By Stephen Jamal Leeper
In 1724 the South Carolina legislature passed its first “bring your gun to church” law as a precautionary measure against slave rebellions. The fear of slaveowners was that if — when — the rebellion came, it would be on the Lord’s day. Then, fifteen years later, on a Sunday, 20 slaves rose up and began what’s now called the Stono Rebellion — the largest slave insurrection prior to the American Revolution. In the end dozens of plantations were burned and nearly fifty white men, women, and children were murdered.
When we take the long view of American history a subtle truth emerges: America has always teetered on the precipice of racial violence. From the Stono Rebellion to Nat Turner’s to the Tulsa Race Riot, to Watts, to Ferguson — America has a tradition of explosions of racial powder kegs. The unknown variable is typically the flashpoint. White America has thus lived with a generational angst, a primordial fear that is as old as the country. The fear of an ever-impending and recurring day of reckoning.
Colonial America knew the risks involved in the enterprise of trafficking human bodies. White slaveholders sought to mitigate the risks, and assuage their fears through legislation. The aforementioned “bring your gun to church” law is one such example. Another is the Negro Act of 1740, also referred to as Slave Codes. One of the prohibitions in the Slave Codes was slave congregations without white supervision and except for the purpose of labor for whites. The punishment for breaking these laws was typically whipping and, or imprisonment. After the abolition of slavery, the slave codes morphed into black codes. They were similar in both content and function — restriction of Black bodies’ freedom of movement. The punishment for violating the codes was arrest, fine, or forced labor. Today the black codes have evolved into a set of policies and practices established by the criminal justice system and enforced by law enforcement agencies across the country (racial profiling, court fines).
With the long history of white fear and control of the black body as the backdrop, it’s clear why accepting an invitation to Justice or Else! is such a radical act of defiance:
- It’s a large public gathering of black bodies commemorating a monumental gathering of black men in the nation’s capital.
- The gathering was organized by black leaders and was not sanctioned by white leadership
- The purpose of the gathering is not for white labor in any form or fashion
- The name of the gathering stokes White fears of the exercise of Black power.
After repeated public loss of Black life and defeat in the courts, Black people are looking for opportunities not simply to vent rage but to demonstrate a powerful act of defiance against White dominance. What better way to do that than to answer the call of the most controversial and despised Black leader by the White establishment? The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have long been the outlet for Black rage in America. Why? He’s always been unafraid to say what Black people have felt on their jobs, at their schools, in civic organizations. The truth about race in America.
And the truth is America is deathly afraid of being honest about race.
People of color are afraid to talk. White folks are afraid to listen. So what do we do? In a misguided attempt to be polite in multi-racial circles we talk around race like people talk around death at funerals. The person in the casket isn’t dead, they’ve “passed on” or “crossed over.” In reality this feigned modesty is an attempt to mask an inability to accept what is clear to those who want to see. America is as much a racial caste system today as it was fifty years ago. This is true for two basic reasons: 1) America’s legacy of racism and 2) its maintenance of racism through cultural attitudes, social practices, and policy.
When I heard Minister Farrakhan for the first time as an undergraduate student I was at a church. He spoke at length about the tragedy of Katrina and the resiliency of Black folks in New Orleans. In that sermon, delivered by a Muslim in a Church, a veil lifted and I became a believer. Not in God. I already believed in God. My mother raised me in the church and she had been a devoted woman of faith all her life. When she was just a child she took control of her spiritual journey by choosing a different denomination than the one she was raised with — a path I took when I reverted to Islam.
What Minister Farrakhan made me a believer in was in the Resistance. The first lesson he taught me was the power and necessity of clarity of perspective. He spoke unapologetically as a black man, raised in Boston, son of a dark skinned black mother who had a color complex, descendant of a people whose bodies did not belong to them and who had been fighting for hundreds of years to reclaim themselves.
I’d like to say that I now always speak with that type of clarity and conviction, but I know that that’s not true — not yet. I catch myself often following both written and unwritten black codes that I know were designed to control my body and my voice. I follow out generational fear with practiced acquiescence, followed by the regret.
Coming to Justice or Else!, risking relationships with white friends, coworkers, and bosses, jeopardizing social position and shots at promotions — this is the opportunity Farrakhan and the organizers of the march gave us 20 years ago. A symbolic declaration of Independence from White dominance. I was only eight at the time, too young to understand its significance and therefore too young to make my declaration. Insha’Allah I won’t miss it this time.
Stephen Jamal Leeper is a writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. He believes in the power of words, of story, of dreaming, of activism, of community, of people, of the Creator. In May 2015, he graduated from California College of the Arts with a MFA in Creative Writing. Two such ongoing projects are a chapbook of poetry entitled, Revolutionary: Overthrow Thyself and a postmodern memoir entitled, Nigrescence: Becoming Black.