Birmingham, Alabama. July, 1985. Anthony Ray Hinton looks up from mowing his mother’s lawn and sees two white police officers.
The officers handcuff him and arrest him for robbery, kidnapping, and first degree murder.
“You have the wrong man,” Ray Hinton tells them. “I ain’t done none of that.”
But Ray’s innocence doesn’t matter. He’s the man they’re looking for.
“I don’t care whether you did it or not,” one of the officers tells him. “But I’m gonna make sure you’re found guilty for it.”
The officer stares at Ray. “There’s five things that are going to convict you," he says. "Number one, you’re black. Number two, a white man is gonna say you shot him. Whether you shot him or not, I don’t care. Number three, you’re gonna have a white prosecutor. Number four, you’re gonna have a white judge. Number five, more than likely you’re gonna have an all-white jury.”
The officer just keeps looking at him. “You know what that spells? Conviction, conviction, conviction.”
This, here, is the horror of consciousness gone power-hungry: the miracle of the indissoluble confronts us, but its reality frightens us so bad we go wild trying to break it down, to shatter it back into potentials. In a world brimming with possibilities, the actual forms and suddenly we think the realm of the real has gotten too crowded: there’s not room for me and you–it’s us and them.
This, here, is the specific horror of the great white gaze: cultivated, manufactured, codified in the laws of the United States of America, enshrined in our Constitution that assigns limited personhood to Black and Native peoples.
The invention of race was no accident. There was (and still is) money to be made in the legal and social classification of humans, in the racialized gaze.
“Race and racism,” writes Drew G. I. Hart, “are commonly misunderstood terms. Despite its common usage, race is not a natural biological category for human beings, though physical features certainly create boundaries of difference...Instead of being a biological fact, race is a social construct. Racial categories are not inevitable; they were created–and not very long ago, given the length of human history.”
Since time immemorial, gods have been identified as creators. The nuts and bolts of the process, and what constitutes an act of ‘creation,’ varies from place to place, time to time, and god to god–but deities are fairly consistently pegged as artisans, progenitors, world-shapers.
The air is thick with gods–from the Japanese puffer fish beating sand into intricate patterns with its fins, to the satin bowerbird crafting its hut-like nest, to the potter sitting at her wheel to the inventors of the white supremacist gaze that creates boundaries around people and assigns their functions.
On South African apartheid, Trevor Noah writes:
Apartheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there wasn’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Gods above, below, beyond, and before us. The world teeming with those that look and are looked at. To those that see and are seen goes the power of shaping reality.
The officer stares at Ray Hinton, impervious to the illogic of his own creation. What does it matter if Hinton did or didn’t commit the crime? He’s guilty. Simpler that way. The gall of gods is to complicated. Liminal bodies, these gods. Won’t sit still. Won’t be contained. Always wanting to be free and dancing like supreme deities.
Behold! The strong black god that you will not look at, lest you see his glory and it kill or transform you.
Science–don’t they teach science in these schools? In a world of infinite potentials, reality begets more reality, not less. The strong, black god is not the end of the white man, but his true beginning.
But Ray Hinton doesn’t need you to look at him to crown him a god. He’s the son that’s been looked at, the god flowering under his mama’s gaze.
No, I write this for your own–and my–salvation, tracing these words into your palms so that you will have the look of a man that sees.
April 3, 2015. Birmingham, Alabama. The State of Alabama drops all charges against Anthony Ray Hinton. After nearly thirty years on death row, Hinton–now fifty-eight–walks free out into the open air.
“The sun does shine,” he says as his family and friends crowd around to embrace him.
Sunlight is sparse on Alabama’s death row. The prisoners live in 5’ x 7’ cells almost twenty-four hours a day. If the weather’s fair and enough prison staff are available, the men spend an hour in the exercise yard, surrounded by razor wire fences, looked over by guard towers above.
Sound, too, is rare. I’ve got to get used to noise and the sounds of everything because it’s fairly quiet on death row. Every man is in his own world.
Ray can barely take it in. Life outside death row is like stepping onto a new planet. This new world without fences–is it even part of the same universe as the cell he’s inhabited for thirty years?
Ray takes a morning walk for the first time. He goes to the house where his mother used to live and walks around the yard. No one stops him. No one tells him where he can and can’t go.
Every night, I go outside and look up at the stars and moon, because for years I could not see either. I walk in the rain, because I didn’t feel rain for years.
Look up at the moon and be startled. Gaze at the stars and remember: only a god feels the frost of raindrops on the face and the scald of salt-tears on the cheek.