"If they put an iron circle around your neck, I will bite it away." -- Toni Morrison, Beloved
My father's sister, for whom I was named, died in 1968. After her death, my father wrote that in a storm of grief, it is ultimately the love, not regret or anger, that makes us bend the furthest. When the loss is a child, the force of that love can destroy you, or it can change everything we know. Toni Morrison surmised this power in Beloved when she described a mother's love so prevailing it could raise a slain child from the grave, or send her there to protect her from the yoke of a slave catcher.
As a mother, I'm too afraid to imagine how Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin felt when they were subjected to the playback of their son's voice screaming for help in what would be his final utterance. I'm too afraid of what feeling that much love might do to me. Those who know the story of Emmett Till may recall the images of Black Chicagoans who waited hours in quiet lines to view the mutilated body of the fourteen year old Till, murdered in Mississippi by two white men for whistling at a white woman. The rage in those faces was barely restrained. But in that rage was love, too: desperate, devastated love for a child that could have been any one of them, or theirs. And it was angry, determined love that made Till the lightning rod for the Montgomery bus boycott, that made Blacks walk 10 and 12 miles to reach work for an entire year to honor the general strike and to bring the city of Montgomery to its knees. It was love that released Ruby Bridges from her parents' arms into a violent mob of white resistors, some of whom carried dolls in coffins intended to intimidate the six-year-old for her role in New Orleans public school integration. It was love and a belief that a better life was possible that compelled parents to allow their children -- more than a thousand of them -- to march for civil rights in Birmingham in 1963, and it was love that watched in fear when police arrested and jailed them by the hundreds.
Over the past week, people have raised their voices in peaceful protest across the country. In most cases, as W.E.B. Du Bois might comment, people have reduced their boiling to a simmer, "as the occasion may require," honoring the unfathomable poise of Martin's parents. But there's a place for the boiling, too. It's time we got creative about what love means, time to stop believing that constructive anger has no place in peace, or that rage and love are irreconcilable. Now is the time to remember that paradigm-changing action is found in the range that love includes, in the fatigue and the sickness that ultimately make us take self-love seriously.
Trayvon Martin has done so much more than die. He has revealed a system working perfectly in its intended order; and for the moment, rendered visible the yoke that encircles the poor and aggrieved. The combination of wage inequality, stagnant economic growth, public disinvestment in urban communities, and labor discrimination over the past 20 years has made Blacks and Latinos the greatest percentage of the poor in the U.S. Evidence of race-based contempt and hatred are everywhere, in attacks on ethnic studies courses in college and high school classrooms, in the disproportionate numbers of Blacks and Latinos incarcerated for drug crimes even though all racial groups use drugs at similar rates; in political campaigns that blame people of color for the subprime mortgage meltdown; in the organized abandonment of the Black working class; and in the crudely racist caricatures used to frame political debates about welfare, crime, and education. Blacks are the most arrested and longest sentenced population, have the most under-funded educational structures in their communities, earn the lowest wages, suffer the highest rate of foreclosures, and experience the worst poverty.
We can't decouple Martin's murder from what is happening in Chicago. Both are linked by an abject disregard for Black life. When people are desperate, without jobs, without hope, and without love, they turn on each other. History has shown us this. It is undeniable. We need to love ourselves enough to reject the retrograde culture-of-poverty diagnosis that Black children in that city and too many others have been given, and place the blame, out of righteous love, where it belongs: with the organized abandonment of children who are told they have no meaningful contribution to this nation or their own futures. Black children account for only 42 percent of Chicago public school district students, but they make up nearly 88 percent of those affected by some fifty school closures. Without the infrastructure to support students who have been uprooted, things can only get worse.
The argument that racism played no role in Martin's death because Zimmerman is Latino is ridiculous: you don't have to be white to protect white property and perpetuate white privilege. It's like saying that the state laws that require police officers to use racial profiling against Latino immigrants are not racist because Immigration and Customs Enforcement employs Latinos. Or that because Blacks are employed as corrections, parole, and police officers, race is not a factor in the recent findings of Human Rights Watch, that in every year for the past three decades, Blacks were arrested as much as five-and-a-half times more than whites on drug charges (though drug use among Blacks is no higher than it is for whites), yet they go to prison at ten times the rate of whites on those same drug charges.
It may seem impossible to find enough love to wield against these heartbreaking realities. King knew what this impossibility felt like, and discerned that "power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love." There is a place for the anger and grief, and they signal, however temporary, a sharp clarity of vision about the fact that this whole structure must change.
Let's commit to the peace but also to the fire. Though there are myriad distractions that make it hard to believe, we have little to lose but the yoke. Love demands a general strike.