The Ground We Stand On: On Inaugurations, Anniversaries and the Deaths of Trayvon Martin

by Pier Gabrielle Foreman, February, 2013
University of Delaware

At triumphal moments, the past and its presents can fade like ships at a distance. With a president’s hand on King’s bible, the inconceivable in two eras converge in place and time. A martyr once B9587BC8A48D17F62990136F5C2CA4_h316_w628_m5_cTeRViHSZviolently derided—beaten, bloodied, spat and spied upon—celebrated as “we” witness a second inaugural day, announce a second quatrain, that seemed to change the rhythm, rhyme and face of power, a new verse to pierce the veil of what we—and they—could once imagine.


With such triumphal cymbals’ promise of drum majoring for justice, who among us doesn’t want to join as marching feet parade, bridging the hard-fought past with the hard-won present? Last year’s injuries’ bleeding stops; its wounds seem cauterized; its bruises no longer tender to the touch. Complaining’s droning on drops down on deafened ears; sounds, to some, tinny, whining, small.

Still, for me, as King’s day delivers, this year, things we never dared to dream at this century’s inauguration, rolling with incessant and insistent power are the echoes of the still fresh anniversaries of our dead and wounded: Trayvon Martin, Kenneth Chamberlin, Albert Florence, Anna Brown. They, too, sanctify the ground we stand on.

main-qimg-6351182c04d68c920b4c68e5f7671febThis piece, then, is a zigzag switch-back path meant to help us, continue to climb the racial mountain without having its pitch, its incline steeped in history’s insults, steep in current injury, steer us too easily toward imagined upward stepping stones of historical progress. “It’s a very high mountain indeed for the would-be black” progressive to continue at these heights where the peaks of progress and achievement, looking closer than they are, beckon like temptation, to borrow from, some of you may have heard and will hear in my phrasing, Langston Hughes and June Jordan.

Anniversaries of senseless, unsettling, unsettled, Black death still catch my breath, snaring the seemingly smooth historical surface historic moments offer, disrupting in its muted continuation tumblr_m6v679lQEa1qd9a66o1_400Obama’s cymbalic win. As Black loss goes on, goes unwhipped of justice, I need “to take a walk and clear my head” about our prospects, about why, on the streets of Chicago and Detroit and White Plaines, New York and on every regular day on the nation’s Mall, we can’t go out unmolested, often by those sworn to serve and protect, “without changing our clothes, our shoes, our body posture.” And, as we celebrated King’s life and Obama’s inauguration, I wanted to be thinking about wins, thinking about love’s equalizing power, thinking about what choice means to me, and my students, and untold women who need to control their bodies and destinies, and not thinking about, not still reeling from, endless anniversaries of last year’s violence, death and disregard—-“Long Live Zimmerman” painted on the walls of OSU’s Black Culture Center, while the cultural kin of era’s past hope that those who cut black boys’ lives so short might do just that—live long and free—as they have, as, history whispers, they will continue to do.

I am a nineteenth-century literary historian who regularly wonders if she’s walked through a portal and landed in an updated version of her least favorite Octavia Butler novel, triumphal moments Trayvon-Martin-001_244x183quickly fading as we’re snatched back again to the 1850s, fugitive slave law past, Dred Scott decision coming. No voting rights, anymore, in any Northern States save five, no rights to witness, to say your piece in court, no public schools meant to prepare your children for citizenship or jobs. How is today not yesterday, when last year’s days and nights passed with us demanding not justice, just an arrest, when Trayvon was gunned down, on his way home, during half-time, during Black history month, last February?

It’s hard not to hear, pitched high above cases of individual and exceptional success, the loud and resonant message that black life and rights don’t matter. After the murder, after the burial, how many parents’ open-casket courage, how many children’s feet marching like prayers, so today’s self-appointed overseers of gated communities, two centuries past self-designated patroller of expanding territories, can’t stalk and kill and walk away, the law still on, the gun still by, his side?

In March, 1857, Justice Taney wrote for the seven justices in the majority: “The words “people of the United States” and “citizens” are synonymous terms. . . . They both describe the political body who . . . hold the power and conduct the Government through their representatives. . . . The question before us is whether the class of persons described in the plea [people of African ancestry] compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty. We think they are not . . . and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and . . . yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.”

In the today that is also yesterday, a Supreme Court majority held that guards have the right to strip search those arrested, as, at least some of are, easily, consistently, for the most minor of infractions, not crimes, arrests, not convictions—for walking dogs without leashes, for overdue traffic tickets that had, in this case, been paid—the evidence presented as it was also erased, effaced, ignored. We all know, or should, that Blacks, smoke pot, drive fast, run red lights, at the same rates as whites do and that the rich, behind their wheels and white collared suits, tend to commit infractions with more rudeness and regularity than do the poor, a new study shows.

