Charleston, or The Lie and How We Told It

18 06 2015

I don’t remember where I was, but a while back, I was in a public place and heard two African American women talking about having lived in Charleston. One said she had, but not for very long. “I could hear my ancestors telling me to get out of there,” she said. Charleston was, of course, a major center of the slave trade in America. It was also, of course, the scene of a horrific racially motivated mass murder yesterday, and those two facts are linked in a way that doesn’t get talked about enough.

According to one of the survivors of the church shooting, one of the members of the prayer group tried to talk the shooter out of his rampage. He responded by saying “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” In that, the shooter echoed sentiments that white people have levelled against black people in this country for pretty much as long as there have been black people in this country. They are just another version of the convenient fictions, the comfortable lies that white people have used throughout US history to justify and excuse the horrific abuses they have perpetrated on black people. Begin with the unsustainable idea that blacks are somehow lesser, and the idea of kidnapping and enslaving them doesn’t seem so awful. Once they’re enslaved, you can talk about how they’re actually better off than they were – you’ve civilized them. Their lives are better! (An insane notion we still hear trotted out now [see Cliven Bundy] and has even appeared in some terribly skewed history books [see Bob Jones University Press, 1991]) Once slavery is abolished, new versions of the lies emerge – they’re lazy. They’re dangerous. They lust after our chaste, virginal white women. They’re going to ruin the country. Sound familiar?

Here’s the thing – that’s all bullshit. I generally avoid swearing in this blog, but I also believe that words are tools, and the malicious, dishonest stupidity I’m talking about merits nothing less than rhetorical sledgehammers. Let’s start from the simple fact of slavery. Black people are going to ruin the country? Black people made the country unimaginably prosperous. A business that doesn’t have to pay its labor is going to make a lot more money than one that does. The economic prosperity of the colonies and then the United States was made possible by an enslaved workforce. Even the manufacturing of the more abolitionist North ran on raw materials harvested by slaves. Without that, the ascendancy of the US as a world power would have been significantly slower. That is a simple fact that cannot be disputed.

Next, the idea that life as slaves was somehow better than free life is ludicrous. While these conditions weren’t universal, slaves were routinely denied any education, separated from their families, and severely beaten or killed. If some slave owners were kinder or made the choice to provide education to their slaves, they still treated those slaves as owned property and took away their freedom. The only life a slave could know was one of constant servitude from birth until death, with the extremely slim (and perverse) possibility that they be willed their freedom upon their masters’ death. Of course, it was entirely possible that the opposite would be the case – they would be left, as property, to their masters’ heirs.

In a cruel twist, after the Civil War left them free, blacks were routinely slandered as lazy, lustful savages who were forever lying in wait to take the innocence of white women. Given the realities of slave life, this seems like a clear case of projection. The people who were bought and sold as beasts of the field, those subjected to beatings when they were perceived as less than diligent in their (uncompensated, involuntary) labor are suddenly lazy. The white men who routinely took sexual advantage of the so-called subhumans they enslaved (see Thomas Jefferson) saw no irony in talking of the lust of freedmen. And of course, they didn’t just talk – they established terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan to guard against these lustful predators. They would murder black people for any perceived slight or misdeed, proudly displaying their mutilated bodies with impunity. But it was the blacks who were dangerous and savage. These self-serving narratives became the common understanding. The Birth of a Nation is bald-faced propaganda, depicting the noble southerners banding together to protect themselves against the depredations of animalistic blacks and opportunistic northerners, and it is treated even now as a classic of filmmaking. Granted, DW Griffith employed lots of innovative and ground-breaking techniques, but that doesn’t change the fact that those techniques were employed to perpetuate vile lies.

As slavery faded further into memory, the lie of the lazy black unable to take care of himself continued. It mutated into the idea that blacks were being unfairly given preference over whites in employment, because it certainly couldn’t be true that those lazy mongrels were somehow earning jobs on their own merits. The lies eventually became official barriers, enshrined in neighborhood racial covenants and redlining. Systematically denied fair access to the real estate market, one of the most effective means of wealth creation and perpetuation available to US citizens, blacks next found themselves blamed for being poor and living in bad areas. And as a steady drumbeat of indefensible deaths of unarmed black men (and children) at the hands of police continues, the media constantly tries to frame the issue not as a pervasive problem of perception within police departments, but as a failing of the black community.

So, at the end of all of this, we have a mass shooting in one of the oldest black churches in the country. The suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, believed he was so fundamentally superior to the people attending a prayer meeting there that he had every right to kill them. Never mind that he was a heavy drug user with a history of minor run-ins with police – he was better than them. No matter what he had or hadn’t done in his life, no matter what the people he killed had or hadn’t done, he was better. Because his skin had less melanin. That ridiculous conclusion is built on a very old foundation of stupid lies that have been told in Charleston and the rest of this country for hundreds of years. Those lies have comforted white people as they committed all manner of unspeakable acts of violence and sexual predation and continually rigged the system to screw black people over, and even in the wake of this horrific crime, people are already turning to them for comfort again.

And it’s just bullshit.

EDIT 6/19/2015, 11:02AM – I’ve changed the title of this post. It was originally “Charleston, or the Lie and How They Told It.” I changed the “They” to “We” because I can’t exempt myself from the accusation. I have stupid racist thoughts based on those same old lies, and I shouldn’t act like I’m some paragon of virtue. I do my best to immediately shout them down, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still in there. I also edited the first sentence of the second paragraph to make it clearer.

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22 06 2015
The Birth of a Nationor B-B-B-but Wait It Gets Worse! | Who let you in here?

[…] I wrote my last post, I thought I’d pretty well covered the emergence and perpetuation of the lies that have let […]

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