When I was seventeen years old, I was presented with an opportunity to journey to Amsterdam with a group of white girls from my graduating class. My father vehemently opposed the trip, something I resented for years in my inability to fully conceptualize his apprehension. Twelve years later, I find myself revisiting “what could have been” in the wake of Bakari Henderson’s recent murder.
My father, a product of the racial tensions of the 1960s, saw the then what I was not equipped to understand. The situation was unsafe, and indescribable to a teenager whisked away in the promise of her youth and what appeared to be a positive opportunity. This is reminiscent of an anecdote relayed in Notes of a Native Son, when Baldwin recalls being invited to a play by a white female schoolteacher– an act to which his father responds with a firm adversion. The invitation appears kind, but encompasses a veiled cruelty in subjecting the naive black body to a racial wrath to which they do not really know exists.
It is this veiled cruelty that placed a young, black man in the drunken stupor of racists, unable to defend himself from what he though dissolved somewhere over the Atlantic.
In the footage from the attack, Bakari Henderson, a twenty- two year old recent college graduate vacationing in Greece, is chased and jumped by white and other non-black men. He is punched onto a car, and falls to the floor where he is savagely beaten to his death. The footage is hard to watch, as it captures the final minutes of a black youth taken too soon. The footage also illustrates what it is to be black anywhere in the globe-targeted by oppressors of every color and left bleeding on the concrete if not bearing the support and combat of a collective identity.
True, similar fates have been afforded to blacks alongside other blacks in face of overt oppression. But in these scenarios, the slain die on their feet, fighting for their right to live. In Henderson’s case, he is left to die like a hog– a fate writer Claude McKay sought to sever from the black collective in his famed poem “If We Must Die.”
Contemplating the life of the late Bakari Henderson, takes me back to Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me where he contemplates the black experience in letters to his son. The piece, poignant and well-written, is a worthwhile read for any member of the black collective who wishes to engage a prose written specifically for a black audience. In the book, Coates visits the mother of slain friend Prince Jones. Twenty-five years old at the time of his murder by police, or soldiers of white supremacy, Jones had all the bearings of a remarkable childhood. He not only had love, but conventionally successful parents that provided a means to a lifestyle deprived from most black families. Jones’ mother did not want him to go Howard. Rather she wanted her son to attend an Ivy League school. I can only assume that she felt an Ivy League school would elevate her black son from a detriment seemingly dissolved in their familial circumstance.
He loved to read. He loved to travel. But when he turned twenty-three, she bought him a jeep. She had a huge purple bow put on it. She told me that she could still see him there, looking at the jeep and simply saying, Thank you, Mom. Without interruption she added, “And that was the jeep he was killed in.”
Young, educated, and driving an expensive vehicle purchased by his mother, Jones seemed more likely to have a corner office than be slain by the police. But Jones, like Henderson, was black.
Coates non-fiction prose depicts the significance of black memory—notably the role memory has in authoring the black narrative. As noted in Coates’ memory of his old friend, Prince “loved to read…he loved to travel.” Coates’ memory of his friend aligns him with qualities that disclose his values and lifestyle. It is this memory that becomes an imperative page in Jones’ narrative decades after his untimely death. Contrarily, Henderson’s memory as relayed by his white male friends on the morning news, is circumscribed by those unable to fully conceptualize Henderson as a young black man. One “friend” of the late Henderson noted that he was not “aggressive.” After hearing this line, the rest of the interview fell silent to this telling statement. To assert that Henderson was “not aggressive” functions multiple ways.
For one, this assertion implies that black men in general are aggressive, painting Henderson as not only tranquil, but an aberration. The white males referenced as Henderson’s friends, although maintaining a place above Henderson, most likely caricatured Henderson as a black male of bestial strength. Thus, they anticipated that the magical negro would reign superior to his aggressors, despite being vastly unnumbered. This reveals that despite their claims of friendship, Henderson was a being objectified by those labeled his friends. This dynamic exposes interracial friendships as not existing outside the racial compartmentalizing of black bodies, but because of these racist perceptions.
