The Demolition of Black Boy Bodies and Learned Silences
“…He felt no physical existence at all right then. It was a shadowy region, a No Man’s Land, the ground that separated the white world from the black that he stood upon. He felt naked, transparent; he felt that this white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused. At that moment he felt…a dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate.” – Richard Wright, Native Son
Recently, a brilliant friend of mine offered me a powerful piece of insight regarding Black boys. While there is much talk about the consciousness and expression of Black boys, more attention must be given to the demolition of the Black boy body itself. What are we to make of the fact that the harsh realities of mass incarceration and gang violence are physically decimating and apprehending the bodies of Black males? Essentially, what are we to do when, in sheer numbers, the spatial, material, and therefore metaphorical presence of Black boys is being usurped?
If we can take the tragic stories of Trayvon Martin, the more recent shooting of 16 year-old Kimani Gray, and put them in conversation with similar historical narratives like Emmett Till, we will find that they share one thing particularly in common, namely, the conflict of stories. All three of these narratives are set against the backdrop of competing accounts set forth between the racist agents, and the counter appraisals by individuals who valued the boys in question. Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman, George Zimmeman was allegedly defending himself, and now Kimani allegedly pointed .38 revolver at the police. (Which still somehow warrants being shot 7 times). These disputes can never be settled to any satisfactory degree, because they will always be skewed by the lack of the Black boys’ perceptions. We will never hear Emmett’s side of the story, nor Trayvon’s, and now Kimani’s:
One bullet entered his left shoulder in the rear; two other bullets struck the back of his thighs, one in the left thigh and one in the right. Two bullets struck from the front, hitting his right thigh; one bullet entered his left side, striking his lower rib cage; and the last bullet hit his left lower forearm. — NY times article
Murder is not the only means of silence. If more than 846,000 Black men are incarcerated, then more than 846,000 Black male narratives are suppressed, disenfranchised, and unaccounted for. The demolition of the Black boy body coincides with the erasure of the Black boy voice. Since this assault on Black boys is often the result of institutional racism, the Black boy voice becomes oppositional to institutional power. As a Black male, I don’t expect that my word, my story, my perception can have any weight against the silencing power of the broader criminal justice system. Furthermore, if my voice is neglected and downright absent against one institution, who is to say that my voice matters against any other?
This phenomenon is especially prevalent in schools, where Black boys first encounter institutional disenfranchisement. Where Black kids, and in particular Black boys, are subject to suspension more than any other race. The “zero-tolerance” policies many urban schools like to boast about are really silencing strategies, which tell Black boys that it doesn’t matter how you were hurt, how you felt, nor does your point of view matter. You will be removed, erased, and silenced. The sad reality of this example is that many of these schools are led by Black administrators, of course with outside pressures from whiter powers, but who still have considerable power to instill Black boys with the ability to voice their concerns, name the struggles of their existence, and articulate the perils of living in the Black boy body.
The dehumanizing institutional assault on Black boy bodies is crippling for multiple, nefarious reasons, but its chief damage is the reverberating absence of Black males that we feel in Black communities. Of course, there are many loving Black men still around (and more in college than in prison), but how are we to get our communities to believe this meaningfully, when the absence of Black males is permeating our collective consciousness and lived realities? Furthermore, when little Black boys must grow up seeing institutions all but eradicate the value of their voice, how can we expect them to happily participate as political beings in this country? How can we expect them to value education when institutions are becoming the very antithesis to their personhood?
We need to amplify the power of Black boy voices in our communities, and of course this effort must extend to all of Black children. Listening to our youth, and giving them the space to articulate their lives and loves should be our first imperative to fight against these injustices. Indeed, it is something we all can do. We are no strangers to the assertion that silence is one of the deadliest weapons of a racist society. The demolition of Black boy bodies is just that, a catalyst for silence.