We have been watching the uprisings across the country calling for justice, not just for George Floyd, but for all black Americans. It has been 53 years since this country experienced unrest of this magnitude with the Long, Hot Summer of 1967. Writer and podcaster Carvell Wallace wrote on Timeline about these riots and how for black Americans they were a spiritual impulse rather than a political strategy.
In the summer of 1967, the city of Detroit burned. Milwaukee, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Newark were engulfed in flames. Even forgotten towns like Cairo, Illinois and Cambridge, Maryland descended, for some nights in that torrid summer, into anarchy. The havoc seemed to be catching. The fire in one town sparked the fire in the next. America seemed to be coming undone.
Yet for most Americans the riots of that summer were viewed from afar, through the lens of the evening news and front-page headlines. They were not seeing their own homes burned, their own streets occupied by uniformed troops. From this safe distance, the uprisings looked like senseless violence, the reckless and shortsighted actions of a damaged people, a people with no strategy, no hope.
But the truth of riots is something entirely different, something entirely more sacred.
America is an unsettled land. And it remains so because it was founded on white supremacy, and white supremacy is, by nature, an unsettling force. The centuries-long attempt to subdue the continent and nakedly ransack its resources only for the benefit of some creates a vast army of angry people who will forever — for the sake of their children, for the sake of themselves — be forced to resist. Far from an ugly side effect of our nation’s character, white supremacy is a core American principle. In Mein Kampf, Hitler even identified the United States, with its Jim Crow laws and forbiddance of interracial marriage, as the “one state” that knew how to effectively create a second class of citizenry. That the American experiment provided the primary source material for the same violent German regime from which it claimed to be saving the planet is the contradiction between what this country says it is and what it does. It is, at its very core, the uniquely American distinction between ideals and action. This country didn’t just end up this way. It was made this way.
To be black in a country like this is to forge your entire life in the dank valley between America’s ideals and actions. We are told that we have been created equally, but we are treated as a separate class. We are told that we live in a nation of laws, but we watch as violence is visited upon our families with no hope of legal recourse. To be black (and survive) in America is to be of dual consciousness. On the one hand, you must believe what all humans must believe in order to survive: that you have a future, that your children will be safe and cared for, that things will, somehow, some way, get better. On the other hand, your very survival depends on never trusting, on seeing the ugly truth for what it is, on remaining ever vigilant for where and how precisely you are being conned. To keep safe you must expect to be attacked. To be black and live is to constantly expect to die.
This is a fucked-up forced duality. And an unsustainable one. “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude,” Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” For black people in America, the psychic toll of having to tie your fate, the fate of your family, to a world designed to subjugate you can only be withstood for so long. Eventually, inevitably, a truer, more direct action calls. And often that action is abrupt. It is violent and and it is loud. It is sparked by anything that underscores the maddening discrepancy between what we deserve as human beings and what we experience as black human beings. A police murder of an unarmed child, savage beatings delivered by the same government forces charged with keeping us safe, or, as in the case of the Roxbury riots that began on June 2, 1967 and served as a starter pistol for an entire summer of unrest, the simple inability of a group of mothers to feed their children. No matter the cause, once the fury has been released, it is undiscerning and inhuman. It blindly and dispassionately consumes everything in its path. Buildings crumble and fires burn and glass rains down upon everyone, even the children.
The charge is often levied by those watching, safely, comfortably aghast from their easy chairs and davenports that these riots amount to little more than a self-destructive tantrum. Why, it is asked, would these people burn down their own neighborhoods? Someone more sympathetic, but still removed, might argue that a riot is the only way for a desperate people to gain the attention their plight deserves. The problem with both of these readings is that they assume the spontaneous uprising to be tactical, a coordinated strategic attempt to bring about a particular social or political change. It is not.
The stores, the government offices, even the homes belong to others. They belong to landowners, or banks — financial or municipal systems that employ no black people, support no black people, and seem to care little for black people. If your family has been in this country for centuries, has provided the free labor that has built much of the institutional wealth here, and yet is called lazy and shiftless, treated as something less than a citizen, something less than a human, finds every attempt at advancement dogged and thwarted by burning crosses, nighttime mobs, and racist policies until you are redlined into forgotten and decaying neighborhoods, owned by systems that purposefully exclude you, left to fight with one another for resources, for stability and safety, it would make sense that a point would come in which the only emotionally and spiritually honest act would be to see it all destroyed.
A riot is not a tactical decision for political gain. It is a liturgy. It is a spiritual grasping for emotional justice, for an assertion of self. It is an attempt to bring back into wholeness that which has been split. It is meant to reify the dual senses of life and death, hope and fury, that circumscribe the black experience. The flames of a riot are dramatic and angry. They are destructive and a violation of the most core aspects that bind our society together. And yet they are honest and true, dispassionate and inevitable. And by the time they arrive, they have been crying for centuries to be set free so they can do the work of consuming every little shop and bank, every receipt and toy, every pencil and photocopied government form that has played a part, no matter how small, in your continued oppression. When Jeremiah in the Old Testament was told he must not speak the name of the Lord for fear of persecution, he remarked that “his word is in my heart like a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” In our days of darkest rage, the word of the Lord comes in the form of fire. In our days of darkest rage, fire is the only thing that makes sense.
To be white in America is to be watching riots from afar. It is to know little of fire shut up in one’s bones. To be white in America is to be innocent. Not of the crime, but of the knowledge of the crime. “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” James Baldwin observed “and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The function of whiteness is to allow certain people that innocence, indeed to create and maintain an infrastructure for it. Not only an innocence from the violence that makes the idea of America possible, but an innocence from the monstrosity that must be called forth to be free of that violence. An innocence of your own guilt. In that way, whiteness is, at it’s core, America’s primary ideal. Well meaning and murderous. Honorable and ignorant.
And yet on the horizon, visible from the whittled down lawns and decks of conscientiously chosen wood, there is an amber glow, a blanket of thick, acrid smoke, the smell of burning plastic and gasoline. Bodies lay unmoving on the asphalt. Your government has sent its troops. The clack of gunfire echoes from the acacia trees. The people wish for the lights of fire to illuminate your monstrosity, to usher in the end of your innocence. The people wish for you to see them made complete.
As we see the focus turn once again on looters, destruction of property and dichotomies of peaceful versus violent protest, we continue to ignore the issue at hand — in this country, black Americans are dying because of racism, white supremacy and capitalism. COVID-19 continues to show us the health disparities and economic inequities experienced by black Americans. The global pandemic and racism in America are public health crises that have contributed to the lifetime of extreme trauma. Wise One Eddie Glaude describes this moment we’re in — as the expression of “an accumulated grievance” for black people. Glaude is chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of "Begin Again". He joined host Tonya Mosley to talk about the nationwide protests and what justice looks like.
“What I used to think about 1967 and '68, I always thought I was born out of space and out of time. If I was [alive] back then, I would have been in the Black Panthers handing out breakfast and working with SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. I always think that I was born out of space and out of time, not understanding that I would be 51 years old in this time. In a time that we never could have imagined. And so I'm so angry all the time because we could be better. This is voluntary evil. People are choosing this.”
Mosley and Glaude talked about the levels of understanding on what it means to be black in America. For Mosley, she had understood its meaning on an intellectual and emotional level, but in this moment in time, she is feeling the depths of that emotional understanding for the first time. Glaude responded, “I don't want to confuse that with the joy. The absolute pleasure of being black. It being this body, and having the inheritance that makes me who I am. But, to revel in the beauty of black life amid the tragedy of white folks' craziness, that’s the balance I'm trying to render.”