Dear Michael Brown,
I have been asked to reflect on your death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson on August 9th, 2014. I am writing this letter to ask your permission to perform such an act. Too often, flesh and blood and death are turned into a spectacle, into material, into memorial, an artifact laid at the altar of history, and the body of the dead, your body, sir, becomes a vessel for the anxiety, fears, and hopes of the living. I do not wish to do this to you, to empty out your body, which was more than flesh, and turn you into a device, an interlocutor, something for me to latch my own imagination and intellect to as pack mule and chattel in service of political exigency, in the service of performing reflection, in the service of transforming your death into something redemptive; though a laudable act, redemption is, sometimes, a very destructive act in that it requires and demands a double absence of the victim of State violence. The very act of redemption enacts and necessitates a double disappearance because what is redeemed—the living, the laudable ideal—is hierarchized and takes precedence over the dead and their death in order for redemption to be achieved.
Your death is your death. Though it was provided by the hands of the State, it does not belong to this country. Your death does not belong to everyone though we claim it and smear it across t-shirts and banners and computer screens and stages and essays and chant it. Your death belongs to you, your kin, and your community, first. This is why I ask your permission—because, though I am black and experience an America and Midwest that is similar to yours here in Chicago, I am not of your community. I was not raised in Ferguson, Missouri, among the flat planes and tumultuous sky of Middle America. Until recently, I had never experienced a tornado warning or a tornado. I have never hid in a basement or in a school classroom in fear that something would snatch the walls from their very foundation in a whirlwind of rain and noise. I am from a small town on the east coast, born in a hospital surrounded by fields of cattle and apple orchards. My first experiences with the police may have been similar to yours except when I ran from the police and hid from them in the darkness of a shed in the backyard of my grandmother’s house they did not find me there, sweating and being stung by all sorts of stinging insects. Maybe, you, too, had friends who had been stopped by the police, beaten and left like a sack of unwanted pots on the side of the road. Perhaps, you, too, were followed up and down the white, linoleum aisles in grocery stores by security because of what they feared your body capable of. Perhaps you have watched white women clutch their purses and children to them when glimpsing the outline of your body at a mall exit, the sky still awash in the twinkle and pink of twilight. Yes, we share, or we shared a similar America, a similar shackling, forced to grapple with the rancorous and disingenuous projections of other’s imaginations onto our bodies, but you are not here. You could not outrun the police and hide in your grandmother’s shed. In fact, there might not have been a shed for you to hide in. Therefore, you belong to a different community, a community that does not seek redemption because there is no salvation for the dead.
And so I ask for your permission to reflect on your death. I know, I know. This attempt might seem stupid or unnecessary or excessively mannerly. In fact, this attempt to ask for permission might be a failure since the dead can rarely, if ever, grant permission, but I ask for permission because there were so many permissions and privileges taken with your body throughout your lifetime including your death; permissions that you did not agree to, permissions still being taken. Michael, can I have your permission to bring your body before the people? Michael, what is it that you would like to say?