Any true New Yorker knew who he was: a lean and beatific dancer who you would see around Times Square mimicking Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. He built up a graceful and resplendent performance from a well-known repertoire that Neely owned with his supple and silent dignity. Even if you were in a rush to get somewhere, you’d still need a minute to quietly collect your jaw from the ground after catching the blurs of his flying feet in your peripheral vision. If you were really lucky, you’d be able to see Neely bust out his steps on a subway car barreling between stations, watching him somehow sustain his center of gravity as the train swayed and careened and buckled. All this made him much more than a casual showtime busker hustling for a few bucks. He epitomized the true spirit of this city. And he deserved to live.
Tourists adored him. Gothamites respected him. There is no known method of quantifying the smiles he put on so many faces, but the tally surely must reach into six figures.
What few people knew about Neely — and the sad and enraging thing about this goddamned barbaric business is that it took a murderous Marine with a sick smirk and a passion for chokeholding for us to really know — was that the man was significantly troubled. He was betrayed by a heartless and broken system that left him for dead and that looked the other way as he lived with his pain. It was a pain that broke him. The emotional burden of living with hard and cruel knocks that all New Yorkers know, but that, without resources, becomes an abyss that is almost impossible to climb out from. A pain that had him screaming at the top of his lungs in a subway car on the first night of May, telling anyone who would listen that he was hungry and that he didn’t care and that he wanted to die. The trauma involving his mother being taken from him by a killer who was so cold that he packed her corpse into a suitcase. A pain that involved forty arrests for disorderly conduct, fare evasion, and assault.
But on Monday night on the subway, Neely was loud but not violent. He was a soul screaming for help. Help that he would never receive. Because the American experiment had rendered him invisible. And that’s when Daniel Penny, an unremarkable blond-haired thug from West Islip on his way to a date, decided to stub out this promising yet troubled light. Penny put Nelly into a chokehold for fifteen minutes. I called a friend trained in hand-to-hand combat, who informed me that you never put someone in a chokehold unless you plan to do serious business to a man. And with this disturbing intelligence, I can only conclude that Penny really wanted to kill a spirit that he savagely and sociopathically considered to be a nuisance. Penny was white. Neely was Black. So he also had that to his advantage.
But Penny also had the American climate in his favor. When a homeless man begs for help in a major metropolitan area, most Americans look the other way. When it comes to mass shootings, we offer “thoughts and prayers” instead of making legislative solutions happen. Lacking a pistol, Penny had his homicidal hands as well as two unidentified aides-de-camp holding Penny’s body down. He also had a scumbag “freelance journalist” by the name of Juan Alberto Vazquez, who never put his camera down even as Neely’s legs stopped twitching. “I witnessed a murder on the Manhattan subway today (there’s video!),” wrote Vazquez on Facebook while caught in the immediate afterglow that a used car salesman feels just after selling a lemon to some gullible mark.
In a just world, the murder of Jordan Neely would stain our city and our culture as much as the Kitty Genovese incident in 1964. It would shame us into actually doing something about it. But we don’t. Instead, we tell people to fend for themselves, accuse the indigent of being lazy and not looking for work, and we reduce SNAP benefits and cut homeless programs instead of putting everything we have into helping the most marginalized members of our society. We endure a colossally stupid and wildly arrogant mayor — the most insipid motherfucker we’ve ever had sitting adjacent to Park Row, a crooked former cop who has deluded himself into believing that he’s “the Biden of Brooklyn” — who has placed a substantive amount of the city’s money into cops — including a projected $740 million in NYPD overtime last year — rather than libraries and parks and affordable housing and mental health services and pretty much any program that would arguably reduce crime more effectively than broken windows bullshit. What was this putzbrained dunce’s remarks after the murder? “Any loss of life is tragic.” “There were serious mental health issues at play.” Followed by self-aggrandizing lies about his administration’s “large investments” in mental health. Which includes, for those not paying attention, authorizing his boys in blue, who aren’t trained to deal with those enduring a mental health crisis, to arrest anyone they deem to be fitting the profile.
Daniel Penny killed Jordan Neely. And he was not arrested. And his name was kept out of the newspapers for three days. Neely didn’t have that privilege.
What makes the Jordan Neely murder so unsettling is how it is the perfect amalgam of problems that our politicians refuse to tackle: racism, white privilege, the mental health epidemic, casual vigilantism, and, of course, the American bloodlust for violence. Republicans and Democrats have badly fumbled the football on these systemic ills and they choose to perceive this tableau of endless suffering as a game rather than a series of events that destroy and even end human lives. In these trying times, anyone with a moral conscience should be seriously considering hitting the reset switch and starting over, letting all these incompetent bastards pay the price in every election across the land. Because if this is who we are and this is what we now casually accept until the next tragedy happens, it’s clear that the status quo isn’t working. We are capable of building something better than this hideous funhouse of endless anguish, but we refuse to learn from France and revolt against these cruel and vainglorious aristocrats until they feel the palpable reality of losing political power.
Hello, Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. Except that I don’t particularly want to. It’s not you, Joe. It’s me.
Don’t worry. We’ll still text each other. I’ll still speak fondly of you. We can still meet for Sunday brunch sometimes. I’m just in a different place these days. Namely the 21st century.
It can’t be an accident that the wildly underrated Julian MacLaren-Ross skewered the idea of reading Conrad as an upwardly mobile class aspiration in Of Love and Hunger. In Frog, Stephen Dixon took the piss out of Conrad along these lines as well. Indeed, slagging off Conrad seems to be a common trait among many of my literary Bohemian heroes. And I do need to heed them. I feel and trust their instincts. It’s almost as if we’re told that we should simply accept that Conrad is a great writer who changed the course of literature (and he did) even as we pretend that he isn’t ancient and hoary and horribly regressive. When I confessed my reluctance to reread Heart of Darkness to a few friends, they told me, “Well, it’s only a hundred pages.” Which suggested very strongly that nobody really wants to read Conrad anymore. He doesn’t pop out at you like Joyce or Faulkner or Nabokov or even Lawrence. And, to tell you the truth, I would much rather reread Finnegans Wake than anything from Conrad.
Yet I don’t detest Conrad. Certainly not with the full-bore commitment in which I direct my fierce energies loathing Henry James — a man who is represented on the Modern Library canon with three hideous doorstoppers and who I have tried to learn how to enjoy (even enlisting the tremendously gracious Dinitia Smith for assistance), but whose “charms” I have proven totally impervious to. And since I’m getting ever closer to fifty and there hasn’t been a break in the Henry James ice floe, I suspect that I’m fated to go to my grave hating him, possibly living a few extra months not only to spite my enemies, but to deliver a few final rounds of vitriol towards one of the most overrated and egotistical writers in the English language. I truly dread the James slog that’s in store for me about forty titles from now. The horror! The horror! Perhaps I shall be driven mad like Kurtz.
But not so with Conrad! There is much about Conrad to like: his intensity, his often beautiful imagery, and his insights into human atavism. Eleven years ago, Lord Jim did hold my attention — but I had to give Conrad everything that I had. Decades before I read Lord Jim, I was dazzled by Heart of Darkness in high school. I reread it twice in the last few months and, while the allure that once hypnotized me seems to be gone, I can’t gainsay that this is a masterpiece.
First off, I think we can all agree that Marlow is one of the most long-winded bastards in all of literature. “Mansplaining” doesn’t even begin to describe the dude’s incessant need to talk. Compared to your FOX News-watching uncle going on and on about Marxist conspiracies at the Thanksgiving table, Charlie Marlow is an outright conversational tyrant. All these poor sailors want to do is play dominoes, but the unnamed passenger listening to Marlow’s tale notes that only “the bond of the sea” keeps the sailors from bitching about this incessant rambler “so often unaware of what [his] audience would best like to hear.” (Incidentally, this two-layer approach to narrative is a shrewd move by Conrad to insulate himself from any charges of planting autobiography into his fiction. Conrad and Marlow share many similarities. Not only did Conrad go to the Congo to fulfill a boyhood dream, but he also, like Marlow, endured the stench of a fresh corpse while commanding a steamer. Small wonder that the Polish-Ukranian bard decided to devote all of his time and energies to a full-time writing career not long after this hideous tour of duty.)
Graying technophobes — the kind of unadventurous dullards best epitomized in today’s literary world by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Sven Birkerts — often complain about the Internet’s impact on attention spans. But consider the alternative. Do you honestly want to live in a pre-radio world in which men explain things with indefatigable logorrhea? In this case, we have Marlow counterbalancing the “savage” world with the “civilized.” There were points in which I felt great sorrow for the poor sailors and imagined sending smartphones back in time so that these poor men could wile away their hours with Candy Crush and cat videos instead of listening to a reactionary seaman splaying out his white supremacy.
And about that white supremacy. Chinua Achebe has been perhaps the most vocal literary figure who has denounced Heart of Darkness, calling Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist,” rightly impugning Conrad’s belittling and dehumanization of Africa, and pointing out how Conrad’s “generosity” in having Black people show up for token cameos is anything but. Achebe scolds Conrad for avoiding the word “brother” in lieu of “kinship” in relation to Black people. (Indeed, the ocean itself, described as “a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother,” gets more dignity than the dark-skinned “natives” of this tale.) What draws Marlow to Africa on a map is “a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”
On the other hand, there is some modest pushback when the Company’s office is compared to a “whited sepulchre.” Smoke from gunpowder is described as “white,” thus suggesting some white complicity. Can we likewise interpret Marlow pointing to the Blacks being unable to distinguish between individual white men as “being so much alike at a distance” as an acknowledgment of Marlow’s tendency to do the same with Black people? And what are we to make of the white worsted tied around the neck of a dying Black man? Or the foreman whose beard is tied up in “a kind of white serviette he brought for the purpose”? Or a book “lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread”? Or the “cold and monumental whiteness” of a marble fireplace?
Humorless sods like Jonathan Jones have written masturbatory articles defending Conrad (and dissing Achebe) with all the clueless gusto of a Trump cultist declaring noted Hungarian tyrant Viktor Orban “a good guy.” But the truth of Conrad’s racism is somewhere in between. Conrad was racist. (The N-word appears ten times within Heart of Darkness‘s 38,000 pages. And the Black caricatures are frequently sickening.) Like all great writers, he executed his storytelling with instinctive ambiguity. And since many of the colonialists carry remnants of white, Conrad’s imagery — whether intentional or not — can also be read as condemnatory of imperialism and privilege.
And you cannot deny Conrad’s commitment to atmosphere! The old woman who greets Marlow with “flat cloth slippers…propped up on a foot warmer, and a cat reposed on a lap.” The Eldorado Exploring Expedition manager who resembles “a butcher in a poor neighbourhood.” The “torn curtain of red twill” hanging in the doorway of a hut that “flapped sadly in our faces.” A “long, decaying building on the summit…half buried in the high grass.” For all of Marlow’s garrulity, Conrad was a master of imagery, knowing the exact measure of words — never too many, never too few — to connote this tropical world.
Still, for all my complaints about Conrad’s racism, Kurtz is truly one of the all-time creepy fucks of literature. On one hand, we are told that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” and that he is possibly mad. But his seemingly calm rationalization about how he has manipulated the world around him is deeply unsettling. And while Conrad suggests that Kurtz has become this way because of uncharted and unfamiliar terrain (“The long shadows of the forests had slipped downhill as we talked”), it is quite likely that Kurtz was always unhinged. And if this is indeed the case, then Conrad is saying something very vital about the tyranny of white privilege, even if it comes saddled with tacit endorsement.
I’ve heard from three people — privately and confidentially — about what a narcissistic monster Lucy Ellmann is. I was crazy about her novel, Ducks, Newburyport — so much so that I even put together a list of all the music cues contained in the massive book. But the stories about her put me off. I was prepared to ignore Lucy Ellmann for the rest of my life, possibly reading future volumes of hers once my animus towards her had died down a bit or, ideally, after she herself had kicked the bucket (one should try to separate the art from the artist and, let’s face it, there’s no better time to untangle such a thorny moral predicament than one year after a repugnant author has died). But on Monday, some of Ellmann’s ugliness bubbled up to the surface in a vile, racist, and anti-intellectual 256 tweet vomit that she posted under the Galley Beggar Press Twitter feed.
The “essay” — if it can be called that — was unaccomplished penny-ante postmodernism, reading almost as if Lydia Davis had a lobotomy but was still somehow allowed to publish just after some opportunistic huckster (in this case, Sam Jordison) had learned that there was enough frontal lobe left in the old bag’s head to bang out a few words. The “essay” is an uninventive laundry list of things that Ellmann deems crap. Very obvious targets like Jeff Bezos, macaroons, terrorists, Boris Johnson, et al. In other words, the kind of hacky standup material that wouldn’t even fly on open mic night. Followed by more subjective objects of hate, such as Jeopardy!, Judy Garland, video games, and Tom Jones. At this point, the “satire” extends to nearly every state of existence (dying young, being a kid, being an adult) until it reaches a desperately racist and anti-intellectual crescendo here:
Hilarious! Genius!TM Good Christ, I’m pissing on every pair of pants I own right now!
Hardly. By cleaving to a racist conspiracy theory like this, even under the old hack’s parlor trick of using “satire” as a defense for vile sentiments, Ellmann is clearly siding against science and against intellectualism. The so-called “Wuhan lab leak” theory neatly aligns with other racist conspiracy theories such as the “great replacement” theory — a detestable strain of racism that has been used to justify Islamophobia. Moreover, the Wuhan lab leak theory has led to a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Shall we talk about the man who stabbed three members of an Asian-American family (including two children younger than 6) because he believed that they were “Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus”? Or how about the creep in Boston who followed a Chinese American doctor from a hospital and screamed, “Why are you Chinese people killing everyone? What is wrong with you? Why the fuck are you killing us?”
This is the virulent racism that Lucy Ellmann commits herself to.
Ellmann knew damn well that her bullshit would grab the attention of an audience. Her casual racism aligned neatly with Quentin Tarantino’s racist falsehoods against Bruce Lee. If this was comedy, well, it’s indistinguishable from the vituperative hate that one can finds in a soulless prop comic like Gallagher. The upshot is that Ellmann’s promotional strategy represents a book publicity problem we’re not talking about. White people can spout off anti-Asian sentiments to get attention and sell books. And Galley Beggar Press, being the true cynical fuckwits that they are, can bask in the glory, claiming that anybody who objects to the dissemination of an unproven racist lie in the name of “art” needs to lighten up.
But even if the tweetstorm had not contained the racism, it says quite a bit about Galley Beggar Press’s lack of editorial standards that they would honestly believe that such cartoonish nihilism was the stuff of “boundary-pushing literature.” This indie press is more of a religious cult where a “genius” author can do no wrong. I suppose Sam Jordison fancies himself a Barney Rosset of our time, but Lucy Ellmann is hardly on the level of Ioenesco, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Genet, or even de Sade. There is nothing artistically redeeming about what Lucy Ellmann published on Twitter. It isn’t doing anything innovative like Naked Lunch or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is simply the random spew of a 64-year-old loser who has nothing left in her vestibule of tricks other than cheap “provocative” vacuity.
A number of people pushed back against Galley Beggar on Twitter for publishing Ellmann’s racism. But something interesting happened along the way. Gallery Beggar began blocking critics of the Ellmann who were Asian (such as Bloomsbury marketing executive Wei Ming Kam), but refrained from blocking critics who weren’t Asian. In other words, Sam Jordison went well out of his way to target those of Asian descent and showed very much how he was an upholder of systemic racism.
I want to be clear that Ellmann and Galley Beggar Press should be free to publish whatever they want. But let’s stop rewarding any author who believes that anti-Asian hate is the best way to get attention. Anti-Asian hate crimes have risen 164% from last year. It seems to me that every writer has a duty to be more sensitive to this.
7/6/2021 1:15 PM UPDATE: Galley Beggar’s Sam Jordison and Lucy Ellmann have blocked me on Twitter, proving that they are both top-tier racists:
It goes without saying that Ken Doll dumb white males are part of a significant epidemic now plaguing America. We can usually tolerate such privileged dunces because they can be laughed out of a boardroom or deservedly ridiculed in a local bar. But what happens when such a hideously arrogant and hopelessly stupid lowlife with an inflated sense of importance presides over vital city affairs? You get a guy like Dave Piepkorn.
The good people of Fargo, North Dakota have apparently decided that Dave Piepkorn, arguably the stupidest man to hold local office in the United States, should continue to serve as their Deputy Mayor and City Commissioner. Dave Piepkorn first came to my attentions on Sunday morning, when a video shared by journalist Aaron Rupar went viral on Twitter.
The video documents an October 5, 2020 meeting of the Fargo City Commission, whereby the dutiful leaders of a city populated by 125,000 people discussed a mask mandate. But the maskless Piepkorn embarrassingly states, in full defiance of the science, that masks are no defense against COVID-19.
“And the facts are I’m just as protected as you are wearing that mask of COVID-19,” said Piepkorn. “COVID-19 passes right through that mask. Isn’t that correct?”
There is then a pause, almost as if the collected attendees are collecting their jaws from the floor, understanding with shock and shame just how much of a putz they have in the number two slot. One of Piepkorn’s fellow commissioners, along with the audience, shout numerous noes.
Piepkorn responds with the haughty smirk of a six-year-old sociopath who has gleefully stomped on a helpless salamander with his sneaker. The meeting is closed for public comment. And then Piepkorn continues, “But basically a virus, it doesn’t — it goes, it goes right through the mask. And so for us to start mandating something that doesn’t work, that doesn’t make sense. And as far as the people…”
There are additional stunned reactions from the crowd that one hears off-mike.
And Piepkorn, who clearly doesn’t understand that the hill he has chosen to die on stands in the face of rudimentary rationale that even a preschooler can understand, then grows imperious. His voice takes on the raised autocratic tone of a twisted Karen using her privilege to ruin a Black man by making a phony 911 call for a purely manufactured offense:
“Okay, here’s how it goes. Once again, if you behave yourselves, you can stay in the room. You’re welcome to. But if you don’t, you’re going to be asked to leave. And if you don’t leave, then the police will escort you out. Is that clear?”
The meeting continues.
“The masks are not effective with the virus. Period. That’s proven. The coronavirus passes through. And so it’s false to tell people that they’re going to be safe by wearing that. And as far as sitting six feet apart, it’s liberty. If you don’t want to sit next to each other, then you don’t have to. You can go someplace else or watch it on TV. Or on the Internet. So thank you very much.”
A few weeks after this meeting, North Dakota has now seen its biggest upswing in COVID infections and deaths in some time. Cass County — home to Piepkorn’s Fargo — is now the second most infected vicinity in North Dakota. And it’s all thanks to feebleminded fuckwits like Piepkorn, who scatter falsehoods into the wind like poisonous seeds permanently sullying a promising orchard.
In short, Dave Piepkorn is the living embodiment of Idiocracy, though with more of an ego-driven tinge than Mike Judge’s characters. He refuses to consider other viewpoints. He refuses to grasp science. He is dense when it comes to comprehending basic facts. He is, in short, a contemptible clod who is better suited to work as an assistant plumber rather than as assistant to the highest local office in the land. And that’s only because no respectable building contractor in North Dakota would ever trust this incompetent buffoon to fix the pipes by himself. It also doesn’t help that Piepkorn’s face is so ugly that he looks as if he’s the secret love child of Charles Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Boris Karloff. Honestly, with a visage so hideous, you’d think that Piepkorn would be on the side of wearing a mask, if only to disguise his aesthetic limitations.
