Jean McGianni Celestin is a writer who focuses on the intersection of race with culture, sports and politics. Follow him @LiberatedKing.
In 1969, John A. Williams wrote a book entitled, Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light. It revolves around the shooting death of an unarmed black teen by a white New York City policeman. The murder causes national outrage and incites a black civil rights organization leader named Eugene Browning to seek revenge by hiring a professional hitman to assassinate the boy’s killer. To accomplish this, Browning contracts an organized crime boss, who passes the job on to a former Nazi hunter, at the same time as a tightly-organized network of black militants are preparing to launch their own plan for retribution across the country.
The book is a revolutionary fantasy; one of many published at height of the Black Arts Movement. But what’s most striking about the story perhaps lies in its subtitle, A Novel of Some Probability, which Williams meant as a warning, but also as a cynical jab at generations of black apathy.
In a 1976 interview with Black World magazine, Williams said that black America wasn’t yet prepared for the kind of justice he wrote about, and if he could’ve done it over again he would’ve subtitled the book: A Novel of Some Possibility.
Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light remains arguably one of the most relevant literary works on the black experience, in how it weaves the vexing racial realities of this country into the inevitable apocalypse it might bring.
More than forty years later, in real life, the widespread anger over the decision to let the killer of another unarmed black teen go free isn’t surprising. Many had been bracing for it since the day Michael Brown died. But that the rage isn’t surprising is also evidence of the greater truth: that there is no justice for black people.
Protests of all forms have surged since the announcement last Monday. There were initial reports of riots inside Ferguson. Cars were torched. Businesses looted. Clashes between protesters and law enforcement turned city streets into the kinds of battle-worn enclaves American troops occupy overseas. But also predictable was how many condemned these riots; how many said it didn’t represent the better sensitivities of the larger community.
President Barack Obama twice urged for peace and for the prosecutions of those who disrupted it. Celebrities rebuked them too. LeBron James opined through an Instagram post that ended with: “Retaliation isn’t the solution as well. #PrayersUpToTheFamilies #WeHaveToDoBetter.” Ben Watson of the New Orleans Saints offered one of the more emotional responses in which he claimed that these recent killings could’ve been prevented had we all been better Christians.
Across the spectrum, the sentiment was the same: the unrest jeopardizes any prospect good, law-abiding black folk might have at being heard.
But sadly, this philosophy of respectability always lacks wisdom. It ignores how we got here in the first place and forgets that we are the victims of a deep-rooted legacy of slavery. It ignores more than a hundred years of lynching, the brutal destruction of one of the most prosperous black communities in American history; it ignores the ever-growing mass incarceration of black bodies around the country and the innocence of 7-year-old black girls like Aiyana Jones.
The idea that black people could put an end to their marginalization if they would just ask nicely is delusional, because racism doesn’t work that way. It never has. Not once. Racism operates on the premise that one race is superior (or inferior) to another. So, by this virtue, black people may never gain the respect of a society that deems them as characteristically inferior, no matter how docile they remain during the storm.
What black respectability evangelists don’t understand, or perhaps don’t care to, is that the chaos we saw in the streets of Ferguson was the cry of the oppressed. It’s what people do when they have no agency for freedom in a land that brags of being its bearer. It’s what people resort to when they have nothing left to lose. What Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the language of the unheard.”
That night was a glimpse of the inevitability described in Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light.
During the Egyptian revolution in 2011 a similar graphic took place. Young Egyptians had become frustrated with the system and organized demonstrations like the ones we’re seeing across the U.S. The Egyptian movement comprised of rallies, marches, occupations of public spaces and strikes. But there were also riots –a lot of them. Protesters burned down more than 90 police stations across the country to get the Mubarak government’s attention and America supported it all.
Currently, there are mass resistance movements transpiring in other countries around the world; all against some form of repression or another. Election reform in Hong Kong. Police reform in Mexico. Haiti has experienced its fair share. We support Syrian rebels’ right for freedom by any means necessary and yet denounce black American’s mere discontent on a night when a system of justice that has always failed them did it again. The differences are only one of subtlety.
The fact is no measure of black rage could ever outdo the effects that racist structures have had on black communities like Ferguson. No amount of riots could ever be worse than all of the black people racism kills.
Our understanding of what change truly requires is skewed. Frederick Douglass had it right when he said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Douglass was speaking on the 23rd anniversary of the emancipation of the British West Indies and one of the most definitive lines of his speech that day was: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
Like it or not, civil unrests are part of the struggle, as is voting, as are boycotts, as are nonviolent marches and holding elected officials accountable.
Pick your way to fight. Sit on the sidelines if you will. But don’t demonize those who refuse to die softly. If black people can’t disturb the peace over the unjust murder of yet another black boy, what else is worth disturbing the peace for?