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Been here, now where: Making sense of November 2021

<h6>Collin Riggins / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Collin Riggins / The Daily Princetonian

Content Warning: The following piece mentions instances of police brutality, gun violence, false conviction, unlawful imprisonment, and the use of racial slurs.

On Nov. 19, President Joe Biden pardoned two Thanksgiving turkeys named Peanut Butter and Jelly. Biden joked to the press that “instead of getting basted, these two turkeys are getting boosted.” For many, this tradition is a playful demonstration of the President’s power to restore faith in America. Starting during President Richard Nixon’s administration and cemented into tradition by President George H.W. Bush, there is no Thanksgiving without a little clemency being shown toward a turkey.

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Nevertheless, to me, this tradition feels nothing short of a slap in the face. Especially this Thanksgiving. For the Black community, November 2021 has yielded yet another series of mentally taxing events: from the movement to spare Julius Jones’ life, to the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, to the taxing trial for Ahmaud Arbery. It hardly feels like a time to make a flippant joke out of the justice system. Consequently, I have spent a great deal of time trying to make sense of this irony from a Black perspective. How do we continue thriving in our daily lives when Black trauma is constantly circulating around us and its impacts are largely ignored? 

Surprisingly, this forced reflection has given me a lot of peace, as I have increasingly focused on my mental health, grappled with omnipresence of white privilege, and leaned into the Black community around me. My hope is that as we think about where to go from here, we take some of these important lessons from November with us — that way we can heal, prioritize our community well being, and radically create spaces where Black lives do, in fact, matter.

We may find that the opportunities for tomorrow are endless.

The weight of this moment struck me the most as I reflected on the circumstances that surrounded the pardoning of Peanut Butter and Jelly.

Biden’s Turkey Day charade came two days after millions of Americans rallied to release Julius Jones from death row. Jones, a Black man, had been sentenced to death following a shooting in 1999 in which he was the suspected perpetrator. The case was fraught with discrepancies, however, garnering mass attention. 

The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to fighting wrongful convictions, outlines the many faults in the case. Jones did not match the suspect’s description. While his family corroborated that Jones was at home eating dinner during the the time of the murder, neither Jones nor his family were asked to testify and, thus, were denied the ability to present this evidence. The main witness against Jones was granted a plea deal for his testimony, which was key to Jones’ indictment. On top of all this, racial bias bled into every aspect of the case from the majority white jury to the police officer who called Jones a n****r and beckoned Jones to run so he could shoot him.

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After walk-outs, petitions (some with over six million signatures), and pressure from high profile celebrities in recent weeks, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt changed Jones’ sentence to life in prison without parole. This decision came just two hours before Jones’ scheduled execution.

For 22 years Jones’ mother begrudgingly faced the looming execution of her son. Twenty-two years

Some may see Stitt’s verdict as a victory, but it only came after a swelling show of support in a nationwide movement. Footage from the Oklahoma State Capitol alone captures the amount of organizing that it took for a Black man to receive half the clemency of Peanut Butter and Jelly.

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What is more, Jones’ revised sentence does little to address the fervently contested grounds on which he was imprisoned in the first place.

So I cannot help but feel like neither justice nor clemency were even remotely granted in this case. Instead, it appears that this country regards the lives of two turkeys more highly than Black life; that, indeed, Blackness and humanity are antonyms. 

This sentiment is anything but novel. As Black Americans, we have been here before.

Since Africans were first forced onto American soil, Black people have been subject to a disparaging paradox: the Lie of Whiteness. Coined by James Baldwin, the Lie enforces the idea that white people somehow matter more than others. Our notions of nationhood and oftentimes self are predicated upon this unfounded belief; it has molded history and continues informing the state of affairs in America today. So, it is only by facing the Lie that we can begin to reckon with the past month.

We saw the Lie on display throughout the entirety of November. For me, and I imagine many in the Black community, it has raised some challenging questions. How can we move forward when Black pain is a spectacle? Why has nothing changed since my earliest confrontation of race in America — when a 17 year old boy in a hoodie was killed for the audacity of walking outside with a pack of Skittles? Where do we go from here?

