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By Stephane Dunn |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Monday, August 25, 2014.

Remember that film adaptation of A Time to Kill based on the book by bestselling author John Grisham? Matthew McConaughey plays Jake Tyler Brigance, the white Southern lawyer who ends up defending Carl Lee Hailey, [Samuel Jackson].

Carl Lee has shot dead the white men who brutally rape and beat his little daughter Tonya. One of the most memorable moments in the film is Jake’s summation at the close of the trial:

I set out to prove a black man could receive a fair trial in the South, that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. That's not the truth 'cause the eyes of the law are humanized, yours and mine, and until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be even-handed.

Jake decides to tell the jury a story. ‘Close your eyes,’ he instructs and then unfolds the details of the brutal attack on the innocent little girl:

They drag her into a nearby field and they tie her up and they rip her clothes from her body. . . Then they urinate on her . . . They have a rope. Imagine the noose going tight around her neck and with a sudden blinding jerk, she's pulled into the air. . . . It snaps and she falls back to the earth. So they pick her up, throw her in the back of the truck and drive out to Foggy Creek Bridge. Pitch her over the edge . . .Can you see her . . . I want you to picture that little girl.
 Now imagine she's white.

True, it’s a dramatic scene from a movie, but it’s instructive and not just in the case of the most infamous killing in the US these past ten days, Michael Brown, but for the one and the ones that don’t and won’t make twenty-four hour news headlines. In the shadow of the traumatized streets of Ferguson, another young man, Kajieme Powell, was shot and killed by two officers.

Imagine you are the mama or daddy, or the sister, or the grandmother of this twenty-five year old, ‘mentally troubled’ Kajieme, going about identifying the body, picking out a good suit to bury him in while gathering the money for a decent home-going. Your tears punctuate the funeral plans. You lie awake heart-heavy through the night and wake to way back when pictures on the wall of a smiling, snaggle-toothed boy whom you referred to then as my ‘My baby’ and ‘Son’.  

On the television and in the streets, reporters are hardly bothering to call him by name; he’s merely ‘a man’ or “an African American man” or 'the twenty-five year old African American man with a knife.' There is dismissal in it. Kajieme falling dead to the sidewalk by professionals trained to diffuse potential violence and shoot professionally is not too shocking. You stop watching – who can endure watching a video of this boy you’ve loved everyday for twenty-five years being shot over and over?

Quietly, while folk concentrate on the unjustness of the more famous killing, you talk to God on your knees and wonder, what were Kajieme’s chances against two guns and two cops oriented to fear him even without a weapon and any mental issues?

Why, you wonder just between you and God, couldn’t they have cared enough to want to reason with Kajieme a few more minutes? Couldn't they have shot him in the ankle or a leg then arrested him and taken him to a psych ward? You wonder, just from your heart to the good Lord’s, what if there could have been a little more patience and restraint from those authorized to kill when deemed necessary?

Given the years and years of bubbling despair dodging the lives of black Ferguson that exploded with the bullet-ridden body of Michael Brown, couldn’t those cops have seen Kajieme, paused, and actually decided not to shoot to kill?

Imagine you must accept it, must swallow the public justification of this grandson’s killing, that it is merely a sidebar, an endnote, in the background of the really big story in Ferguson?

You must simply go about the business of burying him, asking that the funeral folk make sure he resembles the boy you raised, and that the suit he will lie in forever in the casket is decent, and that there is a service with praying and good preaching and the right church songs. But all the while, in your troubled soul, you wonder, you imagine . . .

What if Kajieme had been white? What if Michael, what if all those good, troubled, brilliant, foolish, naïve, hopeful young black men over all these years had been white?


Stephane Dunn, PhD is a writer and professor at Morehouse College where she is the director of the Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press). Her writings have appeared in Ms., The Chronicle of Higher Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, Ebony.com,  and Best African American Essays, among others. Follow her on Twitter:  @DrStephaneDunn

‘A Time to Kill: If Kajieme had been White . . .’

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