Black Lives Matter: ‘Get Your Knee off My Neck’, ‘I Can’t breathe’

By Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo, PhD

‘I was born to work up to my grave, but I was not born to be a slave’ – Maya Angelou (2014)

The United States (US) has a peculiar history of racialised police brutality. This phenomenon points to a number of issues in American society and some with a long tradition that dates back to colonialism and slavery. In my brief stay in the US while at Emory University (2001 – 2002) in Atlanta, Georgia, and again while at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (2016-2017) my African American friends, colleagues and the people I socialised with in African American communities did not just share their experiences of the institutionalised and systematised racism, but, we also experienced some occurrences while we were together in various areas of the cities.

I vividly remember the physical expression of a friend when one day, while driving me around, we were stopped by white police officers. He had the look of a brave man who was not afraid of the white police officers but was rather willing to die and leave  behind his little kids than be bullied because of the colour of his skin.

The killing of African Americans by the racist white police officers is neither a deficit of public/mob police nor a crime issue or gangsterism as others would like us to believe. It must rather be viewed within the proper historical, political, economic and social context. It is a racism issue that can be traced from the period of colonisation and slavery. All forms of racism are alive and are daily experiences for African Americans.

Malcolm X, in reference to America’s social order and its protectors, said the racist white society manipulates the media to the extent that a victim appears as a perpetrator while the actual perpetrator is made to look innocent. This has been the case with most, if not all, the cases of the African Americans who died at the hands of the racist police brutality. This trend glosses over the actual reality and lack of justice for African Americans in the US.     

Whenever I hear of a Black person killed by the racist white police officers in the US, I get flashbacks of my dear friend. Seeing the audio-visual of the untimely death of George Floyd at the hands of the white police officers saying ‘I can’t breathe’, calling his mother and ultimately passing on and leaving behind his little kids, I felt the pain not merely because of Pan Africanist solidarity but also due to the systematic racialised justice in the US. 

Subsequent to Floyd’s passing on 25 May – a date that coincides with the celebration of Memorial Day in the US and Africa Day, I have followed the protests in the US, London, Germany, New Zealand and other parts of the globe. Most importantly, I have reflected on the level of systematised and institutionalised racism in the US. 

While watching Floyd’s memorial service,  particularly the remarks of the speakers and some of the hymns sung, I could not stop thinking about W.E.B. DuBois ‘Songs of Sorrow’ as reflected in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, as I observed the ‘death, suffering and unvoiced’ longing for deracialised democracy, justice and liberty, and humane treatment of African Americans in the US.

In order to fully comprehend the present police brutality it is imperative to view it within the broader context of the historical development of the modern US. I submit three windows to locate the police brutality. These tenets are:

  1. The geography of history of the police brutality in the US.

The present day police brutality can be traced from colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crow. The latter is an inherited legacy of these historical periods with its institutionalised and systematised racism.

The so called discovery of the ‘New world’ by the European settlers and explorers precipitated the violent nature of the battles over the land between the indigenous Americans and the former. This violence resulted in almost the extinction of the indigenous Americans. This was the first wave of brutality and racialised otherness.

From 1619, this phenomenon was compounded by the slavery experience when the first African slave ship – an English privateer ship arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. The African Americans “whose ancestors were brought to the United States beginning in 1619 have lived through conditions of cruelties so horrible, so bizarre…” (Maya Angelo, 2014:13). This brutality, unkindness and inhumane experience marked the beginning of violence against the darker race in the US, which has been carried over to the present in the form of systematised and institutionalised racism and police brutality.

Furthermore, it also symbolised, as Reverend Al Sharpton, President of the National Action Network, mentioned at Floyd’s memorial service held at Minneapolis on Thursday, 4 June 2020, the beginning of the process of white slave masters and their descendants to put their knees on the necks of the African Americans. Thus, the thesis of his eulogy was centred on the lack of justice for African Americans, white supremacy and called for whites to get their knees off our necks, Get Your Knee off My Neck, I Can’t breathe’.

In his moving, political and emotional remarks Rev. Al Sharpton expressed the African Americans cause and lack of justice in the present and the incomplete struggle. In more than one way, Rev Sharpton relived the words of Maya Angelou who stated: “It was our history, our painful passage and uneven present, that burned luminously in the dark theatre.” (ibid, pp18)

Rev. Al Sharpton categorically pointed out: “First of all we cannot use bible as a prop. For those that have agendas that are not about justice, this family will not let you use George as a prop. Let us stand for what is right.” (Extract from the memorial service of George Floyd). The Reverend further drew similarities between US President Donald Trump and Germany’s Adolf Hitler whom he  said carried the bible while promoting his concept of superior race. Therefore, the common denominator between the two is white supremacy and racism.

