We've Brought In the New Year With a Gunshot / "We replaced a vigor for justice with an appetite for the mundane and barbaric"

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Michael J. Wilson {Brooklyn, New York}

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We’ve brought in the new year with a gunshot; at the dawn of the last year of our digital decade, we’ve managed to bear witness to a cyber execution. It was only a matter of time before our blood-thirst synthesized itself with our technological obsessions and provided us with popular hyperlinks to death — you can even add them to your favorites.

We will remember the textbook and documentary photographs from our high school days showing a sea of white Southerners gathered beneath the charred remnants of a dangling black corpse. Proud white fathers with their families clutched beside them, all of them goggling at the flaked and chipping carcass with looks of satisfaction. In some of the pictures, the onlookers even wore wide grins, their teeth beaming with giddiness. Some of us will even recall the subtle, yet sudden, thrill we felt when these images flashed before us, how — stopping just short of necrophilia — our curious eyes poured over the contorted faces and snapped limbs filling us with a repulsive awe of those historical murders.

But finally, the black-and-whiteness of the images reminded us of their antiquity; we shook our heads out of that daze and resettled on the fact that we were now living in the Information Age and that the representation of such atrocities were relegated to a quickly fading reservoir of memories (of course, one demanding our respect) that belonged to some distant past replete with Jim Crow and black people too humble or fearful to retaliate to such butcher.

Through several tempestuous decades, our forefathers had managed to expose those Southern horrors and force the nation to civilize itself. Yes, those forefathers endured the fire hose and the German Shepherd, the hair-full-of-ketchup and the rock pelting, the numerous court cases and assassinations — endured them all with the most gallant embrace of humanity; at once steadfast and determined and shrouded by unconditional love for all mankind. In every noteworthy instance they were able to claim the moral high ground and manipulate the American pathology by highlighting the nation’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies.

Soon the country emerged beleaguered from the Civil Rights Movement and stumbled awkwardly toward the close of the 20th century. In what seemed to be the nation’s final racist palpitation, crack was blown into the ghetto streets, leaving in its wake a war-torn urban landscape infested with zombies. Not to be undone by the disaster, we managed to channel our angst into music, weather the remaining crack storm and endure long enough to eventually profit from our struggles. And our profiteering was complemented by our arrival on the corporate American stage. What appeared to be the infiltration of America’s cushiest domains was taking place all over the country; the multiplication of black professionals in law, health, government and entertainment.

We had, for years, been relegated to the elevators and security posts ... to bowing quietly over mops, push brooms, dirty dishes and shoeshine rags only to have finally forced the nation to acknowledge and uphold equal opportunity making way for the tide of black know-how and sophistication that would simultaneously swell the chests of the Civil Rights generation as well as bring into question those traditional definitions and explanations for race and racism. If the Rodney King beating was the last authentic and major hiccup of American racism, then Hurricane Katrina could be explained merely as a horrible mis-communication on one hand, and a blatant disregard for the warnings of authorities on the other.

All the same, the nation was committed to uniting itself against larger conflicts abroad, conflicts that threatened our stability and sovereignty and Katrina could not be allowed to take precedence over that predicament for too long. We bided our time, anxious for election season and the prospect of a changing of the guard. To our sweet and delicious surprise, equal opportunity presented us with its grandest manifestation -- a feasible, no, extraordinary black presidential candidate. Now the time had come for us to see that Civil Rights-Era dream materialize in a manner that had previously seemed so distant and unimaginable.

The opportunity had arrived for the nation to finally prove, in the most quantifiable manner possible, that it had shucked its barbaric racial reservations aside and that it was now able to judge men on quality alone. And what a sweet release, what a sweet political orgasm it was that erupted on the November streets as we found ourselves leaping over the brink of newness and ... change. Those old black-and-white lynchings had finally given way to black cool and sophistication — made all the more enticing because it could be observed in HD. The nation was suddenly galvanized, the world became like one swooning mass of humanity and the galaxy itself seemed to pulsate in cosmic celebration of this turning of the tide. All of this before the closing of the first decade of the new millennium!

And then a bullet zipped out of the chamber and pierced the lung of Oscar Grant.

The initial response to such an event may indeed be one of indignation. That constituency of black Americans who remained somewhat hesitant to buy into the mantra of progress and ... change ... may breathe an awkward sigh of relief at having their paranoia justified. Black president notwithstanding, the nation, in fact, has not managed to shake its racist past. It has merely managed to make that past more complex, more obscure and intangible. Like some Darwinian nightmare, color prejudice and hate do not really fade; they adapt and grow stronger, more sophisticated and palatable. But while a post-racial America can enter into a discourse on Hurricane Katrina without placing race at the center of the argument or stroke at its own ego by electing a black president, its logic seems to crumble at the instant a three-and-a-half minute video clip of an outright murder turns up in cyberspace.

All the evidence is there: the black male pressed to the ground in handcuffs, the sentinel-like white officers lording over him and the other young men, the train car full of confused and incensed eye-witnesses, that sudden pop, the ominous reaction of the witnesses and the cautious scramble of the cops afterward. There you have it, Jim Crow-style even. Racism. See? Pass it on. Share it with your friends; post it to your blog, on your favorite message board. Get the word out: America Still Racist. 437,953 views. The footage is passed on so quickly and so widely that soon it transcends its initial role of mere evidence of a racist act and becomes a sort of American fetish, an object of homicidal voyeurism -- and we’re all in on it.

In our rush to highlight the prevalence of racism in the society, we have replaced a vigor for justice with an appetite for the mundane and barbaric. In our digital age, it is becoming more fulfilling to merely point out -- with a great deal of glee -- those acts of racism that might have fueled an effective response only two generations ago. The former ideal of snuffing out racism is being overshadowed by the overall acceptance of racism as an entertaining and everyday feature of American life. One of the by-products of the new video technologies is their uncanny ability to rapidly introduce fads and then dismiss them because of the sheer speed at which videos are uploaded and viewed. Before we have time to respond to an internet sensation such as Oscar Grant’s killing, it is already time for us to quickly discuss Beyonce’s feelings about the President, or footage of a plane crashing into the Hudson.

Many of us have stated that the recent election marks a sort of fulfillment of Dr. King’s Dream speech, specifically the line where King states, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

It seems that our post-millennial form of integration has allowed for a degree of closer contact and communication and so-called sharing, but at a desk of savagery. At a table where breaking bread comes in the form of vying for the most spectacular, yet somehow not surprising, discrepancies of early 21st century life. We may soon find that this newfound brotherhood provides the sons and daughters of former slaves and slave owners to join hands and smile at the dangling carcass before growing bored and seeking out our next digital fix — with so much speed.

{The Liberator Magazine 8.1 #23, 2009}
artwork by Kevin O'Brien

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