Deonte Osayande is writer from Detroit, Mi. His poems and essays have been published in over a dozen publications and have won awards in the Dudley Randall Poetry Contest, the Wayne Literary Review Poetry Contest and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is a two time member of the Detroit National Poetry Slam Team. He is also a poetry reader for The Adroit Journal and teaches creative writing through the Inside Out Detroit program. Currently, he is a Professor of English at Wayne County Community College.
WHEN I REALIZED I WAS A GHOST
Growing up, I had conflicting feelings about ghosts. I was a child, worrying over whether they were actually real. I feared what mischief unseen spirits might cause, but only because that's what I had been taught to do. It was normal; other kids my age were afraid of the dark and afraid of ghosts, as they associated them with things hidden in the shadows, things to be feared. Growing up in the Catholic church, I was taught a lot about angels and the Holy Spirit, so my spiritual beliefs at the time came into contrast with the feelings of my peers. Over time, I didn't come to a resolution as to whether or not to fear ghosts. The thought of it didn't linger long in my mind because it didn't appear to be a pressing matter directly in front of me. I wouldn't think much of ghosts again, until the thought dawned on me that I may have always been one.
Over sixty years after Ralph Ellison published his novel, The Invisible Man, the black body still isn't seen, but in a different way than before. Black people in America are dehumanized, less unseen than as a specter today. The mainstream gaze knows that we’re there somewhere, but fears our presence and refuses to see us. The black body today is viewed as a ghost, as something transparent, as something dead or to be dead. The everyday world black people live in is relatively invisible to the white gaze.
Growing up in an urban black community, I learned to distrust from a young age. I’d seen patrol cars hiding by exit ramps, waiting to pounce behind a speeding car, or to even stop a vehicle and check if there was an offense committed only after the stop has been made. I was taught about the way officers would commit crimes against blacks or stand by when a crime was committed against black men and women generations before my time. I grew up knowing about the atrocities of lynching, knowing that these public killings were sometimes done before there was a trial or any evidence presented to prove whether the black person in question was actually a criminal. I grew up with parents from Alabama and Tennessee and they raised me in Detroit, MI, a city that knows racism and police brutality firsthand.
It was 1943 when a race riot broke out because of an argument that started on Belle Isle, an island in Detroit. The brawl spread from there into the city and continued until after 36 hours of rioting from both blacks and whites 34 people were dead, 25 of whom were black. More than 1,800 people were arrested, and despite black and white people being involved in the riot, the majority of the arrests were inevitably black. Twenty-four years later, in 1967, another race riot broke out in the city after police raided an after hours bar where there was a party celebrating the return of two service men from Vietnam. The police decided to detain everyone present at the party and after an angry crowd gathered in protest of the arrest, the riot began. After four days of rioting 43 people were dead, 33 of which were black, over 1,000 people were injured, over 7,000 people were arrested and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.
These were not the first, nor the last, race riots to occur in Detroit, and much of the property damage from these riots still litters the city today.
It's only now that the mass white population is beginning to return to Detroit. Because of this new influx of white citizens in what has long been a predominantly black city, there has also been a shift that many of us see in the practices of the police force. In the downtown and midtown area, the police are seen patrolling as they are in the rest of the city, constantly on the move and ready to be on call in case anything happens. We all know who the police is really there to protect. Conversely, out in the residential neighborhoods, response times tend to be as slow as I've remembered growing up. Even with all their officers prowling the streets, they can't seem find time to appear when they are actually needed for help. That’s why the police aren't often called for help unless it is a last resort. In our neighborhoods, we know they’ll do absolutely nothing.
