Eugene Goodman saved America. That’s not an exaggeration.
The Capitol Hill officer put his life on the line by weaponizing a White mob’s racism against them. He knew that his Blackness would be the only thing White supremacists focused on. He put himself in the line of that generational rage that has killed so many who look like him. By doing so, he diverted the mob away from members of Congress, saving their lives and preventing a successful coup.
So, yes, Eugene Goodman is a hero.
As a result of his heroics, Goodman was rewarded the duty of protecting Kamala Harris’ life as she was inaugurated as the first Black woman vice president in United States history. The American sign of honor is to have the Black man who survived a White supremacist mob protect a Black woman from the violence that would likely be perpetrated by a racist mob that hates her skin color as much as they hated his. Beyond that, Goodman’s treatment is a reminder of what kind of work Black people have to do to be considered heroes in America, a duty that’s usually tied to our proximity to danger and sacrifice.
So often, Black people only become deified based on how we uphold American institutions. It’s easy to reimagine our sacrifices as a passion for maintaining the colonial status quo. The narrative shift of Goodman’s heroics to paint his actions as some preservation of Americana, the flag, or the American way of life all feeds the much-needed American framing of Black people as having bought into the oppression.
Goodman spent years protecting Capitol Hill and was a fully credentialed member of the security before the events of January 6. But if he’d gotten pulled over and killed by police on January 5, he would have been another Black man who deserved to die.
Goodman’s escorting of Harris came just 48 hours after MLK Day, a celebration of a man who fought vociferously against the American institution of anti-Blackness until this country killed him for his activism. Yet the day was full of people like Rand Paul, who voted against the anti-lynching bill, ICE, the FBI who helped get King killed, and other pillars of America’s perpetuation of anti-Blackness honoring a version of the revolutionary that simply never existed. Martin Luther King Jr. only became a hero once this country killed him and molded the dirt used to cover his casket into whatever figure they wanted.
America wants its heroes to live in textbooks that quell resistance, statues that cower below those of Confederate soldiers, and in reimagined movies that uphold the White standard. It’s our job not to let those framings of our champions persist.
Goodman spent years protecting Capitol Hill and was a fully credentialed member of security before the events of January 6. But if he’d gotten pulled over and killed by police on January 5, he would have been another Black man who deserved to die. Just look at the story of Breonna Taylor — a Black woman fighting a pandemic as a frontline medical worker. She was part of the group of heroes we will honor for the rest of our lives. However, when police gunned her down in her apartment, her heroism suddenly became a characteristic at odds with the necessity of an American police force. Taylor, then, suddenly became expendable, her heroics diminished.
Black heroes are plentiful in America, but so often, what makes a Black person a hero is going against the tenets of America’s desire to quell Black greatness. Often what makes a Black person a hero puts them at odds with America itself. What it takes to be Colin Kaepernick or Malcolm X or Fannie Lou Hamer or Angela Davis means being an outlaw, never truly celebrated in America. They have to be remade to be accepted.
It’s why I hope we can ignore the way America crowns its heroes. Eugene Goodman isn’t a hero because he strove to save democracy. He’s a hero because he saved lives. We have to remember these things as we accept who gets called saviors and who receives praise. Black folks must hold on tightly to our own heroes, resist the American narratives, and define greatness for ourselves.
Otherwise, we’re surrendering our stories and our heroes to the people with the most nefarious motivations imaginable.