Nine months after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a White man has killed another Florida teen under troubling circumstances.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that on Friday night, 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis and a group of friends were sitting in an SUV in the parking lot of a Jacksonville convenience store when they were approached by another vehicle. Michael David Dunn, who was accompanied by his girlfriend, asked the teens to turn down their music.
According to Lt. Rob Schoonover of the Jacksonville Sherrif’s Office, Davis and Dunn exchanged words. Allegedly, the 45-year-old then drew a gun and fired into the SUV eight or nine times, striking the young boy twice. He then drove off, but a witness inside the store wrote down his license plate number.
The following morning, the couple learned that one of the passengers of the car had died via a news report. They then returned home to Brevard County, where Dunn was arrested later that day and charged with murder and attempted murder.
Jordan Russell Davis was a student at Samuel W. Wolfson High School, a magnet school. He worked at the local Wynn Dixie grocery store. Frankly, I would not care if he was a member of Three Six Mafia who had stopped at the convenience store to re-up on blunts and 40 ounces. If a group of people is sitting in a car listening to loud music, it is not the job of a private citizen to demand that they turn it down. Furthermore, there is nothing justifiable or excusable about Dunn drawing a gun on a group of people whom he had accosted.
Michael David Dunn, likely high off the excitement of his son’s wedding, perhaps a few too many gin and tonics at the reception and certainly the feeling one gets from being White, male and armed, felt it was his place to approach these young people aggressively over the volume of their music.
And this gun wielding person, who allegedly APPROACHED THE CAR without provocation (much like George Zimmerman hunted down Trayvon Martin without provocation), felt threatened by the presence of teenagers in a car with whom he started an argument because HE THOUGHT THEIR MUSIC WAS TOO LOUD.
White privilege is just so, so real.
An often repeated assertion in the body of film criticism I have written is the assertion that movies do not just mirror the culture of any given time; they also create it With this assertion in mind I leaving a viewing of the film Beasts of the Southern Wilds deeply disturbed and militantly outraged by the images I have just seen. Having traveled with friends an hour to see this acclaimed movie, I have no way home if I leave the cinema; there were images in the movie that I just did not want inside my head. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn tells students that putting images inside our heads is just like eating. And if “you are what you eat” it is equally true that to a grave extent we are what we see. Having read wonderful reviews of the film, pushed by friends and colleagues alike to see it, I was amazed that what I saw, they did not see. The majority of folks I talked with, like the reviewers, praised the film’s compelling cinematography, the magical realism, and the poetics of space. In his long affirming review in the New Yorker critic David Denby praises the film, calling it a “vibrant feature.”
Sadly, all the vibrancy in this film is generated by a crude pornography of violence. At the center of this spectacle is the continuous physical and emotional violation of the body and being of a small six year old black girl called Hushpuppy (played by the ten year old actress Quzenhane Wallis). While she is portrayed as continuously resisting and refusing to be a victim, she is victimized. Subject to both romanticization as a modern primitive and eroticization, her plight is presented as comically farcical. Some audiences laugh as Hushpuppy, when enraged at the antics of her disappearing alcoholic oftentimes abusive wild man dad Wink, burns her shanty house. Initially, she hides from the fire in an overturned cardboard box until Wink rescues her by fiercely yelling mean spirited words that both frighten her and lead her to run for her life; in that moment she is more terrified of her raging dad than she is of the fire.
Hushpuppy has a resilient spirit. She is indeed a miniature version of the ‘strong black female matriarch,’ racist and sexist representations have depicted from slavery on into the present day. Like the unrealistic racist/sexist stereotypical images of grown black women in the recent blockbuster film The Help who confront all manner of exploitation and oppression only to triumph in this ridiculous macabre fantasy of modern primitivism, Hushpuppy is a survivor. From the onset of the film, she is depicted as a wild child, so at home in the natural wild of the Gulf of Mexico bayou world where black and white po’ folks create their own community affectionately called the Bathtub. This is the territory they claim as a renegade place of belonging. It is a total homemade world of make do, use whatever you got to survive.
