Last Friday, an unsurprising but still disturbing announcement reverberated across the internet. A jury in Minnesota acquitted former police officer Jeronimo Yanez of all charges associated with the shooting death of Philando Castile. The announcement of the acquittal was kind of like being reminded of a slightly older, neglected wound that had started to bleed again. We've been inundated with the day-to-day scandals of the Trump presidency, debates about healthcare, media push notifications detailing the most recent global atrocity, and the normal Monday through Sunday mundanity of adult living. Having long ago abandoned the act of loudly proclaiming and posting the name of every emerging hashtag commemorating yet another murder of a Black person by the hands of a police officer. Gradually surrendering to the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness, as those hashtagged names became more of a tidal wave, burying our once defiant heads under a crushing force of consummate death and violence.
However, while some of us watched a stream of the post verdict press coverage behind weary, numbed and tired eyes. Philando Castile’s mother stood at the podium delivering a fiery indictment of the U.S justice system. Visibly hurt, passionate, and seemingly unconscionably composed, Valerie Castile stood among somber friends and family, intent on ringing the alarm of anyone who’d been lulled into indifference or a false sense of security. “The system constantly fails Black people. When they get done with us, they’re coming for you, for you and all your interracial children” she says while pointing to members of the audience. The latter part of that statement possibly a jab at Minnesota being a state with a high rate of interracial marriage, which could delude it’s citizens into thinking it was near achieving post-racial peace.
Hours later, another video emerged; of Ms. Castile’s Facebook Live feed. Donning dark sunglasses, in the passenger seat of a car, while rap music blasted on the radio in the background, Valerie Castile continued to express her feelings on her son’s murder. “I’m tired of trying to be strong and not say the wrong things, because I know how they get down” she asserts. Defiant and seemingly exhausted by the demands of ‘dignified’ suffering often expected of mourning Black mothers, Ms. Castile proceeds to cast off media friendly filters while sharing sentiments regarding the police and her role in encouraging peace among a traumatized populace. “Fuck the police, say whatever the fuck you wanna say, Now THIS is the real Valerie Castile” she booms, later on adding “This could be you, in this fucked up mother’s club.” Throughout the two minute clip peppered with expletives and anti-police rhetoric she discusses how her son was law abiding and how it didn’t protect him, how none of us are protected. She ultimately ends her stream by wishing death on the man who took the life of her son. She’s defiant, militant almost, but more importantly displayed no interest in being a beacon of peace, functioning to assuage any feelings of discomfort and weariness belonging to nervous local statesmen, bracing for public backlash.
America is a perverse, audacious bastard, that frequently murders the children of its Black citizens, then turns around and demands these grieving parents do their part in maintaining civil order. Mike Brown’s step-father Louis Head, had to issue a public apology after being blamed for the consequent rioting, following a grand jury decision to not charge Darren Wilson with the murder of his step-son. “My emotions got the best of me” he explained of his angry outburst to “burn the shit down” while decrying another inhumane injustice his son was subjected to. A cardinal sin for Black parent's grief, and anger is considered a luxury, one not afforded to those who birth Black children that get themselves murdered by cops. All that is left for them, after their children have been executed, is work. Work to draw attention to their children’s murder, work to seek charges, and finally; work to seek legislative reform after their children’s murderers are routinely acquitted. Much so in the tradition of Emmett Till’s mother—Mamie Bradley Till, who one could point to as the catalyst for both the reignition of the civil rights movement, and the ‘fucked up mothers club’ that Valerie Castlle resents being a member of, 62 years after Emmett Till’s death.
In the 2005 documentary the Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, there are several scenes featuring Mamie Till — a woman whose resolve and assuredness beams from even her on camera presence — explaining her reaction to finally seeing her son’s dead body, and her decision to have an open casket funeral. Of the day she unboxed Emmett’s remains, she recalls the men who stood on each side of her so as to catch her in the event she fainted, to which she replied “Move, I have a job to do, I don’t have time to be faintin.” Later she describes telling the funeral director her decision to have an open casket “I want the whole world to see what I see, they need to see this.” Within the documentary there are interviews with people like Rev. Al Sharpton praising Mammie’s decision as a sign of strength and sacrifice. “The easiest thing to do would to have had a closed casket and say she couldn’t bare the pain, but she found the strength… she put the image of Emmett onto the American conscious and saved lives.’
