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Michael Stewart was described by those who knew him as a shy, skinny, pretty, Black boy from Brooklyn.
He went to parties in downtown Manhattan. He was into the whole art scene that is perpetually going on in downtown Manhattan. His thing was street art, but not really. More like he wanted graffiti to be his thing, but hadn’t quite worked up the courage to start. Still, in the art world, you get to call yourself an artist for just loving it enough. There are no rules.
On September 15 at 2:50 a.m, Michael worked up the courage. He pulled out a soft tip marker, or an aerosol can (the police reports are unclear), and decided to add his art to the walls of the First Avenue subway station. He didn’t know transit authority officers, the same officers I have seen arrest young Black boys for jumping turnstiles when they could not afford fare. The same officers my Black friends and I made sure we kept our hands in plain sight, were watching him.
When shy, pretty, skinny, Black Michael arrived at Bellevue hospital that night in handcuffs, he was beaten so badly his face was unrecognizable. He died September 28, 1983 after 13 days in a coma. The officers who murdered him were all acquitted.
I am telling you the story of this beautiful Black boy, whose story I know resembles far too many, because of what came next, because of what always comes next, because of what has been coming next for centuries.
“It could have been me. It could have been me,” said famous artist Jean-Michel Basquiat when asked about his painting “Defacement,” which he says was directly inspired by the killing of Michael. In his signature abstract neo-expressionist style, he depicts two cops beating a Black figure. The murder affected him deeply.
Basquiat himself died of a drug overdose five years later.
Michael and Jean-Michel Basquiat died of the same disease that infects America to this day: white supremacy, racism, and bigotry. It is the constant awareness of one’s own mortality, one’s own dispensability, and a paranoia that is justified every single day with every Black face that flashes across the news. Basquiat spoke of how he could be invited to mansions with millionaires, yet taxis still would not stop for him. The more famous he became, the more white people wanted a piece of him.
This only heightened his understanding that no degree of success or acceptance could keep the police from destroying his Black body.
It is a maddening fact that to be Black in America means there is a degree of control you can never have over your own being. Knowing that is enough to drive any person over the edge. James Baldwin put it best when he said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.”
At the root of Basquiat’s death, and the death of so many other Black people in America, is white supremacy. Suicide rates in the Black community have been rising at a frightening pace over the past decade. A study titled Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America, conducted by a task force of the Congressional Black Caucus and Dr. Michael A. Lindsey, Executive Director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research provides hard data on the devastating increase.
According to the study, suicide attempts rose by 73% between 1991-2017 for Black adolescents (boy and girls), while injury by attempt rose by 122% for adolescent Black boys during that time period. Considering that statistics on Afrikan-American suicides are most likely to be misclassified than that of any other race, the true numbers are certainly even higher than those reported.
Still, these numbers are beyond scary, they are an emergency, and their increase is not random.
Their influx is not without direct cause.
While suicide rates in the Black community have been rising for years, they are being brought to light in the wake of recent hanging suicides across the country. Black men, women, and children as young as sixteen years old have been found hanging from trees in terrifying resemblance to the lynchings of the 1900’s. Part of the reason these suicides have captured national attention is because of this resemblance.
Many people’s first reaction is that white supremacists are behind these deaths, which is not a far fetched idea considering the well attended KKK rally that took place in 2015 in South Carolina, the Neo-Nazi rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, and the slew of hate crimes that take place every single day. More and more Americans are beginning to realize the days of Jim Crow are not so far behind us.
The recent hangings across the country were confirmed to be suicides. For the most part, the family members of those passed have said that in each case, the person had a history of mental illness, some with previous suicide attempts. But the fact that these are indeed suicides and not lynchings should not remove the tragedy of them.
Suicides have causes, factors that lead to their being carried out. It seems a new, gut wrenching injustice against Black people takes place every single day, with a graphic video to go along with it. There is no escaping this brutality, the very same brutality that killed Michael, that killed Basquiat.
While these recent hangings were not at the hands of white supremacists, they are at the hands of white supremacy.
This blood, this precious Black blood, is on America’s hands.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self harm or suicide, below is a list of mental health organizations crafted specifically for Black people, as well as the phone number for national suicide prevention lifeline.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Black Emotional & Mental Health: https://www.beam.community/bvtn
Black Female Therapists: https://www.blackfemaletherapists.com/directory
Black Male Therapists: https://www.blackfemaletherapists.com/black-male-therapists
LGBTQ of Color Therapists: https://www.lgbtqpsychotherapistsofcolor.com/albany-ca
Reduced Fee Virtual Therapy: https://www.inclusivetherapists.com/reduced-fee-virtual-teletherapy