These remarks came as “The US president sparked outrage from religious leaders, top Democrats in Congress and others when he visited the church across from the White House and posed holding a Bible after the law enforcement officers cleared protesters using teargas.” (, downloaded on 5 June 2020).

The gesture by Trump and his use of force towards the protesters does not solve the problem. However, taking into account his reversal of the gains that were made by former President Barack Obama for the African Americans in health care – Obama care – his conduct and attitude towards the protests stemming from Floyd’s death is a demonstration of the long tradition of a contradictory history – liberty, justice and democracy as against the slavery practice by the Founding fathers of the States –  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, amongst others – and the lack of justice for African Americans, and racialised democracy and liberty in the US.

Trump continues with this phenomenon and treatment of African Americans as second class citizens. This contradictory history and racialised democracy and liberty in the US is coherently presented by Kenneth C. Davis (2016), In the Shadow of Liberty: the Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and FIVE BLACK LIVES.

Furthermore, my research into the African American heritage scholarship, particularly the meaning of the President’s House – President George Washington House – gazes at the complexities of the nearby African American community, Seventh Ward Neighborhood, that has since relocated and changed the cultural landscape in Philadelphia. The research is part of my Fulbright Scholar research while at Cheyney University and exposes this contradictory history and the racialised concepts of democracy, liberty and justice in the US.

The racialised democracy, liberty and justice deficit in the US for African Americans continue to live in the present mirror that the civil rights movement dream of as presented by Martin Luther King Jr but is far from being realised. Therefore Americans, particularly African Americans cannot naturally say “We have overcome” (Maya Angelou, 2014:15).

  1. Secondly, the psychology of the police brutality is based on racialised other, ‘less human’, racism, racist science and biological curiosity. The psychology of whiteness, white supremacy and racism are windows to better understand the behaviour and attitude of white American police brutality.

This text of whiteness has its origins in racist science and social hierarchy, human evolution, superiority-inferiority complex advocated by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) through his Darwinism theory. Accordingly, the darker race was used for racist scientific and biological curiosity. This public discourse was also framed by biological curiosity by whites as experienced in the US in the case of African Americans, particularly at the Penn State University Medical school, where specimens were publicly displayed as part of white people’s public taste.

Further, Philosophers such as George Hegel, through what is dabbed the Hegelian views, significantly contributed to the held views of racism. Hegel and Marx were racist towards Africans as they viewed them as lagging behind in human development and ‘less human’ and deserving to be kept in zoo. This also contributed towards white Americans attitude towards African Americans.

The posture by Hegel epitomises Bonilla-Silva’s theory of racism that highlights “the dominant ideology of the racial structure…of inequality and domination based primarily or partly on race” (Moon-Kie Jung, 2015: 31) in the construction of racism or racialise social phenomena.

Hegel’s understanding of the ‘world history’ was without Africa, suggesting a fallacious view, which was then held by European explorers and colonialists years after him, that Africa has no history, out of history and never contributed to the broader human civilisation. Indeed, Africa was portrayed as “a kind of Museum of Barbarism whose population had stayed outside the laws of human growth and changed through some natural failing or inferiority” (Basil Davidson, 1966/1991:3).

However, the African scholarship challenged this myth, especially from mid-20th century. Cheikh Anta Diop’s doctoral thesis completed in 1954, which looked at the pre-dynastic Egypt, debunked the myth about the early African civilisation. Basil Davidson (1966/1991) Africa in History  and many of his works and Abu’l-Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni’s work, among others, are central in this discourse.

It should be noted that these philosophers, having revised the history of Africa, influenced the attitude of Europeans towards Africans –slavery, colonialist and apartheid in South African context – just like the racist scientists of their time influenced and legitimised the superiority and inferiority complex. These racist pointers and any form of racism were contrary to the spirit of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe’s one human race thesis, and Aime Casaire’s principle of ‘humanisation of humanity’ (Reiland Rabaka, 2015: 168).

