The real thing at hand here is slavery. Not to bring down the room, guys. It’s some dark shit. – Jordan Peele on his movie Get Out
When a Minnesota jury decides that Philando Castile was responsible for his own death and that the police officer who pulled him over and then shot him did nothing wrong, despite damming evidence from the dashboard camera of the patrol car, who is surprised? We have all seen it before too often in the past few years, with exoneration for the killers of Aiyana Jones, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and more.
As Ibram X Kendi observed in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, people in America are ‘determined to exonerate the police officer because they are determined to exonerate America. And in exonerating the police officer and America of racism, people end up exonerating themselves.’ They are convinced of the fiction that they live in a post-racial society, however, Kendi soberly concludes, ‘black people and the post-racial myth cannot both live in the United States of America’.
Kendi is restating a view that has been articulated by black voices since early colonial times: black lives are not weighed in the scales of justice. For the last 400 years the history of America has been written in violence done to the black body, violence that has been determinedly, systematically segregated from justice. Nothing has really changed. Unless of course we believe that for the killer of an unarmed black person to actually come to court represents a great leap forward. This could be viewed a positive benefit for race relations in much the way that mordant protagonist of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout considers ‘the only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement is that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be’.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s powerful polemic Between the World and Me, racism in America is seen as the equivalent of a physical law of the universe, a cosmic injustice with tenacious gravity. When a cop kills a black man, Coates explains, the officer should be understood as ‘a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.’ Society is equally helpless against this natural order because in America, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage’. That heritage was the enslavement of Africans, on which the nation’s wealth and substance was built.
casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape… rape so regular as to be industrial…nails driven through a tongue and ears pruned away…the employment of carriage whips, tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights or whatever might be handy to break the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation…For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization …
In Colson Whitehead magisterial novel The Underground Railway there is an early scene where a runaway slave is placed in specially constructed wooden stocks to be flayed with the whip before being castrated, doused with oil and roasted for the delectation of the plantation owners assembled guests, who enjoy an alfresco banquet accompanied by the aroma of roasting human flesh.
It is incredibly difficult not to turn away in horror and refuse to read such hideous grotesquery. But a reader who thinks that this scene represents fictional hyperbole verging on the pornographic does not know American history. I forced my eyes to stay on the page because I know that the scene is real, having read accounts of such events, albeit not so exquisitely rendered, in contemporary diaries, letters and newspapers of the slave south. Torture on this scale was something that cultured slave-owners were never ashamed to own as an integral part of their civilisation. When slavery was abolished the violence against the black body continued unabated in order to maintain the purity and supremacy of white civilisation.
Bryant Stevenson is an extraordinarily brave black attorney who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama. He recently published an exhaustive report on lynching between 1877 and 1950 that documented 4,300 black Americans hanged, flayed, burnt alive, dismembered in brutal public murders tolerated by state and federal officials throughout the south and midwest. A map of lynching sites could be neatly laid over a map of districts carried overwhelmingly by Donald Trump.
The decline of lynching coincided with the increased use of capital punishment, a kind of legal lynching facilitated by accelerated and unreliable legal processes. Stevenson’s meticulous research reveals more than eight in ten executions carried out in America have been in the South, disproportionately meted out to black community who constituted 22% of the population and accounted for 75% of executions.
Since the Civil War the criminal justice system has been the most insidious engine of racial terror, yet it remains the institution in American life least influenced by considerations of civil rights. ‘The legacy of lynching in America is devastating,’ Stevenson writes in the July issue of New York Review of Books. ‘Our collective failure to acknowledge this history has created a contemporary political culture that doesn’t adequately value the victimization of people of color today.’
To acknowledge violent horror of slavery and lynching means to turn away from the brightly rendered version the United States of America has always declared itself to be toward a historical narrative that is vicious, dark and profoundly uncomfortable. That remains too difficult for most white Americans. ‘They would rather countenance a man choked to death on film,’ Coates writes, and ‘subscribe to the myth of Trayvon Martin slight teenager, hands full of candy and soft drinks, transformed into a murderous juggernaut.’
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award for Non Fiction while in 2016 Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This year Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railway won Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, having already won the National Book Award. There is a pattern here. All of these books are rigorously uncompromising in the condemnation of the American dream and the toxic persistence of historically embedded racism.
Each of these writers, in their own way, harks back to their literary progenitor, James Baldwin. He is a haunting presence in their work, implicit in the two novels, and quite explicit in Between the World and Me. Taking his title from Baldwin, Coates’s book is a letter to his son that echoes the letter Baldwin addressed to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. It is more than a curious coincidence that on the same day as Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railway hit the shelves so did the reissue of The Fire This Time.
