Rekia Boyd and the Myth of Black Male Exceptionalism

The burden of carrying about blackness in this country is one that seems to compound exponentially as times goes on if you let it.  The state of being “in a rage all the time” as James Baldwin said is something that comes with a tax; there is a price to pay.  Relationships suffer, isolation sets in.  Or in my case, at least tonight, sleep is a journeyman a long way off in the distant horizon probably to arrive as the sun lights a new day, creeping into my bedroom windows like thief in the night.  However I write to tell a different story.

A familiar and recent refrain is that we, the black community, are not standing for our black women and girls the way we have for the black men and boys.  In light of the almost immediate community reactions from the very recent surrounding Freddie Gray and Walter Scott all the way to the oft-repeated catalog of names such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, why have we, the black community, not done so for the deaths of black women.  The knee jerk response has been quick to point out ways of black male privilege gone rampant and to point out ways in which black maleness has obscured the existence of black women.

First and foremost, the acknowledgement that this has happened historically needs to happen.  We need not sweep away the androcentricity of the tone of the past.  Much of what was discussed hung black men on the barometric needle to determine how well the black community was doing without any regard for black women.  It happened, we need to acknowledge it happened so that we don’t do it again.  Black feminism is such a school of thought that has done its level best to try and prevent it.  However, as a field of study, and one that engages in contemporary culture–a culture that seems to change with each new media cycle–holding the black community accountable for the slain women such as Rekia Boyd, Shantel Davis or even the young Detroit girl Aiyanna Stanley-Jones is unfair.

Part of the reason this argument resurfaced was because Rekia Boyd’s murderer, an off duty Chicago cop, was acquitted on all charges, and in New York a crowd of 100 or less (depending on reports) showed up.  The blogospheric theory was that this was because Rekia was a woman.  Implying that had she been a black male, then allegedly there would have been a protest.  My opposing critique offers a simpler explanation: Rekia’s death occurred in 2012 prior to the groundswell of a #BlackLivesMatter campaign.

Personally, I remember the death of Aiyanna Stanley-Jones in 2010 simply because she was a seven year old that became collateral damage in an intangible war of police officers and citizens with very tangible and lethal casualties.  I remember wondering why hasn’t Detroit risen up against this.  With hindsight being 20/20, I can only imagine that in a city that at the time was falling deeper and deeper into the throes of bankruptcy, city services falling by the wayside like dominoes lined up to fall, and abandoned buildings serving as ghetto mortuaries where killers did their dirty work and the streets ran warm with the blood of citizen inflicted violence, sadly the death of Aiyanna could have been seen as just one more wound on an already bloodied and bruised city trying not to die the death of 1,000 cuts.

Wendell Allen, a 20-year-old black man, was shot in his own home by New Orleans police in 2012.  The officer actually was charged with manslaughter, pleaded guilty and is serving a four year sentence.  There was no large city march in New Orleans at the time of his death, nor in the days and weeks following leading to an arrest and indictment agains the officer who killed him.  By the logic asserted that we, the black community, only cares about the death of black males at the hands of police, this was a picture perfect case, yet the nation did not shed a collective tear over this young man.  I would theorize that it was for the same reason that the groundswell reaction for the acquittal of Rekia Boyd’s killer was rather muted, simply because the actual incident took place before the arc of this trying-to-be-movement was underway.

The drive-by sensationalism of the “For Harriet” article on Rekia Boyd entitled “No One Showed Up to March for Rekia Bride Last Night” pays no attention to this fact and overshadows a legitimate argument about the ways in which black male-centered conversations have been dismissive of a black female voice and perspective.  What “For Harriet” does is indicative of a pro-longed post-Ferguson moment that continues to insist that it is a movement.  Movements have relatively uniform and consistent statements; that even if factions choose to go off topic a bit there’s still a unifying cause, and beyond the existential war-cry that black lives do matter, there has yet to be a codified understanding of what the intended actionable outcomes are.

Rekia Boyd
Rekia Boyd

It’s unfair to hold the current cultural sentiment hostage for that of the cultural climate two years ago.   A stronger critique would be to show how in the years of 2010 and 2012 respectively how the lives of black females were suppressed by means of black male privilege and patriarchy, but it would also have to acknowledge that this same black community wasn’t at all moved to protest when the lives of other black men such as Chavis Carter or Danroy Henry are largely unknown as well.  The charges leveled about black male privilege seem to ring hollow when black men are on the business end of a gun and a police officer is holding it.   It also bears knowing that in some of these cases, actions were taken against the cops and charges were filed relatively swiftly therefore preempting the causal need for a protest.

Part of this is due to the way that narratives are created and shaped and more importantly, how they are conflated.  The media shapes one, black intellectual thought creates another and blogospheric theorems pop up every hour depending on the tenor of Black Twitter.  Whether background stories on the victim or the perpetrator are released, how they are released, what pictures and images are available and to what use they are put all play a role in this.  Also, as it needs to be noted that the circumstances surround the deaths of the people vary widely.  The story of Shantel Davis is fraught with many questions versus the story of Aiyanna Jones is pretty straightforward.  The complexities or the simplicities of these narratives are all pokers of increasing or waning power to stoke and fan the flames of community protest.