From these, I have stumbled upon a few pertinent lessons.

First and foremost, I have learned to afford myself enough grace to accept that I am tired. It has gotten to the point where sometimes the most radical thing I can do is turn on Netflix and unapologetically exist in my dorm. The struggle for justice (even if only a semblance) is long and arduous, and being constantly bombarded with the Lie genuinely wears on the psyche. As a result, it can be alluring to spiral into cynicism and lose sight of our passions amid all the bleakness. Taking a step back to rejuvenate can be all the reminder one needs that Black is beautiful, our lives teem with worth, and our ancestors did not struggle in vain. 

Leaning in to rest does not mean we are straying away from the fight for justice. Instead, it simply means we are restoring the tools we need to hit the ground running a little bit harder tomorrow. That is more than okay. As a Black community it is imperative that we tend to our health both physically and mentally, and encourage others to the same.

Beyond centering our personal well being, as a country, we also need to set the story straight as to what white privilege is. There are endless examples of white people decrying the term, pointing out that in spite of their whiteness, they have faced struggle. This, they believe, invalidates the existence of white privilege altogether. Take this Princeton alumni as a case in point.

However, I contend that the treatment of Kyle Rittenhouse is all the evidence one needs to understand what “white privilege” truly entails. It does not mean that white people do not face challenges. It does not ignore the nuance of class and history. What white privilege describes is how a white person like Kyle Rittenhouse, who was recently acquitted of all charges after fatally shooting two people in the August of 2020, can be treated as a boy (and even a hero) while Black children are framed as dangerous adults, adding body after body to the procession of Black death.

The fact that Black Americans had to brace for a similar acquittal in the case of Ahmaud Arbery points to how much leniency is afforded to white people under the law. It should not have been a question whether what Arbery’s three killers did was beyond the scope of a citizen’s arrest. Their decision to murder a defenseless man evidences that the only on the grounds on which Arbery was killed was a fear of Blackness. 

These two cases highlight the very reason that white people continue to engage in vigilantism. Black folk not only walk on needles before law enforcement, but they must do so before white citizens, too, as precedent has shown that they can mimic extrajudicial, state-sanctioned violence, all the while being presumed innocent. 

It is no coincidence that my awakening to race in America came from the actions of a vigilante named George Zimmerman. It is unsurprising that from the Jan. 6 insurrection to Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal, vigilantism has been emboldened. The common thread is white privilege. In addition to leaving Black people vulnerable to unjust violence, this iteration of white supremacy negatively affects the mental health of Black people. If we fail to treat it as the epidemic it is, I fear for more days where white privilege brushes a wide eraser over atrocity. 

Popular culture is past due for a discussion on white privilege rather than quickly dismissing its existence. If our respective communities can have this conversation without admonishing people of color for speaking out about their experiences, Black people can stop having to toxically vie for perfection and instead focus on being human — an experience that should be a learning, feeling process full of grace and growth. 

My last take away from November has been about how much I need my people. Individualism has hardly bred progress for anyone besides, maybe, themselves. As I, and increasingly more Black people across the country, find themselves in institutions and positions of privilege, we cannot forget the value of community. If we are not intentional about showing care toward each other, I am afraid that no one else will. For it has been my Black family on campus that has asked how I am doing amidst the lie of whiteness’ damning work. It has been my Black professors and mentors who have seen enough humanity in me to allow me to take days off of classes. 

It has only ever been Black people who have unequivocally fought for Black people. To lose sight of this is to forget the daring Black souls who sowed a beautiful culture from nothing.

This is all to say, the past month has illuminated a question that has permeated Black history — the most American history: What does it mean to be seen and heard as a human being? 

No matter what Biden and his turkeys may show us, or a litany of court cases may tell us, I pray that we remember that there is nothing Black people are not. We are creators. We are culture. We are everything beautiful. We are the only democracy America has ever known. We are community. We are here and, damn it, do we deserve to be. We are our ancestors' wildest dreams.

Black people are tomorrow.

Collin Riggins is a sophomore from Kansas City, Mo majoring in the Department of African American Studies. He can be reached at riggins@princeton.edu.

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