Twice have I journeyed to our nation’s capital — once on vacation in elementary school and again on holiday during my freshman year. It was not until the latter pilgrimage that I visited the great white temple, the Supreme Court building. My father and I had just traversed the underground tunnel connecting the Capitol to the Library of Congress, then traveling just a short distance up First Street to the nextdoor marble palace.
With my father behind me, I stepped forward to look upon the spot of the decision of New York Times v. U.S. and Tinker v. Des Moines. Then, up towards the sky gazed my father and I. In a moment of perfect paternal-filial connection, Dad and I read, out loud, the motto carved into the West Pediment of the building:
Equal Justice Under Law
And in a successive moment of father-son synchronization, Dad and I laughed. We stood there laughing in the knowledge of the lack of truth to the first word of that assertion. Because of that first word, the carved statement was not true, had never been true, and would not be true for some time to come.
At this point, I could speak about last year’s surge in the racial justice movement, but White girls on Instagram and Twitter have already run that into the ground. Actually, perhaps I should reconsider not speaking about it because most of their commentary has consisted not of actual commentary but black squares and effortless reposts. But I digress.
In director’s commentary on his film Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee elaborates on a disconnect with a certain portion of the audience.
Do the Right Thing came out in the summer of 1989, and here we are at the beginning of a new century, the beginning of a new millennium, and people all over the world still come up to me and ask me, “Did Mookie do the right thing?” I’m gonna be honest. Not one person of color has ever asked me that question. Mookie threw the garbage can through the window — in my eyes, and I’m the author of this — because he just saw his best friend, Radio Raheem, get murdered by New York City’s finest, NYPD. And, here it is, ten years later, and they are still doin’ the same thing.
Spike continues with a response to a New York Magazine review of Do the Right Thing from around the time of its release.
Article: Joe Klein, June 26, 1989, and I’m quoting… “…Sal’s deliveryman…starts the riot by throwing a garbage can through the store’s window, one of the stupider, more self-destructive acts of violence I’ve ever witnessed.” …there is no mention of the murder of Radio Raheem. For me, that was the most — that was horrible to see a teenager choked to death. He doesn’t even mention that. He thinks one of the one of the stupider, more self-destructive acts of violence he’s ever witnessed in a film is when I threw a garbage can through a window. Now, does a window breathe? Does a window gasp for its very last breath? Any time I read a review by a critic, and they talked about the loss of property — “Isn’t a shame that Sal’s Famous Pizzeria was burned to the ground and he lost his business?…” — and not one word was written about the loss of life… In their estimation, it doesn’t even up. The life of one black “thug” versus white-owned property. They see [the latter] as more valuable.
Burned into the declaratory statement of our nation’s sovereignty are the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson amended “the pursuit of happiness” from Locke’s “property.” Throughout the two centuries following that document, property has enjoyed elevated status among all of our inalienable rights. The fundamental inhibition of White comprehension is that their lives have never been at risk — only their property. Instinctually, a dive to protect the material and the inanimate occurs. For folks of color, lives have always been on the line.
Additionally, a certain American disposition, plainly evident in media coverage of elections, drowns out conversation and nuance. This American disposition takes the form of an obsession with events or happenings and disinterest with issues or opinions. People quickly rush to judgements. Not enough approach events with curiosity. Many permanently subscribe to the first thought that wanders into their minds, “I can’t believe this violent rioting,” unfortunately halting any and all progression to the next thought, “I wonder why they did this.”
Some might claim that the riot completes the film’s tragic narrative, that Mookie throwing the garbage can and starting the riot makes him a tragic figure. However, this misses the point. The riot is only the coda. The tragedy has nothing to do with the riot or the garbage can or Mookie. The tragedy is Radio Raheem.
It reminds me of the problem with how White people talk about Malcolm. Almost always do I hear remarks about how it was a shame that he did not live longer after his departure from the Nation of Islam. With most White people, it seems to be the issue that they only validate Malcolm after he left the Nation. White people seem to feel like they can sleep soundly in the knowledge that in the end, Malcolm stopped supporting racial separation. They feel like they can sleep soundly knowing that Malcolm dropped his “sweeping indictment” of all White people. Malcolm’s adoption of a moderate philosophy towards the end of his life makes White people today more comfortable, although still abundantly cautious, with him.
To me, Malcolm’s death exists as a personal tragedy. Regardless, Malcolm’s death is not the tragedy. At least, Malcolm’s death is not the tragedy that White people make it out to be — a tragedy that he died before he could contribute more to the civil rights movement as a moderate, and a tragedy that he spent most of the activist chapter of his life as a militant. Dear reader, please understand that the true tragedy is that of the Black man in America. True tragedies occur not in an instant but in perpetuity.
Saddened as I am to think of Malcolm’s death before his time, and saddened as White people may be to think of Malcolm’s death before he could continue as a moderate, we must view Malcolm’s life in full. Malcolm did not become valid in 1964. Malcolm was always valid. The angers, frustrations, and struggles of all adherents to the Nation of Islam were always valid. Those of Black people have always been valid. Before us exists not two competing answers but two competing questions, the more important of which is, “Why must people of color suffer in this way?” In spite of the varying degrees of “radicalism” to the proposed resolutions to racism in America, focus must always lay on the feelings of the oppressed and the reasons for the oppressed to propose any resolutions in the first place.
Real White understanding starts with the recognition that the anger held by Malcolm and all of the Black people in the Nation of Islam was righteous anger. See that it was the same righteous indignation held by Dr. King, the nonviolent protestors, all other sects of the civil rights movement, and every Black person in America and the Western world.
Stacey Abrams, widely credited as one of the most important figures in recent American politics, once said, “If they didn’t want us to be quiet, they wouldn’t be working so hard to shut us up.” Full voting rights and political agency have long been sought by the Black American and the American of color. At each advance upsprings a new fountain of obstacles. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and voucher systems met the Fifteenth Amendment. Gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet” met the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nonetheless, today, news of the Census Bureau director’s resignation popped into my notification inbox. Effectively rebuked was the pressure to rush to deliver the 2020 census data, regardless of potential inaccuracies, to the outgoing administration while time still remains to exclude undocumented immigrants from the official count and therefore heavily affect redistricting in an unprecedented way. On this holiday, many residents of this nation breathe a sigh of relief.
It is okay to have hope, and it is okay to have anger.