It is something that has perplexed me from the moment I became cognizant of the fact that I am a Black male: Why is it so easy for people to believe in the accusations charged against us? From the day your older brother blamed you for breaking a lamp in your parent’s living room and the whooping you took for his lie, to the national high profile court cases with a Black male as the defendant, no matter the guilt of the unjust conviction or the innocence pled during the case- in the back of our skeptical minds many people White and Black alike say,”…but he probably did it,” as a means of psychological security in the face of questionable jurisprudence.
It is as if each of us is shackled to the misdeeds of the others -and shackled together as Black males any one of us can become the cheapest token paid in exchange for the ideal of White justice. White justice can be defined as a system of justice that serves the interests of the privileged mostly White society from which most Black males are excluded.
In the old days they’d have a picnic and lynch us quickly; but for a long while they’d leave us to rot in a jail cell; yet today they shoot us and claim self defense. After all, it doesn’t take much to turn a doubt about someone into a fear of someone, does it?
Indeed it could be said that one only becomes fully aware of one’s Black male-ness when one’s innocence is doubted in the face of another’s accusation; that is to be innocent and yet always thought of as guilty of something, anything in the past, in the present or in the near future. Moreover, it’s not only the accusation itself –everyone gets accused of something in their lives- it is also the doubt expressed by others toward you, even those closest to you- that thought,”…but he probably did it,” which ultimately drives a wedge between you as a Black male and the lofty ideals held by the rest of society. It is that thought which places the shackle deep in your heart and passes that very doubt on to you in regards to how you perceive the other Black males around you.
To quote Det. Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) in Fuqua and Ayers TRAINING DAY: “Everybody’s gotta have a little dirt on them.”
It is a racially stigmatized existential condition we might call negroductio ad absurdum, which Latinizes the fallacy that: all Negroes must guilty of something, for why else would they be accused?
Cole Riley, the pen name for a well-known journalist and reviewer, has written a powerful novel called LITTLE WHITE LIES that traces the welding of that shackle of doubt in the heart of a young Black male and the degrading spiritual, mental and physical suffering of the existential condition that I am calling, negroductio ad absurdum.
The story within the novel is so simple, so commonplace that one would be quick to dismiss it as cliché, but take the advice of this reviewer- be not so foolish.
When a 17 year old Black male high school basketball star is accused of masterminding and perpetrating a brutal gangbang and beating of the White teenage daughter of a Lieutenant Governor and her friend, he is railroaded into various violent prisons as he awaits trial. The basketball star is mocked and scorned by those who knew him during a trial that is seemingly sabotaged by his weak and ineffectual public defender. Finally, he suffers a mental breakdown that puts him in a mental institution where he is overmedicated and tortured with shock treatment and random violence as punishment for continually declaring his innocence.
The story is only as significant as how it gets told.
Riley recounts the very psycho-sexual process that ultimately thwarts the archetypical Black male’s coming-of-age narrative; that is to say, he reveals in clear and concise prose how Black male-ness is not measured by the depth of one’s mind, but instead by the length of one’s penis. Moreover, how said penis becomes the glorified rod that spoils the Black man in this White man’s world.
Of great importance is how Riley paints an accurate and painful portrait of the tragic circumstances of the virgin male child. It is a stage of masculine development that many of us wash from our memories as quickly as we do when we take a whore’s bath after getting our first piece. “Most male children go through a period of psycho-sexual instability associated directly with the status of their virginity. Feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, depression, hostility and anti-social behaviors have their root in the adolescent male child’s status as a virgin in an over-sexualized society such as ours. The virgin status of a male child leaves him in a ‘highly suggestible state’ as he searches to prove his manhood, externalize his masculine identity, and become comfortable with both his sexual orientation and his social skills with the opposite sex.” (281-282, Slave Cinema)
Riley restores this forgotten stage of male self-loathing in vivid and rich detail. See how in this excerpt from the novel in a conversation between Melvin, the 17 year old high school basketball star and his older brother Danny, the shame of male virginity lays the groundwork for a highly suggestible mental state in a young male.
““Have you had your first piece, Mel?”
I didn’t want to answer him. I was still a virgin. I’d come close but no cigar. Rita gave me head but that didn’t count. Boys would be boys. Pussy and girls were not my priority. I wanted to go pro, be on some NBA team, doing the thing I loved. Nobody in this family understood that, not even Pops. He liked to talk about getting rich, but he thought it was foolish to dream about stacking paper from playing a kid’s game.
