WORDS: MYLES E. JOHNSON | ART: LOVEIS WISE
Introduction: Rest Your Bones
"What do you think about violence?”
The texts smacks me across the head. I’m asked by a good friend to muse on my views of violence and I realize that this space is a place that I haven’t truly visited in my mind. I know it more spiritually, less intellectually. I've never been asked to think critically and deeply about violence until my phone beeped and requested me to delve into an idea that should be of major concern to me, although not interrogated until that moment.
Violence has to be grappled with beyond a bullet, a fist, or a war. Violence has to be grappled with as a psychic undoing, as well as a physical one. Violence is economic. Violence is spiritual. Violence is social. Violence is political. Violence is personal.
My friend complicates his question and asks, “What do you think about violence as a way of liberty?”
I want clarification and I ask, “As in physical violence?”
He responds, “All forms. Destruction. Marginalized people destroying and being violent to attain liberation.”
My flesh crawls and I become acquainted with the Nat Turner that Nate Parker could have only wished to awaken in the soul. The unsettled negro living underneath my ribcage took over my tongue. I respond, “I think for ‘violence’ to translate into freedom or liberty or justice, it must be strategic. There must be a selected reason, a location, a time, a people and a mood; senseless, directionless violence is simply rage. Rage with focus can definitely be revolutionary and I support that.”
We live in a society that produces and nurtures the horrific.
As I revisit my words, I think instead of rage
I enjoy the word restless
more. I love restless because it gets to the point that I think most marginalized people, specifically Black people, would like to arrive at. We all have this desire to rest and to find relief, and often times we find ourselves in times where we are robbed of that relief, rest, and peace. We’re restless. The behaviors birthed from the restlessness vary, but come from the same frustration.
I continue to write to my friend, “I think when we think globally/politically about the capacity for black people to actually be violent it's impossible. Sure, we can smash a thing or kill a person, but when your definition of violence includes economic warfare, food deserts, media erasure and misrepresentation/annihilation, healthcare and environmental injustice along with physical brutality, you’ll realize a black person destroying and killing a thing is not true violence in the way we have come to know it in dominating culture. It is a function of a desire for freedom. If you trap any plant or sentient being, they’ll fight for their freedom. What black folks do against whiteness is an instinctual desire for freedom. What whiteness does to blackness is violence.”
Violence and evil don't belong to any group of people; it simply informs how it may manifest.
My response is not meant to absolve the black community of our capacity to harm but to complicate the language we use around our power to harm and the motivation behind our harm. I firmly believe that most violence done by black people is an attempt to regain self-control, to acquire freedom, to transcend circumstance. I believe most violence done by white people is to dominate and maintain control. I think this difference is imperative to recognize. There are some violent instances that we celebrate. There are other violent instances that we demonize. We are not so much against murder or being amongst murderers, as we are making sure that we’re only amongst murderers that murder for the right reasons.
The news about Steve Stephens
was sorrowful news for me to hear. As an empathetic person, it is impossible for situations of violence not to hit me in the chest and bring tears to my eyes. I imagine the hurt and pain that must be there to lose a grandfather or any loved one. My heart bled for the people impacted, but my consciousness would not allow me to perform shock. We live in a society that produces and nurtures the horrific. Partly, because we are too fearful to truly sit down, pull up a chair and talk with horror.
I think of Billie Holiday’s song, “Good Morning, Heartache” where she lyrically personified heartache as an old friend, not an abstract thing to run from. I think as a human race we should do the same thing with violence and evil, not run from it, but interview it. Instead, we often find ourselves dehumanizing the people that do horrific things and wonder why these things happen over and over again. We are in an age where the end of human life is often determined by violence. Naming the people carrying out the violence as “monsters” helps nothing. When we disassociate people that do and say heinous things from the human race, we assist heinous things in happening. Darkness needs darkness. Collectively as a species, we’re scared of our own nightmares and that makes me pessimistic about our potential to wake up.
