I dropped in on my friend's third grade literature class a few days ago. The class was starting a unit on slavery. The teacher opened the lesson with a map. "This map shows the United States in 1800. The blue states represent the free states and the red states represent slave states. I drew a circle around New York, because we are in New York. And if you were in New York in the 1800s, you would have lived in a free state," said the teacher. In hearing this, a young African-American student sitting next to me, turned to his friend, another black student, and excitedly said, "Oh yeah." The friend smiled. I looked on, bemused by the boys third grade display of patriotism.
The revisionist hope in the boy's "Oh yeah" suggested that he had somehow deduced that since he lived in New York in 2014, he, his black self, would somehow be free in the 1800s. Or at the very least he would have been on the right side of history 200 years ago. It also suggested that the psychological claims that racism places on black people in America hadn't begun to complicate his notions of his history.
The student, whose whole life has been defined against those two hundred years since birth, and who will try to outpace, understand, champion and complicate those two hundred years all in his lifetime, in that innocent nine-year-old moment didn't understand the enormity of what his teacher was trying to tell him about himself and about America.
I started to think about the kinds of black men who make American history and those who don't. I thought about Martin Luther King Jr. and about Trayvon Martin. I thought about Nelson Mandela and Oscar Grant. I thought about Medgar Evers and Jordan Davis. I thought about the innocent display of righteousness that rounded out the student's "Oh yeah." And how increasingly, young African American boys displays of mundane freedoms are costing them their lives. And how America doesn't seem to understand that by hiding behind jury instructions, the country continuously returns to the Tallahatchie River in Money, Mississippi to rediscover Emmett Till's black body.
I also thought about how before Emmett Till was sacrificed for America, in 1955, to achieve some level of racial equality, in 1919 Eugene Williams waded across the imaginary racial line in the 25th street beach in Chicago and also gave his life for a better America. And after both Williams and Till, how a black boy's hoodie and desire for skittles got him killed. And how another's desire to play his music as loud as he wanted to, got him killed.
And then I looked at that nine-year-old boy sitting in his literature class, excited that he was one of the good guys, and thought about how we were suppose to have learned to be more just -- how we should have garnered a better understanding of the fear that African American boys carry in their hearts so we could protect them; how after America viewed Till's body in his open casket, we agreed as a country that black boys would no longer have to be martyred to achieve a more equal America; how that promise has been broken again and again to reveal the blood in our voices; and how the frequency of the innocent killing of black boys in this country is robbing us of our native sons. And what we are really experiencing to borrow a phrase from David Simon, the creator of The Wire, is a holocaust in slow motion.