Colin Dayan Can't Breathe


Hard to write what I want to say. Knowing that my words can’t even get close to righteous response.

I remember Birmingham and Jackson and being a child in Atlanta in 1963. What is happening now is different.  It might be more pernicious, more lasting, less easy to combat.  No Civil Rights Act can stop it.

Trying to put into words what these murders of blacks -- by any white person, police or not -- tell us, I sense a desire to repeat the racial tags of our American history, a litany of law that seems like a series of death announcements that always precede and continue to haunt the bodies left lying on the street losing blood unable to breathe talked over and done in.

But instead I can only say what I keep thinking about: How the most well-intentioned and reasonable folks end up abetting the state of fear and atrocity, terrifying because commonplace—easily as tactful as de Blasio’s call “for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time.”  I remember Nina Simone’s words in “Mississippi Goddam,” “Keep on saying go slow.”  Who has to slow down? How long is due time?   

Real terror plucks us by the sleeve and comes along naturally, forever just occurring, always perceptible just at the edge of our vision. What terrorizes is this casual but calculated disregard. A terror relayed not by the dogs, hoses, and bombs in the new South of the sixties, but by the near nonchalance of legal murder anywhere in the United States today: as if these living breathing black citizens, now dead, were not supposed to go about their lives, walk down the street, stand on a corner, put their hands in their pockets, take a toy gun to the park, go down the stairway of their own building—breathe.  

Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University.


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