Amid the beginning of the pandemic, protests across America broke out in support of George Floyd, a Black man strangled to death while pinned down by the knee of a relentless officer named Derek Chauvin, who picks his jury today. Floyd’s final words were “I can’t breathe” while he also called for his mother. Enraged, some Black people, acting like boat-rockers, urged others to take to the streets and essentially raze the country in the name of justice; other Blacks cautioned that any protests would lead to further oppression of Black people. Indignant fury won, and neighborhoods across the country were razed in the name of George Floyd. After the broken glass scattered like loose marbles across sidewalks, bruised Black bodies and dozens of arrests, we ask, does our end justify our means?
Right now, there is a boy waking up in a naked, sheet-less bed, cold and hungry. A puzzle piece that does not fit with the pieces with which he was boxed, the world has already classified the rebel boy as a “thug”. Opposed to the aroma of rising buttery biscuits mixed with the addictive smell of bacon, the rebel wrinkles his nose at the stench of weeks-old urine that has marinated and dried on his mattress a dozen times over. When he leaves his home, head down as he absentmindedly kicks empty beer cans to hear them clatter over concrete, he bypasses drug dealers and addicts conducting their transactions on the open market of the local corner. He does not see the old, stained church beside the liquor store, both dishonestly promising him a peace neither could ever deliver.
What this boy, this child, does see is the police screeching to a halt in front of him, the sirens screaming like his two-month old brother when their mother leaves for days and his father never shows; he feels their pale, emotionless hands snake through his pockets, lingering a little too long near the place he knows at his young age only he should touch. What he feels is a shrinking bag of embarrassment pulling too tightly against the soft flesh of his dark-brown throat while his gasps are met with not a hint of oxygen; this is an embarrassment that will evolve in his life and take many forms: resentment, self-loathing, hopelessness, fear and more. He knows nothing else because he has seen nothing else. He says nothing because he believes his voice has been stripped by the system since no one has told him differently. Either the System will chin-check the rebel within him and he will grow into the cautionary Black man; or the System’s attempt to break him will transform him into the progressive Black boat-rocker. Enter Black Lives Matter mixed with the riots and everything else.
There have always been cautionary Black men, those who reluctantly acknowledge Black men have it harder. Yet they understand that it could be harder; in fact, many of these men have experienced harder and worked hard to rise above it. Those Black people who rock the boat of indifferent complacency are seen as threats to cautionary Black men.
The cautionary Black man is a working man. He believes if other Black men work as hard as he does, they will be fine. He does not view the constructs of society as having any real bindings on the “success” of the individual Black man. (How that “success” is measured — whether it be by economical or educational achievements or other — depends on the person answering the question.) The cautionary Black man despises those Black men who rock the boat of complacency in the name of human and civil rights as beggars, or thugs or lazy men seeking a handout from their oppressor whom they too often blame. The cautionary Black man does not understand that every Black man is not him and that limiting social constructs directly hinder him and Black men as a whole. Moreover, those oppressive social constructs are made to predetermine and restrict what socio-economic level any Black man reaches in his life as proven in The New Jim Crow by writer, civil rights activist and professor Michelle Alexander. Oppression behaves as a living, breathing mechanism which the cautionary Black man has been knowingly enveloped by.
At one point in his life, the cautionary Black man may have been the boy mentioned earlier; that is the background he shares with the boat-rocking Black man. However, on their paths to becoming men, something happened, drastically splitting the two into different mindsets. The cautionary Black man, having been broken by the system in one way or another, enjoys his chitterlings in his quiet, cold home unbothered that his hardwork — had his skin been five shades lighter and hair less curly — would have earned him enough land for his nephews’ nephews to live on.
However, the boat-rocking Black man is ruffled. In his tight quarters that fade between concrete and steel and whichever floor he can sleep on, he tosses and turns, aggravated by his situation. He has encountered the solid, immovable system in every aspect of his life, from criminal charges to child support. In his late forties, he’s held down odd jobs and made some ends meet, but indifferent barriers block him: no license, due to child support issues; no money to pay child support due to license issues and his inability to do rideshare work; enter his frustration over this all. It is an endless, maddeningly disheartening cycle. So, the boat-rocker correctly decides in this crowded country of oppression, something must go. He and the system can not co-exist.
Those things said, the cautionary Black man urged the boat-rocking Black man not to act when George Floyd was murdered at the hands of justice. The cautionary Black man predicted a backlash against the whole Black community, and he may have been right. CNN, Fox News and every media outlet across the country showed what happened when the boat-rockers spoke. Quiet rumblings of those tear gas-filled days and police assaults on peaceful protesters still haunt the articles of fearless but diligent journalists.
In the end, though the uproar was about George Floyd, it was also about the state of Black America under this oppressive system as a whole. Also, a catalyst for hate at the highest level was stripped of his office and soapbox by the not-quite-perfect-but-needed voice of democracy. The first Black female Vice President now calls the White House her office. Millions have received COVID-19 vaccines, though the long-term effects of its use remain to be seen. The Senate has just passed a COVID stimulus relief bill that will further strengthen the economy and families overall.
As he did when Martin Luther King spoke in D.C. and when Malcolm X disturbed the racist waters of America, the cautionary Black man, or conformed Black man (whichever one prefers), has lost the debate. He sits mumbling beneath his breath while shaming clips of Black people entering damaged stores and exiting with everything from clothes to food to televisions.
The cautionary Black man has thrown up at the stench of hanging of Black bodies, winced at the sting of the prickly cotton plant while the sun cracked his parched skin, witnessed the riots of 1968 and every race riot before and after. He too came bound among forsaken slave ships. He stole his brethren’s attention with embellished stories of heavenly glory to come while men who spoke a foreign tongue leapt on his brethren from behind. The cautionary Black man has existed physically and mentally as an archetype within Black America since before its inception. He does not understand the revolution, what is needed or why his voice has mostly been on the wrong side of the issues. The cautionary Black man does not understand the end most certainly justifies the means.
Jermaine Reed, MFA is a college professor and writer from Chicago who creates fiction, nonfiction, local news stories and national news stories. For self-publishers, authors and other writers and creatives, Jermaine provides proofreading on Fivver. Please join Jermaine’s email list to get notifications on new blog posts, writing advice and free books. Get his recently released Science Fiction novel A Glitch in Humanity by clicking here.