The Central Park 5 and the Myth of the Black Male SUPERPREDATOR

In 2003 Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, and Korey Wise (best known as the Central Park 5) filed a lawsuit against the city for emotional distress, malicious prosecution, and racial discrimination. The foundation of the lawsuit filed by the five males of color was based on the handling of what is popularly known as the “Central Park Jogger Case,” in which the five adolescents were convicted of brutally attacking and raping a 28-year old White, female jogger in New York City’s Central Park. At the time of the young woman’s attack, the five boys of color (McCray, Salaam, Santana, Richardson, and Wise) were between the ages of fourteen and sixteen years old. Still, the five young men of color were rounded up in Harlem, after leaving Central Park on the evening of April 19, 1989, arrested, detained, questioned about, and charged with the brutal attack and rape of Trisha Meili. The four younger boys served seven years a piece in juvenille detention centers, whereas the eldest boy (Wise, who was 16 at the time of the attack) spent 13 years in an adult correctional facility. During this time period in New York City the tensions were high between Black communities and every other community in the city. Young Black males were believed, by the masses, to be responsible for New York City’s abnormal rise in crime and violence since crack-cocaine entered the city in 1984.

As a result of the misguided anger of the city’s masses the five boys of color were coerced into giving written confessions and video confessions to Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein, who had allowed the investigating detectives to remain in the room during the video confession. Richardson had been struck by officers in the face and all five adolescents had, individually, been promised freedom if they would agree to act as witnesses in the cases. The boys were fed various pieces of information gathered from the crime scene and made to invent stories about what occurred that evening. The problem with this is that none of the details from any of the five stories matched.

In fact, when the judge overturned the five convictions after a serial rapist (Matias Reyes–known as the East Side rapist) confessed to the 1989 attack and rape of Trisha Meili, New York City District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau’s office released a statement in which it is acknowledge that nothing about the confessions made any sense and that there were obvious discrepancies in the handling of the “facts” provided by the scared teens. Unfortunately for the five boys of color, at the time of the two trials, Ms. Meili had no recollection, whatsoever, of the attack. And, even though there was zero DNA evidence linking the adolescents to the crime scene or the crime scene to the adolescents–to include a lack of DNA matches between the boys and the semen collected at the scene–the public was so outraged at the despicable nature of the crime that these significant case discrepancies went unnoticed by journalists, law enforcement, district attorneys, defense attorneys, judges, and even jurors.

This is normal.

In the United States of America it is completely normal to criminalize the Black and Latino male. In the United States of America it is completely normal for a young, Black male (who is without any criminal record) to be stopped, frisked, detained, questioned, arrested, charged, and convicted of a violent crime–especially when that crime is perceived to have been committed against White American sensibility. In the United States of America it is completely normal for the justice system to wrongfully convict a Black male of a horrendous crime, realize an atrocious mistake was made, overturn the conviction, and then wait over eleven years to finally compensate the Black male for the time that was stolen from him–that time quite often being the majority of that Black male’s youth. This is normal because America thrives on the idea that the young Black male is a superpredator.

That is right. America is convinced that the Black male is overly obsessed with violence, acquiring property through theft, excessive expressions of anger, and the ravishing of the White woman’s innocence. And, because young males (of all races, religions, creeds, etc.) often socialize/travel in groups, our Black males are labelled wolves–pack animals that prey on the weak and unprotected. SUPERPREDATORS. In the newspapers, the Central Park Five called a wolf pack and citizens were warned to beware. The relatively timid young men were made into monsters by the media, the district attorney’s office, the NYPD, and the public ate it all up. The public was open, and ready to believe, the idea that five young Black males had stalked, attacked, and raped a defenseless White woman who was merely exercising her right to jog in Central Park. The public was all too willing to accept that these adolescents were capable of such brutality and offered to remorse for their actions. In fact, each time the young males were up for parole they were denied by the parole boards on the bases that none of the boys of color ever expressed any remorse. SUPERPREDATORS.

Long before Africans in America had been freed by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution Black males were labeled superpredators and the public was reminded to be vigilant about preserving the innocence of the White female, who every Black male was supposed to need to ravish. Slaves who’d engaged in consensual sex with White women, pre-13th Amendment, would be lynched by mobs. Once Africans had been “freed,” in America, the belief that the Black male was a superpredator hell bent on ravishing the White woman became frenzied. White men would cloak themselves in sheets and ride into the night, on horses, in packs to protect the womanhood of White women throughout the south; they named themselves the Ku Klux Klan and their primary function was to protect the purity of the White woman. This is where the George Stinney, Jr (14 year old Black boy convicted of murdering two White girls and executed by electric chair) and Emmett Till (14 year old Black boy lynched for supposedly whistling at a White woman) come into play.

