By Dr. Brenda Wall
What do Will Smith, Chris Rock, Clarence Thomas and Emmett Till all have in common?
Beyond the fact that all of them have been in the news headlines this week for varying connections to varying degrees of violence in our country, all have been inextricably identified and defined by their culture of origin. Black men.
Even 14-year-old Emmett Till was targeted not as the child he was, but as a Black man. Because we see these males in terms of their racial identity, they become talking points for us, references for how to better understand ourselves.
Will Smith is widely loved and many grew up with him from hip hop to Bel Air to stratospheric success.
Many know the marriage, the children, maybe even his autobiography; all which have earned him an uncritical pass from many.
When forced to address the cognitive dissonance represented in the slap which will surely supersede the accolade of winning an Oscar for his brilliant performance in King Richard, we defensively proclaim that he was protecting his wife’s honor. Maybe. He did not realize the price he would pay.
Then there’s Everybody Hates Chris, which might presciently explain the mixed support Chris Rock has received for sustaining a public assault without losing his physical balance or grace at the Academy Awards. He started it with a joke about GI Jane, which was funny enough to make Will laugh. At first.
Chris did not know what was coming for him.
Clarence Thomas headlines do not capture the attention of the Black masses in the same way. He is thrust back in the headlines for his conservative consistency reflected in his wife’s involvement in the January 6th insurrection. She was there, but it was not known of Ginni Thomas’s extensive involvement in attempts to have the 2020 presidential election overturned. Clarence Thomas refused to recuse himself in his lone Supreme Court vote against the release of White House papers to House investigators of the violence against the Capitol.
He too, would pay a price. After a 100-year effort, the racial violence that killed Emmett Till is finally against the law: lynching is a federal hate crime. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act of 2022.
It was in August of 1955 that the brutal death of this 14-year-old was boldly shared with the world by his mother, Mamie Till Mobley. It became an impetus for the civil rights movement that December when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery.
Not far away is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, where the known, unknown, named and unnamed Black victims of lynching are commemorated including Emmett Till. Emmett like so many others did not know what lay in store.
None of these Black men knew the flood of controversy and debate that would swirl around them because of a human moment.
Nor could any of the four divorce themselves from the national analysis of a personal moment. Regrettably, our analyses tend to be superficial. We quickly take sides without fully acknowledging how complicated even a personal moment is when understood through the inescapable racial prism.
How does a speech impediment go so wrong and end up in a lynching? How does the very phrase a high-tech lynching capture the indignity that even Ivy League, wealth or an aspirational wife fail to neutralize?
Compassion for alopecia, but fewer know what it takes for Chris Rock to overcome his nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) and its related childhood trauma, which we glimpsed at the Oscars.
This time the trauma was embodied in Will Smith, who himself openly shares his demons of abuse and toxic masculinity, a masculinity which rarely emerges from healthy spaces.
This nation of violence and those who have been its most abused recipients are contaminated by its hatred.
Taking sides is easy. Most of us hate hate.
The work is to understand how three men and a boy have seized national headlines traceable to a complicated, violent, racial oppression, an oppression which contaminates us all.
Dr. Brenda Wall leads Reclaiming Mental Health for Women and Families at Friendship West Baptist Church, which is open to residents of the city of Dallas. Applications available!