This isn’t the first time that Piepkorn has been a clueless contrarian. He has partaken in comparatively more innocent acts of idiocy, such as being the only no vote in a measure back in May that allowed vegetable and flower gardens to be grown on local boulevards. (The measure passed anyway.) And this certainly isn’t the first time that Piepkorn has demonstrated that he has slightly more brain cells than a gerbil. In a September 9, 2019 Fargo City Commission meeting, Piepkorn condemned fellow Commissioner Tony Gehring for not being present during a special assessment task force meeting. Gehring swiftly pointed out that he was then being deployed by the military. “Sorry, Dave,” snapped Gehring in disbelief. But this didn’t stop dimwitted Piepkorn from actually attempting to follow through on this failed gotcha moment after being publicly embarrassed by Gehring. “It’s just ironic that you seem to be, um, very upset about it, but then your not at the meetings.” It’s certainly no surprise that Piepkorn is too dense to comprehend that irony usually happens when the subject is unaware of his actions and does the opposite of what he says he will. And I suppose it’s ironic that a poltroon like Piepkorn doesn’t see the irony in his own failed attempts to point out irony. (Although, if Piepkorn is reading this, that concept may be a little tricky for his bradykinetic brain to understand.)
It’s easy to simply dismiss Dave Piepkorn as some jaunty jackass who is embarrassing the most populous city in North Dakota. But when you place such an unqualified pillock in power, just as if we have seen nationally, there are often dangerous ramifications.
Piepkorn is also a racist whose atavistic words and actions have ignited racially charged violence in the region. One little known fact is that 8% of the Fargo population was born in another country. These people fled to North Dakota from war and devastation in an attempt to build a new life and contribute to the promise of America. But for repugnant xenophobes like Piepkorn, refugees are clearly a scourge. In September 2016, Piepkorn stood in the way of a refugee resettlement program operated by Lutheran Social Services. When not condemning the money going to a nonprofit devoted to helping people who had fled violence, Piepkorn made unsubstantiated racist remarks claiming that Somali refugees were more inclined to commit crime. Less than a year after Piepkorn expressed his bigotry, Somali-American Shuib Ali was assaulted in a hate crime. Moreover, Piepkorn’s opposition to benevolent organizations helping out anyone who isn’t white has resulted in local racists turning into Piepkorn fans, showing their true colors and loudly ranting against Somalis.
Dave Piepkorn is living proof that fatuous and flatulent imbeciles must not be allowed to hold power. Given how much of a local embarrassment Piepkorn is, perhaps the good people of Fargo can restore their city back to good grace by initiating a new recall campaign, ensuring that Piepkorn never holds any form of political office ever again.
In his 1966 essay “The White Man’s Guilt,” James Baldwin — never a man to mince words or to refrain from expressing searing clarity — declared that white Americans were incapable of facing the deep wounds suppurating in the national fabric because of their refusal to acknowledge their complicity in abusive history. Pointing to the repugnant privilege that, even today, hinders many white people from altering their lives, their attitudes, and the baleful bigotry summoned by their nascent advantages, much less their relationships to people of color, Baldwin noted:
For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
Fifty-four years after Baldwin, America now finds itself enmired within its most seminal (and long delayed) civil rights movement in decades, awakened from its somnambulistic malaise through the neck-stomping snap of systemic racism casually and ignobly practiced by crooked cops who are afforded impunity rather than significant consequences. The institution of slavery has been replaced by the indignities of racial profiling, income disparity, wanton brutality, constant belittlement, and a crass cabal of Karens who are more than eager to rat out people of color so that they can scarf down their soy milk lattes and avocado toast, rarely deviating from the hideous cues that a culture — one that prioritizes discrimination first and equality last — rewards with all the perfunctory mechanics of a slot machine jackpot.
Thus, one must approach James McPherson’s mighty and incredibly impressive Civil War volume with mindfulness and assiduity. It is not, as Baldwin says, a book that can merely be read — even though it is something of a miracle that McPherson has packed as much detail and as many considerations as he has within more than 900 pages. McPherson’s volume is an invaluable start for anyone hoping to move beyond mere reading, to significantly considering the palpable legacy of how the hideous shadow of white supremacy and belittlement still plagues us in the present. Why does the Confederate flag still fly? Why do imperialist statues — especially monuments that celebrate a failed and racist breakaway coalition of upstart states rightly starved and humiliated and destroyed by Grant and Sherman — still stand? Battle Cry of Freedom beckons us to pay careful attention to the unjust and bestial influences that erupted before the war and that flickered afterwards. It is thankfully not just a compilation of battle summaries — although it does do much to mark the moments in which the North was on the run and geography and weather and lack of supplies often stood in its way. The book pays welcome scrutiny to the underlying environment that inspired the South to secede and required a newly inaugurated Lincoln to call for 75,000 volunteers a little more than a month after he had been sworn in as President and just after the South Carolina militia had attacked Fort Sumter.
* * *
It was technological innovation in the 1840s and the 1850s — the new machines putting out watches and furniture and bolts and damn near anything into the market at a rapid clip previously unseen — that helped sow the seeds of labor unrest. To use the new tools, a worker had to go to a factory rather than operating out of his home. To turn the most profit possible and sustain his venal wealth, the aspiring robber baron had to exploit the worker at subhuman wages. The South was more willing to enslave people. A barbaric racist of that era ranting in a saloon could, much like one of Trump’s acolytes today, point to the dip in the agricultural labor force from 1800 to 1860. In the North, 70% of labor was in agriculture, but this fell to 40%. But in the South, the rate remained steady at 80%. But this, of course, was an artificial win built on the backs of Black lives.
You had increasing territory in the West annexed to the United States and, with this, vivacious crusaders who were feeling bolder about their causes. David Wilmot, a freshman Congressional Representative, saw the Mexican War as an opportunity to lay down a proviso on August 8, 1846. “[N]either slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory” were the words that Wilmot added to an appropriations bill amendment. Like any politician, Wilmot was interested in settling scores. The Wilmot Proviso was as much the result of long pent-up frustration among a cluster of Northern Democrats who cared more about holding onto power than pushing forward abolition. The proviso kept being reintroduced and the Democratic Party of the time — much of it composed of racists from the South — began to splinter.
Northern Democrats shifted their support from the Wilmot Proviso to an idea known as popular sovereignity, which placed the decision on whether to sustain or abolish slavery into the hands of settlers moving into the new territories. But Wilmot’s more universal abolition approach still had the enthusiastic support of northern Whigs. The Whigs, for those who may not recall, were essentially middle-class conservatives living it large. They represented the alternative to Democrats before the Republican Party was created in 1854. The Whigs emerged from the ashes of the Nullification Crisis of 1832 — which you may recall me getting into when I was tackling Herbert Croly a few years ago. Yes, Andrew Jackson was responsible for (a) destroying the national bank, thus creating an economically volatile environment and (b) creating enough fury for Henry Clay and company to form an anti-Jackson opposition party. What’s most interesting here is that opposing Jackson also meant opposing one of his pet causes: slavery. And, mind you, these were pro-business conservatives who wanted to live the good life. This is a bit like day trading bros dolled up in Brooks Brothers suits suddenly announcing that they want universal healthcare. Politics may make strange bedfellows, but sometimes a searing laser directed at an enemy who has jilted you in the boudoir creates an entirely unexpected bloc.
Many of the “liberals” of that era, especially in the South, were very much in favor of keeping slavery going. (This historical fact has regrettably caused many Republicans to chirp “Party of Lincoln!” in an attempt to excuse the more fascistic and racist overtures that these same smug burghers wallow in today.) Much like Black Lives Matter today and the Occupy Wall Street movement nine years ago, a significant plurality of the Whigs, who resented the fact that their slave-owning presidential candidate Zachary Taylor refused to take a position on the Wilmot Proviso, were able to create a broad coalition at the Free Soil convention of 1848. Slavery then became one of the 1848 presidential election’s major issues.
In Battle Cry, McPherson nimbly points to how all of these developments led to a great deal of political unrest that made the Civil War inevitable. Prominent Republican William H. Seward (later Lincoln’s Secretary of State) came out swinging against slavery, claiming that compromise on the issue was impossible. “You cannot roll back the tide of social progress,” he said. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act (authored by Stephen Douglas) repealed the Missouri Compromise, which in turn led to “Bleeding Kansas” — a series of armed and violent struggles over the legality of slavery that carried on for the next seven years. (Curiously, McPheron downplays Daniel Webster’s 1850 turncoat “Seventh of March” speech, which signaled Webster’s willingness to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and forever altered his base and political career.) And while all this was happening, cotton prices in the South were rising and a dying faction of Southern unionists led the Southern states to increasingly consider secession. The maps of 1860 reveal the inescapable problem:
* * *
The Whigs were crumbling. Enter Lincoln, speaking eloquently on a Peroria stage on October 16, 1854, and representing the future of the newly minted Republican Party:
When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.
Enter the Know Nothings, a third party filling a niche left by the eroding Whigs and the increasingly splintered Democratic Party. The Know Nothings were arguably the Proud Boys of their time. They ushered in a wave of nationalism and xenophobia that was thoughtfully considered by the Smithsonian‘s Lorraine Boissoneault. What killed the Know Nothings was their failure to take a stand on slavery. You couldn’t afford to stay silent on the issue when the likes of Dred Scott and John Brown were in the newspapers. The Know Nothings further scattered political difference to the winds, giving Lincoln the opportunity to unite numerous strands under the new Republican Party and win the Presidency during the 1860 election, despite not being on the ballot in ten Southern states.
With Lincoln’s win, seven slave states seceded from the union. And the beginnings of the Confederacy began. Historians have been arguing for years over the precise reasons for this disunion. If you’re a bit of a wonk like me, I highly recommend this 2011 panel in which three historians offer entirely different takeaways. McPherson, to his credit, allows the events to unfold and refrains from too much editorializing. Although throughout the book, McPherson does speak from the perspective of the Union.
* * *
As I noted when I tackled John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, one of my failings as an all-encompassing dilettante resides with military history, which I find about as pleasurable to read as sprawling myself naked, sans hat or suntan lotion, upon some burning metal bed on a Brooklyn rooftop during a hot August afternoon — watching tar congeal over my epidermis until I transform into some ugly onyx crust while various spectators, saddled with boredom and the need to make a quick buck, film me with their phones and later email me demands to pay up in Bitcoin, lest my mindless frolicking be publicly uploaded to the Internet and distributed to every pornographic website from here to Helsinki.
That’s definitely laying it on thicker than you need to hear. But it is essential that you understand just how much military history rankles me.
Anyway, despite my great reluctance to don a tricorne of any sort, McPherson’s descriptions of battles (along with the accompanying illustrations) did somehow jolt me out of my aversion and make me care. Little details — such as P.G.T. Beauregard designing a new Confederate battle flag after troops could not distinguish between the Confederate “stars and bars” banner from the Union flag in the fog of battle — helped to clarify the specific innovations brought about by the Civil War. It also had never occurred to me how much the history of ironclad vessels began with the Civil War, thanks in part to the eccentric marine engineer John Ericsson, who designed the famed USS Monitor, designed as a counterpoint to the formidable Confederate vessel Virginia, which had been created to hit the Union blockade at Ronoake Island. What was especially amazing about Ericsson’s ship was that it was built and launched rapidly — without testing. After two hours of fighting, the Monitor finally breached the Virginia‘s hull with a 175-pound shot, operating with barely functioning engines. For whatever reason, McPherson’s vivid description of this sea battle reminded me of the Mutara Nebula battle at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
But even for all of McPherson’s synthesizing legerdemain, the one serious thing I have to ding him on is his failure to describe the horrors of slavery in any form. Even William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich devoted significant passages to depicting what was happening in the Holocaust death camps. Despite my high regard for McPherson’s ability to find just the right events to highlight in the Civil War timeline, and his brilliantly subtle way of depicting the shifting fortunes of the North and the South, can one really accept a volume about the Civil War without a description of slavery? McPherson devotes more time to covering Andersonville’s brutal statistics (prisoner mortality was 29% and so forth) before closing his paragraph with this sentence:
The treatment of prisoners during the Civil War was something that neither side could be proud of.
But what of the treatment of Black people? Why does this not merit so much as a paragraph? McPherson is so good at details — such as emphasizing the fact that Grant’s pleas to have all prisoners exchanged — white and Black — in the cartel actually came a year after negotiations had stopped. He’s good enough to show us how southern historians have perceived events (often questionably). Why then would he shy away from the conditions of slavery?
The other major flaw: Why would McPherson skim over the Battle of Gettysburg in just under twenty pages? This was, after all, the decisive battle of the war. McPherson seems to devote more time, for example, on the Confederate raids in 1862. And while all this is useful to understanding the War, it’s still inexplicable to me.
But these are significant nitpicks for a book that was published in 1988 and that is otherwise a masterpiece. Still, I’m not the only one out here kvetching about this problem. The time has come for a new historian — ideally someone who isn’t a white male — to step up to the challenge and outdo both Ken Burns and James McPherson (and Shelby Foote, who I’ll be getting to when we hit MLNF #15 in perhaps a decade or so) and fully convey the evils and brutality of slavery and why this war both altered American life and exacerbated the problems we are still facing today.
Karlos Dillard was a struggling Postmates worker who longed for fame and attention. But when a white woman cut him off accidentally during a delivery run, he found the opportunity to bend the truth and create an invented narrative in which he was a victim and she was a racist.
Karlos Dillard — a 27-year-old Postmates driver and self-published author in Seattle — was cut off by a 1996 Geo Metro during a routine food delivery. The car was driven by a white woman. Dillard is black. Dillard said that he was on his way to a restaurant he refers to as “Dick’s Dine-In” to pick up a food delivery for a Postmates gig. (There are five franchises of Dick’s Drive-In operating in Seattle. I have confirmed that all five restaurants do indeed offer Postmates delivery.)
Dillard claimed — in a series of Instagram stories — that he had the right of way to merge onto a street from Melrose Avenue in “Capitol Hill. Fucking Capitol Hill.” Dillard says that he was in the right lane. As the two lanes of the unspecified street were about to merge, Dillard says that the woman “freaked out and swung around me and got in front of me and slammed on her brakes and did a brake check.” He further claims that he nearly collided into the back of her car.
At this point, we can confine the details of this incident to, at worst, an act of minor road rage — a common act that anyone, irrespective of race or background, engages in when they are facing significant anxiety — an anxiety that the present pandemic and economic uncertainty has instilled in anyone. But Dillard wished to escalate this — without a shred of video evidence — into a flimsy claim that the unidentified Geo Woman had instigated an act of racism. He decided to take advantage of the present moment, in which the Karen meme of white women using their privilege to engage in repugnant acts of racism has proven to be quite popular.
Dillard, a Trump supporter whose online record shows a clear angling for attention and online fame, saw an opportunity to go viral. So he chased the Geo Woman down in his car and confronted her, releasing the below video excerpt onto Twitter, which, as I write this, has been seen more than four million times.
UPDATE: In an attempt to hide his evidence, Dillard removed the above Instagram post. The full video can be found below:
Karlos Dillard acted with great cruelty in his video.
The woman is clearly terrified. Her hands are shaking. She desperately covers her face and her license plate. Anyone who drives a Geo Metro built in another century is clearly not rolling in riches. So why go after her like this?
The Geo Woman feels attacked by the camera. We have no idea if she’s suffered any kind of past trauma or abuse. What a normal person with any shred of empathy would do here is put the camera down and give her the opportunity to apologize. But that’s not what Dillard does. He continues to call her a Karen, sticking his knife into the woman’s vulnerability and inflating his claim. He pans his phone to the woman’s car and gleefully announces, “Guys, this is her license plate number. She lives here. This is her address.” The woman shrieks at the top of her lungs, “No! No! Please! This is not true.”
“You cut me off!” bellows Dillard.
“No, I didn’t!” says the Geo Woman.
The woman begs for Dillard to leave her alone and to let her offer an apology for whatever happened. But what does Dillard do? He backs away from the woman and shouts into the Seattle streets for attention, “Guys! She flipped me off and then she tried to come home.” It’s vital to note that Dillard does not mention any act of racism in the early period of this unsettling video. Then he shrieks, “She did apologize for calling me a n**** and flipping me off” to anyone who will listen. And yet we don’t actually hear the woman acknowledging that she did any of this. Dillard is the person in the position of power here. And he knows it.
“Ma’am, what have I done to you?” barks Dillard.
“You’re going to ruin my life and you don’t even know me.”
Throughout the video, the Geo Woman repeatedly denies flipping Dillard off. “No, I didn’t! I swear to God!” she shrieks as she cowers with fear, desperately hiding the license plate and wailing with unbearable pain. She claims repeatedly, “I didn’t even see you!” in the full video.
Various onlookers look terribly confused as she cries, “He won’t listen to me!” An unspecified white man claims that he “saw her do it.” But what precisely did this man see?
Dillard eventually drives off and pulls across the street as various people try to comfort the Geo Woman. Then he returns to the scene, his camera off, and there is this exchange:
DILLARD: You literally cut me off. You flipped me off, correct? GEO WOMAN: I did. But it wasn’t the way.. DILLARD: Okay. GEO WOMAN: …you won’t let me finish.
[Is the Geo Woman confessing to accidentally cutting Dillard off? Or flipping him off? Or is she overwhelmed by the rapid fire nature of Dillard’s relentless questions?]
GEO WOMAN: I didn’t mean to. ‘Cause I was trying to… DILLARD: Then what did I do illegally? GEO WOMAN: Can I — can I… DILLARD: I had to merge. GEO WOMAN: I — Can I talk? DILLARD: Yeah. Go ahead. GEO WOMAN: I feel sorry… DILLARD: I have to… GEO WOMAN: (crying) My arm! My heart. DILLARD: Ma’am, you can’t just be going down flipping people off. GEO WOMAN: I didn’t know you were — I wanted to touch you because I wanted you to — I know. I understand. You are a stranger. We — look me in the eyes. DILLARD: You’re not going to be on Instagram. That’s not my deal here.
But going viral is most certainly Dillard’s “deal.”
The Geo Woman never once confesses specifically to flipping Dillard off. If anything, she extends empathy to him for accidentally cutting him off. Moreover, Dillard explicitly tells the Geo Woman — who is now a subject of ridicule — that she will not be on Instagram, betraying his pledge to clear up the misunderstanding privately.
In other words, Dillard’s video is not an act of social justice or even a noble fight for justice. It is an act of pure and unadulterated sadism, conducted by Dillard without a shred of compassion.
The other aspect of Dillard’s video that went viral was the Geo Woman announcing that she has a black husband. Here is the transcript:
DILLARD: You flipped me off! You flipped me off! GEO WOMAN: Sir? DILLARD: Don’t touch me! Do not touch me. GEO WOMAN: I’m trying to… DILLARD: You flipped me off! GEO WOMAN: I have a black husband! DILLARD: I don’t care. Why did you flip me off? GEO WOMAN: You were totally calling me something that I’m not.
There are several important aspects to note here that reveal both the truth of what happened and Dillard’s questionable motivations.
