Larry D. Lyons and Mervyn Marcano, founders of the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund.
This past Wednesday I was at Princeton University for “Injustice, Intolerance and Intersectional Identity,” a panel that focused on the roles that the police, the media, and the public play in normalizing violence against marginalized peoples. The speakers included Kim Pearson, journalist and professor at the College of New Jersey, Clarence Patton, Executive Director of the Anti-Violence Project in New York City, Rashad Robinson, Regional Media Director for Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, philosopher and Princeton professor. The panel was created by my beloved Larry one of the founders of the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund, to address, amongst other things, the circumstances surrounding the murder of Rashawn Brazell. The panel was sponsored by Princeton’s Black Graduate Caucus, LGBT Center, African American Studies Program, Queer Graduate Office, Graduate School Office, Black Student Union, and the Black History Month Planning Committee.
Many great points were made during the course of the evening, however the ones that made an indelible mark on my consciousness concerned media bias in reporting murders based on the perceived marketability of a story. Consider the media coverage for Natalie Holloway vs. Rashawn Brazell. Professor Pearson said that in journalism there are “good murders” and “small murders.” For example, if a black man kills a white woman, this is considered a good murder in the media’s eyes, a story that can be milked for months, perhaps years, ala OJ Simpson. Think of Charles Stuart, a white man who killed his pregnant wife and then blamed a black man. Or Susan Smith, a white woman who killed her two kids and claimed that she was carjacked by a black man. If I were killed by anybody, black white, whatever, however, the media would consider it a “small murder.” I am black, male and homo. Someone, perhaps many people, upon reading the story of my murder, would believe that I deserved it somehow because I am a black male, or a homo, or a black male homo. It felt comforting to hear experts confirm what I knew that the largely-run and operated media had been trying to convince me of all of my life: a social insignificance.
Robinson and Patton both shared information about how LGBT political and social gains are often proportionate to crimes against LGBT people. So programs like “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” often lure people into thinking that LGBT life is more acceptable, but realistically, they do not. A rise in visibility is comparable to a rise in hate crimes against LGBT people. Makes me think about the Civil Rights Movement and increased visibility among black people meant water hoses, beatings and sometimes death. Political and social gains for people of African descent in this country came with a heavy price, ones that we are living with today. It also brings to mind the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This was one of the fastest bills ever to be signed into law for several reasons. For one, more enslaved Africans were running than ever before. In the early 19th Century more states were leaning towards, or simply abolishing, slavery altogether. The Underground Railroad was in full swing. The Fugitive Slave Act was so fierce that anybody with brown skin, free or not, could be snatched up and returned to the South. This was an institution that would not die without a fight. Dozens of freedom seeking Africans, nameless to most of us, died for it. Mailed themselves in crates headed for the North for it. Buried themselves in soil in the woods, and lived in trees for it. Swam rivers, went hungry, and cut the throats of whoever got in their way for it. Many went crazy for freedom. The papers reported it. Eventually, slavery was abolished. There were gains but the sacrifices were too numerous to name. Again, the price was heavy.
Nor did I consider how groups like GLAAD work to educate local media on how to report stories, and how they often strive to work with families of victims to garner more media attention and public sympathy. Appiah offered that organizing at the intersections of identity can be problematic for a number of reasons; for example, all black, female, lesbians, of a particular class may not share the same political or social vision, and that the intersections of identity actually make one a “new” thing, one that cannot be stereotyped or assumed. I agreed. He was also worried that people tend to disassociate themselves from which they believe they are not. Why, for example, Appiah postulated, weren’t there more people, despite their race, color, or class, horrified and activated by the murder of Rashawn Brazell? Surely it was one of (if not the most) heinous murders in the last decade. This is where the caveat comes in: if it weren’t for individuals who whose identities met at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and/or class, who organize around the very principles that Appiah questioned as valid, then who the fuck would?
Panels like this always leave me wanting more, which I suppose is a good thing. I always want to know how I could be a more effective activist without working myself into an early grave. In defense of my own wanting to live and not expire at the expense of others, or even myself, I am currently drafting an essay that focuses on activism and the toll it takes on the body and soul of certain African American activists. Taking my cue from The The Salt Eaters, the best damn book in the whole goddamned world by the late great Toni Cade Bambara, I think of the first line in that complicated and amazing book. Before she gets to down to business, Minnie, a healer, asks Velma, a black woman activist who has come to this famed healer broken down and slumped over a stool in a hospital gown, the only thing anybody had to anybody in this world: “Are you sure, baby, that you want to be well?”
Yes, I do.