely stunned by this execution. They just knew something was going to happen at the last minute. Frankly—and I say this bluntly—I could understand White folks not knowing any better, even Good White Folks.

But what really blew my mind is that Black folks seemed completely unaware about the fact that Troy Davis was not an isolated case, that the United States had been doing a version of this to Black folks since Reconstruction. They didn’t know the real history. They only knew hearsay.

My Black Brothers and Sisters, I’m going to have to keep it real with you. I mean really, really real. Are you ready?

It’s a common saying that if you want to hide something from Black folks, you hide it in a book. Black folks, why don’t you stop talking so much to each other—when neither one of y’all has read a [insert expletive adjective] thing? What is all that talking supposed to do? How is that supposed to help these Brothers on death row?

Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

But I’m not just talking to Black folks here. My Good White Folks who are reading this post, you need to know this America history, too, so you can help change this country for the better.  Understand that this is an ongoing issue and stop being taken over by guilt and do something. So here are some readings for everyone:

Amnesty International has an excellent document that discusses race and the death penalty, “United States of America: Death by discrimination – the continuing role of race in capital cases.”  YOU REALLY NEED TO READ THIS DOCUMENT BEFORE YOU READ ANYTHING ELSE.

Once you’d read Amnesty International’s document, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It gives a background about how the prison system connects to the history of segregation and discrimination against African Americans in this country.

Then, read about how this all connects up. David Oshinsky’s Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice  and Douglas A Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II are two books that talk about (among other things) the practice of arresting Black men for petty crimes like “vagrancy” and then keeping them for free labor.

Number Two: Find out what the following organizations are doing to help Brothers on death row. Then join them. And if you can, donate some money, even if it’s just $5 or $10.

Think about those scenes in It’s A Wonderful Life when every time a bell rang an angel got his/her wings. In this case, every time you give money to an organization that is fighting against the death penalty, you raise Brother Troy’s spirits—and the spirits of all those Black folks lynched and executed in the past—just a little higher. You know you want to do that.

Amnesty International was involved in the fight to stop Troy Davis’s execution for a long time. They are the leading human rights organization in the world. (I am now a member of this organization and I donated money.)

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The name says it all. (I am now a member of this organization as well and I donated money.) When you go to the site, there is a list of folks that are scheduled to be executed. Y’all, it’s a long list. In addition, here is a great “primer” compiled by NCADP that will you get started with your anti-death penality activism: 10 Ways to Help Abolish the Death Penalty.

The Innocence Project is an organization that specializes in exonerating folks who have been unjustly accused and convicted. I know some of y’all are still unsure about helping guilty folks avoid the death penalty—this organization is for you. And I am not hating on you, either. Look, every little bit helps.

Finally, Number Three: Don’t forget Troy Anthony Davis.

Don’t forget how you felt at 11:08pm on September 21, 2011 when the state of Georgia murdered Troy Davis. Don’t forget your sense of outrage and your sense of helplessness when that killed him.

Don’t forget how your heart went out to Troy Davis’s family, waiting for their brother and uncle to be executed. Don’t forget how you wondered what sort of emotional torture he was going through for FOUR hours, strapped to that gurney, while he waited for the Supreme Court to stay his execution. And then, he was killed anyway. Don’t forget your horror at being a citizen of a country that would do such a thing.

Do not forget that Brother—our Brother, whatever race you happen to be. Honor Troy Anthony Davis’s sacrifice.  Please get involved.

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Because I’m From Georgia, I Remember Murder (for Troy Davis)

A while back, I posted a “Decent People Action Alert” about Troy Davis, the African American man who was convicted back in 1991 for killing a White police officer, Mark MacPhail. The foundation of this case was shaky from the start.

I meant to post again a couple of weeks ago about Mr. Davis and urge folks to take action about his case–and you can still do that by clicking here and please, please take action. But I told myself I was really too busy to post.

That isn’t the truth. The truth is, I stayed silent because I just didn’t want to think about Troy Davis; I knew it would bring me down real low. But I’m already there: I woke up this morning to the news in The New York Times that Troy Davis had been rejected clemency by the Georgia Board of Pardons, which means he will be executed tomorrow, barring a legal miracle.

I don’t mean to be defeatist, but it’s hard not to be because I’m from Georgia and I know the ways of that state. Along with my summer memories of crispy fried chicken, shamefully delicious peaches, beautiful landscapes, and traditional spirituals sung in clapboard churches, I remember the stories about the murders of Black folks told by the members of my African American Georgia family.

