Revision: Like many who’ve attempted swift and supportive responses to the news of Sharmeka Moffitt’s burning, I took her at her word and wrote with the assumption that she’d been attacked. Frankly, the police investigators’ conclusion that the alleged attack was likely fabricated does little to change many of the views expressed in this essay: black lives are undervalued. And the fact that racism is still so overt and prevalent in Louisiana and surrounding Southern states made such a fabrication quite plausible. We may find that Moffitt suffers from mental illness (it would difficult to believe she’d immolate herself under any other circumstances), and we may never know what motivated her actions. Perhaps those motives are no longer our business. I hope she receives the treatment she may need, but more, I hope that her experience isn’t held up as rule that disproves the existence of racial animus, rather than the rare exception where it was not a factor or cause.
Immediately after the awful barbarism which disgraced the State of Georgia in April of last year, during which time more than a dozen colored people were put to death with unspeakable barbarity, I published a full report showing that Sam Hose, who was burned to death during that time, never committed a criminal assault, and that he killed his employer in self-defense.
Since that time I have been engaged on a work not yet finished, which I interrupt now to tell the story of the mob in New Orleans, which, despising all law, roamed the streets day and night, searching for colored men and women, whom they beat, shot and killed at will. […] We do not believe that the American people who have encouraged such scenes by their indifference will read unmoved these accounts of brutality, injustice and oppression. We do not believe that the moral conscience of the nation — that which is highest and best among us — will always remain silent in face of such outrages, for God is not dead, and His Spirit is not entirely driven from men’s hearts.
— Ida B. Wells, Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and his Fight to the Death, 1900
Authorities say Sharmeka Moffitt, 20, called 911 from Civitan Park about 8 p.m. Sunday after she was allegedly attacked and burned by three men wearing white hoodies while she was on the walking trail in the southern end of the park.
The girl lives, burned. She is in critical condition, the flesh of her arms, her chest, one leg: wet and raw and unrecognizable. This is literal: the burn unit, the stench of singed skin and its tenderness. But I imagine her consumed by a different fire: yours, an ancestral blaze, a blood memory she could hear whispering its recollections: they came for us on foot. They still come for us.
The girl is twenty. She was not old enough to vote in the last election. She has come of age in the era of Obama; they are selling her generation a fraudulent bill of goods, goading them into renouncing racism’s existence, forcing them to admit how much better they have it than you did. We are ever reminded of what we are now permitted to pursue. The you should be thanking us is still implied.
You and the girl are more than a century removed from one another. But in Louisiana, it is likely she has known the mob violence you risked yourself to expose. Segregation, for her, is not a construct flattened into outdated history texts. In her state and those surrounding, high schools are still struggling to house all their students’ races under one roof for senior proms; judges can still deny interracial couples marriage licenses; and Ole Miss is just electing its first black homecoming queen. In 2012.
I would hope she understands, as you did, that progress is amorphous. It is not a steady climb. And the success of one person of color does not ensure protection for all–even if that success comes in the package of a presidency.
I believe you were with her that Sunday night. You were on the path, as the three men approached, observing, as you so often must, the outcomes of your handiwork. You must have been telling her to hold her ground, to breathe and leave enough air in her lungs to call the police: You must make them see you; these days, their eyes, if not their hearts, are duty-bound.
If it was not you with her that night, it may have been one of the many whose stories you reported. It may’ve been Sam Hose himself–or the detective, Louis Le Vin, who thoroughly investigated his death, before saying, “I made my way home thoroughly convinced that a Negro’s life is a very cheap thing in Georgia.”
Much has changed, Ms. Wells-Barnett, but the value this country places on the Negro’s life has not. Blood still runs in streams along our streets, still stains the backseats of police cruisers, still splatters our suburban sidewalks. And the outrage, if it surges at all, is fleeting and underreported. It is easier to claim we are exaggerating, that these instances are the isolated exceptions to a post-racial rule, that this latest burning is an act of barbarism, the likes of which the country has seldom seen. We pretend that black women have always been safe walking paths, that crime scenes rife with obvious evidence need days and weeks of speculation before the heinous acts committed there can be labeled as hate crimes.
It is tempting to pretend. We long for a world where all that are left to fight are dusty institutions who still grapple with the idea of affirmative action or actors and comedians who doggedly insist on appropriating blackface and racial slurs to enliven their flagging careers. Would that these were our biggest challenges!
Then we could say with certainty that your work was done.
But some of us still toss in the night, thrashing until our bedsheets become our restraints. For us, it is impossible to feel free when our people are still being dragged and burned and shot unarmed. Our gains, however considerable, in politics, in media, at homecoming dances, do not serve to lessen the degree of Sharmeka Moffitt’s burns, do not act as a sufficient salve for our people’s suffering.
Like you, we cannot rest. We will not. We open our eyes. We publish the stories. We distribute them, even when they are met with squirming discomfort or outright denial. This is your legacy. This is the world you’ve left us: burning, but still alive.