Don't Make Me Die Fighting

The United States is a machine fueled by energy extracted from African Americans.

Police brutality is the most visceral example of the state taking our life force. Cellphone footage of this country's first line of defense, its imperial team of overseers, taking the life from black folks works twofold: it not only documents the victim's life being ended, but it deducts from the value of life of African American viewers.

What started the confrontation that led to an officer taking George Floyd's life? Floyd's attempt to exchange a counterfeit bill. A minor crime that ended in horrific fashion, and gives further evidence that capitalism and racism are a married couple of mosquitoes, pulling blood from black folks, everyday.

And this is only the most newsworthy and sensational of the long list of more covert extractions that happen to black folks everyday in America. Look at data around health disparities, incarceration rates, wealth, child mortality, education levels and life expectancy. These numbers show that life is pulled from us from the cradle to the grave.

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Want qualitative evidence? Let's talk about how passive comments in the classroom plant seeds of self-destruction in little boys and girls, which manifest for the rest of our lives. Let's discuss how microagressions in the workplace chip away from the souls of black folks. Let's focus on the stories of the overwhelming amount of unhoused African American people.

A cyclist amidst a protest in downtown Oakland during the final weekend of May 2020. Photographer Brandon Ruffin says he was hit with rubber bullets and subject to tear gas while taking these photos.
A cyclist amidst a protest in downtown Oakland during the final weekend of May 2020. Photographer Brandon Ruffin says he was hit with rubber bullets and subject to tear gas while taking these photos. (Brandon Ruffin)

Unless you're talking about changing the way America has had its knee on our neck in just about every facet of life, I don't want to hear it this week. I don't have the energy.

That's why I'm not out protesting. I'm not social media posting. I'm not making guest appearances on public radio specials about how the black community is feeling right now. I'm not staying up at 2am sending emails for nonprofits who want to save "at-risk youth," or whatever term they use for black folks, but don't have an exit strategy for when black folks are "saved."

Appreciate the gesture, but I don't really care for the "how are you feeling" texts. I'll respond when the spirits moves me.

Otherwise, I'm not doing a damn thing that would take energy from me. America has taken enough.

I'm drawing a line in this stolen soil, because I know: If the system doesn't kill you, you'll die fighting it.

Dr. Leon A. Ransom (center) in the 1942 Howard University yearbook.
Dr. Leon A. Ransom (center) in the 1942 Howard University yearbook. (Howard University)

I spent a large part of this past weekend talking with my great-grandfather. He died over 60 years ago, but we still had a conversation that was right on time.

He called on me last week, when I learned that digital versions of Howard University’s yearbooks were made public. There he was, on page 27 of the 1942 edition, my mother’s paternal grandfather. Front, center and dapper—check out the kicks. He shares space on the page with the famous philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman. And he's surrounded by images of Lewis K. Downing, E. Franklin Frazier and A.J. Blackburn—all of whom have buildings or centers named in their honor at the Mecca.

My great-grandfather, Dr. Leon A. Ransom, was a high-ranking graduate of Ohio State's law school. He also earned a post-grad degree from Harvard. He went on to be a member of Howard University faculty for over a decade, serving as the acting dean of its law school from 1941 to 1946, during the war years.

Dr. Leon A. Ransom discussing how he deals with stress: 'I work.'
Dr. Leon A. Ransom discussing how he deals with stress: 'I work.' (Dr. Leon A. Ransom Archives)

Outside of academia, he was a part of the NAACP Legal Defense team; he worked closely with a number of top African American lawyers of the time, including Thurgood Marshall. My great-grandfather’s work focused on “educational and salary discrimination, jury exclusion, and race riots,” according to Howard’s records.

One of the more notable cases he worked was the 1946 “Columbia Race Riots.” He helped clear the names of 23 of the 25 African American men who were charged with attempted murder after multiple officers were shot during a riot in which a white mob ravaged and fired guns throughout Mink Slide, the black business district in Columbia, Tennessee. During the case, Dr. Ransom spoke in front of known Ku Klux Klansmen, and was threatened by the opposing legal team; the defense attorney at one point told him that if he kept talking he'd "wrap this chair around his goddamn head."

In the book Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961, it’s noted that during the Columbia Race Riot case, my great-grandfather's "mental conditions began to deteriorate." He had recently survived a physical attack by a former police officer after one of his court cases in Nashville. Prior to that, he'd endured written threats from a white woman who wanted to keep schools segregated. He even disappeared for a short spell, causing a stir—family rumor has it that he skipped town to attend a baseball game, in order to take a mental break from his work.

I have a folder of clippings about my great-grandfather's work that I keep near my bed. One article asks a handful of well-known figures of the era how they deal with stress. My great-grandfather said, “I work.”

Dr. Leon A. Ransom died at age 55 of a stroke, according to his obituary. He wasn’t killed by police during a protest or traffic stop. But his effort to combat America's racist system obviously impacted his health.

He was a black man fighting against injustice during his life, and it’s clear that the fight for freedom hastened his death.

An embrace in the midst of chaos in downtown Oakland during protests in late May 2020.
An embrace in the midst of chaos in downtown Oakland during protests in late May 2020. (Brandon Ruffin)

This system is tricky. It'll either squash you for existing, or let you get close enough to think you're doing something to change it—just to kill you.

In knowing that, it's on me to prioritize my physical and mental health in a country that's inherently unhealthy for me and my people.

Do I not combat oppression? You're a damn fool if you think I'd be passive.

Do I turn into a martyr for the cause, or some sort of kamikaze fighter for black liberation? No. Because my death won't change anything.

I'll take a bit of my great-grandfather's advice for navigating times of stress, and I'll continue to work.

And at the same time, I'll be mindful that many of the frontline protesters in Ferguson have mysteriously died. And police brutality, as seen in the past week's nationwide protests, is still an issue. And the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (also known as the Civil Rights Act) was signed just after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, yet we're just as divided today. And, I'll keep in mind that my great-grandfather died a young age, largely due to stress caused by the hard work he did as a lawyer.

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So, I'll draw the line on how much I work. I'll fulfill my personal responsibilities, and do my 40 hours each week—I have to work, my daughter's tummy demands it—but not a minute more. It's the only action that's within my power to ensure that the capitalist system driving this racist country doesn't take any more of my life.