Tag Archives: murder

An Elegy for Fairness: Jordan Davis, Defiance, and White Entitlement

jordan davis

This may not even be an essay. Already it feels more like an elegy—not just for Jordan Davis, or Trayvon Martin, or their parents, whose black sons’ lives have so little value in the eyes of the American justice system. This feels like an elegy for fairness: a lament read at the funeral of “right” and “good” and “humane.”

Because these things must be dead. I struggle to find proof that they’re living. George Zimmerman invades our daily consciousness, his arrogance taking up more and more space as the likes of CNN, who apparently know no shame, offer him an interview to tell “his side of the story.” I know what story he’ll tell: it’s the same story that Michael Dunn has been telling. The one where an adult man can claim to have been afraid of a 17-year old kid and everyone will nod sagely and understand because that kid was black. We know that the reverse of this would be seen as silly. What if an adult black man had shot and killed a 17-year old white boy for playing his rock music too loud, claiming it made him afraid? Everyone would smirk. Black men are tough, the racist narrative goes. Tough. “Thugs.” What does a black man have to be afraid of?

Everything, I would say. Everything. Just read the headlines.

A black man need not only fear a car accident, like any other human being, but he must also fear being shot while asking for help, as we saw with Jonathan Ferrell. The same goes for black women—the family of Renisha McBride will tell you.

Elegies have been written for these families, their lost children. But I am writing an elegy for fairness, for what their deaths mean, because they mean more than funerals. They mean more than black veils and sad songs. Their deaths mean our death, a collective slow withering of the soul. We are a country where a man can be convicted of the lives he attempted to take, but not the one he did take. We are a country where a man can shoot ten rounds into a car of teenagers, then go home, order pizza, take a nap—and face no justice. And in this we are dying. In this our humanity crumbles. We made these laws. We enforce these laws.

And with these laws, we tell black children that white men can murder them for any reason at all. The mythical laws of respectability do not apply. A black child can have one parent or two. A black child can wear a hoodie or a blouse. A black child can have trouble with the law or no history of arrest. Living in this country, I have learned the equation, seen the common denominator: blackness, and only that, is what links these victims together. It is not the music, or the hat, or the pants, or the name. It is the skin, and the emotions it incites.

I say “emotions” instead of “fear” intentionally, for it was not fear that caused Michael Dunn to get out of his car and fire his gun ten times. It was anger.

“You’re not going to talk to me that way!” Dunn yelled at Jordan Davis and his friends, according to witness testimony. And with those words, America’s racism rears up in my vision: a white man demanding that black youths respect and obey him. When they would not—for they were under no obligation to do so—he tried to kill them. He did kill one. “You’re not going to talk to me that way” reminds me acutely of America’s not so distant past, in which black Americans were warned to never “sass” a white person. “Don’t talk back,” as if every white man everywhere is an authority figure based on the sheer fact of his whiteness. Mr. Dunn can talk all he wants about imaginary guns he thought he saw that never appeared, but the fact of the matter is this: Michael Dunn was angry, and in his anger—his anger at being defied—he took a life.

Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman, aside from being murderers, have something else in common: a terrifying sense of entitlement that tells them black boys like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are interlopers. Strangers. Outsiders. Others. The Michael Dunns of the world believe that black boys’ music, their clothes, their language, their skin, do not belong, and are subject to white dictation at any time. It’s their inherited white supremacy that tells them black boys “are not going to talk to [them] that way.” It’s been often said, and I will say it again: this mentality is distinctly similar to Jim Crow and apartheid laws, where free black people were still expected to comply with and obey white expectations at any given time. Noncompliance meant death. Means death. Now. For noncompliance meant the death of both Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.

