The president doesn’t “love” America?
Would that it were true. Would that Rudy Giuliani’s five-star Republican nightmare actually paced the Oval Office, pondering how to disarm, demilitarize . . . defang American exceptionalism.
Would that the president felt a responsibility to the global future and, at the same time, could summon our real past, grieve for its victims and vow with every fiber of his being to atone for our history of slavery and conquest: the “white terrorism” of manifest destiny. Would that the president didn’t “love” our myths but truly hated them and felt that his obligation to the future was to help lay these myths bare and, above all, stop perpetuating them.
“The actual process of lynching was morbid and incredibly violent. Lynching does not necessarily mean hanging. It often included humiliation, torture, burning, dismemberment and castration. Victims were beaten and whipped, many times in front of large crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. Coal tar was frequently used to douse the unfortunate victim prior to setting him afire.
“Onlookers sometimes fired rifles and handguns hundreds of times into the corpse while people cheered and children played during the festivities. . . . The savagery was astonishing.”
The words are those of Mark Gado, from his book Lynching in America: Carnival of Death, quoted on Daily Kos last November by Shaun King in an essay called “Five ugly and uncanny parallels between lynchings and police killings in America.”
This begins to get at it, but there’s so much more. America’s history of lynching and terror goes back to the Europeans’ “discovery” of the New World, which was populated, as far as they were concerned, by expendable savages. Indeed, the original occupants of this continent endured genocide sustained over some 400 years. The population of Native Americans declined from an estimated 12 million in 1492 to a few hundred thousand by the end of the nineteenth century.
But in the America that Giuliani and his defenders claim to love, the conquest of the continent was a noble venture, resulting in the Constitution, democracy and “of the people, by the people and for the people.” There was slavery, yeah, but that was a long time ago and we’ve moved beyond that.
The terrible thing about believing in such a pristine, noble, sanitized history, in which terrible acts were committed only by the “other,” is that the same behavior continues unchecked into the present moment. Today we call this behavior the war on terror and manage to stay as oblivious to its unfolding consequences as we are to our history. Or we call this behavior mass incarceration and shrug that we have no choice.
I don’t know what it will take to interrupt all this, but I’m sure it begins with a collective acknowledgement of the darkness of our past. Consider, for instance, the report recently released by the Equal Justice Initiative, of Montgomery, Ala., inventorying lynchings in 12 Southern states from 1877 to 1950. Turns out there was more to the Jim Crow era than whites-only restrooms and drinking fountains. A total of 3,959 people — primarily black males, of course — were lynched in that three-quarters of a century of Jim Crow terror, according to the report.
“Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics and social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century,” Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told the New York Times, noting, according to Campbell Robertson’s article last month, that “many participants in the great migration from the South should be thought of as refugees fleeing terrorism rather than people simply seeking work.”
The point of taking this report to heart isn’t to flip from “loving” America to hating it, but to grope, with all the courage one can muster, for reasons why we are the way we are, indeed, to find and acknowledge that inner beast, which is still as ferocious as ever. It’s not the entirety of who we are, but it dominates the nation’s collective unconscious. At this very moment, it’s trying to push us into our next war.
Following the lynching report, Stevenson’s organization hopes to erect markers and memorials at various lynching sites. “The process,” according to the Times, “is intended . . . to force people to reckon with the narrative through-line of the country’s vicious racial history, rather than thinking of that history in a short-range, piecemeal way.”
Lynching memorials, slave market memorials — shockingly, local officials aren’t enthusiastic about them, the article informs us. Nevertheless, I can imagine them dotting the American landscape. Such markers already exist in spirit.
We need the courage to face the entirety of our history and step beyond the platitudes of American exceptionalism. These are the platitudes Giuliani desperately invoked last month: “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”
Giuliani was trying to be partisan, but he wasn’t talking about Barack Obama. He was talking about an American leader not yet elected and a shift in consciousness that’s just beginning.