It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.

What the hell is a Scalawag?

It is the notion of justice that allows societies to misplace death. When justice is read through the Law*—that set of written rules that we are meant to venerate and believe are integral to being in a "fair" and "proper" society—death becomes an object. We are meant to trust the assemblage of juries, judges, law enforcers, and legislators because, with the occasional injustice or instances of brutality, they supposedly have "our" best interests at heart. Death becomes a spectating object, sitting at the table of justice with no discernible claim. No words to say that the Law will hear.

//

When I voted in November—at the nearby elementary school two miles from where I live—the man next to me wore a confederate-flag baseball cap. I had been going to my favorite coffee spot—two blocks from where I live—for months before I noticed the truck with the confederate-flag bumper sticker. I realize that this same truck is always there. My interactions in this place suddenly make more sense: the elongated stares, the scoffs and disdain the one time I ask if a food they have is gluten-free. (How dare I have a body? How dare I try to know it?) The owner who mentions his Black wife every time we interact. The confederate-flag truck could be any of theirs. I live in Western Massachusetts and it is 2017. This remains my favorite coffee spot, and I still go here because I have gotten used to moving through (and living in) spaces where I do not feel safe.

Photo by Devyn Springer.

//

Last year, my cousin was killed. I say this only to explicate a misplacing. When "Black death," or the tacit, accepted, acknowledged but unreacted to extraction of Black life, takes place—something happens. When we are killed, we ask a system that misplaces and misrecognizes us to deliver justice. We are in and of a country where the Law is the law of the land. We forget the people who live that death—who feel its visceral force every day and soon recognize it as their own pulse—and we remember our reverence for Law. We embrace a system that claims it is invested in justice, but which spins on an intergenerational axis of acceptable death. Lynchings and death row. When Black people are killed—when the police kill those of us who are disabled, chronically poor, jobless, exploited, neglected and traumatized; when state-sanctioned violence kills us; when our country kills Black women, trans people, and especially Black trans women and femmes—dying is deemed the crime. There is grief. Amidst calls for justice that assume the country of the free and brave has some moral conscience, there is a misplacing. When we are killed routinely, the legal system is not failing. It is operating as designed.

We embrace a system that claims it is invested in justice, but which spins on an intergenerational axis of acceptable death.

//

After Donald Trump is elected—after the country is unveiled—swastikas and "kill the niggers" appear on a mountain in the sleepy Massachusetts town where I live. Death barks loudly again. There are so few of us "niggers" in this town that I know—for someone—the apparition of a "nigger" is me.

//

This man is our president. I attend a meeting for Black & Pink, an LGBTQ prison abolition organization, and someone remarks: it's not that he's our president, it's that we are the country that elected and has a system that facilitated the election of a braggadocio rapist. I add that we are a country that has the hubris to behave time and time again like this is not us. Like this is not our truest face.

//

Hours before I drive past the mountain where "nigger" is sprawled in gray and red graffiti, I am in a convenience store. I am buying cigarettes and Red Bull in a petty attempt not to feel. I have debated throughout the day how to go about my living: how to give credence to the legitimate daily fear that my life is set to be ripped apart by a planet—an entire world shaped by anti-Blackness—that will quiet me in death. I already swallow bits of myself and hide my sharpest edges in order to survive. I play the non-threatening role well and find myself routinely cast to assuage White people's fears. But at the end of the day, the arrangement of harm still crawls over the horizon: The one where some people are more disposable than others. I am trying to acknowledge the death in me, without dying.

My body knows there is not one violent summer or spring, but all the seasons are bloody.

//

There are days that the Law gets to me. Most days it is because I look at my watch and realize that time is passing and that my loved ones and what I might call the "beloved many" deserve so much more. Justice is empty when it does not recognize the conditions of our lives in full. Privileged are our attempts at retribution: courtrooms, trials, investigations, the list goes on. Privileged is the idea that torture, caging, and slow extraction—or "incarceration"—are deaths we deserve. The truth is that the Law has never been just relegated to the South. Instead, the legal and systematic degradation of some people's lives is how this entire country's blood beats. The town I live in is 95 percent White and 0.5 percent of its population is Black, which is to say there are very few niggers for the graffiti to speak of killing.

