Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Feel like Old Ned, wish I was dead
All my life through, I’ve been so black and blue
Even the mouse ran from my house
They laugh at you, and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue?
I’m white—inside—but that don’t help my case
‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face
How would it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?
— “Black and Blue,” composed by Fats Waller, with lyrics by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf
In the prologue to the classic novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the nameless narrator listens to Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the above-quoted jazz standard at full volume. On a phonograph, just to give you a sense of the time period. He secretly lives underground, stealing electricity from Monopolated Light & Power, and explains to the reader that he is invisible—not because of some feat of magic or science, but rather of intentional blindness on the part of the observer, refusing to see him because he is black.
Obviously, this facet of the narrator’s reality is a metaphor for the kind of “invisibility” faced by black Americans of all walks of life, but one that is starkly potent, and one still very much relevant even today. Especially today, more than 50 years after Ellison’s book was first published, and more than 80 years after “Black and Blue” came into being. In 2016, with cameras on every cellphone and a Vine or YouTube video seemingly for every situation that manifests in waking life, the struggle for authentic visibility for African-Americans is, well, perhaps more visible than ever before, and social media has only magnified the profile of responses within the African-American community to the injustices of society as a whole, notably that of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet for all the attention racism and other social issues surrounding black life in America have gotten in this day and age, it’s what remains invisible to so many of us that looms large. In “Black and Blue,” the allusion is, of course, to physical bruising caused by a rupture or tear of blood vessels under the skin—a black-and-blue. To be sure, in the violence against African-Americans which persists in the United States, those markings of bodily abuse have been plentiful in their own right. I speak, however, more pointedly about a bruising of the spirit and soul that has accompanied blacks in this country, one that, by its nature, can’t be seen unless the observer actively tries to find it. It’s a wound which exists in plain sight for those who feel its pain, but goes unnoticed, or worse, ignored by those who might stand to benefit most from acknowledging this hurt which spans generations. Even in describing this figurative subdermal bleeding thusly, I only hint at what experiencing it first-hand must be like. I couldn’t know the pain which comes along with it, nor would I want to.
In the past few weeks, another intersection of black and blue imagery has come to the forefront of the national consciousness, and unfortunately, in the worst ways possible. In the wake of the recent shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, protests have sparked across the country decrying the injustice of treatment of black suspects at the hands of officers of the law. These protests, when peaceful, are not only acceptable, but welcomed, from my point of view. The disenfranchised among us deserve a voice, a chance to be heard in their frustration and grief. Sadly, not all actions in response to acts of violence by police against African-Americans have been characterized by such restraint. America, still trying to process and recover from the tragic murder of five police officers in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter protest, as well as the senseless killing of at least 84 people in Nice, France in a terrorist attack on Bastille Day, was dealt another shocking blow on July 17 when three police officers were shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As with the Dallas incident, the brutal slaughter of these officers and injury to others appears to have been carried out in the style of an ambush, with little discrimination evidenced by the shooter. To injure and kill police, it would seem, was enough for the perpetrator.
We may not know all that much about the officers who lost their lives on July 18, but for the vast majority of us following this story, there is no need to be familiar with their character or their deeds to understand they didn’t deserve to be gunned down like they were. As much as critics of Black Lives Matter insist the group advocates violence against those who protect and serve the public, few within this organization would condone the actions of either the Baton Rouge or Dallas gunman. Even when law enforcement and the criminal justice system hasn’t been above reproach, the lot of us still believe in law and order.
Yet any number of opinionated detractors will outline a yet more sinister motive to these shootings, or otherwise will resort to hyperbole in explaining their driving force. Jeanine Pirro, a former prosecutor and judge who now works for Fox News as a host of her own show on the network, minced no words in expressing her belief in an interview with Harris Faulkner, another of the channel’s on-air personalities, that the murder of the three police officers in Baton Rouge was an “attempt at anarchy,” and furthermore, that “the killing of cops is becoming normalized, it’s becoming legitimized.” She also derided President Obama’s calls for a “conversation” between blacks and police officers, and professed her lack of regard for people’s fears about the growing militarization of police forces, saying whatever is needed for officers’ protection is justified. As Judge Jeanine would have it, then, we are a country at war.
Bear in mind I am usually not wont to side with Fox News anchors and talking heads, but I take issue with a number of Ms. Pirro’s arguments as well as the very tenor of her speech. Firstly, regarding the shooting of these officers as tantamount to anarchy, their killer, from the reports I have read, believed what he was doing was serving justice for offenses against blacks by police. Not merely to be cliché, two wrongs do not make a right—and this warped vigilantism is definitely wrong, as I see it—but the Baton Rouge shooter wasn’t acting on behalf of advocacy for the dissolution of government and absolute freedom of the individual as a political ideal, as my Google search on “anarchy” defines the term. If anything, he believed—however misguidedly—that he was bringing more order to the system, not less. Secondly, who truly thinks that killing cops is a legitimate solution to the plight of black America? I don’t think very much of black America itself does, even in the face of police brutality and other hallmarks of institutional racism, but suggesting the murder of uniformed police is becoming some sort of “new normal” is a stretch, to say the least. Thirdly, ensuring police safety and militarization of police units are related issues, but there are nuances to be weighed, most notably in the attitudes that come part and parcel with the use of extreme force for situations like drug searches. The ACLU comments on this trend on its website:
Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform “normal” police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence. Yet the ACLU’s recent report on police militarization, “War Comes Home,” found that SWAT teams, which were originally devised as special responders for emergency situations, are deployed for drug searches more than they are for all other purposes combined.
