Reflecting on Ferguson with Frederick Douglass

“The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of the week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,- sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.” (Frederick Douglass)

In the many arguments for slavery there was an insidious and persistent rhetoric that attempted to portray slaves (and all black bodies) as lazy, violent, sexually promiscuous, and unconcerned with hard-work, family life or the cultivation of their bodily, intellectual and spiritual personhood. This rhetoric served to legitimize slavery but even more served to create an image of black bodies in the white mind. This image would serve to mediate the interactions between whites and blacks throughout the history of the United States, but even more perniciously, frame any conversation about equality, rights, violence, marriage, or any other issue that effected black America.

We see the perniciousness of this visual rhetoric on full display as America must confront yet another killing of a black man by white authorities. But even more visibly, we are seeing just effective and malleable the rhetoric, this time of black criminality, is when buttressed by the illusion of authority and militarized power. But even more disconcerting is the utter silence of so many who are watching as civil rights are being routinely ignored and a city comes under quasi-military rule, not for the protection of its citizens, but for the protection of those with power. 

But I keep coming back to this quote by Frederick Douglass. Douglass reminds us that the “so-called” problems of black bodies was not a matter of their “natural” predilections, but rather directly tied to the sinful practices of white people and their institutions. And yet, the power of whiteness is such that the response to the institutional reality (a molotov cocktail tossed against an armored vehicle, for instance) becomes an indictment of a whole people or town and thus the justification for even more violence, repression, or inequitable policies. 

Douglass’ implication of the church should be a warning to the contemporary church. While we may not teach racism in our Sunday school classes, our silence serves as a tacit suggestion that black criminality is the norm and the response of law enforcement is justified. Our silence confirms the lies of the Ferguson police who have engaged in a systematic campaign to criminalize a young black boy and repress a community. 

Perhaps our churches are not filled with women-whippers and baby-stealers, but God forbid we be the people who stand by and watch as others do the dirty work, secretly thinking to ourselves, “Well, this is what they deserve.”

The story is longer and deeper and darker than we could ever imagine. And we cannot be Christ’s body until we confess to its centrality to this story. Douglass reminds us that the attempts to silence critiques of black bodies can never be isolated from the white violences that brought black bodies to this land and perpetually worked against their flourishing throughout America’s history. 

The events in Ferguson put on display how these violences continue in America and are irrevocably bound to the images and rhetoric of what the black body is and what is justifiable. If we are Christian, how will we refuse this rhetoric? How will we disrupt the narratives that serve to diffuse the justified rage we must feel in the face of such senseless violence against black bodies in the United States?

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