Friday, August 10, 2018
I first read about Nia Wilson on a Tuesday night in an Instagram post. This is why we are saying her name: On Sunday night, July 22, she was riding the BART train with her sisters in San Francisco. They got off to switch trains, and while they were on the platform, a man came up to her and her sister, Lahtifa, and stabbed both of them in the neck. Lahtifa was injured but survived; Nia died from her injuries. She was 19 years old.
From what I have read thus far, the intent of the killer is unclear.
Which leads me to this question: does motive even matter, given that the outcome remains the same? Does it matter, given the broader implications?
Nia is black. The man who murdered her is white. As stated before, police have still not been able to uncover a motive, yet this distinction is important because of the sordid history of white bodies treating black bodies as disposable:
"If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched," James K. Vardaman, the white supremacy candidate in the 1903 Mississippi governor's race, declared. He saw no reason for blacks to go to school. "The only effect of Negro education," he said, "is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook."
Mississippi voted Vardaman into the governor's office and later sent him to the U.S. Senate.
All the while, newspapers were giving black violence top billing, the most breathless outrage reserved for any rumor of black male indiscretion toward a white woman, all but guaranteeing a lynching. Sheriff's deputies mysteriously found themselves unable to prevent the abduction of a black suspect from a jailhouse cell. Newspapers alerted readers to the time and place of an upcoming lynching. In spectacles that often went on for hours, black men and women were routinely tortured and mutilated, then hanged or burned alive, all before festive crowds of as many as several thousand white citizens, children in tow, hoisted on their fathers' shoulders to get a better view. (The Warmth of Other Suns, p. 39)**
I bring up the question of motive because I have seen the murderer described as a white supremacist in some highly visible social media posts. Initially, I wondered if making unsubstantiated claims only gives those who wish to detract from the severity of this crime more traction—they will cry 'fake news!' and 'race baiting!' to try and distract us from what it is we are really talking about: two black women were attacked, unprovoked and violently, by a white man. That's what happened.
On the other hand, semantics matter. Words matter and truth matters, now more than ever. How we label each other matters because it informs how we view and speak and treat each other. I don't quite know how to reconcile this truth with the fact that we don't know if Nia's murderer was a white supremacist, and what if we never know. But then I thought about white supremacy as a system that has and continues to influence society rather than manifested through an individual. White supremacy can and is exhibited through individuals, but more pervasively it is also an invisible social structure, making it hard to convince people who don't wish to acknowledge it that it even exists. If it comes to light that her killer was indeed racially motivated, it will be no surprise. It will confirm what many already suspect. If it comes to light that there was a different motive, or a motive cannot be uncovered—Nia is still gone. Motive does not detract from the terror of the crime.
Ultimately, what matters is that Nia's life was cut far, far too short at the hands of a white man. And further, the larger implication is this: regardless of the killer's individual motives, he (and all of us) are living within a society that largely ignores misogyny and pretends that racism no longer largely exists, and and it's hard not to see Nia's murder in light of these realities. It matters because we have seen this before, and yet it keeps happening. Will there be justice? Will there be change?
At face value this is already a disgusting and horrific crime, and when viewed in a historical context, it adds deeply to the horror. It adds to the ever present fear that people of color do not have agency or protection over their own bodies. It is a reality that many black people daily fear for their physical safety, and Nia's death is yet another manifestation of their fears. Though as a woman I do feel afraid and intimidated at times, as a white person, I do not experience that oppressive level of fear. I didn't even understand what fearing for one's body meant until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me, in which he write a letter to his son. Maybe I have quoted too much at length here, but I think these passages important in understanding the fear:
It must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the stranglings of dissidents; the destructions of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. (p 8)
The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting ints heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. (p 10)
I felt the fear in the visits to my Nana's home in Philadelphia. You never knew her. I barely knew her, but what I remember is her hard manner, her rough voice. And I knew that my father's father was dead and that my uncle Oscar was dead and that my uncle David was dead and that each of these instances was unnatural. And I saw it in my father, who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to care for you. My father was so very afraid. (p 15)
I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog. I knew that West Baltimore, where I lived; that the north side of Philadelphia, where my cousins lived; that the South Side of Chicago, where friends of my father lived; comprised a world apart. Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television rising in my living room. In the evenings I would sit before this television bearing witness to the dispatches from this other world. There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. (p 20)
Further, another reason there has been outrage in response to Nia's death is because historically, the relationship between the black community and the police is wrought with distrust, and people want to make sure that there is enough public pressure to bring the murderer to justice (This Vox article explores and explains this further.) They want to make sure that Nia Wilson is not swept aside, forgotten and lost amongst the piles of black bodies that litter our past. If we read even a little bit of history, we can't honestly say that race does not matter, even if it can't be proven as a motive. It permeates everything, especially our subconscious, because race lives in the bones of the building of this country, figuratively and quite literally: the White House, the Capitol and other iconic buildings in DC were built by slaves.
This is not an attempt to race bait or pit one group against another. This is a check on my own thoughts and a plea to shake your subconscious awake as well, to see what sleeps there, to view this act of violence from the perspective of the black community. From the eyes of those whose origins in this country began in blood and chains, and have still not received a just accounting. To put your heart in their bodies.
Remember that scene in A Time to Kill where Jake Brigance, played by Matthew McConaughey, is saying his closing remarks to the jury? He is describing the destruction and pain and terror wrought on this little girl's body, and is essentially asking why people don't seem to care. He asks the jury to close their eyes: now imagine she was white.
Imagine Nia was white. Imagine her killer was black. Let that sit with you for a moment. After the defenses quiet down and wear themselves out, see what shifts, what comes to the surface.
*image credit @broobs.psd
**I highly recommend this book. It's about the migration of blacks from the south to the north between the early 1900's through the 1970's, and why that migration was necessary. It has helped me to connect the dots between then and now.