The Language of the Unheard

Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you. It’s just judgement, by the way, on the value of the TV set. He doesn’t want it. He wants to let you know he’s there…No one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene. — James Baldwin, interview to Esquire magazine on race relations in America, 1968.

In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?…And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.  — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , The Other America speech, 1967.

It is hard to understand how the very people who quote ad nauseam, say Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson on liberty, will do a right about face and condemn protests that very rightly demand redress from police and judicial excesses. Some of the most vocal  proponents and lovers of the second, for some reason do not think the first is worthy of similar reverence. Would a pecking order of constitutional amendments, if one were to exist, likely imply that the first is higher up than the second? Probably not, because the first ten amendments are all rolled up into one Bill of Rights, indicating perhaps that no one Amendment is more important than the other, at least in the view of the First Congress.

Going all the way back to the glorious revolution of the summer of 1776, what would happen if that revolution wasn’t one of the white, landed, slave owning gentry (from the south) and white intelligentsia from the North? The answer, as it turns out, lies less than a thousand miles South-Southeast off the coast of Florida; specifically what France and the dominant powers of the time did in response. France, that great benefactor of the American Revolution, the country that gave the world Liberté, égalité, fraternité ; France, without whose men like Lafayette and Rochambeau, and  matériel, the cause of the patriots this side of the Atlantic would have likely been doomed.

It is worth quoting at length the filmmaker Raoul Peck’s introduction to James Baldwin’s unfinished work, I am Not Your Negro:

“I came from a country that had a strong sense of itself. It had fought and beaten the most powerful army of the world (Napoleon’s) and that had, in a unique, historical manner, stopped slavery in its tracks, achieving in 1804 the first successful slave revolution in the history of the world.

I am talking about Haiti, the first free country in the Americas (it is not, as commonly believed, the United States of America). Haitians always knew the dominant story was not the true story.

The successful Haitian revolution was ignored by the world because it imposed a totally different narrative, which rendered the dominant slave narrative of the day untenable. Deprived of their civilizing justification, the colonial conquests of the late nineteenth century would have been ideologically impossible. And this justification would not be possible if the world knew that these “savage” Africans had annihilated their powerful armies (especially those of the French and the Spanish) less than a century before.
What the four superpowers of the time did, in an unusually peaceful consensus was shut down Haiti, the very first black republic, put it under strict economic and diplomatic embargo, and strangle it into poverty and irrelevance.

And then they rewrote the whole story. “

That, in essence, is the story of all revolutions — and revolts and mutinies that didn’t quite materialize into revolutions — which weren’t white, and the history of the world is replete with such. If they weren’t snuffed out in their infancy, they were eventually. It helps to understand how Haiti came to be the failed state it is now, because it provides historical context around what is happening on the streets of America now. The popular narrative of the day will not delve into such nuances.

What then, is a man, whose voice is only heard when he mobilizes with thousands on the streets, to do?  What then, is a man whose voice is only heard when he shouts, to do? George Wallace’s Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever speech is cringe inducing now, but it wasn’t at the time. At the time, what was cringe inducing to white America was Dr. King and his actions. The man advocated peaceful protests and ended up with a bullet in his face. Progress takes time, but unfortunately, for those seeking that progress, it usually cannot come soon enough.

The popular narrative will present things in the most simplistic terms. The simplistic narrative will tell you that Lincoln freed the slaves a hundred and fifty years ago, it will tell you that people need to pull themselves up from their bootstraps, it will tell you “my great great grandfather came from Ireland with nothing but the clothes on his back and a dream.

The simplistic narrative will not tell you that there is a difference between escaping the potato famine or religious persecution for a better life and being brought here in shackles,  being bought and sold because you were chattel, in every sense of the definition of the word. The simplistic narrative will also not tell you about Jim Crow or redlining or mandatory minimums. It will not tell you that the man we celebrate as one of, if not our greatest Presidents (a man I certainly consider to be our greatest president) , the Great Emancipator, was steadfast in his views that the white race is inherently superior. The simplistic narrative won’t tell you that even though your great great grandfather who came by the way of Ellis Island was reviled when he came here because he was a “Mick” or a “Guinea”, that the color of his skin and the very fact that he chose to come here contributed more to his version of the American dream than any spirit of enterprise ever did. The simplistic narrative won’t, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explain that “…but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Post after social media post advocates the protesters on the streets to refrain from violence, and rightly so. It may not be the popular thing to say among the liberals but in the end, violence and the looting that sometimes accompanies it does more damage to the cause. It gives the people in power more reason to easily change the narrative and present themselves as the “LAW AND ORDER” candidates, as evidenced by tweets from our Tweeter in Chief. The actual cause eventually gets lost in the din and the convenient changing of the narrative by the privileged class.

In closing, here’s a plea to white America: By all means, condemn the violence, but if you do, it would behoove you, in the same spirit, to try and understand what causes it and acknowledge that the riots are a reflection on society’s failure in providing redress when the protests were non-violent. In the words of Dr. King: “And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”

Lakshman Hariharan
06/07/20