For many folks who see this film it is the mythic focus that enchants. And yet it is precisely this mythic focus that deflects attention away from egregious sub-textual narratives present in the film. Writing about the role of myth n popular media that makes use of race in his book White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness critic Maurice Berger contends: “Despite the visual sophistication and supposed vigilance of a media-oriented culture …Western commentators, critics, and academics seem no to realize how duplicitous words and images can be. They simply do not understand how myths work, how myths hold us hostage to their smooth elegant fictions. The subject of race, perhaps more than any other subject in contemporary life feeds on myth…. Myth is the book, seamless narrative that tells us the contradictions and incongruities of race and racism are too confusing or too dangerous to articulate. Myths provide the elegant deceptions that reinforce our unconscious prejudices. Myths are the white lies that tell us everything is all right, even when it is not.” Deploying myth and fantasy we are shown a world in Beasts of the Southern Wild where black and white poor folks live together in utopian harmony. No race talk, no racial discourse disturbs the peace.
“What’s up with the dead kids” I say, pulling a shiny spirit-killing blade out of my cane. He doesn’t speak, but I got his attention. Without moving his eyes, the old ghost focuses all his energy and concentration on my weapon.
“Listen,” Riley says, producing his own glowing saber and directing it at the easy chair, “we being nice by talking to you right now instead of just getting this over with, but we could certainly—“
You dare address Captain Jonathon Arthur Calhoun III, boy?
The voice is a sharp slither inside our heads. The old man just sits there smiling.
“Excuse me?” Riley demands.
“What do you want?” I say.
The Calhouns were once a well-respected family. It feels like a knife is cutting away parts of my brain with each word. Kept New York harbor a central point in the transatlantic slave trade. Ran a de facto empire from our estates in the Hudson Valley. A name known all over the civilized world. Three generations later, my fop of a great-great grandson has further disgraced his noble lineage.
“Is he talking to us?” Riley whispers.
“I don’t know,” I say.
My knees are starting to give out. I’m not sure if I’m holding off ending him from fascination or fear, but the no-turning back point’s fast approaching.
And now: Here I am in this faggotine city of corpulence, cross-breeding and cowardice, shackled to a worthless, slave loving progeny. Still: I manage to have my fun, wreak my vengeance in a manner fit for pharaohs.
“The first born sons,” I say. “The tenth plague. You’re a dipshit just like your great grandson.”
The old man turns his shaggy sneering face towards me for the first time and I almost double over with nausea. The extinction of the black race has to begin somewhere. Why not in the uppermost echelons?
I’m done finding shit out. Time to endgame the situation. As I step forward to engage the ghost, the office door swings open and John Calhoun bursts in. He’s wearing tighty-whitey and a stained, white t-shirt. He looks pissed. Gone is the forced smile he had flashed again and again that afternoon. “What the hell do you think you’re doing in my office, Detective?”
He stands directly between my blade and his slave-trading, child-killing ancestor. A cruel laughter erupts in my brain like a bomb going off. “Get out of the way,” I say. I’m trying to put on a calm front but a shiver has found its way into my voice. Both Calhouns hear it. The laughter in my head gets louder. “I have to destroy that chair.”
“That chair is an heirloom!” John Calhoun screams.
“I bet,” Riley mutters.
“I’m calling the police,” Calhoun announces, as if that settles the matter. He produces a cell phone and I swat it out of his hands with my cane. He glares at me in total disbelief. I swat him again, higher this time and he falls out of the way and cowers in a corner.
“Let’s get this over with, man” Riley says. He’s beside me now, weak but ready to move. “Hold Captain Underpants and I’ll deal with Gramps.” I feel his icy hand on my shoulder, steadying me.
The transmission comes in blaring and staticky: Councilman Arsten to agents Washington and Delacruz. We both straighten to attention at the sound of Bart’s nasally voice. Be advised, the entity known as Captain Jonathon Arthur Calhoun III, deceased 1846 of New York State, is a confirmed protected entity. He is not to be touched, harmed, or insulted. I try to concentrate on holding my blade steady, keeping both Calhouns at bay. Riley starts breathing heavily. Under no circumstances is he to be dispatched into non-existence. This concludes Emergency Executive Order 203-14 of the New York Council of the Dead. Failure to comply will result in banishment and termination.
When the transmission ends, all I hear is the ghost Calhoun’s piercing laughter. I lower my blade slightly and then bring it back up. I feel Riley’s bristling and burning like a fireball beside me. There’s a pause. Then Riley lurches forward. I see the blade flash and the old man’s face suddenly looks frail and desperate. You ever notice how old people do that? Act all powerful until things don’t go their way. The ancient phantom moans, gurgles and then shrivels our of existence. On the floor lies the crumples pile of wood and fabric that had once been a Calhoun family heirloom. I feel sudden light on my feet. The whole room takes a breath, like the steam had been let out of the pressure cooker.