1. At no point does the Geo Woman say that she flipped Dillard off or committed racism.
2. The Geo Woman is still processing some shouting guy with a camera confronting her. And instead of giving the Geo Woman the opportunity to process what’s going on, he instead bullies her with the question, “Why did you flip me off?”
* * *
What is the basis for Dillard’s claims of racism from this woman? In an effort to understand why, I have downloaded and reviewed the eighty photos and videos that Dillard uploaded to his Instagram stories feed on June 22, 2020 for this story. You can download the collected files here. After careful study, it’s pretty clear that there are too many contradictions and constant additions to Dillard’s story for it to be accepted in any court of law. Of the professed brake check and racism, Dillard doesn’t possess any evidence other than his own word, which constantly shifts over the course of his Instagram feed. He also takes many opportunities throughout these Instagram stories to promote his book and his merchandise.
There is a short video of the woman’s Geo facing Dillard, the Geo pulling back with its driver’s side open, and the woman’s Geo then driving off. Dillard has not posted any video demonstrating that the Geo Woman acted with any form of racism. In fact, when he shouts at the Geo Woman, he doesn’t make any mention of her professed racism, which would seem to be the underlying source of his beef. He merely bemoans that she was “driving crazy in Seattle.” He merely shouts, “Karen, learn how to drive!”
As Dillard revisits the incident, the details of his story keep changing. He initially says that the woman “sticks her fingers out of the window and starts flipping me off and saying all of this fucking racial shit.” Dillard also claims that the woman followed him for three blocks. And yet he has no video to back up any of this.
In another bit of testimony from Instagram Stories, Dillard then says that the Geo Woman “purposely brake checked me” and then adds the new detail of the Geo Woman smiling — “the smile and the words that came out of her mouth and her flicking me off.” But the source video of the Geo doesn’t show the woman doing any of these things. Has Dillard conveniently omitted the details?
Dillard takes the opportunity to mock the Geo Woman for having a black husband, stating with hyperbole:
“I have a black husband” will forever be the defense of racist people….and clearly your husband can’t really be about the movement. Because he would have had a conversation with you. Like, if you really had a black husband, you would know what you did was inappropriate. You would also what you’re doing now is inappropriate. If you had a black husband, you would have been apologetic.
But wait a minute. Dillard claimed at the scene of the incident that the Geo Woman did apologize “for calling me a n*****,” even going to the trouble of shouting this at the top of his lungs to anyone who would listen. Moreover, what could the Geo Woman be doing “right now” given that Dillard is removed from her?
To add additional credibility and framing to his claim, Dillard also includes a video on his Instagram Stories feed having a conversation with his husband, completely discounting the road rage as the motivating factor behind the incident. Karlos’s husband Kristopher (who, it is worth noting, was attacked on a bus in 2016) claims that, if Dillard had hit the Geo Woman, then he would “owe her a new car.” And this leap in logic is used to further suggest that the Geo Woman acted with unmitigated racism. Dillard responds:
So issue isn’t the road rage. It’s the…the “Why it happened?” And that’s why I wanted — that’s really — I didn’t give a fuck about her calling me out on my name or flipping me off. I really got pissed off.
Despite remaining cool as a cucumber throughout all of his Instagram Stories, Dillard also paints himself as a suffering victim, suggesting that he will suffer from “hypertension, blood pressure, insomnia, back problems, [and] chiropractic problems.” It is worth pointing out that none of the many legitimate victims of Karens have ever felt compelled to list a series of physical ailments after being subjected to unacceptable racism.
Dillard, a Detroit native, has his own troubled past. He was abandoned at the age of fifteen and worked three jobs while homeless to survive through high school and college. [UPDATE: TrueAnonPod has uncovered a post by Dillard’s adopted mother that disputes his claims. It is worth noting that Karlos Dillard’s original name was Carlos Gum.]
But the lion’s share of his online activities appear to have involved harassing people and leveling spurious claims of racism.
I just had a racist Asian lady demand to see my ID and my phone to prove that I was a postmates driver while I was picking up the food. After I refuse to show her my ID. I told her she was being racist and she said whatever Nigger. #blm#postmates@Postmatespic.twitter.com/l2eJQx0u6t
The incident with the Geo isn’t the first time that Dillard has claimed that others were racist during the course of a Postmates delivery. On May 28, 2020, Dillard claimed that the proprietors of A Burger Place demanded to see his ID when picking up an order and that this was an act of racism. Much like the Geo incident, Dillard doesn’t have any video evidence of the alleged remarks that the “racist Asian lady” said to him. Much like the Geo incident, Dillard’s subjects are clearly uncomfortable with his accusations. Additionally — and this is another troubling aspect to Dillard’s approach — his confrontational antics appear to target women. In one of his Instagram stories, he calls the Geo Woman “that bitch.” If Dillard claims to be fighting systemic racism, then can he look inward and confront what appears to be a strain of systemic misogyny?
There’s also the question of whether Dillard’s political motivations are entirely sound. He voiced support for Trump as recently as last month. In a July 11, 2017 episode of The Black Guy Conservative Athesist, Dillard states, “I did vote for Donald Trump.” He later says of Trump: “He might help me with my business taxes. I might get a business loan, which I can’t seem to do.” In a followup interview in May, Dillard claimed that Trump “hasn’t done anything directly to black people, but his antics over the last three years have ignited so much ignorance.” He later said in the followup podcast, “I still think with my thing. I don’t think he has hurt small business and I don’t think he has directly affected black folks.”
In examining Dillard’s Instagram stories, there is an undeniably cruel, attention-seeking, and truth-bending thrust to his grievances — such as the way in which he spliced together the audio from a video depicting a legitimate act of racism from an unquestionable Karen onto his own video. Dillard also leaves in the “You’re an asshole” comment from the original Karen video to suggest that the Geo Woman said these remarks to him.
The epidemic of Karens is certainly one that needs to be exposed and addressed. Racism in any form absolutely needs to be called out and denounced — especially at this pivotal moment in American affairs when so many white people are having difficulty coming to terms with their privilege and truly must do so in order for this nation to come closer to racial equality. But when there is no video evidence of racism — as is the case with the Geo Woman — and the alleged victim — in this case, Karlos Dillard — appears more motivated by cruelty and vengeance and malice and ridicule, to say nothing of an overwhelmingly narcissistic need for attention, one does need to ask whether the cold and compassionless act of revealing the personal details and doxxing a terrified woman for a minor road rage offense is the act of a bona-fide Karen. One must also ask of Dillard why he felt the need to be so cruel and why he wished to gain fame and profit from the suffering of an innocent woman.
Moreover, Dillard’s wanton cruelty is a setback to the impressive progress of the courageous Black Lives Matter movement. When the evidential details are manufactured or outright erroneous, as they clearly are here with Dillard, then it dissuades someone who is on the fence about joining a vital and necessary struggle that will lead to a better tomorrow.
And then there’s the Geo Woman. At this point, the video has now spread so far and wide that it can no longer be pulled. What repercussions and trauma will she face? Are we to offer her no empathy because one opportunistic huckster says that it must be so?
6/23/2020 7:30 PM UPDATE: The TrueAnn Pod Twitter account has excavated a restraining order filed against Dillard for harassing a woman, further buttressing Dillard’s misogyny. Additionally, this Pastebin file links to numerous criminal charges, including driving without a license, numerous offers to commit prostitution, use of a weapon, and harassment.
6/23/2020 9:45 PM UPDATE: There’s another inconsistency to Dillard’s story. In the “brake incident” video posted above, Dillard is clearly blocks away from the Melrose Avenue area where he says that the Geo Woman cut him off. As I point out in the below tweet, there are a number of fishy details: (1) Why is the Geo Woman’s door open? (2) Why is there no mention of either flipping the bird or the smile or the racist language that was to come later in Dillard’s claims? (3) Is it possible that Dillard singled out the Geo Woman and pursued her?
One modest addition to the Karlos Dillard story. His first confrontation with her is on Summit Avenue (see screenshot). A Google Maps search (and StreetView glimpse) shows this is blocks away from Melrose Avenue (where the "cutoff" happened). Did he stalk her from this point? pic.twitter.com/BwO6XuYSLY
6/24/2020 3:15 PM UPDATE: Karlos Dillard has broken his silence and spoken with Insider‘s Rachel E. Greenspan. Dillard’s very own testimony, when corroborated against Google Maps, suggests that he completely invented the merging/cutoff incident. Because, as I documented in the two tweets below, much of the geography of that neighborhood doesn’t allow for two lane streets. We know from the brake chase video that he started pursuing the Geo Woman on Summit Street. He has claimed in another video that Melrose Avenue was where the two lanes merged into one. But I’ve run Google Street View along that sector and it’s one lane in both directions across every stretch of the way. Additionally, the only place he could have merged from when he alleges that he and the Geo Woman circled was along East Olive Street or East Pine Street. And I don’t see a place where there were two lanes. It now occurs to me that the fact that Dillard has been sketchy and nebulous about the location where the cutoff happened leads further credence that it was completely invented.
Karlos Dillard was interviewed by Insider His new deets don't add up. The video shows that they ended with him facing N (facing Howell) on Summit Avenue. He claims they circled after being in a two lane street. Area screenshots show only one lane each way.https://t.co/Wm8W7JPgO7pic.twitter.com/C02SlKf0OL
Karlos Dillard suggested that Melrose Ave was where the lane merging occurred. StreetView screenshots show it's all one lane in each direction. I've gone along the entire strip where he could have driven. Nothing. I'm beginning to wonder if there was ever even a cutoff incident. pic.twitter.com/ggrxvaqqTD
6/2/2020 1:00 PM UPDATE: I am very much indebted to two readers for pointing me to a number of new developments. First off, the original version of the article slightly mangled the precise transcript wording in the longer video. I have corrected it. Additionally, in an attempt to avoid scrutiny, Dillard has also removed the longer version of his video on Instagram from public view. But it is still accessible if you have the link — as it is through this article.
Second, a video that Dillard uploaded on June 15, 2020 has Dillard and his husband confessing to a con in which they harass people with false charges, suggesting further that Dillard have made it a habit to target people with charges of racism to get what they want. The pertinent conversation is at the 35:00 mark in the above video:
KARLOS: We wouldn’t go to another store. But this other store doesn’t have wood tip wine. And that’s what I smoke. And, and I don’t smoke plastic. I don’t smoke Jazz. I smoke wood tip wine. If it’s not wood tip wine, I’m very unhappy. So this place has both. So we went back and we also — okay, to be fair, we went back to start problems. But… KRISTOPHER: I went back to start a problem. I don’t give a fuck. I went back to get my… KARLOS: I went back to see if you’ve learned anything! KRISTOPHER: And… KARLOS: From our last encounter. KRISTOPHER: Let’s find out.
Then Kristopher plays a video of the two men in a store, suggesting that the owners were racist because a person had walked out with a six pack of beer and the store didn’t have beer and they felt entitled to it.
KRISTOPHER: You were lying. KARLOS: That was a true lie. KRISTOPHER: (laughs) That was a complete lie. We ain’t seen nobody. KARLOS: That was…when I tell you, when I tell you… KRISTOPHER: That was a lie. KARLOS: That was a lie I made up on the spot. Because when I…I was caused for this. So what you do is: It’s called Lay a Trap. You lay a trap of racism. KRISTOPHER: Right. KARLOS: Because really, really, if you really did do that, he would have been like, “I haven’t served anyone alcohol.” KRISTOPHER: Right. KARLOS: And then I would shut my mouth! KRISTOPHER: Uh huh. KARLOS: And went to another store. KRISTOPHER: But.. KARLOS: What did he say?
They then play an additional part of the clip in which the “lay a trap” game is played down. Karlos is then very enthusiastic about his lie.
KARLOS: I just made up an imaginary person who I…. [he falls on the couch, laughing] KRISTOPHER: An imaginary person who is white.
What we have with this video is Dillard completely incriminating himself and pointing to his systemic lies less than two weeks before the Geo Woman video. His “Lay a Trap” game, applied both to the woman at A Burger Place and to the Geo Woman, is a game that Dillard and his husband delight in playing.
I have downloaded a local copy of the video. Should Dillard make any efforts to remove this evidence, I will upload it and ensure that this is available for public scrutiny.
Romano took umbrage with the idea that white gatekeeping “stifles black voices at every level of our industry,” declaring this to be “absolute nonsense.” Never mind that The New York Times recently reported that the esteemed author Jesmyn Ward had to fight for a six-figure advance even after winning a National Book Award. Never mind Malorie Blackman sharing details about how a publisher had rejected a novel because a story featuring two black magical siblings wasn’t “believable.” (Meanwhile, Knopf publishes white author John Stephens’s The Emerald Atlas, which features three white siblings engaging in magic, to say nothing of the family-oriented magic contained in white author Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic books.) Never mind that Dorothy Koomson tweeted on June 2, 2020 that her books were rejected because they “weren’t about ‘the black experience'” and how she was asked to make characters racist. No, as far as Romano was concerned, the struggles that African-American writers face to tell their stories was “ridiculous,” despite numerous examples.
Romano got even uglier, claiming that black writers would “never have been published if not for ecumenical, good-willed white editors and publishers who fought for the publication of black writers.” Amber Books? Black Classics Press? Third World Press? Triple Crown Publications? Life Changing Books? Any of the far too few African-American publishers who have stepped up to redress the systemic racism that the largely white-owned publishing industry has failed to remedy? That Romano applies “ecumenical” to his atavistic statement says much about his condescending views of writers of color. Apparently, in his view, any publisher who puts out a worthy novel that happens to be written by an African-American is an act of charity rather than an act of merit. James Baldwin? Toni Morrison? Octavia Butler? Ta-Nehisi Coates? Well, you’re lucky that your ass got through the door because Whitey decided to let one or two of you through the gates. Does Romano’s repugnantly racist sentiment here not reinforce the problems of white gatekeeping and not buttress the need for any and all literary organizations to be more inclusive? As far as Romano was concerned, the fact that countless people of color had to fight to be published — despite the fact that African-American novels have continued to be financially successful (Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren sold one million copies, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple sold five million copies, even Ann Petry’s The Street selling one million copies in 1946, the list goes on) — did not get in the way of his sentiment that black people needed to be fawning and grateful, much in the manner of slaves, to white publishers. Romano doubled down on this racism by writing, “In my 40 years in literary and publishing life, I’ve seen far more of [sic] white people helping black writers than of people black people helping white writers.” In other words, Romano believes that black people should devote their already disadvantaged positions to spending all their time promoting white writers.
In short, Romano articulated in very clear terms just what he wants the system to be. And his deplorable viewpoint here is no different from an antebellum slaveholder. Romano’s despicable vision is this: White editors serving as gatekeepers. Black authors dancing with joy at the honor of having their neutered visions “represented.” Romano’s statement is, in short, a racist screed against literary merit and inclusiveness. That Romano cannot acknowledge any white bias that has prevented great literature from being published, even as he demands that African-American writers jump up and down over concessions that their white counterparts would never have to face, is nothing less than a pompous white xenophobe revealing his true colors.
But Romano didn’t stop at mere racism. It is a common truth that atavistic barnacles like Romano often feel the need to tout their own superiority, irrespective of its shaky foundations. In perhaps the most risible part of his vulgar message, Romano claimed, “I myself have probably written more articles and reviews about Philadelphia’s black literature and traditions in my 25 years at the Inquirer than anyone living, black or white.” Do you hear that, Black Writers Museum? Do you hear that, African American Children’s Fair? Do you hear that, Hakim’s (the oldest Philly black bookstore, since 1959)? Even though all of you have done far more for black Philadelphia than Romano, Romano wants you to bow down at his professed magnanimity! It’s Romano who’s doing the heavy lifting here, not you!
One would think that the NBCC Board of Directors would instantly denounce such atavistic viewpoints. But President Laurie Hertzel, a white woman who would appear to be the NBCC’s answer to Amy Cooper, was nothing less than fulsome about these backwards views. She claimed, “Your objections are all valid, of course.” She also claimed that Romano’s views “shine unlike anyone else’s.”
I emailed Hertzel about her unquestioning support of Romano’s racism. She replied, “Rest assured that I do not and have not endorsed anyone’s racist comments.”
In other words, Hertzel and nearly the entire NBCC board are not so much interested in looking inward as they are gaslighting the narrative entirely. Nor can the NBCC actually name and hold Romano accountable — as was seen in this self-serving and half-hearted announcement posted on Thursday night.
I attempted to contact many of the NBCC Board of Directors — in large part because the only board members to acknowledge the exchange and take something of a stand against this racism were Carolyn Kellogg and Richard Z. Santos.
The NBCC Board has a duty to denounce Romano’s racist remarks. With their silence, one can only conclude that the following National Book Critics Circle board members are more than happy to uphold systemic racism. Systemic racism butters their bread. It ensures that they can continue to get gigs. That these people fail to call out racism and that refuse to do so even as Party City has done a better job firing racists speaks to their willful and open advocacy of white supremacy in the National Book Critics Circle.
Here is a list of the NBCC Board Members who presently advocate racism and white supremacy with their silence:
Laurie Hertzel, NBCC President
Kerri Arsenault, VP Awards
Jane Ciabattari, VP Events
Connie Ogle, VP Communications
Carlin Romano, VP Grants
Michael Schaub, VP Online
David Varno, VP Tech
Marion Winik, VP Treasurer
Colette Bancroft, The Tampa Bay Times
Katherine A. Powers
Should any of the above individuals make a public statement against Carlin Romano and the NBCC’s systemic racism, I will remove them from the list. But I doubt that any of them will.
[6/12/2020 10:15 PM UPDATE:The NBCC Board page has dropped the following names: Laurie Hertzel, Connie Ogle, John McWhorter, and Katherine A. Powers. Presumably, these are the other four Board members who have resigned. Hertzel has also deleted her Twitter account.]
[6/15/2020 12:00 PM UPDATE: This morning, Carolyn Kellogg announced on Twitter that she had resigned from the Board. She cited “microaggressions and delays” in advance of drafting the Black Lives Matter statement. She also noted that the Board, instead of focusing on Romano’s racist sentiments, “focused on Hope’s breach of confidentiality in sharing a damning account of a poetry prize discussion.” Additionally, Kellogg noted that Hertzel called for the board to be dissolved following Wabuke’s leak. Following this call to dissolve the board (and efforts on other members’ part to facilitate discussion), Hertzel and two other members resigned in protest — not because of Wabuke’s concerns about racism, but because of the breach in confidentiality. Three more people — including Kellogg — have now resigned, including David Varno.
The instigator for this imbroglio was Romano. Romano has threatened to sue the NBCC and, according to Kellogg, even “shouted down a new board member on a Zoom call.”
Romano remains on the Board because the current NBCC bylaws, which can be found at this link, prevent the board from removing a member. The only way to do so is through a special meeting, which the bylaws declare can be called upon at the request of the president (for which the NBCC does not presently have one), any vice president (who would presently include Kerri Arsenault, Jane Ciabattari, Carlin Romano, Richard Z. Santos, Michael Schaub, and Marion Winik), or any five directors. As of early Monday afternoon, there has been no movement to call a special meeting. (UPDATE: Santos also noted that genera members can also call for a Board Member’s removal.)
As such, until there is a special meeting, Romano will remain on the board until 2022.
Kellogg concluded her message by stating, “I want to go on to point out that as the sole Black woman on the board, Hope should have been given extra support and liberty in leading our effort to craft an anti-racism statement. She was not.”
