“But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” –James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook” from The Fire Next Time
Today I remember Freddie Gray. I remember his life cut short by the Baltimore Police Department. I remember his spine nearly severed as he was flung around the back of a police van. I remember the hours it took before he received medical treatment. I remember the week his family watched as life left his body. I remember the zero convictions of the officers who killed him. (We soil the memory of Freddie Gray to see mere indictments as a victory. Indictments that relieve killers of culpability are a paltry consolation prize for the dead and the survivors.) I remember the anger boiling over on the streets—the flames, the rocks, the broken windows. I remember the media obsessing over “thugs” and “violence” and “black rage,” and yet neglecting the root cause of this rage, police brutality against black bodies.
I remember Freddie Gray on this day because white students at the institution where I work mock his suffering. They flaunt his suffering—wear his suffering as a literal costume, display his suffering like a trophy, smile at and spread his suffering. I am writing a book about the legacies of lynching, but it doesn’t take a scholar of white supremacist violence to see that past rhyming with this present. I can’t help but think, as I prepare to teach James Baldwin’s short story, “Going to Meet the Man,” today, how freely and comfortably these students trivialize and celebrate black death. I am left wondering (But am I? Is there much to wonder at anymore? Don’t I know by now?) what they think of their African American classmates and professors, and the black Charleston community they are actively displacing through gentrification. And so, I turn back to my lesson plans with an unsatisfying sigh that fails to expel the disgust and anger I feel. There is a mountain of grim work ahead.