It has been more than half a century since Baldwin wrote The Fire This Time, yet you would never guess it. Baldwin’s polemic was meant to jolt white American into self-reflection and stimulate a more honest conversation about the systematic, judicially sanctioned violence toward black Americans, and put the shocking events of 1960s America into historical context. Apart from the anachronistic use of the term ‘Negro’, the book reads as if it were written today.
Baldwin produced a catalogue of damning facts about the denial of full human rights for black Americans, yet his hope for shift in the moral landscape of America was transcendent: ‘we must believe it is possible,’ he wrote. Those words were penned before the assassinations of three leading black activist who were his personal friends: Medgar Evans in June 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968.
With each murder Baldwin’s voice grew more despairing. By the end of the sixties he could no longer endure the pain and humiliation of living among a white majority who ‘have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human.’ He went to live permanently in France. At his death he left an unfinished manuscript that was a meditation on the assassination of his three friends, tentatively titled Remember this House. Baldwin’s notes for this book provides the scaffolding for Raoul Peck’s compelling documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which headlined at the Sydney Film Festival last month.
More than a documentary, the film is an uncanny posthumous collaboration between filmmaker and subject that is absolutely thrilling to watch. It opens with late night TV host Dick Cavett asking Baldwin to explain ‘the Negroes in America’ and ‘why aren’t they optimistic?’ Urbane and self-contained, Baldwin replies: ‘I don’t think there’s much hope for it … as long as people are using this peculiar language.’ Gently scolding his host, Baldwin insists the real question to ask ‘is what is going to happen to this country?’ His weariness is palpable.
For years Baldwin had been required to respond to pleas of injured innocence from the white TV hosts wanting to be reassured ‘its getting so much better’. He would give no such assurance. In a lengthy interview by Kenneth Clark in 1963 for a TV program called The Negro and the American Promise, Baldwin did not pull his punches. What white people have to do, he told Clark, is look into their own hearts and ask:
why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. The question that you’ve got to ask yourself, the white population of this country has got to ask itself … If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.
Over the decade of the sixties Baldwin was worn down by ‘the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority’ whose wilful blindness to that crucial question had made them into ‘moral monsters’, as he wrote a few years before he quit the country for good.
Peck’s film uses clips of police violence against black Americans in the present time intercut with the violence in the 1960s, using Baldwin’s scalding eloquence to collapse the half-century between them. The film highlights Baldwin’s unique ability to expose the ways racist assumptions about black people constituted American social and political life and also its cultural imagination.
Baldwin was an insightful film critic and Peck uses his critiques, with matching clips, to dazzling effect, in particular that famous liberal film of 1967 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starring his friend Sidney Poitier. This film was heartily disliked by black people because they felt that Poitier was being used against them, yet Baldwin saw it as a milestone in a bizarre way, ‘because it is really quite impossible to go any further in that particular direction’.
This year’s surprise box-office hit, Jordan Peele’s Get Out – where a white American princess takes her black boyfriend home to meet her well-heeled folks – proves it is possible for a film go much further in that direction.
As funny as it is scarifying, Get Out savagely exposes the perpetual reality of America that the black body is always in danger, even from those one would least suspect of vicious racism. The urbane white parents of Get Out could not be more accommodating, with their post-racial politics on eager display. They and their friends are boastful members of the liberal white elite who voted for Obama and ‘would’ve elected him to a third term, if we could’. Yet their commitment to maintaining and extending their self-perpetuating privilege is absolute. They are Baldwin’s ‘moral monsters’, imperturbably participating in unspeakable acts, just as like the plantation dinner guests in Colson Whitehead’s novel.
Get Out is a horror-comedy that disguises excoriating social commentary. The great thrill of this brilliant film is not so much the explosive, cathartic climax as the hilarious, yet strangely disquieting, build up where Peele manages to infuse the eager-to-please white folks with barely perceptible menace. The seemingly innocuous gaucherie of an ageing woman guest who squeezes the muscles in the young black man’s thigh at the parent’s garden party made me laugh out loud, while at the same time squirming in my seat because it was so reminiscent of testing the flesh at slave auctions.
My inchoate sense that I was watching a scene of horror was not misplaced. By the third act the horror movie tropes were fully and grotesquely explicit. Get Out lampoons the unreflexive racism behind the glib assertion of post-racial America, but the real target is the ongoing legacy of slavery that has led to a systematic devaluation of black life. As Peele told his audience in a Q&A in Los Angeles after the screening ‘The real thing at hand here is slavery. Not to bring down the room, guys. It’s some dark shit.’
‘The great force of history,’ Baldwin wrote in 1966, ‘comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.’ More than half a century later a savvy cohort of black intellectuals is making the exact same point that a history of 250 years of slavery, followed by another 100 years of lynching and segregation has left pervasive, crippling legacy that must be addressed.
In the America of President Donald Trump, who is paying heed?
Image: Noose / Jeanette E