Still, I didn’t answer him. I didn’t know how to answer him.
“Little brother, it’s human nature,” he said. “If you don’t get a nut early and often, you’ll go crazy. Or get blue balls.”
I whispered,” Blue balls.” He had said it like it was the worst thing in life except getting hit by a truck. Or a bus.
“Blue balls is when a guy don’t get some sex and come, then those sacks between your legs start to swell until they almost pop.” My brother laughed. “It’s a horrible thing when it happens.”” (20, Little White Lies)
Young Melvin is easily led astray in his highly suggestible state of male virginity and Riley allows us to see the pressure points, the anxieties, the fears, and the mistakes of judgment that color Melvin’s tragic path. The bad company that Melvin keeps, the thugs who lure him to his unfortunate encounter with the White girls who will be his doom, these thugs do everything possible to insure that he thinks with his ‘little’ head while they provide the alcohol and pills to short circuit his ‘big’ head. The resultant change in demeanor and tone of these thugs as they accuse him of orchestrating the gangbang and the beatings is an irony of perspective not enjoyed since Alex’s friends (droogs) changed into his persecutors in Anthony Burgess’ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
Yet the most difficult aspect of the novel is not the sex, the characters, the misogyny, the racist police officers, and the political revenge meted out against Melvin as a symbol of “uncivilized” Black male savagery- the most difficult aspect of the novel is found within the chapters leading up to and concerning Melvin’s trial. I cannot count how many times I threw this book down in anger at the lack of evidence pertaining to Melvin’s guilt, the holes in the prosecution’s narrative of the gangbang, and finally the ineffectualness of Melvin’s court appointed attorney- only to be compelled to pick the book up again and continue reading.
To be sure many of us measure our idealistic image of the justice system from the linear, logical and neat dramatic resolutions of Dick Wolf’s long running LAW & ORDER franchises, but author Cole Riley never deviates from a circuitous, illogical yet ultimately realistic portrayal of the American criminal justice system and a Black male who stands accused within it. Because we might beg the question, isn’t this truthfully how many innocent Black males are unjustly convicted? Holes are left open in the logic of the prosecution’s narrative, DNA evidence goes ignored, important questions go unasked and witnesses are not challenged during the trial. Taken in sum, it’s a quasi-legal undermining of any Black male’s legal right to a presumption of innocence that outside of the courtroom in the society at large alienates Black male identity as it develops in a young child from the lofty goals of a color blind but White controlled society. Inside the courtroom such quasi-legal practices maintain a negative racial stereotype of all Black males corrupting juries, prosecutors, public defenders, judges and police officers along the way.
It is a process of alienation that is aided and abetted by news media outlets that never hesitate to show us when the accused is a Black male.
Such a realistic portrayal of these quasi-legal absurdities is just as frustrating and exhilarating as Mersault’s answer about why he shot the Arab on the beach in Camus’ THE STRANGER.
As Michelle Alexander has noted,” Those who have been swept within the criminal justice system know that the way the system actually works bears little resemblance to what happens on television or in movies.” (59) Cole Riley gives us a blow-by-blow, warts-and-all depiction of negroductio ad absurdum: All Negroes must be guilty of something, for why else would they be accused?
For anyone who would dare say that such a miscarriage of justice cannot be of a deliberate design- we need only turn to those Black males released from death row or from having served long prison sentences after being found wrongfully convicted by the work of The Innocence Project or those Black males who have had their convictions overturned because of new evidence, recanted testimony, DNA etc. From the Central Park Five to Brian Banks the California high school football player recently exonerated of a rape conviction after serving 5 years in prison, it is difficult to remain incredulous in regards to the racial bias in the criminal justice system unless affluenza is your permanent mental condition.
In the novel LITTLE WHITE LIES the author asks us to realize that the little white lies are the ones we tell ourselves concerning the guilt of an accused Black male; that thought,”…but he probably did it,” is all it takes to circumvent a legal system that prides itself on the benefit of a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, most Black males never receive such a doubt in the form of a benefit, but instead it is meted out in the form of a detriment to their freedom and a degradation of their existence.
