Amidst protests against police brutality, Daniel JosÃ© Older returns to a favorite novel and explores the misreading of rage.
Two weeks ago, marching through the streets with a thousand other people, our open hands raised to the nighttime skyscrapers, I thought of Oscar Wao. Across the country, protesters shut down bridges and highways and raised a collective voice of dissent, which the media quickly simplified into a rage-filled sound bite and simulcasted across the world over images of cop cars burning in the streets of Ferguson.
Toward the end of Junot DÃaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Oscar marches through a cane field to what he’s sure will be his death. He sends telepathic messages of love to his mom, his tÃo, his sister Lola, and all the women he ever loved: “Olga, Maritza, Ana, Jenni, Karen, and all the other ones whose names he’d never known — and of course to YbÃ³n.”
On Nov. 24, prosecutor Bob McCulloch told the world that the broad-daylight murder of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown didn’t warrant so much as a trial. The same day, Marissa Alexander began her prison sentence for firing a warning shot while defending herself from domestic abuse. Policemen had killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice the Saturday before and Akai Gurley the week before that. Last Tuesday, a grand jury here in New York decided that Eric Garner’s death by strangulation at the hands of the New York Police Department also wasn’t worth a trial. Before that it was Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd, 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, all unarmed, and many, many more. The U.S. judicial system has made it clear that blackness itself is a capital offense and doesn’t deserve the benefit of a trial.
And now let’s draw lines. As two of the original organizers of the Black Lives Matter Freedom Rides, Patrisse Cullors and Darnell L. Moore write: “We could not allow Ferguson to be portrayed as an aberration in America: it must remain understood as a microcosm of the effects of anti-black racism.” And indeed, the tentacles of this deep-seated anti-blackness are woven into the DNA of the American dream. We see it in law enforcement, politics, the media, social justice movements, non-black communities of color, science, and, of course, literature. On Nov. 19, the night before police killed unarmed Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn stairwell, Daniel Handler made his racist watermelon quip toward Jacqueline Woodson as he presented her with a National Book Award. It was interpersonal anti-blackness that led him to make such a statement. Institutional anti-blackness had his back. Neither NPR nor the New York Times bothered to mention it in their coverage of the award ceremony. The Times called his performance “edgy and entertaining.” The National Book Foundation itself didn’t apologize until a few days of continued social media outcry. Prominent members of the publishing community posted blogs in sympathy with Handler, while many others simply remained silent.
“This mission is what’s been passed down to me –” Jacqueline Woodson writes in her essay responding to the watermelon joke, “to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than the stereotypes they’re so afraid of.” The publishing industry, which by its own count is 1% black and 3% Latino, dropped the ball once again, and writers and readers of color rolled our eyes and cycled between outrage and not even being surprised. Woodson’s essay contextualizes the joke perfectly: In 2014, people of color are still struggling to see ourselves in literature. As BuzzFeed’s own Ashley Ford writes, “Brown girls everywhere know what it means to choke with invisible hands at their throats, to drown with water nowhere in sight. For us, a book like [Woodson’s] Brown Girl Dreaming is air itself.”
In this case, overwhelming silence in the face of explicit racism was the institutional wink and nod: the go-ahead. The same wink and nod, though much more lethal, could be seen in the refusal of grand juries and prosecutors to investigate the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The institutional go-ahead, be it in publishing or the court system, amounts to an abusive, racialized deprivation of human rights. It is violence. But in the upside-down anti-poetry of power, violence becomes simply an act, a momentary physical explosion, the culminating event. And so, in the midst of a historically rooted, state-sanctioned attack on black lives, everyone from the president to the very police department responsible for Michael Brown’s death has demanded protesters avoid violence. This is like a pyromaniac telling a fireman not to smoke a cigarette.
Thinking of the many fucked up flavors of violence, my whole body thrumming with rage and sorrow, I sought solace in my bookshelf. It took a little while to find — so many sugarcoat and simplify; they tiptoe and coddle when we need books that break-dance and tell hard truths. Gradually, voices emerged: Baldwin and Butler and Morrison. John Murillo’s “Enter the Dragon.” And, of course, Oscar Wao.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a book you devour slowly. You savor each bite because you’re not sure what the world will look like when it’s done. When I first read it in 2007, it was a revelation: a promise written in unflinching poetic vernacular that we can speak complex literary truths without translating ourselves or over-explaining or condescending to the lowest common denominator. It lit a fire under my ass, so many of our asses, that propelled us down the road to becoming writers.
In the canefield, Oscar tells the gunmen that they were going to take a great love out of the world. “Love is a rare thing,” Oscar says as he raises his hands, “easily confused with a million other things.” Michael Brown raised his hands too, but he wasn’t given the benefit of last words.
It is easy to misread rage as hate. This week, as chants of “Black lives matter” echoed once more through the streets of New York, Ferguson, Los Angeles and out into the world, all I could think of was love. Maybe, before he died, Michael thought of love too. And maybe that thought telegraphed brightly across this country, woke us up, rustled us out into the streets as one, loving, rage-filled outcry. As Oscar said, “on the other side…anything you can dream…you can be.”