Every Black family has a trauma story, even the most privileged, a story of a great-grandfather swinging from a tree, of cousins fleeing North in the middle of the night, of a sister or a brother or a husband who came this close to disaster with a cop.
These stories are extraordinary, because trauma always feels outsized. But they’re ordinary, too—ordinary in their commonplace-ness, a shared pain that’s tucked away, not talked about, because to do so picks at the scabs of barely healed wounds.
But for some Black families, trauma becomes a very public thing. They’re shoved into the spotlight, against their will, as their loved ones, ordinary Black folks, become extraordinary. Icons. Martyrs. Frozen in murals, fossilized on magazine covers, their personal lives dissected in the media. For them, grief becomes performance.
On Friday, this was Breonna Taylor’s family. Months after Taylor was killed by Louisville police officers executing a misfired warrant in the middle of the night, and two days after a Kentucky grand jury declined to charge police officers in her death, her family and friends stood in a downtown park. Amid a makeshift memorial to Taylor, an EMT technician who had hoped to buy her own home, they held hands, wearing masks that read, “Breonna Taylor.”
Perhaps the grief, perhaps the public-ness of it all was too much for Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mom. She didn’t say a word, standing there in, in tears. Her own mask read “Black Queen,” a reference to what she fondly calls her daughter. Instead, Palmer asked Taylor’s aunt, Bianca Austin, to read what she’d written about her sadness—and her rage.
“When I speak on it, I’m considered an angry Black woman,” Austin read. “But know this, I am an angry Black woman. … but angry because our Black women keep dying at the hands of police officers … You can take the dog out of the fight. But you can’t take the fight out of the dog.”
Taylor’s family has joined what the father of Jacob Blake, another 2020 shooting victim, describes as a “fraternity” all too familiar now in American life: the families of Black Americans killed at the hands of police, or by self-deputized vigilantes.
That would be the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Michelle Cusseaux, Jordan Davis, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Daniel Prude, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Aura Rosser, Alton Sterling…. In seeking justice, they become reluctant activists, forced to become instant experts in public relations and advocacy—and also becoming part of a long history in which Black trauma has become inextricably entangled with political movements.
“There’s a long history of unjust killing of African Americans that thrusts family members into an almost impossible situation,” said Omar Wasow, a political-science professor at Princeton University, who studies protest movements.
And in that history, there is kinship. Martin Luther King Jr., the greatest icon of the civil rights movement, was assassinated by a white man who’d decided King had gone too far, leaving behind a family whose activism, and lives, are shadowed by trauma to this day. On the day Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced the grand jury’s decision, Bernice King, his youngest daughter, acknowledged the Taylors had just joined that legacy. “Praying for Breonna’s mother and family,” she tweeted, “Because they knew and loved her before her name became a hashtag.”
To be sure, tragedy has driven other families into the public eye as well. The parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, or the Parkland shooting, also had to deal with grief while under the klieg lights of instant, unwanted fame. But families like Taylor’s have yet another burden to carry in post-apartheid America: They’re expected to hold up a race, to counter the character assassinations of their loved ones by media looking to exonerate the police, to plead for peace in the wake of protests. All at the same time they’re grieving.
“These victims’ families are called upon to seek justice and call for peace in the same ragged moment,” said Cornell Brooks, the former president of the NAACP, who worked on behalf of the families of police shooting victims Michael Brown, Philando Castile and Jamar Clark.
Says Brooks, now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School: “It’s regular, routine and obscene.”
The Kentucky grand jury decision came down on the 65th anniversary of the acquittal of the white murderers of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His mother, Mamie, famously insisted on an open casket at her son’s funeral, using her tragedy to help launch the civil rights movement.
Mamie Till and other civil rights activists like the U.S. Congressman John Lewis used the model of “redemptive suffering” as a way to dramatize injustice. “No parent would ever choose this,” Wasow said. “But she was very intentional about how to transform her suffering into something that might serve a greater good.”
Today, social media and the ubiquity of smartphones with cameras means these moments of state violence are documented, making it easier to dramatize the injustice without having to open a casket for the world to see.
Some family members go further, and harness their suffering—and fury—to launch political careers. Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, the Georgia teen killed by a white man for playing loud music in a parking lot, channeled her grief into gun-control activism. She’s now a Democrat serving in the U.S. Congress. In August, Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, narrowly lost a race for a seat on the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners.
On Thursday, Fulton tweeted, “#BreonnaTaylor could have been You, your daughter, your sister, your cousin or your friend @home sleeping comfortably in her own bed, let that marinate.”
