Real lynchings and the worst face of whiteness

When the president likened his impending impeachment to a lynching, several things exploded in my brain. The first explosion was that he has to be trying to distract us from his impending impeachment. The problem there is that he’s a racist and racism is not a distraction. It’s another separate, very real and all too often deadly problem.

The second idea that fired off in my head was that there is no language for his situation. Lynchings were how a white male power structure punished Black people. The president often claims to be a victim of a witch hunt—how a white male power structure punished women. If you are a white male, the power structure that supports you will not punish you. This is not to say white men don’t get punished by a system, just that being white isn’t the cause for their punishment. In other words, white guys don’t get pulled over for being white guys, no political party is trying to take away the white guy vote, etc., on and on, ad infinitum.

The third thought that fired off in my head was about my grandfather, Gus. He was born in 1890, less than 15 miles outside of Waco and he didn’t know any white people. Everyone in his neighborhood, everyone he worked with, everyone at his church and everyone in his family was Black. He only ever even heard about white people when something bad happened.

Between 1882 and 1930 there were 492 recorded lynchings in Texas. In 1916, when Gus was 25 years old, Waco was thought of as a particularly forward-thinking and progressive place. That same year in Waco was when Jesse Washington was lynched.

Jesse was 17 years old and had been accused of raping and murdering his white boss’ white wife. Even though it was probably his white boss who killed her, Jesse was given a “trial” and convicted. Immediately following his conviction, a mob came into the court, wrapped a chain around Jesse’s neck and dragged him outside. They marched Jesse up and down the block while people in the street beat and stabbed him. Then they castrated him. Then he was chained up, his fingers cut off to keep him from climbing the chain. They covered him in oil and raised and lowered him over a fire for two hours, occasionally cutting and stabbing him to keep him conscious. This all happened in front of 10,000 cheering white people. After Jesse eventually died, his body was dragged through the streets and picked apart, teeth and toes and other pieces of his corpse sold as souvenirs. Photos were taken and turned into postcards. Jesse’s lynching would be known all over the country as The Waco Horror.

In the weeks that followed, the newspapers spoke very little of the Waco Horror. When the rare editorial spoke out against the lynching, the response from other editorials called them “Holier than thou.”

That’s what whiteness was to Gus. It wasn’t the innocent mildness that it associates with itself. It wasn’t Donna Reed or Goop. It didn’t give him a heartfelt smile or make him roll his eyes with embarrassment. It wasn’t anything close to innocuous and it certainly wasn’t any kind of victimhood. Whiteness was only what it showed itself to be, and all it ever showed Gus was a ruthless and deliberate and all too often deadly animosity.

Gus died in 1957. So much of the world changed in his lifetime. So much more has changed since, but were he alive today, I think the president would seem very familiar to him.

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Forgiveness is expected (even required) from Black people

When I saw Brandt Jean hug his brother’s killer I felt my face get hot. Rage. Pure. I was in an airport, and since I couldn’t react with the volume I normally would have at home, I just sat with it. Silently. I forced myself to examine my rage. Admittedly, I found that some of that rage was from knowing that as soon as he hugged that murderer, every Black person in America was going to have to deal with at least 2.5 white people saying, “Well, he forgave her, so you should, too/you’re so angry/it’s not that bad/etc.” Somehow, in times of need there is never a shortage of white people to set our examples for us.

Shamefully, some of the rage was at Brandt for not taking the rest of us into account in his decision to publicly embrace a killer. Then I wondered if I was abiding by that very same white supremacist setting of examples. This man should get to grieve however he feels to be necessary. He shouldn’t have to set an example for the rest of America. He shouldn’t have to hold back his compassion because of how it’s perception might affect the rest of us. White people don’t have to worry about that. White people aren’t told to grieve a certain way because of how Black people might perceive it. They have a freedom in their grief.

Then, in thinking about freedom I remembered my father’s letter from George HW Bush.

It was a thank-you letter signed by the dead ex-prez himself. My father got it by donating to Bush’s campaign. He kept the letter in a frame on the wall in the living room just under his own eye level. He placed it there because he wanted his friends to see it and my father was taller than his friends.

Lest you get the wrong idea, my father was not a fan of George HW Bush. He thought Bush was the racist milksop war criminal history shows him to be. But my father was a veteran and his community was made of veterans. White veterans. In a white town. In the whitest state. This meant, for my father to feel that he and his family were safe, he needed to do certain things to shield himself and us from that whiteness. In this particular case, that meant sending $10 to the 1988 George HW Bush Presidential campaign.

