Botham Jean was sitting in his home eating ice cream when an ex-Dallas police officer entered his apartment by accident and shot him dead. She claimed he was coming at her and that she was afraid, but the downward trajectory of the bullet reveals her to be a liar. But liar or not, Botham Jean is dead. She was convicted of murder today, the officer. Here’s hoping the length of her sentence reflects the seriousness of her crime. We’ll see. Botham Jean will still be dead. However many years she will have to serve, Botham Jean will still only have been sitting in his home, eating ice cream, when she killed him.
The news was on my mind when I walked into class today, so I shared it with my students. We were finishing up a discussion of Passing, the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. It didn’t take long for the connection to arise: whenever we look at anyone, we never know what we think we know. We bring things—fears, fantasies, experiences—to every encounter over which we have no control. There is no such thing as an objective gaze.
The ex-officer did not see someone she recognized when she looked at Botham Jean. Obviously, in spite of the fact that they were neighbors, he was a stranger to her. But in the man she killed, the black man, she did not even see someone who could be like her in any way. She saw a threat, she saw her own terror projected, even in a person engaged in the most mundane, quiet of acts.
Those of us who are black are black all of the time, in our moments of peace, in our interior, in our silence.
After class I went back to my office and closed the door. I closed my eyes and thought of Botham Jean. I looked out of my window onto the empty campus plaza. I thought about what it was like to feel so safe that I didn’t even have to contemplate my safety. I am black now, I thought. Maybe most black at this moment, sitting with my hands in my lap, just being in this moment, listening to and watching the world, waiting for nothing to happen. And nothing did.