We are a nation that kills black boys. We are a nation where being black—and nothing more; your blackness alone—is an act of defiance. What if Jordan Davis had turned his music down and said “Yes, sir” the way the Michael Dunns of the world fantasize? Would it have changed his fate? Perhaps. But it also would have contributed to the belief of a man that his whiteness means authority; that his whiteness means obey; that his whiteness means be silent, don’t speak, you are an Other. Jordan Davis is dead because he would not comply. His parents weep because he would not comply. And the worst part is, he didn’t have to. Jordan Davis, a black youth, did not have to comply with the wishes of a white man. The jury would not convict Dunn on the count of murder because somewhere in their minds they believed that Davis violated the unspoken rule of white supremacy and black inferiority.

Other black children will die as long as white supremacy reigns, as it surely does, but what are the alternatives? How do parents of black children protect their babies? By telling them to be silent before white people? Don’t talk back to white people? Keep your music low. Keep your head down.

Surely not. To do so would mean stepping backward into Jim Crow. It would mean further sending the message of second-class citizenship, in which white children can live free from the burden of racism while black children grow up stunted and afraid. It’s not fair. And that’s why this is an elegy. Because fairness is dead.

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Short Story 1: Matthew

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I have a limit of 300 words on all my blog posts, but will make exceptions as I begin to post pieces of short fiction. Here is the first of many to come. Enjoy.

 

He boards the Red Line at Thorndale, carrying a plastic bag. It’s his second bag: the first had a hole he hadn’t noticed when he filled it, and blood had escaped onto the floor before he’d even gotten it out of the bathroom. The second bag wasn’t quite as big as the first, and the tips of her fingers peeped out as he tied it. He’d pushed them gently back inside as he tightened the yellow strings.

“No, no,” he’d murmured, “not yet. Stay in there where it’s safe.”

He’d left her head in the sink. She’d be waiting for him when he got home, and the idea fills him with a happiness that spreads through his chest and his cheeks like a blush.

On the train, a pretty girl sits next to him, texting on her cell phone. He makes sure his thigh doesn’t brush hers. It’s a nice thigh, he sees, tapering down into a slim ankle, but he doesn’t want to be rude.

“Excuse me,” he says when the train reaches his stop and he hefts the bag. She smiles and stands to let him pass, not minding when the bag brushes against her knees. “So sorry,” he says, lying.

“It’s okay!” Her smile is warm and unforced. “Oh,” she says, “don’t forget your gloves!”

They’re sitting on the seat he vacated, and she grabs them, putting them right into his hand.

“Oh, thank you so much,” he says, remembering to open his eyes wide to show he’s grateful; to show that forgetting the gloves would have been the worst possible event. This is actually true; it would have been. He smiles politely at the pretty girl once more before leaving the train. She is back to texting again before the door closes, at which he feels a little prick of anger in his belly. But he doesn’t have time, he thinks, he has things to do.

Outside, it’s spring and he smiles to feel the new air snaking up his shirtsleeves. It’s chilly still but this is good. No one will look twice at his gloves, although they might wonder briefly at their thickness. He breathes in deeply. He’s strong—for his size, he’s strong: something he likes to tell himself—but the bag is heavy.

“Might have considered a diet, Martha,” he whispers, smiling a little.

She is not the first Martha, Martha 3 in fact, but he knows she wouldn’t mind, not now. She might have minded before, before he’d shown her. But not now. He wonders if she’ll remember, at home in the sink. She will. He thinks of his favorite movie, Wild Wild West. He could have done without Will Smith, but Salma Hayek was so lovely. A woman in a corset earned a special place in his heart—earned it.

His favorite part of the movie was when the scientist—he doesn’t remember the character having a name—took the disembodied head and hooked it to the contraption that showed, like an old movie reel flickering on a screen, the last few moments of the head’s life, before a spinning metal blade had separated head from body.

