When I Realized I Was a Ghost

Growing up I had conflicting feelings about ghosts. I was a child concerned over whether they actually were real. I feared what mischief unseen spirits may cause but only because that’s what I had been taught to do. It was normal, other kids my age were afraid of the dark and afraid of ghosts, as they associated them with things that are hidden in the shadows, things to be feared. Growing up in the Catholic church I was taught a lot about angels and the Holy Spirit, so my spiritual beliefs at the time came into contrast with the feelings of my peers. Gradually over time I didn’t come to a resolution as to whether to fear ghosts or not. The thought of it didn’t linger long on my mind because it didn’t appear to be a pressing matter that was directly in front of me. I wouldn’t think much of ghosts again, until the thought dawned on me that in a way I may have always been one.

Over sixty years after Ralph Ellison published his novel, The Invisible Man, the black body still isn’t seen, but in a different way than before. Black people in America are dehumanized, less as unseen and more so as a specter today. The mainstream gaze knows that we are there but fears our presence and refuses to see us. The textbook definition of a ghost is the soul of a dead person thought of as living in an unseen world or as appearing to living people. The black body today is often viewed as ghost, as something disappearing, as something dead or to be dead. The everyday world black people live in isn’t seen in the mainstream, white eye. A few things are taken from the culture and world of blacks but the day-to-day life is relatively invisible to the white gaze.

Growing up in an urban black community I learned to distrust the police at a young age. Many people within the inner city, especially black people, either know someone who has had a run-in with a police officer who suspected them of committing a crime when they were minding their own business or have had a run-in themselves. Generally speaking, we see the cops as something that haunts us, always patrolling our neighborhoods, looking for something to be out of order. In many cases I’ve seen patrol cars hiding, waiting to pounce behind a speeding car or to even stop a vehicle and then check to see if there is some offense committed by the driver after the stop has been made. I was taught about the way officers would commit crimes against blacks or stand by and do nothing when a crime was committed against blacks generations before my time. I grew up knowing about how lynchings were often used as punishment for crimes blacks were convicted of, and these public killings were done in many cases before there was a trial or any evidence presented to prove whether the black person in question was actually a criminal. I grew up with parents from Alabama and Tennessee and they raised me in Detroit, MI, a city that knows racism and police brutality firsthand.

It was 1943 when a race riot broke out because of an argument that started on Belle Isle, an island in Detroit. The brawl spread from there into the city and continued until after 36 hours of rioting from both blacks and whites 34 people were dead, 25 of whom were black. More than 1,800 people were arrested, and despite black and white people being involved in the riot, the majority of the arrests were black. Twenty-four years later, in 1967 another race riot would break out in the city after police raided an after-hours bar where there was a party celebrating the return of two servicemen from Vietnam. The police would decide to detain everyone present at the party and after an angry crowd gathers in protest of the arrest the riot begins. After four days of rioting 43 people were dead, 33 of whom were black, over 1,000 people were injured, over 7,000 people were arrested and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed. These were not the first nor were they the last race riots to occur in Detroit, but much of the property damage still litters the city today.

It’s only now in recent times that the mass white population is beginning to return to Detroit. Because of this new influx of white citizens in what has long been a predominantly black city there has also been a shift that many of us here see in the practices of the police force. In the downtown and midtown area the police are seen patrolling as they are in the rest of the city but they are constantly on the move and ready to be on call in case anything happens. We all know who the police is there to protect. Conversely, out in the residential neighborhoods response times tend to be as slow as I’ve remembered growing up. To be a department that always has officers patrolling around they can’t seem to find time to appear when they are actually called upon to help. It’s for this reason that the police aren’t often called for help unless it is a last resort. In our neighborhoods we know they aren’t around to protect us.

As case after case of unarmed black people being murdered by police reaches the national and international eye, it is in many times due to social media. Many news outlets don’t cover stories about incidents of police brutality against the black body. They don’t see us or our lives unless we are entertainment or until we are dead. The tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and countless others go unheard of in the national ear until the voice of black outrage is so loud that it can’t continue to go ignored. There was solidarity and support coming from the people of Palestine before major American news outlets even set a foot in Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown was killed. In an interview after receiving no indictment for the killing, officer Darren Wilson said he has a clear conscience when it came to killing Brown. This after he received over half a million dollars from an online fundraiser for no reason other than the fact that he murdered Brown. No major media outlet has discussed this as being problematic. No major media outlet has talked about how a grown man sleeps perfectly fine at night, after being paid over half a million dollars for shooting an unarmed teenager. For the most part the mainstream white American gaze doesn’t view the deaths of black people as an important issue to discuss and find solutions to. They find difficulty caring about black people dying unjustly at the hands of the police when they already didn’t value the lives of black people.

This act of ignoring the atrocities of black death is still continuing, now during a time of protest. Despite all that black people are doing to show that they deserve to live, the mainstream gaze is still sweeping the issues of police brutality and racism under the rug. A homemade explosive device was detonated next to an NAACP office in Colorado Springs, CO, and as far as news coverage there is a relative silence, let alone any utterance of the word “terrorism”. There isn’t a threat to white, human, lives seen there so the news ignores the story. It is a clear sign of terrorism against blacks, but that raises questions if blacks are viewed as humans, and if threats to their unseen world are viewed as threats in the mainstream eye.

As nationwide protests rage on for justice for black people against police brutality, there is a side that asks where this outrage is for black-on-black crime. This argument is always brought up when an instance happens where a police officer unjustly kills a black person, despite the fact that statistically, most crimes committed against a race are done by those of the same race. It is similar to how Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent are always asked about terrorism, as if all people of that similar background support terrorism or should be held accountable for the actions of a select few. White-on-white crime is never brought up when there is a school shooting, bank robbing etc., but when an officer kills a black person there always is a voice that asks about the violence and crime in the black community and why they haven’t heard anyone speaking against that. The truth is that the outrage is there, activists and community groups are always at work to try to decrease violence, gang activity and crime in urban environments. These stories are rarely heard, of the black body surviving or thriving.

In a separate instance, up to 2,000 people are killed as the village of Baga in Nigeria is burned down to the ground by terrorist group Boko Haram and western media doesn’t utter much, if any, word on it. This terrorist organization is behind the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April 2014 that attracted international attention. The majority of these young women still haven’t been returned to their families and the ones who did escape did so through fleeing on their own. This terrorist organization is reported to have killed 3,600 civilians in its first four years of existence, and an additional more than 2,000 in just the first half of 2014. In a western civilization that is quick to mobilize military efforts against threats, and has vowed to hunt down terrorism, there is very slow international action to aid in combating this group in comparison to other efforts. When black bodies are dying the mainstream gaze overlooks it because ghosts are supposed to be dead and in a way that’s how the mainstream gaze sees black people.

Most of the time when we hear someone who believes in ghosts speak of a haunting we blow them off, and don’t take the story seriously. We view these supernatural incidents as irrational. This is the same way the western mainstream views black bodies and the violence against them. It’s a made-up tale that is hard for the western mainstream to see as possible because it’s happening to a people who are there but aren’t seen as human. These are two separate stories and instances of violence against the black world that western civilization won’t talk about.

The existence of black people is obvious in the western eye because of all of the contributions they make to society, particularly in the realms of entertainment and athletics. The western eye doesn’t believe in the safety of the black sect of society. Threats to black lives aren’t seen as threats because in order to do that humanity and an equal value of life have to be recognized. Black lives are continuing to die, solutions for protecting them still aren’t being made and that’s because we aren’t seen as something to be protected. Conventional wisdom says one cannot kill a ghost. Our society believes the same thing, and refuses to see blacks as anything more than a lingering part of our civilization. The way black people are hunted and haunted by the presence of the police doesn’t appear to be a priority for the mainstream gaze, and it hasn’t been for some time now. They choose not to see it despite the fact that we’re no longer invisible. It’s like we’re transparent, something is definitely there but the mainstream gaze chooses to see through and beyond it instead of recognizing its presence. Mainstream Western civilization doesn’t want to help us. It views our deaths as a norm, and we’re seen in a similar vein as ghosts, just lingering until there are none of us left.

What we should do is make more of an effort to treat these people like people. The recent unrest over the tearing down of Confederate statues doesn’t go far enough. We should replace them with the numerous African Americans who have made positive contributions to the nation. We should stop supplying the police with military grade weaponry and should change policies within police departments to reflect the concerns of the people. We should also make police forces hire those who live in the neighborhoods they are serving. That way it would change the racial divide that comes with the police. It will take more changes and these changes will take time but we must do what it takes to make our lives appear alive and human to those who didn’t believe them to be.

Deonte Osayande is a writer from Detroit, MI. His nonfiction and poetry have been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology, and the Pushcart Prize, and a Digital Book Award. He has represented Detroit at four National Poetry Slam competitions. He’s a professor of English at Wayne County Community College. His books include Class (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2017), Circus (Brick Mantel Books, 2018) and Civilian (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2019).

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