My Heart is Invisible Vol. 7: Black Lives Not Mattering: A Brief History
In the wake of the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, writers in the Grub community asked for a space to address the effects of police brutality on communities of color. To create that space, this series of "Writers React" is dedicated to personal essays that respond to prejudicial violence. The title, "My Heart is Invisible," comes from the first essay in the series, "Driving While Me," by Kerry Beckford. In this seventh installment, Chetan Tiwari reacts to the history behind the present moment.
In 1781 the Zong, an English slave trading ship, was lost and running short on water. Captain Collingwood was gravely ill, and the first mate James Kelsall wasn’t with the crew, as he had previously been suspended. Without them, the crew made numerous mistakes. They didn’t stop to refill their drinking water rations, and ended up taking the ship off course. The Zong was seven days away from land with only four days worth of drinking water. To save themselves, the crew dumped their ‘cargo.’ They drowned 130 African men and women. The ship’s owners didn’t mind at first, knowing that the ‘cargo’ was insured at thirty British pounds per unit. The owners knew they would still make their money. However, after the crew’s mistakes were made public, the insurers refused to pay, and the matter was taken to trial. The jury ruled against the insurance company. Drowning 130 slaves, they reasoned, was no worse than killing horses.
Ota Benga, a Congolese man from the Mbuti pygmy, was purchased by Samuel Verner in 1904 for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. From 1904 to 1906 Ota was featured as an exhibit in St. Louis and the Bronx Zoo. He lived in the monkey cage alongside the other great apes. Ota was a science exhibit, a less evolved human on display to show the public how barbaric humans used to be. Verner won the gold medal in anthropology for this exhibit. When black clergymen complained to the Bronx Zoo about Ota’s treatment, the Mayor of the city laughed. Ota was eventually freed and ended up working on a Tobacco plant in Virginia. He suffered from depression for years and ultimately committed suicide.
In 1927, John Carter escaped from a prison work crew; some suspected he was mentally disabled. The same day he escaped, a little girl named Floella McDonald’s dead body was found. She had been missing for three weeks. Also that day, two white women were ‘attacked.’ Some say Carter jumped into the wagon, demanded whiskey, and proceeded to attack the women. Others say the women’s horses were out of control and Carter had attempted to help them. They never determined the truth of the matter; there were no due process rights, and no trial. Carter was hung from a telephone pole and shot, more than two hundred times by fifty men. Some of these men were deputized members of the Sheriff’s Department and some just random civilians. Afterward, they tied his body to the back of a car and dragged it around town for an hour before lighting it on fire. Pictures were taken of the mob as they celebrated around the body, though the official coroner’s report states that “parties unknown” killed Carter.
On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was shot to death in front of his four year old daughter. The police officer who stopped Philando Castile says he “fit the description” of an armed robbery suspect. Castile obeyed every instruction from the officer and admitted to carrying a licensed firearm. No matter what he said or did, Philando could not persuade the officer to believe that he was not a threat. He was shot four times by Officer Yanez.
The story of the Zong turned into a court case that publicly discussed the atrocities of the slave trade. The hearing exposed what happened on slave ships to the public, and fueled the abolitionist movement that eventually ended legitimized slavery in the US.
Lynching stories like John Carter’s also sparked movement. Ida B. Wells, a former slave, took up investigative journalism to expose the ulterior motive behind lynching, and made it her life’s work to end the practice. By the end of her career, she was the founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the National Afro-American Council. She fought against the practice of lynching and for the betterment of black people until the day she died. She was just one of many who were moved to stand up to a system of oppression.
These stories inspired advocates to educate people on why systems that allow for murder and oppression are inhumane. People chose to react and usher in change by publicly shaming the powers that be. Ultimately, these stories led to change, but this is not always the case. We mustn’t forget about Ota: He received no justice. This reminds us that for every action there is a reaction and the way in which we react is a choice.
Centuries of programmed racial inequality has resulted in deaths to Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and all other victims of police brutality, past and future. Once again we are at a crossroads: We can choose to veil racial inequality, thereby perpetuating it, by saying all lives matter, or we can continue the slow process of social reprogramming and move toward racial equality by teaching society that Black Lives Matter.
Chetan Tiwari is a civil rights lawyer, who represents plaintiffs in employment discrimination matters. Chetan is originally from Canada and presently lives in Jamaica Plain with his spouse. He is a diehard sports fan who supports almost all Toronto teams (Go Oilers!). One day he wants to start a hedge fund used to support low-income claimants in their legal matters, and write a novel.