Ferguson and the Humanities

system worked A while ago, when we just got here, I wrote something on my blog about how welcome we were made in New Haven’s Yale-affiliated community, and how there is also another New Haven that exists in the same space, but I realized I might never deal with directly. The Yale part of New Haven is beautiful, elitist (also in a good way), wealthy and abundantly lovely. It immediately recognized us as belonging there, and was incredibly generous in receiving us. Something for which I feel grateful every day.

The other part, I still don’t really know, other than from driving through it. It looks a great deal poorer and more African American and it is not that I am not interested in knowing it beyond this very vague impression, but rather that it is only too easy not to do so. I’m vaguely afraid of it and have no concrete reason to be there. Except last Tuesday, when I joined the march demanding justice following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I was scared and humbled. I knew of course that race is a thing here, and I know it is in the Netherlands, I’ve even “engaged” with it in my academic/public history work before, but I’ve never been forced to see so clearly how unheard people of color here feel. Are. Statistics proving this are easy to find on the internet: a black male is more than 20 times as likely to be shot by police than a white one; a black man with a clean record is less likely to get a job than a white man with a criminal record; practically never is a policeman indicted in comparable cases, but recently a black policeman received 30 years imprisonment for using non-lethal but unnecessary violence in a confrontation with a white man.

These statistics are important evidence, but do not explain how institutional racism works. The humanities and social sciences have an important task here. “The System” denies its own unfairness, but in practice it uses double standards. I am not the first or the most articulate to say this, but Darren Wilson’s testimony is rife with cultural cliches dehumanizing Michael Brown. Below Wilson describes his confrontation with Michael Brown, after having already called him a “hulk hogan” and a “demon” earlier on in his testimony:

As he is coming towards me, I tell, keep telling him to get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot a series of shots. I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.

I know I missed a couple, I don’t know how many, but I know I hit him at least once because I saw his body kind of jerk or flenched.

I remember having tunnel vision on his right hand, that’s all, I’m just focusing on that hand when I was shooting.

Well, after the last shot my tunnel vision kind of opened up. I remember seeing the smoke from the gun and I kind of looked at him and he’s still coming at me, and he hadn’t slowed down.

At this point I start backpedaling and again, I tell him get on the ground, get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot another round of shots. Again, I don’t recall how many it was or if I hit him every time. I know at least once because he flinched again.

At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.

And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.

Well, he keeps coming at me after that again, during the pause I tell him to get on the ground, get on the ground, he still keeps coming at me, gets about 8 to 10 feet away. At this point I’m backing up pretty rapidly, I’m backpedaling pretty good, because I know if he reaches me, he’ll kill me.

And he had started to lean forward as he got that close, like he was going to just tackle me, just go right through me.

Q: Can you demonstrate for us how he was leaning forward?

His hand was in a fist at his side, this one is in his waistband under his shirt, and he was like this. Just coming straight at me like he was going to run right through me. And when he gets about that 8 to 10 feet away, I look down, I remember looking at my sites and firing, all I see is his head and that’s what I shot.

I don’t know how many, I know at least once because I saw the last one go into him. And then, when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.

There is considerable contradiction between the various testimonies, and we obviously do not have Brown’s, but let’s concentrate for the moment on Wilson’s perception of events. It seems clear that Wilson was extremely afraid. He said earlier in his testimony that he thought Brown might deal him a fatal blow, and there is sheer terror in his repetition here of his perception that Brown was about to go “right through me”. According to his testimony, throughout this confrontation, Brown was unarmed, and Wilson was shooting at him, hitting Brown at least three times, but Wilson describes himself as the one under attack. “I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped”, casts Brown, not as a human being, but as a monster who is only getting stronger from being shot at and hit. To say that a human being “stopped” rather than “died”, implies you don’t really think of him as a person, but rather, as he indeed says, as a threat. Especially “he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him”, reminds me of bull-fighting narratives, in which the bull becomes more dangerous as he is more severely wounded. This kind of narrative in fact also has a long tradition with “giant” black men instead of bulls. There are many many examples of scary black giants around in popular culture – I remember one from the A-team, another in Pirates of the Caribbean, and various in The Wire (Omar Little, Wee Bey, Chris) – check out tvtropes.org >Scary Black Man to find ones you’re familiar with. For now, I will take a closer look at some examples from historical news of similar situations as the one Darren Wilson describes. Googling “giant negro” I found the following three newspaper clippings:

Screen_Shot_2014-11-25_at_2.11.59_PM.0 NYTimes 15 mei 1916

New York Times, May 15, 1916

Giant negro

Found on http://www.lipstickalley.com/showthread.php?p=13553061, no further reference.

Rodney King trial

Found on Twitter: https://twitter.com/angryblacklady/status/537456970882506752 (Rodney King beating happened in March 1991)


The first thing to note about the first is that there is no indication in the headline that the “armed negro giant” who “goes mad” is a human being (who is most probably suffering). What would the headline have been had this concerned not a black “maniac”, but a psychotic or very angry rich white man? Would there even have been a headline? The second point to make is that this article stresses, that any attempt to interfere in the situation only made the “giant” more dangerous, which is also an element in Darren Wilson’s statement (the more Wilson shoots the more dangerous Brown supposedly became).

The”Battle to Death with Giant Negro” is at least equally free of compassion for the “maniac”. The suggestion is that the two policemen nearly died (“were covered with blood and nearly prostrated”) and survived – phew! – as “the negro finally fell dead with five bullets in his body”. “A battle to death” suggests heroism, or at least equal strength on both sides, but here the apparently unarmed man was in a room with two policemen who shot him. Like Darren Wilson, the journalist sees the policemen as brave humans under attack, and the person killed as a deadly monster. Rodney King in the next excerpt is described as an “incredible hulk” and a “Tasmanian devil”, amazingly close to Wilson’s qualifications “hulking hogan” and “demon” (a point several people have made on Twitter, I take it from Imani Perry (@angryblacklady).

To summarize, there is a cultural trope with a long history of scary – evil or mad –  in any case extremely strong and unpredictable black men, seen by white policemen, journalists and the public as non-human threats. I don’t think Darren Wilson realized he was part of a tradition of sorts, indeed he probably did not think he was influenced by racial stereotypes at all, in judging the situation. But the language of his testimony bears witness to a culture in which blackness is directly associated with danger and evil. Based on his testimony, Wilson appears to me to be an unselfconscious product of a culture that sees black males as a threatening and hardly human Other, not because of anything in the concrete situation at hand, but because of historical constructions that still pervade (white) society and thinking. The unfairness in this is in a sense doubled by the non-indictment: not only does it seem clear that racial prejudice contributed to Wilson’s choice to use lethal violence in this case, but the legal system also implicitly confirms the faulty assumptions underlying his actions, based on the same kind of reasoning.  And the fact of the non-indictment is especially frustrating because the legal system’s conclusion is precisely that there is no reason to try this case, that is, to publicly question what happened why.

Practically every text and photo I see about “Ferguson” could do with close-reading to bring out its ideological implications, and the false but old stereotypes it invokes. And I think we all, but especially literary theorists, art historians, anthropologists, sociologists, historians etc, should do such close readings, and try to research and understand how cultural constructions (of race, but also sexuality, mental illness, leadership, to name just a random selection) WORK. Who makes them? Who has power over them? What power do they have over us? How do they survive and travel? And most importantly: how do we get our students AND EVERYBODY ELSE to be aware of these mechanisms? That won’t end inequality, but being more aware of how it works at least gives us all more choice and less space to deny the unfairness that is there.

Over Sara Polak

Blog about my research: The World We Live In Today Is FDR's World
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