In this week's Windy City Times, we are publishing the final installment of a four-part in-depth essay by Max. S. Gordon.
Section Two, Part iv
"O, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten. Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land." Daniel Decatur Emmett
"I get how it can be news to some of you that people are victimized by systems legitimated by your nation, countrymen, and god. But I'm black and female and southern. I call that Tuesday." Tressie McMillan Cottom
If it was the plan of Dylann Storm Roof to further the cult of whiteness by attempting to murder a churchload of black parishoners, killing nine, on June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, it backfired: he forever changed America's relationshipand very likely ended its romancewith the confederate flag on that same day. At this time in history, in an unprecedented way, whiteness is deeply threatened, shaken to its very core. The threat to whiteness is the reason we should be infuriated, but not surprised, by what may seem like a "rise" in police brutality. The police ( and I'm not talking about heroes, and there are heroes ) are the arm of the law that acts from our collective consciousness, and, when engaging from its shadow, is calibrated, much like the Klan in the South, to denigrate and destroy black empowerment and black lives. When a black business would thrive in the historic South, daring to compete with a white business, or when a black laborer suggested he was getting less than a fair price for the cotton he picked, the Klan knew whom to maim, whom to kill, whose home to burn down to send the message - you've gone to far, you must be controlled. Emmett Till from Chicago, black, bright and full of spirit was tortured and mutilated for "disrespecting" a white woman, eventually lying in an open casket, a courageous decision made by his mother, Mamie Till, for all the world to see. In that moment, Emmett Till was as much America's son as George Washington is considered the father of our country.
During a recent conversation about politics and black America, a friend said he felt that Trump and Cruz are the businessmen who, for profit, would easily sell your black babies like cattle; the Clintons are the benign slave owners who love money, but also appreciate loyalty, won't beat their slaves ( an overseer does it ) and who promise never to break up a slave family. Bernie Sanders is the abolitionist farmer who hides you in his basement. My friend is technically a Hillary supporter but worries that Hillary is also the friend who, when everyone is broke but wants to party, collects money outside the club and says, "Pay for me and then when I'm inside I'll open the back door and let you guys in." Hours later, someone goes in after her and finds her partying in the VIP section, laughing and getting her drink on, her friends long forgotten.
Bernie Sanders is new to black people: even he acknowledges this, so it is not clear exactly what he will do for us, and the Clintons have always had an interesting relationship to whiteness. They have been considered to be friends of black people by many of us since the Bill Clinton years, despite enjoying enormous white privilege and supporting policies that have been deleterious to blacks in the past. The comparisons my friends and I make may be unfair to the Clintons, but we laugh as a way to cope with our black disappointment. And there is a lot of black disappointment going around lately.
I was cleaning the closet the other day and deciding which clothes I might give to charity. I lifted a black tee-shirt from the pile and opened itit was the iconic Obama image, etched in blue and red as if from a woodcarving, with the word emblazoned at the bottom, "HOPE." I remembered the day I bought the tee-shirt on 125th street and wore it everywhere. Standing in the bedroom, I couldn't keep it, and I couldn't throw it out, so I just stared at it, feeling like an asshole for believing back then, and feeling very old now, as I wondered to myself, "Exactly whose face is that?" Obama looks young and vulnerable and full of promise in the image, but it is eight years later and a lot of promises just weren't kept. Obama may have the distinction of being the only president in American history who ran as a progressive, presided as a moderate and was treated by Congress as a radical.
There is still a question as to whether our black president actually did anything to improve underprivileged black lives. Given the platform of black respectability and non-racial identity he ran on, some argue he couldn't, and probably did less than a Democratic white president, however condescending, might have. It's hard to call a black president on his administration's racism. ( He and Cheryl Boone Isaacs should have lunch. ) Still, having a black man in the most important position in the world has changed whiteness in this country forever. Children all over the country pledge allegiance each morning to an American flag and a black American face.
There is a group of Americans that are aware of this and they are deeply panicked. A majority of people voted for a black president in America, but there is still a question whether as a society we were truly ready for one or not: evidenced by the obvious contempt and constant resistance to Obama by Congress and his Republican colleagues. Like a poisoned body that detoxifies too quickly and throws up the food that will heal it, the American body desired but never truly integrated its first black president. Paul Ryan sits passively during Obama's State of the Union address, unable to express any goodwill towards him. One thinks that despite their ideological differences, Ryan could garner some enthusiasm for the office itself, to which he clearly has aspirations. Not a chance. His parsimonious and pinched expression reveals his disgust for Obama, and his unwillingness to transcend his own pettiness and bigotry, despite the great challenges Americans face.
Gov. Chris Christie, during a Republican debate, debases himself thoroughly and says to the President, "We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall", a huge difference from the now infamous hug he gave Obama during Hurricane Sandy. I was proud of that hug at the time because it suggested that during a crisis, we aren't Republicans and Democrats: we are Americans. The simple human fact was that on that day New Jersey needed Obama's help, and Obama was there for New Jersey and Governor Chris Christie.
