Black Life And Death In A Familiar America
The country today is a culmination of its divided past. With the election of Donald Trump for president, nowhere is that truth more clear than in Chicago.
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.”
—Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5
Dear America, I am writing to you from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. This past weekend, a black man was killed here. You are probably not surprised by that. You have probably heard about black people dying here. I find that people all over the country have heard about it.
They ask me about it a lot, in uncomfortable taxi conversations where I try to explain racism and disinvestment to strangers. I know that many of you have never been to Chicago, but you most assuredly have heard of us. You may have heard that we won the World Series. You may have heard that we drove away Donald Trump. You may have heard a lot of things. But of all truths, I am confident that you have heard that we are a city of death.
I will not tell you what I think of that or of you, because that is my business and not yours. But I will tell you some other things that I knew before Tuesday night. Things we been known.
His name was Joshua Beal. He was from Indianapolis. He was here for a funeral. The police killed him. I don’t know why they killed him. I don’t believe in that kind of why anymore. I know that they arrested his brother for doing what brothers do when their brothers are killed in front of them. When I heard that it happened in Mt. Greenwood, I understood, and was afraid.
Mt. Greenwood is on the South Side, but not in a part of the South Side that you have heard of. You have no reason to hear about Mt. Greenwood. We have heard of it because we were told not to go there, to avoid it. Mt. Greenwood is one of the residential pockets on the city’s South Side that harbors a fierce, raging, furious whiteness. This is a stop-at-nothing whiteness, a whiteness that says “It’s your life or mine” and means it. The neighborhood is like a snapshot of that supposedly once-great America we’ve heard so much about in the last year — the one where you know the postal worker and the pharmacist by name, where children play outside unbothered, and where they kill black people in the streets with impunity.
In 1992, the writer Isabel Wilkerson — who would later write one of the most comprehensive stories about the Great Migration in The Warmth of Other Suns — visited Mt. Greenwood to talk to residents about their racial attitudes in a piece for The New York Times. One of the people she spoke to was an auto mechanic named William Knepper, Jr.
A small group of black activists arrived in Mt. Greenwood to remember the life of Joshua Beal, along with a small group of mostly-white Revolutionary Communist Party members with signs and a bullhorn. They were surrounded by a screaming throng of white residents, who have been referred to in some media reports as “Blue Lives Matter protestors” — a fact which I find puzzling, because in this disturbing live video where they are chanting “go home” and “you’re not welcome” it seems that the primary thing they are protesting is the presence of black people in their neighborhood. Some of them seem to be more celebratory than anything; one man yells “I love dead criminals” voraciously into the camera several times.
When I watched the video, posted by community activist Aleta Clark, I wondered if the man holding the sign that said “You are animals” might be on my train car this week. I wondered if the man who said “Go back to your own neighborhood” might come to my neighborhood.
When one of the RevCom members began speaking about Donald Trump and the rise of white supremacy, Mt. Greenwood residents became excited at the mere mention of his name, and for a moment the altercation had the tone of a spontaneous campaign rally. They began to chant “Donald Trump,” and one of them directly addressed the young black woman holding the camera, “Build that wall! We’ll fuckin put you on the other side, motherfucker!” I watched him through a screen, through another screen, through the eyes of another. I closed my eyes and imagined what it would be like to look at him through a chain link fence.
Reports emerged that a student at Marist High School, a prominent Catholic school in Mt. Greenwood, was facing disciplinary action after sending a text message to her friends proclaiming “I FUCKING HATE NIGGERS,” to which others in the group responded things like, “true af,” “preach,” “you so right,” and “it’s true.”
I read the screenshots of their conversation and wondered if any of these teenagers might be a college student in my classroom one day. I wondered what I would say to them. I wondered if any of them were of legal voting age.
African-American Vernacular English gives us a way of talking about the past-of-the-past-that-ain’t-past that does not exist in Standard American English. I would call that a pretty big hole — that the English they teach you in school has a way of acting like history always already happened when it in fact happened even before that and is also still happening. For this we say Been/ BIN, as in Go to the polls with you? No I been voted [it happened so long ago, you missed it because you were not attentive], as in Why you surprised? America been racist [it happened so long ago, you missed it because you were not attentive].
I am writing to you from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. I am at one of my favorite places, the Harold Washington Library Center. I have been coming here since I was a kid. Harold Washington is very important to my family; my parents worked, like so many Chicagoans of their day, to elect the city’s first black mayor and I was raised to believe in his legacy more than I was raised to believe in you, America. And I know that when Washington ran for mayor, a radio caller asked him if he would replace the elevators in City Hall with vines, and that a vandal spray-painted “Die, nigger, die” on a Catholic church where he was scheduled to speak.
America, I know that you have heard of us because you ask me about Chicago. But you have never asked me about Harold Washington, who died in office of a heart attack that some folks around town will still tell you they believe was caused by poison. You have never asked me about Bridgeport, that old Richard Daley stronghold, where my brother made a friend in high school and where my mother was fearful to drop him off on weekend afternoons. You have never asked us about Mt. Greenwood. That’s not the South Side you ever ask me about. We would have told you. We been known. I would have told you that the death you fear is not coming tomorrow, nor did it arrive in the night. It has been waiting for you, impatient for your arrival.
And here you are. But you been here.