Zora Neale Hurston also said "I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands." Where is your sword and what is your harp?

//

Privileged is the notion that this death, these deaths, are isolated. That they can and will be addressed. That state apparatuses know how to ease loss. The state will occupy a whole city in the name of justice for all, our president tells us. I just point to a country that rounds up those of us deemed otherwise: women of color, poor people, survivors of abuse, undocumented people, disabled people, queer and trans people (especially those of color), and across all these vectors, Black people—systematically, unflappably, and "empirically" millions of Black people. Institutionalize, cage, ignore, and isolate us. Whether it is sanctioned or left unaddressed by elected officials and the Law, we know who is demonized in the end. Their stolen hours run through us. All of us, I think it is important to say.

I already swallow bits of myself and hide my sharpest edges in order to survive.

//

Zora Neale Hurston said that "If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it."

Photo by Devyn Springer.

//

In some sense, what our legal system does is bury death alive. All notions of interconnectedness are suppressed in the dirt. Buried beneath us. Untethered and unattached to the seen world, the world above ground, the world in which we live. Color it just: the gradations of sanctioned killing, national megalomania, the manifestation of bordered soon-to-be walls. Bombs descending from American helicopters just become part of the sum total of bombs dropped by Americans from the sky.

Privileged is the notion that this death, these deaths, are isolated. That they can and will be addressed. That state apparatuses know how to ease loss.

//

Attempts to take killers to a courtroom, where the legal decimation of my exact body—or not my body but the blood that runs through me—can enable the status quo when they let everyone else off the hook. I am not here to prescribe feelings: your anger, my grief, their misunderstanding, your trauma, our misplacing. It's all taciturn under the Law.

//

Death, in its current form, lingers at a moral grave. The question becomes, to echo Christina Sharpe, who attends the wake?

Photo by Devyn Springer.

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I often find myself memorizing statistics: the number of people who will lose their health care in this bill, the extent of the racial wealth gap, the extent to which public school funding parallels boundaries of race and class, the number of trans and nonbinary people killed this year alone, how many queer Black men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime, how many bullets enter into people's bodies every single day, how much more willing we are to sentence someone to death when they are Black and the victim is White. The list goes on and on. But no matter how many numbers I lodge inside me, fast and slow death are the norms. The system stays inadequate, untenable, and anything but—here's that word again—just.

//

Zora Neale Hurston also said "I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands." Where is your sword and what is your harp?

//

Death and my body do not forget. In this country, as an imposed feature of this country and its untenable power, death echoes loudly for those willing to recognize the sound. My death knows the quiet. My body knows the difference between ruckus and noise. My body knows there is not one violent summer or spring, but all the seasons are bloody. There is not one borderland or one Martin Luther King Jr. Street. But there are a thousand courtrooms and jailhouses and detention centers and police stations and TV sets in nice homes, and fired FBI chiefs and lobbyists for the NRA and Democrats and Republicans who we are all supposed to trust. There are thousands of people who relish a legal system that is anything but just.

Someone remarks: it's not that he's our president, it's that we are the country that elected and has a system that facilitated the election of a braggadocio rapist. I add that we are a country that has the hubris to behave time and time again like this is not us. Like this is not our truest face.

//

And then: then there is me. Whispering to both life and death: know me, know me and carve a world in this knowledge, know me well—both of you—so we can all get free.

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* In writing of the capital-L Law, I am riffing on Marquis Bey's essay "I Like My Coffee Black: Fugitive Blackness (With Gratitude to Fred Moten)" where Bey explains "the Law is a violent force seeking to preserve order… it must be noted that the Law is distinct from justice." For example, injustices like the dispossession of native people, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Black codes, mass deportations, Japanese internment, Jim Crow practices, and marital rape were all considered "lawful" at a point in the United States.

Joshua Aiken

Joshua Aiken is a writer whose work has been featured in publications such as Nepantla, Assaracus, Cactus Heart, juked, TENDERLOIN, and the Winter Tangerine Review. He is the former Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative and received graduate degrees in History and Forced Migration from the University of Oxford. He now lives in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.