Such an overwhelming pattern of lethal violence against African Americans at the hands of police unskilled in nonviolent conflict resolution has emerged over the past decade that I was less stunned by news of what happened to 23-year-old Elijah Jovan McClain in Denver, Colorado, last August 24, than I was by the words attributed to him as he was being detained and slowly robbed of his life. I have not been able to access a single video or recording on which everything Mr. McClain said can be heard clearly but according to the fact-checking website Snopes.com this is an accurate transcription:
“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”
These are not words to cry over and then forget. They were uttered as McClain (wearing earbuds and carrying a shopping bag) was stopped, forced to the ground with a carotid (choke) hold, injected with a chemical called Ketamine to make him more docile, and then transported to a hospital where he died a few days later.
“Try to Forgive Me”
There is a mixture of awe, admiration, and fear in the demeanor of people sharing McClain’s last utterances across the internet. They are amazed by the clarity of his spiritual intention to put the officers at ease although he is the one, at some 140 pounds, who is clearly outnumbered and overpowered. In short, he demonstrates compassion towards them while his freedom and life are being taken from him. He tells them, “You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me.”
Imagine if even half the compassion which Mr. McClain exercised towards the law enforcement officials in Denver had been shown by different police or citizens anxiously out to make arrests in the cases of: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, my adolescent brother Robert Lee, and the numerous others who did not become subjects of intensified media scrutiny or campaigns calling for justice.
Compassion might have led officer Timothy Loehmann to see Tamir Rice as a 12-year-old child instead of as a deadly threat and coaxed him to drop the toy gun he was holding before unloading actual gunfire on him. It might have decreased the toxic rush of “fear” Trooper Brian Encinia claimed he feared for his life when forcing an unarmed Sandra Bland out of her car reportedly for failing to signal a lane change. Whereas compassion might possibly have won him a new friend or admirer, his brutally aggressive treatment and arrest of Bland ended in what was ruled as a suicide by hanging in her jail cell.
Considering the Golden Rule: Who among us know of anyone who would wish to have done to them the gun violence so many, and the loved ones left behind, have experienced just this year alone?
Recent reforms in police training and procedures combined with legislation to support them provide reason to believe the kind of unjustified killings we have seen can and will end. Chances of that happening increase greatly with a mindful cultivation of compassion as an essential tool for addressing volatile situations within communities as a whole before life-threatening conflicts occur.
The Violinist and the Kittens
Only those closest to him can speak with any kind of authority about who or what Elijah McClain was but there are videos and public documentation which support claims he was an exceptionally sensitive and empathetic human being. Some might find the description of him as “an angel walking among people” a bit much. Speaking for himself he declared: “I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all.” That wasn’t exactly all because being a massage therapist did make him a kind of healer in the mode of an angel. In fact, his fateful encounter with police occurred after reportedly purchasing tea for a cousin.
And then there is this: he was so concerned about the loneliness from which he believed kittens in shelters might suffer that on his lunchbreaks he played the violin for them. That practice of musical compassion prompted world-class musicians to gather in Aurora on June 27, 2020 and play their hearts out as crowds peacefully chanted and called out #Justice4ElijahMcClain.
Read McClain’s final words again and note the degree to which he is holding himself accountable, not his uniformed assailants, for the transgression against him: “Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.” And this amazing plea: “Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better.” There are certain phrases or words we use––like beautiful soul, altruistic, sublime spirit, courageous, and saintly––to characterize someone who places above their own well-being that of people causing them harm. They are not phrases restricted to any single color, gender, nationality, or demographic classification. If anything, by their nature they confirm the presence of someone whose life example seemingly transcends sociological categorization.
The appropriate application of such words is determined by going beyond simply advocating for love- and compassion-based social change in our world to taking the radical dangerous step of embodying that change and living it. We know it is a radical and even, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., a “marvelously militant” thing to do because historically committing to it has cost a lot of beautiful souls their physical existence. We also know Elijah Jovan McClain had taken that sublimely revolutionary step and made the heroic commitment because even in the face of voracious death he did not refrain from proclaiming and living it.
28 June, 2020
Harlem Renaissance Centennial
In his lifetime, Dick Gregory (1932-2017) achieved the distinction of becoming a celebrated athlete, conscientious comic, civil rights leader, devoted (in his own singular way) family man, philanthropist, American icon, and author of more than a dozen books.Publisher Harper Collins released his most recent title, Defining Moments in Black History, Reading Between the Lies, on September 5, 2017. The event was a highly-significant one for a 21st-century America in which racial conflicts continue to fuel social and political division. It also represented the extension of a major literary legacy begun at the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
‘For Black Folks and White Folks’
Gregory possessed an uncanny ability to transform the soul-crushing anguish of racism and poverty into healing inspiration. As rare as such a gift can be, it is on full display in his first triumphant publishing venture: the classic autobiography titled Nigger, (written with Robert Lipsyte).
