Frederick Douglass and the Long History of #BlackLivesMatter

We have witnessed two black men executed by white cops over the last two days. This of course isn’t new–the only novel elements are the cell phones that documented the circumstances and the social media that spread the details. They widen the field of knowledge and community of suffering that was previously relegated, by design, to the fringes of society. Indeed, #PhilandroCastile and #AltonSterling are just the most recent examples of a long tradition that far preceded hashtags. Here is an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s famous narrative, in which he discusses a lack of justice for slaves in Maryland that extended all the way to the destruction of their bodies:

I speak advisedly when I say this,–that killing a slave, or any colored person…is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.

Sound familiar? Even if the legal system that allowed slavery and perpetuated the ownership of black persons was done away, the code that replaced it was malleable enough to maintain the general degradation of black bodies–either through structural policies like the Jim Crow era, or the selective enforcement like the Age of Ferguson. 

The story of America is a narrative riddled with the dehumanization of black bodies–for profit, for power, for control. To ask for examples of white supremacy within America is to ask for examples of water drops within an ocean: those who know what to look for can’t see anything but, and for those who are susceptible to its dangers are crushed by its weight. American progress is often defined as a trajectory of improvement, but it is also a series of transformations from one brutal regime to another, racial superiorities by another name. 

Digital media provides harrowing documentation of this story, but it is merely shining new light on an old core central to the American experience. 

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