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Stand Your Ground
Black Bodies and the Justice of God
By Kelly Brown Douglas
Orbis BooksCopyright © 2015 Kelly Brown Douglas
All rights reserved.
"If Trayvon was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?" This is the question that President Barack Obama asked during a July 19, 2013, press conference in which he tried to help the nation understand the black community's response to Trayvon Martin's killer being found not guilty. For black people it was a rhetorical question. They had asked and answered it well before President Obama posed it. It was a topic of conversation within black households, barbershops, beauty parlors, and churches not long after the circumstances of Trayvon's murder came to light. While black women and men may not have known the details of the Stand Your Ground law that provided the rhetorical backdrop for Trayvon's slaying, within their historical consciousness they understood the reason for it. The black community instinctively knew this law was concerned with defending and protecting property—and not just any property. It was meant to safeguard America's most cherished property—the property at the very heart of American identity and America's sense of self. This law concerns the property that keeps America "exceptional."
In the end, the details of Stand Your Ground law do not matter. It is not significant that this law was not used in the legal defense for Trayvon's killer. What happened to Trayvon Martin on his way home from the store that deadly evening was not about a law. Rather, it was about cherished property and the culture that was forged to preserve that property. Whether or not Trayvon "could have stood his ground on that sidewalk" rested upon his right to possess such property. This is considered a "divine right." Yet, it is a right not established in a church or even in a courtroom. It was established somewhere in the woods of ancient Germany.
This chapter, like this book, is not about the Stand Your Ground law. Rather it is about the culture that produced the law. The underlying assumption of this book is that the seeds for Stand Your Ground law were planted well before the founding of America. These seeds produced a myth of racial superiority that both determined America's founding and defined its identity. This myth then gave way to America's grand narrative of exceptionalism. This narrative, replete with its own sacred canopy, in turn constructed cherished property and generated a culture to shelter that property, thus insuring that America remain "exceptional." I identify this culture as "stand-your-ground culture." This culture is itself generative. It has spawned various social-cultural devices—legal and extralegal, theoretical and ideological, political and theological—to preserve America's primordial exceptional identity.
What happened to Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, is a result of America's narrative of exceptionalism. In order to answer whether or not Trayvon had the right to stand his ground, one must understand the complex meaning of this narrative. It is through understanding this that the significance of a stand-your-ground culture becomes clear. This chapter attempts to discern the meaning of America's exceptionalism by tracing the process through which it was established. In the space of a chapter, it is impossible to explore all the aspects of that process and thus the many implications of America's exceptionalism. This chapter does not pretend to do so. The purpose of this chapter is to answer the question of how we got here to this stand-your-ground moment, so to answer the question of Trayvon's rights. The answer to both questions begins with the words of an ancient Roman historian.
The Making of the Anglo-Saxon Myth
In 98 C.E. the Roman historian Tacitus published Germania, which has been called "one of the most dangerous books ever written." Perhaps it is. The danger is not so much in what Tacitus said, but in how his words have been construed. In the brief space of thirty pages, he offered an ethnological perspective that would have tragic consequences for centuries to come. This perspective played a significant role in the Nazi's monstrous program for "racial purity." It is the racial specter behind the stand-your-ground culture that robbed Trayvon of his life.
In Germania Tacitus provides a meticulous portrait, based on others' writings and observations, of the Germanic tribes who fended off Rome's first-century empire-building agenda. He identifies the tribes as an "aboriginal" people "free from all taint of intermarriages." They are, he says, "a distinct unmixed race, like none but themselves," with "fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames." Tacitus commended these Germans for their bravery and strong moral character. "No one in Germany," he explained, "laughs at vice." He went on to say that for these Germans "good [moral] habits" were more effectual than "good laws." Perhaps what is most significant, at least in garnering the attention of political architects for centuries to come, is that Tacitus portrayed these ancient Germans as possessing a peculiar respect for individual rights and an almost "instinctive love for freedom." This was evident, he said, by the way in which they governed themselves. According to Tacitus, within the various tribes "the whole tribe" deliberated upon all important matters, and most final "decision[s] rest with the people." Tacitus seemed to be describing a community that encouraged the participation of its members (at least the male members) in governance and criminal procedures. According to many later interpreters, Tacitus was describing the perfect form of government. This was one that respected "common law," trial by jury, and individual liberties. Tacitus's description of these tribal governing systems influenced the nature of various Western systems of government throughout history. As we will see, it played no small role in America's form of democracy. But this was not the only way in which the Germania influenced the shape of various Western societies. Along with playing a role in determining systems of governance, it laid the foundation for the subjugation, if not elimination, of certain peoples: those people who were not members of the "unmixed race" that Tacitus described.
