I could not watch the Kalief Browder documentary when it first aired on Wednesday night. In both life and death, Kalief made systemic injustice real and seeing his face—hardened by the realities of an unbalanced system—rendered my sentiments into a state of heartache. Suddenly my problems became minuscule and I felt guilty for not caring enough about the Kaliefs of the world prior to hearing his story.
When news of his death surfaced, my sunken heart broke into a million pieces, reflective of the millions of other lives shattered by the invisible but pernicious wrath of white supremacy. His death? A murder by lynching, suffocation, and strangulation where his black body bore the systemic burdens of his white oppressors. I remember seeing Kalief on the news and on the Rosie O’ Donnell Show. I even remember reading an article about Kalief in the Times. This times article referenced a computer gifted to him by Rosie O’Donnell and in the following months I even saw a picture of Kalief alongside Jay-Z.
However, following all these high-profile events and photo opportunities, the one-percent returned Kalief to his impoverished origins. I can’t help but wonder why no one extended Kalief an internship or even a job? Footage that Kalief filmed before he was murdered reveals him stating that “he wanted to be successful” like the people in business suits that passed during filming. The producers seemed more interested in filming this longing than making his desires a reality. There was an anonymous donation that afforded Kalief a free scholarship to a Bronx Community College, a place that Kalief’s mental state had already distanced him from. But why had his exposure not fomented a path to a more competitive education tailored to his ambitions to be a businessman or entrepreneur?
The white liberal wore Kalief and his story as a badge that challenged any “racist” labeling that may have accompanied their hue. However, in wearing this badge they forgot to care about Kalief the person following his fifteen minutes of fame. Perhaps transforming Kalief Browder into a symbol of systemic injustice also dehumanized him in a similar manner to the dynamics of Rikers Island. Namely, Kalief Browder as a talk show guest and documentary subject caricatured him into an image or cause compromising his personhood in this transition.
After three and a half years, half of which was spent in solitary confinement, Kalief was returned to life without any tools to aid his transition. Considering the history of blacks in America reveals a similar pattern. After experiencing the horrors of slavery, blacks were displaced into a world to which they knew solely how to exist, not to live. With this mindset, the “freed” slave was programmed solely to think and behave like a slave—conceptualizing the black body as existing to service whites for profit. This ideology programs the black psyche to become overwhelmingly preoccupied with “making a living” and/or achieving conventional success. The inability to achieve this success prompts blacks for self-destruction–Kalief is a symbolic embodiment of this dynamic.
Similarly, Kalief’s release from Rikers Island programs him for a similar self-destruction. Whether enduring a formal prison sentence or not, black bodies throughout the diaspora often endure a similar informal sentence. As descendants of slaves who received no compensation for their work, black disenfranchisement trickled down to foster destitute economics to those of African origin. These sour socio-economics foster schools, housing, food, e.t.c. that bear this disenfranchisement—issuing many blacks informal prison sentences manifested as cyclical disenfranchisement.
This same disenfranchisement hovered over Kalief’s biological mother, a hidden figure unveiled during the documentary– a documentary overtly attached to rapper-entrepreneur Jay-Z for credibility given the rapper’s humble beginnings, but is in truth a Weinstein production. The white influence of this documentary proves a familiar poison that plagues the illustrates put forth by the documentary. Namely, in delineating Kalief’s deposition, the documentary reveals that Kalief was adopted at birth. The documentary lables Kalief’s biological mother a “crackhead” —a statement that proved particularly troubling.
The ongoing issue of drug and alcohol abuse in the black community remains a consistently overlooked issue in black life. The drug-addicted and sexually promiscuous black female is an image that frequents many portrayals of black women in the media, from the news to the big and small screen. These images portray the black woman as innately self-destructive, performing these deeds as an act of free will. Few images depict the drug-addicted black body as self-medicating or the victim of a strategic tool of destruction implemented into the black community. Furthermore, Kalief’s biological mother was not “a crackhead” in the same way that Kalief is not a “thug,” “criminal,” or “inmate.” The documentary depicts Kalief’s downward spiral as starting with his mother, a portrayal that reduces the depth of cyclical disenfranchisement to favor the beneficiary. Kalief and his biological mother are victims of white supremacy, their misfortune reflective of the invisible power of a western society rooted in black self-destruction.
Western society consistently demonizes the black victim, labeling them “crackheads,” “h*es,” “drug-dealers,” or “gang-bangers” without critiquing or even acknowledging the means in which these roles consistently find themselves into the black community.