My used paperback edition of the book was published in 1964 and has a cover price of $1.94. On its now-famous front is a beautiful black and white photograph of Gregory beside a red starburst with bold white text announcing in all caps: OVER ONE MILLION COPIES SOLD. The copy in my possession has been so thoroughly read and re-read by different people that the cover has started coming off and had to be reinforced with cellophane tape.
As impressive as the book’s 1 million-plus sales figures are, equally noteworthy is an observation shared by Gregory in its pages about the history and future of the struggle to which he would dedicate so much of his life:
“It started long before I came into it, and I may die before it’s over, but we’ll bust this thing and cut out this cancer. America will be as strong and beautiful as it should be, for black folks and white folks” (p. 209).
Few in 1964 would have imagined those words retaining the relevance which they have for more than half a century. Yet the #TakeAKnee and Black Lives Matter movements, both of which owe some ideological debt to the icon’s legacy, indicate they have never been more applicable. In addition, Mr. Gregory has indeed passed on while the struggle has not halted but intensified in ways unpredictable before the advent of social media.
On August 20, the day before the great eclipse of 2017, I learned that Gregory had died on the 19th at the age of 84. Prior to learning about his death, my plan for the day had been to spend some time constructing an outline for an article or an op-ed in response to suggestions the Confederate Monument in Savannah’s (Georgia, USA) Forsyth Park should be removed. But news of the great satirist’s demise prompted me once again to pick up his brilliant autobiography.
‘More Hope in Laughing’
In his own way, Richard Claxton Gregory, who was born on Columbus Day, was as politically dynamic as Malcolm X, as spiritually motivational as Martin Luther King Jr., and as socially revolutionary as Nelson Mandela. Yet his talent for coaxing laughter out of the most brutally inhumane situations set him apart as an astonishingly unique and painfully necessary individual.
He said his genius for employing comedy in the face of humor-less oppression derived from a lesson taught by Lucille Gregory (1909-1953) his mother, whom he saw cruelly beaten by Presley Gregory (b.?-1964) his father: “She taught us that man has two ways out in life—laughing or crying. There’s more hope in laughing” (p. 25).
In regard to the highly-controversial word chosen for the title of his autobiography, he examined it from many different angles and concluded it said more about people who used it to express hatred that it did about people who were targets of its use. He himself employed it in different situations, such as in 1963 during a protest demonstration in Greenwood, Mississippi, when threatened by a white policeman: “Nigger, you want to go to jail?” (p. 172). By that time, when he was 30 years old, Gregory had already become one of the most successful comedians in America and responded to the policeman as follows:
His words represented more than just a furious retort. Gregory felt a deep compassion for humanity as a whole; one of his early mentors was the white Southern Illinois University track and field coach Leland “Doc” Lingle. Like many of the great civil rights activists of his time and now, he believed racism was at least as injurious to those who practiced it as it was to those dis-empowered by it.
In the universe as the comically-inclined author saw it, whether certain words cause an individual’s soul to bleed or help it to heal depends on the emotional intent expressed behind its use. Hatred can turn a beautiful poem into a curse. Love can transform an expletive into a benediction. Therefore, the same word which word which sustained an intense encounter between him and a policeman could make others smile: such as when reading this dedication to his mother:
“Dear Momma––Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
Maintaining that fine-line balance between humor and rage never became easy. In light of the author’s commitment to eradicating social injustice, however, the ability to do so remained critical.
NEXT: Text and Meaning in Dick Gregory’s ‘Nigger’ part 2: Unyielding Commitment
On any given day of the week, the creator of Postered Chromatic Poetics and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Aberjhani, may be found wearing any number of hats: historian, visual artist, poet, advocate for compassion, novelist, journalist, photographer, and editor. Having recently completed a book of creative nonfiction on his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA) he is currently working on a play about the implications of generational legacies as symbolized by efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
Trends in demographic shifts, progressive grass roots movements aimed at correcting blatant social injustices, and social media have had transformative effects that strongly encourage revisiting and reflecting on images of Black men's realities in 2017. The prototypes identified in "The Many Ways of Looking at Black Man" are still important. They have, however, expanded considerably.
Signs of Our Changing 2017 Times
Both before and during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the 1940s gifted African-American actors and performers like Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson at times left the States to find outlets for their talents where they could work without the hindrances of extreme racism. In 2017, that scenario has reversed as performers of African descent from countries outside the U.S. make their way to Hollywood, Broadway, and central strongholds of hip-hop to reap the financial rewards of professional gains made during Blacks' historic struggles for equality.
When giving interviews about his 2013 Academy-award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen Afro-Britain noted he was able to adapt Solomon Northup’s book for the screen as successfully as he did because of the Transatlantic slave trade common to the history of Black people on different continents in the western hemisphere. That simple acknowledgment underscored an aspect of African American men’s' identity often overlooked: that African Americans are also members of the African Diaspora, or, if you will, African Diasporans. Despite the United Nations-endorsed 2011 International Year of People of African Descent, the profound implications and potential of the McQueen's observation is routinely overlooked.
In addition to McQueen, actors David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, DelRoy Lindo Del, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are only a handful of British actors of African descent whose artistry has been employed to dramatize interpretations of African-American men's lives. Such interpretations have ranged from Elba's portrayal of druglord Russell “Stringer” Bell to Oyelowo's acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.