The conversation around Steve Stephens needs a critical feminist lens and a racial lens to understand it, but we also need to acknowledge that violence and evil don't belong to any group of people; it simply informs how it may manifest. It informs the motivation and people’s capacity to feel comfortable carrying out violent acts. But, I am interested in why humans harm beyond sociopolitical answers; if there are any. The question keeps me restless; the idea that there are no monsters, but people with the same darkness inside of them as I have inside of me. But, their darkness has somehow gone rogue.
Perhaps, like beauty, violence and evil is its own excuse for being. Because of this text from a friend and where it put my spirit, I wanted to further explore my own relationship and views on violence. It’s my own attempt at ironically trying to find peace in a violent world. I want to stretch my ideas around violence; ideas that have until this moment felt quite rigid and limited. I’m not naive enough to think violence and suffering won’t be apart of the human experience. I’m exploring violence not to abolish it, but to at least give myself enough relief around the subject matter to rest my bones.
Part 1: The Self as an Assault Rifle
“We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.”
– Audre Lorde
The idea that danger is usually closer and more intimate than we’d like to imagine is a lesson I, unfortunately, learned as a child by experiencing it and witnessing it. The violence, be it physical or verbal, was rarely directly from the state. The words came off the lips of husbands, partners, brothers, mothers, nurturers, sisters, wives, and friends. I learned early that there was something intimate about domination
and something confusing about justice. Seeing your mother’s abusive partner, that you grew to love and hate simultaneously, with a police badge to one eye and a gun to the ear invites confusion into the body. Annihilate him and protect my home, you think with your chest and your heart. On the other hand, you think, this is excessive force for a routine traffic stop. This is real life. It is messy, not diplomatic, and often it is hard to find the design inside the events that your body experiences when domination is involved. Nihilism was my fiercest and most loyal playmate as a young queer Black child.
There is a cancer in the community when the activist is also the predator.
This did not change when I remembered my experience as newly out queer femme man attempting to find love inside of men that would always love patriarchal domination more than they loved me; no matter if I was on my knees or my back. I did not learn patriarchal domination through academic text or observation, I learned it while my lover was eight inches inside of me and I said, “Stop.” And that request was denied. In that moment, I knew violence not as something political, but as a personal childhood memory like my belief in Santa Claus. Like Santa Claus calling on reindeer, my body and mind in that moment called upon familiar emotions. On, depression! On, detachment! On, anxiety! Experiences like these turned my late teenage years and early twenties into the longest winter I’ve known.
I’ve arrived at 26, not perfect, but more whole than I have ever been in my life. I am more aware of who I am, what I’ve experienced, and how it has shaped me. I observe the inside of my community and the ones doing liberation work. I view the righteous ones, the activists, the writers, and the organizers and they appear to be incredibly familiar. In my community, I observe the same intimate violence that I knew in the playground as a child and in the bedroom as a younger person with a newer form and function.
Inside the Black queer community, I’ve noticed that silent and cowardly behavior is seen as diplomatic.
I observe people seen as activists and advocates harm others deeply, physically and emotionally, and post apologies publicly for a capitalist and social gain. I know this place. I know love and relationships that feel like living in the mouth of a shark. I know functions of capitalism, and how one can use their own violence and turn it into profit and promotion. There is a cancer in the community when the activist is also the predator. There is a cancer in the community when even reconciliation and accountability can be exploited by the white supremacist capitalist-induced vision.
I say a prayer to a God that is hard to believe in, in times like this, that diplomacy won’t be used as dynamite. That public silence won’t be a type of poison in the running water that won’t be addressed until our tears and saliva are radioactive. It is too often when sometimes educated, sometimes powerful, but always aware people observe wrongful things happen but do nothing to intervene in the events. This, too, is its own type of violence. It is the violence of the silent observer that we recognize as just as fundamental to the perpetuation of violence and hate as the one partaking in the wrong deed. However, inside the Black queer community, I’ve noticed that silent and cowardly behavior is seen as diplomatic. Inside of the Black queer community, I’ve noticed that preserving a public image is seen as the intellectual and righteous thing to do, and often this public preservation that is totally informed by white supremacist capitalism is ranked as more important than the intervention of violence of all kinds, even the violence amongst the people we claim to champion the most. This is strange when you know the ethos of the Black queer community. It is anything, but strange when you remember we live in a culture of domination.
