The Traumas and Triumphs of Black Exceptionalism in America

by Jailyn Gladney

The question of whether or not a nation can ever overcome the injustices it has committed is a tricky one. Within the American context, this question cannot be separated from a bloody history of genocide, enslavement, cultural theft, and domestic terrorism that has persisted into a supposedly “post-racial” era despite heavy suppression of its memory. Though many of the legal justifications that formerly upheld white supremacy have been eradicated, the cultural myths and customs that created those legalities are alive and well. In a country that was founded upon freedom for “all men” but conveniently defined my people as something different—something subhuman—it it is only rational to be critical of the suggestion that our scars, our deaths, and our humiliations can ever be healed or atoned for by a nation that would prefer that we forget our past.

What happens to a community whose pain is irrevocably burned into the backs of its eyes?

A few weeks ago I watched George Zimmerman’s most recently released interview, in which he defended his murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by describing it as nothing more than God’s plan, which he said would be “hypocritical, almost blasphemous” to question. In an ironic though entirely unsurprising manner, Zimmerman finished the interview by airing his complaints against the press and the President for unjustly ruining the life of “an innocent American." (Not surprisingly, he is not referring to Trayvon or his parents with this statement.)

The Black community is not new to trauma and we most certainly are not new to the use of religion as justification for said trauma. We are intimately acquainted with the tactic of turning the perpetrator into the victim and the victim into the perpetrator until we have become responsible for our own murders. We have been betrayed by the justice system as cops planted evidence, innocent people were framed for crimes they did not commit, and young men languished for decades on death row.

We are familiar with white murderers and self-proclaimed vigilantes receiving donations, paid leave, and airtime while we bury our children in shallow graves. With nearly 400 years of experience we have become numb to state-sanctioned violence that ravages our communities, defunds our schools, and throws us behind bars.

We are accustomed to injustice. We are accustomed to trauma and we are even accustomed to being forced to relive our trauma as our deaths are set on loop on every major news station.

You re-tweet and share videos of our last breaths escaping our lungs, police beating us bloody, and bullets shredding through our abdomens. In you, these images elicit outrage or disgust at what you believed to be a relic of a distant past. We however, are only reminded of how fragile our future really is as we once again mourn the loss of someone who looks like our mother, father, cousin, or brother, lying dead or dying in the street surrounded by a ring of crimson.

Our shared humanity demands that we grapple with a national culture that insists on airing out a community’s trauma in public arenas. We must question those who view black trauma as little more than ratings or entertainment while we critically examine our nation’s role in both creating and perpetrating this violence.

This is the crux of the debate I mentioned earlier. The question was not, "Has our nation overcome its injustices?" The question was not even, "Will it overcome its injustices?" Rather, the question is: Can it?

Despite the best intentions of a socio-political structure supported by centuries of discrimination and violence, Black Americans have risen each morning to stare their trauma in the eyes with an unwavering gaze. Despite some wounds that are too deep to ever fully heal, we have led rebellions, movements, and campaigns that have more than demonstrated the strength and resilience of a community that cannot—in fact, will not—be defeated. We have picked each other up, wiped each other’s tears and declared that we will not be swept under the rug. We have gone to war in foreign countries and survived, only to be gunned down in American streets that our tax dollars paid for. We have yelled, and wrote, and sung our scars into a story that has been shared from jail cells, street corners, universities, playing fields, and our nation’s most powerful political offices.

Despite incalculable pain and exploitation, many Black Americans have held steadfast in their belief in America’s potential for progress and reconciliation. We have righteously criticized our nation and its institutions, knowing full well that it is impossible to give up on that which you have created.

Photo: Shutterstock

Jailyn Gladney is a junior at Boston University where she is pursuing a degree in Sociology with a minor in African American Studies. She is most passionate about and committed to combating racial discrimination on a systemic level. You can tweet her at @jaiglad and her personal blog can be found here.

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