Echo Kellum's recurring role as Curtis Holt, a gay Black man married to a Latino on the hit television show ARROW, reflects an aspect of one population subgroup which many in the larger community still have extreme difficulty accepting. Yet, so far as popular television series go, Jesse L. Martin's role as Joe West in The Flash is no less a challenge to stereotypes and assumptions. As the Black adoptive father of a White son––Barry Allen (a.ka The Flash, a.k.a. actor Grant Gustin) who is involved in a romantic relationship with West's biological daughter Iris (Candice Patton )––his is a comic-book world where race is defined not so much by color as by those who have super powers and those who do not.
The Obama Legacy Effect
In his farewell addess, President Barack Obama quoted the late great novelist Harper Lee in which her character Atticus Finch states the following in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Finch's words may contain the wisdom necessary to help members of an increasingly diverse democracy better support one another as Americans rather than continually battle each other as cultural and political separatists. The president also wisely pointed out the need for African Americans to recognize the value of adopting the following practice:
"...Tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change...." (Barack Obama)
Mr. Obama's commentaries on race and the American identity over the past nearly 10 years have not brought about an end to racial divisiveness or violence in the country. But they have played a major role in helping to decrease the magnitude of assumptions and racial bias that seemingly prompt the dismissal of Black folks' lives. His two-term presidency has allowed Americans and citizens of the global community to experience a black man as a "leader of the free world." That singular comprehensive achievement surpasses any categorical way of looking at African-American men that would have been considered possible in 1997.
If, however, someone did feel inspired to duplicate "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" with fresh 2017 faces, it would be easy enough to do with another seven individuals such as: Chance the Rapper, Colson Whitehead, T.D. Jakes, Semaj Clark, Jay Z, Michael B. Jordan, and Tyler Perry. Their celebrity or non-celebrity status would not really comprise the core issue. The main point would be a definitive demonstration that as catastrophic as violence and oppression have been in our lives, they have not and will not erase the most beautiful and essential truths represented by our stories and realities.
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
Since the publication of "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" special feature story in ESSENCE Magazine, November 1997, perspectives on men of African descent in the United States of America have evolved to cover a lot of ideological territory. That observation rings as true for everyday citizens of the country as it does for mainstream media, in which we have seen a gamut of extreme images, sometimes horrifying bloody, sometimes wonderfully inspiring.
The atmosphere of combativeness generated when the country's President-Elect, Donald Trump, chose to castigate civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) for exercising his right (some might say duty) to voice concerns over political legitimacy, removed any doubt that a lot of work still needs to be done where race relations are concerned. In light of the increasingly disturbing violent deaths of African-American men, women, and children over the past few years, prompting me to wonder if their names inexplicably would soon join the others, and in light of unconcealed attempts at disenfranchisement, an industrial prison complex that gorges itself on Black men's lives, and other irrefutable factors, "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" takes on new and powerful significance in this year marking the 20th anniversary of its publication.
Among other things, it is also, as Black History Month approaches, one more reason to think back with gratitude for the leadership which Susan L. Taylor, now founder/director of National Cares Mentoring Movement, provided as editor-in-chief of the magazine for some 20 years. In the noted classic issue, she reminded readers of this: "Whatever parcels of power we claim today were not surrendered to us willingly or without long and painful struggle. That struggle continues because our oppression continues..."
Nevertheless, the dominant theme for the occasion was more one of celebration than protestation. As such, the following description of the African-American man is from the magazine's contents synopsis and introduction to the original feature:
"From sexual icon to warrior to caretaker--he is our black man. In this annual men's issue, we explore how he handles power, privilege and pain... He is many things to many people: husband and lover, father and son, brother, friend, sex symbol and political nightmare, crossover icon and business mogul..."
Those bright powerful noble words make a poignant contrast to the vivid horror of Black men's and boys' bodies falling in American streets to the repeated blasts of gunfire. That does not mean they are no longer relevant.
On Timelines and Parallel Conditions
We know in 2017 that how Black Men are perceived, perceived, or guerrilla decontextualized, is extremely important because of the various circumstances and events that have led to their deaths, or incarceration, in more instances than anyone can accurately count.
Alleged perceptions of unarmed black males as immediate threats to armed policeman's lives (or a would-be policeman in the case of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin) has resulted in numerous deaths declared "justifiable" under Stand Your Ground laws. Stunningly, Edward Lewis, who in 1997 was publisher of ESSENCE and CEO of Essence Communications, Inc., wrote in the November issue:
"Some victims of police brutality don't live to tell about it. They die from bullets and blows and choke holds that are found--upon review by higher authorities--to fall roughly within acceptable guidelines. Others, who seek redress, often find their paths blocked."
Could not Lewis's words written 20 years ago have been penned just as easily in 2017? Think Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray,Terence Crutcher, Walter L. Scott, Sandra Bland and, sadly, many more.
A Few Thoughts from Trevor Noah
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.