Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

California, the Beautiful, Or, Why the Killing and Incarceration of African Americans Won’t Budge the Ballot

Baseball Field on the National Mall

Image Credit: “The White Lot,” (1860-c 1990s), Histories of the National Mall, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

—an anthem for American baseball

“The United States is full of ballparks,” James Baldwin tells us. “My black vote, which has not yet purchased my autonomy, may yet, if I choose to use it, keep me out of the ballpark long enough to figure out some other move.”1 Writing on the eve of that tragic 1980 presidential election that continues to haunt, terrorize, and produce poor people everywhere—Reagan chosen in place of Carter, depriving masses of oxygen to breathe—Baldwin pointed out that “blacks may be using the vote to outwit the Final Solution. Yes. The Final Solution.” Baldwin sensed the violence within the nation, the proffering of external global conflict as a calculated distraction to justify internal displacement, fast tracks to jails and prisons, stop and frisk policies, state-sponsored assault on black and brown bodies, and nothing short of the incremental domestic genocide obfuscated by a similar American gradualism, national amnesia, and compartmentalized internationalism that is before us now. He seized upon American institutions—housing, hospitals, post offices, the military, universities, national parks, baseball parks, even—as participatory in a Brueghel-like disregard for human life, one in which the privileged and relatively content of the general republic pursue happiness, despite a deep and bracketed knowing that human beings are dying unnecessarily within their close proximity (Auden: “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”).2 Kierkegaard writes that compounding the predicament of “the poor person” surrounded “in his poverty” is the fact that she is “abandoned”3 and “singled out, given up, as a pitiable object of mercifulness” view.”

The public disavowal backed by institutions and bolstered with the vote evokes the terror Harriet Jacobs and others describes centuries before. Ordered to decorate for her mistress’ house for a party, Jacobs “spent the day gathering flowers and weaving them into festoons,” she said, “while the dead body of my father was lying within a mile of me. What cared my owners for that? He was merely a piece of property.”4 Troubling is the correlation of beauty (Jacobs, nature) and violence (murder, enslavement), institutions (the mistress’ private home, the public place where Jacob’s father rests) and murder. Moral human beings set on the “pursuit of happiness” scrub clean institutions—judicial, municipal, private—to justify murder of the dispossessed. Voters, flummoxed with heavy and misleading initiatives, desperate for preservation of innocent spaces, will inevitably vote for processes, politicians, and power structures that enable slow, bloodless administrative disappearance of the poor and marginalized.

The 1980 vote reflected an investment in social and political infrastructure that could rely on low-tech, intrepid, and outsourced violence to keep the American baseball park recreational and happy, the national park arid, green, and adventurous, the university a repository and safe space for knowledge production with no connection to bodies dehumanized, collected, and archived under the auspices of research. Newspapers readily report black and brown death in sound-bytes, short paragraphs, or sensational clicks, but the resonance of those deaths is none amid institutions of progress, bliss, and order. If a black person, for example, happens to be murdered in the same hour that a professional baseball player hits a single to left field, the single to left field—celebrated by fans in the ballpark, recorded by statisticians in a book, replayed on television by broadcasters during a sports show, talked about by friends in an argument over the best team, monetized by executives considering a trade—becomes more valuable than the destroyed black life. Institutionally, a baseball park is a powerful American tool for negligence and deceit and the privileging of material over life. Yet, its shiny playful veneer broadcasts sport, camaraderie, culture, and character.

