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In Mississippi last week a man was hanged. Or hanged himself. His body was found about 200 yards from his house, suspended with a bedsheet from a tree. A man with a troubled history, he may very well have done himself in. The autopsy has not yet been completed. The forensic evidence has not yet been analyzed.
But this is Mississippi, and the man was black. A perilous and pernicious history resounds automatically, the history of lynching, of "Strange Fruit."
But not all lives are weighed down by that gravitational pressure of historical interpretation and generalization. Black lives are.
Mississippi is not what it was, not mired nor mirrored in the past. It boasts the highest percentage of African-American elected officials of any state in the country. The current investigating sheriff, Marvin Lucas, is himself black, and has said that, if there is a homicide in Claiborne County, he wants to know, "because I might be next." He has also said, "Life matters. . . I will not allow the shadows of the past to cast a shadow on the future."
Within the African-American community there are those who already refuse to accept a possible coroner's verdict of suicide. They have automatically added Otis Byrd's name to the list of those who have passed so unnaturally before — Emmett Till, Mack Parker, Herbert Lee and so on and so on. During this 60th anniversary year of the lynching of Emmett Till, on the same day that the county courthouse where his killers had been triumphantly acquitted was being renamed and dedicated in his honor, the state leader of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson (one of whose predecessors was gunned down in his own driveway) has had to call for patience and calm, waiting for the determination of Otis Byrd's death.
At what point does the individual case fall victim to an inherited history? If "black lives matter," as we want to claim, then they matter individually. Otis Byrd's life must matter in a way particular to him, and not melted into a generality of deaths.
And the same is true of all these various lives that we've paid attention to lately — Trayvon Martin's, Tamir Rice's, Michael Brown's. Each of them was an individual person with his own triumphs and vicissitudes and each had a separate life that mattered and continues to matter.
But the weight of history will press down on them like geologic pressure realigning molecules, turning shale into slate, limestone into marble.
As I write this, I am sitting in a bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi. Customers and browsers of various complexions move quietly among the shelves, murmuring to their children or leafing through biographies and fiction. From them, the unspoken slogan emanates, "All lives matter."
And so they do. But not all lives are weighed down by that gravitational pressure of historical interpretation and generalization. Black lives are. Because I am white, if my body should be found hanging from a tree tomorrow, it will be a family tragedy and perhaps a crime, but not a signal that whole classes of people will take personally, no matter how closely they have taken to heart John Donne's "no man is an island entire of itself."
Otis Byrd's life must matter in a way particular to him, and not melted into a generality of deaths.
Yet it is in exactly Donne's sense that we mean "black lives matter." Any man's death diminishes me. The correlation of that is not simple grieving or fatalism, though. It is a call to action, with the emphasis not on death, but on life. It is a call to keep ourselves from being diminished before our time, to take responsibility for the matter and the mattering of other people's lives.
I think it's important to think about this before we know the legal circumstances of Otis Byrd's death, before we know which box to file his life and the leaving of it into. Once we do that, something more of him will be lost than we intended. He will be absorbed into a larger narrative. He will cease to matter.
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