Black Lives, Shadow Lives: A Response to "All Lives Matter"

When I was around 15 or 16 years old, I witnessed an extrajudicial killing by Jamaican policemen outside my mother’s workplace. A black man was running from the police and attempted to scale the wall leading to the entrance of the premises. The authorities quickly pursued the man, and instead of attempting to arrest the individual, the police fired a couple of shots at him. I remember the scene and how quickly this man’s death came. I remember no hostility from this man as he ran fleeing for his life. He couldn’t have been running for more than two minutes before there were two big booming sounds, yelling and my mother calmly telling me to fall to the floor. From what I saw, I am fairly confident that one of the bullets pierced his skull. I remember the aftermath. I remember a police pick-up truck pulling up less than five minutes later to retrieve the body. I remember no clean-up, no witness statements and no crime scene. I remember the thick dark red blood that covered the sidewalk in front of the office and the scent of the freshly dead. I remember my mother and her secretary going outside after the body was removed with bleach and two brooms to clean the blood from the sidewalk. The cops, after all, had just killed a man, picked up his body and left without a trace.

This moment was kept private between my mother, her secretary and me. It never triggered any anxiety within me because I suppose such scenes of extreme violence, especially those involving the police, are so normalized within Jamaican society. Since it happened I’m also pretty certain I’ve never discussed this incident with my mother. Until this summer, I never really even thought about it a second time. Even for a suburban, middle-class Jamaican teenager who had never seen death so directly before, it was neither strange nor unexpected. “Life moves on,” I told myself, and the scene from that afternoon never came up in my mind.

The memory once again flashed up after series of conversations held in the Multicultural Resource Center this summer. These conversations were facilitated by MRC staff and attended by students who wanted to respond to the instances of police brutality that led to Michael Brown’s death and the current unrest in Ferguson. Although the nature of Jamaican racism is different than racism in the United States, having developed in the Caribbean post-colonial context, certain features appeared to be similar. In Jamaica, there is a firm pigmentocracy. White Jamaicans, Jamaicans of Chinese and Indian descent and wealthier “lighter” Afro-European (brown) descended Jamaicans enjoy certain privileges that the poorer black majority do not. Many of these privileges are akin to those that their privileged white counterparts in the United States are fortunate enough to have, the most important of which is the ability to walk the streets not deemed anthropomorphous animals continuously having to prove their humanity.

As a toddler, I was once called a monkey by a store employee in south Florida. Since that moment, my mother went to immense lengths to keep me attuned to the unique realities of being black in the United States. She became incredibly protective of me, knowing that one day I would study there and would need to be prepared. My dehumanization at such an early age in the U.S. was something apart from anything my mother had been exposed to in Jamaica, leading her to fear for my safety in this country. In her mind, Jamaica at the very least would be a safer place to raise a black child.

All black children are taught at some point that their actions, dress, tone of voice and even hairstyles are judged both to determine their level of potential danger and net human capital to the rest of the population. One misguided assumption: baggy pants, an invisible gun or perceived insubordination from a snicker or a sneer could lead to the loss of a job, social isolation or, at the very worst, death.

The series of conversations that only a few of us had this summer have expanded to most of the campus community. The assortment of students involved has grown and become the student group “Black Lives Matter: Organizing Against Police Brutality.” The meetings have become panels and other activities supported by the Amherst College Police Department, Queer Resource Center, Women and Gender Center and the Black Student Union, culminating as an awareness week to reaffirm the importance of black life. The intent of the Black Lives Matter awareness week was not to insinuate that black lives are exceptional in any way, but to broadcast that black lives should be respected as they are just as human as any other.

Across campus this week, the organizers have been making their voices heard. Unfortunately, a currently unidentified person or group of persons has hijacked the spirit of the event, using the week of awareness as a springboard for a “pro-life” anti-choice campaign. Posters describing the frequency of the loss of black life by police (“Every 28 hours a black life is killed by law enforcement…”) have been possessed and distorted by this group to highlight the frequency of abortions in the U.S. (“The U.S. has the highest rate of abortion … in the Western industrialized world”). Even the name of the campaign, Black Lives Matter, has been distorted to “All Lives Matter.” The fact that this anti-abortion awareness week happened to fall on the same week as the “Black Lives Matter” campaign is no coincidence. A meticulously crafted campaign has developed through the dehumanization of the black voice.

Black life, to quote Achille Mbembe, exists as the “perfect figure of a shadow,” created from a loss of “home,” rights over the body and political status. This shadow life is analogous to a form of “death-in-life,” a social death that masks black expulsion from humanity. Mbembe’s shadow analogy describes the power to control black life and dissolve it to the point that other forces can possess it, whether the forces at play are those that compel us to dress “respectably” or maintain silence on particular “divisive issues” that drive white fear and black isolation. The “All Lives Matter” campaign demonstrates the influence of Mbembe’s analogy beyond the plantation. This shadow logic has manifested another way in the contemporary: the possession, distortion and elimination of the black voice to highlight particular political agendas. These distortions have flared up time and time again by voices on the “left” on this campus. Comparisons are the name of the game. In the recent past it has ranged from misguided conflations of race and gender issues to comparative analyses on the efficacy of black activism on campus. Now this logic has spread from the “left” to the right, and from the blogs and print publications which they seem to frequent on this campus to the walls of Keefe Campus Center for all eyes to see.

This different shadow logic is undoubtedly a new manifestation of the benign racism that plagues the United States. Along with other forms, such as institutional racism or ironic racism, it ultimately seeks to silence and dehumanize without direct violent confrontation. In advocating for unborn rights to life, this “pro-life” campaign has reduced the black life to a status below that of the aborted fetus.

The implications of the shadow on the Amherst experience will also be demonstrated in the responses of many in the black community and their allies on campus. I expect that many black students and their allies will want to remain “neutral” on this issue for the sake of political correctness. There are many fortunate enough to have the comfort of varsity teams, clubs and friend groups who will refuse to speak up out of fear of potential social isolation. At Amherst, it is unpopular to be an activist, particularly when it comes to minority issues. After all, this campus at one time elected to keep the Multicultural Resource Center in the basement because it would involve moving a game room. Many in these groups will choose not to speak up to keep the more close-minded among them comfortable. This desire to remain comfortable perpetuates many of the stereotypes on campus. Affinity groups as sequestered institutions, certain theme housing as closed off for certain racial or ethnic groups and minority “self-segregation” are all myths that exist because of the dissolution and control of black life and information relating to it. Another key myth is that a minority cannot resist the forces of their racialized existence if that existence is acknowledged. Access to information is crucial to these misunderstandings. If black lives, the subjects of these identities, were to control for the first time the flow of information relating to their existences (starting with knowledge of the reduction of our lives and voices to form of a shadow), perhaps the hold of racial identity could be reduced to the point where a well-intentioned unifying slogan such as “All Lives Matter” could mean something other than more division. In the mean time, “All Lives Matter” in this context only highlights how some lives matter less than others in this country, even the lives of those yet to be born. It is a signal of how much work we have left to do.