But for many families, the trauma of losing a family member so publicly, while an iPhone bears witness, takes both a physical and emotional toll—harder, perhaps, because it was a fight they never sought. Martin Luther King Jr. was groomed for the spotlight from a young age. But his kids weren’t. Malcolm X, the son of a man murdered for his fiery sermons, knew the risks: “I live like a man who is dead already.” But his kids didn’t, and his grandson, also named Malcolm, didn’t either.
The weight of the loss, and the stresses that follow, is a whole second arc of tragedy in the Black political story. Malcolm X’s daughter, Qubilah Shabazz, who was 4 when she saw her father murdered, was charged with hiring a hitman to kill Louis Farrakhan, whom she believed was responsible for his death. (The charges were later dropped.) Her son, Malcolm, was 12 when he started a fire that killed his grandmother, Betty Shabazz. And he was 28 when he was found beaten to death in Mexico City in 2013.
What does inherited trauma do to the mind, to the body, to the soul? The daughter of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man killed by police in a chokehold, became an activist in the wake of his death, only to die of a heart attack at age 27 in 2016.
Some seek solace in the notion that the death of their loved ones meant… something. George Floyd’s daughter, at a protest this year, sat on the shoulders of a family friend, beaming as she declared, “Daddy changed the world.”
Daddy might be changing the world, but he won’t be tucking her in at night anymore.
My own family told its trauma stories, too. Like that time when my maternal grandfather, a doctor in Jim Crow Atlanta, was heading home after a long night at the hospital. Tired. And there, waiting for him, was a white cop who liked to mess with him. Just because. Because he could. Every time my grandfather would drive around the bend in the road, heading home, the cop would be there, lying in wait. He’d pull the Black doctor over, because he could.
Until one night my grandfather, a very proper Southern gentleman, decided he couldn’t anymore. So Granddaddy got out of the car and administered a righteous beat-down to that racist cop.
He was lucky. The cop didn’t kill him. He just hauled him off to jail, where he spent the night, before a sympathetic judge, hearing his story, let him go. The privilege of his job and his standing shielded him, to be sure. To a point.
When I was a grad student, the office manager at my school, Akua Njeri, was the widow of Fred Hampton, a brilliant and charismatic Black Panther leader. Hampton, the head of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was 21 when he was gunned down by Chicago police officers as he lay in bed, with a very pregnant Njeri by his side. Their son, Fred Jr., was born just weeks after his father’s execution.
And as a student activist at the University of Michigan in the late ’80s, my husband was beaten by police officers at protests on more than one occasion. A colleague recalls the time an undercover police officer held a gun to her husband’s head in a case of mistaken identity. You already know why. He “matched the description”: Black male with an Afro and a denim jacket—which, she said, described virtually every young Black man in the late ’70s.
At the press conference for Breonna Taylor’s family, their attorney, Benjamin Crump, roll-called the names of those who reached out to Taylor’s family in sad solidarity: Sandra Bland’s family. Trayvon Martin’s family. Michael Brown’s family. Botham Jean’s mother. George Floyd’s family.
Jacob Blake Sr., whose son, Jacob Jr., was shot multiple times in the back in August by a Kenosha, Wisc., police officer, partially paralyzing him, told the crowd he drove eight hours in a show of support for Taylor’s kin. “I knew I had to be here, standing next to my fraternity,” Blake said. “We didn’t choose this fraternity. This fraternity chose us.
“I knew this family needed some energy and I said, ‘I’m coming. I’m coming.’ Because we’re not going to lay down anymore. You can’t stop the revolution.”
Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden deserve a honeymoon from cynicism – USA TODAY
Presidents over the decades have tried to preach against cynicism in the citizenry, but cynicism is a natural blowback to deceit and corruption.
| Opinion columnist
“The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism,” declared former president Barack Obama two years ago. But as we enter the final days of another demagoguery-drenched presidential campaign, it is time to give cynicism the credit it deserves. In an era of clueless voters, conniving candidates and media bias, cynicism can be one of the most effective checks and balances on political power run amok.
In modern American history, the most audacious liars have been the greatest self-proclaimed enemies of cynicism. “The only deadly sin I know is cynicism,” declared President Lyndon Johnson in a 1967 press conference on how the Vietnam War was going great. In a 1973 nationally-televised speech, President Richard Nixon declared, “I reject the cynical view that politics is inevitably, or even usually, a dirty business” prior to deluging viewers with false claims on the burgeoning Watergate scandal.
