The dark, long-trodden path to freedom and equality comes at a very high cost. And it seems African-Americans have become masters of the trade: life for death, wisdom for suffering and patience for accomplishment. But innocence is no longer something for which we can afford to pay. Naiveté, in particular, was removed from the menu options a long time ago.
After the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, JFK and even, I dare say, Biggie and Tupac, black Americans are more skeptical of accepting the conventional wisdom when it comes to assassinations.
The recent killing of the infamous terrorist, Osama bin Laden, proves no different — despite the fact that it is President Barack Obama who sits at the helm of the military apparatus. Perhaps our discomfort lies in the fact that justice continues to elude our communities. For a vast segment of the African-American population, when it comes to matters of criminal justice, separate and unequal remain the status quo. Disproportionate levels in sentencing, policing, harassment, and capital punishment lead many to wonder if the accused criminals are, in fact, the victims of a higher crime.
That sentiment was most recently expressed by Rashard Mendenhall, the famed NFL running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In a message which has now gone viral, Mendenhall tweeted: “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side.” Mendenhall went further to doubt the true facts behind the events of September 11, 2001, when he wrote, “We’ll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.” For many of Mendenhall’s fans, and African-Americans in general, these feelings are commonplace.
To be fair, the Osama bin Laden theories have been circulating for years. Professor David Griffin, author of Osama bin Laden: Dead or Alive, questioned the authenticity of the “bin Laden” tapes, by highlighting inconsistencies like changes in his weight, and facts that demonstrated his ability to be right-handed in one video and left-handed in the next. Afghan President Hamid Karzai lent weight to the theory when he said that Osama bin Laden was ‘probably’ dead.
But what about the African-American community and its history make it more willing to question the veracity of the U.S. government? Could it be 300 years of chattel slavery, during which laws were written for the express purpose of dehumanizing us? Or the 100 years of Jim Crow designed specifically to disenfranchise us? Could it be the images of Emmett Till beaten and disfigured that we have never forgotten? Or the knowledge that Till’s perpetrators walked free? Could it be the Tea Party movement and its incessant attacks on Obama’s citizenship and the need to produce his freedom papers? Could it be the Reagan-era drug laws that placed disproportionate sentencing guidelines on crack-cocaine (as opposed to powder cocaine) and as a result, left a generation of black youth entangled in a criminal system akin to a neo-slavery?
Or could it simply be that we are conspiracy theorists by nature?
Osama bin Laden never received a trial in court. That means that we can only rely on the proposition that after 9/11 he personally took responsibility for the attack. This, of course, is based on supposed video content and newspaper releases which are assumed to be authentic. For the victims and families of those who died in 9/11, this past is prologue. All Americans rejoice with them in this closure and validation that the mastermind behind these horrific and inhumane attacks has finally been brought to justice.
But after decades of unfair trials, brutality, planted and obscured evidence, biased laws and suspect juries, many African-Americans are naturally inclined to question authority. The fact that Osama bin Laden’s body was buried, “at sea”, only hours after his supposed death, will lead many to question the circumstances surrounding these events. Legend will become folklore.
But perhaps Mendenhall’s most worthy contribution to the dialogue is less insidious. He questioned the festivities that occurred after the announcement of Osama’s death. All things being equal, even if verifiable evidence is presented, many blacks are deeply troubled by the celebration of another human’s death. It seems wholly unnatural for us, and a reminder of the lynching picnics held in the Jim Crow South.
If, as many believe, that the purpose of life is to create life, then celebrating death is both counter-intuitive and unnatural. How can America find peace, while celebrating a death which resulted from violence? Seen through this lens, are we in danger of becoming the very enemy we seek?
Conspiracy theories will thrive regardless of which war is fought, or which president is in office. It is our humanity that we must fervently protect.