Amollo: In race relations, the “Memory of the Enemy” is the elephant in the room

Benson Amollo

“One of the most time-consuming things,” said E.B. White, an American journalist and a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine, “is to have an enemy.”

White’s inference, a befitting line to one of his many ardent writings of the ’60s, finds resonance with today’s realities in the context of human relations. In the question of race relations in human society, we have found a consoling excuse in making enemies under the guise of our differences of color and not as an African-American preacher from Alabama once put it “on the content of our character.”

But who would care about what lies beneath our physique when there’s ready meat on how we look, talk, walk, smile, don our clothes or even do the things we do? Fast-forward to the curious case of Trayvon Martin. We now all know how the killing of this Florida teen by a neighborhood watch captain had divided the country on the question of relations and stolen the thunder from the would-be diligent debate on the law’s wrong-headedness. Now, we all know how we’ve made “enemies” with the other race. We now all know how politically correct it is to believe that George Zimmerman — the killer — is a beneficiary of his “whiteness” while Trayvon would still be with us, except he was black. We now know a lot of stuff.

What most of us have forgotten in our “collective” anger is that we are victims of the distinct territory we have given our “enemies” in our memory. For us, remembering is preparedness. We think only fools don’t remember their enemies. We are sensitive to stereotypes and are quick to confront them with the energies of our racial experiences. It is no wonder that one of the “ear-witnesses” to Martin’s shooting that fateful night has made remarks to the effect that “he had seen some Trayvon-like dudes” in the neighborhood before. And if you’re Rev. Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, what such remarks triggers are the memories of the Old South — the enemy!

For African-Americans, their wholesome pin-pointing of race in Martin’s killing has everything to do with their memories of the enemy. While the defenders of Zimmerman, those who believe he acted in self-defense, are clouded by the stereotypes of a black male. They can spot a dangerous person (in their mind) in a black male, wearing a hoodie and “looking dangerous.” Theirs equally, are the memories of the justifications that aided black oppression and segregation in the South and other parts of this great country.

Such enemy memories are usually accompanied by a flood of emotional images. It does the good job of exposing an America in disconnect and denial of the realities of her unwavering past. The kind of black consciousness that has set the tempo of agitation for justice for Martin speaks of America that is ways from dealing with the black and white issues of her divide. For blacks, one of the heaviest weights that oppression has left on their shoulders is simply the memory of itself. The memory is a burden which pulls the oppression forward and blinds the new victims from seeing any other dimensions of an issue. It complicates quick mitigations to an impasse that pits race against race.

For blacks, the enemy memory has made them soft targets, always ready to defend themselves. The reason why it makes little sense that Zimmerman is yet to see the inside of a jail while all evidence point to his dominating the scene of crime, irrespective of Florida’s barbaric self-defense law.

The biggest challenge which is already a failure is for leaders and policy people in race-relations to recognize the victim of enemy-memory. For black Americans, their memory of oppression has such power, magnitude, depth and nuance that it constantly drains their best resources into more defense than is strictly necessary. The energy, the oomph and the force with which the demand for justice over Trayvon’s killing has sometimes, gone beyond limits as to warrant a racist acclaim. Some black leaders have echoed sentiments that would easily make them racist and award the other race the victim’s seat.

Justice for Martin will surely arrive, but that does not end the statistics on black homicide. That doesn’t mean we hang our boots and rest our case. There will be many more situations, some even more complicated than this. We must train our memories and inklings toward right and wrong and see beyond victim features that only seek to launch us on the bitter past. Black leaders must learn to negotiate. We must claim a stake at the bargaining table — we can’t all be out there yelling.

Even though there are some anti-black sentiments in America, it is no longer as powerful as black memory wants it to be. Our memory makes us like the man who wears a heavy winter coat in springtime because he was frostbitten in winter. We must step into this time!