Dispossessed from Cradle to the Grave
Black people are dispossessed from cradle to the grave in this society of the American white settler project. In 1961, a court-appointed attorney convinced 18-year-old George Jackson of pleading guilty to charges of stealing $70 from a gas station in Los Angeles. Evidence hinted that he was innocent, but Jackson’s attorney thought it best to plead guilty because Jackson had a previous record of two petty crimes. Jackson pled and was given an indeterminate sentence—as little as one year to life imprisonment. Jackson would spend the remainder of his life in prison, primarily in solitary confinement.
That Jackson was murdered in 1971 by prison guards during a prison break seems inevitable. State-sanctioned murder of Black men, women, and children has been America’s bedtime story since the origin of chattel slavery. At 18 years of age, within most communities and cultures, you are considered just having stepped into adulthood, having an entire life ahead to become, become again, and become again because that is what youth and time afford. However, in a society that does not see Black people as human, as capable of having human experiences and desires, as possessing humanity, Black folk are thingamatized and therefore it is no wonder that the judge who sentenced an 18-year-old charged of a petty crime to prison—locked away, like stuff that sits until someone determines the stuff is worthy to sift through or is forgotten and organically deteriorates.
None of us—that is anyone Black—should be surprised that in the 1960s as well, Montgomery County Maryland, specifically Bethesda, was thingamatizing Black folks, too. Land known as Moses Cemetery had been paved over by developers to create a parking lot; another parcel of land had been paved over to create a parking lot attached to an apartment building. No conversations were had with the descendant community.
And just as Black people continue to be incarcerated at a rate of four times more than white people, receive sentences that are more than 10 percent longer than whites for the same infractions, endure harsher sentencing including sentences that are more than 10 percent longer than whites for the same infractions (which by the way, bears in our school discipline rates where Black students are suspended or expelled three times more than their white and Asian counterparts for the same transgressions), are mistakenly identified in a lineup, and are falsely convicted of a crime seven times more than whites, so are Black people continually desecrated while resting in their burial ground.
For nearly a decade, the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition (BACC) has been embroiled in a battle with graverobbers—developers and corporatists, Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), the County Executive, Mark Elrich and past and sitting County Councils. Not even the self-identified progressives on the Council supports BACC and its fight to halt the desecration of the cemetery, but that is not surprising. The origins of the cemetery are a heinous example of white supremacy, and arguably part of the rationale to ignore BACC may be a feeble attempt to keep covered Montgomery County’s racist past.
The desecrated cemetery more than two centuries ago received the dumped bodies of primarily African girls who were dispossessed of their innocence and life—some having died during childbirth and others during the horrors of sex trafficking. Plantation families—the Poseys, (add others)—took up Jefferson’s lead and bred slaves—Black people were the cash-crop for states like Virginia and Maryland which supplied Black bodies to lower southern states when the United States had ceased the import of Africans for chattel slavery but did not cease chattel slavery.
Post-emancipation, the cemetery would become the final resting place for many of the Black residents of River Road in Bethesda, Maryland, a historically Black and thriving enclave of more than 200 families who created a self-sustaining community, exercising their agency after slavery. For nearly a century, this community grew, raised Black families, built a church and school, homes for others, bartered, provided and protected each other. It thrived until it was no longer left alone to do what Black communities know how to do, as in Tulsa and elsewhere, and that is to simply demonstrate our humanity. During Jim Crow, white settlers—Klan by night and police officers, school principals, shop owners, etc. by day—would use violence, deed trickery, county mandates, and other fraudulent tactics to steal the River Road land—family by family.
The River Road community is no more, but Bethesda, today, stands as one of the wealthiest cities in America, having economically benefitted from death camps, as Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Executive Director of BACC, refers to plantations. For nearly a decade, BACC has been embroiled in a battle with graverobbers—developers and corporatists, Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), the County Executive, Mark Elrich and past and sitting County Councils. Not even the self-identified progressives on the Council supports BACC and its fight to halt the desecration of the cemetery, but againg, that is not surprising.
First, Montgomery County, MD—via its metrics in education, housing, employment, contract procurement, incarceration that demonstrate disparate outcomes for Black men, women, and children—is not the progressive county and state it professes. For example, the state of MD, has higher incarceration rates than the state of Mississippi. Second, BACC was formed eight years ago as resistance to the desecration of Moses Cemetery, when by chance, area residents and church members attended a town hall meeting that Montgomery County held to discuss the land’s use and to hush any “rumors” that the land may have been a cemetery. From the beginning, the County’s employed graverobbers approached the community with ill-intent, hoping to dissuade any dialogue about the land being a cemetery and that Moses cemetery existed. One voice rang bell-clear—that of Mr. Harvey Matthews, a former resident of the River Road community. His father’s and grandfather’s farm was among land stolen via trickery and Klan violence. Mr. Harvey, as I have come to affectionately call him, told MoCo officials, the cemetery was real. He played hide and go seek in it as a child, using headstones and other grave markers as base.
And like George Jackson’s sentencing, BACC’s fight for liberation of our ancestors and reclamation of land has been unjustly thwarted by judges who have disregarded Black folks humanity, rendering a recent decision in the MD Appellate Court that is reminiscent of the Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393, by the United States Supreme Court that held the U.S. Constitution did not extend American citizenship to people of Black African descent, and thus they could not enjoy the rights and privileges the Constitution conferred upon American citizens.
In all of these acts of violence and dispossession of Black men, women, and children, the daily thingamatizing of us, Black folks are left to process our rage and grief and extract lessons to feed our political imagination and quench our thirst for liberation to keep resisting. In the month of Black August, let us not forget George Jackson and other warriors that have resisted and paid the price. More importantly, let us not be fooled into believing that currently we have no war to which we must gather warriors and let us be clear about our common enemy.