Voters want to preserve institutions to keep sanity and distance from the realism of the deaths and ruined lives caught in the collateral damage of institution building. A shining example is San Francisco, a cultural (not administrative) capital of California, the world’s fifth largest economy behind the United States, China, Japan, and Germany. The city is the jewel of the Bay Area: an iconic bridge separates its borders from scenic forests and headlands; less than an hour south is the production and construction of Silicon Valley that drives the global information age. Workers move between San Francisco and Silicon Valley by train, employer luxury buses, and fancy cars capable of seating five, but more often than not transporting one. On the even of California’s primary election day, a 26-year-old African-American father of three was murdered on a San Francisco street at 11 a.m., becoming the city’s 16th homicide victim of the year. The local newspaper reported his death alongside a photo of the man in a red, white, and blue baseball cap and USA T-shirt, the blue sleeves marked with white stars, the chest panel featuring red and white stripes. The man died in the same neighborhood where police shot and killed (20 rounds were found in his body) an African-American man named Mario Woods in December 2015. A steady stream of outrageous killings have taken place in between. The latest, on the eve of an election, seemed to arrive as a reminder to voters and politicians alike to be sure to address the problem of violence in their campaigns and voting choices. The only turn to violence, however, was a preserving of the political and economic status quo that made violence possible. While the city that Baldwin referred to as “Mississippi West” is a favorite among privileged job seekers and socialites and tourists around the world, even its beauty cannot prevent the structural inequities that make African-American murder a disproportionate possibility within its limits.

Acknowledgement of the problem is cyclical, but never powerful enough to displace narratives of San Francisco as a liberal expanse of progressive politics and solidarity. For Baldwin, “[p]erhaps only black people realize this, but we are dying, here, out of all proportion to our numbers, and with no respect to age, dying in the streets, in the madhouse, in the tenement, on the roof, in jail and in the Army. This is not by chance, and it is not an act of God. It is a result of the action of the American institutions, all of which are racist: it is revelatory of the real and helpless impulse of most white Americans toward black people.”5

Of the diversion and lies and Reagan politics, Baldwin wanted no part and neither should we in the Trump regimented redux. Baldwin endured the despair while a resident in California during the Hollywood actor-turned Republican politician’s years as governor: “a very ugly time—the time of the Black Panther harassment, the beginning (and the end) of the Soledad Brothers, the persecution, and trial, of Angela Davis. That, all that, and much more, but what I really found unspeakable about the man was his contempt, his brutal contempt, for the poor.”6 Hear the echoes of then amplifying in the vociferous wind tunnel of now as Baldwin laments a presidentially inspired (Nixon’s) republic’s rush to “revile the Haitian, Cuban, Turk, Palestinian, Iranian” as a dress rehearsal for “really cursing the nigger.”7

Human beings the state has deemed niggers are being detained in Starbucks, warehoused in prisons, surveilled by passersby, accosted while sleeping, lynched, and kept out of ballparks, universities, and most institutions that comprise the everyday of functioning public spheres. Baldwin’s question in November 1980 was ours in November 2016: “How am I, for example, to explain to any of my tribe of nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews how it happens that in a nation so boastfully autonomous as the United States we are reduced to the present Presidential candidates?” The rhetorical beauty of that essay, published November 1 as “Notes on the House of Bondage” in The Nation, requires us to be mindful of Baldwin’s critique of his own elegiac prose. The grammatical allure, its patented prescience, and the unavailability, the moral impossibility of dissent for any serious liberal-minded reader of The Nation meant that well-intentioned human beings, magazine sternly in hand, might confuse agreement for responsibility, awareness for vigilance, or reading for action and resolution. I have read. I agree. I am good. Such willful confusion and fabricated concern mark the crime of innocence that transfers culpability for rogue electoral politics to a netherworld of unknown origin and demographics and creates a “house of bondage” that prompted Nikki Giovanni to ask, “Why do we in the Black world mostly have to vote with a gun and not a ballot to make changes?”8