Because the vast majority of Americans believe that Black males are capable of the most horrendous crimes then labelling Black males superpredators becomes natural. So, how many convictions need to be overturned and how many Black males must be exonerated postmortem before America realizes that it has a serious problem with Black males? How long before America stops labeling ALL Black males drug dealers, thieves, rapists, and murders solely because of the melanin in their skin, the fullness of their lips, the kink of their hair, and the width of their noses? When will our brothers, our fathers, our cousins, our uncles, our grandfathers, husbands, and our sons stop being labelled superpredators?

Niggas Speak of Rivers

Under the POETRY tab I have posted a poem that I recently wrote called “Niggas Speak of Rivers.” Some might recognize the play off of a Langston Hughes poem title–”The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Though the poem speaks for itself as a response to the Negro in Hughes’s poem, who recognizes the depths and vastness of our history, the title of the poem is troubling for some and beckons reasoning. To such demands I offer this:

     There was a time when Black people in America said “I will no longer be called a ‘nigger’ and I will not answer to the term ‘colored’” and so we became “Negroes.” We became Negroes and we proclaimed that identity from Harlem apartment windows, in our Negro publications and into any ear that would take the time to hear the proclamation. That time passed. That time passed and it was replaced by a time when we became Africans. We wore our dashikis proudly, our afros at maximum capacity and we flew red, black and green whenever we went wherever we were going. Sadly, that time passed. We then became “Black.” Just Black–nothing more and nothing less. When asked “what are you?” we responded with “Black!” as if it was the most absurd question that ever needed answering. Again, times have changed and, seemingly appropriated from the word “nigger,” a large majority of the Black, once Negro and formally African, community began to accept and identify as “niggas.” Now, to a percentage of people who were born before a certain period of time, and who fancied themselves participants in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, the birth of nigga was, and continues to be, devastating. I mean, how can we fight for all of these years to prove ourselves worthy of respect only to claim the improperly-pronounced brand of our slavers? How could we? This question is undoubtedly logical considering the distances that we have traveled, as a people, from not only being called niggers, but also referring to ourselves and our peers as niggers. I cannot, and therefore will not, offer an answer to this question, but I will share my perspective on the use of the word nigga in today’s Black communities and mainstream society.

     Because I have almond-shaped eyes, my skin’s complexion appears mixed, my name is Japanese and my hair doesn’t quite curl like some of my Black brothers and sisters I have been repeatedly asked “what are you?” and for many years my response was “the niggas!” Some people found this response alarming, but it was my attempt at summing-up my loyalties and identities in a quick response. Should I have believed anyone cared to hear the longer version I would have explained, in length, that though there is American Indian, French, Spanish and other European blood that creates undertows in my arteries I do not claim their cultures and in my eyes I am 100% Black. Also included in my explanation is that “nigga” represents a solidarity with my people, who society turns up its nose at–not just White society, but affluent Blacks who sneer at baggy jeans and t-shirts that mimic the dress of our African brothers and sisters. “I am the niggas” meant that I live and breath the struggle of my people, I do not exist above the sneers, I am judged and convicted daily because of my skin and I know where I come from even if I am not sure where I am going. That was my understanding of “nigga.” It was the reappropriation of a word that still stings when slung from pale lips, but that grows power and strength in the mouths of the Black community.

     That was then and this is now.

     Now, I understand that though the word holds deep meaning for me the majority of young, Black brothers and sisters are without context for the words origins, its mutation and its power today. Now, I understand that, like when an artist sells a piece of work he relinquishes custody of the work’s meaning to the buyer, when we sent the word “nigga” out into the world, repeated it on rap song after rap song, in movie after movie and saturated our daily conversations with it we lost custody of the word’s meaning. Today, Whites, Latinos, and Blacks use the word nigga like a substitution for the word “dude” or “man” or “bro” without any regard for the weight of the word, which leads me to the reasoning behind the title of my poem “Niggas Speak of Rivers.”

     I mentioned before that in Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” the narrator of the poem recognizes the depths and vastness of our history through association with rivers across lands and time; in my poem there is a yearning for that recognition and those associations that has been lost on the Black generations that missed the Black Arts and Civil Rights movements. The piece is a declaration of hope that we will return to a time when we are proud, fierce, educated, determined and ready to fight for ours. So, when I write “nigga” in the title of this poem I write it to show the price that was paid when the Black community misplaced its histories–we succumed to the brand of our slavers because we lost sight of the depths and vastness of our history.