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  • Michael Brown and the Need for a Genre Study of Black Male Death and Dying
  • Tommy J. Curry (bio)

But say to a people: “The one virtue is to be white,” and the people rush to the inevitable conclusion, “Kill the ‘nigger’!”

(W.E.B. DuBois, Darkwater, 1920).


Michael Brown is dead. His life was taken, August 9, 2014 by a police officer named Darren Wilson for jaywalking. He was executed in broad daylight with his hands up; his final moments being described by his friend Dorian Johnson as frightening, terror-filled, and violent.1 Like the deaths of many Black men before him, Michael Brown was executed by a police officer and then blamed for his own death.2 Justifications for the murder of Michael Brown ranged from him attacking the officer which resulted in the “broken eye-socket of Darren Wilson” to police propaganda directed at painting Mr. Brown as a robbery suspect posthumously.3 This is not the first time nor will it be the last that Black men will be thought to deserve death for the danger they pose to society and the fear they inspire in the white imagination.

The unabated murder of Black males in America has a long history; a history whose study is now taken to be decadent and exclusionary. Despite Black males occupying the bottom of every measure of a population’s health and prosperity, this reality is largely displaced by calls like that of Paul Butler urging us to deemphasize the actual depravations of Black males because attention to their specific ills risks perpetuating patriarchy. “Black men are still men,” says Butler, “They don’t have access to all the ‘benefits’ of the patriarchy, but they have some of them. To the extent that Black male exceptionalism allocates gender-based benefits, there is the danger that it reinforces genderbased hierarchy. In a patriarchal system, empowering men poses potential dangers.”4 But such a perspective does little to arrest the actual deaths of Black males in America or advance our understandings of the causes underlying their murder at the hands of an increasingly militarized police state. The disciplinary division asserted between Black men and boys and every other raced, gendered, and classed subject, which is presumed to be “more oppressed” purely from an arithmetic conducted upon race, class, and gender categories a priori, prevents a serious study of the relationship between the historical and political causes of the seemingly endless violence against Black males. Our intersectional conceptualizations of gender progressivism are blind to the sexualized and specific dimensions of Black male death.5 In failing to address the deeper causes responsible for the death of so many Black men, often at the hands of those seemingly charged with their protection, we fail to address America’s long-standing predilection towards killing Black males that is not easily reduced to the fact of racism.6

While Black men and boys continue to die at the hands of the state and white vigilantes, disciplinary morality asserts that scholars should resist the urge to theoretically account for these deaths through any serious philosophical or conceptual study. Black male scholars throughout the university have noted the resistance of journals and various disciplines to seriously consider Black male vulnerability beyond Black feminism or other paradigms which assume Black males to be culturally maladjusted and pathologically violent.7 Any study of Black male vulnerability is taken to be odds with and thereby erasing Black female suffering. Conferences are reluctant to accept papers, editors discourage submitting such work for review, and there is a permissible vitriol towards the authors of such work allowing “booing,” ridicule, and intimidation throughout the academy. This makes for an implicit, but permissible, censorship within the academy of discussions about Black male vulnerability, be it political, sexual, or economic, as well as a denial of the need for new theories beyond the generic language of intersectionality to speak to the death that disproportionately affects Black males. Black men are disproportionately affected by violence, incarceration, poverty, unemployment, and suicide in this country, yet there is an insistence that the deaths of Black men need not be accounted for beyond “racism” in our current political...

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