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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

This Land Is Your Land

Borders That Stretch from Beijing to Bensonhurst

I COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED on that street corner in Bensonhurst. And that corner is precisely where we part company — “I” am not you, un­less you share my heritage and look like me. My “I” is fatally specific: I am a brown-skinned descendant of enslaved Africans, holocausted Chero­kees, and invisible Europeans, and I am despised and feared and envied the world over. Define me black.

Democrats in Bensonhurst and China agree: “Black men better stay out of our gardens.” Most people have forgotten the antiblack Chinese riots before Tianan­men Square; like their Brooklyn counter­parts, the Chinese students, who would be canonized in a few months by an eager U.S. press, shouted the message: “Our women are our turf. You trespass on ei­ther and we will kill you. (Try us.)” When I look at those grainy black-and-­white photographs in the Daily News and the Post of that young boy’s dead body lying on a stretcher, my mind wants to cry but my eyes won’t let me. My eyes are too tired — they’ve seen this shot before and they’re too used to it.

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I grew up in a middle-class neighbor­hood of row houses in the Bronx called Eastchester. When my parents moved in, our block was almost all white, but that was in 1968. Most of the children I played with were brown, and only the half-generation just above me was “mul­ticultural”: there was Frankie and Valerie (Italians), there was Jennifer (Jamaican), there was Cindy and Blossom (Chinese), and so on. But in the group just below, there was us — Randy, Rodney, Orchid, Valery, Albert, Carey — and we were all brown.

Do parents whisper warnings in their children’s ears? I don’t know, but I knew early on to stay away from the neighbor­hood next door: they don’t like black peo­ple. I’m not sure when I began to reflect on the warnings’ meaning, and I don’t know when racist words like guinea or wop entered my consciousness, but I do know that I was practically born with a wariness about the middle-class Italian neighborhood next to my own.

Their neighborhood was always cleaner than ours, their houses better kept. (Were their garbage pickups more regular? Did they respect their property more than we did? Did those hallowed white streets just seem cleaner?) My parents drove us to and from the library in their area, be­cause their branch had more books, and people returned them unmarked. My par­ents always bought ice cream chiffon cakes for my birthday parties from bak­eries in their neighborhood and we hired them as plumbing and home-improve­ment contractors because “they put care into whatever they do.”

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But something sinister hid underneath all that chiffon, behind those neat flower gardens, within those clean brick houses. And that sinister thing whispered STAY AWAY. Just your green, not your black, thank you. STAY AWAY. When I was about 12, I started hearing stories about brothers getting the shit kicked out of them for dancing too well with white girls. Walking past an outdoor basketball court in their neighborhood, I heard the word “nigger” tossed at me, as if in con­versation. I looked straight ahead and walked on home.

It’s too simple to say that all those folks were racist killers or that Italian neighborhoods per se are any more dan­gerous for black men than other nonblack neighborhoods. On analysis, simple looks are always lies — who’s to prove that the crime in my black neighborhood doesn’t have some subtle black-dissing-black cause, some nigger-ain’t-worth-shit-any­way dimension? But about that American neighborhood next door to mine, we can say this: black means dirty, black soils things, black is unwanted.

There’s proof: Willie Turks, Richard Ocana, Samuel Spencer, Michael Griffith, Derrick Antonio Tyus — and now Yusef Hawkins.

“Them niggers will ruin our clean, fresh women.” Shit is so tired, and so common. Kills a piece of me. Makes me want to holler, but I can’t: too much work to do. Make me want to cry. ■

Next: “Married to The Mob: The Wise Guy Wannabes” by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Malcolm X Factor

Looking For Malcolm: The Man and the Meaning Behind the Icon
May, 29, 1990

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

There I was, hanging on the corner of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, when a low-riding brother and his lady friend strode by, deep in discussion about some­thing very, very, very important. Words and emphasis were, of course, flying every­where, making it impossible to miss this: “That shit was Malcolm.” Meaning, I knew, hype, dope, nice, right, real, as in best. In the ever-evolving vernacular, Mal­colm X has come to mean the real (black) thing, the authentic (black) thing, as close to (black) integrity as close can be.

Just look at all the T-shirts, the buttons, the photographs, the records, the film and video appearances. Public Enemy’s sam­pling him, Spike Lee’s quoting him, Tracy Chapman’s showing him — the young and the black are loving him. Malcolm is to­day’s black hero, a black ideal for turbulent times: the steely mirror image we want our­selves to see. We think we want his words too: Pass the tables on the street and you can hear his words proving some sect’s point; listen to the radio, and Rev Sharpton or somebody else is invoking his name to prove somebody’s truth — our truth — in black soundbites, as black as kente cloth. We wear him this way to celebrate our­selves, because Malcolm was what we want to be — a Black person with integrity in a country that doesn’t value the quality very much, especially when its bearer is Black.

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But there are some hard-to-answer ques­tions floating amid the jubilation. Like: Do many of us know Malcolm story(s)? Like: What does “the real (black) thing” mean to us, anyway? Black Integrity has, after all, a very packed — and vague — significance in our collective consciousness, precisely be­cause we haven’t been able to, and maybe never will, figure out what we want Black to mean. What does Malcolm mean to us? And now we’ve gone and attached our strange notion of Black Integrity to Malcolm’s pho­tograph, and thereby constructed a compli­cated, and decidedly vaporous, memory: Malcolm the Essential Black Man, Malcolm the brown and determined and incorrupt­ible and empty face.

Take a step back and look and see: To­day, 25 years after Malcolm’s murder, home folk promote him as the truest black American that ever lived. So true, in fact, that his aspect has taken on an almost reli­gious significance. No joke: pause for a moment and compare the way many of us consider Malcolm to the way Byzantine churchgoers viewed their religious icons, images that flattened out and hid the per­sonalities of their original personages in order to better communicate an accepted religious message. Just as iconography in a Byzantine church reminds the viewer of a body of stories, rules, morals, et cetera s/he’s already supposed to know, Malcolm’s icon should front a traditional story agreed upon by the community. But the young leaders of our Black tribe have attempted to canonize Malcolm without theoretical, ideological, or religious grounding — with­out, in short, connection to, or reflection on, any community-made story(s) by which to define him.

Today Malcolm is, instead, a religious icon without a religion — a vague memory-­image invoked at gatherings and services and rallies as the epitome of the black fight­ing spirit, and by implication, of Blackness. Making little reference to his place in the flow of history, to the complexity of his ideas (which changed over the course of his life), or to his relationship to political pro­genitors, the community’s voices paint Malcolm X in (un)fairly simple, static terms: Malcolm was an African-style town crier who told the truth. Malcolm played the heavy to Martin Luther King’s softy. Malcolm was grass roots, while the other civil rights leaders were bourgie Uncles. Malcolm was “clear” when everyone else was cloudy. The descriptions tend to sug­gest a Black Integrity, an unexplained, and mostly romantic, concept.

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Any people that considers itself a people needs the kind of figure Malcolm cut in life, a figure whose first fidelity is to the tribe, and upon whose bones the tribe can always hang its clothes. Figures, for example, like the Byzantines’ St. George, who’s reappear­ing all over the Soviet Union’s Russian communities as a symbol of the life of the Russian tribe, showing that it still proudly exists. Use of symbols like Malcolm X and St. George allows members to proclaim themselves without explaining everything: Those who should know, know. You know? But fact is, Malcolm’s iconographic status among black people is, as of this writing, so unexamined by us, so unaccompanied by black story or exegesis, as to be nearly va­cant, and utterly manipulable.

And it’s being manipulated plenty. In these changing times, when my bourgie ho­mies from the Ivy League are in less contact with their poorest brethren than at any point in American history, when cleavages in “the black community” are as wide as they’ve ever been, Malcolm’s image pro­vides a stretched-out, nationalist umbrella for us all. This “unity” hides, rather than acknowledges, our own differences. Ah! but sneaking under that umbrella is oh so se­ductively easy — especially when taking out coverage from the hostile white world is as simple as buying a T-shirt. I own several, but I favor the one a friend gave me: on the front, Malcolm with an AK-47 and the words “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”; on the back, the pronouncement “IT’S A BLACK THING! YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.” Never mind the fact that Malcolm purchased the gun to defend himself from black Muslim attack — just check out the message, people. The “you” on back is clearly whitefolk, who are being told that they are not part of the club because the club is black. So the shirt’s the badge. Of blackness. So there. Which makes it useful to a bad brown man leading a city just as badly as the bad pink man before him: Flash the Malcolm memo­ry and you’re as proudly black as the im­poverished and angry 20-year-old sister with a fifth-grade education and a baby with a hightop fade in her arms. Yes, yes, y’all, both the mayor and the sista (and her baby) are Black. But, so what?

If we are to treat Malcolm as a symbol of blackness — as, in fact, the Essential Black Man — we basically have to figure (I) what Black means to us, and (2) what Malcolm means to us and what he doesn’t mean. Do we focus on what we think is important about his life, without regard to how he changed over his lifetime? Should Malcolm the icon mean Malcolm’s life story or his politics? Or both? Wrestling with these questions might even help us figure out what we’re saying when we use the term Black. And maybe such discussion will move us away from the dubious religion of “essential Blackness,” and toward thinking that it’s all much harder than that — just as hard, in fact, as pinpointing a meaning to Malcolm X, or to the Black “we,” or to the Black “I.” These concerns are not as aca­demic as they sound.

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In a world where identity is so often a function of national/tribal allegiance, or of the denial of those things, the proclamation of “I am” without a nation, or an agree­ment not to have a nation, is bound to be so confused as to be, well, silly. We can’t know who “I am” is without knowing who we are. And, we can’t do shit without knowing who “I” is.

As it stands, the Malcolm icon assumes all kinds of undiscussed information, beg­ging the question. In these times, is black identity, as represented by Malcolm’s icon, an adequate instrument for negotiating self­-understanding, our survival?

Brothers and sisters, we need to talk.  

But how do we begin? First by checking out the the place where “Black” was con­structed: in white consciousness, in the white conflation of black resistance and black criminality. (The ancestors came here and then became Black.) Up jumped the Boogeyman: the evildoer from the dark side, the angry true-blood black alien who’s coming to get you (whitey), with cruel vengeance. Just look and you see him — and it’s invariably a him — stuck in all kinds of white conjuring, all over the white Ameri­can imagination. See: WhiteFilm’s King Kong and WhitePolitics’s Willie Horton and Whitefiction’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, published just two years after Malcolm X’s assassination. “As a child I had nightmares about Nat,” said author Wil­liam Styron, who was raised in Virginia, close to where the revolt took place. “I grew up with the tale.”

Whereas Malcolm X learned about Nat Turner in prison. In his autobiography, Malcolm talks about what Nat Turner made him feel:

I read about the slave preacher Nat Turner, who put the fear of God into the white slave­-master Nat Turner wasn’t going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and “non-violent” freedom for the black man … Somewhere I have read where Nat Turner’s example is said to have inspired John Brown to invade Virginia and attack Harper’s Ferry nearly thirty years later, with thirteen white men and five Negroes.

A few pages later, Malcolm notes, “It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself — or die.” Imbedded in his telling of the Turner tale is a dramatic rejection of the white construc­tion of Blackness, as well as a number of other radical projects: to resist white supre­macism, to reclaim the right to resist, to put fear in the hearts of white people, and per­haps most surprisingly, to tell the white man about himself. The Boogeyman figure makes, of course, this last desire only so radical — whites, after all, have seemingly enjoyed being thrilled by black anger. Even so, Malcolm spent a good amount of his thought (and time) making whites listen, and they did with much fascination. They could not ignore the Boogeyman actually speaking his mind before them.

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White attention and discomfort are the keys to understanding Malcolm’s signifi­cance in black eyes. To put it simply, the principal reasons behind Malcolm X’s suc­cess as a Hector of black self-respect, and particularly, of black male self-respect, were his attempts before white audiences to turn the unwanted Boogeyman into the proud Essential Black Man. “Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood,” eu­logized Ossie Davis at Malcolm’s funeral. Later, Davis said, “[He] was refreshing ex­citement; he scared hell out of the rest of us, bred as we are to caution, to hypocrisy in the presence of whitefolks, to the smile that never fades.” Not only did Malcolm tell whites off, he heartily chastized black people for acceding to white ideas about African-Americans. In place of the white­-man’s Boogeyman, Malcolm put forward himself, and the Nation of Islam, as the real examples of the spirit of black resistance, the supposed “heart” of American black identity. In countless speeches, Malcolm announced “I’m a field Negro,” indicating to anyone with ears that he was proud of his resistant and basic blackness, his fightin’ Negro/Essential Black Man-ness.

It’s not surprising, then, that Malcolm’s icon finds its textual counterpart in Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A smoothly laid-out, quasi-mythological ac­count of Malcolm’s life, the book resembles the Biblical Saul-to-Paul story — Malcolm as a lost man who finds his way to truth through two revelations: first, the embrace of his black Muslim identity; second, the embrace of human commonality.

“If it were not for that book,” Alex Haley told me, “by now I suspect Malcolm’s life would be a pastiche of apocryphal stories. A jello of stories.” The stories in Haley’s book come from one source, Malcolm X. “One of the understandings that we had from the beginning, and it was followed to the letter, was — and this was his stipula­tion — that the book would not contain any­thing he didn’t want in it. And I respected that absolutely,” says Haley. What resulted is a true autobiography, a life story almost entirely manipulated by its bearer, Mal­colm X, in order “to help people to appre­ciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people.” Malcolm’s project was to make his life, once written down, the prin­cipal testament to Muhammad’s Truth, a combination of holy text and ex-slave narrative.

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And thanks to this strategy, black folks who’re looking to put flesh to Malcolm’s icon (and many don’t even try) have a book that gives them — and particularly the black male — a model for being black. Inevitably the autobiography also suffers from the agenda; tailored to make points, the book ultimately fails as a comprehensive life-­and-times telling. Malcolm knew this, and offered, after his break with Muhammed, to remake the story along post-Nation, hu­manist lines. But Alex Haley vigorously dis­couraged his subject from making changes, suggesting instead that Malcolm tack on the story of his Mecca trip. That addition — a second strategy — confuses the first strategy by recasting Malcolm’s Black Muslim reve­lation in Black humanist light. What, we just have to ask is: what did Malcolm really stand for? Ultimately, the autobiography says too many different things to be politi­cally or religiously pedagogical, in a coher­ent way. And it ends up concealing Mal­colm X.

Read the autobiography alongside Mal­colm’s speeches, or against some of his var­ious proto-biographies, and its holes be­come plain. Just a few days before his death, Malcolm told a Harlem audience about the Nation’s — and his — involvement with the Ku Klux Klan:

I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m going to tell you the truth. I sat at the table myself with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan. I sat there myself, with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan, who at that time were trying to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad so that they could make available to him a large area of land in Georgia or I think it was South Carolina. They had some very responsible persons in the government who were involved in it and who were willing to go along with it. They wanted to make this land available to him so that his program of separation would sound more feasible to Negroes and there­fore lessen the pressure that the integration­ists were putting upon the white man. I sat there. I negotiated it. I listened to their offer. And I was the one who went back to Chicago and told Elijah Muhammad what they had offered. Now, this was in December of 1960 …

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What Malcolm relates in this passage is deep: In an effort to secure a separate black homeland, the Nation of Islam had taken part in secret negotiations with the Klan, when the group was killing black people. But this important event is absent in our collective (mis)understanding of the man, and in our projection of him. And though it doesn’t invalidate Malcolm’s spirit of resis­tance, it ought to force a rethinking of Mal­colm’s form of resistance: Is the kind of nationalism Malcolm espoused during most of his career naïve, and racist, by nature? Maybe. It’s plain, my people, that facts like these make any simple equations of Mal­colm and Black Integrity very foolish in­deed. And to figure things out, we need more than the iconographic flesh the offi­cial history — the autobiography — supplies.

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

What would help is some voices, voices that help us better see the actual man. Though Alex Haley’s epilogue gives an overview of Malcolm’s life and reveals the process of making the autobiography, Mal­colm’s book does not provide a second opinion of the man (how could we expect it to?). Thing is, the black intelligentsia has failed to fill the void, which has led to problems: On the one hand, Malcolm’s flaws — most notably his sexism — go unex­amined, and on the other hand, Malcolm’s legacy gets shaped by those who do choose to write about him. Inside the black com­munity there’s too little critiquing, and out­side of it, there’s more than we can handle.

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Malcolm’s attitudes toward women, for example, are perfect subject matter for a black feminist critique, but the critics are quiet, or being ignored. You only have to turn to Malcolm’s autobiography to eyeball Malcolm’s straight-up anti-woman senti­ments, but rarely are they acknowledged by the community. Listen to Malcolm, for in­stance, on why men visited the prostitutes he befriended as a young man:

Domineering, complaining, demanding wives who had just about psychologically castrated their husbands were responsible for the early rush. These wives were so disagree­able and had made their men so tense that they were robbed of the satisfaction of being men. More wives could keep their hus­bands if they realized their [husbands] greatest urge is to be men.

Men see prostitutes because their wives, with their hen-pecking ways and their disre­spect for mens’ manliness, drive them to it. To this Malcolm later adds, “All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: They are attracted to the male in whom they see strength,” a thought echoed in one of his last speeches. “[The press does] know that if something were to happen and all these [NOI] brothers, their eyes were to come open, they would be right out here in every one of these civil rights organizations mak­ing these Uncle Tom Negro leaders stand up and fight like men instead of running around here nonviolently acting like wom­en.” Again, women are weak. While Mal­colm’s sexist stance was shared by many of his contemporaries, his equating of the in­tegrity of black manhood with the integrity of the race makes the sexism more trou­bling. Is this the kind of thinking we cele­brate when we celebrate Malcolm X? Yes, if we don’t critique the man, and interpret his self-made history. We simply need more critiques.

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And the critiques must come from us, because we already have several non-Black voices framing Malcolm’s textual legacy. Most prominent among them is the Social­ist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyite group that has long embraced African-American strug­gle as revolutionary. In July of 1939, the SWP — with the encouragement of Trinida­dian Marxist C. L. R. James and the blessings of Trotsky himself — had adopted a res­olution entitled “The SWP and Negro Work,” which began: “The American Ne­groes, for centuries the most oppressed sec­tion of American society and the most dis­criminated against, are potentially the most revolutionary element of the population. They are designated by their whole histori­cal past to be, under adequate leadership, the very vanguard of the proletarian revolu­tion.” The document goes on to argue that the SWP must help form this adequate leadership “through the work of the party among the Negroes and in wider fields in­fluencing the Negro masses to recognize in the SWP the only party that is genuinely working for their complete emancipation from the heavy burdens they have borne so long.” In one stroke, the SWP had begun, according to its own literature, “to present the only consistently revolutionary attitude to black nationalism when that tendency began to assume mass proportions in the 1960s.”

Through two decades the party diligently pursued its objectives, and when Malcolm appeared on the scene, they were ready. By covering Malcolm’s activities in their news­paper, The Militant, and, after his break with the NOI, by offering him places to speak, the SWP tried to help Malcolm throughout his career. The party even helped care for his family after the assassination. “Checks came in from all over the United States and [they] just said, ‘Buy milk for Malcolm’s babies,’ ” says Mal­colm’s widow, Betty Shabazz. “No strings attached.” Shabazz eventually signed an agreement permitting SWP’s Pathfinder Press to publish her husband’s speeches, many of which they have faithfully kept in circulation. They’re white, and they’re Marx­ists, and for 25 years they’ve been doing the most of anyone to foster Malcolm’s legacy.

Yo, we black folk should be ashamed. The SWP also does its critical work: in the form of introductions to the speeches Path­finder publishes, in the form of analyses of the man’s politics, in the form of discussion groups about the meaning of his life. They’re making a Malcolm all their own. It should come as no surprise, then, that their critical approach, while recognizing Mal­colm’s anti-white supremacy project, places emphasis on his last year, underlin­ing an increasing openness to the possibility of working with white revolutionaries, and of adopting ideas important to Trotskyites: anti-imperialism, internationalism, militant activism, and political organization. Ac­cordingly, Pathfinder’s flagship text, Mal­colm X Speaks, contains only one speech made prior to Malcolm’s break with the Nation, while their The Last Year of Mal­colm X provides an excellent explanation of the last year’s speeches from their own point of view. Can’t blame them too much; the’re just doing their jobs. And we aren’t.

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Brothers and sisters, we got to talk.

Surely, the words of a man held sacred by the African-American community should be considered by that community, and wrestled with by that community. Where are the Black Muslim speeches Malcolm made prior to his break with Muhammad? There are smatterings published in Path­finder’s books, or they’re out of print, or they (mostly) have never been published. And where are the black biographical maps that would interpret Malcolm’s words­ — and life — from “a black perspective?” Writing in the VLS (July, 1989), scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. observed:

Although over 300 collective black biogra­phies were published between the late 18th century and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the dominant genre in the African-American tradition), only a handful of black writers have recreat­ed the lives and times of other blacks.

The dearth of frank, black discussions of Malcolm X, is, to put it plainly, scandalous. The crisis of quiet in our community extends far beyond any discussion of Mal­colm X. We simply don’t talk honestly enough to one another — the legacy, perhaps, of always whispering when Massa was around. We’re still afraid of who’s looking. “Edit the negative and hold the line!” cries much of the local, and certainly the nation­al, black press. “Edit the negative!” And as a result, ain’t any national places for black writer/thinkers to lay down thoughts for general consumption. Let’s move toward a black perestroika. It’s a wicked irony that Malcolm’s legacy should suffer from our tendency to keep quiet: He spent, afterall, his lifetime trying to raise his (Black) voice. Ours, too. And so we answer with silence, out of fear (of whitefolks, of blasphemy, of tribal traitorism, of losing the badge, of splitting up the community), and we treat Malcolm’s image as a kind of precious cur­rency, hiding his philosophies and leaving his thoughts largely un-critiqued and unengaged.

If we talk, maybe we can put a story to his face, and maybe we can come up with a coherent meaning — a meaning for today — ­of Blackness. Look around, my people, and deal with it: Black masks just ain’t working right. We got to look at each other, and we got to check out the mirror, and we got to see what we see. Malcolm’s face is a fine place to start: We only have Malcolm, and ourselves, to fear. ■

Categories
Equality From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

An American Tale: A Lynching and the Legacies Left Behind

An American Tale: A Lynching and the Legacies Left Behind

One day, sometime during your childhood or adolescence, a Negro was lynched in your county or the one next to yours. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. But no one publicly condemned it and always the murderers went free. And afterward, maybe weeks or months or years afterward, you sat casually in the drugstore with one of those murderers and drank the Coke he casually paid for. A “nice white girl” could do that but she would have been run out of town or perhaps killed had she drunk a Coke with the young Negro doctor who was devot­ing his life in service to his people.
Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949

I WAS AN ADULT BEFORE I ever saw the picture. But even as a girl I knew there’d been a lynching in Marion. That was my father’s hometown. And on one of many trips to visit my grandparents, I heard the family story: The night it happened back in 1930 someone called the house and spoke to my grandfather, whose shift at the post office began at three in the morn­ing. “Don’t walk through the courthouse square tonight on your way to work,” the caller said. “You might see something you don’t want to see.” There was laughter at the end of the story — which puzzled me. Something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter.

I now know that, in the 1920s, Indiana had more enrolled Ku Klux Klan members than any state in the union, and that my grandfather was one of them. Learning this after he died, I couldn’t assimilate it into the frail grandpa I’d known. Couldn’t really assimi­late it and for a long time, didn’t try. He had been an intensely secretive man, and certainly, there’d been other obfuscations. He always said, for example, that he was an orphan, that his parents had died in a wreck when he was three. I accepted this, but the grown-ups knew better. After grandpa’s funeral, my father dis­covered there’d been a safe-deposit box and hoped at last to find a clue to the family tree. Instead, he unearthed this other secret: a Klan membership card. All my father said was, “I never saw a hooded sheet. He’d go out. We never knew where he was going.”

So much of this story is about shame. My grandfather was a bastard, a fact that someone born in small-town Indiana in 1886 would rather die than discuss. And so he did. But if that particular humiliation seems foreign today, what about the other secret? A lot of us who are white come from… something, and it is not discussed. “That’s in the past,” we like to say, as if that did more than give us another hood to wear.

I remember, for example, when I first saw the picture a few years ago. Two black men in bloody tattered clothing hang from a tree and below them stand the grinning gloating proud and pleased white folks. I remember looking anxiously for my grandfather’s face. But of course, he hadn’t been there. I recalled the family sto­ry. There’d been something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter. And as I began to tell people this story, that became the detail I left out, because it shamed me: there was laughter.

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FOR YEARS NOW I’ve wondered if I should ever write about these things. Part of me thinks — why my family? I knew my grand­father well enough to feel sure that he was a follower, not a leader, not evil, not really different from other white men of his gen­eration. Would “removing the hood” illu­minate anything? Or merely cause pain? I discussed this with my brother, inconclusively, but shortly thereafter he sent a news­paper article he happened to see while visit­ing my sister. I seized upon these coincidences, made them a sign.

Because there’d been a third man lynched in Marion that night — and he’d survived. He was living in Milwaukee.

Somehow a survivor hadn’t made it into the family story. But the clipping my broth­er sent said that this man, James Cameron, had opened a museum devoted to the histo­ry of lynching. And I know it mentioned that Cameron’s book, A Time of Terror, would soon be reissued by Black Classic Press. I reread the article many times, then lost it at some point along the swing shift of my ambivalence. Even so, I knew I would have to meet this man or regret it for the rest of my life.

James Cameron came so close to dying in Marion’s courthouse square that he had rope burns around his neck from the noose. He’d been dragged from the jail and beaten bloody and carried to the tree where the other two men were already hanging. In those last moments — certain he was about to die — he had a vision. Then, miraculously, he didn’t die. The mob let him go, just let him walk away. He was 16, and he believes he was saved by divine intervention, sent back to us with news — our Ishmael. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. 

Yet who would hear what he’d come back to tell? For over 45 years, Cameron tried to find a publisher for his story, prob­ably the only written record by a lynching survivor. Finally, in 1982, he mortgaged his house for $7500 and published A Time of Terror himself. Now he’s struggling to reno­vate his museum building, an old boxing school/fitness center donated by the city of Milwaukee. He doesn’t have a working boiler. He pays electric and phone with his Social Security. He figures he needs $200,000 for renovations, and he’s certain that this — more than the book, even — is the true work for which God saved him. But Cameron is worried. He is about to turn 80, and this time he won’t have 45 years to get it done.

But here I get ahead of myself. First, you must hear the story of the lynching — and the miracle.

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IT BEGAN ON THE EVENING of August 6, 1930. Cameron, 16, had been pitching horseshoes with a school friend, Tommy Shipp, 18, and an acquaintance, Abe Smith, 19. The three decided to go out for a joy­ride in Shipp’s car. As they drove past the Marion city limits and into the countryside, Smith announced that he wanted to rob someone to get money for a new car of his own. Cameron wavered inside; he immedi­ately wanted to get out, yet he didn’t get out. They drove to Lover’s Lane to look for a victim. Spotting one parked car, Smith pulled out a .38-caliber pistol, handed it to Cameron, and ordered him to tell the white man and woman inside to “stick ’em up.” Cameron didn’t even know Smith very well, and later he would tell the sheriff that he didn’t know why he’d followed Smith’s orders. But he did know: once more, he had wavered. While something inside him said “go back, go back” even as he approached the car, he had been pushed forward by someone with a stronger will. And it was a last but fateful moment that this would be true of him.

There he stood, pistol in hand, telling the driver and his girlfriend to get out. And when the driver did so, Cameron realized that he knew this man — Claude Deeter — a regular customer at his shoeshine stand, someone who’d always tipped him, some­one who’d always been decent to him. Now he knew he couldn’t go through with it. He handed the gun back to Smith, and ran. A few minutes later, he heard shots, and he wondered what had happened back there, but he never stopped running. As it turned out, Deeter had been mortally wounded.

Cameron arrived home with new eyes, because he saw the gulf that had opened between past and present. He saw his moth­er differently, feeling sorry for her for the first time in his life, though he lied when she asked him why he was so agitated. He couldn’t sleep. He kept telling himself he hadn’t really done anything wrong; he’d just been foolish. “The trouble was,” he wrote in his memoir, “this was Marion, Indiana, where there was little room for foolish Black boys.” Cameron hadn’t been in bed long when the police arrived — guns drawn, surrounding the house, raking it with searchlights. He could hear his mother getting up from the sofa bed to answer the pounding at the door.

Shipp and Smith had already been locked in separate cells on the first floor of the jail by the time Cameron got there. He remem­bers the three hours of interrogation, the kicks and punches delivered when it was over, the confession he then signed without even reading it. The officers tossed him into an upstairs cell block with 30 black men arrested for riding a freight train.

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By the next morning, rumors were circu­lating through Marion that the white wom­an in the car had been raped. She would later testify in court that she hadn’t been touched, but the spark had been lit. Camer­on writes that there was no particular “race problem” in the town, just the strictly en­forced segregation common to so many towns, just an everyday sense of limits, if you were black. “And once the boundary was crossed, anything might happen to the trespasser.… The realization dawned on me that I had crossed the boundary into the most sacred area of all, the world where white women lived.”

He noticed a crowd of white people gath­ering outside the jail right after breakfast, some pointing to the windows of the cell, some shaking their fists. He could feel the tension among his older cellmates, who’d abandoned their usual card games to pace. Small groups of white people kept coming up the steps to stare into the cell block. A white prisoner assured Cameron that “peo­ple in this part of the country wouldn’t lynch anybody,” but a black prisoner coun­tered that the white guy was “nuts.” Hadn’t Cameron been charged with the rape of a white woman?

The mob outside the jail grew steadily larger. Then, sometime during the after­noon, Deeter died. His bloody shirt was hung from a flagpole. As Cameron learned later, local radio stations announced that a lynching was imminent, and white people began to stream in from surrounding small towns, while entire black families fled Mar­ion. Around 5:30, a reporter from the Mar­ion Chronicle came by to interview Camer­on. He told the journalist his story, but he could see that he wasn’t being heard, that the truth didn’t matter. “Ask the girl,” Cameron finally implored him. But the re­porter just smirked, “You’ll never get out of this.”

In his book, recalling how he felt as that day built toward its violent climax, Camer­on can’t quite fit the dimensions of his fear into words. “At times, even now,” he writes, “I awaken in the middle of the night, reliving that whole day — and night… I can never return to sleep. I suf­fer headaches all through the night. I just lie there, thinking, praying, saying my rosary, hoping, reassuring myself that it all hap­pened a long, long time ago. I am not the same man. I am somebody else now.”

At dusk of that fateful day, August 7, Cameron could peer out from his second­-floor cell block and see white faces for as far as he could look in any direction. He could hear people demanding “those three niggers.” And they began to throw rocks at the windows of the jail. Some carried shot­guns. Some carried pistols. Some carried bats, clubs, crowbars, or stones. And among them, Cameron recognized people he knew: customers from his shoeshine stand, boys and girls he’d gone to school with, people whose lawns he’d mowed. He saw Klan members in robes and headgear, faces un­masked, who seemed to be monitoring the crowd. He sensed a carnival air. And there, laughing and talking with them all, were the scores of policemen ostensibly protecting the jail.

The assault on the building began at nightfall. Some men ran into the alley with gasoline cans and doused the brick wall, but they couldn’t get it to burn. Then, for the next hour, men took turns pounding with a sledgehammer on the steel door of the jail and the brick casement around it, while the mob chanted itself into a frenzy, and, as the frame began to give, people pulled bricks out with their bare hands and four men­ — adrenalized by hatred — lifted the entire door jamb out of the wall. Cameron could hear Sheriff Jacob Campbell ordering, “Don’t shoot! There are women and children out there!”

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The ringleaders burst in and pulled Shipp outside first. As Cameron wrote, “I could see the bloodthirsty crowd come to life the moment Tommy’s body was dragged into view. It seemed to me as if all of those 10 to 15 thousand people were trying to hit him all at once.” Clubbed and stoned and then garroted at the bars of a jailhouse window, Shipp was dead long before the hysterical mob ever got him to the tree. So was Smith. Someone rammed a crowbar through his chest, while souvenir hunters cut off Shipp’s pants and distributed the pieces. Shipp was then dressed in a Kluxer’s robe, and the crowd dragged both bodies over to the courthouse square and strung them up. Cameron couldn’t stop watching: the deliri­um, the sadism, and finally, a weird ecsta­sy. Over at the tree, “people howled and milled around the lifeless bodies, their voices a mumbo jumbo of insane screams and giggles.” He could see them posing for pictures with the bodies.

And then he could hear the men coming up the steps to get him. Cameron remem­bers what they carried — ropes, swords, ri­fles, a submachine gun. He remembers the chanting outside: “We want Cameron!” But when the ringleaders rushed into his cell block, they couldn’t pick him out. At first, none of the other prisoners would identify him either, but the white mobsters threat­ened to “hang every goddamn one of you niggers,” and Cameron watched in horror as about half of his black cellmates dropped to their knees groveling, “Don’t hurt us, Mister White Folks.” Finally, one old black man pointed him out.

He remembers the white men gripping him viselike, and the chorus of voices yell­ing “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” as they got him outside. He remembers the bricks and rocks and spit that hit him as they carried him toward the courthouse, and the crow­bar glancing across his chest, and the pick­ax handle hitting his head, and children biting his legs. “Once or twice, I thought I saw a kind face in the press around me. To each of them I called out for some kind of help.… But nothing happened.” Police be­gan clearing a path to the tree where the other two bodies were hanging, and some­one called out for the rope. Cameron felt numb, encased in ice, and as someone put the noose around his neck and snaked the other end up over a branch, he remembered what his mother had told him about sinners facing death, about the thief on the cross, and he prayed, “Lord, forgive me my sins. Have mercy on me.” In his mind and body and soul, he was dead at that moment, and he stopped thinking.

Suddenly a woman’s voice called out, sharply and clearly, “Take this boy back! He had nothing to do with any raping or killing!”

A silence fell over the mob, as Cameron remembers it. Or perhaps, it was part of his vision — because he recalls that the people around him were struck dumb, that every­one froze, and that he suddenly felt himself surrounded by what seemed to be a film negative and on it were the images of the people in the crowd, and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.

Then the spell broke. “And hands that had already committed murder, became soft and tender, kind and helpful,” he wrote. “I could feel the hands that had unmercifully beaten me remove the rope from around my neck. Now, they were ca­ressing hands!”

Then the crowd drew back. He saw that many bowed their heads. They couldn’t look at him as he staggered back to the jail.

In the years since the lynching, Cameron has spoken to many white people who were present in the square that night. And no one heard any voice. No one but him. “You were just lucky,” they tell him. But some­thing had stopped the rampage cold, and Cameron knows he didn’t imagine the voice. Sometimes, he can still hear it.

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AND AT WHAT POINT in that evening did someone call my grandfather? To tell him there was something out there he didn’t want to see. Perhaps that’s the problem: we don’t want to see. I was thinking about Cameron’s vision. And that’s my term for it, not his. For in this story of signs and wonders, why should there not be a “vi­sion.” I mean that moment of suspended animation when everyone around him froze and became an image, a negative, and he could no longer tell if those people were black or white. But why didn’t this “vision” appear to the white people — who needed to see it? Maybe it was something they didn’t want to see. Or maybe it had to be entrust­ed to someone whose life depended on it.

In the first hours, days, months following his narrow escape, however, Cameron had a heightened sense of black and white — as the blacks got angrier and the whites got more cruel, or more ashamed.

The four detectives who drove him out of Marion right after the lynching, to a jail in nearby Huntington — they were white. They ordered this beaten and traumatized kid to lie on the floor of the back seat the whole way, for safety, while they cracked jokes like “this nigger back here is as white as a sheet.” Then, in Huntington jail, there was the old man in the facing cell who began apologizing to Cameron — he was white too. He told Cameron he’d had a fight with his own son about going to Marion. The son wanted in on the lynching. “For all I know, he might have been one of the people in the mob. He might have been the one who put that rope around your neck, and caused that rope burn. He had me arrested and put in jail. Told everybody I was crazy. I am sorry, son, sorry to my heart.”

Next day, the white detectives drove him back to Marion. He lay down on the floor beneath a mat while they cruised the court­house, where part of the lynch mob re­mained on guard. The cops crowed gleeful­ly that “those niggers are still hanging on the tree” “and look how their necks have stretched.” One detective called out to a newsboy, bought the day’s paper, and pulled the mat back to show Cameron the front page. There he saw for the first time the infamous photograph of his dead com­panions surrounded by celebrating white people.

Copies of the photo sold briskly to sightse­ers that day for 50 cents apiece. And the bodies hung in the courthouse square till late afternoon when the state attorney gener­al, a notorious Klan opponent, arrived from Indianapolis and personally cut them down.

Cameron, meanwhile, had been delivered to the state reformatory, where white guards gathered around to laugh at his clothing, shredded during the beating, and to ridicule his ashen complexion. But then Cameron saw another group of white guards come in and stare from a distance, tears running down their cheeks. Sorrowful, immobilized, they were unable to be more than Greek chorus to the tragedy.

Sympathy was apparently in such short supply among white people in the Indiana of 1930 that Cameron has never forgotten those who gave it to him. Like those guards. And the old man in the Huntington jail. “They are etched in my memory, stamped upon my heart,” he would later write. But at the time, tears weren’t enough to ease his growing hatred of all whites. For months, Cameron felt sick with rage and wanted to kill a white man, any white man. His stepfather actually lived this out for him within a week of the lynching, going crazy to “kill some white folks,” and managing to shoot nine policemen (none fatally) during a nightlong battle. (He then spent a year in prison.) Naturally, the lynchers went free. A grand jury ultimately concluded that Marion authorities had acted “in a prudent manner” on the night of August 7. Cameron was never even asked to testify.

Granted a change of venue for his own trial, he moved from the state reformatory to a cell in Anderson, Indiana, a town about 30 miles from Marion. Word soon spread that Klansmen from Marion planned to storm the Anderson jail, lynch Cameron, and “break in” the sheriff who’d just taken office there. But Anderson’s new sheriff, Bernard Bradley, turned out to be the first white person in Cameron’s life to make a positive difference. First, he promised his young prisoner that if those Kluxers showed up, he and his deputies would shoot to kill. Bradley had patrols in the streets every night, for weeks. Rumor had it that he had even armed the town’s black residents. Cameron writes that that clinched it for the Klan leaders, who decided not to try anything.

Once the tension eased, Sheriff Bradley called Cameron to his office and announced that he was going to make him a turnkey trusty, which would allow him to leave jail during the day. The sheriff said he didn’t believe Cameron guilty of any rape or murder. “I want you to treat me like a father,” Bradley told him, “and I’ll treat you like a loving son.” Utterly shocked, Cameron studied the sheriff’s eyes and body language, “because no white man had ever spoken to me like that before.” But he decided that “my concentration, my scrutiny, could detect no deceit or falsity.” He came to love this sheriff, this anomaly who’d grown up in an all-white town near Anderson. Cameron could only conclude in retrospect that Sheriff Bradley must have been “a weird sort of person, because he was mysterious and apparently outside natural law. By his nature, he seemed to have belonged to another world.”

Then, one day while Cameron was out in the town of Anderson, he saw a man on a bicycle, riding with a little blond girl perched on the handlebars — both of them laughing. Suddenly Cameron realized that this was one of the raging men who had grabbed him in the Marion jail and pulled him out into the street. And he felt a flicker of intense anger, but mostly he felt confounded by the purely human mystery of it. How could it be that this “happy-go-lucky man with that equally happy child had been capable of doing the thing I knew he had done”?

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I COULDN’T HELP BUT notice that, after the lynching, many of the white people in Cameron’s story were either laughing or crying. As you’ll remember, I’m from the lineage of those who laughed. Though personally, I never got the joke. And when I think of my grandfather, who died when I was 16, I shared Cameron’s sense of bewilderment. I ask myself — how could it be?

Of course, how much can one know about a man who never even told his own family about the circumstances of his birth? All he ever said of his childhood was that he’d seen Buffalo Bill then. He had no family stories, while my grandma told so many. I remember once asking her about his parents, and she said, “We don’t talk about that, because it makes him very sad.”

One day when I was eight or nine, I found his mother’s obituary in a desk drawer. I didn’t know that that’s what it was. Just saw that certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade. Curious, I walked into the living room where everyone was seated, blurting out “Who’s Josie Carr?” No one spoke, but my grandpa got up and took the clipping from my hand. None of us ever saw it again. A search of every little news­paper in and around Marion never turned up another copy. Nor is there a record anywhere of her death. Or for that matter, her life. And certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade.

Now it’s been more than 25 years since I last visited Marion. Months after my grandpa’s death, my father drove us out of the town into farm country to see the little house where my grandpa had been born. Somehow my father had managed to find it again, after visiting once as a child. Sort of. My grandpa hadn’t shared this either, leav­ing my little dad at the end of a dirt road, telling him, “I want to see that house one more time before I die.” And my father remembered that while he waited, he could see a church in the distance with its graves. Now our car was parked at the foot of a rutted road from which we could see that church, its graves. And we were walking through knee-deep grass. Then we came to the little house. Or shed. Some horses were living in it.

My grandfather had a sixth-grade educa­tion. He hated cars, airplanes, speed — mo­dernity. He never learned to drive. There was still a shiny black hitching post out in front of the house. For a hobby, he studied railroad timetables, and knew which trains rode on what tracks all over America. He was always walking to the tracks to watch a train. He named my father after Eugene Debs, the Socialist and trade union man. He did not allow any liquor in the house. He wore a long-sleeved shirt with cuff links every day of his life, and he’d wear the same necktie until it wore out, before he bought another. Always parsimonious, he did the grocery shopping rather than give my grandma any money — buying tongue, green-fried tomatoes, mush, hominy, the fatty cuts of meat. And when he took the family on vacation, it was always the same thing: one day in either Cleveland or Chica­go to window-shop and ride the elevated.

He was part of the intolerance in the town, a narrow man. Yet I can also see him joining the Kluxers for the most painfully human reasons. The Klan made him re­spectable. For awhile there, all the “right people” belonged.

The Klan took over the Indiana Republi­can Party in 1924 and elected a majority of the state legislature. One open Klansman became governor, another the mayor of Indianapolis. Cameron thinks a prominent lawyer ran the Marion group. I read Kath­leen M. Blee’s Women of the Klan, because most of her research focuses on Indiana in the ’20s, where, she concludes, the Klan was an integral part of white Protestant culture: “Far from the popular media image of people with weaknesses of character or temperament or intellect as the Klan’s only adherents, the Klanswomen and Klansmen of the 1920s were more often­ — and perhaps more frighteningly — normal.” Scholars disagree on the number of enrolled members, but it ranges between a quarter million and half a million at a time when Mississippi (for example) initiated 15,000. The indisputable fact is that in the ’20s Indiana had more Kluxers than any other state, though it was 97 per cent white and Protestant.

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The Klan had developed over the years from a raw expression of hate to a more convoluted expression of hate. After the Civil War, it had been a purely terrorist organization. But in the ’20s, the Invisible Empire sold itself as a morality crusade redolent of today’s “traditional values” campaigns. The Klan claimed that Jews, blacks, and Catholics were purveyors of vice and social decay.

Possibly the only white writer to examine what it meant to be white in a segregated society, and this in the ’40s, Lillian Smith analyzed the signs and signifiers of the KKK, pointing out that no one could have dramatized the Return of the Repressed more vividly. These were men dressed in sheets and pillowcases, stalking through the darkness, intent most often on “the symbolic killing of a black male who, according to this paranoid fantasy, has ‘raped’ a ‘sa­cred’ white woman. It is a complete acting out of the white man’s internal guilt and his hatred of colored man and white woman.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the Invisible Empire in Indiana collapsed in a sex scandal at the end of the ’20s. Apparently, the state’s charismatic Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson, had long been notorious among the Klan elite for sexual harassment, attempted rapes, desert­ed wives, and late-night orgies. But his ex­ploits didn’t become public until 1925, when he was arrested for the rape and mur­der of a young woman. Once Stephenson was convicted, many Klan members never attended another meeting, and political in­fighting began to discourage many of those who remained. Again, scholars disagree on an exact figure, but by 1928 membership had declined to somewhere between 4000 and 7000.

The most bizarre stories I found in my research relate to the Indiana Klan’s fixa­tion with Catholics, who were much more of a focus in the Hoosier State than either blacks or Jews. “Escaped nuns” and former “priests” often appeared at Klan rallies to regale their audiences with tales of Roman­ist sadomasochism, kidnapped white Prot­estant girls turned sexual slaves, and “abor­tions forced on nuns by the priests who fathered their babies.” It’s almost funny­ — these porn fantasies of the rubes, but they are a reminder of another fact: everyday life back then was determined in ways we can’t imagine by phantoms, rumors, and myths. Many Klan members anticipated the imminent invasion of the pope, who, it was believed, already had a papal palace under construction in Washington, D.C. Given their loyalty to the “dago on the Tiber,” Catholics were simply not good Americans. Blee recounts this incredible story from an anonymous informant: “Some Klan leader said that the Pope was coming to take over the country, and he said he might be on the next train that went through.… Just trying to make it specific. So, about a thousand people went out to the train station and stopped the train. It only had one passenger [car] and one passenger on it. They took him off, and he finally convinced them that he wasn’t the Pope. He was a carpet salesman.”

My grandfather had a particular hatred for Catholics. I still remember the worried dinner conversations over the possible elec­tion of John F. Kennedy — who would most likely be turning the country over to the pope. Maybe this antipathy helped push him to join his local klavern. I’ll never have an answer to that mystery. When I first learned that he’d been a member, I remem­bered that his was the only one of my relatives’ homes in which I ever saw black people — women from my grandma’s Sun­day school class. And I remembered that my grandma herself was one-quarter Indi­an. But these are the paradoxes of Ameri­can racism.

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LAST AUGUST I WENT to Milwaukee to meet James Cameron.

It was a way to begin to find what had been hidden from me. At the time, I didn’t analyze it beyond that. Certainly there was nothing I could do about my grandfather’s choices, or about a lynching that took place decades before I was born, but somehow I felt I was still living the wages of that sin. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. Or maybe you knew that someone you loved had even participated in it, or condoned it, or laughed at it. The moment embodied in that infamous Marion photograph was a tragedy for everyone there. And I didn’t see a way to set it right. But I could go to Milwaukee.

When I met Cameron, I would have to acknowledge my own connection to that defining moment in his life, and I consid­ered this with some apprehension. As I drove into the neighborhood near his muse­um, I realized I must also be near the paro­chial school where I attended kindergarten and first grade. I was born in Milwaukee, and back then, this area was undergoing “white flight.”

America’s Black Holocaust Museum sits on a quiet street between a public school and a soul food restaurant. Greeting me at the museum’s locked steel door, Cameron is more robust than I expect. He is a soft-­spoken man, a down-home Midwesterner who in many ways has lived an ordinary life. He puts in six days a week at the museum, by himself. As we sit in his small makeshift office, I ask him to talk about his life between the lynching and the present.

First came four years in prison, as an accessory before the fact to voluntary man­slaughter in the death of Claude Deeter. Ordered to serve his parole outside Indi­ana, he moved to Detroit, then returned to Anderson, and finally moved to Milwaukee in 1953, working a series of blue-collar jobs. He worked at a shoeshine parlor, the Delco factory, then a cardboard-box fac­tory. Went to night school to learn air con­ditioning and steam combustion. Worked at a big shopping mall. Retired. Then, went into business for himself as a rug and upholstery cleaner. He attends mass daily. In 1953, he converted to Catholicism, a faith he attributes to the example of Sheriff Ber­nard Bradley. He’s been married for 55 years and raised five children.

But mostly what he’s done for over 60 years is struggle obsessively to bear witness. He began writing A Time of Terror in pris­on, but authorities confiscated the manu­script when he was paroled. By early the next year, he’d written it out again. Once he’d moved to Anderson, he began going back to Marion to interview white people who’d witnessed the lynching. Cameron then rewrote the book about 100 more times as he accumulated nearly 300 rejec­tions before self-publishing. He pulls out pamphlets he’s produced on the Klan, the Confederate flag, the Thirteenth Amend­ment, slavery, Reconstruction, the first civil rights bill, the second civil rights bill… he’s written hundreds. The latest is “Definite and Positive Proof that Free Black Men Did Vote Right Along With Free White Men in the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of Ameri­ca.” Neither an academic nor an activist, he’s out of the loop in which these messages usually get advanced, self-publishing as much as he can afford at $20 per copyright.

He hasn’t even begun to renovate the ex-­boxing school. His exhibits have been packed away for over a year. But Cameron points into the gymnasium where I notice basketball hoops and piles of chairs: “That’ll be my Chamber of Horrors.” That will be the room with, for example, the photo taken in Marion’s courthouse square. Cameron intends to exhibit large pictures in the style of the Jewish Holocaust Muse­um. That’s what inspired him, when he visited during a trip to Israel with his wife, Virginia, in 1979. “It shook me up some­thing awful,” he recalls. “I said to my wife, ‘Honey, we need a museum like that in America to show what has happened to us black folks and the freedom-loving white people who’ve been trying to help us.’ ” He shows me where he intends to put his book­store, his contemplation room, his lecture and screening room. The spaces are still filled with old weightlifting machines, lock­ers, a pool table.

This building is his third location. With $5000 of his own money, he opened the museum in 1988 on the second floor of Milwaukee’s Black Muslim headquarters, then moved to a storefront around the cor­ner, but he never had room to exhibit more than 10 photos or to store many of his 10,000 books on race relations. And, to his utter frustration, he would sometimes go for days without a single person coming in. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The approach of his 80th birthday has kindled a sense of urgency. “I got one foot in the grave and the other one got no busi­ness being out,” he chuckles, then sobers. “I wish that book would hurry up and come out so I can get some speaking engagements under my belt and then I can get my money to put that boiler in.”

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Cameron is part of that tradition of Afri­can Americans who would hold this coun­try to her ideals. He would like to replace the word “racism” with “un-American.” He pulls out a copy of Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings: “This should be in every home just like the Bible.” I ask him if he’s ever studied history — noting The Rhet­oric of Racial Revolt, The Negro Since Emancipation, Writings by W.E.B. Dubois and stacks of other books in his cluttered office. “Yes,” he replies, “I live in history.”

“My grandparents were from Marion,” I tell him.

“They probably remember it,” says Cameron.

This benign assessment of what I know to be shameful slows me down. “My father remembers it too, even though he was only seven when it happened.”

“Yeah, that made an impression on him. Sure.”

He begins to tell me his story, even though he has said that he doesn’t like to do this one-on-one. It’s still too emotional for him. Showing me a postcard of the Marion jail, he points out where Tommy was, where Abe was, where he was. Almost com­pulsively, he describes how they were beat­en, how he’d found out later that the Mar­ion sheriff, Jacob Campbell, was in the Klan, and how, when the mob was about to hang him, he prayed. “And then this voice spoke from heaven. It was from heaven. No human voice could have quelled the fury of that mob.” Then a great silence fell over the crowd, and he entered what seemed like a room made of film negatives, where he and everyone else was “petrified,” and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.

I tell him my family’s story, leaving out the cruel part — the laughter. “Then, after he died, we found out that my grandfather was in the Klan.”

“That happens,” he replies.

“All my father said was he never saw a hooded sheet.”

“You know what?” Cameron tells me. “During the roaring ’20s, Indiana had over a half million Klansmen and Marion had the first chapter. They were called the mother den of all the Klans in Indiana. It was an upgoing thing. If you weren’t in the Klan, you were nobody, and that’s what gave them the liberty to lynch black people with impunity. Sure.”

“My grandfather may well have known about the lynching and may well have ap­proved of it.”

“Sure.” He gets up, saying that he has something special to show me, a new arti­fact for the museum. Someone in Marion had sent him one of the Klan’s infamous “souvenirs.” The ropes used to hang Tom­my Shipp and Abe Smith had been cut into pieces and distributed as mementos. Now, from a business envelope, Cameron pulls a piece of nondescript and fraying rope. A handwritten document says that it was ob­tained from the original owner by the man elected sheriff several years after the lynch­ing, and that it was unknown which of the two ropes it came from. “I’m going to put that in a glass case with all kinds of pad­locks on it,” he says, handing it over for me to inspect. “You’re the first one to have seen this.”

In my conversations with Cameron, I found myself constantly astonished at things he mentioned in passing. I would stumble to rephrase a question, not sure I’d heard him right. Most of these little shocks related to his interactions with white peo­ple — not the brutal ones, the “nice” ones. Like the 200-plus white people Cameron found who’d been among the spectators at his near-death. The actual lynch mob prob­ably numbered between 25 and 50. But thousands more had watched. Those Cam­eron interviewed were all happy to see that he’d survived the beating (rumor had it he’d died), but none of them had lifted a finger to ensure that he would survive. And they now demonstrated neither a reluctance to talk nor a wish to apologize.

Then there’s the story about the mayor of Marion, who came to visit Cameron in jail the day of the lynching, bringing with him a red-haired man who had the bottom half of his face covered with a handkerchief. I think we can assume that the redhead was a ringleader, that he’d come to see which three prisoners they’d be taking from the jail, but he remained silent while the mayor asked Cameron how old he was and what his mother did for a living and had he ever been in trouble before. Then the mayor left town “on business” before the lynching be­gan. In 1980, Cameron visited the old may­or and together they looked at the infamous picture taken that night while the mayor named for him nearly every person in it. They were photographed while doing this, for Ebony magazine.

In an old article from the Marion paper, I read a vehement denial from Sheriff Camp­bell’s daughter about his allegiance to the Klan. Not only was he never allied with them, she asserted, but it was his voice that called out that night to save James Camer­on.

When I related this to Cameron, he said, “Isn’t that pitiful?”

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THESE HISTORIC CRIMES are the ghosts still flitting through all of our lives. Perhaps if we white people could take responsibility, reconciliation could happen. But how do we do that? The further we get from these stories and their contexts, the easier it is to say: I wasn’t there; I didn’t do anything. We ignore how much the new stories grow out of old rot. And we can’t acknowledge that we’ve done something that needs forgiving.

But in 1991, Cameron decided that he would ask to be forgiven. He wrote a letter to Indiana governor Evan Bayh, requesting a pardon “for the foolish role I played in the commission of a crime that resulted in the loss of three precious lives.” Cameron said the idea to request a pardon just came to him. He wanted to clear his name before he died. He wanted to “wipe this whole thing clean.” Bayh signed the pardon in February of last year, and Cameron went back to Marion. The mayor gave him a key to the city in a ceremony at a Marion hotel, and Cameron wiped away tears as the in­scription on his pardon was read.

“Now that the state of Indiana has for­given me for my indiscretion,” he told the overflow crowd, “I, in turn, forgive Indiana for their transgressors of the law in Marion on the night of August 7, 1930. I forgive those who have harmed me and Abe and Tom realizing I can never forget the trau­matic events that took place that night.”

See, he did it for us. Wiped it clean.

In a racist society, a white person can not feel “whole.” That was the conclusion reached by Lillian Smith, and I keep going back to her because she is one of the very few to consider what whiteness means, and what its tragedy might be. “Only a few of our people are killers,” she wrote in her analysis of lynching, but she noted the heightened level of violence, how usually the black man was killed several times over, becoming a receptacle for “dammed-up hate” and “forbidden feelings.” There’s a pathology there that leaks out into everyday relationships. Only a few of our people are killers, but we are dissemblers, dehumaniz­ers, averters of eyes, enforcers of a rift in our psyches, and all because we’re wearing the hood — to hide our guilt, our past, and our helplessness in the face of that past. This is why Smith analyzed lynching, in the end, as “a Sign, not so much of troubled race relations, as of a troubled way of life that threatens to rise up and destroy all the people who live it.”

I remember my childhood disquiet with that Bible verse about “visiting the iniqui­ties of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” It was so unfair, yet I worried that it might be true. I no longer know this as the curse of a wrathful God but as the curse we’ve brought on ourselves by refusing to look at our histor­ies. We white people don’t want to feel guilty, of course. And guilt isn’t useful. But, too often, we compensate by feeling noth­ing.

We can at least begin to tell the truth about the past. I decided to, hoping in some way to uplift my race. ■

A Time of Terror will be published next month by Black Classic Press, 410-358-0980. America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, 414-264-2500.

 

Photo of James Cameron who survived a lynching An American Tale the Village Voice

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

What If They Gave a New Year and Nobody Came?

Lately every time you turn around somebody’s saying: “The eighties are coming!” Like at the stroke of midnite on New Year’s it’s all gonna be different! And when you tell ’em, “Come on, you know everything’s just gonna keep on slowly sinking,” they get downright mad! Spoilsports! No sense of social duty! It’s true that I am antisocial! But so is my whole crowd. When our fave bar the Bells of Hell closed down a few months back we all stayed in our apartments instead of seeking out a new watering hole. (Perhaps suggesting that, like the buffalo, we are soon to disappear.) I told my shrink this and he said: “You’re all pathetic.”

Another time when I complained I was getting weirded out around other people because I never saw ’em because all I did was lay in bed with the covers over my head because I truly believed as the mighty Ramones quoth that there was “nothin’ to do and nowhere to go” so I just wanted to be sedated, my shrink suggested I call up all my friends in all their separate little cells and see if we couldn’t figure out some way to repatriate ourselves in the human race and enjoy it. So I conducted this plebiscite, and when I came back he said: “So what’s the consensus?” I said, “The consensus is, ‘Whaddaya wanna be around people for? Most of ’em suck anyway!'”

I suppose you think I’m being negative. All right, if I’m negative you go tell Mother there’s something wrong with the womb! Ha, gotcha! Besides which, as the eighties loom I suspect that my antisocial minority will soon be a majority, and we’ll have an antisociety! Imagine that! Will Rogers the ultimate outlaw! And what better time to inaugurate this ghost town than New Year’s Eve! Ring out the old, ring in the old! And older and older. I ask you, have you ever had a New Year’s Eve you enjoyed? Of course not! Why? Because you’ve persisted in this insane delusion that somehow things are supposed to keep getting better, or that the cyclical nature of the ying-yang means that the earth is supposed to replenish itself or some such horseshit! Horseshit doesn’t even replenish itself. Do these sidewalks? This peeling paint, crumbling plaster, backed-up plumbing? A replenishable landlord? Fuck no!

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There are two directions in which extants can go: (a) stasis or (b) decay. And New Year’s Eve is the biggest bummer yet, because we all go out with these expectations and get totally soused just so we can stand to be around each other because we’ve spent the late fall and winter’s first blush sinking deeper into TV Guide, and now we’re expected to positively revel in proximity to these globs of hideous humanity. So OF COURSE horrible scenes ensue.

The first New Year’s I have a clear memory of was probably the first one I was old enough to get drunk for: I got stoned on nutmeg instead. All my friends did get drunk tho and exiting this teenclub full of depressed zit-lumpen reduced to flat colas we drove aimlessly around El Cajon, inevitably ending in the line at Jack in the Box where, as people vomited all over the inside of my car, I said “Welcome to 1967.” We shoulda known right away Hippie wouldn’t work.

1968: I went to a party where everybody drank too much vodka too fast and pawed each other or tried to while Donovan trilled of fat angels. Only saw one person vomit: my girlfriend, all over her brand-new white hiphuggers. (Earlier in the evening I had told her, re said fem-trousers: “You look like a Tijuana whore.” A downy lad I was and twee.) I was on Marezine and kept seeing little men with axes and hammers chopping naked gabbling pigmy demons to death in other people’s lapels. When I got home I hallucinated all kinds of people coming into my room and reached out to them screaming, “Don’t dissolve! Don’t dissolve!” But sure enough they did. Then I thought I saw a friend of mine silhouetted behind the windowshade whispering from the garden: “Lester! Lester!” I leaped out of bed and yanked up the shade, pathetically grateful for some human companionship. There was nothing there but the empty street with leaves blowing.

I went into the bathroom to take a piss and hallucinated that my mother was ogling my dick with one huge roc eyeball through a crack in the door. Then I went back to bed and dreamed that narcs in steelgrey suits were stationed at strategic points all over my school watching me through slowly swiveling Silva-Thin shades. For the first two months of 1968 I couldn’t look anybody in the eye.

1969: Me ‘n’ a buncha buddies went cruisin’ in some dude’s jalopy. We beered awhile to no avail. One pal who later joined the navy where he majored in underwater demolition (exhorting me to enlist by his bonded side: “It’s real fun blowin’ up stuff!”) said, “Let’s go out ‘n’ git us sum scrunt.” Nobody else said anything. Eventually we all went home too depressed even to feel drunk and fell asleep. The whole evening shoulda been written by (or inflicted on) Robbe-Grillet.

1970: New Year’s Eve I spent getting drunk on beer watching TV at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, periodically ducking out to drive by the motel bungalow of some needle-freak friends because I wanted to buy some heroin, which I had never tried. Finally they were home and sold me some. When I got back to my girlfriend’s house I ran in the bathroom and tried to snort it. Not yet hep to rolled-up bills, I dumped the stuff onto a mirror held at a precarious angle over the sink, balanced it an inch from my nose, and honked amighty. Nothing happened except later I drank some Country Club Malt Liquor, went home, and wrote a review for Rolling Stone (which never got printed) of a Bob Dylan bootleg. Next day I bragged to all my friends: “I wrote a record review on heroin last night!” Being too lame to ingest the shit was the only time I ever got lucky on a New Year’s Eve.

1971: I stayed home and read the Bible. No, that’s a lie. What I did was go to the drive-in with my girlfriend — all hopped up (me, that is) on vodka and her mother’s thyroid pills, totally unable to concentrate on the double feature of I Drink Your Blood (starring Ronda Fultz, Jadine Wong, and somebody merely billed “Bhaskar”) and I Eat Your Skin (William Joyce, Heather Hewitt) which would have been impossible under any circumstances anyway, thinking all night how next morning I was gonna do like Jack Kerouac and just jump in my car eating speed with one hand while flicking the starter with the other and drive drive drive till I plashed through Blakean breakers of light on the golden prows of the Rocky Mountain Shield. Of course I didn’t, woke up with a muzzy hangover instead, which is probably just as well: I coulda ended up being John Denver.

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1972: New Year’s I spent dead drunk and gutpit-depressed at my mother’s house in California. Called up my friend Nick in NYC and miserably groaned through several leagues of whiskey, “I think I’m becoming an alcoholic.” He didn’t wanna hear that because he was just about to spend New Year’s Day making his way down Broadway from 99th Street having one drink in every bar along the way until he ended at Broadway and Third, the very last bar, St. Adrian Co., also known as the Broadway Central Bar, being an adjunct of the Broadway Central Hotel, a flophouse. He called back the next day: “Sorry Les, I’m too depressed to talk.”

1973: Went to a party with my ex-puppylove­-girlfriend (she of the greened hiphuggers) and her sis and brother-in-law. Most everybody else there was a swinging single, or trying to be. I danced dirty with the hostess. It was right out of Doctors’ Wives. My ex-galf’d got mad at me for rubbing up agin said hussy and huffed a bit. I bet Gore Vidal never came out with anything as deft as, “Whattayou care? You won’t fuck me!” She cried. Later in the car in savage ugly liquored sexual frustration I dug one of my nails into her wrist until it bled. She told me I was a sissy. I was.

1974: Back in California again, staying at my old girlfriend’s deserted tho furnished apartment, as, unbeknownst to Mom, she’s off livin’ with some forty-five-year-old businessman who when he stands next to ya drink-in’ at the bar always keeps a fistful of dollars taut-gripped so he can shoot ’em out as he snoots it up. That kinda guy. So there I am enjoying her empty apartment, lying around listening to Raw Power and Berlin all the time, when I get this bright idea: I’ll take all these sleaze-rock LPs to this night’s singles/married/whatever-they-think­-they-are party, and blast ’em. Ey-pa-TAY, MUTHAFUCKA! So I scoop up all the discs ‘n’ off we go ‘n’ all nite long I keep slipping ’em on the record player bumming everybody out tho they was also kinda fascinated, like this room got kinda quiet at times, waxen even, p’raps understandable this being California suburbs everybody’s dressed to the fillings in all kinda chains and whatnot, taco tanktopping it with frappe de la Yardley on the side, big hoop earrings, all the guys got sideburns so sharp they smoke, when Lou wafts thru: “Caroline says … as she gets up off the floor … ‘Why is it that you beat me? … It isn’t any fun … ‘ ”

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Meanwhile all these folks is loungin’ around ’bout to broach a dolce vita thru the looking glass. Frozen moments, all of them bad. Icy lips and frigid sunglasses.

“It’s not me that’s frigid it’s my Foster Grants!”

“It’s not me that’s impotent it’s my English Leather!”

“Well let’s swap!”

“Wow! Okay!”

“Hey, this decadence stuff up my butt is fun!”

Sadly, it never happened that way. I can’t remember this New Year’s Eve and hadda make something up. But the stories you make up the next day are always better than what actually happened.

1975: Sensible for once. I dropped some speed and Valium, went to the office, which was deserted, and stayed up all night writing a story for the February issue of Creem. Devotion to duty? No. Retreat from Gehenna.

1976: I had been going out with this girl for a couple of months kinda scene-makin photog­-lolligagin around Detroit. She’d decided I was a fag since one nite in Oct/Nov thereabouts at a Barry White concert when we’z sittin behind Ohio Players, the world’s worst opening act, and she sez, re the bass player, “He’s got a nice ass” and I sat up a bit to look and she gave me a weird stare and that was that. So anyway me and this snope-lobe keep a-datin’, but no sex. I was clumsy and shy and she, well, I guess her cameras woulda got in the way. Anyhow here come New Year’s Eve, the biggun, and lord if fuckin Creem magazine don’t rent a whole suite in this postrundowntown hotel just to, ah, entertain all the important folk’t might just happen to tum up like, say, local disc jockeys or Martin Mull who’d done his shtick downstairs and did it upstairs too. For some dumb reason I kinda liked this girl. I dunno, well actually I do know: in front she looked like somebody I used to love named Judy, and in back she looked like somebody I did love but wouldn’t see me at the time named Nancy. So MEA CULPA MUHFUH, etc. Anyhoo, come to find out that the only reason she even went to dis bash wid me was that I jus’ happenda work at the same magazine as this guy name Charlie Auringer who ALL the broads thereabouts were hot for cause’n he jes set back so indifferent all the time, eyeball-to­-snowboot, that kinda thing. When I saw her blatantly USING me to get to Charlie I got pissed. And did what any other righteously upstandin Rasta woulda done: slunk downstairs ‘n’ drunk muhsef tuh nullhood. But I was not alone in this endeavor, and long about midnite her ‘n’ me miraculously ended up side by side, right there stageside table in the lounge downstairs, balloons enuff to snuff Steve Martin agozzlin thru the air, treacle paper everywhere, Flo and Eddie runnin’ around grabbin’ all the asses they could JUST EXACTLY like in that Fugs song “Dirty Old Man,” confetti falling, and me and Lee Anne (for that was her name) both of us in li’l tinsel tophats, socute, herecum midnite, whammo, out go the lites.

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I sling my drunken arm around her shoulders and go to kiss her. She turns away tautlipped.

“Hey! I take you out all the time! I like you! We do things together! Boy and Girl! And you won’t even kiss me on New Year’s Eve!!!!!!??!!!!! What is this shit?”

”You’ve got bad breath,” she said.

It could only get better. Having finally won the heart of the aforementioned Nancy, we moved to New York where we starved Barefoot in the Park and huddled together against this city watching Donny and Marie every single Friday nite. New Year’s Eve we watched Jimmy and Rosalynn instead. Their preinaugural ball. We teardropped together when Loretta Lynn sang “One’s on the Way.” We felt hope for society. We were young and idealistic and in love. We were walking sugar comas too stunned to find our way to a diabetic ward should all that glop we ate back up into our lymph ducts. Six months later she left me to listen to the Sex Pistols in peace.

I went through a couple of minor affairs after that whilst mostly staying drunk and practically taking up residence at CBGB’s where I played the role of Bukowskian bohemian/artiste in ze big sitcom. It got me some real great women — the kind that sit crosslegged on your floor after you’ve both been up all night on bad drugs and won’t fuck you but are perfectly amenable to describing in linoleum detail their various suicide attempts and highly complex postexistential Weltanschauung derived from Richard Hell and countless auditions of dear Sidney warbling “My Way,” a philosophical stance reducible to Life is not worth living and everything stinks but killing yourself is too much effort so what the fuck you got anything else to drink?

It sooner or later became apparent that any women who shared my tastes in music might be predicted miles ahead as burnt-out hunchbacked mutes, half-retarded drug repositories given to heavy facial tic action. It was not that I sought something out of Fascinating Womanhood. I can whip up a Stouffer’s Spinach Soufflé deft as Régine herself, but I did feel there might be some slight possibility that something existed somewhere in between these two outposts of you’re-right-gimme-the-gun-I-wanna-blow-my-­brains-out-first. In fact I was ripe as Li’l Abner in full flushblush, and fell in love Xmas ’77 with the first of what would turn out to be a succession of women who, like myself, were gainfully employed in various aspects of media and were not about to end up aborting a broken vodka bottle on the steps of CBGB’s. These were to be women of refinement and urbane cachet. Some of them took cabs everywhere they went! I also noticed a propensity toward the employment of what they laughingly referred to as “my faggot houseboy,” making little jokes about how handy his imagined infantile-fixated compulsions were when it came to scrubbing the bathroom. The first one I engaged even had a doorman, who thought I was a hoodlum and hated my guts because no thirty-year-old man walks around jobless in a black leather jacket alla time, and who knows but what he may have been right.

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As for my new love, hardly had we finished giggling fantasies about “honeymooning” in that heartshaped bathtub in the Poconos when that bastard Reality (who oughta be terminated with extreme prejudice) set in. It took exactly one week for it to become clear though thick with silence that we had absolutely nothing in common, were in fact the mindlessly magnetic attraction of plupolar opposites. I was still into nothing but platters of shrieking anomic noise while her favorite form of leisuretime wowzow was watching endless made-for-TV movies about occultists bending sinister in obscure New England hamlets. It was nobody’s fault and nothing we could do about it but spend the next months torturing each other. Our New Year’s Eve: We awoke to find ourselves sitting on her couch in the deepening silence watching Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians play “Auld Lang Syne” without even a nod to Jimi’s revolutionary interpolations. And then the big ball dropped on all those cheering idiots slow as a senile meteorite. It was the only time in my life I have ever observed this I am told quite popular ritual (though I am a definite Yule Log fan), and it certainly will be the last, inasmuch as it was one of the possibly four or five dreariest experiences I have known. We didn’t even have any drinks, though we had money. Guess we were so gone we forgot to drink, marijuana would needless to say have been much more deadly than usual. I felt like an E string adrift somewhere in the nether gulfs of the second Dire Straits album.

Next day I went to a dinner party with five of my oldest and dearest friends where absolutely nobody could think of a single word to say. Best line of the afternoon: “Does anybody know any good jokes?” (Delivered at dinner table, quantifying silence to brink of catatonia.)

1979: New Year’s things seemed to be looking up. I had plenty of money, got wired up on beer and bennies and showed up at a friend’s party at the exact instant I’d been informed the jumpin punkins’d be lifting off. Only trouble was nobody else was there yet but the host and his girlfriend/roommate and a cousin from Buffalo or somewhere and we all sat nursing tepid beers, our massed alpha-waves bouncing off Randy Mantooth’s forehead on “Emergency One!” An hour or so of such terror and the bennies itched me right outa my chair and down to the since-shut fave bar the Bells of Hell where I made a pretty good job of picking up this woman I’d never met before till the bartender Phil walked over and said to me, “Do you realize that for the last half hour every other thing you’ve said has had something to do with homosexuality? What’s your problem, Lester?” She much less I hadn’t seemed to notice if such were fact but I was just drunk enough for liberal guilt so I blurted out this real vitreous solution about how I’d had a deadly relationship the previous summer with another media maiden who was a self-declared faghag so gee whiz I didn’t mean to be prejudiced against anybody but maybe I really did harbor some previously unsussed resentment … Naturally this had a real salutary effect on the nascent whoknows mebbe truelove beside me. I took her number and split.

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Later I went to a party where I met a British socialist-type girl who gave me her number as well as wrote at the bottom of the scrap “I liked you.” Of course I called her and we saw each other for about three months, earnestly discussing the Clash vs. The Guardian over Japanese dinners. The full extent of our physicals was a peck g’nite on the cheek as she departed at her subway stop headed for Iceland or Brooklyn I forget which. I soon grew to hate her, and we parted in ash-curdling acrimony. But later on that same New Year’s Eve nite I really lucked out by going back to the Bells where this totally comatose thirty-year-old stranger who worked for UPI hung all over me to my manifest indifference and the embarrassment of everyone else at our table. I could have told her to go foist her slumbrous blandishments elsewhere, but I was too much of a wimp. Finally I got up to leave. I was just a ways past the door when I heard these steps following me down the sidewalk.

“Wait … ”

I waited, stood gallantly propping the creep up till I could hail her a cab. Meanwhile I lectured her in my best Bill Cosby voice. “Listen: you are truly foolish. You don’t know me. I could be David Berkowitz, the Boston Strangler, Richard Speck with a new set of contacts. You really oughta be more careful.” I swear, sometimes I wonder if I’m not Jewish, and a Jewish mother at that.

When I went to put her in the cab, she asked, “Aren’t you going to take me home?”

All right, that’s it, I said to myself like Richard Burton looking at his paycheck for The Medusa Touch, and got into the cab. All the ride to her Upper East Side Laura Mars swankpad she kept prattling about the black leather jacket I was wearing.

“Are you a member of a motorcycle club or something?” I laughed.

“Hell no — I’m a media hack, just like you!”

She didn’t get the joke. When we got out at her corner (where believe me I had no thought in ten purgatories of paying), she kept up this leather routine, persisted at this spume of dogs till finally in a rage I tore the jacket off and flung it at her.

Here, take the damn thing if that’s all you’re interested in!”

“NO, no … ”

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Up in her digs the footlights was boss. She had Grand Marnier night-capwise while I opted for the more proletarian Pinch-with-water. I commenced the usual routine and she pushed me away, blubbering incoherently about some guy she loved who’s stationed with Reuters in Bangkok She tried to call him. He wasn’t home. We hung out in her kitchen awhile and somehow, suddenly, from the way she was acting towards me and my clothes I got the creepy feeling for the first time in my life that just maybe this one wanted me to slap her around a little bit or maybe a lot or who knows what beyond that. This was some time after having been flashed back to the scene in City of Night where the customer throws the hustler out of his house in a rage because this supposed steerhunk truck driver committed the unpardonable gaffe of letting drop that he too had read D. H. Lawrence. I’d had the feeling that something was expected of me, but up till now hadn’t a clue what and doubted she did either. She kept baiting me verbally, weird little zingers from the twilight zone bouncing off the fact that I was about as butch as a college professor who has been sedentary for thirty years. This talk alternated with zonkout google slurs.

It got boring in spite of all freak appeal after a while so I went over and looked through her record collection. The only album she owned that I could remotely relate to was Surrealistic Pillow. I put it on. It sounded nice. We ended up on the couch again where she recommenced to drool aloud. I seem to remember at one point telling her that it really didn’t make any difference to me whether we had sex or not, especially considering the deadening effects of all the speed and booze inside me. Later I grabbed her head between my palms and forced her waxen eyes to look straight into mine sorta and I said in measured dramatic tones, “Do you know what I see when I look into your eyes? Stark, naked terror.” What an asshole I was. A bit later I snapped, “You got any drugs?” By now I was actually beginning to enjoy playing the role. She brought out this vial of pain pills left over from previous misadventure, asked me what use I could possibly have for them. I said that when I had a real bad combination hangover this stuff was the only thing that eased it. Then she decided maybe she’d better hold on to them after because this supposed steerhunk truck driver committed the unpardonable gaffe of letting drop that he too had read D. H. Lawrence. I’d had the feeling that something was expected of me, but up till now hadn’t a clue what and doubted she did either. She kept baiting me verbally, weird little zingers from the twilight zone bouncing off the fact that I was about as butch as a college professor who has been sedentary for thirty years. This talk alternated with zonkout google slurs.

It got boring in spite of all freak appeal after a while so I went over and looked through her record collection. The only album she owned that I could remotely relate to was Surrealistic Pillow. I put it on. It sounded nice. We ended up on the couch again where she recommenced to drool aloud. I seem to remember at one point telling her that it really didn’t make any difference to me whether we had sex or not, especially considering the deadening effects of all the speed and booze inside me. Later I grabbed her head between my palms and forced her waxen eyes to look straight into mine sorta and I said in measured dramatic tones, “Do you know what I see when I look into your eyes? Stark, naked terror.” What an asshole I was. A bit later I snapped, “You got any drugs?” By now I was actually beginning to enjoy playing the role. She brought out this vial of pain pills left over from previous misadventure, asked me what use I could possibly have for them. I said that when I had a real bad combination hangover this stuff was the only thing that eased it. Then she decided maybe she’d better hold on to them after all, giving me two and stuffing the vial down her purse, which was interesting. About five minutes after that she passed out curled sitting up in a foetal ball on the couch as the sun came up through the curtains. What the fuck, I said, I’ll give the bitch the B production she wants: I robbed her. I dug in the purse for the vial, actually found myself looking for a moment at her wallet, either couldn’t go that far or realized how silly this whole charade was, grabbed the fifth of Pinch on the way out the door, stomping down just a little meaner in my badass Frye boots. Still as tough and mature obviously as the ’73 night of the famous fingernail-dig. I wished I could call up Dotson Rader for a Merit Badge. Out in the street I hailed a cab; the driver was a middle-aged black guy. I said, “Jesus, man, I’m so glad to be around another human being at last! Can I tell you a story?”

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Sure, he says, so I belched up the mess, capping it with the declaration that when I got home I was gonna call her and tell her that she was a sicko weirdo Goodbar so-‘n’ -so and yeh baby I stole your pills ‘n’ booze but you stole a li’l bit o’ my soul.

When I finished my story, the driver, who had laughed uproariously throughout, turned and said: “Aw, hell, man, why go to all that fuckin’ trouble? Look, here’s whatcha do. Wait till bout two o’clock in the afternoon when you know she’s up, then phone her and real calm and polite say, ‘I just called to see if you were all right.’ Then after she answers tell her to go fuck herself an’ hang up!”

I realized immediately that he was right and I was still halfway up a horse on some backlot in Hollywood. I thanked him profusely. When I got home I drank her Pinch, took more speed, listened to the Clash through headphones feeling the righteous wrath of all us boots-in-the-alley working class minorities. Then I dialed her number. She wasn’t home. When I told a friend of mine about it a couple days later he just laughed and said: “So you let some barfly take you home, so what?” So I got to be Rough Trade for a Night, something I can tell my apple-eyed grandchildren about around the hearth, so fuck you, you’re just jealous because you never got mistaken for Sonny Barger. I did learn one valuable lesson, though, which convinced me that what all those hippies called karma actually does exist. That very next New Year’s Night, twenty­four hours later, somebody stole my black leather jacket out of the cloakroom at the Bells.

So here I sit, contemplating a coming New Year’s Eve which is gonna usher in a whole new decade doubtless brimming with little surprises beyond the usual roster of economic/spiritual depression, romantic wrong-ways unto entropy, comforting lapses into autism, etc. I guess I could ring up one of those wayout punk philosopher girls and ask her if she wants to drop by with a couple razor blades, dutch treat. Or enlist in the New Army and ask to be stationed in upper Greenland. Or even move back to Detroit and ask Lee Anne to marry me while I returned to work at Creem, in the mailroom. The possibilities are endless. Don’t guess this piece is gonna help my standing with the ladies much New Year’s or any other night. But that’s cool too; I could marry my mother. If she would have me. Go ahead and feel distaste for my antics with the lush, call me misogynous, misanthrope, Mr. Rogers. Just don’t call me late for my Zoom ‘n’ Locker Room! Every single one of you has acted every bit as oafishly base some New Year’s or other or several or all of them. And you’re gonna do it again this year. The occasion just seems to bring out the worst in us: hatred of ourselves, probably deriving from repression of the clear knowledge that we’re another year older and deeper in debt but ain’t accomplished hackshit and in fact are likely backpedaling; hatred of the rest of the human race because they’ve got our number in this department, especially including women if you’re a man or vice-versa, ’cause that’s just like neighborhood gang war, “beating up the kids from Spain” every weekend like the Dictators said. Whoever’s on the other side of the wall gives you something to do in the form of mashing their skulls, don’t really matter a damn which special-interested group they belong to, all interchangeable when you get right down to it. There’s a lot of free-floating rage in the air these days and New Year’s Eve is just one better excuse to vent it. ‘Course that means you’re gonna wind up rendered a crawling slavering subhuman dog yourself, but that’s half the fun. The only alternatives re this “human dignity” stuff are that old saw about crossing the International Dateline, total isolation (always a good move anyway), or perhaps most sensibly JUST GIVING INTO THE THING AND ACTING LIKE TOTAL WRETCHED DISGUSTING BEASTS. And maybe if we all get drunk enough we’ll all have blackouts so trackless and remarkably sustained that we’ll never remember all the reprehensible things we said and did to each other, hence no guilt. Either that or we’ll all wind up killing each other at last. Though that may be the dream of a blind optimist. If so, an alternate experiment in participatory democracy might be arranged whereby we’d all agree to stockpile beforehand so when we wake up on New Year’s Day we’ve made sure there’s a thousand whiskey bottles around the bed, and then we can start over again immediately, quick as a Wheaties Olympian, before a single one o’ them ghastly memories sifts back in. And what’s more, don’t anybody get up, from sea to shining sea, don’t get up ever but just keep on like that under or over the covers, your option, en masse till New Year’s 1990. We’ve worked hard at wrecking after degrading everything we ever cared about, and deserve a good Puritan rest. Like Gore Vidal said when Tennessee Williams told him he’d slept through the sixties: “You didn’t miss a thing.”

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THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

The Sexual Assault Epidemic That No One Is Talking About

The first time Iffat was assaulted while riding the subway, she was on the Newkirk Plaza platform in Brooklyn late one morning two years ago. Iffat was at the B/Q stop with her mother and two younger sisters, waiting for a train into Manhattan. (She asked that her last name be withheld for her safety.)

The station was quiet and mostly empty. Suddenly, a man standing nearby opened the lid of his coffee cup and threw the contents at Iffat’s back. As the hot liquid seeped into her clothes, the attacker turned and sped down the platform. Iffat’s mom wiped off her daughter’s shirt, pleading with the girls not to call after the man or say anything.

Iffat, who was twenty at the time, had only recently started wearing the hijab as a way to get closer to God. At first she thought what happened might have been an innocent mistake — maybe the man had wanted to empty some liquid out of the cup.

No, her mom replied. I saw him do it; it was intentional.

“This person, he legit felt that he could do this to me,” Iffat tells the Voice. “He does not see me as a person to do that. You feel nasty yourself when you see yourself through somebody else’s eyes and they don’t see you as a human.”

Earlier this month, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) released a report, based on surveys with more than 3,000 Muslim, Arab, South Asian, Jewish, and Sikh New Yorkers, charting the prevalence of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism in the time leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election. The report, which concludes that New Yorkers from these backgrounds face high rates of bias-based harassment, discrimination, and violence, reminds readers that our country’s growing climate of hate isn’t isolated to Southern cities or Republican strongholds.

One statistic in the report was particularly shocking: Of Muslim Arab hijab-wearing women who participated in the survey, more than one in four (27.4 percent) said they had been intentionally pushed or shoved on a subway platform.

The statistic was especially disturbing to the report’s authors. Widad Hassan, the lead adviser for Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities at the CCHR, is also a Muslim Arab woman who wears a hijab. She tells the Voice that after every terrorist attack or negative media blitz about Muslims, the same message is pushed out to hijabis by their friends, family, even social media: Be careful, be cautious, don’t walk too close to the platform edge.

The survey results “actually put a number to something most Muslim women have in their minds,” says Hassan. “One in four, seeing that number — and knowing that it was not only a fear, but an actual experience, that one in four were pushed or shoved — I would say it was both upsetting and shocking.”

***

The second time Iffat was attacked, in February 2017, she was on the B100 bus in Brooklyn, en route to the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. She noticed a man staring at her and tried to ignore him, thinking that maybe he was just drunk. But the man started shouting at her, calling her a terrorist, and yelling, “Take that fucking thing off your head.” She got scared and moved her seat — and he followed her.

“That’s when he pulled my scarf from the back” and tried to pour water from a plastic bottle onto her, Iffat recalls. She says she yelled, “Stop, let me go!” and jumped up from her seat, running to the front of the bus and pleading with the driver to let her off. After he relented and opened the door, Iffat got off the bus and, terrified that the attacker would follow her, ran all the way back home.

Across Europe and other parts of the Global North, research has consistently shown that women are the primary victims of Islamophobic discrimination as well as violent attacks. For her dissertation at the University of Toronto, Sidrah Maysoon Ahmad interviewed 21 Muslim women survivors of Islamophobic violence. “A lot of people would be onboard with seeing Islamophobic violence as racist violence,” Ahmad tells the Voice. “We aren’t there yet to really understand it as gender-based violence.”

Ahmad compares pulling off a woman’s hijab to tearing off her shirt in public – something most people would agree constituted sexual assault: “When it comes to a hijab or niqab [face veil], people don’t have that same visceral reaction” in recognizing the act as a form of nonconsensual undressing or public humiliation. “But we have to remember that the feelings we have about our bodies, and what parts we want to cover or not cover, are completely subjective and socialized.”

After the incident on the bus, Iffat tells the Voice, she felt exactly as she had several years ago — before she had started wearing the hijab — when a man on the street touched her and exposed himself to her. “Those two moments, I didn’t feel a difference in the way that I felt about my body. I felt disgusted in myself,” she says.

Mariam is another New York City resident who’s experienced violence on public transit. Through a translator, the 45-year-old explains how after the 2016 election, as she was waiting to board a train at the 125th Street subway station, a male passenger getting off the train spotted her and then intentionally pushed her. “There was space; there was no need for him to do what he did,” she says. She “could have potentially hurt herself but [I] caught [my] balance.” (Mariam asked for a pseudonym to be used out of concerns for her safety.)

In both Mariam and Iffat’s cases, they said that no bystanders had moved to intervene on their behalf, or even asked if they were all right. Ahmad says this is typical of the women she’s interviewed, something she says often “hurts more than the incident itself.”

Of the New Yorkers surveyed by the CCHR who reported experiencing a bias-based physical assault, most did not report the incident; neither Iffat nor Mariam did so. Hassan blames “a normalization of discrimination – this idea that it wasn’t serious enough to report.” She and other advocates interviewed by the Voice also mentioned language barriers and fears about potential immigration consequences as reasons people are reluctant to go to the police.

Roksana Mun, director of strategy and training at the Jackson Heights-based South Asian community group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), sees a kind of myopia in most conversations about street-based Islamophobic violence, which tend to focus on the perpetrator of the act and not the climate that drives the behavior.

“For us at DRUM, we look at it from the larger institutional perspective of Islamophobia, not just what people experience interpersonally,” Mun says. For decades, she says, local and national counterterrorism policies — the compulsory registration of non-citizen Muslim men post–9/11, the widespread surveillance of New York City Muslims revealed in 2011 by the Associated Press, to the counter-extremism programs put in place by President Obama — have worked to dehumanize Muslims and cast them as dangerous outsiders.

Mun adds that agencies like the NYPD, the FBI, and Department of Homeland Security have exploitedthe fear of racist violence in Muslim communities to build community partnerships with religious institutions and local leaders, and then used these partnerships to plant informants and gather information.

“When people commit these kinds of individual hate violence,” she says, “it’s really a reflection of the broader behavior that’s been enshrined in policies by law enforcement agencies.”

***

Ever since she was shoved, Mariam makes sure to be alert and on guard when she travels. She won’t wear shalwar kameez — traditional South Asian dress — when she rides the subway, and she doesn’t enter empty train cars. After being verbally harassed on another city bus in the spring of 2017, Iffat decided to stop wearing her hijab in public, though she admits, “it did kind of strain my relationship with God.” Taking off the hijab hasn’t made Iffat feel safe riding the train, though, and in the past year she’s struggled just to leave the house.

“This entire year I could count on my fingers how many times I’ve been outside or hung out with my friends, because of what happened with me on the public transportation,” says Iffat. “Even coming to [this interview], honestly it took so much mental preparation to do this. But I wanted to do it, and I feel it also has to do with trying to get some sort of control.”

The #MeToo movement has brought new attention to street harassment of women, but Ahmad says she doesn’t think it’s done enough to address the experiences of Muslim women. “I don’t think they’re doing anything” to address gendered Islamophobia, she says. “As a survivor of that specific kind of [Islamophobic] violence, I don’t see myself in that movement. It doesn’t seem connected to the realities of Muslim women.”

Some New Yorkers are taking steps to make their city safer for everyone. The Arab American Association of New York has run bystander intervention trainings to teach people how to address Islamophobic violence when they see it, in tandem with an accompaniment program for Muslim residents fearful of traveling or commuting on their own. The initiative was started in the run-up to the 2016 election, when Islamophobic attacks and harassment began to increase. “We’re trying to get our allies to put their bodies on the line for the people who are directly impacted” by Islamophobic violence, explains AAANY community organizer Reem Ramadan.

Besides calling the police, there are other steps available to people who are victims of discrimination or harassment, including reporting it to CCHR online. People who want to file an official complaint of discrimination can do so in court or through the CCHR’s Law Enforcement Bureau, which is responsible for enforcing New York City’s Human Rights Law. “Nobody should have to live with these daily indignities and consider it as part of their everyday life, and New York City is working hard to change that,” says Hassan.

In March, Ahmad and others launched Rivers of Hope, an online toolkit for women who’ve survived Islamophobic violence, which incorporates a lot of her research documenting women’s experiences with Islamophobic attacks. The kit also includes poetry, information on how to get support, and tips for feeling better in the aftermath of an attack. “Don’t let anyone judge you with how you cope with what happened,” she says. “The incident happened to you. It didn’t happen to anyone else.” To survivors of gendered Islamophobia, she adds: “It’s not your fault, and you’re not alone.”

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Starbucks’ Bias Training Has Right Raging at the Real Racists

As you have undoubtedly heard, a couple of black guys were asked to leave a Philadelphia Starbucks where they were waiting for a meeting and, when they failed to scoot, the manager had them arrested. Starbucks’ CEO was mortified and ordered a day of “racial-bias education” for all employees.

While extremely few black people (or white people who pay attention) were surprised by what happened, conservatives were highly suspicious — a black person victimized on account of his race? But we’ve had Obama as president! And what about affirmative action? And when Starbucks proposed a training day they completely flipped out, often using the “Real Racist” argument that people who try to alleviate racism are the actual cause of racism in America, which otherwise would not exist.

It should be mentioned that conservatives have had a low-simmering beef with Starbucks for years — probably because, like Google and Facebook, it’s a huge capitalist success but doesn’t kiss their asses.

In 2008, for example, Michelle Malkin claimed she disliked Starbucks for its “‘corporate social responsibility’ mumbo-jumbo” and was boycotting it because of its “ridiculous policy barring gift card purchasers from customizing personalized cards with the phrase ‘Laissez-Faire.’” Yes, that was actually a thing. (“It’s a policy that made Starbucks vastly successful,” intoned David Boaz at the Wall Street Journal. “But don’t try to put that phrase on a customized Starbucks Card.”)

In 2013 conservatives got mad when Starbucks asked their open-carry customers not to take guns into their stores. In 2015 they raged because Starbucks’ Christmas-season cups didn’t look Christ-in-Christmasy enough; Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, proposed a boycott. (YouTube wingnut Mark Dice was also angry that people were drawing “Fuck Christmas, Hail Satan” on their Starbucks cups, which he seemed not to recognize as a joke.) It got so embarrassing that the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway insisted, in Baghdad Bob fashion, that “Nobody Is Actually Upset About the Starbucks Cup.” (When Trump won, some of his fans sought revenge by paying six bucks for a barista to call out the name “Donald Trump.”)

Since then there’ve been some small Rawwrr-Starbucks-Disrespected-MAGA outbreaks, and a flare-up last year over the company’s plan to hire refugees, but the diversity training thing really inflamed the brethren.

“Starbucks’ Proud Progressivism Can’t Protect It From Charges of Racism,” sneered Julia Dent at the Weekly Standard. “How does this happen at such a progressive business and in such a liberal city?” Dent also had a laugh because “liberals love to complain that businesses like Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby that are run by openly conservative proprieters have terrible values,” yet those companies only have problems with gays and women, unlike the progressive Real Racists of Starbucks.

[related_posts post_id_1=”584723″ /]

“Report: Starbucks Manager Who Called Cops on Black Men Was Feminist, SJW,” claimed Benjamin Arie at Conservative Tribune. Arie said a “Philadelphia resident” called in to the Ben Shapiro radio show and told the pint-size pundit that the Starbucks manager, “Holly,” was “an SJW feminist of the highest order.… Once I even overheard her scorn a male barista for not using the proper neutral pronouns with somebody.… I’ve personally seen Holly give the oh-so-coveted restroom code to both black and white people, patrons and non-patrons.…”

Doesn’t sound like a put-up job at all, does it? Arie was certainly moved by it: “We’ve crossed a line,” he wrote. “Accusations of ‘racism’ have lost their meaning, ironically thanks to ‘social justice’ adherents including perhaps Holly.” The Real Racists strike again!

National Review published no fewer than three items on the incident and its aftermath. David French sounded passive-aggressively dubious about the racism (“There is near-universal consensus that the Starbucks employee’s actions were racially motivated. Starbucks apparently agrees…I’m not going to question its conclusion”). He didn’t like that Starbucks was going to deal with “unconscious bias,” a concept he called “Orwellian junk science.” Whoever heard of someone being unaware of their own bias? Bigots are all self-aware, like the bad guys in Roots and Django Unchained.

French’s colleague Kyle Smith grudgingly admitted the incident “looks like racism” but retorted, “if a white manager called the police on two white guys hanging around a coffee shop, it wouldn’t make the news, much less become a national obsession.” What makes black people so special? Smith also complained that because of a “mob” that protested at the Philly Starbucks, “any non-racists in the mood for a cup of Starbucks java had to go elsewhere. Why punish them?” Also, do you know how many bus riders were late to work because of Rosa Parks?

National Review’s Jim Geraghty, going for what among readers of that publication must be the easiest possible layup, said, “I suspect you can trace the country’s unexpected path to this mind-set on racial controversies by following the twists and turns in the career of Al Sharpton.” (I guess he could have used O.J. but lacked a sports angle.)

Under a photo from the Starbucks protest, Geraghty’s colleague Jonah Goldberg bravely defended white America from unnamed persons who had slandered her. “There’s a difference between saying, one one hand, that discrimination or other injustices exist and there’s more work to be done,” pleaded Goldberg, “and, on the other, saying that America is the most racist country in the world and that things haven’t gotten better.” If you were wondering who, specifically, had said America was “the most racist country in the world,” Goldberg’s answer was “Search Twitter for ‘most racist’ and ‘America’ and scroll through the results.”

I did as Goldberg suggested, and got mostly results like “most racist cities in america,” “Liberal’s are the most racist people in America,” “The Volcano God is for fucking sure one of the most racist daddies in America,” “@Google is one of the most racist countries in America. If you’re White, Asian or a straight male you’re not welcome at their company,” etc. Occasionally a rando did say America was Most Racist, though, so I guess Goldberg was arguing with such prominent liberal spokespeople as @dj16600775.

“America is not without its problems,” concluded Goldberg, “But perhaps those problems would be alleviated somewhat if we stopped insisting they’re so much worse than they really are.” If only you liberals would stop saying America was racist, there would be less Real Racism.

Other conservatives, perhaps afraid to embarrass themselves, tried an at least ostensibly sympathetic approach. At the Federalist, under the headline “Starbucks Is Right to Address Racism, and Conservatives Should Be On Board,” David Marcus called the incident “deeply troubling” and even admitted “these black guys were arrested because they were black.”

But then it was coffee break over, everyone back on your heads: Marcus predicted the training would be “progressive gobbledygook,” “a bill of goods about privilege theory,” “privilege theory-based spiel,” etc., which he assured readers would lead to “greater disharmony,” presumably due to Real Racism.

Marcus didn’t explain what specifically he meant by “privilege theory,” but he knew why Starbucks employees would be indoctrinated with it: Because, he said, “conservatives have disengaged” from “anti-racism pedagogy” — not through any fault of their own, you understand, but because “any conservative who talks about race is eventually called a racist, and nobody likes being called that.” Imagine if someone had called Abraham Lincoln a racist, that would have stopped him dead in his tracks!

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Instead of all this progressive gobbledegook, Marcus said workers should be taught “that the color of a person’s skin tells you nothing about him, and should not be the basis of any judgment you make about him.” Whoa! Why didn’t we think of that? Plus, it’s worked great so far.

When right-wing African American Bryan Sharpe aka Hotep Jesus trolled a Starbucks by demanding a free coffee as “reparations,” some of the brethren became excited, as they are wont to do when they find a black person who agrees with them, a condition also known as “Diamond and Silk Syndrome.”

“A black man walked into a Starbucks store and demanded free coffee as ‘reparations’ for racism in America — but there’s a whole lot more to the story than what’s being reported,” reported Glenn Beck’s the Blaze — though the trolling to which they allude was the story and gleefully reported by Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and hundreds of other conservatives.

Later Right Wing Watch discovered that Sharpe/Jesus has published some, let us say, peculiar views — for example, he said after Charlottesville, “the truth is, Alt-right is the victim here” — but that’s probably not going to dim the brethren’s enthusiasm for him (look, he even says “LIBERALS ARE THE REAL RACISTS” — what’s not to love?); nor has it slaked the conservative thirst for gags on non-conservative black people: 4channers have started disseminating fake free Starbucks coffee vouchers for black people. That’ll teach them to imply white non-liberal America is racist!

If their laughter, like their indignation, seems a bit forced, even desperate, consider: Here we have a giant company that, whatever you think of its sincerity, has weighed the situation and decided it’s in its best interest to make a highly public show of anti-racism at great cost to themselves. That capitalists, of all people, would side against conservatives — led as they are by Donald Trump, who, though obviously really racist, is certainly not Real Racist like liberals and Starbucks — and side with the people conservatives mock as “social justice warriors” — since, to such people, the very idea of social justice is a joke — must really upset them, especially if they understand that Starbucks is not so much taking a side as making a long-term investment.

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Muslim-American Apparently Thrown Off Delta Flight For Speaking Arabic (Again)

A YouTube star was removed from a New York City-bound Delta Airlines flight from London’s Heathrow airport this morning after speaking in Arabic — a language spoken by hundreds of millions of people worldwide and the fastest growing language in the United States.

Adam Saleh, 22, posted a series of videos and live Periscope videos to his Twitter account that show Delta employees escorting him and a friend, Slim Albaher, who is also a prominent YouTuber, from the flight. Saleh told The Guardian that a passenger said she was uncomfortable and that he should speak English after overhearing a phone call he made to his mother, who speaks only Arabic. After the phone call, Saleh said he spoke in both Arabic and English to Albaher.

“The woman who originally complained told the captain: ‘We feel uncomfortable — something happened in Germany. If they don’t leave, I leave,'” said Saleh.

In the video, passengers can be heard sarcastically yelling “bye!” as Saleh and Albaher are escorted off the plane. At least one passenger can be seen emphatically defending them, insisting that Delta employees not remove them from the flight simply for not speaking in English.

Saleh says he and Albaher were detained in the airport and Delta employees called the police. London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement that no wrongdoing was found, and no arrests were made.

Delta said in a statement that the men had been removed after “a disturbance in the cabin resulted in more than 20 customers expressing their discomfort. In a later tweet, Saleh said they’d boarded a new flight — on a different airline — after being checked by security for a second time.

Saleh has over two million subscribers on YouTube alone and is known for staging prank videos. In a recent video he claimed to have ridden in the baggage hold of a Tigerair flight from Melbourne to Sydney, in Australia. The claim was challenged by the airline on Twitter, who said they had video of him boarding the flight on foot.

Salah later said that he’d always intended to reveal the stunt as a hoax, and did so sooner than expected when it made international news headlines.

And in 2014, a video titled “Racial Profiling Experiment” posted by Saleh racked up over two million views. In it, two men having an argument are purportedly only approached by police when wearing Muslim garb. The video spread rapidly, and Salah later added a disclaimer saying that it was a dramatization of previous events that happened in New York City.

A glance at Saleh’s YouTube channel might cast doubts on his claims, were it not for the many other documented instances of racism that have happened on Delta and other airline flights in which brown people are removed at the behest of those who feel “uncomfortable.”

A woman in hijab says she was berated in front of her four children on a Detroit-bound Delta flight last February. A student at the University of California, Berkeley was removed from a Southwest flight earlier this year just one day after having dinner with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. A Muslim-American couple celebrating their wedding anniversary in Paris were removed from a Cincinnati-bound Delta flight after a crew member claimed to have heard them say “Allah” and said they were sweating. Two Palestinian men, both American citizens, were barred from even boarding a Southwest flight in Chicago because a passenger complained after hearing them speak in Arabic in the terminal. A Spirit Airlines flight was diverted when a passenger claimed she heard two men make bomb threats (the claims were unfounded).

Concern about Islamophobia has been a concern for a number of years, but has earned new attention following the president-elect’s divisive campaign that often put Muslim Americans in the crosshairs. Hate crimes spiked after the election, including several occasions in which Muslim New Yorkers were harassed. And while one incident in which a young Muslim teenager claimed to have been harassed by white men screaming “Trump” has since been debunked, there is a laundry list of authentic incidents that cannot be ignored. A Muslim MTA worker was shoved down stairs by a man who called her a terrorist. A man was arrested after making anti-Muslim remarks and spitting on a 15-year-old girl in Queens. A different Muslim woman said she was harassed by a white couple on an MTA bus in Queens while commuting to her internship in Manhattan.

Saleh did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Equality NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Chasing the KKK Out of North Carolina

This past Saturday, the Loyal White Knights, a branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Pelham, North Carolina, vowed to hold a Donald Trump victory parade. Thanks to roughly a hundred counter-protesters that never happened — well, not exactly.

When word spread about the KKK rally about a month ago, activists immediately began organizing peace marches. Hundreds gathered in Raleigh for the NC Justice and Unity Rally, while a smaller group of counter-protesters attempted to intervene the KKK in their home base of Pelham — a rural town, just south of the Virginia state line in Caswell County.

The 2016 election made clear that North Carolina isn’t as red as it used to be, largely because of its changing demographics. Latinos have significantly diversified the state, and so have interracial marriages. While the majority of voters in North Carolina voted for Trump, they also voted for a Democratic governor. (The current GOP governor waited until today to concede.)

John Roberts, an “exalted cyclops” of the KKK, told the Times-News the night before the planned event that the group would be holding a car parade in “the general vicinity of Pelham” sometime around 9 a.m. Roberts also called it a “national event,” and that people who couldn’t make it out to their “normal rallies and meetings” would be flying or driving in to attend.

The counter-protesters, a majority of them wearing all black with their faces partially covered, waited for the KKK at the Pelham Methodist Parsonage Church but the KKK never showed. Organizers were informed that the group had moved their rally to Danville, across the state line, 10 miles away.

Lone truck, bearing Confederate flags and Trump bumper stickers, drives around downtown Danville, Virginia.
Lone truck, bearing Confederate flags and Trump bumper stickers, drives around downtown Danville, Virginia.

When I arrived in Danville a couple of minutes before the demonstrators, only one truck bearing several Confederate flags and Trump/Pence bumper stickers could be seen driving around downtown. A female anti-KKK demonstrator approached that truck and began yelling, “No hate, no fear, the KKK is not welcomed here!”

Moments later, they drove away.

An organizer then announced that he had been informed the KKK was actually back in Pelham, at the visitor’s center. When we arrived, only truck drivers and tourists making pit stops could be seen, but no sign of the KKK. Demonstrators remained there for at least 40 minutes, and they were clearly frustrated. “There’s no fucking plan,” one male demonstrator said to no one in particular.

The anti-KKK group consisted of mostly white people, a few African-Americans, some children, and at least two lawyers from North Carolina who were there just in case anyone got arrested.

One man, while looking at his phone, said that he got word from one of his people “out there” that the KKK was actually holding a rally that very second in Danville. “The address is 527 Main Street,” he told the crowd.

Counter-protesters march through the streets of Danville, Virginia.
Counter-protesters march through the streets of Danville, Virginia.

“They’ve been giving us the runaround, and things are starting to fall apart a little bit,” the organizer (who refused to disclose his name) told the crowd. “So we’re going to go to Danville now, get situated, and see if they show. If they don’t show, we will be holding our own rally, and then we’re going to head back home.”

According to a press release from the Danville Police Department, the Caswell County’s Sheriff’s Office informed the Danville police that dozens of anti-KKK protesters were heading toward the city because “they believed a KKK rally was supposed to occur there, and their intent was to engage in a counter protest.”

Earl, a spectator, was initially hesitant to disclose his thoughts of the anti-KKK march through his city of Danville. Then he said he loved it.
Earl, a spectator, was initially hesitant to disclose his thoughts of the anti-KKK march through his city of Danville. Then he said he loved it.

Once again, the KKK was nowhere to be seen. So the anti-KKK group went on with their march. The group walked along Main Street through the Old West End neighborhood. Several Black residents could be seen coming out of their homes and encouraged the marchers by raising their fists and chanting along with them. The Census reports that 48% of the population in Danville is Black.

In a press release, the Danville Police Department and the Virginia State Police called the protest “spontaneous and peaceful.”

I asked a spectator, who simply went by Earl, what he thought about the anti-KKK march. Initially he was initially speechless. Then he said that he was “scared to say.” He then asked me what I thought about the march. I replied that I loved it. “I love it, too,” he said with a huge grin.

A couple of hours later, the KKK did finally show up. A reporter for the Burlington Times-News said that a 30-car motorcade did drive through the streets of Roxboro, a town 36 miles from Pelham, with at least one person chanting “white power.”

While KKK parades and rallies are nothing new in the state of North Carolina, they’re not as accepted as they once were. Last year, the same group held a rally against undocumented immigrants, though no speech about the topic was ever given. Again, they just chanted “white power.”

Counter-protesters march through the streets of Danville, Virginia.
Counter-protesters march through the streets of Danville, Virginia.

It’s not clear why the KKK didn’t hold their event at the location and time that they had planned to. Reporter Natalie A. Janicello tweeted that the KKK had experienced a “snafu.”

Richard Dillon, 47, of Indiana, was stabbed at a KKK pre-rally meeting in Yanceyville, a town neighboring Pelham.

Two men were charged with the crime. One of the men that police arrested is Christopher Eugene Barker, founder of the Loyal White Knights. Police report that a verbal dispute led to the stabbing.

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NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Study: Uber and Lyft Drivers Don’t Like Picking Up Black People Either

An academic report published Monday has found what many Uber and Lyft users already know firsthand: Both apps have instances of racist drivers declining to pick up their black fares.

According to the New York Times, researchers studied around 1,500 combined trips in Seattle and Boston, with both African Americans and white test subjects hailing separate rides with both services.

“We found that African-American travelers in Seattle experienced statistically significantly longer delay waiting for a trip request through UberX or Lyft to be accepted,” said the researchers, from the University of Washington, M.I.T. and Stanford.

“We theorize that at least some drivers for both UberX and Lyft discriminate on the basis of the perceived race of the traveler.”

This spells big trouble for the two services, both of which largely built their brands on the premise that their apps would eliminate the possibility of such bias.

Instead, passengers with black-sounding names were found to have their trips cancelled by drivers twice as often as passengers with white-sounding names. When the riders are men with black-sounding names, the number jumps to three times as often.

Uber and Lyft drivers see information about potential fares in different ways. Uber drivers don’t have any information about their riders before accepting them, but they can cancel them once their names become available; Lyft drivers, on the other hand, have access to names and photos before accepting, meaning they can opt out of picking up whoever they want.

Researchers also found that drivers took longer to accept ride requests from black men using both apps, though total wait times were the same for both races using Lyft. On Uber, wait times were longer for black men.

Similar instances of discrimination have have plagued Airbnb, where people with black-sounding names found it harder to book apartments and rooms. But Airbnb took swift action to curb racism in its services, instating a strict anti-discrimination statute that includes a bias-detection team, less-obvious personal photos, and the company hiring a more-diverse staff. The site also committed to helping users who experienced discrimination find new accommodations at the last minute. But Uber and Lyft have the additional roadblock of operating in an industry known for racism.

While the outcome of the study certainly isn’t positive, neither is the reality when it comes to street hails. As quoted in Slate:

The first taxi stopped nearly 60% of the time for white RAs, but less than 20% of the time for African American RAs. The white RAs never had more than four taxis pass them before one stopped, but the African American RAs watched six or seven taxis pass them by in 20% of cases.

Writing for Medium, Jenna Wortham saw presciently this problem coming, even in the heady days of 2014 while everyone was still lauding the rise of ride-share apps as the anti-discrimination savior we’d been waiting for.

“It’s also not entirely clear that Uber’s system is completely foolproof,” she wrote. “Because drivers can reject riders for any reason, you have no way of knowing whether it’s because of your rating, your name (from which race can often be inferred), or the neighborhood you’re in.”

Troublingly, though, neither Uber nor Lyft have yet hatched any plan to address the issue of racist drivers. Rachel Holt, Uber’s head of North American operations, told the Times there was “no place for racism on the company’s online platform,” though it has no plans to alter how it functions.

“Studies like this one are helpful in thinking about how we can do even more,” she told the paper vaguely.

Lyft similarly offered a flat statement about how the company does not “tolerate any form of discrimination.”

Amazing how a problem just vanishes when you simply deny its existence.

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Equality NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

In Dishonor of Columbus Day, Protesters Shroud Obscenely Racist Statue at AMNH

Several hundred activists draped a parachute over a statue of Teddy Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History yesterday afternoon to protest the statue’s white supremacist iconography and the racist, 19th-century attitudes that still pervade the museum behind it.

The 10-foot tall 1939 statue depicts Teddy Roosevelt, heroic astride a horse, loyally flanked on one side by an indigenous man in a feathered head-dress and on the other by an African man.

“This statue is all about hierarchy and division,” said Luis Ramos, a lifelong New Yorker who identifies as a Taíno, one of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. “Kids who come to this museum every day have to walk under this statue — think about the message that sends. It’s time for it to come down.”

New York City government offices were closed yesterday in honor of Columbus Day, which celebrates a slaver and murderer who cut off people’s hands if they didn’t bring him enough gold. That New York City still shuts down and holds a parade very year for this world-class genocidaire is probably attributable in equal parts to the general cowardice and convictionlessness of New York’s politicians worried about the Italian-American vote and the inexplicable failure of said demographic to identify a countryman more worthy of celebration than this bloody sociopath.

But people keep trying. Around the country, local governments including those of Denver, Phoenix, Spokane, Eugene, and the state of Vermont have all rejected Columbus Day in recent years in favor of Indigenous People’s Day. In New York, activists say they’ve been advised by City Council members that while celebrating an Indigenous People’s holiday on some other day might be an achievable goal, replacing Columbus Day is a political non-starter.

Yesterday’s action was intended to challenge that assumption, and to call attention to the way some of the city’s institutions and landmarks reinforce the kind of racist ideologies that keep Columbus Day a going concern in the first place.

The protest began with several hundred protesters assembling in the museum’s Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, under the looming fossilized skeletons of a Barosaurus and an Allosaurus. The group then toured the second floor of the museum, pausing at intervals to point out the ways in which the displays reflect the racist assumptions that date back to the museum’s early days. Along with its displays of birds, beasts, plants, minerals and stars, the museum also features exhibits on Asian Peoples, African Peoples, Islam, and Northwest Coast Indians.

What sort of division of knowledge, protesters asked, categorizes non-European cultures with primates and meteorites? “Where is the hall of Christendom?” protesters asked as the moved through the museum, with guards warily looking on. “Where is the Hall of European Peoples?”

After the tour, the protesters filed back out and onto the front steps of the museum, which are dominated by the statue. A team of activists who had been waiting across the street in Central Park approached the statue and attempted, by means of long aluminum poles, to shroud it in a dark parachute. The poles weren’t quite long enough to cover Roosevelt himself, but after some effort, and despite the half-hearted efforts of some police officers to stop them, the would-be Christos managed to get much of the statue under cover.

The statue “is an affront to all who pass it on entering the museum, but especially to African and Native Americans,” Kandia Crazy Horse, a musician and activist (and former Village Voice writer) told onlookers. “A monument that appears to glorify racial hierarchies should be retired from public view. We demand that City Council members vote to remove this monument to racial conquest.”

Along with the removal of the statue, protesters also demanded that the museum reconsider “the bogus racial classification that assigned colonized peoples to the domain of Nature here and Europeans to the realm of Culture, across the park in the Met,” and asked that human remains and sacred objects in the museum’s collection be returned to indigenous people. They also demanded that the Mayor and City Council rename Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. 

The Voice left a message seeking comment from American Museum of Natural History. We’ll update this post if we hear back.

This isn’t the first time indigenous activists have called attention to the statue. In 1971, six Native American protesters were arrested for splashing the statue with red paint.  “If you’ve seen the statue,” a local representative of the National Indian Youth Council told the New York Times afterwards, “you know why.”