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.


  1. Brian Foulks

    March 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    …with the pen of an amanuensis who writes for James Baldwin, you have captured the essence…

    My dear brother, I write with a heavy heart and the pain expressed in your article is burdensome. You have captured the pulse of a black father wondering what to do with his own son. How to I keep him safe even in safe places. You have sparked me to be greater and more vigilente for young black males.

    a fire you have sparked my friend, a fire…

  2. Man Parrish

    March 22, 2012 at 8:44 am

    There is nothing said about blacks killing each other, but when a possibly racial element is added to the death of a black person, then its time to become alarmed. Treyvon is becoming nothing more than a political trophy. Even the OWS crowd is using his death to their advantage. This is vile and sickening. Selective outrage is idiotic.

    • Brian Foulks

      March 22, 2012 at 10:53 am

      Man Parrish,

      This was not about blacks killing other blacks but pinpointed the senseless death of a teenager at the hands of a racis driven captian of the neighborhood watch. Is the the black on black crime a problem-most definitely. But the thing your are propsing t-selective outrage- may be in some cases but Mark is not advocating such. I think he has captured a pulse to call people to the floor of responsibility.

      Folks have been alarmed and will continue to do so but this was an addressment to a immediate event.

      I do agree with you that some are using this to their advantage but I have a two sons, nephews, and cousins that makes this story pertinent.

      It is a lot easier to deal with teenager stupidity than embedded hatred and racism.

      At the end of the day, we fight the same fight of injustice…

      my thoughts

      • Man Parrish

        March 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm

        Speaking on the racism element, did you know the shooter is half black and half mexican? I bet you did not know that.

        • Urban Cusp

          March 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm

          Two sources related to George Zimmerman:

          “George is a Spanish speaking minority with many black family members and friends. He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever,” Robert Zimmerman wrote in a one-page statement delivered to the Orlando Sentinel.

          “At the focal point of a shooting scandal: a mild-mannered neighbor who fixated on crime and focused on young, black males.”

          • Brian Foulks

            March 22, 2012 at 2:34 pm

            You comments are completely asinine. No where in those articles does it say he is black; it said he had black family members. Hell, I have white family members does that make me white-no. It makes me a dude with a diverse family-bottomline.

            • Man Parrish

              March 22, 2012 at 6:56 pm

              I see we are getting into the name calling zone. It is what I read, if it is incorrect, then it is not I, it is the author. Time to step off. Peace.

  3. Brian Foulks

    March 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    You make that seem as if that changes what happen my friend. That does not change the plight of what has happen nor the tone. Wrong was still done and this kid is still dead.

    And as far as him being black site your source. Yes he is Mexican -proven…site your source on the black claim.

    You are operating in the spin zone man, trying to draw attention away from the real facts. Rest assured you are not fooling anyone…

  4. Natasha S Robinson

    March 27, 2012 at 1:19 pm