Of the Human Dignity of Michael Brown: An Old School Take on Ferguson

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Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

Leaving the dead body shot by the police of an unarmed young black man (in this case Michael Brown)  for four hours in the middle of the street in a former sundown town in a border state is an old American image that I have not seen the media addresses adequately in its coverage.  I have seen various commentators consider it shameful and be saddened by it, but I have not seen the kind of visceral understanding of the meaning of a dead black man’s body being left in the middle of the street for all to see for hours.  Whatever the officer in question is guilty of, the leaving of the unarmed black man’s dead body in the middle of the street by the powers that be in that town is worth a meditation on its own.

That meditation would be on the nature of human dignity – and in this case – the human dignity of a young black man.  As we know in many religions, the dead are to be buried within a day.  The body of the corpse is to be washed and wrapped in linens of some kind as part of the respect for the body.

We all remember the sense of barbarism felt when four military contractors in Iraq were ambushed and killed by a crowd and their bodies defiled.  We all remember the soldiers not seeking revenge by starting to shoot up the people, but asking the elders to provide the bodies so that we could bury the dead.  We all remember the scenes in Mogadishu when soldiers were killed by the warlord Aidid’s people and the bodies of the soldiers were dragged through the streets and defiled.  We all remember the soldiers who received punishment for peeing on the bodies of dead Taliban killed in the War in Afghanistan.

We all recognize that the treatment of the dead is one of the hallmarks of civilization.  Our images of how the dead have been treated in mass graves – such as recently in Texas for dead illegal immigrants buried in a mass grave in trash bags and little care for their bodies – remain burned in our memories as we think of this person as someone’s father, mother, sister, or brother.  Or, in the case of Michael Brown, someone’s son.

When I thought about Michael Brown’s dead body laying out in the sun for four hours – ostensibly so that the police investigation could be done – I was drawn back to some images that are old in American history.  Am I the only one who remembers bodies of black men hanging in trees and burned, with their families steeling away to take them down after the lynching was finished to bury them with some semblance of respect for the dignity of their loved one?  Am I the only one who saw 12 years a slave and the scene of the protagonist strung up and barely able to stand on the ground without choking in front of all the slaves for hours and hours?  Am I the only one who felt a very light rub of an old ante-bellum wound in seeing Michael Brown’s innate body lying in the middle of the street for four hours like roadkill?

If I have caused something to resonate in the reader by taking us to this part of our history, then it has been worth writing this short post.  For the essence of what I am speaking to is the concept of human dignity, and in particular the human dignity of this young black man.  For me, the four hours in the sun that he spent as a corpse on a street was a form of psychological terrorism by the powers that be that had the power to take him away.  We saw the image of a family member rushing to him to cover him, and the police officer pushing that member away.  Overtly or subliminally, we understand that his body laying in the sun was a warning to every black person around there to submit to authority, to be subservient, to go along to get along, to not make waves, and – in essence – to not assert the plenitude of one’s civil, political, and human rights.  The state would not recognize those rights of citizenship or residence was the message. So be forewarned.

This reminded me of the conversations I had on several occasions with visiting Americans in Paris when I lived there.  Inevitably, particularly by white Americans, the question would be asked as to whether I missed being home.  Their look would be a furtive one of hoping that I would say something in the affirmative rather than make some type of condemnation of what it was to be black in America.  What I tended to say after a while was the following.

In Paris, I know that I am not French and so, for the French, I am not civilized because I am not French.  However, in Paris, I know that for the French I am human – uncivilized because I am not French (which is not my fault) but still human.  In the United States, there have been a number of occasions in which I have wondered whether the people I was dealing with thought I was human.  In France, I am considered human.  In the United States, there are times when I have wondered whether the people I am dealing with think I am human.

The humanity issue of course goes back to slavery in the collective American unconsciousness.  I remember that the slave was an asset with the cow, the sheep, and the pig in the ledgers of the master of the plantation.  I have learned recently about slave babies being used as gator bait in Florida as an example of the vision of slaves as animals.  I have learned of the use of the ice bucket of the ALS challenge as a punishment for slaves back in the ante-bellum period.  These are wounds of memory.

The wound of memory being lightly rubbed is the same wound I felt when I watched those people in New Orleans after Katrina desperate at the Convention Center.  Their plight reminded me of the plight of blacks in the Great Flood of 1927 when a riverboat came along and took the whites away and left blacks stranded with water all around them.  The white folks on the riverboat sang songs as they floated away leaving those blacks to the terrible destiny that awaited them at the hands of Mother Nature at her cruelest.

We have to recognize and understand the public and private social violence that is countenanced against young black men – made apparent in that dead body laying in the sun for four hours without his dignity in death being recognized.

It is an old wound, and it seems to me that the inability for the commentators to speak to that old wound is the problem of our collective unconsciousness and our inability to own the history that pervades our lives today, rather than the kind of denial we try to live.  It is painful history to confront, terribly painful, yet its weight remains. A son of the South said it best (for all of us both North and South) when he wrote:

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” William Faulkner, Requiem for A Nun

Michael Brown is just the most recent iteration of our what the French call “refoulement” of that history.  We are sick.