Mamie Till did offer the mutilated body of her son, and her grief to the American public on her terms and of her own volition.The images of his mangled face were published to Jet Magazine and his open casket funeral was available to the general public which amounted to thousands of spectators. It’s said that the stench of Emmett’s body was so pungent it could be smelled three blocks away. Several patrons fainted upon seeing his disfigurement, and needed to be carried out of the church. Footage and images of black men and women doubled over in pain, and losing consciousness were strewn across the country, and the world. America watched, and America hungrily devoured Mamie’s suffering and grief. America mourned with Mamie. America feigned calls for justice to be served on Emmett’s behalf. And then a few weeks after the funeral, America acquitted the two White men who murdered Emmett Till.
When speaking of Mamie, the most common words you’ll hear mentioned is strength, and sacrifice. They are accurate descriptors, as she was a formidable woman who believed greatly in her choices, and in her later work spreading messages of hope and reconciliation in public speakings across the country. What we don’t hear much about, is concern for her mental well being. Of her trauma, that unfortunately didn’t start with her son’s brutal murder, but with her husband — who was wrongly charged with raping and killing an Italian woman while serving in the army and sentenced to death by hanging. A detail that was later leaked to the press and published during the trial of Emmett’s murderers. Maybe that’s where she learned that the very human response of grief was a frivolity not afforded to mourning black women. Maybe that’s why upon seeing her son’s body who’d been brutalized beyond what one would think humanly possible — her response was to get to work. That’s the paradox of being Black in America and more specifically of being a Black woman in America. Our “strength” is what makes us both superhuman and subhuman. “Super” in that we are thought to have high thresholds for pain, and remarkable resilience; to do something like offer the bodies of our murdered sons and daughters as a sacrifice to spur America’s conscious and save her from herself. Subhuman in that we are even relegated to being assigned such cruel and inhumane labor.
America is a sadistic bastard, that executes Black people and then foists a microscope and microphone onto their grieving families. With or without their consent, images and the murder of their loved ones at the hands of cops or vigilantes becomes endless loops on social media and cable news stations, illustrations, t-shirts, prom dresses, oil paintings, debit cards,and magazine covers. They are called upon, to be either voices of Black dissent or voices of Christ-like benevolence and forgiveness. They will be lambasted for either decision regardless of whether it’s in their best interest for their grieving process. Their pasts and private lives will become fodder to further impugn the reputation of their executed children. They will watch as the world dissects the life and corpses of their slain loved ones, looking for hints of depravity to justify their deaths or markers of respectability to deem them worthy of mourning. Their words, their diction, their attire, their temperament will be studied and critiqued. Every decision on down, from which popular visible Negro talking head will be at their child’s funeral, to what political candidate they endorse will be closely observed and argued. No longer belonging to themselves-they are eaten by this country’s cyclical monster of politics and the pursuit of “progress” well after they have buried their kids.
As of now at least, it appears Valerie Castile is not interested in that job — and wouldn’t mind seeing the world burn. Six decades later, after images of Emmett Till have permeated America’s psyche, its “conscience” still has not been awakened. After countless Black parents have laid offerings of their slain children on its altar, this dormant God has not been summoned. Ms. Castile’s anger and public defiance is both long overdue and significant, and what’s even more significant is that she be allowed to express it. It’s important for us to allow these grieving parents the humanity that it has long been denied to them. To stop looking to them as inanimate symbols and vehicles of “change” since they are repeatedly victimized by a system that’s very structure is built to deny them justice. It’s the least we can do, for Mamie, for Sybrina, Leslie, Samaria, Geneva, Valerie, countless others, and the soon to be involuntarily enrolled members of America’s infamous Fucked Up Mother’s Club.