All of this is not to say that all Black males are innocent of the crimes of which they have been accused, but instead to highlight the subtle and not so subtle ways that Black male identity is born and shaped by this existential doubt of innocence. In an article by Christopher Norris titled, New Study: Black Children Lose Protection of Assumed ‘Childhood Innocence’ Long Before Adulthood,” The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for Black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults.”
Moreover, the study that was authored by Matthew Jackson PhD and Phillip Atiba Goff PhD of UCLA,” tested 176 police officers, mostly White males, average age 37, in large urban areas, to determine their levels of two distinct types of bias- prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of Black people by comparing them to apes- “Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their White peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.”
It would appear that the early loss of the presumption of childhood innocence as detailed in the study shapes Black male identity in such a way that it is alienated from the larger context of “White” society and its presumption of childhood innocence for similarly aged White male children. It could be that such racial bias feeds into historically predetermined negative stereotypes of Black males that taken together circumvent the notion of reasonable doubt in criminal cases involving Black males. Moreover, it could be this racially coded bias against Black males that aids and abets a White gun owner’s ability to turn a doubt about someone Black into a fear of someone Black which ultimately has lethal consequences.
For example, you might recall how just after the Trayvon Martin murder so many of us Blacks thought that the case was a cut and dried example of racially motivated open murder, but by the time the defense finished skillfully taking away Trayvon’s presumption of innocence (school records, marijuana use, etc), he was made to look like the aggressor while Zimmerman was left to stand his ground against the threat of a Black male whom he had already held in doubt and by his pursuit he, himself, had already threatened.
And in my city of Detroit, on the second day of April 2014, a White man in a pick-up truck named Steven Utash accidentally hit a 10 year old Black boy and after he got out to check on the victim he was beaten near death by a “mob” of at least 20 Black males. The police quickly nabbed five young Black males with the aid of anonymous tips and according to the Detroit Free Press three of the defendants have,”confessed to kicking Utash of Clinton Township at least once, according to their statements to police read in court.” Of course, no one at this point dares question the certainty of the guilt of those Black males being accused; it is negroductio ad absurdum writ large because their arrests imply the conclusion that each one of them must be guilty of something or else they would not have been accused.
Although the tragedy of the Steven Utash appears unconscionable, the subsequent arrests reveal how easily – when the crime is Black on White -the presumption of innocence can be discarded in regards to Black male defendants vis-à-vis male defendants of the White race and other ethnicities.
The conspiracy of Mass Incarceration reveals itself when you overload the criminal justice system with Black males and compromise their presumption of innocence in the form of plea deals, coerced confessions and unjust convictions that become the only means to maintain an illusion of the ideal of White justice.
In LITTLE WHITE LIES, during the arrest, prolonged interrogation and trial of the lead character, Melvin, he is never once presumed innocent, no matter how many times he declares his innocence. Moreover, a confession is coerced from him using illegal tactics that are never questioned and it is that illegally obtained confession that further seals his fate. And although the novel does not end on a dismal note, circumstances finally do change in Melvin’s favor, the most painful lesson on display within the novel is the emotional abandonment of Melvin by his father. His father had always held him in doubt before the crime and he only returns at the end of Melvin’s ordeal to beat him with his cane in bitter disappointment at the way his life had ruined them both.
It truly is as if each of us as Black males is shackled to the deliberate mischaracterization of the others.
With its tragically all too commonplace story and its beautifully drawn characters who are full of contradictions, hubris and good intentions, the book LITTLE WHITE LIES (Strebor Books: MD, 2013) by Cole Riley is a compelling exploration of the Black male existential condition which has been defined here as negroductio ad absurdum; it is a racially biased condition of presumed guilt in the face of the ideal of White justice that shackles all of us together whether we like it or not.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press: New York, 2012.
Allen, Robert. “Uncooperative witness jailed; 4 to stand trial in Utash beating.” Detroit Free Press, April 22, 2014. http://www.freep.com/article/20140421/NEWS01/304210049/Utash-court-hearing-driver-attack
Deutsch, Linda. “Brian Banks, CA Football Player, Exonerated Of Rape Charges After Over 5 Years In Prison.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/24/brian-banks-ca-football-p_n_1543992.html
Norris, Christopher. “New Study: Black Children Lose Protection of Assumed ‘Childhood Innocence’ Long Before Adulthood.” The Good Men Project. http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/kt-black-boys-have-feelings-too/
Seewood, Andre. SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film 2nd Ed. Xlibris, 2010.