Interesting, isn’t it, how much of the country continues to react to the complications surrounding the issue of race like the little boy who finds himself amazed, after multiple trips to the zoo, that the zebra continue to have stripes. The zebras have always had stripes, since they have been zebras, and the stripes have been there on the zebras each of the times the boy comes to visit. But each time, upon viewing the phenomenon, the little boy’s mouth drops in amazement, his eyes open wide, and he stands on tiptoe and leans over the railing to get a better look at this wonderful curiousity which has never been pointed out to him before, except for all of the many other times it was pointed out in the visits prior to this.
So it is with (most) Americans and race, particularly—though not exclusively—in those matters which involve the race which used to define America’s race issue, African-Americans.
Some thoughts growing out of recent controversies on the issue.
There has long been the myth—fostered both inside and outside the South—that there was no social contact between African-Americans and their Southern white neighbors during the days when segregation of the races was the law of the Southern land. Actually there was quite a bit, not all of it under the table or under the bedsheets, which was how Elvis Presley was able to spend so much of his youth time in the Black churches of his native rural Mississippi listening to gospel groups and choirs, and so, therefore, how the inflections and cadences and accents of Black music ended up so much a part of his own.
So, too, did the young Bill Clinton have much contact with his African-American neighbors in his days growing up in Arkansas, and experience that rubbed off on his ways and mannerisms so much that it led to the remark—lately attributed to the novelist Toni Morrison, but you’ll have to do your own Google search to confirm it—that Mr. Clinton was our “first Black President.” Whoever first said it, it was always meant as an insider’s Black joke, not to be taken for the truth of the matter asserted, as they say in the courtroom, but only a wry comment on the nature of race and race perceptions in America and the ways of white folks who sometimes act more Black than is popularly perceived. Lately, however, with the growing contest between the U.S. Senators, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, for the Democratic Presidential nomination, the Clinton-as-first-Black-President comment has begun to be repeated, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, by various television anchor-type personalities to the point where it has lost both its original meaning and humor, so that now one wants to emulate one of the above-mentioned Mr. Presley’s most infamous acts and take pistol to hand, thence projecting out and away towards the offending television screen.
It was always meant to be a joke, folks, nothing more, and to try to give it more meaning makes it virtually meaningless.
But there are worse offenses to the senses of some of your African-American neighbors and friends coming out of recent media fascinations, if you’d care to hear about them.
The other race-based issue in the news of late is the revelation that the great-great-grandfather of African-American leader Rev. Al Sharpton was once enslaved by a descendant of an ancestor of the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond (I purposely use the word “enslaved” here rather than “owned,” since you can take someone from their home at gunpoint, brace them in chains and make them work your fields against their will, which is enslavement, but you cannot “own” another human being, no matter how much you assert it or have it placed within your statutes or your national Constitution).
In any event, what we cannot abide full-force and full-face, we seek to minimize through farce. The images of Mr. Thurmond flashed over the television screens in connection with the Sharpton-Thurmond connection story show the late Senator in his last days when he was well over a hundred years old, a fleshless cadaver-like figure, almost like the Skeletor character from the comic books, which makes about as much sense to understanding the issues involved as using one of Mr. Sharpton’s baby pictures at the same time, leading to snickerings in the Daily Show audience and wonderings why someone so weak and wasted could ever have possibly scared anyone at all, except little children, or the toked-out taking in a low-grade horror movie.
Coupled with the parched-face picture of the Senator in the recent stories was almost invariably the title “the segregationist, Senator Strom Thurmond.” What exactly does that term mean to modern viewers and readers, “segregationist,” one wonders. Does it limit what was denied to African-Americans in the 100 years between the fall of Reconstruction and the rise of the civil rights laws to a loss of right to socialize with their white neighbors as if, in Malcom X’s famous phrase, the only important issue in the day was the fact that we could not sit down on the toilet next to white people?
A better word needs to be fashioned for a more bitter time.
Parting the races was by far the last and the least of it. The destruction of African-American political and economic power was the real goal, segregation one of the means to keep that destruction in place.
A brief history lesson, for those who missed it. Immediately after Lee surrendered at Appomatox Courthouse and the Confederacy collapsed, a brief era of relative equality bloomed in the Southern states in which African-Americans voted and took political office as well as opened businesses and took ownership of large sections of land. In response, former Confederate soliders formed rifle clubs and secret societies—the Ku Klux Klan under former Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, for example—for the purpose of driving the former African captives out of their political offices and businesses and homes and land and back into semi-slavery on the old plantations.
There followed a period of the worst sustained terrorist violence this country has ever seen, with lynchings and political assassinations against African-Americans a common occurrence on Southern streets and country lanes. One of the centers of this counter-revolution was in Edgefield County, in which cabals of former Confederate terrorists devised plans to prevent Black voters from going to the polls by any means necessary, those means including house-burnings, beatings, economic intimidation, or killings. One of the leaders of this white terror, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, at one point governor and then later United States Senator from South Carolina, boasted on the record at the 1895 South Carolina Constitutional Convention that white forces “retook” the state from Black officeholders in the 1860’s and 1870’s through “fraud and violence.”
If the name of Edgefield County sounds at all vaguely familiar to you, it is the home of Strom Thurmond, whose father, J. William Thurmond, was a close friend of and advisor to Ben Tillman, and Thurmond later said, with some pride, that he learned his first political lessons sitting on Mr. Tillman’s knee.
In the late 1860’s, when Union troops guarded their right to vote, African-Americans held a majority in the South Carolina State Legislature, and had large representation in legislatures and other political offices in the rest of the Southern states. When, in the infamous compromise that won him the disputed 1876 Presidential election, Rutherford Hayes withdrew the federal troops from the South, the white supremacist terrorists had a free hand, and before the century was out, Black voting in the South was virtually nonexistent, and the African-American presence in Southern legislatures and other Southern offices had vanished.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that a hundred years later, in that two-year period following the 1980 election when Republicans took over brief majority in the United States Senate and Mr. Thurmond ascended to the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he made it one of his top priorities to try to kill the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was sunsetting that year, and needed reauthorization by Congress. At that point, there was only a smattering of black officeholders in the South. Had Mr. Thurmond prevailed, it would have remained that way, probably down to this day.
I purposely waited until the end of Black History Month to talk about these things because, after all, this is not Black History, but American History. Our failure to read it and understand it means that some of us, at least, will continue to be constantly surprised and amazed as the issue of race continues to resurface in America, like the little boy at the zoo, wondering over and over and each time afresh, why the zebra continues to show up with those stripes. It does because it was born with them, and painting them over does not make them go away.