McKinney, Mississippi, and the Dangers of Celebrating While Black

When I was growing up in Florida, one of the high points of summer were block parties. Local DJs would set up in neighborhood parks or on the beach and kids would come from across town to drink, smoke, and dance to the music. Word of these parties would spread via flyers and the teenage grapevine until often several hundred people would be there. These were mostly Black affairs and some of the best times of my life. Occasionally, the police would roll through and sometimes shut the party down, but by the time that happened we had been partying from mid-afternoon to late night and we could wander home exhausted and satisfied. They were safe spaces to let off steam away from family, school or hard times, and I remember them fondly.

It seems that Black kids enjoying their teenage years is now becoming illegal. Two weeks ago, the superintendent of Senatobia High School in Jackson, Mississippi filed disturbing the peace charges against the parents of Black high school students for cheering too loudly during their graduation ceremony. Last Friday, several Black teens attending a pool party were harassed and attacked by police officers in McKinney, Texas, an incident that resulted in footage of Officer Eric Casebolt reaching for his gun upon arriving, and slamming a bikini-clad 14-year-old girl to the ground. The outrage to these injustices has been predictably loud but if you examine the historical context, both incidents, while hateful and enraging, are hardly surprising.

White America has always had an irrational fear of Black displays of emotion regardless of how they manifest, whether through joy, pain or anger. In the mind of the white supremacist, displays of emotion could become outbursts that are beyond their control. It's a mentality that goes back to slavery when uprisings terrified plantation owners. Too many blacks in a crowd held the potential for insurrection. In the present day free spaces for Black expression are tolerated so long as they remain in their own neighborhoods like the block parties of my youth, but when those displays and the people that make them show up where they're not expected -- like in white suburban neighborhoods at say, a pool party -- the programmed fear of some of the residents takes over.

Coupled with the denigration of Black bodies and Black culture, it's not hard to see that the end result would be frightened suburbanites, peering out from behind Venetian blinds and calling the cops once the party got noticeably "darker."

During the Jim Crow era, the unspoken but brutally enforced local customs were far more difficult and dangerous to navigate than codified law; don't look a white person in the eye, never raise your voice to a white person, and above all, don't get caught in the white part of town after dark and never challenge a white man's authority. Many a Black person went to chain gangs or were murdered by lynching for not following those rules. The Mississippi and Texas incidents are reminders of the continued belief in those rules and the willingness of far too many police departments to continue enforcing them.