John Calhoun, still cowering in the corner, stammers nonsensically. Riley and I look at each other. I can’t decide if that’s disappointment in his frown or just the sullen satisfaction of a grim job well done. I had hesitated. When he moved, the whole world had moved to deliver that divine justice; I could feel the sacred pantheon reveling in his victory around us. But the repercussions of defying the Council are devastating. We don’t have much time. Death’s angry bull’s-eye is already swirling towards Riley.
Calhoun screams and I realize that Riley has made himself visible. I guess once you’ve tossed the rulebook out, you might as well go all the way.
“You’ve caused a lot of problems,” Riley says.
“Jesus, what are you?
“It’s not about me. Maybe if you’d spent more time studying your own people before your came studying mine, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“I-I don’t understand!”
“I think you do, but I’ll let it slide. Imma need you to do me a favor, though, Mr. Calhoun.”
“Put some of the degree’d-up intellect of yours into dealing with your own shit,” Riley says, “and move out.”
—Excerpted from Salsa Nocturna: Stories, a collection of “ghost noir” short stories by R guest contributor Daniel José Older.
I have felt like Trayvon Martin. Many many times while walking at night, being pulled over by police, being told that I’m not supposed to ‘be.’ My ‘being’ in a space has caused questions, concerns, suspicions. In the back of my mind I always wondered if there would be a reckoning. If my ‘being’ would become so intolerable to someone that they would try to end my existence rather than engage in a conversation. The only difference between me and Trayvon is that I am still here and he is not. Still, the question lurks around the subconscious when I walk home every night from the subway and a police car slows down alongside me. The squad car slows down. Eyeballs examine my ‘being,’ noticing any signs of anger, insanity, guilt. I continue walking, pretending to be oblivious. In most cases this is the best sign of innocence: by pretending to not notice.
Unlike myself, Trayvon physically noticed the accusation. He noticed the suspicion and dared to walk toward it. Stare at it, as he spoke with his girlfriend over the phone. Curious, as to who could be staring at him so intently he took a step in Zimmerman’s direction. Staring directly at George Zimmerman before quickly walking away.
I could name other incidents of walking while Black: the police slow-downs, pull-overs, suspicious looks. It’s all the same because my reaction has to be measured and numb. I pretend not to notice and keep eyes fixed straight ahead. Hands out of pockets and swinging along my side. Maybe I’ll start singing. A guilty man wouldn’t sing, would he?
More and more the last few years when I find myself WWB, a sad smile comes across my face. After all these years, you’re still looking for that sign of suspicion. It’s not here. I’m innocent. There is nothing wrong with me. I’m just a Black man out for a walk.
“There are some really important similarities,” [Brown University professor Tricia Rose] told The Young Turks host Cenk Uygur. “There are college campuses where young Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and African Americans are joining together, and wearing the hijab and the hoodie together to say, look, this is about people of color, people who are either fundamentally suppressed or unwanted or mistreated being criminally classed, so the presumption is that they are second class citizens, who can be pushed to the side, mistreated illegally — but nonetheless comfortably — policed and mistreated.”
“The treatment of Muslim communities by police in New York, they do that also to young black people,” she added. “So there is a lot of ground here for collaboration, even though there are big differences.”
It’s enraging when I think of how capriciously Americans shrug their shoulders and turn the other cheek when considering the value of Black life in this country. Institutional and interpersonal racism has left Black America in a very precarious place; just leaving our homes puts us at risk for being assassinated by any self-righteous, gun-yielding neighborhood watchman who deems us suspicious.
This way of thinking is an example of a broader societal philosophy that literally begins at conception of a Black life. Black mothers, often considered hypersexual in nature, are frequently treated with little to no dignity by doctors who dismiss their pregnancies as accidental or inconsequential.
With a maternal and fetal mortality rate higher than any other race (often caused by stress brought on by racial burdens), Black mothers often experience traumatic birthing experiences that include forced cesareans, trivializing attitudes by medical professionals, and contemptuous care that has led to death or serious injury. If they survive this, Black children are given the least resources, have the least access to healthcare, endure some the most toxic and contaminated environments, and deal with structural and interpersonal racism throughout adolescence and into adulthood, where they risk the chance of being shot to death by people like George Zimmerman.
It is disheartening how people have desensitized themselves to the plight of communities just because they don’t look like their own or how the lives of Black children are so undervalued, not because of something they’ve done but simply–just because. I can’t reconcile how some people have positioned themselves to make ethical decisions about who is and who isn’t deserving of safety, security, and justice and how those decisions magnify and shift culture, leaving entire communities on the fringes and moving targets for the Zimmermans of the world.