It is essential that with every move and decision, we remember that resistance cannot just simply be a protest or an essay, but a daily meditation and habit.
This kind of predatory behavior is not exclusive to political or organizing spaces; it is pervasive throughout the whole of communities I find myself in where love and safety are supposed to be prioritized. I'm reminded of the rape and pedophilia allegations against popular makeup artist Stahr Milan by two young gay Black men. I remind myself of the silence surrounding these allegations and the embrace of Stahr Milan, and the allowing of him to be able to perpetuate his stardom, despite his violence. I think of Eddie Long’s case of exploiting and abusing young Black men, and how it did not ultimately transform our ideas on rape, predators, the violent nature of Christianity, or the demonization of homosexuality. Both of these cases were swept away to be forgotten at the earliest convenience. Violence is not always an action. Violence is not always vocal. Violence can be stillness and silence when movement and speech are needed.
Violence that happens interpersonally can be more intellectual and strategic, but just as pervasive inside the communities I find myself in. They are not limited to physical spaces, but also digital ones. I recall I was challenged on my views of how some members of the transgender community were handling the news surrounding the deaths of Black cis-gender men. I’ve always felt strongly around empowering and uplifting transgender lives, especially transgender Black women, but I found it tasteless to refocus the very recent state violence of two Black cis-gender men on Black transgender women. It felt like going to a funeral and telling grieving people to refocus their energy on the funeral that happened a month ago. I felt there were more productive and wiser ways to address this subject than what I was observing. I was disappointed. I feel the worse thing we can do as black people is prioritize deaths. The smartest thing we can do is find a common resistance in our mourning, and declare that not one more black body shall fall on the ground.
Within hours a non-binary twitter personality, that leads with identity in what they produce, challenged me on my critique. What I observed in this disagreement was both interesting and violent. I found myself being accused of transphobia for my comments and this person weaponized their non-binary identity to tell a very specific story about our interaction. The language became more specific. It was obvious it was about me and them, not the theory behind what I said. I had to be dehumanized into a monster. They had to be the endangered, frail light-skinned person. In this moment, it was less about reality and more about a script that needed to be crafted. And the weaponization of their identity assisted in the crafting of a certain story that painted me as transphobic, instead of dissenting. And because of their public identification as transgender, they had the authority to paint me as such without any other qualification beyond their identity. This is what white women have done to black people since the dawn of white domination. This is another type of violence I see happening often inside of spaces that I find troublesome and disappointing where identity is used to harm instead of contextualize and explore. My experience is not unique. Often I observe people using global truths about their identity to excuse the personal missteps they do in order to not be held accountable, silence dissenting voices, or avoid critique that may influence people’s belief in their online brand. This, too, is a type of personal violence.
With more critical engagement and meditation on this event, I arrived at the idea that we all must remember
. We must remember that America is a type of technology. It is a technology that makes it easy to participate in the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It is essential that with every move and decision, we remember that resistance cannot just simply be a protest or an essay, but a daily meditation and habit. If we do not engage with ourselves critically and interrogate what is informing these decisions we make, we are almost guaranteed to perpetuate violence.
I took these experiences of violence, that are more intimate than global, and made it my mission to attempt to be a type of lotus flower. I only wanted the self to be something beautiful and powerful that rose from the mud, grief, and violence. I only desire to be a force of beauty and power in the lives of those that witness and engage me. This is only possible if I interrogate myself at the most inconvenient and intimate times. This is only possible if I remember to resist at the most inconvenient and intimate times. If I do not actively do the work to resist the more intimate ways domination and violence can manifest inside of my community, I deny myself of my dream to be the lotus flower and settle for the self as an assault rifle. I deny myself the ability to be this lotus flower and settle for being just another layer of dirt.
