Odom: Beat No. 49

Wisconsin has been named the worst state in which to be Black due to “lock’em up” incarceration rates.
John Y. Odom

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938” was an initiative of a Depression-era work program that consisted of interviews with formerly enslaved Americans who, at the time of emancipation, were old enough to recall life in slavery. Some revelatory themes emerged, such as severe beatings for praying. Another was the ubiquity of patrollers. Patrollers were sadistic white men who enforced two priorities — to hunt and return liberated enslaved people; and through brutality, to disabuse enslaved people of all notions of rebellion or freedom. One such patroller, known as “a n—–r tamer,” so brutalized an enslaved man that the fear instilled in others was deemed to be more important than the ability of the victim ever to work again.

From patrollers, to the Ku Klux Klan, to the White Citizens’ Council, to modern day policing (“cop” = constable on patrol), the need to force Black people into “their place” remains as does the drive to stoke paranoia in our minds. See an officer, be concerned. It has become apocryphal that “99% of police are good cops.” Isn’t it coincidental that so many of the 1% seem to interact with Black people? U.S. Sen. Tim Scott reported being stopped by police seven times in one year. He was also stopped three times by U.S. Capitol Police officers who claimed to be unsure that he was a senator. I have been stopped four times by Madison police during my time here, to paraphrase Franklyn Ajaye, for being a Black man on a sunny day. Achieving justice from unjust stops is a topic for another day.

White supremacy has proven itself to be a cruel joke, but psychological residue lingers, both in the minds of victims and would-be victimizers. As Frederick Douglass said in his 1852 speech titled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”: “What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong?”

From Barney Fife begging Andy for a bullet, to Derek Chauvin giving new meaning to “chauvinism” after torturing and horizontally lynching Mr. George Floyd in public with cameras rolling — good individual officers aside, the system is the same: instill fear in the minds of Black people and herd us into the profitable prison industrial complex.

Dr. Zorba Paster cited studies in which the progeny of those who suffered in World War II prison camps and Dutch citizens who were near starvation in WWII were likely to die earlier than similarly situated offspring whose forebears did not suffer such cruelty. The studies suggest that trauma may be carried intergenerationally in the DNA of the successors of traumatized people. Obesity — the storing of fat to ward off famine — is but one residual.

Recent accomplishments of diverse groups of young people are a source of pride. They have transformed the national civil right landscape resulting in change, including:
• The murderers of George Floyd have been arrested and charged.
• The commissioner of the NFL has apologized for the organization’s racism.
• Racist monuments have been pulled from their stands.
• The military plans to rename bases that are currently named for traitors.
• NASCAR has outlawed the rebel flag.
• Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have been retired.

Experience teaches that protests cannot persist forever. The challenge will be to determine when to swap demonstrations for negotiations.

Wisconsin specifically faces a unique set of challenges. Wisconsin has been named the worst state in which to be Black due to “lock’em up” incarceration rates. Last month, in a report titled “2020’s State Economies with the Most Racial Equality,” Wisconsin ranked 50th. Wisconsin also has the widest Black-white student academic achievement gaps in the nation. Recently professor LaGarrett King said, “In many ways, we wouldn’t have a Black Lives Matter movement if Black lives mattered in the classroom.” Where to begin? How about committing to beat state No. 49 on that list? It’s doable.

John Y. Odom, a guest columnist to Madison Magazine, was offered this month’s column space by our regular back page columnist, John Roach. Odom, who earned his Ph.D. in educational administration at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is president of Odom & Associates LLC.