I hate to put this so bluntly and (perhaps) rudely, but White folks have been killing Black people for blood sport in Georgia for a very long time.

Take the lynching of Mary Turner in Valdosta, Georgia in 1918. Miss Mary was eight months pregnant when a mob seized and lynched her husband, Haynes. When Miss Mary threatened to call the Law, the mob turned on her. They hung her and cut the eight-month-old fetus from her womb. The baby cried out, and then, the mob took turns stomping the baby to death. There is now a full-length book about this event, Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching by Julie Buckner Armstrong.

Or, let’s take the story told in Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America by Laura Wexler, the story of the murder of two Black couples by a group of White men in Walton County, Georgia in 1946. It was discovered that one of the men was (possibly) having an affair with a young, White woman and the White outrage over this led to the killing. Though the FBI got involved, no one responsible was ever named or convicted. Incidentally, my mother was thirteen-years-old when this killing happened, and she vividly remembers the news of it.

And then, there are the stories that never made it into the History books, like that of one of my mother’s neighbors, a school janitor. He would stay late after school, ostensibly to clean, and a White lady schoolteacher would stay late, too, ostensibly to prepare her lessons. But everybody in the Black community knew the truth, that they were going together, and I guess one of them informed, because one day, a White man found the couple making love. So the lady schoolteacher accused my mother’s neighbor of rape, and eventually, he ended up in the electric chair.

This is Georgia. This is what we Black Georgians remember in the blood. And there are literally hundreds of these stories from back in the day. But now, in Georgia, they just murder Black men using the legal system; they don’t need to lynch in secret anymore.

When I heard about Troy Davis, I didn’t have a lot of hope that he would escape execution, and neither did my mother. After all, he’s Black, he was convicted of killing a White police officer, and he’s in a pro-death penalty state that has a long history of executing Black men, both legally and extra-legally. However, I signed a petition against the execution. But now, it seems that Mr. Davis is going to be murdered under the guise of “execution.”  I suspected it was going to happen; still, it hurts me just the same.

In The New York Times article today, Anneliese MacPhail, Mark MacPhail’s mother was quoted as saying, “I’m not for blood. I’m for justice. We have been through hell, my family.”

I feel badly for Mrs. MacPhail and I mean that sincerely. I can only imagine her pain. I’m not a mother, but I do know what it’s like to lose a family member, and I’ve lost friends to violence. I don’t want to seem unsympathetic, because every mother’s child is important to her; yet, when I focus on that word “justice,” something inside me shifts to irony .

Executing Troy Davis is about Mrs. MacPhail’s  wanting the person who killed her child to suffer. I understand that desire. And that’s why I believe in life incarceration for murderers, because I’m not one of these folks who think a Bible held in a killer’s hand and a quick “I’m sorry” is going to wipe away a crime and the need for a criminal to make amends. No matter how racist the American justice system is against Black men, I wholly support criminals “doing time.”

Mark MacPhail won’t be coming back, but his mother’s grief will return, even if a mother’s son won’t. And that’s why she wants justice–but her grief will be back whether Troy Davis is innocent or guilty of killing Mark MacPhail, and whether he is executed tomorrow at 7pm.

So really, is executing this man about justice?  Supposedly, justice was done when Troy Davis was found guilty of murder—if indeed, he was the actual culprit. (And frankly, there is a lot of doubt about that). What justice will be had by killing him, especially since there’s so much doubt lingering in this case?

And what if I decided I wanted Mrs. MacPhail’s kind of justice for what was done to Mary Turner, Haynes Turner, and Unnamed Turner Baby?

What if I wanted that kind of justice for those four young people lynched in the canebrake that day?

What if I wanted that kind of justice for my mother’s neighbor, electrocuted for falling in love with the wrong White lady?

Who dies because of them–who dies because of all those hundreds murdered in our Black past?

If we are all honest about the death penalty, it’s not about justice—it’s about retribution, a blood cost. An “eye for an eye.” But if the White citizens of Georgia are honest, there are plenty of us Black folks out here who could start tallying up our own blood cost—in the names of our own murdered dead—if we were so inclined. Fortunately, we are not. At least, not the sane Black folks among us.