These young white men, viewed Henderson as a shield they would use in case bodily harm threatened their white bodies. They were therefore, unprepared and unwilling to defend Henderson in any attack be it verbal or physical. His presence was solely to validate their own, and when he needed friendship his “family” as they referenced themselves in the interviews following his death, became just red eyes in a backdrop of white faces.
Henderson’s“friends” also illustrate the dangers of a neutral stance. Whether their discussions as so-called friends tackled the racial climate that has dominated the world for centuries, or conducted as if they did not exist, these young white men possess lukewarm emotions to the piping hot wrath of global white supremacy. This neutrality makes them worse than Henderson’s murderers, their loyalty blurred by a curiosity mistaken for camaraderie. As Dr. King states in A Stride Toward Freedom “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” Interracial friendships like interracial relations, precede without justice, deeming black people with white friends friendless negroes.
Yet, Henderson’s accolades and affiliation with whites seemingly afforded him a promising future and upgrade from the presumed baseness of blackness. However, his post college disposition clad with all the resources for success would not spare him from circumstance. I am sure that Henderson’s family thought they had raised their son with viable resources for success. They most likely felt comforted that their child was not surrounding with black youth bearing figurative red dots on their back. They most likely slept easier at night after their son graduated from college with big dreams and white friends who they believed would hold him to higher standards. I truly believe that most black parents mean well and want the best for their children. The inability to conceptualize oppressors as anything but superior appears the essence of oppression. This outlook falls short in viewing proximity to whites as a shield from the circumstance that befalls the black body globally. This perspective also mistakenly views environment, wealth, and material as circumstance, whereas the circumstance is blackness.
Yet, as Coates states “…the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined—with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words (“You are gonna die tonight”), with Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd, with me standing too close to the small-eyed boy pulling out.”
Henderson’s error to the media is the now infamous selfie, that “ignited the brawl,” to others it’s his association with white youth, to others it is traveling to Europe oblivious to global racism. Henderson of course symbolizes the larger portion of the black collective who finds comfort around whites, and in the fallacy that Europe is far less racist than the western world. The error therefore is not individual but systemic.
It is this systemic preference for whites that affords those of the oppressive caste what Coates describes as “maximum power, but minimum responsibility.” Despite bearing the height of systemic privilege, those involved in the Henderson’s murder will not be coerced into taking responsibility for their actions. In five years, the boys who once called Henderson a “friend” will barely remember the young man, although one or two may cast Henderson as a talking point to depict themselves as victims to racism. Henderson was attacked as black men have been throughout history, by groups of white cowards, as so called friends and often white lovers watched in a systemized indifference, guised by looks and maybe even shrieks of horror as the black body is beaten to a bloody pulp. This horror appears in response to the murdered black, but is in actuality the white person casting themselves as a victim forced to face what the white collective has spend centuries denying–the callous nature of white evil.
As a black person forced to process yet another tragedy afforded to the black body, my body is stiff from what I can only describe as animosity. The sentiment is so intense that it is impossible to displace onto a single subject, concept, or individual without feeling that someone or something escaped unscathed. It’s hard not to become hateful, or soured by the fate that awaits the black body at every city, country, and continent on the globe. It is exceedingly hard not be disappointed in the members of the black collective who even despite centuries of having their backs stabbed, their genitals removed and shoved down their throats, their children abducted, gutted-out and sold, their elders and ancestors overworked and underpaid, still seek validation from whites. Yet many will urge the black struggling to process their existence and collective identity to “love” their enemy in times of racial adversity. Racial adversity if course a fact of life, not a temperate occurrence. It is this guaranteed racial adversity that proves self- love essential to exalt the oppressed.
Bakari, may you rest in a peace not granted to you on earth.
Members of the black collective, may you cease searching for peace on earth and demand justice. May we hold hands with one another during persistent illustrations of our systemic devaluement and come back from each loss a little stronger than before.
Most importantly, may we seek validation solely from our ancestors and elders, not our adversaries.