“The great evil of American slavery was not involuntary servitude, but rather the narrative of racial differences we created to legitimize slavery. Because we never dealt with that evil, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865, it just evolved.” – Bryan Stevenson
Think of Derek Chauvin’s knee. The weight of it. The sadistic centuries-deep applied weight of it. Its brutality. Its power. Its ball-bearing-like, skull-like, stone-like shape. How the knee’s deadly utility must have given him such pleasure. How George Floyd’s pleas for life must have sharpened that pleasure. (Why else would he have crushed George’s life so slowly?) How this knee was his, personally, but also the blunt instrument of history, how it did the work his meaty hands could have done – strangling George Floyd. But to strangle George Floyd with his hands, he would have had to look him in the face. See his human face.
The knee was a brutal coward’s knee.
What was Derek Chauvin thinking? Or in what part of his brain was he thinking? What reptilian brainstem part? Was he thinking in the same part as was the white sailor on a slave ship who chained Africans in the hold and refused them water as they died? Or the slave breaker, Edward Covey, who savagely beat the teenage Frederick Douglass for demanding the dignity of manhood? Or the grinning white Klan members as they hauled another struggling black man into a poplar tree by his neck, then lit a fire under him, then posed for photos? Was he thinking in the same part as were the mounted police in Selma while charging the peaceful Civil Rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge? Or the killers of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Erik Garner, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Aubery, etc., etc., etc., etc.?
Which is to say Derek Chauvin was not thinking at all. His knee was not thinking. Derek and his knee were playing their part in the same morality play being performed in America for 400 years. He knew his part in the longest running play in our history. No new lines to memorize. Every other day the curtain goes up on this play, staged in another city or town. The line of cops waiting to audition for leading roles stretches like a blue rope around the neck of this country. But who buys the tickets? Who fills the theater? Whose will is being asserted in this tedious, blood-curdling, repetitious, racist drama?
What all those white supremacists in our family tree – from Jefferson, Madison and Washington to Donald J. Trump – fail to see is that any greatness in this country belongs to the people of color who have demanded that America live up to its own ideals: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, John Brown (not Black, but might as well have been), W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, Malcolm X, Rev. King, Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes, Charles Hamilton Houston, Rev. William Barber. Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson – to name a few.* What Derek Chauvin’s knee has failed to learn is that those people not only strove to save the humanity of people of color but the humanity of white people, too. Or is that what his knee knows and resents so profoundly?
I, for one, am sick of this play. I want the theater shut down. bulldozed, buried. I’m sick of analyzing the persistence of racism in America. The simple fact of it has eaten my soul. I want every gratuitous murder of a black person answered with a life sentence for the killer. How can we defend the rule of law when the law is a racist murderer? How can we defend democracy when our democracy is a corporate plutocracy holding a noose? It’s not that I can’t breathe. It’s that I’m ashamed to breathe the racist air. And what was George Floyd thinking? In his fear and pain and suffocation, he may not have been able to think at all. But if he was, it may have been the clarity of one thought that had haunted him for 46 years: finally American racism, like a drone missile, had found him.
*To view the portraits and short biographies of these American truth tellers, go to the portrait gallery and use the filter function to search for “Civil Rights” figures.