Further investigations into Romano have revealed a troubled history of abusive behavior. According to Ellen Akins, a friend of Hertzel’s, Romano went out of his way to target Hertzel, who is not a confrontational person. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2000, Romano was fired from his professorship at Bennington due to an “action of sufficient severity” directed at the president, Elizabeth Coleman. An insider at Ursinus College has also reported that there are numerous stories about Romano’s misconduct there.
Should anyone wish to share any stories about further Romano incidents, feel free to email me at email@example.com and I will offer an update. Unless you specifically give me your consent, any and all communications with me will be kept in confidence.]
[6/15/2020 12:45 UPDATE: Ismail Muhammad, one of the board members who was actively working for diversity within the NBCC, announced his resignation from the board shortly after Kellogg’s announcement. He offered further details about what happened: “We were on the verge of winning a vote to release that statement by a solid majority, when Carlin Romano, at the last minute, derailed the process.”]
[6/15/2020 1:30 PM UPDATE:In an article filed by PW‘s John Maher, some new information has come to light. Anonymous board members noted that of the five members who resigned from the board (Hertzel, Victoria Chang, John McWhorter, Connie Ogle, and Katherine A. Powers), only one did so in support of Wabuke. The remaining four did so because of the breach in confidentiality. We know that this was Hertzel’s reason. So that leaves three inside Chang, McWhorter, Ogle, and Powers who resigned in opposition to Wabuke.
Amazingly, Romano himself is quoted in the article. In relation to the lawsuit threat, Romano said that he “alerted the Board I might sue it if I’m voted off the Board in violation of our bylaws and commitment to free discussion.” He denied shouting down the new board member, merely claiming, “We talked over each other at one point.”
Despite the racist tenor of Romano’s email, Romano claimed, “I’m not racist and I’m not anti-black. Quite the contrary. I just don’t check my mind at the door when people used to operating in echo chambers make false claims. A few Board members in recent years have sought to turn the Board, for decades committed to fair-minded judging of books from every political stripe, into a ‘No Free Thought’ zone, an ideologically biased tool for their own politics. In my opinion, they oppose true critical discussion. Good riddance to any of them who resign—the NBCC will be healthier without them. I’ll attempt to stay on the Board, despite concerted opposition, in the hope that I can help NBCC return to its earlier, better self.”]
[6/18/2020 UPDATE: Michael Riley, President and Editor-in-Chief of The Chronicle of Higher Education, was good enough to confirm with me that Romano is not involved with his august publication: “Carlin Romano has not written for The Chronicle of Higher Education since 2018, and, while he was a critic-at-large for The Chronicle a long time ago, he has not been in that role for many years. He holds no official title or standing with The Chronicle.”]
On Tuesday, Andrew Yang dropped out of the 2020 presidential race. He was only able to crack 2.8% of the vote during the New Hampshire primary and a mere 1% of the Iowa Caucus votes. But Yang’s presence represented an outlier sincerity that was sui generis, a welcome reminder that the Democratic frontrunner this year can possess a genuine empathy for the American people that can be worn on one’s sleeve without apology. Yang filled the void left by Beto O’Rourke’s exit with his off-kilter sincerity. He was an inspiring force for the “Yang Gang,” a group of supporters who were just as passionate as “Bernie bros” and justifiably excited to see an Asian American represented in a vital election race. He was the lone non-white regular on the debate stage after Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker dropped out of the race. And after Bong Joon-ho swept the Oscars on Sunday with Parasite, it seems a great letdown to take in the dawning reality that Yang won’t be participating in future debates. In an age in which Jack Dorsey and his crew of idiots upholds racism and hateful xenophobia on Twitter through ineffectual algorithms incapable of parsing nuance and intent, we truly needed more voices like Andrew Yang to set the record straight on a very real disease that ails us.
Yes, Yang, with his lack of necktie and his MATH pin always clipped to his lapel, was socially awkward at times. During the third democratic debate, when Yang introduced a raffle where ten families would receive a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 each month for a year (he later expanded this to thirteen families), he was received with bafflement and modest ridicule. But this seems to me unfair. Unlike other millionaires who entered the race for ignoble and narcissistic reasons (**clearing throat** Bloomberg **spastic and theatrical coughing**), Yang really wanted to solve our national ills with wildly original ideas. He believed that he could cure systemic racism with his universal basic income concept, providing purchasing power to minorities. While this was a batty idea and while his tax policy was more concerned with implementing a value-added tax rather than addressing income inequality, there was nevertheless something appealingly immediate about his position. Was it really any less crazy than finding the essential money for Medicare for All or Elizabeth Warren’s plan to forgive $1.6 trillion of student debt? Yang smartly recognized that one of our long-standing national ills requires a swift remedy and that mere lip service — the empty and cluelessly myopic white privilege that one sees prominently with Pete Buttigieg — won’t cut it.
Yang also had a refreshing sense of humor about his campaign. He sang “Don’t You Forget About Me” at a campaign rally. He crowd surfed at another rally. He even skateboarded before an appearance. Andrew Yang brought an instinctive sense of fun that seemed beyond most of the other candidates, but his heart seemed to be in the right place. He never came across as wingnut as Marianne Williamson or as stiff as Tom Steyer or as cavalierly hostile to voters on the fence as Joe Biden. Even if you couldn’t see him as President, it was almost impossible not to like the guy.
Yang’s willingness to commit to positions of empathy and understanding in provocatively inclusive ways was one of his great strengths. Last September, when comedian Shane Gillis was hired by Saturday Night Live as a regular and fired after repugnantly racist remarks about Chinese Americans were discovered on YouTube, it was Yang who called for a dialogue and a second chance for Gillis. Yang remarked, “I thought that if I could set an example that we could forgive people, particularly in an instance where, in my mind, it was in comedic context or gray area, that I thought it would be positive.”
Yang didn’t really have the opportunity to display the full range of these subtleties. But we did get one moment during his final debate when he calmly responded to Buttigieg shallowly grandstanding about the collective exhaustion of people outside Washington: “Pete, fundamentally, you are missing the question of Donald Trump’s victory. Donald Trump is not the cause of all of our problems. And we’re making a mistake when we act like he is. He is the symptom of a disease that has been building up in our communities for years and decades. And it is our job to get to the harder work of curing the disease. Most Americans feel like the political parties have been playing ‘You lose, I lose, You lose, I lose’ for years. And do you know who’s been losing this entire time? We have. Our communities have. Our communities’ way of life has been disintegrating beneath our feet.”
While there’s certainly a very strong argument that present frontrunner Bernie Sanders has united variegated people by highlighting their stories, Yang had a way, unlike the other candidates, of going directly to the underlying heart of aggravated Americans in the heartland who altered their votes in the 2016 election after being fed up after years of condescending vacuity. It is them who the Democratic candidate must speak to. Yang’s inclusive approach to empathy seems well beyond Buttigieg’s platitudes, but it appears to be increasingly adopted by Amy Klobuchar (which partially accounts for her third place win in New Hampshire).
Andrew Yang opened up a promising road for people of color to speak to voters who are still knowingly or unknowingly practicing systemic racism. And for this not insignificant contribution, he’ll have a place in my heart. America may not have been ready in 2020 for Yang’s approach to empathy, forgiveness, understanding, and inclusiveness. But this nation will almost certainly be prepared for this in future presidential elections. It will take some time, but I think history will see that Yang was ahead of the curve.
This morning, I learned that my Twitter account was permanently suspended and that I was banned from the social media platform because I had the temerity to express anger and outrage towards a racist.
A man with a blue checkmark by the name of Jon Miller, a conservative “White House correspondent for BlazeTV,” tweeted an insulting, cruelly disparaging, and racist message mocking the great filmmaker Bong Joon-ho after he delivered one of his Oscar speeches in Korean. Miller’s disturbingly xenophobic words, which are still published on Twitter as of Monday morning, proceeded to claim that “these people are the destruction of America.” This is language that echoes anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany and any number of hate groups singled out by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Words that need to be strongly protested. Even conservative Piers Morgan protested it. Miller’s tweet was rightly ratioed, but thousands of people still retweeted and favorited this vile expression. Miller, in other words, willfully promulgated hate.
As someone who is a big proponent of democracy and multiculturalism and as someone who has a number of Korean friends, some who greatly helped me during a time of crisis in my life, it was my moral duty as a citizen to lodge my protest against this in the strongest possible terms. Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar win for Parasite is not only a historical and artistic triumph. It also rightly sends a message to Korean Americans that their dreams are possible. By any objective standard, this is a good thing and a beautiful advancement of humanity. For someone to shit on this — as Miller did — is to besmirch the very purpose of why and how we evolve as a species.
So I got angry on Twitter. One cannot stay silent when anyone is demeaned and stripped of his dignity like this. But as far as Twitter is concerned, calling someone “a xenophobic, anti-tolerance, anti-art fuckface” — as I did — for expressing such hateful language is “abuse and harassment.” Moreover, there is no appeal for Twitter’s decision. The appeal link that I received by email did not work.
On Twitter, I also challenged Miller to a ten round boxing match to see if he wanted to settle this matter like a man. I did this for a number of reasons. First, I’ve been on a fitness kick and it seemed like a playful way of opposing a racist. Second, my challenge offered a corporeal method of resolving a national cancer that needs to see more resolution in the real world. Racism has long been buried underneath the surface of this nation. And if Miller wants to claim that an entire race is “destroying America,” then let us see if he has the stones to say this in public and in the ring. If Miller still wants to take me up on my challenge, then I will be more than happy to sign up for boxing lessons immediately and get in the best shape of my life. That’s how much I care about fighting racism and intolerance. I’m willing to put my body on the line. It is my position that, when you are confronted with racism, you must not stay silent about it and you have an obligation to fight it.
My playful boxing challenge also falls into a great tradition of writers boxing other writers — seen with Craig Davidson challenging Jonathan Ames to a boxing match, a match, incidentally, that I happened to announce. I’m sure that this probably factored into Twitter’s decision. Still, challenging someone to a boxing match does not involve “wishing or hoping that someone experiences physical pain” — the codex behind Twitter’s rules. The decision to engage in a fight is on Miller. I have challenged him. He is free to take me up on the challenge. I’m willing to put myself on the line and in the ring, but my ultimate wish or hope would be to see Miller acknowledging and confronting and sincerely apologizing for his flagrant racism and unacceptable xenophobia. That’s the goal here. Since Miller proved intransigent on Twitter, I was forced to take him up with my boxing challenge. Even if Miller decides not to box me, then the point has been made. Unable to walk back his hateful remarks, he is revealed for the coward that he is.
What all this does tell us is that Twitter is firmly on the side of the fascists and the racists and the doxxers and the misogynists and the Nazis and the authoritarians. Jack Dorsey’s business model is to promote hate and to block anyone who pushes strongly against it. Because hate and sustaining the status quo of hate and racism is very good for Dorsey’s business model. It’s lining his pockets right now. My words to Miller were no different than the words that got the great David Simon (temporarily) banned in 2018. As Simon put it in a blog post shortly after his suspension:
The correct response to racism, to white supremacy, to anti-Semitism, to slander and libel is to:
1. Tell the fucker he’s a piece of shit and should die of throat clap.
2. Block him. And in doing 1. and 2. you have marked the spot for the sane and sentient on Twitter, much as any good infantryman who wanders into a minefield marks the Claymores for the rest of the platoon. It’s just good soldiering, Jack.
My Twitter ban may very well be a blessing in disguise and should give me more time to practice my guitar and the new set of harmonicas I just purchased. But it is still part of a national disease that is silencing and squelching voices who speak out against hate, racism, and fascism. A few friends texted me this morning about what happened and claimed my ban to be “a badge of honor.” But I don’t see this as honorable at all. I see this as a deep stain against social justice and a blow against fighting for what’s objectively right. I see this as Jack Dorsey willfully prioritizing hate before justice and profit before human decency. But then we all know that Jack Dorsey has no soul. We know that this shallow profiteer met with Trump last year. If he possessed any qualities of actual decency and if he was truly invested in true discourse, then he would understand precisely what’s at stake here. If we cannot speak out against racism and human indignity, then how will we be able to speak out against any other significant human ills that crop up in the next few years? Especially if Trump manages to win a second presidential term and the Senate remains under control by the Republicans. You don’t win battles by keeping silent or by staying neutral against a gleeful hate merchant like Jon Miller. You call them out for the repugnant atavists and venal promoters of bigotry and intolerance that they are. You challenge them to boxing matches if you have to.
UPDATE: This morning, Jon Miller celebrated the fact that Twitter ruled his racist tweet as something that did “not identify any violations of the Twitter Rules.” Twitter, in other words, is clearly in the practice of upholding racism.
Martin Luther King’s deeply inspiring book provides as much hope in combating social ills in 2019 as it did when it was published in 1964. It reminds us of the beauty of nonviolent direct action, as well as our essential duty to stand up for moral justice and to not accept compromise or delay in fighting for what’s right.
It was a warm day in April when Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested. It was the thirteenth and the most important arrest of his life. King, wearing denim work pants and a gray fatigue shirt, was manacled along with fifty others that afternoon, joining close to a thousand more who had bravely submitted their bodies over many weeks to make a vital point about racial inequality and the unquestionable inhumanity of segregation.
The brave people of Birmingham had tried so many times before. They had attempted peaceful negotiation with a city that had closed sixty public parks rather than uphold the federal desegregation law. They had talked with businesses that had debased black people by denying them restaurant service and asking them to walk through doors labeled COLORED. Some of these atavistic signs had been removed, only for the placards to be returned to the windows once the businesses believed that their hollow gestures had been fulfilled. And so it became necessary to push harder — peacefully, but harder. The Birmingham police unleashed attack dogs on children and doused peaceful protesters with high-pressure water hoses and seemed hell-bent on debasing and arresting the growing throngs who stood up and said, without raising a fist and always believing in hope and often singing songs, “Enough. No more.”
There were many local leaders who claimed that they stood for the righteous, but who turned against King. White leaders in Birmingham believed — not unlike pro-segregation Governor George Wallace just three months earlier — that King’s nonviolent protests against segregation would incite a torrent of violence. But the violence never came from King’s well-trained camp and had actually emerged from the savage police force upholding an unjust law. King had been very careful with his activists, asking them to sign a ten-point Commitment Card that included these two vital points:
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
Two days before King’s arrest, Bull Connor, the racist Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety and a man so vile and heartless that he’d once egged on Klansmen to beat Freedom Riders to a pulp for fifteen minutes as the police stood adjacent and did not intervene, had issued an injunction against the protests. He raised the bail bond from $200 to $1,500 for those who were arrested. (That’s $10,000 in 2019 dollars. When you consider the lower pay and the denied economic opportunities for Birmingham blacks, you can very well imagine what a cruel and needless punishment this was for many protesters who lived paycheck to paycheck.)
And so on Good Friday, it became necessary for King, along with his invaluable fellow leaders Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, to walk directly to Birmingham Jail and sing “We Shall Overcome.” King took a very big risk in doing so. But he needed to set an example for civil disobedience. He needed to show that he was not immune to the sacrifices of this very important fight. The bondsman who provided the bail for the demonstrators told King that he was out as King pondered the nearly diminished funds for the campaign. In jail, King would not be able to use his contacts and raise the money that would keep his campaign going. Despite all this, and this is probably one of the key takeaways from this remarkable episode in political history, King was dedicated to practicing what he preached. As he put it:
How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community? What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning and then excused himself?
Many who watched this noble march, the details of which are documented in S. Jonathan Bass’s excellent book Blessed Are the Peacemakers, dressed in their Sunday best out of respect for King’s efforts. Police crept along with the marchers before Connor gave the final order. Shuttlesworth had left earlier. King, Abernathy, and their fellow protestors were soon surrounded by paddy wagons and motorcycles and a three-wheel motorcart. They dropped to their knees in peaceful prayer. The head of the patrol squeezed the back of King’s belt and escorted him into a police car. The police gripped the back of Abernathy’s shirt and steered him into a van.
King was placed in an isolation cell. Thankfully, he did not suffer physical brutality, but the atmosphere was dank enough to diminish a weaker man’s hope. As he wrote, “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and still seeing only darkness below.” Jail officials refused a private meeting between King and his attorney. Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s chief of staff, sent a telegram to President Kennedy. The police did not permit King to speak to anyone for at least twenty-four hours.
As his confidantes gradually gained permission to speak to King, King became aware of a statement published by eight white clergy members in Birmingham — available here. This octet not only urged the black community to withdraw support for these demonstrations, but risibly suggested that King’s campaign was “unwise and untimely” and could be settled by the courts. They completely missed the point of what King was determined to accomplish.
King began drafting a response, scribbling around the margins of a newspaper. Abernathy asked King if the police had given him anything to write on. “No,” King replied, “I’m using toilet paper.” Within a week, he had paper and a notepad. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” contained in his incredibly inspiring book Why We Can’t Wait, is one of the most powerful statements ever written about civil rights. It nimbly argues for the need to take direct action rather than wait for injustice to be rectified. It remains an essential text for anyone who professes to champion humanity and dignity.
* * *
King’s “Letter” against the eight clergymen could just as easily apply to many “well-meaning” liberals today. He expertly fillets the white clergy for their lack of concern, pointing out that “the superficial kind of social analysis that deal with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” He points out that direct action is, in and of itself, a form of negotiation. The only way that an issue becomes lodged in the national conversation is when it becomes dramatized. King advocates a “constructive, nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth” — something that seems increasingly difficult for people on social media to understand as they block viewpoints that they vaguely disagree with and cower behind filter bubbles. He is also adamantly, and rightly, committed to not allowing anyone’s timetable to get in the way of fighting a national cancer that had then ignobly endured for 340 years. He distinguishes between the just and the unjust law, pointing out that “one has a moral responsibility to obey unjust laws.” But he is very careful and very clear about his definitions:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
This is a cogent philosophy applicable to many ills beyond racism. This is radicalism in all of its beauty. This is precisely what made Martin Luther King one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. For me, Martin Luther King remains a true hero, a model for justice, humility, peace, moral responsibility, organizational acumen, progress, and doing what’s right. But it also made King dangerous enough for James Earl Ray, a staunch Wallace supporter, to assassinate him on April 4, 1968. (Incidentally, King’s family have supported Ray’s efforts to prove his innocence.)
* * *
Why We Can’t Wait‘s scope isn’t just limited to Birmingham. The book doesn’t hesitate to cover a vast historical trajectory that somehow stumps for action in 1963 and in 2019. It reminds us that much of what King was fighting for must remain at the forefront of today’s progressive politics, but also must involve a government that acts on behalf of the people: “There is a right and a wrong side in this conflict and the government does not belong the middle.” Unfortunately, the government has doggedly sided against human rights and against the majestic democracy of voting. While Jim Crow has thankfully been abolished, the recent battle to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, shows that systemic racism remains very much alive and that the courts for which the eight white Birmingham clergy professed such faith and fealty are stacked against African-Americans. (A 2018 Harvard study discovered that counties freed from federal oversight saw a dramatic drop in minority voter turnout.)
Much as the end of physical slavery inspired racists to conjure up segregation as a new method of diminishing African-Americans, so too do we see such cavalier and dehumanizing “innovations” in present day racism. Police shootings and hate crimes are all driven by the same repugnant violence that King devoted his life to defeating.