Part 2: Working Class Bombs
To watch empathy move in the media is to watch a valuable jewel be granted to some and to be feverishly taken away from others. Who gets empathy and understanding, whose body is contextualized to make one think of their own family and friends, and who is contextualized as a stranger, a foreign object that should be destroyed before getting too close to us all is a fascinating negotiation to watch happen in the media we are offered.
There is one group of people that seem to transcend this rule of the narrative.
I’d suspect that people who are constantly othered, as the foreign object to be destroyed, are less trustworthy of the media. At least, this is my truth. I’ve seen my identity and my body constantly transformed depending on the media’s goal with the narrative. There were moments during the Orlando Pulse tragedy that I felt it was of the media’s interest to make me human as a gay person. The victims of the tragedy were mostly gay men of color and the media wanted to remind you that these people had mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers lovers, friends, and dreams. Within the same year, we must also remember the case of Bayna Lekheim El-Amin and Jonathon Snipes
, and how the media decided to tell that narrative to us. It did not serve the media’s narrative to give the gay black man, Bayna Lekheim El-Amin the same humanity it gave the Orlando Pulse victims. When the dynamic became more about race, specifically white versus black, El-Amin became animal, foreign, dangerous, and needed to be at most destroyed, and at least, domesticated. We know that the queer people of color who were slaughtered in the Orlando Pulse piece were granted humanity by the media because it was of great interest to the narrative to strip people that practice the Muslim faith of their humanity. And we can be sure that if there is a new group to dehumanize, the media’s narrative will then shift once again and perhaps brown people and people who practice the Muslim faith will be granted humanity to further perpetuate the narrative that interests domination in any given era.
There is one group of people that seem to transcend this rule of the narrative. That group is the people socialized to see themselves as white. Cruel and unbelievable actions of terror do not strip white people of their humanity. The event is isolated and seen as unique, being grappled with and given depth to truly understand what happened. It turns into an exploration of evil to entertain and perhaps even prevent other evil actions from happening once again. This introduces us to the intent of the media and narratives that we are offered. It is a type of societal protection. The media’s number one priority is to always protect greed and violence against people that compromise domination and the supreme class of whiteness. When this is transgressed, it is corrected. When it is challenged, you are silenced.
Violence and terror, no matter the motivation, does not get excused or bargained with.
To know this to be true is critical and powerful to me when you are a person living in America constantly being served media and stories. It brings a lens that elevates the questions you bring to the content you are served. It is no longer about what happened? It is not about what is being protected and perpetuated by the telling of this event/story? This question, when taken seriously, strips away the mission of domination and reveals the truth about the world around us.
In both Republican and Democratic parties, there has been a renewed extreme focus on white working-class America. This story has been told from many angles, most empathetic, with humanity and nuance still attached when telling the stories of these individuals; who have seemingly voted against their own interest in order to protect and uphold the supreme class of whiteness. These people are seen almost as intellectual and political toddlers who have no agency or awareness over their political orientations or the negative impact it might have on others and themselves. Their self-inflicted pain is pathologized as naiveté.
It is curious to think about how rebel and terrorist groups from the middle-east are not given the same space when they are violent based on their political orientation. Violence and terror, no matter the motivation, does not get excused or bargained with. Rarely, do we see stories comparing these working class, white voters to the suicide bombers, although the similarities are astounding, albeit one being more direct. White, working-class people both sacrificed/put at risk their safety and lives (via healthcare, patriarchal and economic violence, possible war and foreign aggravation) in order to uphold a belief that whiteness is supreme. Why should we sympathize or bargain with that?
