Incident, #BaltimoreUprising 2015

“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America” 14 March 1968

“We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
Arundhati Roy, “Peace and the new corporate liberation theology,” The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture

“The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”
James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” The Nation 11 July 1966.

Countee Cullen’s “Incident” is a powerful and disturbing confrontation of racism as well as the enduring impact of racial slurs: “And so I smiled, but he poked out/His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’/…That’s all that I remember.”

In the last days of April 2015, Cullen’s Baltimore has once again answered a haunting question about another city, “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: “Or does it explode?”

“Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore,” begins Ta-Nehisi Coates, adding—

an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city’s publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city’s police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.

The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today’s riots began.

I read these words in the wake of watching this incident on mainstream news coverage, the same media that covered the avalanche in Napal as the death of a Google executive.

The coverage of Baltimore became an avalanche of “thug” punctuating comments by political leaders—white and black—and commentators.

And then one of the cable news talking heads interrupted one guest to lecture her about “paddy wagon” as an offensive term—a whitewashed interlude before the onslaught of “thug” resumed.

Coates concludes: “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself”—exposing that in the decades since King, “the preferably unheard” remain ignored, marginalized, the victims of the relentless daily violence of poverty and discrimination. But their circumstances as well as their options for raising their voices are determined for them, for the benefit of those who tolerate and perpetuate that daily violence.

The day after this recurring incident of Baltimore 2015 erupted, I write this while being the care provider for my bi-racial granddaughter, only 9 months old.

She is the glorious embodiment of racial harmony, but she has yet to recognize the world for all its remaining evils.

Our privilege will insulate her in many ways against the inequities that have fueled Baltimore’s unrest, but someday she too likely will feel the sting that shaped the speaker of Cullen’s poem.

At least as long as the calculated white gaze and accusatory finger remains selectively on who and what and refuses to confront and address why.

6 thoughts on “Incident, #BaltimoreUprising 2015”

  1. I just read Cullen’s Incident side by side with the Coates article in my College Reading course. My favorite line from the piece, “When non-violence begins halfway through with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itaself as a ruse.” Well done as always, Paul.

  2. Paul,

    While I was glued to the incidents in Baltimore, my only thought was, this is a dress rehearsal for the next one. If you turn to page 206: The Riot in Asbury Park, in my book (that’s if you still have it), you will get a better picture of what I mean.

    And, I sincerely hope that when your 9 month old granddaughter, who you described so lovingly, is 19 years old, that neither “the calculated white gaze and accusatory finger,” nor your reference to your “bi-racial” granddaughter, will never have to be mentioned. I’m doubtful that it will be any time soon.

    I wrote as the opening of Chapter VI – American Racism Is Alive And Well.

    We will never fathom the waste of time, energy, money, the loss of human progress, emotions and lives; all because of a national fixation on the color of a person’s skin.

    Howard would be sick in his stomach.


  3. Thank you Paul. I raised a biracial child. While there were other factors, I also saw how she was treated, many asking if she were my foster child, or “doesn’t she play well with others” – a comment not said to any other parent at the time. It just got worse – if she visited friends who lived in a wealthy community she was always stopped by the police. I don’t think her experiences were out of the normal. And probably were much worse for others, as in Baltimore. Los Angeles is hardly better. Thank you as always for putting it so well.

  4. The Other America: “But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
    Martin Luther King, Jr.

    No other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. Yes, the unheard will at last be heard one way or another. How could Baltimore have ignored the millions of dollars it paid to resolve suits against the police for what they did (and continue to do) to people in the back of their vans? We know for sure that it happens, but it could very well happen much more than has ever been reported. What else is there to do? Call up Larry Hogan or Martin O’Malley or their legislator or the Mayor and complain to them in order to get the police to stop doing that?

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