James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers, in part because anything and everything there is to say about race and racism in the United States he has already said and said it more eloquently and forcefully than any who came before or after him. But right now, in the wake of the death of Troy Davis, I find myself remembering and struggling with one of his more famous quotes: "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
Today, I'm not sure what love for America looks like. Right now my criticism does not come from a place of love but from pure anger. I felt a rage inside of me that I have never experienced when I received the final word that the Supreme Court would not issue a stay of execution and Troy Davis was going to die. I shared a moment of joy earlier with close friends and complete strangers, when a sliver hope shone through in the form a delay, but the only word that I could muster up when the justices voted unanimously to move forward with the execution was an exacerbated "FUCK!" The opportunity for justice was over and we were now left with another teachable moment.
I'm over teachable moments. Especially ones that involve the loss of life.
Troy Davis' case will be used in law school as the textbook definition of the phrase "reasonable doubt," yet it was somehow beyond our collective will to spare his life. That is all anyone was asking for in this moment. I believe in Troy Davis' innocence, but leading up to his murder (and yes, this is murder, a 21st century lynching) all anyone asked of the courts, the judges, the district attorney, the parole board, and everyone else who held Troy's life in their hand was to simply not kill him. The U.S. has set a precedent and placed the bar for execution so low that at any moment any one of us could be the next Troy Davis. We have just ensured that there will be plenty more.
The eyes of the world were staring intently at the U.S., and we failed. Miserably. And on purpose.
The moral high ground from which America peers down on the rest of the world is built on lies. We proved those words schoolchildren are made to repeat every morning "... with liberty and justice for all" are as hollow as the case against Troy was weak. We continue on a quest to spread democracy across the globe while proving we don't believe in our principles here at home. The judgment we pass on others has no basis.
It's infuriating because every time America looks to be taking a step forward, I'm reminded again that this is America, a country stuck in its stubborn teenage years of statehood. No matter the messengers who have visited upon us and the tireless fight they have endured, time and again this country finds a way to ignore the warnings and continue on the trajectory of exclusion, disenfranchisement, and disregard for human life. There is no other way for me to articulate what that makes me feel other than to say to the world "I'm angry."
I'm angry because the country my ancestors fought and died for hasn't shown up yet. I was born in 1986. That's 31 years after Emmett Till's death, 23 years after Medgar Evers, 21 years after Malcolm X, 18 years after Martin Luther King, Jr., and 17 years after Fred Hampton. I was promised a better America. It refuses to deliver.
And my question now is: what the hell are you waiting for?
I thought I was angry about the Jena Six. I thought I was angry about Sean Bell. I thought I was angry about Oscar Grant.
For Troy Davis, I've become the type of angry that America should fear.
Follow Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@mychalsmith