By Dr. Douglas Flowe
The recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other African American men and women at the hands of the state in America have brought about a reckoning beyond the scope of anything seen before on the subject. However, in purpose and in spirit, the movement against police violence and the system of racial caste that surrounds and supports it is not new; it began the moment African bondsmen and women placed their feet on American soil in the 1600s. In the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century, the timeframe covered in my book Uncontrollable Blackness, black New Yorkers protested and fought against police brutality and controversial arrests countless times. Sometimes they lodged formal complaints and demonstrated in the streets, and other times they pelted cops with bottles and bricks from windows and rooftops, or confronted them on the sidewalks in combat. In light of the urgent spectacle of modern police violence, protest, and the public insurrections of 2020, history becomes that much more important. Not only because it contextualizes our present circumstances as connected to a long lineage of racial injustice, but also because it may help us understand the inner mechanics of the problem in a way that might enlighten our responses.
Uncontrollable Blackness approaches the subject of black men and criminality with this objective in mind, and concludes that we should recognize protest and criminality as two sides of the same coin. In a society where the law itself maintains systems of inequality, some crimes can be understood as resistance, and protest against those unjust systems is often criminalized by those in power. Moreover, protest and criminality might spring from the same sources of poverty, social and economic isolation, and state violence, making them akin in another way. My work not only humanizes early twentieth-century black men who found themselves on the other side of the law, but also theorizes about the social and economic attitudes and structures that may have placed them there in the first place, what aspects of common conceptions of masculinity played a part in their actions, and how American mythologies about race pigeon-holed them as criminals. It also answers a pivotal question; how can we understand lawlessness and extra-legal activity as political anarchy, behaviors that signal an insurrection against malevolent systems of social control?
To this end, I produced a theoretical model, called the crucible of black criminality, that is meant to interpret the various historical factors that turned crime into rebellion for African Americans. This model can be used to understand illegality among both men and women, however, in this study, I primarily focus on how it impacted men. First, there is the history of enslavement and all of the personal, psychological, and spiritual horrors associated with it; atrocities of intergenerational trauma that imprinted black collective memory with communal injury and forged methods of defiance that continued after emancipation. Slavery also established the relationship between white supremacy, state legislation, and law enforcement, a ménage à trois that would also continue after the Civil War. Secondly, whites maintained the organization of human property with unrelenting violence, acts of terrorism that had physical, psychological, and communal implications for African Americans as they not only destroyed black bodies but advertised the pervasive nature of white supremacy. Such violence encourages violent responses, making it only logical that the beaten, bloodied, and lynched adopt defensive, and possibly forceful, tactics for their own survival.
Thirdly, the crucible postulates that America’s preoccupation with patriarchy and white masculinity, and its explicit denial of the social, ideological, and economic attributes of manhood to black men, had a part in pressing those men to the wall and forcing them to seek other avenues for self-actualization. Patriarchy itself can be crime-inducing for all men, and attempts to claim hegemonic masculinity by black men, I argue, sometimes placed them in unlawful territory. Next, I put forward that capitalism’s requirement of economic imparity and job discrimination put financial strains on black men that made underground markets and street crime into sources of support when all else failed. An unequal economic schema, one that also proved itself heartless toward white working-class men, had even more merciless repercussions for black men. And lastly, all of these factors converge on the general American urge to suppress or eliminate sources of anxiety for middle-class and elite whites; a phenomenon clearly displayed in the popularity of plays, movies, literature, “coon songs,” and editorials that made the containment of black bodies into a national project.
Using this paradigm, I argue that it is crucial to acknowledge the unique circumstances that black men have faced throughout the history of the country in any discussion about crime. Undoubtedly, it is impossible to comprehend their involvement in underground economies and disproportionate incarceration from the time of my study until the present without this view of historic and long-lasting inequities. Considering this history, and the way it continues to haunt our present, it is unsurprising that protest and lawbreaking might still intersect for some black men today; a fact that encapsulates the urgency of police and prison reform, the dismantling of the vestiges of the war on drugs, and a revision of all the policies that have caused and continued the crucible of black criminality. The term uncontrollable blackness, as I use it in the book, signifies the convergence of protest and illegality that so many black men have experienced as they simply wished to live their lives in freedom, just like other men. It is an act of defiance against seemingly impossible odds, a signal of personal or collective revolution with no end in sight. In their actions we witness a radical desire to control their own fate as they sought to support themselves and their families, and to forge their identities as men.
Douglas J. Flowe is an Assistant Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis. He teaches courses in American history with a focus on criminality, urban studies, masculinity, and race and drugs. He is the author of Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).