Even though the precise ethnic make-up of these Germanic tribes was not certain, they are considered the progenitors of the Anglo-Saxon race. Tacitus's ethnological description spawned the construction of the Anglo-Saxon myth. This myth has been a ubiquitous, even if unspoken, ideology in the modern world. Initially, this myth highlighted Anglo-Saxon forms of governing. Building on Tacitus's admiration for the way these Germanic tribes ruled their communities, the myth stressed the unique superiority of Anglo-Saxon religious and political institutions. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, the myth shifted its focus to Anglo-Saxon blood. In so doing, it seized upon Tacitus's characterization of the ancient Germans as "free from taint," and it suggested that the superiority of their institutions was a result of their blood. It argued that strong moral qualities and a high regard for freedom flowed uniquely through Anglo-Saxon veins. In due course, the superiority and purity of blood became the focus of the Anglo-Saxon myth. The way in which this myth became transformed is as important to the meaning of America's exceptionalism and its production of a stand-your-ground culture as the myth itself. In order, therefore, to appreciate the complex impact of this myth on America's social-cultural consciousness, we must first understand how it came to America and later spawned America's grand narrative. To do this, we must begin in England.
An Anglo-Saxon Identity
This myth, replete with reverence for Tacitus, arrived in America by way of England's post-Reformation struggles. The English fascination and overt identification with Tacitus's Germans began in the aftermath of the sixteenth-century Reformation. In an effort to establish the antiquity of the Church of England and to justify the 1559 Elizabethan Settlement, Archbishop Matthew Parker encouraged research into the culture, history, and politics of Anglo-Saxons. This research continued for at least two centuries. If the Elizabethan Settlement was concerned with finding an acceptable "middle way" between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, then Anglo-Saxonist studies were concerned with substantiating the connection of the English Church and government with the governing practices of ancient Germans.
The English considered themselves the descendants of the Germanic tribes identified by Tacitus. They believed that these tribes were their Anglo-Saxon ancestors. They, therefore, traced their systems of governance back to the ancient German woods. Even non-English scholars recognized this connection. In The Spirit of the Laws (1748), a book popular in both England and colonial America, French nobleman Montesquieu wrote, "In perusing the admirable treatise of Tacitus On the Manners of the Germans we find it is from that nation the English have borrowed the idea of their political government. This beautiful system was invented first in the woods." Fueled with this understanding of their ancestral lineage, the early English reformers were intent on restoring English church and society to their free Anglo-Saxon past.
Notwithstanding the fact that some of Tacitus's ancient tribes were probably of Norse heritage, these reformers generally agreed that corruptions entered into English church and society with the Norman conquest in 1066. Popular belief held that the Normans adulterated the very English laws and institutions that served to protect individual liberties. Thus, the English Reformation was about more than just a struggle between King Henry VIII and the Roman papacy. It was concerned with cleansing English church and society of Norman contaminations and restoring both to their true Anglo-Saxon ways. The road to restoration was not, however, without contention.
There were reformers who believed that the church and government was not sufficiently cleansed of Norman taint. The reformers who would have the greatest impact on America's religious and political culture, and thus transport the Anglo-Saxon myth to America, were the Pilgrims, Puritans, and even radical Whigs, such as the Levelers. Both the Pilgrims and Puritans thought the Church of England did not go far enough in the eradication of Catholic and Norman abuses. The Pilgrims, the more radical of the two groups, severed their ties with the church, while the Puritans remained an agitating force within it. Given the fact that the king of England was head of both church and state, to rebel against the church was also to rebel against the state. This, of course, would have consequences for America. Both groups fled England and made their exodus across the Atlantic.
