The young man was a Mainer, born and raised. In the tradition of Maine families, his was a big one. The youngest of nine, he was the baby of the family and you could tell by the way his sisters talked about him. One sister would say he had a soft heart and talk about how helpful he was. He was “warm and welcoming.”
“He was such a happy kid,” said a family friend. “He was always in a good mood.”
The young man was also an athlete, seemingly a natural. As his sister would say, “He was very competitive and loved to win.”
The young man had a girlfriend. They had been together for a year before everything ended in tragedy. The young man was killed. The young man was, in fact, killed by his girlfriend’s brother.
The young man was killed on March 16, 2019. He was only 22 years old.
He was born to Somali parents, he was black, and his name was Isahak Muse.
Does reading his name change how you think of this story? It should. What if I tell you that his girlfriend was white? Does that change anything for you? It also should. These two things should change how you view the entire story, because it presents a context that does not exist if everyone in the story is a white Christian.
As you think about this story, fight the urge to include what you think the killer’s intent might be. Instead, look at the story from what can actually be known, like the context. For example, we can know the historical violence this country has wrought when it comes to just the idea of black men crossing that particular color line.
We know that while the media often portrays a black killer as a monster, a white killer is often portrayed as a victim. For example, they often publish or broadcast dark and intimidating photos of a black killer, and friendly, happy photos of a white killer. In this case, although Muse’s killer was 25 years old, a smiling photo of him from high school was used by several Maine media outlets as soon as he was arrested.
Headlines also create a context. Five days after the killer’s arrest, the Portland Press Herald published a story with the headline, “Family argument led to shooting and murder charge against Army sergeant, Portland police say.” That headline implies, at a minimum, that the killer was not responsible for his own actions. Mentioning his military service also tells you a particular, one-sided story. As a counterpoint, imagine the headline read, “Twenty-two-year-old former high school athlete killed, shot in the back by girlfriend’s brother.” While that headline is accurate, it tells a very different story than the other.
Muse’s killer was arrested nearly three weeks after the murder. That seems understandable within the context of the first headline, but outrageous in the context of the second.
Historically, the white killers of black men often claim self-defense, pointing to, and lying about, the terrifying size of their black victims. Muse’s killer, charged with murder, pled not guilty and claimed self-defense. Again, Muse was shot in the back. During the trial, the killer’s defense team claimed Muse was over six feet tall and over 170 pounds. Muse’s autopsy report lists him at 5’9” and 139 pounds at the time of his death.
At one point during the trial, the defense tried to establish whether or not Muse had been wearing a hood the night of his death. Black man. Hoodie. Context.
Muse’s girlfriend, the killer’s sister, testified that her brother had a history of making racist and Islamophobic comments, including the statement, “Muslims are terrorists.”
Muse’s killer waived his right to a jury trial, so his fate was decided by a judge. Predictably, in keeping with historical context, the judge did not find the killer guilty of murder. Instead, she found him guilty of a lesser charge, manslaughter. The prosecutor’s surprised response: “We believe the facts supported murder, or we would not have pursued a murder indictment.”
Muse’s killing fits a pattern. It took place in a context that has existed in this country since its founding. So often, the country tries to pretend there isn’t a pattern, tries to ignore this context and replace it with fantasy stories. Innocent, noble soldiers. Terrifying, giant, black monsters. Miscegenation. It’s as acceptable now as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was in 1915.
It doesn’t have to be.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.