In 1994, President Clinton derided citizens who “indulge themselves in the luxury of cynicism” for betraying the American soldiers who died on D-Day in 1944. In 1997, Clinton declared that people can make America “better if we will suspend our cynicism.” This is the Peter Pan theory of public service: if only people believed government has magical powers, politicians could achieve miracles. After his impeachment, Clinton castigated “fashionable cynicism” as “self-indulgent arrogance that has no place in America.” But it wasn’t cynics’ fault that Clinton helped make presidential candor an endangered species.
Cynicism is a natural blowback to deceit
George W. Bush exploited the revulsion against Clinton, promising America “a fresh start after a season of cynicism” when he launched his presidential campaign in 1999. In his first inaugural address, President Bush touted positive thinking about politicians as civic duty, lecturing Americans of their “calling” to make a “determined choice of trust over cynicism.” In the same 2002 State of the Union where he uncorked “the Axis of Evil” to pave the way to war with Iraq, Bush declared, “Deep in the American character, there is honor, and it is stronger than cynicism.” Bush repeatedly rebuked the cynicism of anyone who refused to cheer his invasion of Iraq.
Barack Obama exploited the revulsion against Bush, proclaiming in 2007 that “my rival in this [presidential] race is not other candidates. It’s cynicism.” Six years later, President Obama exhorted college graduates to beware of the “creeping cynicism” and people who “warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner.” He did not seize that opportunity to how he acquired the prerogative to order drone killings of American citizens on his own decree.
Politicians denouncing cynicism are akin to used car salesmen telling customers to ignore the clunking sound from the engine during a test drive. Cynicism is blowback from decades of deceit. Most of the major political power grabs in modern history have been propelled by official falsehoods, as have all the major wars since 1950. Perpetual bipartisan chicanery explains why only 20% of Americans trust the federal government nowadays.
Cynicism often arises because politicians judge themselves by their rhetoric while citizens judge them by their (mis)deeds. The alternative to cynicism is pretending that politicians are more honest than they sound. Are politicians, like underage delinquents, entitled to have all their prior offenses expunged?
Cynicism is necessary because the political playing field is often tilted in favor of servility. Politicians are almost never held personally responsible for their falsehoods, follies and fiascos. Thanks to pervasive federal secrecy and surveillance, rulers hold far more cards than citizens. People have been schooled and hectored to submit, to believe and to reflexively defer to officialdom. Scores of millions of people will unquestioningly obey no matter what Washington commands.
Cynicism is a form of political damage control. An ounce of cynicism can save a pound of repenting. Cynicism functions as a brake on political steamrollers. Timely doubts loudly expressed can stop presidents from driving a nation over a cliff or into a foreign quagmire.
Don’t intellectually disarm yourself for political aggressors
Politicians seek to banish cynicism without repenting their rascally ways. Why should citizens intellectually disarm themselves in the face of political aggressors? Why should they accept the passive obedience that was preached for centuries to the politically downtrodden? Are citizens obliged to continually cast their common sense and memories overboard as if they were seeking to placate an angry pagan god?
The derision of cynicism goes to heart of citizens’ role in a democracy. If citizens have a duty to believe, then politicians are entitled to deceive. If citizens are obliged to trust, they become sacrificial offerings for the next political con job. A cynic is often merely someone who trusts politicians as little as politicians trust each other.
Cynicism is simply a discount rate for political honesty. Even cynics should not presume that all politicians are perfidious all the time. There are decent folks in every profession. Instead, citizens should judge politicians like federal judges treat accused criminals — 97% of whom are convicted.
Cynicism can be pro-freedom, spurring resistance rather than resignation. Stalwart citizens should be cynical when politicians concoct new pretexts to subvert freedom of speech and press, cynical when politicians conspire to violate the Constitution, cynical when politicians seek to drag America into new foreign conflicts, and cynical when politicians propose sweeping new federal programs to replace disgraced boondoggles. Most importantly, citizens should be cynical when politicians absolve themselves for all the damage they have inflicted on this nation.
Winning politicians often enjoy a honeymoon after Election Day, but neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden deserve any honeymoon from cynicism. “Think well of your masters” will be the death of democracy. The more cynical Americans become, the less power politicians can seize.
Politics Podcast: There Just Isn’t Good Evidence That ‘Shy’ Trump Voters Exist – FiveThirtyEight
This is the final(!) preelection installment of Model Talk on the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast. Galen Druke talks to editor-in-chief Nate Silver about the latest polling shifts in key battleground states and whether there is any reason to believe that “shy Trump voters” will deliver an upset win for the president on Election Day. (The evidence suggests there isn’t.)
You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.
The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.
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