The Levelers, a prominent group of protestors during the English Civil War (1642–1648), were more directly focused on state matters. They believed that radical reform was needed in the English system of governance, more radical than what they had seen. They were guided by the principle that all people possessed natural rights, especially the right to be free. They also insisted that the government not place limits on this freedom—unless such limits were necessary to protect the freedom of another. At issue were common law, trial by jury, and the overall relationship between the Parliament and the Crown. Leveler political ideology influenced American political sensibilities.
The Anglo-Saxon myth came to America through these radical English reformers. In transporting this myth across the Atlantic they actually imported the cornerstone for stand-your-ground culture. This myth was the essential piece in the construction of America's exceptional identity. The religious reformers were the ones who guaranteed this myth a decisive role in defining that identity.
An Anglo-Saxon Remnant
The Pilgrims and Puritans fled from the Church of England to build a religious institution more befitting Anglo-Saxon virtue and freedom. They considered themselves the Anglo-Saxon remnant that was continuing a divine mission. They traced this mission beyond the woods of Germany to the Bible. Thus, they saw themselves "as the Israelites in God's master plan." Upon arriving at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, the Pilgrims drafted the Mayflower Compact. This compact clarified that their "undertaking" to "plant a colony" was for the "glory of God." The Pilgrims' radical separatist ways led to their demise as a distinct and identifiable group. The Puritans, on the other hand, had a more enduring and pervasive impact on American religious and political culture.
Arriving ten years after the Pilgrims, the Puritans understood their mission to be like that of their radical predecessors, except they were not separatists, and they arrived with a royal charter. No one better expressed the views of the Puritans than Reverend Francis Higginson. During a farewell addresses to the people of London he reportedly said, "We do not go to New England as separatists from the Church of England; though we cannot but separate from the corruptions in it: but we go to practise the positive part of church reformation and propagate the gospel in America." Echoing these same themes Puritan leader John Winthrop crafted "A Model of Christian Charity" while still aboard the Arabella. In it he declared, "We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world." These words gave birth to two legitimating canopies for American identity, one civil and one Christian. The wider theological implications of these canopies will be discussed throughout this chapter. The important point for now, however, is to recognize that these reformers' exodus from England was first and foremost a religious mission. They were fleeing the Church of England because of its perceived corruption, notably its Roman Catholic tendencies. A part of their mission, therefore, was not simply to build a nation that was in keeping with their Anglo-Saxon political heritage, but also to build a religious nation. In fact, for them, building an Anglo-Saxon nation was virtually synonymous with building a religious nation. And, according to one of these legitimating canopies, it meant building a Protestant Christian nation. In general, the Pilgrims and the Puritans not only insured that the Anglo-Saxon myth was the defining piece of American identity, but they provided this myth with religious legitimation. They gave it sacred authority. The importance of this becomes apparent as America's grand narrative is enacted.
These first Americans, Pilgrims and Puritans alike, believed that a straight line could be drawn from the "freedom loving Anglo-Saxons" in the woods of ancient Germany to them. They carried their Anglo-Saxon heritage across the Atlantic Ocean with a self-righteous pride. Believing that they were the true and chosen heirs to a divine Anglo-Saxon mission, they were determined not to betray their Anglo-Saxon roots, as they thought the English had done. This determination initially expressed itself as a resolve to establish the Anglo-Saxon forms of governance that cherished freedom and individual rights. From its earliest beginning, therefore, America's political identity was an Anglo-Saxon identity. Its sense of democracy and freedom was inextricably linked to the Anglo-Saxon myth and Tacitus's Germans. America's democracy was conceived of as an expression of Anglo-Saxon character.
In his book The Racial Contract, Charles Mills argues that America's democracy is qualified by an unspoken subaltern contract that is defined by race. He essentially argues that the liberty America promises to its citizens is intended only for its white citizens. Mills's observations are perhaps apt. However, what will become clear, particularly as the narrative of America's exceptionalism is established, is that the racial limitations of America's democracy are not the result of a subaltern contract. Rather, they result from the palpable Anglo-Saxon chauvinism that defined America's beginnings.
Excerpted from Stand Your Ground by Kelly Brown Douglas. Copyright © 2015 Kelly Brown Douglas. Excerpted by permission of Orbis Books.
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