John Matteson
Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Recent events haunting black communities like ghosts of a violent era that many thought long gone—such as the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown—hark back to a collective memory of enslavement.

John Matteson, Distinguished Professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, believes that the violence exhibited today is contextually linked to slavery and has become part of the culture over time.

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“Slavery was a form of privatized law enforcement,” Matteson explained to The Root. “What it did was take a number of the powers that are typically reserved to the government—the power to discipline … the power over another person’s life—and it conferred those powers on private individuals. And there’s this continuing undercurrent in particularly Southern culture where there’s a reluctance to get the government involved if you can avoid it, because there’s just a sort of general distrust of centralized authority.”

These are some of the connections that Matteson hopes students taking his free eight-week course, Literature & Law of American Slavery, will be able to absorb and question as they go through his class.

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“[I want to] encourage people to think broadly about the connections between past and present, to realize that the things we experience today did not just start yesterday … they go back 150 years. And the things that were happening 150 years ago go back much, much farther than that. So I hope for students to come away with a sense of the continuity of history, with the complexity of history,” he said.  

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“In terms of the underlying interest, one of the things that I’m really fascinated by is the way in which this epoch in our history, which seems to have taken place so long ago, continues to rear its head and to affect attitudes in our culture, ranging from law enforcement to race relations to the ways that parents treat their children,” Matteson continued.

He referenced an August segment on MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, in which she spoke about the recent deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement and the correlation to the infamous Supreme Court Dred Scott decision in which then-Justice Roger Taney said in 1857 that the black man has “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

“We have moved past that in our official statements of the law,” Matteson pointed out. “The 14th Amendment … [was] basically passed to void and nullify the Dred Scott decision, but then what happens to that amendment is that it gets very largely ignored by the courts, or twisted around so that it protects corporations instead of disadvantaged minorities. And over time, even though the doctrine of Dred Scott has been wiped away, the habit of thinking in terms of a two-tiered society becomes very deeply ingrained.”

To Matteson, there is a distinct parallel between the passing of unjust laws and the way society expresses those laws through behavior over time. “In our current day … we understand intellectually that equality is important, that equality is also basically true, but … among some people, at least, their emotions and the things that they feel in their gut when they’re going on adrenaline and impulse are very different from the things that their reason and our laws would be telling them,” he said. “So we’re talking about … someone like the police officer in Ferguson who guns down an unarmed man in this sort of visceral recurrence of this idea of Justice Taney’s that a black person has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.”

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However, to the professor, the issue of violence and how it is ingrained into the collective black American psyche is much more far-reaching than just law enforcement or vigilante justice. It even affects the family. Matteson referenced an article by Michael Eric Dyson that was published in the New York Times, in which Dyson talks about the NFL’s Adrian Peterson and the backlash he has received for beating his young son.

“What we have here is a legacy from slavery that the assumption was, a black person is controlled through violence, not through the application of law or reason … and the sort of argument that Mr. Dyson is making is that that nexus in people’s minds between violence and the maintenance of order becomes ingrained not only on a societal level but also on a family level,” Matteson explained. “Such that a child who’s been beaten grows up to, in some way, associate discipline with violence and order and the proper order of things, with the application of violence from a stronger person to a weaker.”

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Of course, these matters aren’t solely about race; they also have a lot to do with the generational nature of violence. “I would suspect also that when you find a violent cop, or somebody who’s excited about the prospect of vigilante justice, I would guess … that you’re going to find that those abusive cops and the gun-toting nuts are very often people who themselves have experienced abuse,” Matteson said.

“Because abuse, as we know, is something that replicates itself from generation to generation,” he continued, “and if people start their lives by viewing everything through a lens of violence, it’s going to turn up in racial violence, but it’s also going to turn up in domestic violence. It’s going to turn up in the dysfunction of the individual human being in a myriad of ways.”

Editor’s note: The free, open, online noncredit course Literature & Law of American Slavery starts Sept. 30. Go here to enroll.

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Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.