Central to this spectacle of racist scientific and biological curiosity and Hegelian views is the doctrine of black race inferiority. W.E.B. Du Bois in his collection of pamphlets and leaflets compiled by Herbert Aptheker (1986), penned: “For most part, today the colonial peoples are coloured of skin. This was true of colonies in other days, but it is mainly true today, and to most minds this is of fatal significance; coupled with Negro slavery, Chinese coolie, and doctrine of race inferiority. It proved to most white folk the logic of the modern colonial system: colonies are filled with people who never were abreast with civilisation and never can be. (Herbert Aptheker, 1986: 335).

The Negritude Movement is in agreement with Mogobe Ramose (2005), Basil Davidson (1966/1991) and Du Bois in pamphlets and leaflets compiled and edited by Herbert Aptheker (1986); but also turned the negative images of African and African diaspora into positive re-narrative and posture.

The Critical Race Theory (CRT) recognises racism as lived experiences, hierarchies of segregation, suppression power structures, authority and control; and the institutionalised and systematised white supremacy and nationalism in America. Through ‘the problem of segregation in the United States…anti-black racism is constant and multi-layered, emotional and effective” (Simone Browne, 2015: 5). Thus, Fanon in Simone Browne is cited as stating: “We are nothing on earth if we are not, first of all, slaves of a cause, the cause of the people, the cause of justice, the cause of liberty” (ibid).

In exploring the race problem in the past and the present; and Blackness in the US, Simone Browne (2015) “introduce the two main, interrelated conceptual schemes… racializing surveillance and dark sousveillance” (ibid). These concepts give a different dimension to the discourse. In agreement with Du Bois, Moon-Kie Jung (2015) following Bonilla-Silva (1997) theory of racism, presents racism as a social construct and as a systematic and institutionalised phenomenon. According to Jung: Social psychology defines racism as ‘a set of ideas or beliefs’, which may lead to prejudicial attitudes that may, in turn, elicit discriminatory behaviour (Moon-Kie Jung, 2015:22). The white police brutality can be comprehended in this manner.

It is through the lenses of ‘prejudicial attitude’ and ‘discriminatory behavour’ that “the social position of Black relative to whites has not improved evenly or greatly, and in some respects has worsened over the past several decades. Literally from birth to death, Blacks continue to face vast inequalities” (ibid, pp 43).

  1. Thirdly, the whites’ public taste gazes. The white public taste, particularly, in the form of lynching in the US also formed part of this occurrence of bigotry and hierarchies of oppression, and psychology of whiteness and supremacy.

The construct of lynching gazes and its commercialisation for white audiences, which were based on the psychology of whiteness and supremacy, formed part of whites public taste discourse in the US. As part of the Whites public taste and commercialisation, the lynching of African Americans in America was publicly advertised as a public entertainment, family outing and picnic with announcements made in churches and would sell tickets for attendees.

From this experience of slavery and lynching images the present white police brutality can be historicised and theorised, within the broader context of institutionalised and systematised racism in the US. This psychological hangover of violence that African Americans continue to experience even in the present has triggered the emergence of Black Lives Matter drive and protests in recent years.

The slavery, racist sciences, lynching, human zoos, public display and fairs, expositions and amusement parks which happened almost at the same time and with some lasting longer than others, were all based on the dehumanisation of darker race, white public taste, objectification and a view of ‘less human’ which are held about Africans and African diaspora by whites.

The racialised police brutality does not merely epitomised the institutionalised and systematized racism. But, also the levels of violence experienced by the African Americans in the US. These forms of violence range from physical, spiritual, psychological, social, economic to various forms of chromatic experiences byAfrican Americans. They are a wounded nation or ethnic group, as they are referred to in the US, that walks with the scars of slavery, Jim Crow laws, institutionalised and systematised racism, and hierarchies of discrimination.

In conclusion, the American social order continues to be underpinned by the colonial and slavery era and the Jim Crow period psychology of whiteness, racism and supremacy. The quest by African Americans for deracialised democracy, justice, liberty and full citizenship is an on-going intergenerational struggle. The racist white supremacists who hide behind the institutionalised and systematised racism, including the sitting State President, to borrow from Rev Al Sharpton, are refusing to “get their knees off our necks” and Black people ‘cannot breathe’ in a country they significantly contributed and continue to build. America was built on the sweat and blood of the enslaved African Americans. The African American story is the American story. They deserve justice and to be treated in a humane, respectful manner and with dignity. Aluta continua!!!

Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo is a historian, heritage studies specialist, museologist, a former Fulbright Scholar at Cheyney University (US) and a former Rockefeller Scholarship holder to Emory University (US). He is the Director of the Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies at the University of Fort Hare. He writes in his personal capacity.


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