Gentle, quiet, well-mannered black boys are unrecognizable actors in American history; instead, these children are most always fiendish brutes in the cultural imagination and reified as such in daily life. The attempted crucifixion of Brenton Butler exemplifies this unfortunate truth. On Sunday morning, May 7, 2000, a white woman was shot in the face by a black male assailant who ran off with her purse. The Jacksonville Police Department set out looking for a tall, skinny, black male wearing dark shorts and a fisherman’s cap. 15-year-old Butler, on his way to apply for a job at Blockbuster video was asked if he would come to the police station to answer a few questions, to which he agreed. Before reaching the station, police asked Mary Ann Stephens’s now widowed and traumatized husband, James Stephens, if he recognized the young man in the backseat of the police car as the shooter and he confirmed that it was. The documentary film, Murder on a Sunday Morning, follows the public defenders’ efforts to prove Butler’s innocence.
This poor child was beaten by at least one detective and compelled to sign a false confession by another. Once the police decided on Butler’s criminality, they gave up performing any real detective work. They did not attempt to verify Butler’s story by asking his parents or neighbors about his whereabouts; they never went to Blockbuster to verify Butler’s claim of applying for a job there; they never took fingerprints from the purse once it was discovered in a dumpster. All the police did was find this church going, bespectacled, quiet, disciplined black child and turned him into the black brute of American historical fantasy.
This case highlights the importance of teaching my son these lessons:
1.) Don’t confuse the state of Florida with a theme park. Thinking of Florida through the lens of Disney World, the “most magical place on earth,” won’t help you as much as knowing about the Rosewood Massacre (1923), the lynching of Rubin Stacy (1935), the fate of the Groveland Four (1949), the bombing that killed activist Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette on Christmas night (1951), and other sinister happenings in the Sunshine State.
2.) It will be good to teach my son to recognize the exceptionally talented alto saxophonist, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, as a surprising sonic emergence in Florida’s music history in light of the fact that it was not until 2007 that its state’s song was changed from the minstrel song, “The Swanee River.”
3.) I will remind him to be careful about work and play in Florida. Searching for work in the morning may leave you handcuffed in prison for six months and leaving home for tea and a snack at half-time might get you killed at night.
To be continued…