Jean McGianni Celestin is a writer who focuses on the intersection of race with culture, sports and politics. Follow him @LiberatedKing.
On a wall inside the September 11 Memorial and Museum is an inscription that reads: NO DAY SHALL ERASE YOU FROM THE MEMORY OF TIME.
It comes from the ancient Roman poet Virgil’s “Aeneid” and is engraved where the remains of thousands of those who died on 9/11 are laid to rest.
Though it’s been noted that the quotation is being used out of context, it’s still a powerful piece of prose about remembering. And like the Romans, no nation of people seem to do that better than Americans.
America knows how to honor its dead. It memorializes national tragedies so we, the living, will Never Forget.
For millions of African-Americans, 2014 has been an unforgettably tragic year. Last night’s grand jury decision to excuse Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown represents the nadir of it all. Since George Zimmerman’s acquittal for Trayvon Martin’s murder in June 2013, the violent deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of white civilians and law enforcement have found permanence in media headlines. Of course, violence on black communities is as American as apple pie. Emmett Till was only 14 years old in 1955 when Roy Bryant, 24, and J.W. Milam, 36, stripped him naked, beat him, shot him in the head and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied by barbed wire around his neck. So, historically, black people have been under attack in America for centuries.
But Martin’s death, in particular, set off a national indignation that no black tragedy had since Till’s. Its embers were kept ablaze by more slaughters. That September, Jonathan Ferrell, 24, was gunned down by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Randall Kerrick as he was seeking help from Kerrick after being in a car crash. Then, less than two months after in a neighborhood outside Detroit, Renisha McBride, 19, was fatally shot by Theodore Wafer while also asking for help after being in a car accident near Wafer’s home.
On July 17, 2014, NYPD Policeman Daniel Pantaleo choked 43-year-old Eric Garner to death on a sidewalk in Staten Island. The encounter was recorded on video by an eyewitness and broadcasted soon after.
These public killings have seemingly become so frequent that it feels impossible to accurately quantify the damage.
Citing a 2012 Malcolm X Grassroots study, CNN commentator and Professor Dr. Marc Lamont Hill says that there is a black person killed by law enforcement “every 28 hours.” That is chilling considering that black people aren’t enemy combatants in anybody’s war.
(Or are we?)
But by that count, more than 300 black men and women are slain each year: 200 more than the number of U.S. military men and women who die fighting the War on Terror. At the time of this article, 52 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan this year.
America’s proclivity for black blood seems evident.
In August alone, four unarmed black men were killed by police. And these are just the ones we know about; the ones who received some measure of treatment by the media. Michael Brown was one of those victims. His execution by Wilson has birthed a nationwide crusade for justice that’s reaching its boiling point. But like all others, Brown’s death reminds us of just how perilous it is to be black (and unarmed) in America.
So what should be done?
Black youth across the country have taken the baton to lead the charge in resisting the structures that sanction this deadly terrorism on black communities. Bloggers and social media activists have been in the thick of it too, keeping the media accounts honest.
But what else can we do?
Well, honoring the dead is a universal tradition. National moments of silence observe the anniversaries of school shootings so the victims remain on our conscience. We erect tombstones in graveyards for loved ones to remind the world that they were once here, with us, alive. African slave burial sites exist to preserve the legacies of those who were meant to be forgotten.
The Renisha McBrides and Michael Browns of our communities deserve the same homage. No day should ever erase them from the memory of time. Memorializing victims of racial violence would go beyond the cursory symbolisms of televised talks on race. Physical monuments are testimonies. The Egyptians built pyramids, in part, to tell their own stories.
I know that the politics against a national museum and memorial of this kind would be vehement, and if the case for Reparations is any indication, resistance would be rife, even amongst blacks. But still, a repository that encapsulates the memories of our fallen people is long overdue if we truly consider these deaths tragic.
Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice and the many thousands before and after deserve to be commemorated. Their deaths are the fragments of our struggle for humanity.
In African tradition, remembering is a duty. Shrines are how we ensure that we Never Forget.
One day, our grandchildren will ask what happened, and for those of us who won’t be here to tell them, we have a responsibility to show them.