Diving deep into notes I made while sitting in an overseas reading room two years ago, I’m still surprised by how many roles people of African descent played during the period of the slave trade. We (although this is the time period before we were We) were slave traders and grain producers, pounders of millet, sailors, soldiers, wives, householders, and shipowners. And most of us were slaves.
That we were slaves did not mean that we couldn’t still occupy one of these other roles. We were still skilled in what we were skilled in and we were apprentices in what we weren’t. We were still mothers of the children we gave birth to and some we did not and godmothers to children we sponsored at the baptismal font. We still loved our lovers and we still participated in the merchant economy generated by slave trading and plantation slavery. Like bondage, bodies-as-commerce was not a way of life we could escape.
Even those of us who were free or freed–free African men and women, free people of color, freedmen and freedwomen–found our lives constrained by the political economy of Atlantic slaving, a capricious megalith too dangerous to ignore. Raced terminology marked our freedom as “of color” and somehow different from the freedom whites enjoyed and were assumed to enjoy.
Regardless, we were more than just slaves.
And we are more than criminals.
This is why Troy Davis’s death is relevant to me. Somewhere, someone is cringing while they read this, assuming that we are too far removed from the institution of slavery to have a conversation about it much less relate it to right now. I can empathize. Even when I begin to take that walk backward through history, through the archive, through the library and over documents we never knew we could forget we owned, I feel overwhelmed with the weight of the problem we are grappling with and the differences between that time and now. I want to defend myself by citing facts and figures on how far black and brown people have advanced, how much has changed, how much power we have now.
But the more you look, the more you see and the reality is chilling. It is inspiring, it is a testament to the human spirit that a people can survive so much and still be whole. But it is also silly to imagine our current criminal justice system as anything more than the 21st century evolution of segregation laws which were themselves the 20th century evolution of the 19th century Black Codes which were nothing more than 19th and 18th century slave codes taken to their logical conclusion.
The carceral encompasses all of the processes by which bodies (and given where we are in history, I do mean bodies of color) are surveilled, policed, punished, segregated, imprisoned, dismissed and executed. How to not see this nation’s history of enslavement as part of this, as the perpetrator of this, is the real question.
How could we ever assume the United States legal system separates the guilty from the innocent with any kind of accuracy? In the face of blatant, historic corruption and a national inability to deal with black and brown bodies–man, woman or transgender–it is downright criminal to view the death penalty as anything but cruel and unusual state-sanctioned murder.
My, but we must think so much of ourselves, to feel so satisfied, to feel so sure and justified in taking the life of another human being.
When we can look back and view slaves as more than slaves and still hold in our minds the constant that they–we–were held in bondage with all of the violence and oppression that entails, then I will believe that we can honorably and honestly find a murderer and execute them for their crimes.
By the time we can do all of that, I also hope we won’t feel the need to.
On September 21st, 2011, we were on the wrong side of history. We were wrong. We were wrong.
It is as simple and obvious as that.