The economic parallels between 1963 and 2019 are also distressingly acute. In Why We Can’t Wait, King noted that there were “two and one-half times as many jobless Negros as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man.” Fifty-six years later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that African Americans are nearly twice as unemployed as whites in a flush economic time with a low unemployment rate, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that the median household income for African-Americans in 2017 was $40,258 compared to $68,145 for whites. In other words, a black family now only makes 59% of the median income earned by a white family.
If these statistics are supposed to represent “progress,” then it’s clear that we’re still making the mistake of waiting. These are appalling and unacceptable baby steps towards the very necessary racial equality that King called for. White Americans continue to ignore these statistics and the putatively liberal politicians who profess to stand for fairness continue to demonstrate how tone-deaf they are to feral wrongs that affect real lives. As Ashley Williams learned in February 2016, white Democrats continue to dismiss anyone who challenges them on their disgraceful legacy of incarcerating people of color. The protester is “rude,” “not appropriate,” or is, in a particularly loaded gerund, “trespassing.” “Maybe you can listen to what I have to say” was Hillary Clinton’s response to Williams, to which one rightfully replies in the name of moral justice, “Hillary, maybe you’re the one here who needs to listen.”
Even Kamala Harris, now running for President, has tried to paint herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” when her record reveals clear support for measures that actively harm the lives of black people. In 2015, Harris opposed a bill that demanded greater probing into police officer shootings. That same year, she refused to support body cams, only to volte-face with egregious opportunism just ten days before announcing her candidacy. In the case of George Gage, Harris held back key exculpatory evidence that might have freed a man who did not have criminal record. Gage was forced to represent himself in court and is now serving a 70-year sentence. In upholding these savage inequities, I don’t think it’s a stretch to out Kamala Harris as a disingenuous fraud. Like many Democrats who pay mere lip service to policies that uproot lives, she is not a true friend to African Americans, much less humanity. It was a hardly a surprise when Black Lives Matter’s Johnetta Elzie declared that she was “not excited” about Harris’s candidacy back in January. After rereading King and being reminded of the evils of casual complicity, I can honestly say that, as someone who lives in a neighborhood where the police dole out regular injustices to African-Americans, I’m not incredibly thrilled about Harris either.
But what we do have in this present age is the ability to mobilize and fight, to march in the streets until our nation’s gravest ills become ubiquitously publicized, something that can no longer be ignored. What we have today is the power to vote and to not settle for any candidate who refuses to heed the realities that are presently eating our nation away from the inside. If such efforts fail or the futility of protesting makes one despondent, one can still turn to King for inspiration. King sees the upside in a failure, galvanizing the reader without ever sounding like a Pollyanna. Pointing to the 1962 sit-ins in Albany, Georgia, King observes that, while restaurants remained segregated after months of protest, the activism did result in more African-Americans voting and Georgia at long last electing “the first governor [who] pledged to respect and enforce the law equally.”
It’s sometimes difficult to summon hope when the political clime presently seems so intransigent, but I was surprised to find myself incredibly optimistic and fired up after rereading Why We Can’t Wait for the first time in more than two decades. This remarkable book from a rightfully towering figure seems to have answered every argument that milquetoasts produce against radicalism. No, we can’t wait. We shouldn’t wait. We must act today.
How do you reckon with a writer who was simultaneously a virtuosic stylist and a repugnant human being? We try to answer this difficult question in the most equitable way we can in our next thrilling installment of the Modern Library Reading Challenge!
When I last dived into Evelyn Waugh’s exquisite comic fiction for this crazy project nearly six years ago, I wrote a sour essay in which I permitted my hostility towards Waugh’s pugnacious life and his reactionary politics to overshadow my appreciation for his art. Perhaps the way I read fiction has changed or the idea of completely discounting a writer’s achievements with the histrionic tone of an upbraiding Pollyanna who doesn’t possess a scintilla of self-awareness fills me with a dread I usually associate with wincing at a tax bill or standing in a needlessly long line for a pizza slice. Whatever the case, I allowed myself to zero in on Brideshead Revisited‘s weaker elements (namely, the deplorable gay stereotype Anthony Blanche) without possessing the decency to praise that novel’s excellent prose in any way. This was decidedly uncharitable of me. For Waugh was, for all of his faults, a master stylist. That I was also bold enough to rank Wodehouse over Waugh was likewise problematic (although I would still rather read Pip and I have never been able to get into the Sword of Honour trilogy and I still feel that Waugh was more or less finished as an author after The Loved One; incidentally, Waugh himself called Wodehouse “the Master”). At the time, the eminently reasonable Cynthia Haven offered what I now deem to be appropriate pushback, observing that I brought a lot of “post-modern baggage” into my reading. My “take” on that novel’s Catholic dialogue was, I now realize after diving into Waugh again, driven by a cocky yahooism that is perhaps better deployed while knocking back pints in a sports bar and claiming that you’re a big fan of the team everybody else is cheering for. Never mind that the names of the players are only lodged in your memory by the blinding Chryon reminders and the bellowing cries of histrionic announcers that work together to perfect a sense-deadening television experience.
Anyway, I’ll leave cloud cuckoos like Dave Eggers to remain dishonest and pretend they never despised great novels. I’d rather be candid about where I may have strayed in my literary judgement and how I have tried to reckon with it. In a literary climate of “No haters” (and thus no chances), we are apparently no longer allowed to (a) voice dissenting opinions or (b) take the time to reassess our youthful follies and better appreciate a novel that rubbed us the wrong way on the first read. Wrestling with fiction should involve expressing our hesitations and confessing our evolving sensibilities and perceiving what a problematic author did right. And so here we are. It has taken many months to get here, but it does take time to articulate a personal contradiction.
So here goes: As much as I appreciate Scoop‘s considerable merits (particularly the fine and often hilarious satire when the book takes place on Waugh’s home turf), I cannot find it within me to endorse this novel’s abysmally tone-deaf observations on a fictitious Abyssinia — here, Ishmaelia. There are unsophisticated thoughts cloaked beneath the light fluidity of Waugh’s exacting pen that many of his acolytes — including The Observer‘s Robert McCrum and NPR’s Alexander Nazaryan — refuse to acknowledge. There’s no other way to say this, but Waugh is more nimble with his gifts when he bakes his pies with an anglophonic upper crust. And that ugly truth should give any reader or admirer great pause. (Even Selina Hastings, one of his biographers, was forced to concede this. And McCrum, to his credit, does at least write that “Scoop derives less inspiration from Ethiopia,” although this is a bit like stating that Paul Manafort merely muttered a little white lie.) Waugh’s limitations in Scoop are not as scabrous as Black Mischief — a novel so packed with racism that it’s almost the literary equivalent to Louis C.K.’s recent attempts at a comeback. But his “insights” into Africa are still very bad, despite all the other rich wit contained within the book. Waugh cannot see anyone who does not share his lily-white complexion as human. His creatively bankrupt view of Africans as bloodthirsty cannibals or “crapulous black servants” or “a natty young Negro smoking from a long cigarette holder” carries over from Black Mischief. “A pious old darky named Mr. Samuel Smiles Jackson” is installed President. I was rankled by the constant cries of “Boy!” from the assorted journos, late risers who complain about not getting swift servitude with a smile. (“Six bloody black servants and no breakfast,” sneers the entitled Corker at one point.) Even the potentially interesting politics behind Ishmaelia’s upheaval are coarse and general, with the arrival of Dr. Benito at a press conference described in one paragraph with a contrast of “blacks” and “whites” that show the force and timing of a man determined to be vituperative, but without substantive subtlety. One of the book’s jokes involves a nonexistent city on the nation’s map identified as “Laku,” which is Ishmaelite for “I don’t know.” And while it does allow for a decent setup in which numerous journalists expend lavish resources to find Laku for their stories, I suspect that this is really Waugh confessing he doesn’t know and can’t know because he doesn’t want to.
Still, in approaching Scoop, I was determined to give this book more care than what I doled out to Brideshead. Not only did I spend a few months rereading all of Waugh’s novels up through Brideshead, finding them considerably richer than I did on my first two canon reads, but I also dived into the Selina Hastings and Martin Stannard biographies, along with numerous other texts pertaining to Scoop. And one cannot completely invalidate Waugh’s talent:
“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in a carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know. Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution.”
So Scoop does deserve our attention in an age devoted to “alternative facts” and a vulgar leader who routinely squeezes savage whoppers through his soulless teeth. Waugh uses a familiar but extremely effective series of misunderstandings to kickstart his often razor-sharp sendup, whereby a hot writer by the name of John Courtney Boot is considered to be the ideal candidate to cover a war in Ishamelia for The Daily Beast (not to be confused with the present Daily Beast founded by Tina Brown, who took the name from Waugh — and, while we’re on the subject of contemporary parallels, Scoop also features a character by the name of Nannie Bloggs, quite fitting in an epoch populated with dozens of nanny blogs). John Boot is confused with William Boot, a bucolic man who writes a nature column known as Lush Places and believes himself to be in trouble with the top brass for substituting “beaver” with “great crested grebe” in a recent installment. He is sent to cover a war that nobody understands.
The novel is funny and thrilling in its first one hundred pages, with Waugh deftly balancing his keen eye for decor (he did study architecture) with these goofy mixups. Rather tellingly, however, Waugh does spend a lot of time with William Boot in transit to Ishamelia, almost as if Waugh is reluctant to get to the country and write about the adventure. And it is within the regions of East Africa that Waugh is on less firm footing, especially when he strays from the journalists. Stannard has helpfully observed that, of all Waugh’s pre-war novels, Scoop was the most heavily edited and that it was the “political” sections with which Waugh had “structural problems.” But Scoop‘s problems really amount to tonal ones. Where Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (ML #91) brilliantly holds up a mirror to expose the audience’s assumptions about people (with the novel’s Broadway adaptation inspiring a tremendously interesting Ralph Ellison essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter,” which many of today’s self-righteous vigilantes should read), Scoop seems more content to revel in its atavistic prejudices.
In 2003, Christopher Hitchens gently bemoaned the “rank crudity” of Waugh’s childish names for side characters. And I think he was right to pinpoint Waugh’s declining powers of invention. For all of Scoop‘s blazing panoramas and descriptive sheen (the prose committed to the Megalopilitan offices is brilliant), the ultimate weakness of the book is that Waugh seems incapable of imbuing Ishamelia with the same inventive life with which he devotes to England. When one looks at the travel writing that came before this, even the high points of Waugh in Abyssinia are the sections where he bitches about his boredom.
Waugh’s writing was often fueled by a vicious need for revenge and an inability to let things go. Take the case of Charles Crutwell, the Hertford dean who praised Waugh on his writing and awarded him an Oxford scholarship as a young man. Waugh proceeded to be incredibly lazy about his studies, deciding that he had earned this financial reward, that he no longer needed to exert himself in any way, and that he would spend his time boozing it up and getting tight with his mates. Crutwell told Waugh that he needed to take his research more seriously. He could have had Waugh expelled, but he didn’t. And for this, Crutwell became the target of Waugh’s savage barbs throughout much of his early writing and many of his novels. In Decline and Fall, you’ll find Toby Crutwell as an insane burglar turned MP. In Vile Bodies, a “Captain Crutwell” is the snobby member of the Committee of the Ladies’ Conservative Association at Chesham Bois. There’s a Crutwell in Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust. Waugh’s story “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing” was originally titled “Mr. Crutwell’s Little Outing.” And in one of Scoop‘s supererogatory chapters, William Boot meets a General Crutwell who has had numerous landmarks named after him. Keep in mind that this is sixteen years after the events in Hertford. You want to take Waugh aside, buy him a beer, and say, “Bro, walk away.”
Now I have to confess that this type of brutal targeted satire was catnip for me at a certain impressionable age that lingered embarrassingly long into my late thirties. The very kind George Saunders tried to get me to understand this twelve years ago during an episode of my old literary podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, in which we were discussing the way Sacha Baron Cohen singled out people with total malice. Cohen’s recent television series Who is America certainly upheld Saunders’s point. Of course, I stubbornly pushed back. Because ridicule is a hell of a drug. Just ask anyone with a Twitter account. But I now understand, especially after contending with Waugh again, that effective satire needs to be more concerned with exposing and virulently denouncing those in actual power, railing against the tyrannical institutions that diminish individual lives, and, of course, exposing the follies of human behavior. Waugh does this to a large extent in Scoop and his observations about newspapermen running up large tabs on their expense accounts and manipulating the competition are both funny and beautiful, but he also appears to have been operating from an inferiority complex, an intense need for victory against his perceived oppressors and something that, truth be told, represents a minor but nevertheless troubling trait I recognize in myself and that has caused much of my own writing and communications with people to be vehemently misunderstood, if not outright distorted into libelous and untrue allegations. When your motivation to write involves the expression of childish snubs and pedantic rage without a corresponding set of virtues, it is, from my standpoint, failed satire. And I don’t know about you, but my feeling is that, if you’re still holding a grudge against someone after five or six years, then the issue is no longer about the person who wronged you, but about a petty and enduring narcissism on behalf of the grudgeholder. What precisely do these many Crutwells add to Waugh’s writing? Not much, to tell you the truth.
We do know that, when Waugh covered Abyssinia, he wrote in a letter to Penelope Betjeman, “I am a very bad journalist, well only a shit could be good on this particular job.” So perhaps there was a part of Waugh that needed to construct a biting novel from his own toxic combination of arrogance and self-loathing.
But Waugh’s biggest flaw as a writer, however great his talent, was his inability to summon empathy or a humanistic vision throughout his work, even if it is there in spurts in Brideshead and perhaps best realized in his finest novel, A Handful of Dust. When William Boot foot falls in love with Kätchen, a poorly realized character at best, Waugh has no interest in portraying Boot’s feelings as anything more than that of a dopey cipher who deserves our contempt: “For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and and heart-whole; landbound. Now for the first time he was far from sure, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently in submarine twilight. A lush place.” It is one thing to present Boot clumsily setting up an unnecessary canoe or showing the way he gets hoodwinked over a heavy package of stones or not understanding basic journalism jargon and to let Boot’s bumbling behavior (or, for that matter, the apposite metaphor of a three-legged dog barking in a barrel just outside Kätchen’s home) speak for itself. It is quite another thing to stack the deck against your protagonist with a passage like this, however eloquently condemned. What Waugh had not learned from Wodehouse was that there was a way of both recognizing the ineptitude of a dunderhead while also humanizing his feelings. You can lay down as many barbs as you like in art, but, at a certain point, if you’re any good, the artistic expression itself has to evolve beyond mere virtuosic style. This, in my view, is the main reason why Waugh crumbled and why I think his standing should be reassessed. The vindictiveness in Black Mischief, however crucially transgressive at the time, still represented a failure of creative powers. All Waugh had left at the end was a bitter nostalgia for a lost Britannia and a fear of modernity, which amounted to little more than an old man pining for the good old days by the time Waugh got to his wildly overrated Sword of Honour trilogy (and by the time Louis C.K. returned on stage with his first full set littered with racism, transphobia, and scorn for the young generation). If Waugh had learned to see the marvel of a changing world and if he had embraced human progress rather than fleeing from it, he might have produced more substantive work. But, hey, here I am talking about the guy nearly a century later, largely because he’s on a list. Still, even today, young conservative men have adopted the tweedy analog look of a “better time.” So maybe the joke’s on me. Thankfully the next Waugh novel book I have to write about, A Handful of Dust (ML #34), is a legitimate masterpiece. So I will try to give Waugh a more generous hearing when we get there in a few years. For now, I’m trying to shake off his seductive spite as well as the few remaining dregs of my own.
The end of Roseanne proved that, for now at least, there are limits to American xenophobia expressed through mass entertainment. But the troubling question is whether this is the beginning or the end of network-sanctioned white supremacy.
Roseanne Barr is finished. And it’s about goddam time.
I watched the first few episodes of the Roseanne reboot with an open mind, but the show’s racism and intolerance, well on display within the show and bluntly expressed in Roseanne’s off-air demeanor, demonstrated very conclusively that this was not a contemporary answer to All in the Family, but something more akin to a sitcom version of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. An early scene showing the Conners swapping an insufficient supply of medication due to inadequate American healthcare created the illusion that this was a show like its previous iteration, one aligned with the working class roots that had made the original such a success. But then we saw the Conners casually belittling “all the shows about black and Asian families” and it became very clear that this was a program committed to white supremacy. As The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum pointed out, the show relied on coded language, unrealistic dialogue, and sideways jabs to disguise its bigotry-drenched narrative.
Barring a pickup from an online streaming giant — an unlikely event, given Amazon’s recent woes with Transparent and the Roy Price scandal, Netflix cutting ties with Louis CK, and Hulu likely not wanting to risk its progressive-minded programming slate given the success of The Handmaid’s Tale — there is little chance that Roseanne will return, unless she decides to produce it on her own dime. And even then, she would probably not have enough clout to convince all the cast members and crew to return. Such a hypothetical reboot, untethered from the manacles of network Standards and Practices, would only amp up the atavism further in the interest of “truth-telling,” perhaps inspiring the Southern Poverty Law Center to include Roseanne Barr amidst its distressingly voluminous list of offenders.
This was the first television show cancelled by a single tweet. And I don’t think it will be the last. What Roseanne’s self-immolation demonstrates, quite rightfully and righteously I think, is that America does have limits to what it will tolerate. There will undoubtedly be Daily Caller-reading banshees writing thinkpieces proclaiming this cancellation as a calumny upon the First Amendment. But the decision to write and produce a show, much less watch one, has not been quelled and the audience hungry for this casual xenophobia has regrettably not been deracinated. There are still ten million loyal Roseanne viewers. And I can easily imagine Roseanne being propped up as an underground comic, recast as an alt-right faux Lenny Bruce or perhaps the American answer to Dieudonné, and making a fortune through a monthly Patreon account.
In an age in which a self-help transphobic huckster like Jordan Peterson is framed by the “Paper of Record” as a “dark web intellectual,” Roseanne will probably not be the last repugnant show airing on American television. I fear that we are only at the beginning of hatred and intolerance marketed as “wholesome entertainment.” And while mainstream media rejects Roseanne, one must now be on the lookout for independently produced offerings cut from the same Klan cloth that are snatched up by television executives in the interest of corporate profit. This is, after all, how Roseanne was rebooted in the first place. The question now is who has the chutzpah to push the envelope further into a fetid swamp of ugliness and whether some network desperate for a hit is willing to pick up such a bilious offering, counting upon the American public to forget how these same gatekeepers helped make Roseanne happen in the first place.
On Thursday, November 10, 2016, I attended the protests that had unfolded across the street from Trump Tower after Donald Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. I talked with anti-Trump activists, people who voted for Gary Johnson, people who voted for Trump, and people who didn’t vote at all in an attempt to understand how these unfathomable election results happened. (Running time: 32 minutes, 9 seconds)
When I first made my bold belly flop into the crisp waters of Ralph Ellison’s deep pool earlier this year, I felt instantly dismayed that it would be a good decade before I could perform thoughtful freestyle in response to his masterpiece Invisible Man (ML Fiction #19). As far as I’m concerned, that novel’s vivid imagery, beginning with its fierce and intensely revealing Battle Royale scene and culminating in its harrowing entrapment of the unnamed narrator, stands toe-to-toe with Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the most compelling panoramas of mid-20th century American life ever put to print, albeit one presented through a more hyperreal lens.
