Is It Safe for a Black Male to Dial 911?

Javon Johnson (screenshot from "Cuz He's Black" YouTube video)
Javon Johnson (screenshot from "Cuz He's Black" YouTube video)

(The Root) —

Editor's note: We were reminded again yesterday that in America, color may still matter as much as character when you're black and male and you have an encounter with police. And we ask this question: When is coincidence more than coincidence? As The Root reported on Tuesday, Jack Lamar Roberson of Waycross, Ga., somehow died while in police custody after his fiancee called 911 for help, saying that Roberson was suicidal.

In September, Jonathan Ferrell staggered away from a crushing car crash, only to be gunned down by North Carolina police officers who didn't recognize him as a victim but who saw him as a threat. We hear stories from our friends and loved ones who tell us they would be afraid to call 911 if they needed help. They must calculate what might occur when the blue light shows up.

So we are left to wonder, how is a black man supposed to seek the emergency assistance he might deserve when he is seen as a predator, an ominous figure or a criminal?


Then we remembered the story told by Javon Johnson in his brilliant poem "Cuz He's Black." It's about the chilling conversation Johnson had with his 4-year-old nephew and the little boy's fear of police. Watch the video below. Then read what Johnson has to say about what he learned when his video went viral.

Cuz He's (and She's) Black, Too, and Sometimes Queer

During a semifinals bout at the National Poetry Slam in August 2013, I performed my poem "Cuz He's Black," which is about a true dialogic exchange between my then-4-year-old nephew and me after he hid from, in his words, "5-0." Ending without simple answers, without neat tie-ups and with my nephew heartbreakingly asking, "Uncle, what happens if the cop is really mean?" the poem discusses black males and our troubling relationships with the law.

Though written a couple of years ago, that particular performance was captured by the good folks of Button Poetry, who, after uploading it on their YouTube channel, were approached by my now good friends at UpWorthy, who asked for permission to post it on their website. Between Button Poetry, UpWorthy, Facebook, Twitter and now Worldstarhiphop, the video went viral, amassing millions of hits in the span of three weeks and sparking dialogues about raising black boys, black males, institutionalized racism, state-sanctioned violence, so-called black-on-black crime and, as expected, some less-than-informed conversations on all sorts of racial topics.

The title, "Cuz He's Black," is taken from Ntozake Shange's "About Atlanta," a poem that addresses the Atlanta child murders of 1979-1981, when an estimated 29 to 31 African Americans — most of them children, but a few of them adults — were believed to be murdered by the so-called Atlanta Child Killer.


More than a nod to Shange's general brilliance, however, I chose to title the poem "Cuz He's Black" because Shange (who admitted to crying the entire time she was writing "About Atlanta" because she was imagining what it must have been like for a black mother in that space and time) forced me to imagine this: that most black mothers (or parents more generally) face the reality of death always lurking around and looming over their children, be it state-sanctioned violence, racial assaults or the problematic construction known as black-on-black crime. As one young sister told me, "I don't have time to debate abortion rights because they are aborting my children for me."

While the poem received much attention for my heartbreaking performance and for my careful commentary on a difficult topic, what is missing in any of the discussions I have had or read is a well-deserved critique of how I neglected black girls, black women and black queer folks. Most of the tags, comments and messages I received have all centered on, as a mother of three black boys told me, "All black males need[ing] to see this."


While I appreciate the widespread love for black males — a group of presumed monsters who, in Jay Z's words, "don't get enough of it" — I cannot help wondering where is the love and healing for straight black girls, black women and our black LGBTQ brothers and sisters. To be fair, the poem focuses on black males because it was about an actual exchange between my nephew and me that forced me to face the paralyzing fact that he is preparing for, to quote the poem, a harrowing "war I can't prepare him for."

The recent killings of Jack Lamar Roberson and Jonathan Ferrell, and the much more publicized acquittal of George Zimmerman, are all painful reminders of how the so-called justice system views black males as "problems before people" and why so many of us are hesitant to call on the law. Even more, they highlight, as Mark Anthony Neal writes in New Black Man, that "for damn sure the black man is under siege, but it's not as if the saving of the black man should come at the expense of black women and children who continue to be under siege also."


In fact, João H. Costa Vargas, in his book Catching Hell in the City of Angels: Life and Meanings of Blackness in South Central Los Angeles, details how black women and children are susceptible to certain kinds of state-sanctioned violence that straight black men simply do not have to face. More still, it is important to remain mindful that in some cases it is straight black men who jeopardize their safety (along with, I must add, the safety of LGBTQ folks).

This is not to suggest that we cannot have conversations about black males and how we uniquely deal with the law; we can and we should. Rather, our conversations must be more encompassing. They must account for how black women, girls and queer folks face violence, too, and they must be committed and powerful enough to work toward eradicating the everyday violence we all face.


To be clear, I love my nephews dearly, and because of how black males are almost always seen as a threat, I fear for their lives more than I should have to. But to be even clearer, I equally love my nieces — one of whom is loud and powerful and another who is not exactly feminine — and I fear how their particular racial-gender makeup leaves them especially vulnerable. So I work toward creating a safer world for them as well because they are black and loved, too.

Javon L. Johnson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of performance studies in the communication-studies department of San Francisco State University. He is a back-to-back national poetry-slam champion. Johnson has written for Our Weekly, Text & Performance Quarterly and is currently working on a full-length manuscript about slam and spoken-word poetry communities in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. 

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