Serial Killers! Don’t call the cops!

I’m re-reading Herman Melville and thinking about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Kajieme Powell—and the serial killing of young African Americans that characterizes America today.
In Melville’s Benito Cereno a New England sealing ship operating off the coast of Chile in 1805 comes upon a Spanish frigate with a figurehead shrouded in canvass bearing the painted slogan: “Follow your Leader.” The ship is moving forward somewhat aimlessly with tattered sails and a distressed crew. Hoping to assist, a small party led by Captain Amasa Delano boards the ship in order to assess the situation. There they encounter a skeleton crew and a diminished cargo of slaves as well as Captain Benito Cereno who explains the troubles that had brought them to this point: terrible storms, disease and fevers that had taken the lives of several including the slave master Alexandro Aranda, ill fate and bad luck.
Captain Delano spends hours aboard the ship talking with Benito Cereno who is always in the company of his loyal slave and servant, Babo, while observing a series of strange events—urgent whispering among crew and cargo, a few Africans carrying knives and an occasional physical confrontation with Spanish crew members. Benito Cereno is pale and weak, often near fainting, always insisting that Babo stay close. At the end of the visit, as Delano prepares to return to his own ship, a desperate Benito Cereno leaps from the deck into the departing long boat and the truth becomes clear: Babo is running the ship and Benito Cereno is his prisoner; Black insurgents—slaves no more—have taken control and are demanding a return to Africa; the shrouded figurehead is the bones of Alexandro Aranda, the painted slogan a targeted threat to the crew.
The entire day had been a complex performance put on by the enslaved Blacks under the directorial brilliance of Babo to deceive the visitors; in order to see the reality of the drama produced on his behalf—which is bursting with hints and clues and full-blown illumination—Captain Delano, a good liberal Republican from New England, would have needed the one quality he lacked: a deep belief that Babo and the other captives were fully human beings, capable of intricate planning, complex intelligence, wild imaginations, historical memory, and an acute sense of their own agency.
This is the exact quality widely missing in America today—too many Americans are Captain Delanos—and the feature we must nourish and grow within ourselves if we are to survive as a human community. Young Black men, whatever their circumstances, are fully human beings. Each of their lives is precious to himself, and each is of incalculable value to our communities. Each is capable of intricate planning, complex intelligence, wild imaginations, historical memory, and an acute sense of agency. The serial killings and the Prison Nation are intolerable abominations; they must be stopped; joining the insurgency to overthrow the rule of unchecked police power is urgent and necessary.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: