Monday, September 14, 2009

Addison Graves Wilson in Historic Context: The Continuing Usefulness of the Politics of Patriarchal Racism

More on the feast of fools in D.C. this weekend: as numerous commentators have now pointed out (e.g., here and here), it is no accident that the lunacy is being spearheaded by Southern white men like Addison Graves “Big Joe” Wilson. There’s an historical context to Wilson’s outburst as President Obama addressed Congress the other evening. And for those not versed in the history of segregation—in the facts about who invented that system of oppression, why they invented it, whom it benefited—the significance of Wilson’s recent temper tantrum, and what those pulling the strings of the fools hope to accomplish, will not be fully apparent.

I’ve recently been reading every history I can find of the integration process in the American South. I’m focusing in particular on my own state of Arkansas, and on what happened in the southern half of this state during the 1950s and 1960s. I’m doing so because I have no choice except to go over that ground—ground I traversed in my own childhood and adolescence, and am now re-traversing as an adult trying to understand with an adult’s awareness. I have no choice because of two stories I’ve been given, about which I have to write.

I have to write about these stories precisely because they have been given to me. They have fallen into my lap. I didn’t seek them out. But they implicate me, because they took place in the county in which I grew up, and because they involve people close to me—in one case, my high school classmates, in another, my kinfolks. These stories implicate me because they are stories from two different centuries that occurred in precisely the same location. In each case, they illustrate the tragedy that powerful controlling white men have scripted into our national story, due to their intent to dominate. And due to their willingness to use malicious racial and gender stereotypes to assure their control.

Both stories end with tragic deaths. In both cases, the person killed was a man of color. In both cases, no one was ever brought to justice for the murder. Because I came of age in the place in which these events took place—and, yes, because in one case, they involved my own classmates and in another my relatives—they implicate me. The wounds inflicted on all of us by those powerful white men intent on dominating are inside me. They are inside my society, and they remain there. I cannot decently shrug my shoulders and let the stories slip into obscurity or find someone else to haunt.

I’ve blogged about both stories on this blog in the past—in the case of the one involving my high school classmates, more by way of allusion than explicit narrative. And my point in mentioning them today is not so much to tell them explicitly now, as to provide a context for what I want to say about the significance of Joe Wilson’s outburst this past week, and of the feast of fools we’ve seen going on all summer, as the party of old tired white men seeks to block the new administration at any price, no matter who is hurt by its obfuscation and mean-spirited truculence.

So that my point will be crystal clear, here’s what happened in these two tales, in a foreshortened prĂ©cis. One story revolves around a family about which I’ve blogged a number of times, one related to me by blood, in which a white planter and his common-law wife, a free woman of color, transgressed the color line, living together as husband and wife and raising a family the white man acknowledged, in a time and place when such acknowledgement was uncommon (though sexual domination of women of color by powerful white men was decidedly common).

That story ended in tragedy rather than triumph. The father left his not inconsiderable landholdings to his younger son, a man who, because of his mother’s racial classification, appears repeatedly on censuses as a mulatto, though he married a white wife and lived for some years as a white man in Ohio before returning home to take up the property his father left to him at the father’s death.

In March 1899, as he was riding horseback on his land, someone murdered him—shot him in the back and left him to die in the woods. A black man was immediately apprehended and charged with the murder. He almost certainly did not commit this crime, and from all I can discover, if he did so, he was never punished for it. The white men who have always ruled the South have always assumed that black life is dispensable, and when a black man kills another black man, well, what can you expect? And what can you do?

It is clear to me that my long-ago cousin was murdered for another reason, and by someone other than the hapless black man charged with this murder. It is clear to me that he was, in fact, lynched. Because he was a man of color who had been acknowledged as a son by a white father, who had left valuable property to him.

In the week in which this murder occurred in Union County, one in the tier of Arkansas counties bordering on Louisiana, a number of black men were lynched. All these lynchings occurred in counties on the southern border of the state.

In one of those incidents, the lynchings were blamed on a black man, “General” Duckett, who is said to have murdered a white planter. In reprisal, mobs of white men hunted down an unknown number of black men throughout south Arkansas, drove them into the woods, and strung them up and murdered them. The climate of fear was so great that many black citizens fled into Texas to avoid being targeted. These lynchings went hand in hand with—they were the logical outcome of—legislation at the start of the 1890s, in which white Southern men stole the right to vote from black citizens, as they enacted laws across the South that first imposed draconian literacy tests on voters, and then required a poll tax to disenfranchise even more black voters.

“General” Duckett started the mayhem in which one black man after another was murdered in Arkansas in March 1899, to show everyone who was boss. And the black man charged with the murder of my cousin in south Arkansas in the same week was said—by the white men who pinned the murder on him—to have been named “General” Washington.

When people have the power to do or say anything and to get away with it, even with murder, they do not have to pretend to be clever when they lie. They can be grossly, insultingly obvious in their lies. They can invent two spurious black bogeymen with the same far-fetched given name to justify their spree of violence, and as they do so, they know no one will challenge them. Because they can do anything to anyone and get away with it.

The other story that intersects the preceding one happened less than a century later in the same place, in Union County, Arkansas. In the county in which I grew up when my father moved our family there from Little Rock shortly before I reached adolescence. It was the county in which he had grown up when his parents moved there from Louisiana when he was a boy.

As I’ve noted, this story also involves a murder, the murder of another black man. Different year. Same place. Same kind of murder. With the same consequences. Those charged with the murder—who happened to be my high school classmates, white young men—were acquitted. By an all-male, all-white jury.

The charge was that they had deliberately and with no other reason except that they wanted to do so—they could do so, they believed, and could get away with doing so—driven past another young man who happened to be black and shot him. The young man was 19. Someone shot him with a shotgun fired from a passing car as he walked along the road in his neighborhood one night in September 1967. He crawled to a nearby porch and died.

When the first of my classmates charged with this murder was acquitted in March 1968, a demonstration took place in our town. Several hundred black citizens marched peacefully to the courthouse, prayed and sang hymns. That peaceful demonstration was followed by a week of turbulence in which, so it was said, black teens were throwing rocks at passing cars, slashing tires, breaking windshields. The mayor declared a state of emergency and a curfew. Black citizens who tried to reason with him pointed out that his response to the acquittal—to send policemen in riot gear into black neighborhoods, where they used tear gas and mace on supposedly unruly black teens—was creating the situation he sought to defuse.

As a response to the turbulence, a committee offered a reward for information leading to the conviction of the real killer of the young black men—though everyone I knew was convinced that the real killer had been tried and acquitted. But we also believed that others had been involved. And we believed we knew their names. And the case seemed to many of us to become moot when the young man acquitted of the charge subsequently committed suicide.

The committee offering a reward for information about the “real” killer included the pastor of my family’s church, a church I had recently left when it dragged its feet about opening its doors to black members. As I’ve written on this blog, the debate that took place when some members proposed integrating the church shocked me. I was shocked to learn the extent of hatred roiling the hearts of many church members, which became manifest when they were given a forum to speak about race in church.

And I was disillusioned with the pastor’s lack of leadership. Before this fractious debate took place, I went to him to ask why social groups and not the churches seemed to be leading the way in challenging racism. He told me the church’s role is not to lead, but to move cautiously, keeping everyone on board as it creeps ahead.

As with the 1899 lynching, this 1967 murder did not occur in a political vacuum. In 1964, Congress had passed the Civil Rights act. The response of most Southern school districts, including mine, to the order to integrate was one of deliberate, truculent obfuscation. We declared we’d integrate with all deliberate speed. What we meant was that we would never integrate—not until we were forced kicking and screaming to do so.

And forced we were. By 1967, the federal government began to put teeth into its Civil Rights act, withholding funding from school districts that had still not integrated. In my county, several districts began to lose funding at this point.

Since we were the county seat and the largest town in the county (25,000 people), we could not afford to remain in defiance, and we grudgingly began to integrate the top grade levels of the high school in 1967. The process was demeaning, from our white standpoint. It violated everything we believed in.

It turned our world upside down. We could no longer begin our school assemblies and pep rallies by marching in with the American and the rebel flags side by side, as we were wont to do, and then, while the band played a rousing chorus of “Dixie,” crossing the Confederate flag over the American one, as we roared that the South would rise again.

And it was in that social context that—or so the charges went (though the court concluded otherwise)—three young white men in my class set out one night with a shotgun to shoot a black boy. In cold blood. Because they could. And because they could get away with doing so.

And that’s the backdrop against which I have to read Joe Wilson’s outburst in Congress this week. What Joe Wilson did last week—what he meant to do, with the honorable member of Congress Jack Kingston (R-GA) sitting beside him, a little smile playing on his lips—was what white men have always done in the South. It’s what we’re accustomed to doing. Because we can do so. Because we can do so and get away with it.

Because we can do so, and be hailed as heroes, even when we happen to be the red-faced, red-handed liar who is shouting that someone else is a liar. Or the murderer who is blaming our murder of black men on other black men with ludicrously spurious invented names like General Duckett and General Washington.

What was at stake when Wilson shouted substanceless charges of lying at the president the other evening—what has been at stake all along in this wretched summer of manufactured sound and fury—is not the question of who is lying and who is not. It is the question of who has power and who does not.

Addison Graves “Big Joe” Wilson and his ilk are used to having power. They do not intend to let power slip from their hands without a fight—a dirty one, if necessary. They do not intend to let their power over others—particularly over long-demeaned symbolic others, like black men and all women, whose subjugation proves the power of the white man—slip from their hands without a fight to the death.

And so we are seeing theater of the most cynical sort possible playing itself out across our national stage now, in Mr. Wilson’s phony shouts of lying, Mr. Beck’s rivers of moaning tears, the signs paraded about by the fools at the feast, accusing the president of every crime imaginable from liberalism to baby killing.

When the liar calls the truth teller a liar and knows he will be celebrated for his courage and moral uprightness—not punished, but celebrated—he has proven the point he intended to prove when he chose to step over all bounds of decency and propriety. The point is that he is the one who makes the rules. Not you. Not I. Addison Graves Wilson.

When the liar lies so boldly that he turns a crowd of 60-70 thousand into 1.5-2 million, knowing as he lies that he is lying and that everyone in the world will also know he is lying, the point is not to establish boundaries of truth and remain within them. It is so boldly to exceed the boundaries of truth, the canons of decency and morality, while claiming to own those boundaries and canons, that truth, morality, and decency become inconsequential. They become inconsequential beside the unilateral, unimpeachable right of the liar to tell us he alone is the truth-teller, the adulterer to tell us that he represents family values, the gay-basher to tell us he is serving Christ and loving everyone as he knocks in the head of his gay brother.

These are old games in the American South. Those of us who grew up playing them and seeing them played known them in the marrow of our bones. We can recite their rules in our sleep.

As Melton A. Mclaurin notes in his Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (Athens: Univ. of GA Press, 1987), white men invented the rules in the South in order to assure the dominance of white men (p. 66). In perpetuity. The rules were invited by a “patriarchal white-supremacist society” (ibid.) skilled at creating an “erotic politics” (p. 68) in which patriarchy and racism were integrally, essentially linked to shore up the control of the white men pulling the strings.

Black men did not have to rape or even glance at a white woman in order to be accused of rape and murdered. They had only to commit the really unforgivable crime of being uppity, of getting out of their place (p. 67). Of showing any tendency at all, even the slightest, to usurp the white male.

What counted in the erotic politics of the South invented by racist and patriarchal white men was not the reality of rape, or lying, or immorality, or family values. It was the illusion of those always predictable, always fluid ciphers of white male power, the way in which white men callously and obtrusively manipulated the terms at any given moment to assure their continued, unchallenged dominance of everyone else beneath them.

As McLaurin notes, “Both sexual and racial, the symbols used to manipulate the behavior of whites were projections of white male fantasies” (p. 66). With the Addison Graves “Big Joe” Wilsons of the world, the Glen Becks, the Charles J. Chaputs, the Carl A. and Rev. Steven Andersons, the Erik Princes, the Newt Gingriches, the Deal Hudsons, the Randall Terrys and the countless good old boys of any gender who support them, its not really all about truth. It’s not really about morality.

It’s about power, pure and simple. Power raw and unadulterated. Their power. Their power over others, constantly demonstrated and reasserted by acts of domination that remind us who is boss. It’s about their power to make or break the rules.

And we forget this script at our own peril. Because they intend to make us, all of us who have dared to imagine that our role in history is to be subjects and not objects, pay a high price indeed for our forgetting who is the real subject and who the object.