Some twenty years ago, given my experience with racism in academia, I'd ask advocates for the status quo what they feared. I wouldn’t receive an answer, in fact, the individual would stare at me, but, between the two of us, we understood what their audible answer would be.
Today, we all hear the answer of those who feel that the right to denounce what doesn’t promote white privilege, the right to justify the suppression of anti-white power, anti-democratic presence in America, is being stripped away from them. So, yes, their lives are in danger!
But I can tell you that this feeling of a life-threatening danger has been simmering for a while, and this fear of an increasingly pervasive Blackness hasn’t been limited to rural America.
I used to have a friend who repeatedly informed me that she never read the work I posted in my online column. It was as if she were recently freed of a huge debt: I don’t read your articles! She read, instead, the work I sent to a local newspaper where I had a column. The online magazine, dedicated to the analysis of the Black experience, was more in depth, which meant it required a longer engagement with the subject of slavery, exploitation, or police brutality.
This was some fourteen or fifteen years ago. Long before 45 occupied the Oval Office at the White House. The presence of Americans refusing to confront that ugly American history of conquest and enslavement, torture and genocide, suppression has been in the making since writers, justifying the young nation’s forging and ultimate dependence on the Atlantic Slave Trade, crated images of uncivilized Africans. Thank God, Anglo-Americans existed to save the inferior African!
This same friend was present on an evening in which I held a film event. The event was open to the public. Sometimes I was able to reserve a backroom at one of the cafes. Once, I showed a bell hooks’ documentary, Cultural Criticism and Transformation, in a university classroom. But this time, I believe it was a last minute backroom in a church. It’s the college town of Madison, Wisconsin, so a few students attended, but regular residents were present. There were plenty of whites in the audience. Like my friend. A long time resident of a city still 90 percent white. After she helped me set up the refreshments at this event, she took a seat. I too sat down in the row behind her.
That late afternoon, I was showing the deceased historian John Henrik Clarke’s A Long and Mighty Walk, a documentary I had shown several times in a classroom setting without objection from students. But now it was my friend who kept turn back looking at me in the row behind her. I was ready to click the remote, but I caught her look: It was the look of someone desperate to avoid an impending disaster. Should I free her? Tell her she needn’t stay.
I understood feeling uncomfortable.
I called back for someone to turn off the lights, and I clicked the remote’s “on” button.
As James Baldwin once wrote, in “Take Me to the Water,” to allow “a friend” to think you are “a Negro,” is to “become” an accomplice. Be my friend, as long as you are not too Black!
The last time I organized a book or film event was late in 2006, I believe. A Black woman from the community assisted in organizing this event. She was an organizer and activist, particularly when it came to the education of Black children.
Her daughter was a seventh or eight grader. A good student. But the pipeline from school to prison wasn’t a hysterical fantasy of concerned Black parents. It was real. So was the effort to discourage the joy of learning, reading about American history, the real history. The daughter’s reading habits seemed to attract the ire of her teachers.
When this woman and I arrived, a group of mainly whites were already gathered around a table in the basement of this old bookstore. Maybe ten people, at best. No students. Not the usual crowd. The bookstore had a reputation for being radical. Anti-war. But word gets around, I thought. What are these people up to now? Should I save myself? But it was a fall night, I remember. Cold. I sat down. Mostly men, I noted. I was sure to be the subject!
I had highlighted some key passages, and I had planned to skip around and then stop for discussion. I noticed, however, that only one or two had the book, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, in front of them.
“National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon…”
I look up and I see red face and hear angry voices.
I looked at the Black woman who helped me set up this event, ever so briefly, there was no surprise. I closed the book, picked up my coat from the back of the chair. I knew she was doing the same. I stood up, and I’m sure she did too, while announcing the book “discussion” had come to an end.
Why am I talking about violence, one of them yelled.
In 2006 or 2007, a representative from the Madison Public Library (MLP) spoke on a local radio show about the necessity to ban Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and I thought, yes, we have come to this moment from long ago.
When I first taught the book in the late 1990s, I waited until near the end of the semester. By then, students, mainly Black students, were exposed to writers presenting first hand accounts of what it meant to be enslaved in the US. After 9/11 (with the exception of one African American Women’s Literature course), it became increasingly difficult to have semester where students, now mainly white, even bothered to read the slave narratives.
The day discussion on Beloved was to begin, few had read the text and it was a struggle to coach out of them any questions about what they read.
So it wasn’t a surprise when I hear the MPL representative tell a town, over 90% white, that Beloved had too many “dirty parts.” As if Morrison had the audacity to point to violence of American enslavement! If Morrison had written about Blacks as criminals, as pathological, she would have garnered praise as an “American” writer who refused to dwell on the violence of the Atlantic Slave Trade and enslavement. The “dirty parts” of US history.
Too many “dirty parts!”
And what questions would Black children generate in the classroom after reading such a book? Who would answer those uncomfortable questions from children who want to learn?
Too much “Blackness”?
White America lives in the land of feelings, and similar to immature teens, white America has yet to recognize that this feeling of something ominous, black and creepy, corrupting the innocence of their towns and neighborhoods, into their lives, their children’s minds, is but their collective fear of difference. Racial difference.
How real is it? It’s real enough to defend with AR-15s. Real enough to receive an acquittal. Real enough to return to the office, having shot and paralyzed a young man. Real enough to be sent home from the courtroom. Real enough to be offered an internship—in Congress—by a Congressional member. To paraphrase Beloved’s Baby Suggs, white America doesn’t know “when enough is enough.”
I’ll say it again, since the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, I have yet to have one white resident of Kenosha express a word of compassion. Not a word to even acknowledge knowledge of these acts of violence. Not one white has showed me their humanity and connection with other human beings. In fact, in the silence, I have acknowledged the memo: a complicity with whiteness is required!
Particularly since last year, since a string of shootings of Black Americans, white residents have stood in my face and referred to “looters” and “rioters.”
It was no surprise to me when the judge in the Rittenhouse trial as the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and anyone listening to refer to the three white Black Lives Matter supporters, two murdered and one serious injured, as “looters” and “rioters.” It’s not just the judge who surrounded Rittenhouse with protection “love” and “justice.”
As the spirit of Beloved's Baby Suggs warned the young Denver (Sethe’s daughter), there’s “‘no defense for it.’” And when Denver asks, but then what to do, the older woman says, go on. Go on!
Wrong is wrong! There is a right side of history!