He relishes this. Sometimes he’ll watch just this scene, not bothering with the preface. Sometimes he masturbates to it. Not to it, exactly, but about it. He puts Martha 1 and 2 in the place of the head on the screen. He closes his eyes, straightening his legs in the blue tweed armchair—a chair he replaces every six months—and thinks of the tape the heads of the Marthas would play. What movies would those be? What glimmering images would he see there, dancing on the wall like shadows in a cave? He knows what he would see. He would see himself. Him, leaning down over them, unmasked and unafraid. He would be the spinning steel blade, the perfect circle. The thought leaves him writhing in the rough blue chair, his eyes open and taking in the vast whiteness of the ceiling.

Now he puts on the gloves. He wishes these could also be white—like him, like his ceiling, like the Marthas—but they must be black. He hasn’t been able to find a red pair that would mask the blood perfectly in shade. It always shows. The black hides all.

He checks the outside of the bag for any of that red before hoisting it over his shoulder; Fulton Market is long and carrying the bag by his side will tax him too quickly. Carrying it over his shoulder lets him feel strong. He had done the same thing with a bag of toys when he was eight and had resolved to run away. His mother had punished him for some childish crime and his father had refused to reverse her decision, so Matthew had packed his favorite things and set off. That had been when they lived in the suburbs, in the house with the yellow door. He’d loved that house and had returned by dark, hungry and lonely, like generations of runaways before him. He’ll return to his own home tonight, but glows again with the knowledge that, for him, it will not be lonely. Martha 3 will be waiting for him, eyes open. Even her mouth is open. He can imagine in it a smile.

He arrives and must put the bag down to pat out his keys. The street is dark. The factory is dark. Chicago is dark. But he is not. He is full of light.

Inside, he doesn’t need a flashlight. He knows the way, he knows the combinations and the mazes and the levers. He knows where she’ll go, where he’ll put her. He puts her there, a safe place with other pieces, other divided forms, other reds and bones. He eases her in gently, gentler than he’d been before. When he returns to her in the sink, he’ll tell her how gentle he’d been. She’ll be grateful.

When he’s through, he stands there in the dark, his back against her place. He wants his blue chair. He wants his white ceiling. But he’ll wait. For now, he clutches the crinkling bag in his black-cotton hands, gripping it hard. He could leave it here for the first shift to discover. They’d throw it away without looking: probably Mark or Javier, people who cared nothing for order. They wouldn’t notice—everything is bloody here. This would be just one more bloody thing. But he’s gripping it tightly, thinking of his white ceiling, and so he carries it out with him when he leaves, folding it gently into a square like a shroud.

Outside, the sky is black and thick like the bag in his pocket, stars plucking out holes in the darkness, some bright thing seeping through. Walking, he passes no one, but he doesn’t need to remind himself to smile in case he happens upon someone, anyone. He’s already smiling. He will be for weeks; at least until Martha 3 begins withering, until her eyes are no longer eyes. He’ll need company after that. But tonight his loneliness is a book on a shelf, its spine uncracked, its pages crisp and unworn. His feet take him back toward the train, his soles solid against concrete the same color as stars.

He removes the gloves. He wants to see his hands, white and blue, in the streetlights. Later, when he imagines Martha 3’s final tape, her flickering thirty seconds, these hands will be in the frame. He looks at them, loving each finger.

He boards the train again, pushing the bag deeper into his pocket with the gloves. A woman with distracted eyes brushes past him for a seat.

“Excuse me,” he says lightly, reminding his mouth to smile in a way that covers his teeth. “Excuse me, so sorry,” he says. She ignores him and he’s hating her, already naming her.

“Excuse me,” he says quietly, and at home Martha 3 waits like a queen, and he owns her eyes; he’ll show her where to look. If she’s a lady he’ll save her skull, keep it like an urn containing all the precious thing she hadn’t been; the things he’d made her.

The train rocks north and he watches the city smear alongside him. He holds the headrest of the seat in front of him, his hands whiter and whiter the more tightly he grips.

Home. Home. Home. He is the perfect circle, made of steel.

“Excuse me,” he says, holding the train’s door open for a woman with headphones, unseeing. His stomach growls with rage. “So sorry.”

All original content copyright Olivia Cole, 2012-2013

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