“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America” 14 March 1968
“We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
Arundhati Roy, “Peace and the new corporate liberation theology,” The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture
“The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”
James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” The Nation 11 July 1966.
Countee Cullen’s “Incident” is a powerful and disturbing confrontation of racism as well as the enduring impact of racial slurs: “And so I smiled, but he poked out/His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’/…That’s all that I remember.”
In the last days of April 2015, Cullen’s Baltimore has once again answered a haunting question about another city, “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: “Or does it explode?”
“Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore,” begins Ta-Nehisi Coates, adding—
an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city’s publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city’s police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today’s riots began.
I read these words in the wake of watching this incident on mainstream news coverage, the same media that covered the avalanche in Napal as the death of a Google executive.
The coverage of Baltimore became an avalanche of “thug” punctuating comments by political leaders—white and black—and commentators.
And then one of the cable news talking heads interrupted one guest to lecture her about “paddy wagon” as an offensive term—a whitewashed interlude before the onslaught of “thug” resumed.
Coates concludes: “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself”—exposing that in the decades since King, “the preferably unheard” remain ignored, marginalized, the victims of the relentless daily violence of poverty and discrimination. But their circumstances as well as their options for raising their voices are determined for them, for the benefit of those who tolerate and perpetuate that daily violence.
The day after this recurring incident of Baltimore 2015 erupted, I write this while being the care provider for my bi-racial granddaughter, only 9 months old.
She is the glorious embodiment of racial harmony, but she has yet to recognize the world for all its remaining evils.
Our privilege will insulate her in many ways against the inequities that have fueled Baltimore’s unrest, but someday she too likely will feel the sting that shaped the speaker of Cullen’s poem.