Patrick Dorismond, Abner Louima, and Amadou Diallo -- hear what a jury of prominent African Americans has to say about the black man's struggle for justice in America
Prompted by the killing of Amadou Diallo and the acquittal of the four New York City police officers who mistook him for an armed criminal, this collection of essays by prominent black male writers offers twelve unique and startling perspectives on what it's like for a black man living in an inherently racist society.
Coming from a broad spectrum of economic and social backgrounds, the poets, journalists, lawyers, writers, and academics that make up this jury write forcefully and eloquently about growing up and raising sons, identifying with others and yearning to be set apart, attempting reasonable discourse, and succumbing to unspeakable anger. Together these essays deconstruct the monolithic myths that shroud our nation's black men and offer small rays of hope that on the streets, at school and work, and in the courtroom justice will be served.
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About the Author
Jabari Asim is the author of the critically acclaimed The N Word. He is editor-in-chief of The Crisis—the magazine of the NAACP—and former editor at and frequent contributor to the Washington Post, and his writing has appeared on Salon and in Essence, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. He divides his time between Maryland and Illinois with his wife and five children.
Read an Excerpt
TWELVE MOODS FOR JUSTICE
(with apologies to Langston Hughes)
In the course of completing this book, I have on more than one occasion fielded well-intentioned queries regarding the progress of "Twelve Angry Men," although I have never burdened this project with such a broad and inaccurate title. I realize that misperceptions of this sort can be seen as illustrating the extent to which Reginald Rose's play has penetrated American imaginations, but they more likely result from people -- of various ethnicities -- quickly assuming that any black man's contribution to discussions of justice will inevitably be angry. It's ironic that no matter what subject is being addressed, convenient categorization becomes a trap that we black men must evade if we want to be heard, much less understood. Our fellow citizens' inability (or, in some cases, unwillingness) to recognize our true selves accompanies our struggle across widely disparate contexts. It is as easy to see us as angry as it is to assume that we are criminal-minded. While anger is certainly expressed in these pages, it is merely one of a host of responses, as varied and eloquent as the men who have written them. Like the essays included here, we span the gamut of emotions. I invite anyone who chooses to read these essays to regard them as a form of cultural exchange, the considered offerings of twelve thoughtful men.
Write, Read, Write
I've often thought about the concept of "a jury of one'speers." Although the remarkable phrase doesn't appear in our Constitution, it couldn't be far from what the Framers had in mind when drafting the Sixth Amendment's provision of the right to an impartial jury. That clause, together with the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of "equal protection of the law," makes a jury of one's peers a reasonable expectation for Americans awaiting trial.
Most of them, anyway.
The damaging tradition of hopelessly narrow jury pools, excessive peremptory challenges, and the routine, historic exclusion of black men from roles other than defendant has often reduced both "peer" and "impartial" to unfamiliar concepts, fleeting illusions to be pursued but rarely attained. It would not be an exaggeration to characterize our troubled relationship with American jurisprudence as one long peremptory challenge. As long ago as 1829, David Walker dared his fellow Americans to "show me a man of colour, who holds the low office of a Constable, or one who sits in a Juror Box, even on a case of his wretched brethren, throughout this great Republic!"
That idea resonated as I envisioned the project that became this book. If I had the chance, I wondered, what kind of men would I select as members of my jury? Given the ubiquity of death-penalty debates, the enthusiasm with which our president regards capital punishment, and the detailed media illustrations of doomed, dark-skinned convicts, it's hardly a far-fetched conceit to imagine oneself on trial, if not for one's life, then for one's freedom to pursue happiness exempt from the prejudices and misapprehensions that frequently complicate our everyday lives. I asked the contributors assembled here to join this project because they embodied the qualities I would hope to find among the members of that panel on my hypothetical day in court. They are sensitive, intelligent, and rational and, like myself, spend much of their lives writing, reading, and writing.
Later, as the essays started to come in, the idea of a jury began to give way to the image of a cocktail party, a smart conversation unfolding amid music, beauty, and the energy that emerges when brilliant minds engage. Still later, I began to embrace an image set forth by Ricardo Cortez Cruz in his essay, that of "twelve black men sitting down at a table addressing/redressing . . . sharing our beliefs, attitudes, and values." As artists, intellectuals, and professional opinionators, much of what we do can be neatly encapsulated by Ricardo's words: Address and redress. Write, read, write.
Shades of Perspective
These essays help expose two frustratingly durable fallacies: the monolithic black experience and the singular black perspective. Not all of these contributors have been arrested, pulled over, or otherwise harassed by police; not all of us have led squeaky-clean lives. An issue or event, though defined by a single fact or set of circumstances, is bound to yield various facets and conclusions when filtered through our quite different sensibilities. Reflections on the Diallo and Dorismond debacles, for example, range from righteous fury to weary resignation to the defiant faith that truth always seeks and finds the light. Our writing styles are likewise diverse. Consider the muscular candor of Mark Anthony Neal's "Just Another 'Nigga,' " the hip-bop hybridity of Ricardo Cortez Cruz's "My Flesh and Blood," the earnest selfscrutiny in Andre Jackson's "From Within, From Without."
Ode to Dissent
We can agree to disagree. We're not seeking consensus here. To paraphrase Lerone Bennett Jr., it's not important that all black people do the same thing; it's more important that all black people do some thing. Ditto for thinking. We humbly propose that the thoughts assembled here be entered into the public conversation, even in those forums where black thinking is summarily dismissed in favor of the arrogant utterings of would-be wise men whose attempts at profundity reveal only the depths of their ignorance. In some quarters, pervasive distrust and hatred of police leads to values so inverted that outlaws become folk heroes -- a form of thinking that can lead to deadly consequences for cops and the citizens they have sworn to protect. In "Twisted Street Logic" Brian Gilmore lays out the ramifications.
Blues in Stereo
As compelling as our contentious relationship with law enforcement is, it is not our only problem. We are far more likely to be harmed or killed by another black man than to be brought down by a policeman's bullet. The fact that death by either means is not an entirely improbable occurrence provokes serious discussion and serves up a double dose of the blues. I think it's safe to say that none of these contributors is obsessed with death, harassment, or brutalityNot Guilty. Copyright © by Jabari Asim. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.