Let me unpack the institutional violence another way. There’s an unbearable scene from Baldwin’s fourth novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone: the character Leo has mistaken The City College of New York, a “massive building, far, far away and set on a hill, and with green vines running up and down the walls, and with windows flashing like signals in the sunlight,” for a prison facility where he believes his brother is incarcerated.9 Leo’s blurring of the university ivy with the prison greens is representative of the violence decaying America. In California, the university prison parallax is most visible. Everywhere you find the reach of the state’s great research and teaching universities, collections of beautiful buildings and grounds and campaniles, there is a prison nearby spurning intellectual beauty. Though the prison may enroll and employ fewer, its caging of human beings, its symbolic power, and its production of negative energy and light, has far greater bandwidth than even the most impactful, towering, and beautiful campus or faculty. Like the slave plantation, both the historical one and its present-day ceremonial remnant, the prison is a powerhouse that creates the conditions that invite and encourage terror and dehumanization not only within its walls, but also in the fields and communities that surround for miles and miles. The fields invariably intersect with national and state parks, indigenous lands colonized and reserved for hiking, sightseeing, and camping, recreational erasure with a backpack, hiking boots, and a water bottle. The normalization of murder creeps into every stone, trail, river, and what cannot be corrupted naturally requires construction. The prison guard’s tower has an immediate function of preventing escape and a global function like that of a flight tower: to control what is in the air. What is rarely mentioned is the terror work that is done by the material metaphor of the prison complex, prison procedures, and the warden’s silence. Combined with the law, and always in the university’s shadow, the prison obfuscates until we are unsure what we are seeing. The University of California, Berkeley, is a beautiful ferry ride from San Quentin State Prison; the University of California, Davis, and its medical school have California State Prison Solano and California Medical Facility, a hospital for the incarcerated, as relative neighbors. UCLA is a knowledgeable drive from a network of jails, detention centers, and prisons. California Institution for Women is a thirty-minute drive away from UC Irvine. If you find yourself in the state’s central zip codes, exploited workers toil in agricultural fields that shade the prison’s outskirts. Proximity of prisons and universities is a reality for each of the University of California and California State University campuses. Elaine Scarry, in her meditation on justice suggests that we should not “misstate, or even merely understate, the relation of the universities to beauty” and, in turn, justice, but understatement is the method by which institutions control, capture and kill.10 Recent calculations place California’s prison landscape at 33 adult prisons, 13 adult community correctional facilities, and six juvenile facilities incarcerating more than 165,000 adult offenders. The CDCR also supervises 148,000 adult parolees and more than 2,000 juvenile parolees. Its fiscal year budget was $10.5 billion for 2015-16, not far off from the annual revenue for Major League Baseball. It employs more than 65,000 people and features a police force that rivals the size of the nation’s largest, the New York City Police Department. The prison’s real estate office owns more property than any other stage agency; it amounts to more than 27,000 acres of California landscape.

And yet, the public discourse in California centers on using the ballot to protect the state’s coastline, its beauty. Advocating on behalf of Proposition 68, an initiative to allocate $4 million to support the “state’s parks, water, and natural resource needs,” Walter Moore, president of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, wrote in The Mercury News, “Here in the Bay Area, we’re surrounded by the bounties of nature—the mountains define our region, the beauty of our beaches is world renowned and the bay provides sweeping vistas that can make even the most seasoned travelers stop short. Yet, we understand that natural resource protection is a dynamic process and one that cannot rest in the face of the increasing threats of climate change and the uncertainty of federal government support.” Moore rightfully argues for voter-backed institutional support to protect the environment, but his classical take on beauty—something stunning that stops the traveler— requires a jazz rendition that can hold the complication of black lives and their relationship to institutions, nature, and the carceral state. Environmental legislation absent intersections with Black Lives Matter mandates operate to strengthen platforms of black dehumanization reminiscent of nineteenth-century social environmental death.

