Representative Cynthia A. Johnson was the test for the Michigan House Democrats to show that all that “Black Lives Matter,” “Muted but Listening,” and “Protect Black Women” rhetoric from the summer wasn’t hollow. Unfortunately, and to me unsurprisingly, they failed it.
Last week, the President’s attorney Rudy Giuliani came to Lansing with the sole purpose to undermine the results of Michigan’s elections. His primary methodology was to denigrate Detroit by challenging the integrity of its people and cast falsehoods and clouds of conspiracy. Cynthia A. Johnson defended us and did her best to push back against a vicious federal administration bent on utilizing tropes to claim election fraud.
Since that time, Johnson has been brought into a national spotlight (interviews w/ CNN, caricatured on “Saturday Night Live”, and other media). And with that visibility emerged a vigorous campaign of racial terror against her bearing the ugliest markings of the energy of the American 1920s and ’30s. An avalanche of death threats and calls for her lynching have been her daily experience.
Let me not mince words, lynching is a form of murder intended to make a statement. It is a symbol. In context of our American history, it is a show of subjugation and supremacy. It says, “Stay in your place.” A body is left on display with the intention of being a deterrent. I shouldn’t have to read a book to you for that to be understood.
Rep. Johnson responded to those who leveled death threats in a way that was clumsy, but her statement was smoke and not at all the fire that her critics claim it to be. So when the Capitol bubble, particularly the Michigan House Dems, respond to a baiting news release titled “Detroit State Rep Incites Violence” (I shouldn’t even have to walk out how that tagline is a dogwhistle in itself) and do a bunch of handwringing while she’s stripped of her committee assignments, I feel the need to step up where her caucus won’t.
As a former Black Lansing staffer, this is a microcosm of why you keep having the perennial Diversity and Inclusion meetings about why you can’t retain Black talent. I can’t begin to explain how many of Lansing’s “Chiefs” and “Deputy Chiefs” I’ve been dragged in front of to help articulate Lansing’s diversity problems. The short answer is: “The atmosphere you enable”.
I’m often asked if I want to return to working in Lansing after grad school and incidents like these are the reminders why I choose to decline. Over my years in Lansing, I’ve seen how legislators of color (Particularly the Black ones from Detroit) are branded and marginalized in the Capitol space as incorrigible, I’ve witnessed young Black mothers on staff with only part time salaries, I’ve observed the selection of people of color for non-empowered/non-decision making roles, I’ve seen those same staffers be paraded to press and funders alike during a period of “unrest” without a commitment to their long term growth and development. For people of color the Capitol space is a special kind of burdensome environment and its grief is ever reoccurring. The only reason I’ve seen great staff and great legislators persevere is because they want to make a difference.
But even in the face of the most naked racial threats, Michigan House Dems took the “both sides” approach to blatant displays of supremacy. They will “Yuk Yuk” and post about you when you make it to SNL, but when the going gets tough, stomachs get weak. The love is temporary. Cynthia A. Johnson deserves better.
To Cynthia A. Johnson: My heart goes out to you, and may the spirit of this Maya Angelou poem carry you:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.