Who’s Afraid of Black Men’s Eyes?
On Memorial Day, in Miami, a 14-year-old black kid named Tremaine McMillan was walking down the beach with his mother–and bottle-feeding his puppy–when cops blocked his path in ATVs. A few minutes before, the kid had been rough-housing in the surf with a friend, and the cops wanted to question him about it.
Moments later, the cops body-slammed the boy—still holding his puppy—onto the beach, got him in a chokehold, and arrested him for resisting arrest.
So far, so sickeningly normal.
But in this case, the police’s cover-story for the body-slam, the chokehold, and the kid’s subsequent arrest—that he was “clenching,” or, in other accounts, “flaring” his fists–was hard to sell, due to one small but troublesome fact: cellphone video showed that the kid never stopped cradling his puppy. So the police spokesman invoked a truly terrifying specter: the teenager, he said, was giving the cops “dehumanizing stares.”
Well, of course you can’t blame battle-toughened Miami cops for starting to panic when a 14-year-old black male–armed with a puppy, mind you–starts to look at them funny.
But the truth is that these so-called “dehumanizing stares” are really “humanizing” stares—stares that forced the cops to realize that they were not successful in terrorizing this kid, and that he was committing that ancient Southern offense of looking a white man in the eye.
We can’t help but remember the statutes against “reckless eyeballing”, under which, in 1951, Matt Ingram–a black tenant farmer in Yanceyville, North Carolina–was charged with assault with intent to rape a white girl, although he was 75 feet away from her at the time.
And in good conscience we will never forget Emmett Till, slaughtered for looking at—and, supposedly, whistling at—another white girl. (Till’s torture and murder were heartily defended by feminist Susan Brownmiller, who said that the glance and (alleged) wolf-whistle was “a deliberate insult just short of physical assault, a last reminder to Carolyn Bryant that this black boy, Till, had in mind to possess her.”
Nice touch, eh, that “black boy?”
And to the ranks of Miami cops, wealthy New York gender-theorists, and rural racists we can of course add the name of George Zimmerman, the morbidly obese Chaz Bono-lookalike who killed Trayvon Martin because—according to transcripts of the Mommy-I’m-scared call he made to police—“He was just staring…looking at the houses…now he’s staring at me!”
Readers with more stomach than me for literary theory will no doubt be familiar with the academic racket centered around the concept of “the male gaze.” Once I struggled in good faith to understand it, but then my ADD kicked in and I went outside to play catch with my daughter instead. So I don’t have any intellectual framework for this rage I feel today, sensing that for all the distance we’ve supposedly travelled, we remain stuck on Square One in America—a ragged patch of ground defended by certain cops, certain feminists, and vigilantes of all stripes against That Crime That Goes By Many Names….a powerless black man looking at white folks.
John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org