Strange Fruit: Black Men Wanted Dead [and] Alive in America

On the Mark

Jon Bon Jovi wrote “Wanted Dead or Alive” to show his relationship to the outlaws of western TV and movie lore. He wrote the song to reflect his feeling of being hated by others. I am neither a rock and roll superstar nor a wandering cowboy vigilante. I am, however, an African American man living in America. That, by my very presence, makes me public enemy and public curiosity number one. Unlike Bon Jovi, who frames his life in a wanted dead OR alive understanding, I contend that African American men are wanted dead AND alive. I know some of you, regardless of your “race,” are tired of talking about race. I understand BUT your fatigue with the topic does not credit or discredit others realities or historical facts. I believe African American men are wanted dead and alive.

Our country was founded on African American labor. Slaves were often too expensive to kill so they had their personhood regulated. The measures that were taken include: theological support for African Americans either having no soul or only a soul and a body only fit for labor, anthropological beliefs that African Americans were non-human or barely human, and intellectual beliefs supporting African Americans being intellectually limited. The African American male body needed to create more workers (make babies), work hard, and endure hardship without complaint. Any desire or action for African Americans to assert their humanity was illegal like: running away, learning to read, speaking in their native language, organizing with others, and not having white permission to go and come. Although there were many views around African American folks, the one thing that held constant was the need for African American bodies to be alive and viable to help this burgeoning country turn a consistent profit. The African American body was wanted alive – even if alive meant maimed, devalued, mutilated, and seen as extraneous dark matter that is used to show white brilliance like a black cloth does a diamond.

Yet, the African American male body was wanted dead as well. With the end of slavery, African Americans would finally be “free.” With this freedom, the African American body, because it was not “owned,” became extremely expendable. The African American male body became the place for society to pin its collective fears. This is why lynching became an acceptable and public forum (often attended by the entire family) for many to exorcise their socially created demons. African American people hung from trees with such a frightening regularity that it would seem that trees produced African American bodies instead of leaves. Many African American men were hung for “offenses” such as looking at a white person in the eye, alleged sexual interaction with white women, being in a white part of town, or to intimidate other African Americans. The same “crimes” from slavery that would have produced wounded black men are now producing dead ones. The lack of economic value combined with systematized social fear produced a lethal combination for African American men.

In order to attempt to protect oneself from malicious and soul crushing, government-sanctioned, domestic terrorism, the African American community emphasized being a decent and law abiding citizen. This myth of being respectable cannot save a group of historically hunted people from the irrational and violent power systems and those people that are the enforcers of this ideology. Being an educated, humble, self-respecting person is not a hiding place, neck brace, or a bulletproof vest.

I hear you saying, “that was then, this is now!” I hear your voice but I would offer a question: at what point, what date did these notions, attitudes, and behavior towards African American males stop?” Much has been said about the prison industrial complex and how black men are locked up at exponential rates compared to their European American peers, especially due to unjust drug laws. Private prisons are a booming business and lobby policy makers for strict sentencing to increase their bottom line. A person can do more time in prison for a marijuana and/or crack conviction than someone who is involved in billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. African American men are surely wanted alive because their lives generate economic value in a confined space for the system again – like slavery. Meanwhile, many black men die by the tens of thousands in street violence. There are a disproportionate high number of black men on death row. The cases of police using unnecessary deadly force on black men are numerous and appalling. The same fears that have been driving our country since its inception are still at work in the systems, policies, and even in some people. Black men are definitely wanted dead too. Like Biggie said, “…either you sling crack rock or got a wicked jump shot.” For the former, I would be wanted dead and the latter I would be wanted alive.

If we are wanted dead AND alive, where is home? If we are wanted dead AND alive, where is a safe place? The reality is that I could easily, within a matter of moments, be Troy Davis or Trayvon Martin. The African American male body bears a harsh structural reality. It is cheered on so that its success can alleviate the burden of collective, historical guilt and the need to do more to equip black men. It is cheered against because that body can enter the prison system and pad the bottom line of a faceless company.

My high-priced education could not save me from having my car searched several times, being accused of grand theft, being threatened with jail, or being harassed by officers. I am fortunate that no one had to call my family to say that I was wanted and found dead because someone did not think that I should be alive.


Mark Jefferson is a native of Hampton, Virginia. He played football at Norfolk State University and graduated magna cum laude in 2005. He graduated from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2008 with a Master of Divinity with a certificate in Black Church Studies. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at Emory University in Religion, focusing on homiletics and hip-hop culture. He is an ordained Baptist minister and resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Check his blog out on and follow him on Twitter at @MarkAJefferson.