With this being said, it is extremely interesting that blackness plays a minor role in the documentary, a technique conducive to the approach of twenty-first century American society. Namely, the documentary declares that it is Browder’s poverty, not blackness that prevents him from making bail. It is much easier and less intimidating to declare that it is Kalief’s impoverished origins that offset his fate, and not the means in which he and others like him become and remain poor. Furthermore, it is less confrontational to say that “poor” people are systemically disenfranchised than to say that black people are systemically disenfranchised. For the antithesis of poor is rich, and American culture, with examples like The Great Gatsby, Dorothy West’s The Wedding and countless other examples, is much more comfortable confronting the one-percent than other contentious factions. The term “rich” allows the audience to incriminate bodies of all hues, whereas the antithesis of black is white and that gaze proves much more circumscribed. Thus while confronting a color issue, the documentary implemented a colorless gaze–inevitably rendering its subject largely invisible in a shallow, one-dimensional portrayal.
Yet with documentaries like these, the twenty-first century appears to tackle racial tension, however, these “confrontations” consistently eliminate the role of color— an omission that affords cyclical disenfranchisement stagnancy and habitually excuses the wrongs of whites.
Thinking of Kalief Browder makes me recall a memory that James Baldwin shares in his final manuscript “Remember this House.” In it, he remembers a story that friend Medgar Evans told him about having to pass a hanging body swinging in the Mississippi air for days after its lynching. Browder is like this body that swings in the whispers of my mind, reminding me that horror is not something found in the movies but in black history. Upon hearing or reading his name I see an infant body with a noose around its neck and be it stop and frisk, false arrests, or the general criminality his blackness afforded him, the infant body grows into a man nurtured to move just enough to eventually hang himself. Furthermore, Kalief’s life and murder illustrates a consistent chapter in the black narrative. Thus, I hope that the upcoming episodes of the documentary reveal other black victims of this unjust justice system. I hope but will not hold my breath, as the discussions surrounding Kalief seldom expand to color in systemic ambiguity with the countless victims of its ways.
The black narrative, when produced by whites, betrays a subtle truth– the western world solely allows non-blacks to feel sympathy. Namely, the documentary conveys disturbing images of a young Kalief Browder stomped out and savagely beaten by officers and other inmates. Viewers listen to Browder tell his story and become inundated with past experiences. However, his present and future state of being become passing thoughts that most regard as “someone else’s” social responsibility. I say this to say that many seem to feel as if they are “doing their part” by simply watching the documentary and feeling sympathy for its subject. Oppressors can not be allies in black injustice because allies have empathy, not sympathy. It is sympathy that crafts the white savior image, and empathy that demands that the majority figure acknowledges their role in our unbalanced system. The intricacies in this documentary betray the Weinstein portrayal as unbalanced– demonizing blacks and the system with an inappropriate equality.
Namely, when referencing Kalief’s conflict making bail, the documentary delineates the family’s economic disposition. Specifically, although bail was only nine hundred dollars, Mrs. Browder found this expense extremely difficult to meet. Instead of using this as an opportunity to unveil the businesses that accumulate wealth from poor communities, the documentary shifts focus to Kalief’s father–a retired MTA worker who left the family a few years prior. Kalief’s father suffers from the same systemic disenfranchisement that provoked Kalief’s untimely demise. Mr. Browder most likely left the family not due to his lack of love for his wife or children, but due to the growing responsibilities (a growing family and ill wife) that seemed incompatible to his stagnant, if not deteriorating, resources.
May Kalief’s life and transition teach us that our images and truths must come entirely from us. For the Western world will grant our issues temperate publicity, and cast us aside to report that Jennifer Aniston has cut her hair or that Kim Kardashian has taken yet another nude selfie. Or, use the Kalief Browder story to free majority or non-black youth from isolated incidents of the injustice black bodies experience daily. It was also interesting to hear the tape recording of the initial crime report from the night of Kalief’s arrest. The voice betrayed the complainant as a migrant. This made me wonder if this documentary was subtly aligning with the Trump administration’s war on immigrants–an observation that if true demonstrates that black conflict only receives attention if a gateway to issues the western world deems more pertinent.
Perhaps the most unsettling component of Kalief’s exposure is that the white media seems much more preoccupied with ensuring that the word knows Kalief’s name, not that his story resonates to spark true change. In essence, Kalief becomes a gateway to esteem and a way to illustrate the white liberal as necessary to combat black injustice. Thus, the shallowness of Kalief’s imaging and portrayal performs as expected given that those who benefit from Kalief’s impoverished disposition or his ultimate demise are also those who created his public image and this Spike Documentary.