Guns, gun violence, and the rights of communities versus the individual were the bookends of our national discourse in 2012. As we closed the year reeling from the horror of Sandy Hook, a peephole opened in our conversation that allowed us to thread together the violence in an Aurora theater with the Chicago street corner and an idyllic Connecticut town. For the first time I can remember, the rhetoric of "urban versus suburban problems" was briefly interrupted and we were allowed to collectively mourn the lives we’ve lost.
In 2013, we should continue thinking and speaking of all our communities burdened by violence as tragedies deserving of public outcry. We should also continue telling this distinctly American storyline in narrative form even as we tabulate skyrocketing statistics. Numbers give us the scale of the problem—people illuminate its depth.
On November 23, 2012, Jordan Davis, 17, was shot and killed by accused shooter Michael Dunn, 45, at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida.
When Melissa Harris-Perry, in an open letter to viewers reflecting on the case of Jordan Davis, said that America is “no country for young black men,” there was a hard kernel of truth in the literary finesse of her analysis. It is true that American life is hostile to black men—one need only look at incarceration rates, school disciplinary statistics, or the criminal justice system to note that life for black boys in America is turbulent.
Those of us who parent, love, or teach young black men attempt to inoculate them early and often. We give them unwritten rules about who to approach on a street corner and what to do if they’re ever stopped by the police. We prepare them, not solely for adult life, but for that moment when society no longer sees them as innocent children but as potential aggressors.
The case of Jordan Davis is still developing. We don’t know everything that transpired and the outcome is far from clear. Aside from the legal issues at stake here, there are more fundamental questions about whom we value as a society and our collective response to the loss of life.
What follows is a reflection on the Jordan Davis case from Joshua Elligan, a former student of mine. I’ve known Josh since he was a fiercely hard-working seventh grader. In Joshua’s reflection, he is not speaking for all black men; he’s speaking his own story. In reading Josh’s words it’s my hope that we can be compassionate. His perspective is at once unique but in many ways deeply identifiable to those who share his background.
The thoughts and feelings of black men are often obscured by our societal gaze upon them. I am proud that we can include Josh’s voice against the noise that often shapes our national consciousness.
Open Letter to America
All I want is to be judged by the content of my character, not the color of my skin. America, celebrated as a just society, is a country where African-American boys, like me, can be shot and killed walking down the street for nothing more than suspicion in the eyes of some white Americans. Fear of the black man is so evident in the case of Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin before him, and Emmett Till before them both. Why are we seen as people who should be feared?
It was a typical day for Jordan. He was out with friends shopping on Black Friday, probably having the time of his life, not knowing that this night would be his last. Jordan and his friends were listening to music when Michael Dunn approached their car. What did he see that he didn’t like? Was it the music itself? Was the volume so overbearing that he couldn’t stand it any longer? Or was it the sight of not one black boy, but two or three or four, that alarmed him?
I ask Michael Dunn, where was the threat?
The image that society paints of black men, of us, has long been exploitative. Either we are the entertainers—the ballers, the rappers—or we are the thugs locked behind bars in huge numbers for crimes that whites commit too, but for which they will never see the inside of a prison cell. We are either celebrated for others’ viewing pleasure, or denigrated as examples of immorality.
These images of us have never been my story. I am an honor student. I have family and friends who love me. I took Mandarin in middle school. I’m shorter than the average NBA player. I plan to be an engineer and attend Georgia Tech.
But none of that could have saved me if Michael Dunn had decided to shoot eight or nine rounds into my car. No matter how hard I study in school, how many A’s I earn, I’m a black man in America and I’m unsafe.
What lengths will society go to in order to protect the lives of white men? Michael Dunn may be found innocent in all this because Florida’s Stand Your Ground law may protect him. And that’s what really kills me—because Jordan Davis isn’t here to tell us his story, we have to believe Michael Dunn and validate his fear. A white man’s word over a dead black boy’s body. That’s the society that we live in.
Jenee Henry was a 2009 Atlanta corps member and 2011 Sue Lehmann Award winner. She currently works in Knowledge Development for Teach for America.
Joshua Elligan is a sophomore in Atlanta, Georgia where he plays tennis for his school team and aspires to be an engineer.