From Henry Dumas to Freddie Gray: Jeffrey Leak on the importance of visibility to #BlackLivesMatter

by Jeffrey Leak

Freddie Gray is the latest to join the roll of what is far too common in the United States: brothers killed at the hands of police. It feels like we witness another black man going down weekly, bi-weekly or monthly. Whatever the actual rate, it’s too much! And in this age of social media, police officers—I’d like to think—would act in more measured responses, especially since historically and certainly over the last thirty years, many of the boys and men whose lives have ended have not even had weapons in their possession.

That’s right. We’re not discussing black men bearing arms. We’re talking about unarmed black men killed “at the hands of persons known.” In the world of Jim Crow, killings of blacks by whites (law officers or not) was summed up as death “at the hands of persons unknown.” Back then, the killers were often in plain sight but never held responsible for their actions. Over fifty years later in a culture inundated with cell phones and cameras, we have a catalogue of examples of law officers engaging in a kind of recklessness associated with Jim Crow.

After Michael Brown was killed last year, Melissa Harris Perry, on her show that airs on MSNBC, noted every documented unarmed African American boy or man killed by police in the past decade.

How do you defend yourself when you don’t have a gun, or you’re suffering from a medical condition, or you’re merely a child playing with a toy gun? How do you instruct boys and men to act perfectly in an imperfect world? How do we train police officers to do away with worst-case assumptions about black males?

It’s interesting to think about how the events of previous generations would have been received in the digital age. One such story I’m reminded of is that of Henry Dumas, the 1960s African American writer whose life I chronicled in Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas. In a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Toni Morrison, who was one of the leading figures to advocate the posthumous publication of Dumas’s work, we’re reminded of how news of his death in Harlem in 1968 barely registered interest beyond family and friends.

All we know for sure is that Dumas (months before his thirty-fourth birthday) had some kind of altercation with a white transit officer, that he reportedly had some kind of knife that was never found, and that this white rookie officer felt himself threatened to the point that he shot and killed Dumas. But what if word of Dumas’s shooting on a subway platform had been transmitted via the electronic devices of the twenty-first-century? What if, in the merging of the New York transit police into the New York Police Department, the records of the former had not been destroyed but digitized? No witness came forward, but what if someone had recorded the altercation?

I explore these and other questions in Visible Man. His story resonates with many of these contemporary stories, but even related to his death there are some unknown and unexpected facts that compel us to consider black male experience in more varied terms. In other words, Dumas dared to live fully, without the straightjacket of racial respectability. That takes courage in any era.

What’s disturbing is that beyond these questions related to technology, or the recording of events, is the larger, more compelling question: When will black life be valued as much as white life? Certainly the majority of law enforcement officers are not nefarious or evildoing, but that does nothing to comfort the families of boys and men killed for no legitimate reason.

The title of my book comes from Dumas himself. Contrary to Ralph Ellison’s poignant, prescient metaphor of invisibility, Henry Dumas insisted on focusing on what you see—literally and imaginatively. We shouldn’t need a hashtag—#BlackLivesMatter—to remind others of our humanity. In both his writing and his life, Dumas insisted on affirming black life, in all of its messiness, beauty, and contradictions. To him, it was a given. Black Life Mattered.

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