As case after case of unarmed black people murdered by police reaches a national and international eye, we lend our eye to social media. Many news outlets don't cover stories about incidents of police brutality against the black body. They don't see us or our lives unless we are trending on Twitter, or have gotten a record number of hits on Reddit. The tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and countless others go unheard of in the national eye until the voice of black outrage is so loud that it can't continue to go ignored, lest the media miss out on a breaking news story. There was solidarity and support coming from the people of Palestine before major American news outlets even set a foot in Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown was killed. In an interview after receiving no indictment for the killing officer, Darren Wilson said he had a clear conscience when it came to killing Brown. This, after he received over a half million dollars from an online fundraiser for no reason other than the fact that he had murdered Brown. No major media outlet has discussed this as being problematic. No major media outlet has talked about how a grown man sleeps perfectly fine at night, after being paid over half a million dollars for shooting an unarmed teenager. For the most part, the mainstream white American gaze doesn't view the deaths of black people as an important issue to discuss. Unless all their friends are sporting a #BlackLivesMatter because it’s the new fad, they find difficulty caring about black people dying unjustly at the hands of the police when they already didn't value the lives of black people.
This act of ignoring the atrocities of black deaths continues, even now during a time of protest. Despite all that black people are doing to show they deserve to live, the mainstream gaze is still sweeping the issues of police brutality and racism under the rug. A homemade explosive device was detonated next to a NAACP office in Colorado Springs, CO and as far as news coverage there is a relative silence, let alone any utterance of the word terrorism. There isn't a threat to white lives, so the news can justly ignore the story. This clear sign of terrorism against blacks makes me wonder if threats to the black man’s world are similarly viewed as threats in the mainstream eye.
As nationwide protests rage on for justice for black people against police brutality, there is a side that asks where the outrage is for black on black crime. This argument is always brought up in these situations where a police officer unjustly kills a black person, despite the fact that statistically most crimes committed by one race are carried out by those of the same race. It is similar to how Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent are always asked about terrorism, as if all people of that background should be held accountable for the actions of a select few. White on white crime is never brought up when there is a school shooting, bank robbing, etc. But when an officer kills a black person there is always a voice that asks about the violence and crime in the black community and why they haven't heard anyone speaking against that instead of the murder of blacks by policemen. Don’t get me wrong – the outrage for black on black crime is there as well. Activists and community groups are always at work to try to decrease violence, gang activity and crime in urban environments. But even these stories, the stories that white men want to hear, are rarely heard, stories of the black body surviving. Thriving.
In a separate instance, in January of 2015, upwards to two thousand people were killed as the village of Baga in Nigeria was burned to the ground by terrorist group Boko Haram. But western media didn’t utter so much as a word on this atrocity. Though receiving some coverage after the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in April, 2014, the organization went on to commit even greater atrocities which the media turned a blind eye to. This terrorist organization is reported to have killed 3,600 civilians in its first four years of existence, and an additional 2,000 in just the first half of 2014. In a western civilization that is quick to mobilize military efforts against terror threats, there is little to no international action aiding in combating this group in comparison to other efforts. When it's black bodies dying, the mainstream gaze overlooks it because ghosts are supposed to be dead.
Most of the time, when we hear someone who believes in ghosts talk about “hauntings,” we blow them off. Call them crazy. We view such incidents as irrational. This is the same way the western mainstream media views black bodies and the violence commited against them daily. A made up tale that’s hard for the western mainstream to see as possible, because it's happening to a people that are there but aren't ever truly seen. These two separate stories are instances of violence against the black world that western civilization won't talk about.
The simple existence of black people is obvious in the western eye because of their powerful roles in entertainment and athletics. Yet the western eye doesn't believe in the safety of the black sect of society. Threats to black lives aren't seen as threats, because in order to do that, there has to be an equal value of life. Black lives continue to die, and solutions for protecting them still aren't being made because we aren't seen as something valuable enough to be protected. Conventional wisdom says one cannot kill a ghost. Our society believes the same thing, and refuses to see blacks as nothing more than a lingering part of our civilization. The way black people are hunted and haunted by the presence of the police doesn't appear to be a priority for the mainstream gaze; it hasn't been for some time now. They choose not to see it despite the fact that we're right in front of their faces. It's like we're transparent – something is definitely there, but everyone chooses to see through and beyond it instead of recognizing its presence. Mainstream Western civilization doesn't want to help us. It views our deaths as a norm, and we're seen in a similar vein as ghosts – lingering until there are none of us left.