My father grew up walking through colored entrances and using colored bathrooms and drinking colored water in a white world that that would kill him if he did otherwise. If he even said what he thought about Bush, there could be consequences, but not just for him.

My father was not free to speak his mind and neither is Brandt Jean. Both my father and Brandt Jean are from a country in which the police are a leading cause of death, in which white supremacy continues to run rampant—especially throughout law enforcement, in which law enforcement officers continue to be the most punitive, petty and vengeful members of society, yet the only ones permitted to kill.

Brandt Jean lives in a country in which his own brother was just murdered by an admittedly racist police officer. He lives in a country in which there are ruthless consequences for not being nice to white people and those consequences aren’t only paid by the individual. They are often paid by an entire family.

I am not saying that Brandt Jean’s compassion is insincere or implying anything about his motivations. This is not about him. This is about a country that demands white humanity be constantly and vibrantly visible while commanding Black humanity to be silent, worthless and invisible. This is about the outcome of that inverted relationship; their inhumanity encourages them to kill us while our humanity forgives them for it. This is about a system that only goes in that specific direction. This is about a pattern that must stop because the forgiveness will eventually stop, either because the violence has ceased and/or simply because there will be none of us left to grant that forgiveness.

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The two Dave Chappelles

Cancel culture isn’t real. There are no victims. Nobody is actually getting canceled. Sure, people might say, “you’re canceled,” but what is actually happening to these so-called victims? Nothing. Insofar as I can tell, only one dude even got fired and he actually got his job back.

What is happening is that the internet has given voice to people who were previously voiceless and some motherfuckers from a protected class can’t stand to be criticized. That’s really about it. You’ve got a bunch of damn babies everyone had to be quiet around who then grew up to think that that was the natural order of things.

This brings me to Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special.

OK, look. Dave Chappelle is two different people. First, he’s a Black person, a point of view with a necessary diamond-sharp clarity, culturally handed down generation after generation just as a means of survival. When Dave speaks on Blackness he is as breathtakingly hilarious and existentially profound as he’s ever been. I am endlessly thankful for that Dave Chappelle. That Dave Chappelle has informed and enlightened me as far back as I can remember and I feel incredibly lucky to live in the same time as him.

The other Dave Chappelle however, is a celebrity. That point of view is an all-encompassing fog of unimaginable privilege. In his latest special, Dave Chappelle speaks on almost everything other than race from the point of view of a celebrity. That is to say in those moments he is as oblivious, thin-skinned, spiteful, dull and shockingly unoriginal as just about any random 4chan post.

Like, he sticks up for Louis CK. I’m not going to get too far into that, as others have spoken about it so well, but Louis took his dick out in front of people who didn’t want him to and traditionally, that shit should at least put a stop to whatever career you have. Unless, of course, your career is Supreme Court Justice. The point is that ain’t nobody responsible for that dude’s life but him.

And the trans jokes. Jesus, Dave. First of all, the history of trans representation in American pop culture has placed them mostly as either the butts of jokes or abhorrent sexual deviants. Secondly, the government is constantly trying to legislate away the rights of trans people. And thirdly, trans people are killed just for being trans all the time all over this country. Those three things should sound familiar if you have any historical knowledge of any minority group, but just to give you a hint of which side of history you’ll want to be on for this one, when he got into power in 1933, one of the first things Hitler did was seek out and destroy the medical records of trans people.

Before you pin my PC Policeman’s badge on me, no, I’m not likening Dave to Hitler. And no, I’m not saying “Censor Dave Chappelle!” I’m not saying Chappelle shouldn’t be allowed to say certain things. I’m saying I just wish he didn’t want to. It just seems to me that, if you are being paid tens of millions of dollars to write and tell jokes to an audience of untold millions of people, maybe just don’t write ones Hitler would laugh at.

I’m not going to go through his act bit by bit, but yes, I understand that these jokes are meant to be offensive. The problem is Dave’s whole thing is that he’s offended that people are offended. Weird, meta-irony aside, when you deliberately set out to offend people, it’s just some real crybaby bullshit to whine when you succeed.

 In the end, I am hopeful that Dave will eventually figure it out. He does get so many things right.

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Photo by Greg Jeanneau on Unsplash