The change in equipment is too often paralleled by a corresponding change in attitude whereby police conceive of themselves as “at war” with communities rather than as public servants concerned with keeping their communities safe.
When the police view the patrol of our streets in terms of an “us vs. them” paradigm, is it any wonder that many African-Americans, especially younger individuals who have grown up with these regiment-like law enforcement units (and who by virtue of their youth may not possess the most well-developed sense of judgment), react with hostility toward the men and women in blue? Again, while the murder of officers as in Dallas or Baton Rouge is not to be excused, for this and other more defensible expressions of resistance within the black community, there is a least a context which helps explain why emotions run hot with regards to this issue on both sides of the badge.
Both the families, friends and those who knew of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, alongside the litany of other black Americans who have been treated unjustly at the hands of the law, as well as their counterparts mourning those officers who were tragically cut down in the line of duty in Louisiana and Texas, are in a state of grief and shock right now. To an extent, much of the nation feels these same emotions right now. Where anger and resentment put us on a path to hate, however, is where we lose a portion of our humanity, and in the process, plant the seeds for disunity, inequality, racism and violence to spring forth anew. Jeanine Pirro’s rhetoric is part of the problem, but hers is just one example of the kind of divisive language which characterizes the lesser outcomes of incidents like the shooting in Baton Rouge (and yet, Barack Obama is the one who’s the divider, according to her!). Surely, there is blame to be had on both halves of the equation.
Moreover, when misfortune strikes those who can speak for these two camps, effectively bridging the divide, our sense of loss is all the more poignant. Montrell Jackson, one of the three officers who lost his life on July 17 and a new father, wrote this on his Facebook account in the wake of the death of Alton Sterling:
I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets so any protesters, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.
What a sad and ironic end to the life of a man who recognized that, through his actions, he could make his community and those in it better for them, and furthermore, that hate doesn’t achieve anything but giving way to more hate. This is not to diminish, by the way, the lives and service of the two other men lost that day. Matthew Gerald was a husband, father and serviceman for both the Army and the Marine Corps. Brad Garafola was a husband and father as well, and had been with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office for over two decades. Both of these men, by all accounts, were good officers and even better people. Montrell Jackson just happened to be in an unique position to embody the duality recent events have served to highlight—black and blue.
Though it may be trite to say, though Garafola, Gerald and Jackson are gone in one sense, their memory will live on. What is critical, however, for us as a nation moving forward, however, is not that we remember their sacrifice, but how we remember them, and how we approach the intersection of the fundamental rights of all people, notably African-Americans, and the ability of police officers to do their jobs effectively without compromising those rights. There has been a tendency in the numerous high-profile confrontations between blacks and law enforcement for those on the outside looking in to take sides in individual cases. Seemingly, for every activist championing the cause of Black Lives Matter, there is someone whose reverence for the men and women that serve the greater good compels them to co-opt the very namesake of their movement, calling for recognition that Blue Lives Matter and louder than those of Black Lives Matter, whether blinded by their admiration, wishing to drown out the inconvenient truths of prejudice, systemic bias against minorities, and white privilege, or some other reason.
Before automatically deciding that Barack Obama is automatically wrong for wanting to promote a dialog between blacks and police within communities, or subscribing to the viewpoint that all cops are crooked, we should consider that the major aims of Black Lives Matter and like organizations, and the wish to respect officers of the law and prevent them from undue danger, are not mutually exclusive. This is realistically difficult to argue when emotions are so raw immediately after the fact, not to mention when stereotypes of the nondescript black male as perpetrator are perpetuated on the nightly news, or when cable news shows and conservative talk radio hosts dismiss Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization, when in actuality, these anchors and pundits are merely projecting their own fears and insecurities. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, we all want people to stop getting shot and killed. Black or white, police or civilian, heck—with the more-or-less constant conversation about gun control that exists in America today, any death, regardless of the specifics of the situation, seems like one too many when at the barrel of a gun. In this regard, there’s a lot more that these two sides—black and blue—have in common than some might have you believe.
At first blush, it may seem as if we are not making progress on the issues of racism and violence in our society, but as long as we keep talking about these matters, as uncomfortable as confronting them may be, we will be better off for it. Going back to the imagery of black-and-blues as bruises, though we as human beings may look different on the outside, underneath the skin, we all bleed the same color blood. Only when we begin to understand this concept can we as a nation start to live up to the greatness synonymous with the United States of America.