But many of today’s leading writers, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Jacqueline Woodson, have looked more to James Baldwin as their truth-telling cicerone, that fearless sage whose indisputably hypnotic energy was abundant enough to help any contemporary humanist grapple with the nightmarish realities that America continues to sweep under its bright plush neoliberal rug. At a cursory glance, largely because Ellison’s emphasis was more on culture than overt politics, it’s easy to see Ellison as a complacent “Maybe I’m Amazed” to Baldwin’s gritty “Cold Turkey,” especially when one considers the risk-averse conservatism which led to Ellison being attacked as an Uncle Tom during a 1968 panel at Grinnell College along with his selfish refusal to help emerging African-American authors after his success. But according to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Baldwin believed Ralph Ellison to be the angriest person he knew. And if one dives into Ellison’s actual words, Shadow and Act is an essential volume, which includes one of the most thrilling Molotov cocktails ever pitched into the face of a clueless literary critic, that is often just as potent and as lapel-grabbing as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
For it would seem that while Negroes have been undergoing a process of “Americanization” from a time preceding this birth of this nation — including the fusing of their blood lines with other non-African strains, there has been a stubborn confusion as to their American identity. Somehow it was assumed that the Negroes, of all the diverse American peoples, would remain unaffected by the climate, the weather, the political circumstances — from which not even slaves were exempt — the social structures, the national manners, the modes of production and the tides of the market, the national ideals, the conflicts of values, the rising and falling of national morale, or the complex give and take of acculturalization which was undergone by all others who found their existence within the American democracy.
Ellison, however, was too smart and too wide of a reader to confine these sins of dehumanization to their obvious targets. Like Baldwin and Coates and Richard Wright, Ellison looked to France for answers and, while never actually residing there, he certainly counted André Malraux and Paul Valéry among his hard influences. In writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison wisely singled out critics who failed to consider the full extent of African-American humanity even as they simultaneously demanded an on-the-nose and unambiguous “explanation” of who Wright was. (And it’s worth noting that Ellison himself, who was given his first professional writing gig by Wright, was also just as critical of Wright’s ideological propositions as Baldwin.) Ellison described how “the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of Western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin” and deservedly excoriated whites for seeing Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson merely as the ne plus ultra of African-American artistic innovation rather than the beginning of a great movement.
At issue, in Ellison’s time and today, is the degree to which any individual voice is allowed to express himself. And Ellison rightly resented any force that would stifle this, whether it be the lingering dregs of Southern slavery telling the African-American how he must act or who he must be in telling his story as well as the myopic critics who would gainsay any voice by way of their boxlike assumptions about other Americans. One sees this unthinking lurch towards authoritarianism today with such white supremacists as Jonathan Franzen, Lionel Shriver, and the many Brooklyn novelists who, despite setting their works in gentrified neighborhoods still prominently populated by African-Americans, fail to include, much less humanize, black people who still live there.
“White supremacist” may seem like a harshly provocative label for any bumbling white writer who lacks the democratic bonhomie to leave the house and talk with other people and consider that those who do not share his skin color may indeed share more common experience than presumed. But if these writers are going to boast about how their narratives allegedly tell the truth about America while refusing to accept challenge for their gaping holes and denying the complexity of vital people who make up this great nation, then it seems apposite to bring a loaded gun to a knife fight. If we accept Ellison’s view of race as “an irrational sea in which Americans flounder like convoyed ships in a gale,” then it is clear that these egotistical, self-appointed seers are buckling on damaged vessels hewing to shambling sea routes mapped out by blustering navigators basking in white privilege, hitting murky ports festooned with ancient barnacles that they adamantly refuse to remove.
Franzen, despite growing up in a city in which half the population is African-American, recently told Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner that he could not countenance writing about other races because he has not loved them or gone out of his way to know them and thus excludes non-white characters from his massive and increasingly mediocre novels. Shriver wrote a novel, The Mandibles, in which the only black characters are (1) Leulla, bound to a chair and walked with a leash, and (2) Selma, who speaks in a racist Mammy patois (“I love the pitcher of all them rich folk having to cough they big piles of gold”). She then had the effrontery to deliver a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival arguing for the right to “try on other people’s hats,” failing to understand that creating dimensional characters involves a great deal more than playing dress-up at the country club. She quoted from a Margot Kaminski review of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee that offered the perfectly reasonable consideration, one that doesn’t deny an author’s right to cross boundaries, that an author may wish to take “special care…with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.” Such forethought clearly means constructing an identity that is more human rather than crassly archetypal, an eminently pragmatic consideration on how any work of contemporary art should probably reflect the many identities that make up our world. But for Shriver, a character should be manipulated at an author’s whim, even if her creative vagaries represent an impoverishment of imagination. For Shriver, inserting another nonwhite, non-heteronormative character into The Mandibles represented “issues that might distract from my central subject moment of apocalyptic economics.” Which brings us back to Ellison’s question of “Americanization” and how “the diverse American peoples” are indeed regularly affected by the decisions of those who uphold the status quo, whether overtly or covertly.
Writer Maxine Benba-Clarke bravely confronted Shriver with the full monty of this dismissive racism and Shriver responded, “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.” And with that vile and shrill answer, devoid of humanity and humility, Shriver exposed the upright incomprehension of her position, stepping from behind the arras as a kind of literary Jan Smuts for the 21st century.1To this litany of country bumpkin calumnies from a Literary Establishment that purports to Know All, one must also include the superficial contributions of the wildly overrated Joyce Carol Oates, whose novel The Sacrifice demonstrated equally ignoble failings to consider complex identity and authenticity in fictionalizing the Tawana Brawley case. These inadequacies were smartly called out by Roxane Gay in The New York Times Book Review. Rather than consider how she had failed as an author, Oates, true to the clueless xenophobia she regularly chirrups on Twitter, suggested that Gay had failed.
If this current state of affairs represents a bristling example of Giambattista Vico’s corsi e ricorsi, and I believe it does, then Ellison’s essay, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” astutely demonstrates how this cultural amaurosis went down before, with 20th century authors willfully misreading Mark Twain, failing to see that Huck’s release of Jim represented a moment that not only involved recognizing Jim as a human being, but admitting “the evil implicit in his ’emancipation'” as well as Twain accepting “his personal responsibility in the condition of society.” With great creative power comes great creative responsibility. Ellison points to Ernest Hemingway scouring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn merely for its technical accomplishments rather than this moral candor and how William Faulkner, despite being “the greatest artist the South has produced,” may not be have been quite the all-encompassing oracle, given that The Unvanquished‘s Ringo is, despite his loyalty, devoid of humanity. In another essay on Stephen Crane, Ellison reaffirms that great art involves “the cost of moral perception, of achieving an informed sense of life, in a universe which is essentially hostile to man and in which skill and courage and loyalty are virtues which help in the struggle but by no means exempt us from the necessary plunge into the storm-sea-war of experience.” And in the essays on music that form the book’s second section (“Sound and the Mainstream”), Ellison cements this ethos with his personal experience growing up in the South. If literature might help us to confront the complexities of moral perception, then the lyrical, floating tones of a majestic singer or a distinctive cat shredding eloquently on an axe might aid us in expressing it. And that quest for authentic expression is forever in conflict with audience assumptions, as seen with such powerful figures as Charlie Parker, whom Ellison describes as “a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos…served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.”
What makes Ellison’s demands for inclusive identity quite sophisticated is the vital component of admitting one’s own complicity, an act well beyond the superficial expression of easily forgotten shame or white guilt that none of the 20th or the 21st century writers identified here have had the guts to push past. And Ellison wasn’t just a writer who pointed fingers. He held himself just as accountable, as seen in a terrific 1985 essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter” (not included in Shadow and Act, but found in Going with the Territory), in which Ellison writes about how he went to the theatre to see Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. (I wrote about Tobacco Road in 2011 as part of this series and praised the way that this still volatile novel pushes its audience to confront its own prejudices against the impoverished through remarkably flamboyant characters.) Upon seeing wanton animal passion among poor whites on the stage, Ellison burst into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter, which emerged as he was still negotiating the rituals of New York life shortly after arriving from the South. Ellison compared his reaction, which provoked outraged leers from the largely white audience, to an informal social ceremony he observed while he was a student at Tuskegee that involved a set of enormous whitewashed barrels labeled FOR COLORED placed in public space. If an African-American felt an overwhelming desire to laugh, he would thrust his head into the pit of the barrel and do so. Ellison observes that African-Americans “who in light of their social status and past condition of servitude were regarded as having absolutely nothing in their daily experience which could possibly inspire rational laughter.” And the expression of this inherently human quality, despite being a cathartic part of reckoning with identity and one’s position in the world, was nevertheless positioned out of sight and thus out of mind.
When I took an improv class at UCB earlier this year, I had an instructor who offered rather austere prohibitions to any strain of humor considered “too dark” or “punching down,” which would effectively disqualify both Tobacco Road and the Tuskegee barrel ritual that Ellison describes.2Earlier this year, in The Baffler, Ben Schwartz offered some cogent and provocative thoughts on the problems with such ultimatums. His essay is very worth reading if you’re interested in painting outside the lines as an artist or a thinker. These restrictions greatly frustrated me and a few of my classmates, who didn’t necessarily see the exploration of edgy comic terrain as a default choice, but merely one part of asserting an identity inclusive of many perspectives. I challenged the notion of confining behavior to obvious choices and ended up getting a phone call from the registrar, who was a smart and genial man and with whom I ended up having a friendly and thoughtful volley about comedy. I had apparently been ratted out by one student, who claimed that I was “disrupting” the class when I was merely inquiring about my own complicity in establishing base reality. In my efforts to further clarify my position, I sent a lengthy email to the instructor, one referencing “An Extravagance of Laughter,” and pointed out that delving into the uncomfortable was a vital part of reckoning with truth and ensuring that you grew your voice and evolved as an artist. I never received a reply. I can’t say that I blame him.
Ellison’s inquiry into the roots of how we find common ground with others suggests that we may be able to do so if we (a) acknowledge the completeness of other identities and (b) allow enough room for necessary catharsis and the acknowledgment of our feelings and our failings as we take baby steps towards better understanding each other.
The most blistering firebomb in the book is, of course, the infamous essay “The World and the Jug,” which demonstrates just what happens when you assume rather than take the time to know another person. It is a refreshingly uncoiled response that one could not imagine being published in this age of “No haters” reviewing policies and genial retreat from substantive subjects in today’s book review sections. Reacting to Irving Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Ellison condemns Howe for not seeing “a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell” and truly hammers home the need for all art to be considered on the basis of its human experience rather than the spectator’s constricting inferences. Howe’s great mistake was to view all African-American novels through the prism of a “protest novel” and this effectively revealed his own biases against what black writers had to say and very much for certain prerigged ideas that Howe expected them to say. “Must I be condemned because my sense of Negro life was quite different?” writes Ellison in response to Howe roping him in with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. And Ellison pours on the vinegar by not only observing how Howe self-plagiarized passages from previous reviews, but how his intractable ideology led him to defend the “old-fashioned” violence contained in Wright’s The Long Dream, which, whatever its merits, clearly did not keep current with the changing dialogue at the time.
Shadow and Act, with its inclusion of interviews and speeches and riffs on music (along with a sketch of a struggling mother), may be confused with a personal scrapbook. But it is, first and foremost, one man’s effort to assert his identity and his philosophy in the most cathartic and inclusive way possible. We still have much to learn from Ellison more than fifty years after these essays first appeared. And while I will always be galvanized by James Baldwin (who awaits our study in a few years), Ralph Ellison offers plentiful flagstones to face the present and the future.
SUPPLEMENT: One of the great mysteries that has bedeviled Ralph Ellison fans for decades is the identity of the critic who attacked Invisible Man as a “literary race riot.” In a Paris Review interview included in Shadow and Act, Ellison had this to say about the critic:
But there is one widely syndicated critical bankrupt who made liberal noises during the thirties and has been frightened ever since. He attacked my book as a “literary race riot.”
With the generous help of Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad (who gave me an idea of where the quote might be found in an email volley) and the good people at the New York Public Library, I have tracked down the “widely syndicated critical bankrupt” in question.
His name is Sterling North, best known for the children’s novel Rascal in 1963. He wrote widely popular (and rightly forgotten) children’s books while writing book reviews for various newspapers. North was such a vanilla-minded man that he comics “a poisonous mushroom growth” and seemed to have it in for any work of art that dared to do something different — or that didn’t involve treacly narratives involving raising baby raccoons.
And then, in the April 16, 1952 issue of the New York World-Telegram, he belittled Ellison’s masterpiece, writing these words:
This is one of the most tragic and disturbing books I have ever read. For the most part brilliantly written and deeply sincere, it is, at the same time, bitter, violent and unbalanced. Except for a few closing pages in which the author tries to express something like a sane outlook on race relations, it is composed largely of such scenes of interracial strife that it achieves the effect of one continuous literary race riot. Ralph Ellison is a Negro with almost as much writing talent as Richard Wright. Like his embittered hero (known only as “I’ throughout the book, Mr. Ellison received scholarships to help him through college, one from the State of Oklahoma which made possible three years at the Tuskegee Institute, and one from the Rosenwald Foundation.
If Mr. Ellison is as scornful and bitter about this sort of assistance as he lets his “hero” be, those who made the money available must wonder if it was well spent.
North’s remarkably condescending words offer an alarming view of the cultural oppression that Ellison was fighting against and serve as further justification for Ellison’s views in Shadow and Act. Aside from his gross mischaracterization of Ellison’s novel, there is North’s troubling assumptions that Ellison should be grateful in the manner of an obsequious and servile stereotype, only deserves a scholarship if he writes a novel that fits North’s limited idea of what African-American identity should be, and that future white benefactors should think twice about granting opportunities for future uppity Ellisons.
It’s doubtful that The Sterling North Society will recognize this calumny, but this is despicable racism by any measure. A dive into North’s past also reveals So Dear to My Heart, a 1948 film adaptation of North’s Midnight and Jeremiah that reveled in Uncle Tom representations of African-Americans.
North’s full review of The Invisible Man can be read below:
Two years ago, I wrote a short story about police brutality that proved too controversial for any literary journal to publish. In the wake of recent shootings, I have decided to publish the story here in the hopes that it will help a few readers to come to understanding about our current American nightmare and find a few solutions.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two years ago, in response to the senseless deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the abusive hands of the police, I wrote what turned out to be a highly controversial short story called “To Serve and Protect.” It was my effort to portray the institutional trappings that perpetuate racism, police brutality, and our endemic gun culture. I submitted the story to several literary journals. All rejected it. While many of these outlets praised the story, the editors were greatly unnerved by the story’s hard truths. One editor informed me that she didn’t want to alienate her readers. And as my story made the rounds at a snail’s crawl, there were more murders, needless murders, of innocent and unarmed men by the police all around the nation. In the past week, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile also lost their lives, their final moments recorded in harrowing video that will numb and horrify anyone who is human. And that wasn’t all. Last night, five police officers were killed by snipers during a Dallas protest against police brutality. Clearly, the problem that I was attempting to dramatize isn’t going away. Clearly, the literary world is a timid and gutless bunch when it comes to publishing fiction that provokes and reflects the realities of our time. What is especially shocking to me is that, while I have not changed my story in any way, every sentence still applies. I cannot stay silent about the headlines any longer. So I have decided to publish my story here, with the hope that it might help at least a few readers to make sense and find solutions to the terrible American nightmare. Silence is not an option when it comes to stopping racism and violence. It’s on us to confront the ugly realities — through peace, art, and action — that cause these pointless plagues to endure.
* * *
We left the nigger’s body rotting on the dark and filthy asphalt for four hours as we swatted away the flies swirling around the exit wounds in drunken loops. The insects hoped to plug their thin trunks into six fresh holes spilling out the nigger’s once young blood, which dried into the baking black cracks, absorbing the funhouse light of our whirling sirens. You chided us for hitching the yellow tape into your front yards, but we can’t fulfill our duties if we don’t stretch the perimeter of a crime scene into your personal space. We asked you to move back as you lashed out with rubber necks and flimsy accusations. We enforced curfew so you wouldn’t kill yourselves and you scolded us for not calling the paramedics fast enough. You aligned yourselves with the helicopter journalists after we threw those pesky gnats into vans and cells and any space we could call prison when they pressed past the limits of their credentials and tried churning their tyro familiarity with our precinct into a national story. You never saw the fear that clouded inside the whites of our eyes.
Not that we’d let you.
Modern policing demands the deafening squelch of our sound cannons when you won’t heed our crystal-clear commands through the speakers. We are the ones in control. Not you. We crank up our warnings because your ears choose to deafen.
The nigger wasn’t armed, or maybe he was. Maybe it was a gun we couldn’t find. Maybe it was the half-melted Hershey’s bar we found buried in his hoodie pocket or the burner phone lodged in the seat of his jeans. The evidence will show that we had to take the nigger down, that he was a credible threat, and all this will wash out your social media speculations. We are working with the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Highway Patrol, any old coot with a badge pushing his beak into our jurisdiction. We will never have our men found guilty. We have the President of the United States, the Governor, and the Mayor all on our side. We can produce videos, radio scanner chatter, logs, reports, just about anything needed for a slam-dunk case. We will respond to your sunshine requests, but you must understand that it will take time for our overworked and underpaid staff to sift through your poorly worded entreaties. And by the time you get the docs you so desperately crave, it will be too late. Our first priority is to keep the community safe.
We asked the nigger to cooperate, but he wouldn’t raise his hands in the air. Dig all you want into the back story of the two primary officers involved. Why do you think we gave you their names? We know when whiny lions need measly scraps to chew on. We can assure you that every member of our department hoped the nigger would adhere to our request and step peacefully into our protective arms. The tape will show that our voices did not quaver or waver once when we crooned through our bullhorns. We were calm and professional and the nigger told us to fuck off. He cited an institution abolished 150 years ago, but we’ve read our history and we know that we’re on the right side. The nigger told us that he was tired of being harassed and that he would never be questioned or taken in. And he started waving his arms and jumping up and down, which is something you should never do in front of boys in blue. It was a common tale we see all the time: a terrified man hiding behind bold talk and false bluster. So we shot him. Because we never look in the mirror. All told, it took about two seconds. Happens all the time. If you were walking in our lead brogans and you saw that the devil had something more than fight or flight to offer the universe, wouldn’t you make the same call? Are you up on this year’s statistics? Do you have any real idea how many niggers have reached into their pockets to shoot our guys? And don’t give us that old song and dance about banning firearms or limiting our supplies. We know the Constitution (including the Thirteenth Amendment) as well as the local criminal codes, but there’s only enough room to enforce one canon. We’re here because you couldn’t form a well-regulated militia to save your hides. You’re so busy shooting up your families and blowing up stores that you never notice the bullets hurled our way as we’re trying to help you. So we’re the ones who take the rap and the crap. Look at it from our perspective. If we let one nigger walk away, then all of you will. And, yes, contrary to your racial profiling conspiracies, we’d let a dumb cracker who won’t show us his ID expire in the street the same way. There are monkeys of every color on the rainbow and they all need to learn how to behave.
