In preparation for a new course I’m teaching in the fall, I have been reading Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman’s classic study of 1949, Jesus and the Disinherited. At just over 100 pages, it remains one of the most brilliant and poignant treatments of Jesus that I’ve ever read. The book is painfully poignant because its central thesis regarding Jesus as bearer of hope for the marginalized and “disinherited” resonates still so powerfully today.
Like no other author I’ve read, Thurman, an African American mystic, pastor, theologian, and counselor to many in the civil rights movement, gets “inside” the existential reality of persons who live under the shadow of constant threat of humiliation and random violence within a social framework of injustice and unequal power relationships. In the second major section entitled “Fear,” Thurman describes how children of the disinherited are forced to “live a restricted childhood” insofar as they are conditioned “from their earliest moments” to behave in ways that will reduce their exposure to random or formal state-sanctioned violence and dehumanization. Jarringly, for me, he cites the classic children’s tale of “Bambi” to illustrate:
In Felix Salten’s Bambi, the old stag counsels Bambi, giving to him in great detail a pattern of behavior that will reduce his chance of being shot without an opportunity for escape. He teaches him to distinguish a human scent, the kinds of exposure that may be deadly, what precise kind of behavior is relatively safe. The stag is unwilling to leave Bambi until he is sure that the young deer has made his body commit to memory ways of behaving that will protect and safeguard his life.
Fear, in fact, “becomes the safety device with which the oppressed surround themselves in order to give some measure of protection from complete nervous collapse.” Just as it is the elder stag’s role to condition in Bambi’s consciousness a state of heightened fear, so must the parents of children of color teach and model for their children ways of “committing to bodily memory” patterns of behavior that will reduce their exposure to potentially deadly situations that leave them with “no opportunity for escape.”
Fast forward some sixty years, and a common script still passed on to their children by parents among the disinherited in America goes something like this:
“If you see a police car approach you in the rear view mirror, move immediately to the right hand lane to let them pass, or pull over to the curb if their lights are on.”
“Keep both of your hands visible at all times, at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel.”
“Speak politely to the officer. No matter what, do exactly as he requests.”
“Remember, always: 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.”
Whether or not the particular parent or child has themselves been exposed to potentially deadly situations, says Thurman, the overshadowing threat of violence or the imposition of “limitless power” is enough to instill constant fear in those who have disproportionately little to zero power in the public square. The threat of aggression hovers over potentially every encounter, and not only those with the police. In an environment of legalized or de facto segregation, certain scripts, rules, and patterns of movement apply, and the disinherited violate these patterns only at their greatest peril.
The threat of violence may be implemented not only by constituted authority but also by anyone acting in behalf of the established order. Every member of the controllers’ group is in a sense a special deputy, authorized by the mores [of segregation] to enforce the pattern. This fact tends to create fear, which works on behalf of the proscriptions [of movement and participation in the common life] and guarantees them. The anticipation of possible violence makes it very difficult for any escape from the pattern to be effective.
Fear among the disinherited turns into panic or rage, Thurman observes, “only at the moment when what has been threat becomes actual violence.” But once again, the “mere anticipation of such an encounter” is psychologically overwhelming, “simply because the odds are basically uneven.”
The disadvantaged man knows that in any conflict he must deal not only with the particular individual involved but also with the entire group, then or later. Even recourse to the arbitration of law tends to be avoided because of the fear that the interpretations of the law will be biased on the side of the dominant group. The result is the dodging of all encounters.
In situations of acute conflict, those without power are thus caught in a terrible double-bind, leaving two options only: “fight or flight.” Neither option ensures safety or dignity. “If flight is resorted to, it merely serves as an incentive to one’s opponent to track down and overpower.” On the other hand, “not to fight back at the moment of descending violence is to be a coward, and to be deeply and profoundly humiliated in one’s own estimation and in that of one’s friends and family.”
The psychological costs of living under the shadow of constant fear and dehumanization are devastating. Fear, “which served originally as a safety device, a kind of protective mechanism for the weak, finally becomes death for the self. The power that saves turns executioner.”
This brings me to ponder the video of the encounter that led to the arrest of Sarah Bland. For any thinking or feeling person, the video will be deeply painful to watch, especially knowing the eventual outcome of her death in prison three days later. For me, as the father of two black children, the video elicits a mixture of descending dread and dumbstruck awe, resonant with Thurman’s meditations.
Not unlike the young deer during hunting season, Sandra Bland, it seems to my eyes and ears, had discerned accurately and was reacting defiantly to the “human scent” of the arresting officer – the scent of aggression and bullying power. Rather than acquiesce, rather than keep her hands “on 10 and 2,” rather than put out her cigarette and step quietly from her car, she chose to resist and fight the arbitrary assertion of power with the only power she really had in the face of an officer pointing a Taser at her and threatening to “light her up.” That power was her voice and bodily non-compliance. She refused to cede her voice, her body, her dignity – to follow the script that keeps those “with their backs against the wall” in check, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
Why did she refuse? I don’t know. The video cannot tell us everything about the encounter or the state of mind of Ms. Bland or the officer. What internal “script” he was following I cannot say, but it seems clearly a textbook case of how to “escalate” rather than defuse potential conflict. For her part, perhaps Sandra Bland had reached a point of defiant maturity in which the submission to fear and systemic injustice had become unacceptable. Though submission might have kept her alive, perhaps for her it would have been, even subconsciously, down in the marrow, a far worse kind of death, the death of soul, of her true self. Thurman writes:
There are some who defer this death by yielding all claim to personal significance beyond the little world in which they live. In the absence of all hope ambition dies, and the very self is weakened, corroded. There remains only the elemental will to live and accept life on the terms that are available.
By all accounts Sandra Bland was a young woman with rising hopes and ambitions, with a new job in a new state and a horizon of possibilities laid out in front of her. Whatever the cause of her death while in prison, the resistance she gave at her arrest suggests to me that she was unwilling to accept life “under the terms” imposed upon her by an aggressive police officer who gave her little room or reason to trust him, and a criminal justice system that she did not trust, could not trust, as she languished unsupervised in jail for three days.
If this is so – again, her mind and heart remain finally closed to me – her resistance was, to my mind, wholly righteous, and, in a primordial sense, beautiful. From the moment the officer willed to impose his legal and then sheer physical power arbitrarily, unreasonably, belligerently, Ms. Bland caught his “scent” and refused to surrender. Like the canary in the coal mine, she had caught the scent of a system that was, in effect, about to crush her.
By certain terrible contrast, Eric Garner’s desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe” were muted by an unyielding choke hold long before he could even be hauled into jail. Tamir Rice never had a moment to say two words in his own defense, shot dead in a Cleveland playground even before the police cruiser came to a full stop. Neither fight nor flight is an option when the hunter takes you out before you even see him.
May God help us, and may no more human beings, police officers included, find themselves facing off in such desperate situations. And may God help me and my wife to teach our four children, black and white, everything they need to know not merely to survive in this society, but to truly live, love, and be free.
For my money, that would include a measure of Sandra Bland’s defiant dignity. May she rest in peace.