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  • Shattering Black Flesh: Black Intellectual Writing in the Age of Ferguson
  • Julius B. Fleming Jr. (bio)

I am a black intellectual. I love black people. I abhor anti-blackness. Black freedom, for me, is an urgent priority.

In the 2014 film, Selma, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is represented as asking this penetrating question: “Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson?” “Who,” he repeats, “murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson?” In this scene, as he looks out from the pulpit of a Southern church bursting at the seams with black mourners, the famous clergyman is perched over a casket topped with a striking spray of flowers (that Jimmie can see and smell no longer). The dead man was robbed of every sense he possessed—of smell, of sight, of tasting collard greens and cornbread that were filled with the soul of an oppressed but resilient people; of hearing and grooving to the sounds of Ray Charles and Dinah Washington; robbed of the chance to touch the body of another. Using a bullet covered in the armor of hate, a crook shattered Jimmie’s black flesh. He tore it into a million little pieces, before escaping into the night with a life and a basket full of senses he did not even want and in fact despised.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was a civil rights activist who, in the 1960s, helped to propel the local civil rights movement in and around Selma, Alabama. While participating in a nonviolent protest, a white police officer shattered Jimmie’s flesh.

As I write this meditation more than 50 years after Jackson’s murder, it is troubling that I can add to this query a few more questions: who murdered Eric Garner? Who murdered Yvette Smith? [End Page 828] Tamir Rice? Akai Gurley, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Jonathan Ferrell, and John Crawford, III? Who mutilated Rodney King in the thick of a Los Angeles night? Whoever it was stood under the cover of a white moon—that same moon that stood by for years as the men of quick horses, the men of long ropes, the men of crisp white sheets shattered black flesh as if they could find more for a dime a dozen.

I am a black intellectual. I love black people. I abhor anti-blackness. Black freedom, for me, is an urgent priority.

The men of the ropes, the horses, and the sheets enter my mind. An invitation is rare; their presence, frequent. There they stand—reveling in a mock bravery that can only be forged through a toxic alchemy of cowardice, mob security, and drunkenness with one’s own sense of power. As someone who writes about the literatures and cultures of African-descended peoples, I have often paused—sometimes against my will it seems—to gaze into their eyes, knowing full well that the act of looking into these eyes rubs up against, unsettles, the protocols of history.

As I look, memories of pristine white communion dresses come rushing forward. When I was a child, there was very little that I loved more than the promises of second Sunday: singing that inflamed goose bumps and ignited tears; preaching that let the ushers know to stand guard (and led my not-so-religious, nursing-degree-having cousin to exclaim: “Yo’ pastor has COPD!”); a needed snack of crackers and juice one could only gulp down after petitioning God to forgive one’s sins. And then there was the pageantry of the walk-right, sip-right, chew-right ritual known otherwise as communion. The choreography was seductive. White dresses floating around the altar, moving to a pomp and some circumstances that only those who have been black and oppressed, whose flesh has risked being murdered while walking to the store, while whispering a prayer to Jesus in the belly of a South Carolina church, can ever understand.

Like the wearers of the dresses on those Holy Ghost-filled second Sundays, you, too, dear sirs, were eating bodies and drinking blood. But as I look into your eyes, and notice your own pretty little white dresses, I realize that you will never be as brave as Sister Lila Mae Jones, sitting dignified on the front pew until her sitting...


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pp. 828-834
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