Drums and Jordan Davis: Unpacking the Historical Fear of Black “Loudness”

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by Rev. Dominique C. Atchison of The Mad Preacher

I perform with a group that recreates the Ring Shout in a contemporary context. (Shout out to Dance Diaspora Collective!) The Ring Shout was a dance done by enslaved Africans in the Americas, specifically in the Sea Islands off of the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas. I would invite anyone reading this to look up the Ring Shout for more detail. But today I mention the Ring Shout not simply as a Black History Month factoid. I mention it because I believe its origins and history are relevant to the death of 17 year old Jordan Davis.

This worship form was born out of necessity. It was born out of white fear of African expressions of culture and spirituality. It was born because the loudness of our music evoked fear of revolt and revolution. It was born because our ways of expressing ourselves were deemed scary and banned and outlawed. It was born because enslaved Africans were forced into a sort subversive silent loudness.

According to reports, Michael Dunn felt justified in getting out of his car and shooting several bullets into another car because the loudness of the music evoked fear. Essentially, he felt that his life was threatened by the loudness of music coming from a car filled with young black male bodies. And this argument was apparently valid enough to lead to a mistrial in the charge of 1st degree murder.

There are going to be some who will argue that the sorts of music that young African American men tend to listen to is violent; therefore, Mr. Dunn had every reasonable right to assume that the loudness of the music could eventually lead to the loss of his life. I would argue that Mr. Dunn’s fear was most likely very real within him, but the reason and meaning behind the fear isn’t as simple as he and his defense lawyers would attempt to make it. I think the fear of fully expressed blackness has always evoked fear in white people in this country.

The “loud music” coming from the car where Jordan Davis sat was no different than the “loud music” that came from the outlawed drums of our ancestors. The fear isn’t new. It’s historical. When we were enslaved and under violent suppression, African Americans had no choice but comply, to use a stick instead of a drum, to make sure our feet didn’t leave the floor so we wouldn’t be punished for dancing. We did all of these things because non-compliance meant death. Unfortunately, it seems that the same is true for black boys who listen to loud music in cars in 2014. And there are many who would say that we must do the same thing our ancestors did. We mustn’t listen to our music. We must attempt to be silent and assimilate our bodies, minds and spirits to avoid the lash or the gun.

But in 2014, I think it may be time for white people to take some of the accountability. I think it may be time for white people to take a deeper look at the historical, cultural and ancestral origins of their fear. It is time for the burden of violent white fear to be taken off the shoulder of the black community and the bodies of black boys. It’s time for white people to really look at things like the Ring Shout not simply as a wonderful display of African American history but as an artifact representing the origin of their fears.

I personally am not sure how the jury could determine that Mr. Dunn was guilty of attempting to kill and not killing when he actually killed. I am not going to attempt to unpack my confusion about that. But will take this moment, to invite anyone white who is reading this to really take a deeper historical look at our fears of free black bodies and the loud black music that comes from them. I wholeheartedly believe that until you do that important work, we will continue to sacrifice our children on the altar of your fear.


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Lessons from my Father: On Not Becoming a Victim in Black America

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