“The role of government … is to offer forms of protection that enhance our lives and shield our bodies from foreseeable and preventable dangers.” ~ Todd Brewster, Preface, Nobody (xvii).
When Marc Lamont Hill’s book Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond (Atria, 2016) appeared in August of 2016 we were in the final weeks of a presidential election that would win the Democratic nominee the popular vote, including the majority of Black and Brown votes, but carry Donald Trump into the presidency on the support of White America. Since November 2016, the American “war on the vulnerable” described in Hill’s book — a nation starkly sorted into the somebodies whose voices (and votes) matter and the nobodies whose lives are expendable — has only intensified. People of color, prisoners, LGBTQ people, the poor, non-Christians, the mentally and physically ill, immigrants and refugees, women, drug users, those whose lives are at risk due to climate change and environmental exploitation, all find themselves targeted by politicians who appear at best negligent and self-interested, at worst knowing agents of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
As the title of Nobody suggests, Hill (Distinguished Professor of African-American Studies, Morehouse College) grounds his narrative of vulnerable lives in the experiences of Black and Brown Americans whose bodies bear the brunt of state violence in this country. Each chapter focuses on a distinct site of state violence: the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; the fatal results of “broken windows” policing; the normalizing of plea bargains; state sanction of extrajudicial violence; the prison-industrial complex; the lack of clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Full-length books could (and have) been written about each of these topics, and Nobody does not seek to be comprehensive so much as connective — to string these sites of state-sponsored and state violence together into a single narrative of the devaluation of human lives.
Most of the individual stories and brutal regimes in Nobody will be intimately familiar within the communities that lived (and continue to live) through them. Even as a White middle-class reader, I am familiar with many of these details. Yet the strength of Hill’s work is in stepping back from the specific and challenging us all to understand the structures of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy and colonization that make specific episodes of violence a symptom of our government — a collective choice. Nobody demands that readers understand that the “nobodies” who suffer and die at the hands of our government are causalities we have implicitly sanctioned and continue to sanction. So, too, we are challenged to recognize that those of us who enforce government policies or enable government processes, participate in “a system already engineered to target, exploit, and criminalize the poor, the Black, the Brown, the queer, the trans, the immigrant, and the young” (11). We are, all of us, complicit and culpable as long as the system continues to exist and exact such a steep (often fatal) price from the bodies of our most vulnerable neighbors.
As Todd Brewster observes in his forward to Nobody, most Americans on the liberal side of the political spectrum believe in the power of our governments — local and national alike — to alleviate suffering. We live in an era when, increasingly, our government fails in this purpose and instead, whether through passive neglect or active persecution, delivers suffering and death. What we do to resist and reverse this reality is up to us.
Nobody is a powerful and accessible book that would serve well as an incisive introduction to these issues in the context of community or classroom discussion. The thematic chapters lend themselves to assignment across multiple discussion periods and end notes provide many suggestions for further reading. Be aware, if you are assigning this work, that your students or discussion participants may come from communities where such violence is a lived reality and content notes may be appropriate. Not everyone needs to be re-traumatized