The Post-ReConstruction, Civil Rights, Black Power, and “unnamed” Black struggle movements grew out of each other and have steadily gained momentum through 2020. Some were not a formal movement, however, these movements marked a turning point in the meaning of Black struggle in the United States and also in how Black people saw themselves, generation to generation. All of the many Black movements are hailed as significant struggles of Blacks to achieve full equality. They were complex events that took place at a time when society and culture were being transformed throughout the United States, and their legacy reflects that complexity. But what of the interplay and relationship of all Black legacy political movements that occurred since Emancipation? They were all building blocks, learning opportunities, and a continuum of victories for our people. What we do know is that the descendants of American chattel slavery have waged the most successful and effective protests in American, indeed, world history. Our greatest achievements include teaching America the real meaning of justice, freedom, and resistance.
We need to know and understand the networks that compose the many Black struggles and movement that brought us to our current political struggles. It is how we measure our worth and etch out our future
This course of study will review the history of the many Black struggle movements and events that brought us to the election of Barack Obama resistance that brings us to the white supremacy insurrection and riots on January 6, 2021. What we see happening in America, the growth of white supremacy and confederacy politics become clear through the understanding of our journey toward freedom. This lecture series will provide knowledge of where we have been, Black achievement in how Black people have transformed America.
Series Schedule Thursdays, 8-10 pm EST
February 4, 2021
Session 1: Overview of significant Black political movements and events.
Black Politics and the Reconstruction Era
Black Politics of the Jim Crow Era
Black Politics creating the Civil Rights Era
Black Political development during the Black Power Era
February 11, 2021
Session 2: Review of Syllabus Examine why certain sources are most helpful to us to understand the continuum and projection of history forming new generations of struggle. How history informs strategic directions of each of the major movements.
February 18, 2021
Session 3: Black political diversities and ideologies. Examining class, economics, religion, spirituality, art, gender, sexuality, and how they have factored in Black movement history.
February 25, 2021
Session 4: Practical Strategies for 21st Century Black and Peoples’ movements.
About Dr. James L. Taylor
Professor James Lance Taylor is the Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco and is from Glen Cove, Long Island. He is the author of the book “Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama”, which earned 2012 “Outstanding Academic Title” – Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. (Ranked top 2 percent of 25,000 books submitted and top 8 percent of 7,300 actually accepted for review by the American Library Association). Rated “Best of the Best.” The hardback version sold out in the U.S. and the paperback version was published in 2014.
He is a former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011. Taylor also served as Coordinator of the African American Studies Program for 2015-2017 at the University of San Francisco. He served as the Chair for the “Committee on the Status of Blacks” in Political Science for the American Political Science Association (APSA), 2016-2017.
The Black Power movement grew out of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT that had steadily gained momentum through the 1950s and 1960s. It was not a formal movement, however, the Black Power movement marked a turning point in Black-white relations in the United States and also in how Black people saw themselves. Both movements were hailed as significant struggles of Blacks to achieve full equality. They were complex events that took place at a time when society and culture were being transformed throughout the United States, and its legacy reflects that complexity. But what of the legacy political movements that occurred right after the Emancipation of slavery? We need to know and understand the networks that compose the many Black struggles and movement that brought us to our current political struggles.
This course of study will review the history of the many Black struggle movements and events that brought us to the election of Barack Obama resistance that brings us to the white supremacy insurrection and riots on January 6, 2021. We hope that you will join us.
February 4, 2021
Session 1: Overview of significant historical Black political movements and events.
Black Politics and the Reconstruction Era
Black Politics of the Jim Crow Era
Black Politics creating the Civil Rights Era
Black Political development during the Black Power Era
February 11, 2021
Session 2: Review of Syllabus Examine why certain sources are most helpful to us to understand the continuum and projection of history forming new generations of struggle. How history informs strategic directions of each of the major movements.