So now that the nigger is dead, what do you want us to do? Stop our operations? String up the guilty parties in front of the central precinct? You don’t want to work with us and we don’t want to work with you. We know you’ll always view us as grim grunts lusting over the next 1033 shipment from the Beltway. You think our cocks harden over the wet dream of rushing into a broken hood with fresh Hummers. Well, if we were so committed to shooting tear gas at you at all hours, why do you think we let you steal some of our toys? Sure, there’s some under-the-table income that smooths out our take home pay, but maybe we wanted to give you mouthy cunts a fighting chance. You were the ones who photographed us and shared your slanted stories on YouTube. You call us pigs and crackers (and Oreos and Uncle Toms if we share your shade).
All told, we’ve been pretty fucking forgiving. It isn’t our fault that we have quotas to meet and misdemeanors to invent. We’ve given you plenty of opportunities to wiggle out of a trivial ticket, but you still insist that you’re better, even as you slip up and give us lip. Do you want this to become Detroit? How long would you uppity fuckers last if we left the streets? If you think we’re putting down our guns and letting you animals take over our turf after we’ve managed to make a few blocks safe over fifteen patient years, then we’ve got a subprime mortgage for you to sign. By all means, shoot yourselves up with semiautomatics. If you’re going to shoot someone, why not kill all the bankers? Get the city council to pay one of our officers more than thirty-five thou a year and we wouldn’t have to take any…
…time before I punch out, as soon as I squared away the next shift with the sarge. Eight years of this shit and the gray was debuting at the top of my chops and my heavy body was coming home more sore with the shellacking each night. Chasing down suspects, perp walks executed with a more elaborate show, more time testing out the latest from Washington, having to fire back shots more and more as the crime rate soared and we were busting our asses to beat the CompStat numbers and our computers malfunctioned and the paperwork rose in tall rough impossible towers. Fiddling thumbs before the door, watching the sarge lurch left, right, left, right, as a burly suspect was two minutes away from confessing to a crime he never committed, the good cop burning the sin into his brain with a bullshit plea bargain from the Frank Castle playbook. Empty squares on the shift sheet staring back, the texts coming in from the wife, who was waiting, like me, to know when I had free time.
“Tomorrow,” said the sarge. “Collect your car at midnight.”
The kid’s shift. Rodriguez, that hotshot flyboy who’d only been here two years. He called in a favor. The way I once did before they tilted their ears to the new blood. That gave me eight hours to unwind, including sleep. I’d supported Gibson and Jiminez when they shot up that unarmed kid. Fingers were itching harder these days. No more apprentice period. Small wonder that the community we tried to defend didn’t trust us anymore.
I checked my gear into the locker. In desperate need of a shower, but I never hit the stalls with these guys. They’re still shaking off the sticky dregs of rapid-fire indignities doled out by the top brass when they can’t type out their reports on time or they don’t meet the daily quota. The same eyes that size up a crime scene have a way of searing into you. I can’t even count the times that something I’ve muttered in a stressful haze gets recalled by another grunt fond of chewing out my ass when the captain calls us in for a new sting.
Sure, I’ll meet the boys for basketball and barbeques and donuts. Never in bars. I know other cops get off on walking behind a 7-11 counter and grabbing the greasy pot that’s been rusting there for hours and hours. They fill up their Styrofoam cups of shady joe without paying a dime. That’s never been my way. These guys mark their territory because there’s nobody waiting at home. You learn who the lonely ones are because you forge tight bonds fast, especially if you want to survive. The endless stream of code and calm crackling through the radio leaves little time for jokes, unless, by some miracle, you’re ahead on the calls. But the never-ending pace doesn’t halt the young hungry fucks, the ones hungering for a detective badge, from nipping at your battered heels.
I’m a good cop compared to most of these animals. But even good cops lose their cool and take out their shit on a casual scumbag. You don’t rat out your peers, not if you want to live tomorrow. You look the other way and hope that the other guy softens over time.
I don’t take bribes, but I will take gifts. I stick within my salary. I take the old lady out for dinner at the seafood place once a year on her birthday, but we do have two kids and that sucks up expenses. It’s hard enough to come home and not beat the brats within an inch of their lives for something that has nothing to do with them. I don’t know what’s harder. Keeping expenses within your frugal budget or never blowing up. But it’s too late to change. By the time my youngest hits eighteen, I’ll be well past the age for a graceful career change.
I never would have had this life if I hadn’t walked into a donut shop one foggy morning. I helped nab one of those scam artists who target the dopey guys working the register. The fucker was a big man with long dreads grown from some reggae obsession lasting longer than an old fuck’s Reader’s Digest subscription. I watched the scammer lay into the register guy, claiming he never got change back from his twenty. He came in during the rush, scoping out the place to make sure it was understaffed. There are better ways to squeeze ten bucks out of a dummy, but his crime was so small time that nobody wanted to step in. Nobody wants to do anything anymore. But I saw the whole thing. The bastard had to be stopped. So I grabbed his arms and slammed his head onto the counter and told him that I was making a citizen’s arrest. The dopey guy behind the counter called the cops. The whole donut shop cheered me on, telling me that I was a hero, telling me that they wished they had my courage because the scammer was a big man with the kind of presence that suggests homicidal intent. It was the last time anyone told me that I did a good job, that I had a place in life. I told the detective everything: the crooked slant of the scammer’s upper teeth, the faint scar he had on his chin, the suspicious boom of his voice, the banged up Chevy Beretta with its dopey diagonal frame. He laughed, fired up two cigarettes, passed me one, and said I’d be a good cop. I called the recruitment line. The rest is my sad personal history.
We hate ourselves. We go to bed angry and wake up angrier the next morning. If we could blow our collective brains out, we would. We’re so wiped out at the end of the day. It’s an exhaustion most of you can only dream about.
Yes, we shot the nigger. We aren’t going to deny that. But we became the niggers of the workforce a long fucking time ago. There’s no escaping our destiny. We’ll go on killing niggers until the captain gives us the bright gold watch and sends our spent and battered husks to Florida. There’s no room for idealism in this job. If you want uplift, join a glee club.
The one thing that keeps us going is our responsibility to stub out crime, to do the best we can. But sooner or later, you come to understand that everyone is a criminal. And while you can check in your brain and keep your head down and wonder how the years rolled by so fast, we have to endure the riffraff and live with the burden of too much authority. But we’ll keep on going. We’ll keep on going because our mission is to serve and protect.
The Brooklyn latte fiction genre tends to avoid important questions in American life, but Jean Love Cush’s new (and needlessly ignored) novel, ENDANGERED, shows how a provocative premise can stir the reader into feeling something more than indifference about vital issues taken for granted.
There are petulant Caucasians who stretch out their soft, unfettered, and upper middle-class hands for the gluten-free, vegan muffins at their cozy corner bakery when they’re not waiting for the afternoon dacha trip to stave off the high stress of a Tuesday morning hot yoga session. And then there is the rest of America: those who try to make ends meet with a minimum wage job and little more than a high school education, families crowded inside small apartments who go to bed with the nightly reports of gunfire, and young African-Americans who cannot run into a cop without being handed some bogus rap (and, in the case of Eric Garner, killed for wanting to be left alone). One world remains blissfully unaware of the other. The other world must contend with its stories being excised from mainstream culture, even as it must stifle its anger at being marginalized or erased altogether from vital conversations.
The book, set just after Obama’s inauguration, centers around a fifteen-year-old boy in Philadelphia named Malik Williams who, like any black kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, is arrested because he vaguely matches the general description of a homicide suspect. Malik’s mother, Janae, who works as a cafeteria worker, tries to rescue her son between work stints she is barely able to reduce to half-shifts. She cannot afford an attorney who can offer the appropriate defense on her meager salary. The prosecution wishes to try Malik as an adult. Malik’s story is picked up by the media, who wishes to spin his narrative into a fearful vision of cities gripped by violence, complete with armchair academics insisting that trying children as adults is the only way to combat the problem. (On this point and many others, Cush is dead on. It is quite easy to find these specious arguments for “responsibility” if you poke around FOX News.) As Janae becomes a more uncomfortably visible participant in her son’s story, she comes to understand how the media has built a regressive belief culture on racial bias:
As a young girl, she’d come to believe that it was black men who committed all the crimes. They were the ones who were identified in the news stories by the anchors and reporters she’d trusted. Even when a news story left out the racial description, it was easy to fill in the blank and assume the perpetrator was black because of how many other times the bad guy was identified was black. Now, Janae knew that the images she saw on the news, the stories they chose to report on, and even the news angle had more to do with the story the reporter wants to tell or the agenda of the network than a deep-seated passion to get at the truth.
In a nod to Richard Wright’s Boris Max, Cush introduces Roger Whitford, a prominent white human rights attorney who helps Janae with her case. But there is also Calvin Moore, a black attorney who worked his way into a big firm out of the ghetto, blackmailed by one of the partners into becoming involved in the case “that we cannot have any part of because of the potential fallout from it.” Both Whitford and Moore work under the guise of the Center for the Protection of Human Rights, a controversial organization offering the provocative thesis that the Endangered Species Act should be extended to black boys, under the theory that nearly every statistic shows that young blacks are fated to be massacred.
Many of the stats that Cush conveys through her characters can actually be backed up. Last October, The Sentencing Project submitted a harrowing report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, revealing that one in three African American males born today can expect to find themselves in prison at any given time in their lives. The report (PDF) cited black youth’s disproportionate incarceration. Blacks are 16% of all American children, yet make up 28% of juvenile arrests. According to the report, which relied on government statistics and academic scholarship, this unpardonable disparity cannot be pegged solely on poverty and a higher crime rate. Implicit racial bias, predicated upon overworked cops making impulsive decisions and the majority of our nation associating African-Americans with such modifiers as “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal,” is also to blame.
So there’s something refreshingly risky and necessary in Cush unpacking her Endangered Species Act premise. In fact, the idea is not unique to Cush. In 2012, D.L. Hughley made a mockumentary (see clip above) in which he lobbied to declare African-Americans an endangered species. In February 2014, Wayne Brady was courageous enough to declare that “the young black man is becoming an endangered species.” Like caustic headlines from The Onion, perhaps these dialogues in comedy and in fiction presage real events.
But the concept also means comparing young African-Americans to animals — a prospect that Janae isn’t especially thrilled about and one that bears uncomfortable resonances to Anthony Cumia’s racist Twitter tirade and 911 operator April Sims’s similarly atavistic sentiments. The suggestion here is that pursuing a severe protective measure for blacks in response to escalating violence could involve playing into the remaining racist sentiments held by those in power.
Endangered is not a perfect book. It is riddled with some undercooked prose (“It was as if fire had darted from her eyes and mouth and singed the hell out of him” and beads of sweat used too often as a shorthand description for tension). But the book crackles with challenging considerations one does not often see in contemporary fiction and is greatly helped by the undeniable momentum of its thrilling story, even if its socially conscious melodrama results in some extraordinary conduct by a judge late in the book. Nevertheless, Endangered is a truer, braver, and more emotional novel than most of the lumpy oatmeal pumped out of the Brooklyn bourgie mill. I would rather read a slightly flawed yet highly visceral book going for broke than another myopic and overly praised entry in the Brooklyn latte genre, and I suspect so would most of America.
In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin, why do so many young black men continue to die? Why are we doomed to repeat a savage American cycle? Jesmyn Ward’s new memoir, MEN WE REAPED, tries to answer this dilemma by looking into how five needless deaths, including her own brother;s, informed her own life. Our 40 minute conversation looks into how stories can get people to care, enduring racism, defending yourself, and why mediocre white culture keeps getting a pass.
Subjects Discussed: Adorable literary babies, the notion of “home” in Mississippi, the Delta Blues, Big K.R.I.T., having a very large extended family, environments that foster great art, Kiese Laymon, why culture demands engagement, Mississippi being dead last in statistics, statistics vs. stories, W.E.B. du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness,” Ward seeing her mother in another context, emotional associations from phrases in languages, “soda” vs. “pop” vs. “cold drank,” Southern language, how the world is prerigged against the poor and the black, having to settle for “live” instead of “live good,” losing early optimism, Ward losing her brother, embracing fatalism and nihilism, C.J. becoming convinced that he would die young, young men who can’t envision a future, finding hope while living in an impoverished world, coming to an understanding of grief, how family and community are elastic and intertwined, finding hope in future generations through memories, Ward’s mother, paying it forward, people who don’t have food in the house, comparisons between Daddy in Salvage the Bones and how Ward wrote about her father in Men We Reaped, how memoir creates additional need which transcends fiction, the difficulties of fictionalizing complicated people, the advantages of creative nonfiction, human contradictions, Ward’s martial arts skills, training with nunchaku and swords, being bullied by racist kids, finding ways of defending yourself when you’re outnumbered, fight or flight, being attacked by a pit bull, suffering from low self-esteem, turning to alcohol to cope, avoiding writing about writing, how to contend with grief when the public playground has been officially designated as a graveyard, the government shutdown, why people care more about baby pandas at the National Zoo than poor people who need food, David Simon, The Wire, journalism vs. storytelling, mediocre white artists who appropriate the best of black culture, shying away from true engagement, white people in the literary world who get a privileged pass, when the Other has to soften itself for white consumption, timid Goodreads reviewers, Mitchell S. Jackson, response to writers of color, “designated” African-American authors, Ward’s difficulty with the telephone, receiving terrible news, and finding the bravery to take in difficult communication.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I want to get into this incident late in the book where you describe being bullied by racist kids. There’s one moment after they crack some really terrible quip about lynching you where you say, “You ain’t going to do nothing.” And these kids, they just dissemble. They just disappear. They have nothing to say after that. And it’s this fascinating moment, particularly when we’re looking at this other incident with this kid Topher, who was verbally pulverizing you. And the teacher’s just standing there not willing to acknowledge the racist language. You write about how the kids, some of whom were your friends, “they never took up for me, for Black people, when I was in the room.” And throughout this book, you don’t let yourself off the hook. I mean, you write about how you were scared to walk through certain neighborhoods. You write about how your little brother, two years younger, had more courage in a certain situation. And so when we’re talking of this notion of self-defense, I have to ask you, Jesmyn, what do you think it was that caused you to not only stand up to these kids, but also do something that either the other black kids in the school couldn’t do? That’s something that was extraordianrily rare, especially because you’re not exactly the most extroverted person in the world.
Correspondent: So what do you think it was that caused you to really get these kids rightfully off of your back?
Ward: I don’t really know. Especially because, before then and even afterwards, I wasn’t very good at taking up for myself. And I think that part of that was informed by the fact that I had really low self-esteem. Because I feel like the world, and also what I saw in my community, had taught me the wrong things about what it meant to be black and poor and a woman in the South. And so I had awful self-esteem. But I don’t know. There was something about that moment — maybe because they were so overt and there were so many of them. It was a pretty large group. Six, seven boys. And they were so much older than I was. You know, I was really young when that happened. I was in seventh or eighth grade and they were upperclassmen.
Correspondent: So they were much taller too.
Ward: Much taller than I was.
Correspondent: Were they pretty muscular?
Ward: Some of them were. So I think that it was a moment where I was so clearly outnumbered and overpowered that maybe it was partly motivated by instinct, right? Fight or flight. And, for once, my response wasn’t just to leave or passively endure it. It was to actually fight. So I think a lot of it was driven by instinct. So I just came out and said it. “You ain’t going to do nothing to me. It’s not going down like that.”
Correspondent: Why do you think these instincts could only come out during certain moments? I mean, you’ve clearly had a fairly remarkable life of getting out of this situation. But what do you think it was that encouraged those instincts to come out at the right moments? Because of course, they came out at the most damaging moments as well.
Ward: Well, I think maybe the situation was so — you know, I said in that moment that the odds were really against me. I was clearly overpowered. Clearly outnumbered. And then my response was to fight in that moment. But then it also makes me think about when I was attacked by that pit bull, right? Clearly the dog is very much stronger than me. Has more weapons than I have. It would have been very easy for me to come out worse in that situation than I did. But in that moment, I chose to fight. That that was my instinctual response, right? That I fought. In both of those instances. And I think maybe in certain situations like that, that they’re the kind of situations that are so severe that the part of me that had the problem with low self-esteem, right? Of course, it’s the part that overthunk everything and that overprocessed everything. So that here in these moments, there’s no opportunity to think. All I could do was react. So my reaction in those moments was to fight. So maybe that’s why. These are these moments where the part of me that has low self-esteem can’t think about it and can’t process that moment in that way. So then I just react without thinking. And that’s what happens.
Correspondent: There is something interesting in that pit bull incident. There’s a sentence you write where you say, “The long scar in my head feels like a thin plastic cocktail straw, and like all war wounds, it itches.” And in light of how you went through this period of drinking, I’m wondering how long it took for you to make this connection between surviving a war and, with the cocktail straw, turning to drink in this effort to cope, in this effort to deal with the pain and to combat this low self-esteem.
Ward: It took me a long time. You know, I don’t think that I began to realize the way that I was turning to alcohol in order to deal with what I’d been through. Probably I began to realize that while I was at Michigan. While I was in New York, and I was doing the drinking when I said I was buying bottles of rum and basically just drinking them with a little bit of sugar. I didn’t realize it then. And I think that was from 2003, so I was in the throes of it. But it wasn’t until around 2006. Because I began to drink alone. And that’s when it suddenly hit me. Like what I was. Because I would drink alone and then I would become very depressed and very moody. And I would act out. And, see, before whenever I’d done that sort of drinking, I had roommates. I lived with other people. We were out in social situations. So I didn’t really think about it. But there was something about beginning to drink alone that made me suddenly begin to draw those conclusions between what I’d gone through and how I was responding to it and how I was basically self-medicating with alcohol.
Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that you don’t really get into the beginning of your writing in this memoir. It comes from the exact same impulses as this kind of self-medicating, as this drinking, as this effort to combat terror, fear, low self-esteem. And I’m wondering if it’s even possible for you to even write about the beginning of how writing brought you out of this and allowed you to really manage these emotions more effectively.
Ward: I don’t know why I didn’t really speak more about it in the book or write more about that in the book. I don’t really know. I’ve spoken about it before. I sometimes speak to different universities and I have a speech that I usually give where I actually talk about how I came to writing and how committing to writing, for me, was really a response to the grief that I felt when I lost my brother.
Correspondent: Yes. But it’s compartmentalized, I think. Which I find really interesting.
Ward: I don’t really know why I didn’t address it more in the book. Maybe because I was afraid of shifting that focus maybe away from the young men. And maybe I was nervous about whether or not I could write about it and still sustain maybe the pace and the tension in the narrative, in the memoir. So maybe that’s what was going on.
Correspondent: You had your own problem of [W.E.B. du Bois’s] “double consciousness.”
Ward: Yes! Yes!
Correspondent: That’s interesting. I do want to get into the way that you describe the land of the community, which is extremely fascinating. You point out that the parks, the public parks, are designated as the graveyards in the future. This is going to be the burial site for people who will die in the future. And you openly begin to wonder, “Well, is it possible to stave off this transformation from the life of the playground to the death of the grave?” You write, “The grief we bear along with all the other burdens of our lives, all our other losses, sinks us until we find ourselves in a red, sandy grave.” Yet near the end of the book, when you’re talking about your brother, you are very candid about grief having this limitless life span. So how do you deal with grief when you know that you’re also trying to work away at that buffer that’s going to turn the playground into the graves? I mean, you have to champion life. You have to fend off these forces, both societal and beahvioral, that are trying to deaden all this wonder that surrounds you. So how do you think about grief when you’re very well aware of what’s going to happen?