When some of us African Americans ask for reparations for slavery, and reparations for the racial terror our ancestors endured in the aftermath of slavery in the South—the forced labor of Black men in the southern states, the lynchings, the rapes—make no mistake, it’s not money we really want. It’s remembrance. It’s justice for our dead.

We don’t want some Disney-Goes-to-Hollywood portrayal of our ancestors’ pain like we saw in The Help movie. But at the same time, if we Black folks start really remembering all that horror done to our kin in the past, it might drive us crazy. And we might seek our own retribution, but we know that’s not the way. That’s why we talk about reparations instead.

I think about Mrs. MacPhail. She’s been in pain for a long time, over twenty years. Her child is dead, and the man she believes—knows in her heart—killed him is still alive and walking around, even if he’s walking in prison. That’s not right to her. She wants her own justice.

Believe me, I know exactly how she feels. I want my own justice, too, for the hundreds of my Georgia Black folks who didn’t get their day in court, the way Mark MacPhail did. Who were murdered and dishonored. Sometimes, their blood cries out so loudly to me, it screams a song in the middle of the night. I’m not exaggerating here for the sake of my argument. I’m telling you the stone-cold truth.

So I just do the only thing I can: I think about a Black man who is probably going to die tomorrow, even though I hope he won’t. Then, I pray to a good God who has an infinite memory and who knows what really happened. After that, I forgive my own trespassers. Then, I write a blog post and hope it touches one person’s heart–just one. Then, I try to forgive again.

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Hip Hop and the Brokedown Contract

Recently, I was involved in an online discussion with three African American cultural scholars about hip hop artists Jay-Z and Kanye West and their latest collaborative CD, Watch the Throne. Since that discussion of a few weeks back, I’ve been increasingly bothered by what I see as the apologist stance of fans and hip hop scholars alike for the misogyny, rampant materialism, and apolitical nature in most of  commercial hip hop music; this apologist stance comes in the middle of a very politically charged time in American history, when White Supremacy is gaining more open popularity among  moderate White conservatives.

It’s no secret among my scholarly and creative colleagues that I expect more sense of a political conscience and consciousness from commercial hip hop artists, and that I am continually disappointed.  My friends and colleagues argue that since commercial hip hop is a product of post-Civil  Rights America, with its materialist mores, I shouldn’t require the sort of political “core” from the mainstream version of the music. But last night, while in the middle of a heated discussion, it dawned on me what is really wrong with hip hop: the music fails in its contract with African American literary and historical traditions.

I’m not the first person to point out that hip hop has its roots in African American literature, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to draw parallels between hip hop and, say, early Black resistance narratives. For example, during the Revolutionary War era Belinda, a former slave of the house of Issac Royall, petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for reparations and won (though she’d have to come back around another time to eventually be paid those reparations).  In her petition, Belinda executes an extraordinary move: she not only discusses the tragedy of slavery in the Americas, but also, she refers to the Yoruba gods of her homeland, the “orisas.” This locates her as someone both deeply American and still deeply African, stretching her community and spiritual loyalties across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Less than a century later, the slave narratives were used by northern abolitionists to gain sympathy for their anti-slavery cause. These narratives differed in the details, but whether written by males or females, the narratives retain the same three-part structure: the “lowly” life of slavery with all its attendant miseries; then, the realization that freedom was a right of all human beings; and finally, the capturing of freedom which leads, of course, to a better life for the former slave.

In Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, he describes slavery as a state vulnerable to physical cruelty, and he talks in gentile terms (for us, but direct at that time) about the sexual brutality toward unfree Black women.  Once he realizes he must be free, he becomes a better man and when he gains his freedom by running away, he dedicates his life to service of others. This three-part structure—identification, exploration, and resolution–marks the slave narratives as early blues prose texts.

But what does this all have to do with hip hop?

First, I’m not calling any hip hop artists slaves here. Let’s be very clear about that. I’m simply using African American historical narratives and the devices of those narratives to draw obvious (to me) parallels.

If you look at commercial hip hop, it uses most of the same core literary devices as the slave narratives. For example, all of the authors of the narratives came from humble origins—you can’t get much more humble than slavery.  The descriptions of these humble backgrounds elicited sympathy from the White reader, as they were meant to, for once enough sympathy was roused the reader hopefully would lift his or her voice and cry out against the sin of slavery.  But the humble backgrounds were important, too, because the slave narratives are deeply concerned with issues of African American authenticity; thus, one who has suffered through slavery has earned the right to speak the loudest about the plight of other slaves.

