Johnny Was: An Examination of Black Grief

rastaman vibration

Song: Johnny Was
Artist: Bob Marley and The Wailers
Album: Rastaman Vibration
Writer: Bob Marley, credited to Rita Marley
Released: April 30, 1976, Island Records. Tuff Gong.  (album)

Woman hold her head and cry. As her son had been shot down in the street and died just because of the system.

2015 is littered with murders of black men, women and children at the hands of law enforcement and white vigilantes. Rather, there is more media coverage of said murders. These incidents birthed a new era of protest and activism against harsh policing, particularly against black and brown communities in the United States. Since the August 9, 2014 murder of Mike Brown, the world has erupted in marches, die-ins and various methods of civil disobedience. The chant “Black Lives Matter,” echoing to shame a system that murders its black citizens once every twenty-eight hours. It also challenges the manner in which the American justice system negatively affects the livelihood of its black citizens. As more of these stories surface, the image of mourning black families is becoming all too familiar. The manner in which these cases are portrayed in the American media is telling of the desensitization towards black death.

Parents are forced to bypass the stages of grief, instead having to defend the humanity of their children. They must excuse any past transgressions and plead that the lives of their children do in fact matter. There is no time to fully mourn. This continues a suppression of emotion as a means of survival, an act historically imposed upon ‘minority’ groups. The stereotype of the black mammy is an example of this suppression; stripped of her own children and in the midst of grief forced to raise a white master all while maintaining an image of strength. This strength under burden has been the weight of black families the moment Europeans set foot in our spaces. Our intellectual and emotional capabilities are undermined in order to maintain the racist idea that we are nothing more than bodies and therefore do not have emotional bonds. There is the idea that black people do not feel nor love. Surviving in oppressive environments forces many to ignore their mental and emotional states.  It would seem that for a lot of us, mourning gets in the way of surviving.

How can she work it out? Now she knows that the wages of sin is death, if Jah Jah is life. 

The topic of police brutality against black bodies is often countered with statistics of black on black crime. An argument asserting that if there is no self value within a community, then no outside group will respect said community. The argument isn’t a solid one, as most murder victims are murdered by someone of their own race. That is not to say that we should ignore the pockets of our communities that suffer from extreme violence. Yet, it is important we do so with a critical lens.  Marley refers to a system and a sin responsible for Johnny’s death, essentially a cause and its effect. The system, or the cause is global socio-political and economic policies that are responsible for the corruption and oppression of poor black and brown communities. Poor education, poverty, lack of opportunity and a so-called War on Drugs are by-products of such systems. The sin, or the effect become the corrupted environments which in turn breed corrupted minds. The sin stands as an example of the raw human instinct to survive in concrete jungles.  Black people are not the only people to do this. Superficially, we view violent neighborhoods as nothing more than that, but on a deeper level what we are witnessing are outcomes of war zones. We must understand the psychological damage suffered by these populations. Many black people suffer from unacknowledged and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.  When we see protests like those in Ferguson and the so-called Baltimore Uprising, what we are witnessing is the physical manifestation of unexpressed grief and rage.

Can a woman’s tender care cease towards the child she bears?

Turn to any media outlet and these murders become sensationalized stories for a consumptive audience. We feed off of these murders, the videos and pictures are tangible evidence of our pain and outrage.  I can never bring myself to watch the filmed murders, as it makes the situation more personal than it already feels. When another murder is announced, I always view the victims as someone I may have known, or they remind me of people I know and love. Aside from the systemic and systematic reasons as to why these murders are a shame, what evokes feeling is the thought that the next victim could be someone you know. Robert Nesta Marley, a product of communities affected by white supremacy and capitalism,  wrote the story of many families from a deeply personal level. Families who weep for the loss of a loved one who has fallen victim to an environment not created for their survival. Johnny Was is a song about a woman mourning her son. Plain and simple. Outside of the system, outside of inquisitive passersby, outside of his sins, that was her son. “Johnny was a good man.”


Let’s Discuss: How have you been taught to deal with grief?


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