As time goes on and we see the media protect and uphold what has always been, I don’t wish for the smashing of modern media how we know it. Not because I don’t think it should be transformed or even abolished, but I think it is unlikely and this should be a time of smartly planning out how our energy is spent. Instead, I think this is a brilliant time to bring a new consciousness to what we consume; not just to listen to what we’ve been told, but to interrogate the entire reality of what even makes the story possible. Take the stories and dirty them by visiting places that are uncomfortable and foreign, and clean the stories in logic and experience. We may never be able to revolutionize media to be a thing that upholds justice and honest stories, but that does not mean we can’t revolutionize ourselves to be humans that uphold justice and honesty no matter what we are asked to consume.
Part 3: Sophisticated Genocide
My love for books began at a young age, and the most fascinating thing about books was the fact that they were able to give me fantasy. They unlocked worlds that I would never be able to see or conceive. Some stories were inconceivable because of the sheer surreality of the content and other stories because it was outside of my possibility as a poor black child. As I grew up, the world that I most often visited in essays was the past. As I grew older, I began to value the fact that through books, I could visit eras and events that I was not alive for and feel like I was in the middle of it. Literature has the capacity to revive the past and transform you into an active participant. Where one may have memories of an event that they actually experienced that happened in the past, you can acquire a shared empathy and understanding because of the experiences you have through literature. This time travel has served me as an adult. It has helped me connect dots and see how the things that are happening before me in the present can be compared and contrasted to the past, and has given me tools to better predict the future and handle the current moment.
It is in books that I discovered that the government and other systems built and reinforced to uphold society were not morally good just because they had the authority. Through books about the Holocaust, slavery, and other atrocities against humanity, I discovered that authority is there to uphold the status quo, not to keep people safe. Some might describe this experience with reading as a mistrusting, but I think of it as a revealing. I think the beautiful thing is that I was able to acknowledge this truth and bring it to my own experience in my everyday life. There’s freedom to be found when you discover that the times you live in or the body you occupy has existed before, survived before, and been challenged before. It does not make it any easier, but it makes relief that much more imaginable.
Sickness and poverty how we know it in this country is a capitalistic invention.
I return to the books I’ve read in my life as I witness what is happening during this current era of tyranny with our 45th president. It is new in ways that most things are new; there are new people upholding the same systems of domination, new words describing the same violence, and new actions intending to administer the same terror. I recall these books about the Jim Crow era and the Holocaust that bring me just as much terror about this era of fascism as it does comfort that nothing is really that
different. The ways that humans that desire domination react to someone positioned as the other is as predictable as the relationship with the moon and the sky.
Returning to these books even influences how I interpret very specific actions made in the present political climate. I recall seeing millions of people being at risk of losing their healthcare at one time. I heard cries of desperation around people being scared for their lives and their well-being. I imagine an empathetic government designed to protect people would work on ways to expand healthcare to more people, instead of voting to collapse it. If protection was interesting to the people with political authority, I couldn’t imagine a repeal of the Affordable Care Act ever being considered. Sickness and poverty how we know it in this country is a capitalistic invention. We make enough money to heal, feed, and shelter all; our failure to do so is simply to perpetuate greed.
I remember reading Elie Wiesel’s novel, “Night” that chronicled the horrendous actions and events in Nazi Germany. As more details and conversation unfolded around the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, it was hard for me not to consider this as an attempt at a more sophisticated genocide. It began to be clear to me that this too is familiar territory once I revisited the past that I was introduced to in books. I recognized that this had nothing to do with the things being discussed on the news. It was not just simply policy. This was an attempt to kill off a class of people that are undesirable; the poor, the black, the brown, the chronically sick, the disabled. This was a slightly more sophisticated attempt at what so many people said ‘never again’ to when recalling Nazi Germany, but here it is again, just with different words and different people, but the same intention. It is only once people realize the story they are living in, and how similar it is to the past, that we can construct an ending that is different than the stories we’ve been made to relive time and time again.