America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way – and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents. If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy. ~ James Baldwin
I’ve been sitting in front of this computer screen for the last few hours waiting for my muse to push through my fingertips something worthwhile, even something profound, to say about the death of Aiyana Jones. All I keep seeing is red- senseless blood spilled red, the red of rage, all sorts of red- but no answers. It has been this way every day since I learned of Aiyana’s last moments on this earth. I continue to sit, collecting articles and tears, hoping that I will be blessed with one of those moments of epiphany that will allow me to make sense of it all. I’m shaking my head as I type this. I tell you, I have nothing. Well, almost nothing.
In asking the Divine for words to speak, I found words already spoken- a speech given by James Baldwin to teachers concerning “the self image of the negro child”. All that I could think of was Black babies in that moment, and I sort of naturally turn to Baldwin for prescriptions of where and how we fail as the nation we pretend we want to be. I’m sure none of this makes sense to you, but it is how my curious mind works. In this beautifully and eloquently written speech, Baldwin makes the following statement about the murder of Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14). These four little girls were murdered in the basement of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, after a bible school lesson entitled “The Love That Forgives”, a talk designed surely to help children, and adults alike, somehow understand how to live and love through the brutal, and obviously fatal, racism and hate of the Jim Crow south.
It is inconceivable that a sovereign people should continue, as we do so abjectly, to say, “I can’t do anything about it. It’s the government.” The government is the creation of the people. It is responsible to the people. And the people are responsible for it. No American has the right to allow the present government to say, when Negro children are being bombed and hosed and shot and beaten all over the Deep South, that there is nothing we can do about it. There must have been a day in this country’s life when the bombing of the children in Sunday School would have created a public uproar and endangered the life of a Governor Wallace. It happened here and there was no public uproar.
Forty-seven years have passed since that dreadful church bombing committed by members of the local Klu Klux Klan, and the criminally negligent investigation administered by local police officers, who simultaneously adorned badges and white sheets. Forty-seven years seem like an eternity, unless maybe, you are Black and poor. If one fast forwards to the day Aiyana was burned and shot to death in Detroit, he or she may consider that time, region, and so called advancements in Blackness have not catapulted our struggle much at all. Black girls are still being brutalized. Many of our police systems still neglect to serve or protect us. No one appears to be as outraged as he or she should be. It is a reality that just makes me feel sad and hopeless. I’m sorry that I don’t have a more ardent way of expressing my feelings; sadness and hopelessness is all I can muster.
In Birmingham, not one public official thought that the senseless murders of those beautiful Black girls were worth investigating, or avenging. As a matter of fact, only one Klansman of the many involved, Robert Chambliss, was arrested- and that was more than 10 years after the murders. No accomplices or the police who impeded the shoddy investigation were ever charged. This act of terror was only whispered about before being almost completely silenced and then forgotten. In all of this, I wonder where Aiyana’s life and death will sit in the following days, months, years and decades. What will our memory of her be?
The media is already making a case for us to sympathize with the Detroit Police Department and the officer who allegedly “mistakenly” shot Aiyana while tussling with the child’s grandmother (although this version of the story appears to be an imaginative cover-up and there may be video footage to suggest that shots were fired into the house before any such “tussle”). We are not supposed to remember that the murder warrant was being served at the incorrect address (it was a two family home, the suspect was found in an upstairs unit). We are supposed to believe that it was necessary for DPD to throw a flash bomb through the window of a home where they knew children may be sleeping at that midnight hour (the bomb is believed to have landed on Aiyana, burning her before she was shot to death) . We are not to consider what the accompanying reality television videoing may have done to distract those officers from that very dangerous and obviously deadly S.W.A.T detail. We should not acknowledge that there was no murder suspect or mass of weaponry found in Mertilla Jones’ home, regardless of her family’s alleged association with Chauncey Owens, the suspect. More personally, I am not to think of my own daughter Nailah, who frequently stays the night with my mother in what many consider an “unsafe” neighborhood in South Houston, TX. Such pondering may create anger, and possibly demands for more accountability and humanity in the way that we seek to be respected, protected and policed as full human beings- as Baldwin notes in the aforementioned speech: “that is the crisis.”
The only important thing to consider in this case, as in the case of the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church, is if one changed the race of those who were murdered and the location of the murders, would the events and the outcomes be different? I believe they would. If those four little girls were not Black and if they and their families had not chosen to worship at that Black church in that Black area of Birmingham- they very well may still be alive. If Aiyana was not Black, and if her grandmother was not a resident of what the police considered a “bad area” where criminals go to “escape justice,” if the Joneses were not thought to be guilty first- she may be alive also.
Not one life is more valuable than another. One’s income, or complete lack thereof, place of dwelling, or absence of dwelling, victimizer of the oppressed or victim of oppression, should determine whether he or she lives or dies. At some point in this nation’s history, as Jimmy pointed out, such questions would not have been considered. I’m well aware that such a moment of outrage may never have happened for Black Americans, as our story here begins with brutality. Still, and this is what I believe Baldwin alludes to, it should have. A human life, and above all the life of an innocent child, is a thing to be made safe . As much as those who govern this nation, we are also somehow responsible that such a day no longer exists. Rest in power Aiyana and all victims of brutal, fatal injustice. May it not take another forty-seven years before we see the change that we deserve.
The Full Text of Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” can be found here
Aiyana’s family speaks here
A brief but insightful discussion of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing can be found here