Trayvon Martin’s death is, above all else, a family tragedy, a personal loss for a mother and father. No parent should face the prospect of mourning the loss of a child, especially if that child is killed in an act of violence. Likewise, Martin’s death is social and political, for parents of Black American males are considerably more likely than other parents to lose their sons to violence, be it accidental or deliberate. The gap in life expectancy between whites and blacks in the US is shrinking but persists, and serves as evidence for a claim by Charles Shaar Murray–a name familiar to many Clash devotees–regarding the central drive of American popular music: “the need to separate black music (which, by and large, white Americans love) from black people (who, by and large, they don’t).” (Kudos to Jack Hamilton for reminding me of this quote.) Here I offer a few thoughts on what it means to be human, racialized, and technologized in contemporary America.
(From a series of images by Baltimore street artist Justin Nether, at East Baltimore and Caroline streets.)
It’s Murray’s job, of course, to make claims such as this one, but is it a useful claim and, if so, how so? I don’t know whether this phenomenon is “the central drive” or a the logical consequence of other forces at work. Is American popular music an undifferentiated thing, and is Jay Z as complicit as Pat Boone in sustaining this separation? Music is never just music, of course: it’s inextricably cultural, economic, and political. Even “absolute music”–i.e., music that claims to be non-representational–maps out certain stakes (rather than others), and elevates one set of principles (rather than another). The category of “absolute music” was coined to describe Beethoven’s ninth symphony by Wagner (who knew a little something about representing Germans to Germany), and is the counterbalance to program music: opera, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and the whole of contemporary popular music. With his call to boycott Florida due to the “stand your ground” law (one of 30 states that has such laws), Stevie Wonder aims to apply economic pressure to the legal conscience of Floridians, their representatives, and–with any luck–American law writ large.
Our devotion to The Clash persists because Strummer-Jones-Simonon-Headon understood what it meant to offer one set of principles (rather than another), and to abide by those principles as best as they could. The stakes, of course, included an understanding of the history of the diaspora of black music, and entailed the responsibility of reminding their American fans (especially) of their own musical forebears, including Willi Williams, who gave the world “Armagideon Time,” and its sentiment about hunger, struggle, and justice remains apropo.
I figure this track means something more specific to a Jamaican audience, but the titular reference to Armageddon–which, in various iterations, refers to the Messiah’s return to earth and his defeat of the anti-Christ and Satan–and Gideon, a young man from the tribe of Manasseh, who was selected by God to condemn the worship of (false) idols by the people of Israel and to lead their liberation, looks ahead to a day of true reckoning. In Williams’ view (as modified by Strummer’s improvistaions in The Clash’s rendition), Armageddon was not a spectator sport:
A lotta people won’t get no a supper tonight
A lotta people a won’t get no a justice tonight
Remember, a kick it over
No one will guide you through Armagideon time
With President Obama chiming in with a heartfelt meditation on blackness, whiteness, and the law, one might argue he effectively offered to be that guide. The insight Obama offered was distinctive, and was on the mind of demonstrators across the country who withstood heatwaves to stand-up-and-be-counted, to register their anger/frustration/abject exhaustion with the pernicious persistence of racialization in the US. Here I want to highlight one passage in particular:
“And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
The law, though, is only part of the problem, as is its head-slapping application in recent years. (See the the case of Marissa Alexander, to begin.) It is a particular challenge to find the language for complex cases, and for the moment “race-and-youth” serves as the dominant framework for this discussion and, in turn, the NRA-inspired adage of “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” has been subject to only fitful scrutiny.
As Evan Selinger notes, in a 2012 Atlantic piece following the Colorado “Batman” shooting, this absolving claim “assumes an instrumentalist view of technology, where we bend [technology] to our will.” In this view, the technology is regarded as a neutral tool, capable of carrying out the actor’s will. The alternative posed by Bruno Latour is the transformative view: “when humans interact with objects, they are transformed by that interaction. A gun changes how a person sees the world.” With your hand wrapped around a Glock or Kal Tek 9mm (Zimmerman’s technology of choice), the field of possible actions is transformed. Selinger writes, “To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape. It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets.” People become potential targets. In the most tragic situations, the person-gun embraces certain stakes (rather than others), and elevates one set of principles (rather than another).
Do we have the capacity to speak about humans and techno-humans this way? Are we capable of saying race-class-law-technology in the same sentence, or even the same paragraph? As a country, our republic was unable to sustain a telling conversation about the perils of the person-gun after the tragedy at Newtown. Let us hope we can soon honor the memory of Mr. Martin (and the victims of countless other shootings in the US) by speaking in a different, more durable register.