For the enslaved African-American, nature sometimes represented a prison. If they were not careful, they could die by river, by tree, or in the fields. The beautiful South, with its waterways and scenic foliage, was commandeered by overseers and slave owners in the effort to corral, suppress, and control black life. Slave testimonies paint the scene in horrific colors and through images the slaves seem to have carried with them for a lifetime. Its present palpability is symbolized in an institution like the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, which has “Protecting Merced County since 1855” inscribed on all of its vehicles. Slave testimony and slave narratives provide the evidence, voice, and memory that relate the terror of landscape. A woman named Vergy declares, “Yes, the South is a beautiful place; it’s so pretty.”11 And then she begins to detail her dislike for picking cotton. With mountain ranges and lakes and caves and waterfalls, the South that Vergy references is alive and green, a natural expanse that exposes creations of God coexisting with man-made edifices, and suspension and drawbridges. The woods are green, the lakes are blue, and rivers flow over rocks to create a soothing and relaxing sound. It would seem impossible, barring a natural disaster, to turn such serenity into evil. But that’s what we learn from testimony. Landscape was enlisted to join slaveholders in the keeping of their property.

For example, in the familiar practice of explaining what happened on neighboring farms, one former slave woman said, “I know when I was a child I heard my mother talking about it; a boy run away and the white folks was after him, and he jumped in a creek and got drowned.” They did not find the boy, she said, until his body rose to the surface three days later. Brown’s Creek was the setting for one slave’s memory of a lynching. “When Ben Brown was hung they carried him out to Brown’s Creek to hang him. All at once there was a roaring in the water, and the horses started running away from folks.” The area was referred to as the “hanging ground.” A slave from Tennessee lamented, “They used to stand slaves backwards to the river and shoot them off in the river.” In the narratives, the “woods” are evoked as a dangerous place where runaway slaves seek refuge, even if only for the day. According to Mrs. Sutton, “niggers would run away and go from city to city, in the woods.” Reed from Hartsville, Tennessee, said slaves “would run away and hide in the woods, come home at night, and get something to eat and out he would go again.” Mrs. Sutton explained that re-captured slaves were either sold or killed. “I’ve known my mother to help them the best she could,” said one former slave, recalling his childhood. “They would stay in the thick woods and come in at night, and mother would give them something to eat.” He recalled one slave who did not get away. Rebuffing his master’s son’s attempts to beat him, the slave ran into the woods. The white man “pursued him and found him sleep on a sand bar out in the river; so he killed him in his sleep and threw him in the river.” From the Americanesque sandbar in the river, the slave was killed. Decades later, with nature’s true intent of beauty and sustenance somewhat restored, the man-made additions to landscape keep African Americans further incarcerated.

If this is the history and past of African American relationships to the environment, what reconciliation process is required to create an environmental discourse that is at once about protecting the environment but also understanding African American subjectivity within that environment? If death by tree, river, wood, plank, stone is no longer possible, how do we account for the transfer of violence to the carceral state? In August and September, millions of college students will descend upon university and college campuses, unbeknownst to them, a prison in their midst. In October, professional baseball culminates its long season, crowds delighting in the crowning of a national champion. The fall is also a beautiful time to visit California’s state parks as well as the national parks within the states territory. November will arrive again, the ballot creating another opportunity for expressions of civic duty. Mighty populous California thinks it can shift the House. But really, these institutions will quietly preserve the processes of murder. “Take me out to the ball game,” the song goes; “keep me out of the ballpark,” Baldwin says.

James Baldwin, “Notes on the House of Bondage.” In The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1985, 671.
2 W. H. Auden and Edward Mendelson, “Musée Des Beaux Arts.” Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. 2007 Modern Library ed. New York: Modern Library, 2007, 179.
Søren Kierkegaard, Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. Works of Love. 16 Vol. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995, 322.
Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Signet Classics, 2010; 1861.
Ibid., 671
Ibid., 672
Ibid., 669
Nikki Giovanni, Sacred Cows—and Other Edibles. New York: W. Morrow, 1988, 137.
James Baldwin, Tell Me How Long the Train’s been Gone. New York: Vintage International, 1998, 1968.
10 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, 8.
11 The testimony is taken from George P. Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.

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