If that is where the black male privilege allegedly lies, in the shaping of narratives then it needs to be said so directly.  The passive subversive language the is being put out currently is engaging in the trope of Oppression Olympics: telling one oppressed group that their oppression is more severe than the other; that it’s levels to this and therefore one group needs to be at the front of the line.  Has just the grand state of “being in a rage all the time” found a way to actually privilege levels of oppression?  It certainly seems that way at times.

It would be an unsubstantiated claim to say that the alleged privilege lies within the narrative.  At the close of 2014, Gawker famously named 76 unarmed people killed by police officers beginning with Amadou Diallou in 1999.  Nearly all of them are black and only eight of them are black women.  The narrative shows that in this case, black men have no privilege that keeps them from being killed.  Part of this has to do with the ways in which black men interact with police in this country.  The story of Michael Brown’s death showed that.  After Darren Wilson’s grand jury statements went so far as to paint Brown as some non-human monster, it’s clear that armed police officers view black males differently than that of black females.

While I am able to entertain the notion of black male exceptionalism as something that exists, in the case of the deaths of unarmed citizens being killed by police, this exceptionalism is null and void.  The protest response to the would-be movement of black lives mattering makes that clear.  Rekia Boyd’s story matters, but not for the reasons people are alleging. Moreover, people not showing up to protest in New York is not a result of black male exceptionalism thought at play.

For anyone who does work in education, be it in primary grades all the way through the collegiate level, one can easily trace the data that shows that black males somehow disappear from the classrooms.  Standing on any college quadrangle, the number of males who identify as black is abysmally low.  Even at HBCUs, the ratio of female to male is frequently higher than 10 to 1. With numbers like that, it makes the notion of black male exceptionalism questionable.   The New York Times just the week released a report that showed how black men are literally missing.  Perhaps this is exactly the type of androcentric study that proves black male exceptionalism.  Maybe.  But in the ways in which that may perform exceptionalist thinking, the stunningly obvious question is what are then, the next steps.

Labeling it “black male exceptionalism” is a dubious namesake that wasn’t missed on me.  Exceptionalism as a philosophical notion has been reduced to a political football when liberals use it to describe specifically “American exceptionalism” which is an amalgamation of the patriarchal, imperialist and capitalist values that support an American thought combined with near jingoistic frenzy.  Attaching black males to exceptionalism is an old trope from black feminist thought that used to make the assertion that black men merely mimicked white patriarchal standards or power on to black women.  The othering of ourselves amongst ourselves is a soul-rendering experience that leaves the parts severed from the whole, making re-membering almost impossible.

While normally I don’t hold articles at “For Harriet” to a relatively high critical standard, they do serve a purpose of telling the story of black women in a sea of media outlets that don’t target that demographic.  However, as a public voice they are worthy of criticism aimed at them, and that particular article asking why no one showed up for Rekia Boyd in New York borders on the laughable.  I would scarcely expect people in New York to march for an incident that took place in Chicago.  Again, by that reasoning, I could have shown up in Daley Plaza in Chicago and asked why no one showed up for an Oscar Grant march.  This article is of importance because of the wide community in which “For Harriet” holds sway and the ways in which I see it contributing to a narrative of intersection that chooses to see itself as morally superior to those who choose not to enter it the way they deem.  Granted, that’s part of what any form of intersectionality does, but part of what public intellectual work aims to do is have those conversations out in public with the intent of invitingcriticism so that “iron sharpens iron” for a larger intended goal of applicable praxis.

I’ve said it before, and it bears saying again with a bit more urgency, this response is also the result of a fragmented prolonged moment.  Ontological statements do not make movements, but are the outgrowth thereof.  The famous “I AM A MAN” posters iconized from the modern civil rights movement were birthed out of a movement demanding voting rights; an intangible revelation linked with a tangible proclamation.  We (myself included) have produced an innumerable amount of words contributing to blogospheric theories, deconstructing sound bytes and all of us, again myself included, have fallen far short of a non-existent finish line in which we can hand the baton to the next group to run the race.  We, this same black community, lack constructive theory while majoring in deconstructive thought that often times comes off as simply destructive.  While I’m not waiting for a singular leader to emerge, I am waiting for a singular narrative to arrest the mind and soul of those who are ready for a change to come.

As the morning light steals the darkness from my bedroom with creeping pace of kudzu vine seen from the back roads of Mississippi, I reflect painfully that black men need a space to address our black masculinities amongst ourselves.  Historically we have done that, but did so without inviting the panoply of black men to the table.  Times have changed, sensibilities have thankfully changed, and there’s no time like the present to redress those historical wrongs.