Lifetimes ago. Now Christie talks to the president as if he were the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan standing on the Obama's front lawn. In the end, his words are self-destructive and extremely short-sighted. Christie plays at whiteness, but he comes from a state with a large black population, and he is too funky himself to be truly white, and I mean that as a compliment. He doesn't realize that he at one time he had something better to offer than "whiteness"the potential to be a leader across party lines. But the Republican party, with few exceptions, seems to want only whiteness now and he wants to win, so he delivers. Christie's fatness "others" him, "niggers" him, so he knows what it means to be an outsider and different. Out for whiteness like everybody else, his differences don't sensitize him, or provide a platform for greatnessthey make him appear grotesque. Christie betrays himself by using tea-party shortcuts, and in the end they know he is a phony and his poll numbers continue to go down. ( Christie's campaign may have been resurrected after his spectacular take-down of Marco Rubio at the New Hampshire Republican debate, proving Donald Trump isn't the only queen on stage who can "read". )
The Republican candidates scramble to get what is for most of them, the ultimate, unattainable prize. It's a mad, mad world. Christie's "kick your rear" comment to Obama is a low point during the debates, but things gets uglier, more despicable. Jeb Bush is in similar trouble with his party, but he has more integrity than Christie, plus a Latino wife. Any walls he builds to keep immigrants out might exclude some of his own relatives. This is a lovely predicament for justice, but not one that the Republicans appreciate. Bush refuses to go full patriarchal, tea-party white, but he doesn't have anything else to offer, and that makes him seem like a cipher. He ends up finishing almost dead last in the polls.
We are a society addicted to whiteness: and as in any other addiction, one reaches a bottom where one either loses everything or uses that low point as a platform for great change. The direction we are going, led by Trump and Cruz, will ultimately lead to the day when we are running through the streets, clutching our children's hands and carrying whatever we can in our arms, as the final confrontation goes down. This isn't conjecture or hyperbole; it is the direct consequence of compulsive whiteness, imperialism and patriarchal domination taken to its most extreme; the ultimate macho showdown. Cruz, who is the Republican frontrunner for the presidency at this writing, says that he will carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion: "I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out." He seems to be itching for a confrontation of biblical proportions, and a continuation of the war perpetrated by the whitest man who ever lived; Dick Cheney. But eventually all cults come to an end, as will ours, if we don't decide now that whiteness as a societal construct doesn't offer enough of a pay-off for what it ultimately costs us.
"I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free … so other people would be also free." Rosa Parks
"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves." Abraham Lincoln
In this moment in our political history, while fighting an anger that threatens, at times, to consume me, I choose to believe there is hope. All eyes are still on Americathe great cultural experiment. Sitting in the subway last week, there was a woman across from me, her hair wrapped in an orange scarf, lovely against her dark skin. She was laughing with what I assumed were her husband and child. Crammed next to her in the seat was a middle-aged white man in a suit, holding his briefcase. It was evening around six and his gray hair was a little disheveled, perhaps from the rain outside, or from running to catch the train. In that moment, we were just a few of the thousands of "strangers as backdrop" that you look at every day as you travel through New York City; unremarkable and yet remarkable all at once. There was a Latino woman with headphones, a young Asian man reading a newspaper, and a white woman applying lipstick in a tiny mirror. It was just another day on the subway; we were together for this short ride and would eventually arrive at our separate destinations. But something about the fact that in that moment we were in the same circumstance, on that train uptown, New Yorkers all, yet determinedly different - felt soulful to me, deeply beautiful. I looked at the faces and thought, as I often have since 9/11, Are we prepared, if this is the day, to share some great tragedy together? Do we even see each other?
At the other end of the subway car was a man, black and obviously homeless. Although seemingly impossible on a crowded subway car during rush hour, he was alone. Exhausted people stood on tired legs to avoid sitting in the empty seats near him. He leaned forward, wrapped up in a felt blanket and hiding his face deep inside his coat, his entire head covered with a black plastic bag. One shoe was unlaced and looked damp, the other exposed his naked, slightly green foot - peeling, bloated and covered in crust. As the man's fetid smell suddenly reached our end of the car, I made eye-contact with the gray-haired man, and the woman with her family, and we all shared a knowing, uncomfortable look, finding solidarity in our revulsion for the homeless man and his circumstance. Leaving the train, I considered his shame and what should have been ours, the home that awaited me, and it occurred to me that America hasn't really happened yet, that despite its great potential, we are still waiting on America, as one waits on the platform, expectant and hopeful, for a train to come.
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos ( University of Michigan Press, 1991 ), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction ( Henry Holt, 1996 ). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His published essays include, "Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence" and "Maybe Yesterday, But Not Tonight: A Black Homosexual Speaks to Governor Mike Pence." This column originally ran on February 7, 2016 at www.thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/ .