“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”
The legendary African American singers Billie Holiday and Nina Simone would sing for the “strange fruit hanging on the poplar trees” of the southern United States in reference to the lynching of black men and women that became the normalized brutality in a post Civil War United States. As African descendants our bodies have been both desired and detested by the degenerate individuals who enslaved us across the Sahara and the Atlantic. Judicial mandates like the Code Noir (1685) provided the State with clear instructions on precisely how to mark us its social boogiemen with branding irons, branks, castrations, severed ears. Since the 18th century the spectacle of Black bodies hanging from trees, and bridges or tied to doors and posts with rope or chains, with morsels of their person sliced off as mementoes, was the gristle consumed by the witnesses and voyeurs of the massive public executions of African descendants. Today video clips are the souvenirs we keep and while we thought video-taped evidence would help us find justice, the Eric Gardner case has proven us wrong. What is visible has become invisible.
In the Vodou and Orisa community we sing songs to and for the African and African Diaspora’s Master of the Crossroads, the Gatekeeper and Trickster who grants passage into the spaces of our existence: physical and incorporeal, on earth and the heavens, through space and time known as ‘Legba, aka Exu, Elegbara, Papa Legba. ‘Legba marks territories crossed by carrying his flag on the road of life and readies the sun and our own internal light for receiving Spirit. Legba owns the road, claiming spaces of governance, teaching us we need to own our lives with the expectation that the sovereignty of our person is recognized and respected by the people we encounter. We honor Legba’s presence, his legacy of migration and transformation as the Guardian of Thresholds, and Keeper of the Plain. While we go to the crossroads to feed Elegba and pay propitious offerings, Legba did mean for us as Black children, women and men to be the fallen fruit, discarded of our asé, or our life force, becoming ancestors ahead of our time.
Our activists and political leaders were beaten, attacked, maimed and murdered often in public view through-out the 20th century from guerrilla fighters like Charlemagne Péralte (Haitian Republic, d.1919) to Patrice Lumumba (Democratic Republic of the Congo, d.1961); Florinda Soriano Muñoz “Mamá Tingó (Dominican Republic, d.1974); Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso d. 1987) to labor leaders like Francisco Hurtado (Colombia d. 1998.) The specifics of context at least allowed us to enshrine their deaths as heroines, heroes and martyrs of our battles. We shall remember the names of the fallen in perpetuity. In the 21st century however, in societies where our “leadership” is endorsed by the very hands who suppress us, the intersection between political/juridical morass and economic woe is not only obscured but littered with bodies whose names will only be remembered by their families in the years ahead. Because so many fall with such abundance we will not be able to memorialize them individually. Too many killed daily to make them those whose names are cited by our children in school assembly halls.
While these recent killings are not overtly political they are the result of the structural violence permitted in the laws we have, those we do not have, and conventions we choose not to enforce. With the theme of Recognition, Justice and Development”, we are days away from the start of a new human rights era. While January 1, 2015 marks the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent 2015-2024, the Unites States continues to abandon the legal and moral framework that protects African descendants (and other peoples considered “minority” in their societies) from racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia. Known as the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action Plan (the DDPA), this international moral mandate was crafted out of the Durban, South Africa, U.N. World Conference Against Racism 2001.
At the heart of the DDPA is the issue of reparatory justice. The Obama administration whose domestic agenda has made great strides for many Americans has demonstrated acute feebleness in the area of race relations. The Administration is aware of how every day a person of African descent loses his or her life under questionable circumstances by those sworn to uphold the law and protect the citizenry, yet refuses to ratify the UN mandate. A great healthcare system, courageous immigration policies, historic strides towards marriage equity and increased employment only matter to the living. Cognitive dissonance, that inability to connect the dots between policy and our daily behaviours, is literally the death of those who are poor, Black and Brown.
Those of us residing in the United States have a few questions to ask ourselves as African descendants with a legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We are subjects of a constitution that has not fully banished enslavement. The 13th Amendment states that when one is convicted of a crime, one is subjected to involuntary servitude and slavery as punishment. In addition the 14th Amendment, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution is routinely violated when applied to African descendants, as our lives, liberty (and property) are taken away without due process of law. Lest we forget, the African person was considered only 3/5th of a person and according to the 14th Amendment it is only a “person” who has the rights of equal protection and due process of the law. In the 21st century it seems African descendants haven’t any equal protection of the laws that govern the land.
I am not a lawyer but if I understand the law correctly, Section 4 of the 14 Amendment prevents the State from “…assuming or paying any debt or obligation incurred during insurrections against the U.S., or claims for the loss or emancipation of any slave.” Following the logic of the Constitution, the reference to the word “slave” would be a reference to a criminal, and remembering the historically enslaved were African people, can we reasonably argue that when the Amendment concludes that its debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void, it is intended to mean that those who are employed as the agents of the State will not and cannot be convicted? In this instance the agents of the State would be the police. Perhaps the logic of the US Constitution and historic memory of the dominant classes in America is: Slave = Black = Criminal? The social memory of most States is slow to evolve unless and until it is accelerated by revolution. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the African descendant is a felonious, not fully realized person who is the enemy of the state, and suspected of being in rebellion in perpetuity. Why would we be in a continuous state of revolt unless we were and are in fact engaged in a war or are prisoners of war?
