I am utterly undone: My struggle with black rage and fear after Ferguson

I woke up in black skin today -- and felt its scourge. After Ferguson, here's what "rule of law" means to me now

Published November 25, 2014 10:14PM (EST)

  (AP/David Goldman)
(AP/David Goldman)

If I have to begin by convincing you that Black Lives Matter, we have all already lost, haven’t we? So let’s not begin there. Let’s begin at the end. At the end there is only Michael Brown Jr.’s dead body, no justice, and weeping and gnashing of teeth.

For his parents, there is only grief.

They are undone. We are undone. I am undone. This is what American democracy coming apart at the seams looks like. Our frayed, tattered edges are showing. The emperors are the only ones who can’t see it. Where can we begin so that we don’t end up here?

Is anyone else tired of wandering in this wilderness? Surely this land of broken promises isn’t what Dr. King had in mind for us.  Hopefully, from the fiery furnace of Ferguson, the floating embers will spark and spread and blaze us a new trail – up out of this madness.

Did you expect me to call for peace? Did you expect me to condemn looting and property damage? Did you expect me to preach at the people about being constructive rather than destructive?

Peaceful protests have been happening for over 100 days. But white folks only really pay attention if they fear they have something to lose. Smoke flares in their nostrils, because then they are confronted with the possibility of charred, burning, white flesh. No more water. The fire next time.

I woke up in black skin this morning. Frustrated, because for the first time in a long time, I felt the weight, the scourge of this skin. Had visions of being able to unzip myself, climb out of myself, and lay aside this weight, but the woman who climbed out was darker still. Since black is beautiful, we are never supposed to admit that we are sometimes tempted to believe what white supremacy tells us to believe about ourselves. But you caught me in a moment of weakness.

Utterly undone. Put out trying to pull it together. Still trying to put together – piece together —all these pieces. Of “evidence.”

Many things are evident this morning.

Our black president says that first and foremost, we must “respect the rule of law.” I watch, as he says this, a split screen of unruly protesters smashing the windows of a police cruiser. It is evident what they think about “the system.”

It, too, is evident what the system thinks about us.

(Do you feel the struggle in these words? The utter inadequacy of them? The struggle to contain and train my rage on the proper (white) people, and not all of them? The challenge of trying to narrate black rage, and black pain, and black fear, and black freedom dreams deferred – again—in hopes that white folks would really understand? The resentment at my failure? The rage at my having to do so in the first place?)

Tupac famously asked “if there was a heaven for a gangsta.” I find myself hoping there’s a hell for white supremacists. But too many of them believe in Jesus. So fire and brimstone in Ferguson and beyond will have to suffice.

The attorneys for Michael Brown’s family appear on the news, admonishing us to be “dignified and disciplined.” I laugh, tears threatening the back of my eyes. I want to ask them if they really believe what they are saying.

There is no dignity in lying dead on scorching, hot pavement for four hours. That is evident. There are no disciplined acts of resistance that will restore dignity to Michael Brown’s life. Only justice can do that. Justice affirms that his life was worth protecting, that Darren Wilson, the person who took it, should be punished.

There will be no justice for Michael Brown, so there will be no surrogate acts of “dignity” from protesters.

Neither should we any longer submit to the disciplinary impulses of the “rule of law.” The rule of law wants to beat into us, through "discipline," the belief that we –black people -- would be animals but for its chastening rod of correction. The law stepped to a podium yesterday, under cover of night,  to tell us that it reserves the right to slaughter black men with impunity, that it seeks to coerce through threat of force, our permission to do so.

To ask us to be “dignified and disciplined,” to ask us to “respect the rule of law” in the face of such a mockery of justice is to ask us to affirm the path to our own destruction.

Surely America knows black folks better than that.

Humans can only be sucker punched for so long. Humans can only have the life choked out of us for so long. Humans can only be kicked in the stomach while your foot is on our neck for so long.  Humans can only be bullied for so long. One day we stagger to our feet, and you see reflected back to you the results of your own unresolved monstrousness.

I asked for a different beginning, hoping we wouldn’t end up here. But here we are — at the end again. Here we are – black people – yet again faced with the magnitude of our need and the inadequacy of our resources – trying to make ends meet. Trying to begin again.

By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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