“Dispossessed?” I cried, holding up my hand and allowing the word to whistle from my throat. “That’s a good word,” Dispossessed’! Dispossessed,’ eighty-seven years and dispossessed of what? They ain’t got nothing, they can’t get nothing, they never had nothing. So who was dispossessed? Can it be us?” -Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
As I watched the devastation in Baltimore yesterday from the safety of my living room, like most law-abiding citizens I was outraged. Witnessing the destruction of property that belonged to hardworking small business men and women saddened me. Seeing masses of young people – primarily teenagers and young adults – smash windows and raid the unattended stores angered me. Since when does justice require ‘real indian hair’?, I asked my husband after seeing images of looters breaking in to beauty supply stores and emerging with packages of hair extensions.
These actions were not protests nor calls for justice in the investigation of the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, who died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody last week. They were criminal acts. These individuals were not protesters, they were opportunists.
I do not believe frustration has to erupt into violence…nor do I believe lawlessness achieves reform. But even with those beliefs I found myself trying to understand the burning of senior housing complexes, the smashing of shop windows, the looting of stores and general “ratchetness” of so many young people, as one Baltimorean aptly labeled the behavior while being interviewed from one of the city’s hotspots.
The images reminded me of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man and an important theme of the book: dispossession. “They ain’t got nothing…they can’t get nothing…they never had nothing,” the unnamed narrator says in an impromptu speech on a Harlem sidewalk to keep a crowd from rioting when their elderly neighbors are evicted from their apartment of 20 years. His oration is an attempt to stop the raucous crowd from rioting in protest.
Ellison’s commentary on the plight of the disenfranchised still rings true 63 years later. The issue is larger than the death of Freddie Gray. It’s larger than the “broken” relationship between the community and the police. And it’s even larger than the inequitable justice system that is desperately in need of reform. It’s Baltimore this week, but could be Chicago, or Philadelphia, or Los Angeles or any major city the next, any city with a large population of people who have experienced generations of hopelessness and despair, of mass incarceration and high unemployment, of inferior schools and a lack of community resources.
In my lifetime there has been Los Angeles in 1992, Cincinnati in 2001, and Ferguson just last year. The unrest begins with a seemingly small incident and ends with a community in ruins. And my standard response is disbelief, anger, and sadness for the innocent, hardworking people who lose more than material possessions they lose the hope of a better future for their own families. And ultimately everyone loses as city resources are diverted to recovery, insurance premiums surge, and decayed and abandoned neighborhoods are even more blighted.
At first my response to the incidents in Baltimore was no different…Rioting is not new, but technology and social media have made every action instantly available to us, streaming every destructive moment to us live and in real time. But then I took a look at it through the lens of history.
For the past few weeks I have been working with my father on a family history project in preparation for our annual family reunion on Independence Day in North Carolina. And on Sunday he taught me to review documents on the ancestry.com website. I saw my great great grandmother’s first entry in the U.S. Census. The year was 1850 and she was four years old. Her name didn’t appear, just her age, her sex, and her color, Mulatto. Her father, we learned from subsequent documents, was her owner and her mother was his slave. I was able to follow Jane for decades as she became a house keeper and farmer, through divorce and widowhood, and the birth of her ten children, including my great grandfather Edward. My great grandfather is listed in 1900 as a day laborer and at the time of his death in 1968 he owns land. His daughter Essie, my grandmother, marries my grandfather and eventually they own their own house, and her son Hardy, my dad, moves away from the family home to California earns an education, starts a family, buys a house, and starts a business.
Within three generations, we moved from hopelessness to hope and from laboring in the fields and in other people’s homes to getting paid for our ideas and talents. But so many people in our communities are trapped in the world of the dispossessed. Like Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man they don’t even see the system that controls them, so how can they fight it? It’s bigger than this moment, it stems from a legacy that is so deeply rooted in the soil of our nation that most of us can’t even see it, and those who can have no idea how to stop the tree from growing. And until our nation’s larger systemic issues are addressed we will continue to harvest its strange fruit. The only question is where and when?