Thursday, April 18, 2013

Look and Think

I had a chance to attend a really fascinating talk yesterday afternoon about the role of race in the perception and construction of childhood.

In her June 26, 2012 article in The Huffington Post entitled, "The Death of Black Boyhood," Cassandra Jackson explores the impact of the police practice of "stop and frisk" on young black and Latino boys.  Jackson's essay begins by reflecting on Julie Dressner and Edwin Martinez's June 12, 2012 Op-Ed Doc, "The Scars of Stop and Frisk."

Young black and Latino boys are, in many cases, being routinely stopped and frisked.  Tyquan Brehon, the subject of Dressner & Martinez's video, estimates that he was unjustifiably stopped and frisked by police more than 60 times before his 18th birthday.

Jackson's essay, like her talk yesterday, looks to widen the scope of the debate, to look at the way in which childhood and adolescence are shaped by phenomena such as "stop and frisk," the violent imagery associated with hip-hop, and the legacy of discrimination.

Can hip-hop imagery that invokes the violence of slavery, Jim Crow lynchings, or contemporary gang warfare serve as a form of social protest?  Does it risk becoming part of the bloody and voyeuristic spectacle that fuels contemporary attitudes towards black and Latino boys and men?

As Jackson points out, Americans live and endorse the "dehumanizing" "myth of the black male predator" on a daily basis.  It is an assumption that underlies our perception of the world around us in ways that we are all-too-unaware of.  Jackson notes,
"the very characteristics that we so often find tolerable and even desirable in white male adolescents -- exuberance, willfulness, and impulsivity -- could get a black boy killed. There is no such thing as black boyhood in American culture, and black boys' imaginary manhood is being used as an excuse to bully and brutalize them."
What struck me as I listened to yesterday's lecture is, how easy it is to succumb to the lure of simplistic imagery and linear narratives.  The myth of the black male predator and the stories and images it evokes to justify its promulgation are precisely that: voyeuristic images accompanied by repetitive, one-dimensional narratives.

And over time, they have an effect.  We give ourselves the luxury of thinking that we've "moved beyond" the issues and injustices of slavery and racial discrimination, and yet we have not.

We need to look differently, perhaps, when we look at others and at ourselves.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently read Brent Staples' autobiography, Parallel Time.  Staples begins his account of his own boyhood, adolescence and manhood with a description of himself looking at his brother's autopsy photos and reading the court transcripts of the trial of his brother's murderer.

His brother was unable to escape the legacy of poverty, violence, alcoholism and drug use that characterized the environment in which Staples and his brothers and sisters grew up.  He became a drug-user and a drug-dealer, and he was gunned down one night in front of a nightclub.

Staples looks at the photos with a potent mixture of grief and identification.  Although he never says as much, the reader can't help but realize that Staples is seeing himself in his brother.  He admits that he fled his past: he did not attend his brother's funeral.  This return to the legal documentation of his brother's death and his decision to position it at the outset of his own autobiography would seem to mark his recognition of the fact that he cannot understand himself without looking at what happened to his brother.

What he sees when he does so is a complex process of refraction and reflection upon his own experiences as a black man in America.

I wonder whether this could--and should--be a starting point for all of us: to question the stories we are told and the narratives we are presented with before digesting them.  We need to look differently when we look, both at ourselves and at others, and to establish intellectual and emotional roadblocks that force us to question our perceptions before we accept the biased images and narratives that so constantly and so consistently work to feed and endorse them.

Don't "stop and frisk."  Look and think.  And then look again.  And think some more.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."