Yet over-surveillance leads to highly, shall we say, disproportionate, impact—more patrollers, we’re finding out, riding, demanding passes, asserting their dominion to “hold the power and conduct the government through their representatives,” making sure we don’t forget, despite our fancy wheels, degrees and titles, despite our first Black president, that we “yet remain subject to their authority.”

In the today that is yesterday, Albert and April Florence, their four year old son and baby coming were stopped by the New Jersey police while April was driving their spanky BMW to nearby family, supreme-court-strip-search-case-dd8ab2b57c2c5a22intent on celebrating an All American day, their closing on a home. Cops looked for and found a warrant for 6’3’, strapping, black and handsome Albert, (who was not behind the wheel that day) based on a fine he had paid—the notarized receipt he carried with him, shown, to no avail, to police who, stripping him from family, from body politic, jailed then showered then sprayed then squatted strapping Albert, commanded that he “hold up my genitals and cough,” Florence testified. In two different places where he was held, he spread his cheeks while, for six days full of his absence, April tried to find her fine-paid-up, carrying-the-notarized-receipt, husband. When he took his case to the Supreme Court, like any done-no-wrong, humiliated, citizen executive who thought he had rights in the twenty-first century would, he was told, to my mind, to my ears, that he had no “rights or privileges” the state was bound to respect.

In another anniversary, in another today that is yesterday in pairs, twenty-nine year old Anna Brown, Anna-Browna mother of two who lost her home in the 2010 tornados that Missouri’s New Year brought, then lost her job, then lost her children, then lost, it seems, her natural mind, thinking she did not have toleave a hospital when she was told to get out, thinking that she could hold on tight to what she knew, what doctors more than once denied, as if three months of pains in ankles, shins and thighs had lied. Police took the woman about whom they would write on intake forms–“suspected drug use”–from the emergency room where she sat insisting on the care she needed, lugged her by her hand-cuffed arms, declaring, as she was, quite loudly, that she could not stand, dragged her, quite literally, to jail. Dumped on her back, beetle-like, writhing, dying on cell-cement floor where hospital bed should be, Anna Brown joined the many thousands gone before half an hour passed away.

A Year Ago? Two Hundred Years ago?

And when this Black mother, like Trayvon Martin, was tested in death for drugs and alcohol, there were no traces of transgressions. She passed, the autopsy reported, from the blood clots that had prompted her to go to, to declare her intention to stay at, the hospital someone decided she had no right to visit, from which she no right to expect care.

Just a year and some months, some centuries ago, a retired, twenty year veteran corrections officer, former marine, Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. somehow set off his medical pendant while sleeping. Hiskenneth-chamberlain service dialed the police—stressing it was not criminal a call. When they arrived, Chamberlain, groggy and in boxers, assured them, through the door, that he was fine and told them they could go. For an hour as the police insisted they weren’t going anywhere except inside his apartment, they managed to call him a “nigger,” to tell him they didn’t give a “f*ck” that he had served his country that he was 68, or that he had, as he was telling them through the door he didn’t want to open, the heart condition that was the reason for the medical pendant system the police did not know was recording all of this. Alarmed, the service called to cancel their request, requested those cops banging on the door at five thirty a.m. call Nathan Chamberlain, Jr., an idea the police pushed away, as they pushed away Chamberlin’s 51 year old pajama-clad niece, her uncle’s upstairs neighbor, pushed away the door from its hinges, tasering the heart sick man they were called to help before they shot him dead. Images contest the police report: a threatening knife-yielding crazy man, “hatchet” in hand some papers report, this elder, as big, as brute, as suspicious, as the teenaged Trayvon who had just turned 17 when he was shot down, his killer not arrested after saying it was he, the stalker with the gun, who cried for help, when it wasn’t, experts agree, saying it was he who was attacked, who feared for his own life.

Months later, no tasering, shooting, officers had been named even; none had been suspended, charged or arrested for his death. Grand jury convenings lag and tarry, tardy before acquittals of killers of minding-their-own-business black boys, men, marines, all questionable “constituent members of this sovereignty,” “with no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.”

Talk to me about triumph and ascendance this Black History Month, and I’ll ask about the continued devaluing of black life and time and pride, about purged voters lists and endless lines, about the black hole of time, the cost of opportunity, the endless energy spent to get so very little other citizens expect so poignantly, painfully, late. Last year, it crossed my mind, that 2012 was 1857, a year in which, no matter if you play by rules, no matter if your president has children who look like yours, no matter your degrees, your service, your respectability, you have no rights, no rights still, that others are bound to respect.

Despite the balls and speeches, feting time has not arrived. Feeling out of space, feeling out of time, spirits haunt me as anniversaries pass, this year, this 1857. I’m hoping we can help each other hear, through cymbalic success that sometimes covers the din of death and disrespect, exactly what they’re saying, before too many more anniversaries, before too many more losses, go bye.

Closing Video:

A Day Late and a Democracy Short:

Black Citizenship and the Political Stakes of Black Murders”


Video Bibliography: