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The ‘I can’t breathe’ metaphor


It was inevitable that the deep scarlet sins of beautiful, sweet and powerful white America would catch up with her. Not in apocalyptic, doomsday terms. No. It certainly will happen in the sense of loss of ascendancy as had happened to previous world powers from the first civilization and world powers through the ages to modern times. The British Empire on which the sun never set has been liquidated into a tiny island of doubtful confidence and power not by the Queen’s First Minister, but by the inevitable movement of time and the vagaries of human existence – the march of history if you like. It is an open secret that China with its aggressive economic and imperialist policies is waiting in the wings to shove out and replace America, aided by the bumbling America-first policy of the current befuddled incumbent of the White House. When and how this will happen we are no prophets to tell!

I write now of four hundred-odd years of exploitative and unapologetic denigration of humanity, on account of the colour of the skin which millions have suffered in the hands of the United States of America, whether Republican or Democratic-Party led government. The decimation of the aborigine population of America laid the foundation of the first mortal sin. Christopher Columbus like Mungo Park discovered what was already in existence and the influx of Europeans into the blessed land marked one of the deadliest annihilations of original owners of land! Added to this was the forced slave labour of millions of Africans who were seized from their homelands, exported through harsh conditions (with thousands dying in transit and thrown into the sea) and used for cheap labour to build what we now know as America. For added measure, the descendants of these master builders are now being asked to ‘go back to their country! When Obama became president, some were hopeful that things would change. But things seem to have gotten worse!


In God we Trust! Great expression philosophically developed by the founding fathers. Encoded in the currency of America, the almighty dollar. The city on a hill, a shining light to the world. A nation that must lead and be followed. There was a morality that underscored the founding of God’s own country. The ‘new world’ was and is rich with natural resources. But the land had to be tilled. Cheap labour had to be sourced. Slaves from Africa, men and women seized from Africa were tied in chains to work the plantations and produce the wealth of old and new America. Slavery was justified by White Christians, using some preposterous verses from the Bible. It was not considered as an act of man’s inhumanity to man. Each time I read Beloved by Toni Morrison and picture a woman committing infanticide to prevent that child from slavery, I cringe. How many slaves cursed America before they died? How many of the spirits of dead slaves cast into waters still roam the Atlantic, stimulating the devastating storms and hurricanes that ultimately land on the shores of America, wreaking havoc, and destruction?        

After emancipation was proclaimed and the country fought a civil war, it took another two hundred years or so for the rights of Black Americans to be officially recognized. In 1955 14-year-old Emmet Till was lynched in Mississippi for offending a white woman in her grocery store. Before then, in 1944, George Junius Stinney was wrongfully executed by electric chair for allegedly killing two white girls. The 1960s were years of turmoil. Lives were lost, sacrificed. The picture of a fourteen-year-old boy that was officially executed by White America still troubles me. The lynching of black men for frivolous reasons is part of the open wound in race relations. And ‘civilized’ white people witnessed those lynchings with relish unbecoming of God’s own children. Savagery, according to William Golding in Lord of the Flies, is part of the DNA of mankind. Segregation. Unequal opportunities. Poor access to education. White immigrant Europeans who came to America were given lands. Blacks who had tilled the land and built the country were left landless. Poverty became synonymous with black people. The Martin Luther King revolution in my view created a new dynamic in race relations.

But he was murdered by White America. It is true that he is now an icon in American history. But the dream of King of white and black living together, like the lion and the lamb, in peace and prosperity has remained an illusion. Institutionalized racism made sure that access was limited. The Police Departments across the country were created to enforce the laws of White America. The statistics of African Americans in prison are frightening. In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the US adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners. America has not lived up to its billing as the city set on a hill in race relations! It is against this background that blacks have been at the receiving end of police brutality, the short end of the judicial system and economic dispossession. Of course, there had been previous police murders. A long list. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Alton Sterling. Breonna Taylor. Arbery Ahmaud. George Floyd.          


With Floyd, the police had taken enough for the owner to notice. The scoundrel who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck till he died did not envisage the degree of backlash that would follow. He thought it would be business as usual. But protests spread across the world. There are promises to reform police tactics. It would seem that policemen all over the world enjoy the power of the gun and often swing to the other extreme sometimes. SARS officers in Nigeria are notorious.

Yet America is a country to be loved, admired, and imitated. To be visited. To live in. To savour. The spontaneity of America. Its boisterousness. Its democracy. Its liberal nature and the sheer size of the country. Its institutions, which have stood the test of time. And the very idea of America itself is a moral force that ought to reinvent itself for believers across the world to go back to factory settings about what we know America to be, what we want it to be and how it should be. The world owns America. America does not own itself. The idea of America is bigger than the America that we currently see being dragged along the streets and ridiculed by world leaders at international gatherings.     

‘I can’t breathe’ has become a metaphor. An appropriate and timely one. America must breathe. Breathe in fresh air occasioned by the sacrificial deaths of Blacks whose blood and sweat built the country in the first place. The world must breathe. It is hoped that America will repair itself. Not by one man, but by Americans when they cast their ballots across the country in November into different elective positions.
Eghagha can be reached on 08023220393 .  


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