It doesn’t matter what a good person he was. It doesn’t matter how many kids loved him. It doesn’t matter how legal his gun was. All of the reasons we feel the truly outrageous need to qualify his existence don’t matter, because his existence was the problem.
This isn’t about murder. It’s much worse. This is about erasure. Philando Castile has been erased.
He was killed for no reason other than his blackness, and the state said that was not a crime. The murder of a human being is a crime, but the killing of Philando Castile is not a crime, therefore Philando Castile is not a human being. He has been erased. He is black. He is blackness. Blackness is not human. Blackness is fear and embarrassment. Erase blackness. This country knows no other way.
Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Although he fought over a hundred years ago, there’s a lot of footage of his fights. There’s even footage of him in his first championship fight, right up until Jack threw the finishing blows. They stopped the camera rather than capture that on film. There could be no record. After his victory, there were riots all over the country. And by “riots” I mean white violence against black people. Prohibit their pride. Wipe the smiles off their black faces. Erase blackness.
Did you know that Jackie Robinson was not the first black man to integrate Major League Baseball? Do you know about the bombing of Black Wall Street? The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments? Maine’s very own Malaga Island? The absence of these people and events from our history curricula is another example of the effort to erase blackness.
Nearly every social program of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that created a middle class in this country was originally designed to exclude black people, yet the bootstrap myth persists. Those racist policies are often blamed on the evil politicians of that era, but it’s not that simple. It’s deep in the system. A politician who tried to include every black person in those programs would lose the next election to someone determined keep erasing blackness.
Please don’t think that erasing blackness is an exclusively conservative goal. I get comments and e-mails all the time from white liberals who claim to be on my side, who claim to fight racism at every turn, but who will try to erase blackness as soon as it looks different than what they think it should look like.
A reader recently wrote to The Bollard to ask, “Do you think that it’s possible that by publishing a column titled ‘racisms’ that you are encouraging racism itself?” The editor politely but succinctly responded, “No,” but the reader then responded to “respectfully disagree.” He and his family “regularly go through an entire day or multiple days without any thought of racism,” he wrote, but that couldn’t be sustained because the title of this column “brought the idea into my day.”
This column isn’t long enough to really get into all that’s going on there, so let’s stay focused on this idea of not naming the problem. Let’s say you’re walking down the street and suddenly, from out of nowhere, a crazed, rabid dog, frothing at the mouth, runs up and sinks its teeth into your leg. You say to yourself, “As long as I don’t call this thing a dog I should be just…” but the dog’s teeth are now at your throat and you can’t finish the sentence.
On the other hand, if you’re safe in your house, watching out the window as someone else is attacked by a dog, well, you can kinda say whatever the fuck you want. Because you’re never gonna get bit, the attack may not even seem real to you. To such people, the problem of racism isn’t the seemingly endless injustice and indignity stemming from a system built on and thriving due to the theft of humanity from peoples of color. No, the problem is that a white man would have to think about it. Erase blackness.
But it can’t be erased, not entirely. Blackness is written on every page of this country’s history. It’s written into every song. Every homerun. Every medical advancement. Every peanut butter sandwich. Every traffic light. Every single dollar. And this blackness isn’t written with pencil lead. It’s ink. You can’t erase it. You can try, but in the end all you will have done is destroyed the book.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.