The overriding message at the end of each narrative is about the responsibility of the former slave to the Black community. Freedom has been attained, yes, but this freedom is less freedom from and more freedom to. Freedom to marry legally. Freedom to have and love children without worrying about their being sold away. Freedom to worship God in the open. Freedom to belong to a Black community. Freedom to live as a fully ethical and moral human being.

Hip hop has many of these same requirements. For example, it is a requirement that a hip hop artist come from a poor background. Besides Kanye West, there has never been a hip hop artist who gained world-wide and sustained fame who came from a middle or upper-middle class Black household. But other hip hop artists such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, etc. all have working-class or poor backgrounds. When any of these artists rap about their poverty, there is anger in their words and in the tones of their voices, and we know that underneath that is pain, though the performance of “hard” Black masculinity keeps them from admitting it. And so we consumers first feel sorry for the hip hop artist and then, we admire his accomplishments.

Just as in the slave narrative, authenticity is a very real concern as well. Contemporary hip hop consumers hear the much-repeated phrase “keeping it real.” (Which, by the way. has been the bane of many a middle-class Black American’s existence.) Keeping it real means that though you might have worked hard and secured a good job and moved out of the ghetto, your values, your way of life, your set of friends, and the people you want/need to impress all still reside in the ghetto, which is (strangely) assumed to have only one set of folkways, mores and ethics. If any of the aforementioned adjust to your new set of circumstances, you are most definitely not keeping it real.

However, keeping it real also means that you might end up killing one of your friends if you deem it necessary—if, for example, your friend sleeps with your woman, disrespects you verbally in action or in word, or steals or gets in the way of your making money. According to commercial hip hop, the only ethical code of the streets is “keeping it real,” but that code can change depending upon the mood of the artist, because he only has to answer to himself. There is no sense of responsibility to the Black community that contains real people, only to the vague “streets” and to the performance of “realness,” which includes speech, dress, and body language. And one can never challenge the behavior in “the streets,” even when that behavior is criminal or unethical.  Challenging “the streets” is not keeping it real.

So let’s go back to that three-part structure of the traditional slave narrative. First, there is suffering in humble circumstances. Then, there is an awareness that those circumstances must change. Finally, there is freedom, both physical freedom and freedom to act in ethical and moral ways. Hip hop has no problem using the first two movements of this structure for its own purposes, but refuses to participate in the third, ethical, movement.

For some scholars or fans of hip hop, this refusal is perfectly okay. To paraphrase a friend of mine, times have changed and there is a generational divide between old school Black community expectations and new school behavior. And that is true. Things do change. There is no longer one Black community, but rather several under one umbrella. And there’s no longer one hip hop, either. I don’t believe in legislating what people make art about, and unlike W.E.B. Dubois, I don’t believe all Black art should be propaganda. But the very real problem today—and for a while—is that hip hop artists trade on old school African American traditions, but want to pick and choose what suits them ethically about those traditions.

For Black consumers, we feel a particular and tender community connection with Black male hip hop artists, for we can rely on a centuries-long body of ancestral knowledge about persecution of Black men when we listen to their narratives today–their music. Further,  we don’t assume that Black folks are poor because they don’t like to work or even, they just caught a bad break. We know the truth: patterns of African American poverty go back to slavery. (Patterns of White poverty are pretty ancient, too, for that matter.) Thus, there’s a special relationship between the Black hip hop artist and his Black listener, and both parties are fully aware of that special relationship.

There’s also an assumption that simply by living in Black skin, the hip hop artist is living a political existence. And again, that’s true to some extent, if one is still poor and not just dredging up memories of poverty. But for wealthy hip hop artists, there is insulation from the brutal, racial realities of “the streets.” Yet hip hop artists still access the anger of a racialized past but do not include a community in this anger. Rather, this anger is for themselves only, and maybe, extended to their immediate families.

There’s Black community loyalty at work here, but it’s one-sided loyalty. The Black male hip hop artist takes the Black consumer’s loyalty for granted, even while living in an individualist manner. Even when ignoring issues that affect the Black community in very real ways. This loyalty to Black men and the need to ease their historical suffering keeps hip hop scholars and fans alike from holding hip hop artists accountable for the apolitical nature of their music, but in exchange for our Black community loyalty to hip hop artists, we receive no love and no loyalty in return.

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