The Maafa was the first global world war, we as sons and daughters of Africa were enslaved in part because we lost that war. Our bodies and the free labour provided became part of the collateral damage sustained. Because it is not taught in schools, because it is dismissed, because it hurts too much, Black people have a form of social amnesia that includes forgetting that marching, praying, protesting and singing have bought us no substantive social changes since the end of Apartheid in South Africa.
Most of us know that once convicted in a court of certain crimes one is considered a “felon.” I read somewhere the original French meaning of the word fèlonie is the act of taking away or confiscating the land and goods of a convicted individual. As our lands and other properties were absconded by Europeans during the slave trade, does this socially (and psycho- linguistically) make most Africans and their descendants felons? We were once chattel making us the possessions of someone else thus does our removal from one jurisdiction to another or person to another makes us felons in a non-juridical context?
Are we both victim and criminal? Another strand of Ellison’s litany of what “Black is and black ain’t…” We live and die in a country whose rhetoric makes appeals for the “rule of law” but is itself stuck in a lair of State Recidivism, i.e. allowing the use of its resources and personnel to abuse the rights of its denizens and efface its most vulnerable. The extra-juridical killings committed by security and police officers are crimes that routinely go unconvicted. The original crime committed against us– the crime against humanity – that is the Maafa, of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (and later colonization) where the lands and goods of Africans were taken away is part of the historical and juridical imagination of whites in ways that differ from African descendants.
http://youtu.be/BV_FizTIxM4 Uncle Murda & Maino “Hands Up” Tribute to Eric Garner
The Maafa was the first global world war, we as sons and daughters of Africa were enslaved in part because we lost that war. Our bodies and the free labour provided became part of the collateral damage sustained. Because it is not taught in schools, because it is dismissed, because it hurts too much, Black people have a form of social amnesia that includes forgetting that marching, praying, protesting and singing have bought us no substantive social changes since the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Unless we are (A) willing to build solidarity among ourselves globally and go head-to-head, toe-to-toe with the State and corporate interests that profit from our deaths and incarceration, or (B) engage in a type of social movement engineered to organize ourselves by region and areas of expertise to figure out the best ways to establish and execute the mechanisms needed to systematically combat structural racism and oppression, the battle for our civil and human rights shall not get past where they currently stand. Without the same hard tools used to liberate us from enslavement, occupation and Apartheid, we will end up on the wrong side of Elegba’s door, gyrating Gédé’s macabre dance, #NoLongerAmongTheLiving.
Once used to grow rice, pick cotton and carry backbreaking loads, we have now become target practice for those badged bandits hired by the State allegedly in our service. This legacy is coupled with a justice system biased towards our enforced invisibility. We are the heirs of the cradle to grave prison-military-industrial complex. As a priest in the covenant of traditional African based religions it seems African descendants have become the ebo of the police departments across the United States. Ebo are the sacrifices made in the name of Spirit.
With 409 African descendants deaths occurring in the United States per year, almost twice the number of military casualties in the Iraq War since Obama’s 2009 inauguration, we can advocate for the movement #BlackLivesMatter but the reality is in this country, we experience #ZeroToleranceforBlackLife. The latter is the current unspoken, grandly juried apex of Afrophobia in our society. The streets of North Americans whose collective popular imagination is filled with zombies, seem to mistake Black and Brown people as the substance of their worst fears. Our streets and sidewalks are the domain of Gédé, the Lwa/loa of struggle and death. The spectacle of corpses in the public sphere — the streets– is the space where Ogun’s tools (metal, fire, gunpowder, electricity) are used to cut us down. Leaving far too many as fodder for the Boy Blue who leaves our families bruised, sullen and traumatized. We cannot allow the tools our ancestors provided us for survival, and furthering knowledge and truth to be used against us.
Ogun cuts the path for the roads we walk so that progress and civilization can gain entry into the spaces of justice that is intended to be where we find balance and equilibrium…where we breathe. It’s time to evoke that spiritual force. Where I come from taking away the Will, our inalienable right to decision making, to breath and the ability to live another day makes one Godless. Godless because we become like the late Eric Gardner, we cannot breathe – we lack the breath of God, of Bondye. In other words without Divine Presence, (if we understand God as life, as breathe,) the label of social death that dark skin seems to be automatically barcoded makes one a zombie. The true zombies however are those who are afraid of the dark. Those who void us out of the landscape, suspending our futures indefinitely… afraid of the dark…the naturally sepia, bronze, and ochre tones of our skins, and the cultures, spirit and humanity that accompanies it. Afraid unless and until our fruits and roots are stained with blood, ebo for Elegba.
Some of us need “America” to tell us why so many sons and daughters of Africa’s past end up on the streets, sidewalks, stairwells, at the back of police vans, sometimes with our hands up, sometime handcuffed, marooned by the sea of blue uniforms, dead. Tell us what are we being offered for? Is there something your God seeks that requires our lives? What shall be gained by our deaths that cannot be obtained in cooperation with our lives? Recognizing our humanity, enabling us to seek justice together, and developing a better future for those who are allowed to remain standing? Breathing… and knowing there will in fact be due process under the law?
Written by Manbo Dòwòti Désir © 2014
— Constitution of the United States of America
— Désir, Dòwòti, Wòch kase wòch: Redlining a Holocaust Memorials and the People of the AfroAtlantic (unpublished manuscript 2013)
— Horne, Gerald, The Counter Revolution of 1776