Ward: Well, I guess that the way that I think about that is that the grief, that’s something that I can’t change. That’s something that is here and that I have to live with everyday. But I think that what I’m attempting to do is to use that grief to really fuel this endeavor, right? The writing of the book. And then also the conversations that I have around the book with different people. So that hopefully in having these conversations, and talking about all these pressures that the grief and the sense of fear and failure that permeates life for so many of the people, that talking about these things is the first step to admitting that there is this problem. Yes, we are all living with this grief. And, yes, we are trying to survive these unbearable pressures. But I’m hoping that if we talk about them, and bring them out into the open and admit that there is a problem involved and exists, then we can begin to be more conscious about our lives, about the actions that we take, how we react to these larger pressures. So that maybe we can begin to change things, right? And to think of concrete ways that we can change things. And I haven’t gotten there yet. Whenever someone asks me “So what can we do?” my only answer so far is that, okay, first we just need to talk about it. We need to enter this conversation that’s happening across the country about race and about young black people dying and about poverty and socioeconomic inequality. If we begin to talk about these things, then maybe we can get to a point where we can come up with concrete workable solutions.
Correspondent: I wonder why small biographies, piecemeal chapters of people who have needlessly lost their lives, almost seems to be the only way to discuss this problem these days. I mean, we don’t want to look at the vast tapestry. We don’t want to all the moving parts. And it gets to be a bit of a headache. If you care at all, you know, it’s going to bog you down. I mean, right now, we’re talking right when the government is going to shut down. And what’s really bizarre about all this is that people are concerned not so much about the fact that these food programs that feed the poor are going to go out, not so much with the Library of Congress closing, not so much with military servicemen, who are living day-to-day, not getting their paychecks. They’re more concerned about these baby pandas at the National Zoo. What do you think we can do to get people on the level of baby pandas? You know what I mean?
Ward: You know, I think that when I wrote the book, and especially when I wrote each chapter about the young men — you know, their lives and their deaths. That’s something that I was trying to affect. Because even if given a chapter, and some of those chapters are short. They’re shorter. If given a chapter, I can make these young men as authentically alive and complicated and unique as I can on the page. Like I’m going to really develop their characters and develop them well enough so that the reader, when encountering these young men — instead of these young men being statistics, they’re actually human beings. They’re actually people. And they can sympathize with them. Then I will have accomplished something. Then suddenly the young man becomes the panda, right? Because we care about them. And so I think that maybe that’s part of it. Because we encounter the numbers all the time, right? And I think it was David Simon that said something like that before. I think he was being interviewed about The Wire, right? And I think the interview was asking him about the difference between the work that he’d done in journalism as a writer and then the work that he was doing as a writer. And he was saying that there’s power in the story. He felt that when he was a journalist that he was trying to communicate the same facts, the facts that he’s trying to communicate in The Wire. But as a journalist, they weren’t causing any change. They weren’t getting through. They weren’t making people care in the way that they care about the pandas. Yet when he worked on The Wire, he was able to reach a wider audience to get that audience to care about the same kind of issues that he was concerned about when he was a journalist. So I think it really is in the power of the story — even if you only have a little bit of space, just using that space as effectively as you can to make these stories real.
Correspondent: Sure. But don’t you think there’s a disconnect between, for example, Trayvon Martin. Everybody is sympathetic to that story.
Correspondent: And I marched with a bunch of people here in New York. And it was marvelous. At the time. But ultimately this doesn’t effect policy. It doesn’t actually get things to change. And even with the people who cared about The Wire, inevitably we go into the same corrupt governmental institutions. It seems to me that the only option is to either amp up the number of storytellers to get people to care or there needs to be some drastic change in the way the American mind thinks. And I’m wondering. Do you have any ideas on this?
Ward: I mean, that’s a really difficult question to answer. I think that there should be more storytellers and I think that the stories that are out there, they need more volume. I think that these stories, that’s what we need to be discussing instead of discussing the Kardashians. You know what I’m saying?
Correspondent: I agree.
Ward: That’s the discussion that we need to be having. Those are the stories that we need to be invested in. And the people that we need to be invested in need to not be so concerned with vapid celebrity culture. Because that doesn’t get us anywhere. That doesn’t foster the kind of large-scale change that we need in the American government with policymakers.
When it comes to examining vicious crime, it remains a common practice among American journalists and the general public to ignore the story once the suspect has been apprehended or the verdict has been delivered. We want our deadliest realities to confined away from us, sight unseen. But an astute human observer understands that resolution is never quite this tidy and criminals are not always reformed. Human lives continue. One monster’s acts will have consequences upon another life, often creating sharp yet silent obstacles that are too piercing to discuss.
Thankfully a new documentary, Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, offers a rare angle that defies these conventional narrative trappings and attempts to tackle this wider canvas. The film focuses upon recent efforts to bring Edgar Ray Killen — an ex-Ku Klux Klan organizer who helped organize the vicious 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi — to justice. As the film is swift to observe (indeed, sometimes too swift), the ugly scab from this aftermath remains a painful eyesore that the Neshoba County residents haven’t entirely come to terms with. When, in 2004, a group of outraged citizens demands reopening the case upon the 40th anniversary of the killings, the documentary suggests a dichotomy between this multiracial coalition and predominantly white citizens who wish to bury this ignoble history. “What’s happened has happened,” says one man. “It’s been too many years,” says another. “I think he’s suffered enough.” (This latter statement, suggesting the idea that Killen’s ongoing “suffering” is worth more than the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer, mirrors another of the movie’s hypotheses — that, had not two white Jewish kids been killed among the three, the murders would not have received national attention.) Certainly after Killen’s conviction, the then 80-year-old had enough support within the community to raise $600,000 for an appeal bond — a development that the filmmakers skim over. Indeed, one of this documentary’s curious qualities is that it never quite captures the violent sting of the 1964 murders. But if the movie is making a good faith effort to chronicle the present atmospheric aftermath, perhaps this is just as it should be.
Killen himself features quite prominently in this documentary, which centers itself mostly around the reopened trial. And Killen’s stature as an entitled monster, along with his crazed rants about the illusory Jewish Communist conspiracy, make for fascinating viewing. Killen is so ostensibly religious that he has placards of the Ten Commandments spoked into his lawn. And despite his clearly racist fulminations, he insists that he’s not a Jew hater. But the film is ballsy enough to suggest that this vicious cycles often continue in unanticipated ways. Among its prodigious roster of talking heads include several family members and relations to the victims — one of whom calls out for Killen’s blood in a manner not dissimilar from the hate speech that Killen and his collaborators are so fond of. While Killen must be punished for his crimes, there’s an important question here of whether one becomes just as savage as a homicidal white supremacist when howling for blood. Western civilization, as Gandhi once quipped, would be a pretty good idea.
So while this documentary is sometimes quite pedestrian in its assembly (collected interviews, dusty archival footage, perfunctory vox populi interviews), it has the great advantage of being caught within the shoals of an important story.
Correspondent: You are careful to write, “Harvard’s importance in eugenics does not imply some nefarious scheme or even a mean-spirited ambiance. Rather, Harvard’s import in this story attests to the scholarly respectability of eugenic ideas at the time.”
Painter: And that could be said about Princeton or Yale or any of the other lofty institutions.
Correspondent: But it is curious to me. I mean, if we recognize today [Robert] Yerkes and [William] Ripley’s stuff as “junk science” essentially, why at the time were these ideas so respected? Why did some of these people get tenured at Harvard?
Correspondent: I mean, it couldn’t have just been Harvard’s prestige. It had to be something else, I suppose.
Painter: Well, we’re talking about what was considered good science at the time. That was the knowledge that our culture needed at the time. And, after all, Ripley consulted all sorts of authorities. European authorities, American authorities, and so forth. So he had a really big bibliography and he followed the rules.
Correspondent: If someone attempted something along those lines today, I guess the Internet would kill it, I suppose.
Painter: Not necessarily. If it were something that we all agreed upon. Like, for instance, we’re seeing in the medical field right now. Recently, I read a report in the New York Times by a doctor saying there’s just too many prostrate cancer screenings. But a year or so ago, that was considered good science to have everybody screened. So things change.
Correspondent: I wanted to talk about Emerson, who you really take to task in this book. You devote a whole chapter to English Traits.
Painter: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters.
Correspondent: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters. But English Traits seems to be the one key text with which the…
Painter: It is the key text for this reason.
Correspondent: Yeah. But I just wanted to ask you about this. You note later in the book that Henry Ford was an admirer of English Traits.
Correspondent: But in the book that you cited from — because I was really curious about this – Neil Baldwin’s Henry Ford and the Jews. Baldwin notes that it was Emerson’s essay, “Compensation,” that Ford favored above all else. And he even handed that out as as gifts. And that essay doesn’t contain any reference to race. You also state that Theodore Roosevelt echoes the phrase “hideous brutality” in English Traits. But in English Traits, Emerson uses the word “hideous” only once, in reference to the injustice of pauperism. And granted, there are issues with pauperism related to the Saxon seed, which we had mentioned earlier. But I just want to ask. Because I don’t disagree with you that Emerson’s views on the Irish, his drawing upon Robert Knox — these are problematic.
Painter: Yeah. I’m not saying that Emerson is a bad man. But I’m saying that Emerson, because of his importance in American culture, by focusing on these themes and presenting them, orchestrating them in his impeccable prose, made it acceptable. So it’s not that I’m castigating Emerson. I’m trying to place him in an intellectual theme.
Correspondent: But in the case of Henry Ford drawing more upon “Compensation,” say, than English Traits, that’s where I was — my question mark went up.
Painter: But we’re doing Henry Ford — what? Sixty, seventy years after Emerson.
Correspondent: Yeah. Well, the other thing too is picking and choosing one’s values from Emerson. Like Ralph Ellison, for example. He was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Correspondent: And actually took a lot from the transcendentalists.
Painter: Oh, there’s a lot of Emerson. Emerson’s an extraordinary figure. And one who his contemporaries said embodies the whole of American learning. And to a certain extent, he did.
Correspondent: But going back to the question or relativism. Can he be let off the hook somewhat simply because he was, in part, an abolitionist? Maybe he didn’t go all the way, but…
Painter: No. We’re talking about different things.
Painter: We’re talking about different things. Because he had one set of views, this doesn’t change what we think about another set of views. You can still respect Emerson for his central role in the American Renaissance and still know about his Saxonism.
Here is a listing of racist incidents involving United States Senators presently in office:
BENNETT, ROBERT F. (R — UT)
On March 13, 1998, during investigations pertaining to the 1996 Presidential Campaign, Sen. Bennett remarked, “I stepped in and said, `No. I have owned a business in Asia. I have done business in Asia. Charlie Trie’s actions are the typical actions of an Asian businessman.'” (CSPAN — video and transcript)
BOXER, BARBARA (D — CA)
On July 16, 2009, at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, Sen. Boxer was speaking to Harry Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce (an organization that Boxer confused with the NAACP), when the following exchange occured:
Boxer: Then we’re going to put the NAACP resolution that passed saying this: The NAACP approved a historic resolution addressing climate change legislation for the first time in the organization’s history.
Alford: What does that mean?
Boxer: Sir, we’re gonna put that in the record, and you can read it cuz I don’t have the time, but I’ll read the rest-
Alford: What does that mean though? I mean, the NAACP has a resolution. What does that mean?
Boxer: Sir, they could say the same thing about what do you mean? I’m just telling you they passed it-
Alford: I’ve got documentation!
Boxer: Sir, they passed it. Now, also, if that isn’t interesting to you, we’ll quote John Grant who is the CEO of A Hundred Black Men of Atlanta. Quote: Clean energy is the key that will unlock millions of jobs, and the NAACP’s support is vital to ensuring that those jobs help to rebuild urban areas. So clearly there is a diversity of opinion.
Alford: Madame Chair-
Boxer: If I can-
Alford: -that is condescending to me.
Alford: I’m the National Black Chamber of Commerce-
Boxer: If this- if this-
Alford: -and you’re trying to put up some other black group up to pit against me.
Boxer: If this gentleman- if this gentleman were here, he would be proud that he was being quoted. Just as-
Alford: He should have been invited.
Boxer: Just as- He would be proud-
Alford: It is condescending to me.
Boxer: Just as so- Just so you know, he would be proud that you were here. He is proud I am sure-
Alford: Proud, proud (bitterly and contemptuously).
Boxer: -that I am quoting him.
Alford: All that’s condescending-
Boxer: Well, Sir.
Alford: -and I don’t like it. It’s racial.
Boxer: What’s racial?
Alford: I don’t like it.
Boxer: Excuse me, Sir.
Alford: I take offense to it.
Alford: As an African-American and a veteran of this country, I take offense to that.
Boxer: Offense at the fact that I would quote-
Alford: You’re quoting some other black man. Why don’t you quote some other-
On July 10, 1997, when questioning a witness about a reward from Asian-Americans that Democratic fundraiser John Huang was to receive, Sen. Brownback remarked, “No raise money, no get bonus.” (USA Today, Seattle Times)
BUNNING, JIM (R — KY)
At a March 20, 2004 Republican event, Jim Bunning stated that his opponent, Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. (USA Today, Associated Press)
BYRD, ROBERT (D — WV)
“Senator Byrd quit the Klan in the 1940s and has renounced it since. On the other hand, his history is worth revisiting, since it’s something Democrats have been willing to tolerate, despite Lott-like remarks that would have ended a Republican’s career. Only last year Mr. Byrd told Fox News that ‘there are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time, if you want to use that word. But we all–we all–we just need to work together to make our country a better country and I–I’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.'” (Wall Street Journal)
COBURN, TOM (R — OK)
During the July hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Sen. Coburn impersonated Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, saying, “You have lots of ‘splaining to do!” (YouTube clip and The New York Times)
CORKER, BOB (R — TN)
During his 2006 campaign, Sen. Corker used fears of interracial relationships and stereotypes against his opponent, Harold Ford, who was African-American. “Harold Ford looks nice,” says one African-American woman, “isn’t that enough?” “I met Harold at the Playboy party,” says a scantily clad white woman. (Truthdig with video clip)
GRAHAM, LINDSEY (R — SC)
During the health care debates, Sen. Graham argued the following: “I have 12 percent unemployment in South Carolina. My state’s on its knees. I have 31 percent African-American population in South Carolina.” Later in the speech, Sen. Graham said, “My state, with 30 percent African-American citizens, a lot of low income people in South Carolina is going to cost my state a billion dollars, that’s the same old stuff that I object to. That’s not change we can believe in. That’s sleazy.” Rachel Maddow concluded, “The argument here appears to be that Sen. Graham believes it is sleazy to expect a state with lots of black people in it, to have health reform.” (Rachel Maddow video and Raw Story)
MCCAIN, JOHN (R — AZ)
During the 2000 campaign, Sen. McCain told reporters, “I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 2, 2000)
In 1983, as a young congressman, Sen. McCain voted against the recognition of Martin Luther King Day. (ABC News)
In an August 1, 2008 post, Capitol Hill Blue’s Doug Thompson noted additional anecdotal examples of racism. (Capitol Hill Blue)
REID, HARRY (D — NV)
In John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s new book, Game Change Harry Reid stated that Barack Obama could become the first African-American President because he was “light-skinned” and because he did not speak with a “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” (New York Times)
SESSIONS, JEFF (R — AL)
In 1986, Sen. Sessions was rejected from an Alabama judiciary seat by the Senate Judiciary Committee seat. In previous remarks, Sessions had claimed that the NAACP was “un-American,” calling an African-American aide “boy,” and describing a white civil rights attorney as “a disgrace to his race.” Sessions also claimed that Klansmen were “O.K.” until he learned that a few of them smoked pot. (Numerous articles through Meet Jeff Sessions. See also The New Republic.)
SPECTER, ARLAN (D — PA)
Before he switched parties from Republican to Democrat, Sen. Arlen Specter spoke at a November 1, 2008 pro-McCain rally, where he noted “a couple of hidden factors” in the 2008 presidential election: “The first is that people answer pollsters one way, but in the secrecy of the ballot booth, vote the other way.” (Salon)
For more than a week now, people on both sides of the Atlantic have been wondering whether Susan Boyle is a frumpy, middle-aged cipher or someone who actually possesses some skills outside making sandwiches. Fortunately, we here at the New York Times are happy to intellectualize this extremely troubling issue for you. Our demographic data suggests that you are, in all likelihood, a trim, upper middle-class Caucasian. And while these lowly types are getting into our clubs and newspapers, there is now the suggestion that some of us are shallow. I, Pam Belluck, certainly don’t consider myself shallow. I consider myself selective. And I hope to demonstrate with this article that being shallow is an essential survival skill.
Before she sang, Ms. Boyle was one of those people that just about anyone with taste made fun of. The kind of person who might wander into White Castle or enjoy a Seth Rogen film. One of those terrible unsophisticated types who many of us ridicule over a round of golf. The kind of worthless human specimen who we ask to fetch our coffee or to type our letters.
Now, after the video of her performance went viral, a troubling flurry of commentary has focused on whether we should even bother to give the groundlings the limelight. I suppose there are some situations in which, yes, we have to let someone as unappetizing as Ms. Boyle through the velvet rope. After all, a handful of these people seem to have a few special skills, such as tossing grapes into their mouths or juggling chainsaws, and we only find out about these skills by accident. These special skills are quite entertaining, but it’s very important not to talk with these subhumans or express any curiosity in their lives. But if we don’t offer them a token acknowledgment from time to time, then these subhumans will complain that we’re conforming to the prejudices of ageism or look-ism, or whatever these damn things are called these days.
But many social scientists and others who study the science of stereotyping (I don’t have to name names, do I? You do know what I’m talking about, right?) say there are reasons we quickly size people up based on how they look.
On a very basic level, racism and sexism are just something harmless and impersonal, much like deciding whether an animal is a dog or a cat. “Human beings don’t have feelings,” said David Avocado, an assistant professor of eugenics at New York University. “They are essentially pieces of information that we must categorize, and certain types are prioritized as better. There was a brave man in the early 20th century who understood this problem very well. Unfortunately, he went about it in the wrong way.”
Eons ago, this capability involved making decisions that were of life-and-death importance. But even today, humans have the ability to gauge people within seconds. And this can be of great value. Because who knows when a normal-looking person like Ms. Boyle or even some random black guy standing on the corner waiting for a cab might attack you?
“In ancient times, it was important to stay away from people who weren’t friendly or attractive,” said Susan Grant, related to the famed Bronx Zoo pioneer who had the courage to display the subhuman Ota Benga before a crowd. “If we don’t lionize the beautiful people, then how can we possibly enforce the fact that we’re better?”
Grant’s research suggests that those in low or ugly status register differently in the brain. “We’re still working on a way to improve upon phrenology,” said Grant. “We do have to come up with something that seems vaguely plausible to the scientists for a few years.”
But perhaps with the reintroduction of the Malthusian concept of “moral restraint,” we might prevent many of these ugly or lower people from reproducing.
“Susan Boyle is not a problem,” said Professor Avocado. “She is 47 and quite unlikely to have children. She was not brought to public attention until later in life. And people will forget her. History is written by the winners.”