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Flashback, Fast Forward: Michael Brown as America’s Brute Negro*

[by Maryemma Graham]

Initial thoughts . . . Like many people, I have been hard pressed to make sense of the senseless, to believe the unbelievable. Darren Wilson shot again and again and ultimately killed unarmed college-bound Michael Brown. Wilson, due to the opinion of the Ferguson grand jury, will not face criminal charges. There was no probable cause to indict Wilson, they concluded.

The facts are simple, the case complex, it appears. Or is it? More importantly, why was I expecting something different—this time? We’ve seen it all before: violence seems to have no boundaries where, in this case and in far too many others, our black youth are concerned.  They, and we, are targets, their/our lives don’t matter; we are expendable.

 

I am outraged on far too many levels. For one, I am a mother of two young black men; my family and I can testify what it means to have one’s son barely escape these heinous acts. I resist the temptation to tell a(nother) mother’s story because I want our focus as mothers, fathers, siblings—as an entire human community—to be on the Brown family’s loss, the loss of a family who still tells us to fight the good fight, to be peaceful protestors, to agitate for change in constructive, meaningful ways. 

As the sights and sounds of Ferguson, MO, called from our televisions, it was hard for most of us to have even a fitful rest on the night after the verdict.  The sounds that were loudest were those of Lesley McFadden’s plea not to have Michael’s death be in vain. I agree and want to respect her words.

Afterword. . . My outrage as a teacher-scholar runs deep in my veins. I cannot resist mining the fields of knowledge. What lesson do I see here?

I recall one of our models of engaged scholarship, Sterling Brown, who told us much about a practice so fundamental to American culture: recreating the other as stereotypes who then become the people we think we see and to whom we react. In 1933, Brown wisely named seven of the most distinctive American stereotypes for Negroes, stereotypes that have pervaded the literature since the beginning. One of them, the “brute Negro,” once a mere invention, too many Americans have accepted as a reality.

Wilson did not need to go to school to accept the stereotype as convention. It was already part of his language, and he spoke in terms apparently familiar to the jury. Here is part of Wilson’s testimony: “When he stopped, he turned, looked at me, made like a grunting noise and had the most intense, aggressive face I’ve even seen on a person.” (1)

And there’s more. “It [he?] looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. . . The only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan . . . That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt.” (2)

Michael Brown’s family and the Ferguson community knew Michael Brown as a gentle giant. Darren Wilson and the America he represents saw him, as they continue to see far too many of our black youth, as that brute Negro, to be hunted and shot down because of the threat to civilized society. 

“We are profoundly disappointed that that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions,” said the Brown family in a written statement. (3) No wonder those who commit these crimes are not required to pay. These actions have become socially acceptable behavior. The killing of Michael Brown is the consequence of America’s inactions.

We should all be enraged that history so often repeats itself; that we fail to engage the reality of the past and present in ways that make a real difference; that we use the tools of jurisprudence to maintain a broken system; that we allow the Michael Browns of the world to die when our inventions disguise the truth. 

Our insensitivity to our tragically complicated past has indeed turned lying into “no probable cause.” It has made irresponsible acts of human violence a cause for celebration. 

When Wilson confused Sterling Brown’s literary observation with a matter of fact, he murdered an unarmed teenager.

This is the house that “post-racism” has built, one in which we all must live together.

(1) Cited in Vox, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014.

(2) Cited in news.yahoo.com by Jason Sickles.  Accessed Nov. 25, 2014.

(3) Ibid.

*Sterling Brown, “Negro Character as Seen by White Authors” Journal of Negro Education, 1933. An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Brown identifies 5 stereotypes rather than 7. Thank you to the reader who caught the error.