February 18, 2021
Session 3: Black political diversities and ideologies. Examining class, economics, religion, spirituality, art, gender, sexuality, and how they have factored in Black movement history.
February 25, 2021
Session 4: Practical Strategies for 21st Century Black and Peoples’ movements.
About Dr. James L. Taylor, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Politics, former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientist community in the United States, 2009-2011.
Professor James Lance Taylor is from Glen Cove, Long Island. He is the author of the book “Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama”, which earned 2012 “Outstanding Academic Title” – Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. (Ranked top 2 percent of 25,000 books submitted and top 8 percent of 7,300 actually accepted for review by the American Library Association). Rated “Best of the Best.” The hardback version sold out in the U.S. and the paperback version was published in 2014.
He is a former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011. Taylor also served as Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco from 2012-2015, and Faculty Coordinator of the African American Studies Program for 2015-2017. He served as the Chair for the “Committee on the Status of Blacks” in Political Science for the American Political Science Association (APSA), 2016-2017.
Professor Taylor is currently writing and researching a book with the working title, Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and California Black Politics. He expects the book to be completed with a 2018-2019 publication range. The book is a study of the Peoples Temple movement and African American political history in the state of California.
His teaching and research scholarly interests are in religion and politics in the United States, race and ethnic politics, African American political history, social movements, political ideology, law and public policy, Black political leadership, and the U.S. Presidency. He lives with his family in Oakland, California.
The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
“Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable.”
Policing in America is facing a PR crisis. Following the May 25th murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the term “defund the police” has become a rallying cry for thousands across the country. Six months later, however, America has not defunded its police force––and in fact, has in some cases taken steps to give police departments even more money. Instead, police forces across America have taken an insidious approach: painting their departments in blackface.
After the January 6th Trump riot at the Capitol building, Yoganda Pittman, a Black woman, was named the new Chief of Capitol Police. Her appointment followed the resignation of former Chief Steven Sund and the arrest and firing of several white police officers who were found to be in attendance at the MAGA riot. Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals who falsely believe that allowing Black folks to infiltrate or run law enforcement agencies will lead to higher levels of safety for Black Americans. The termination of several officers who took part in the riot has convinced many that we are one step closer to “reforming” the police by weeding out the racist, bad apples within the department.
“Pittman’s appointment appeased many liberals.”
This is a nice narrative, but a false one; in order to understand why, we must look at the history of policing in this country. Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system wherein squadrons made up of white volunteers were empowered to use vigilante tactics to enforce laws related to slavery. These “enforcers” were in charge of locating and returning enslaved people who had escaped, crushing uprisings led by enslaved people, and punishing enslaved workers who were found or believed to have violated plantation rules. After slavery was legally abolished in 1865, America created its modern police force to do the exact thing under a different name: maintain the white supremacist hierarchy that is necessary under racial capitalism. The purpose of policing––to jail and kill Black folks––remains the same regardless of the officers’ race.
Liberal media has also contributed to the recent valorization of Black cops. In the days after the January 6th riot, many news outlets aggressively pushed a story about Eugene Goodman, a Black capitol police officer who led several rioters away from the Congress people’s hiding places while being chased by a white supremacist mob. Several news outlets published testimonials of Black police officers disclosing instances of racism within the department. A January 14th article in ProPublicanotes that over 250 Black cops have sued the department for racism since 2001: some Black cops have alleged that white officers used racial slurs or hung nooses in Black officer’s lockers, and one Black cop even claimed he heard a white officer say, “Obama monkey, go back to Africa.”
“Modern policing in America was originally created as a replacement for America’s slave patrol system.”
These white officers’ racism is unsurprising, and I am not denying any of these claims. But focusing on these singular, isolated moments of racism wherein white cops are painted as cruel and Black cops are the sympathetic victims grossly oversimplifies the narrative of structural racism that modern American policing was built upon. After hearing these slurs that they were allegedly so disgusted by, these Black cops still intentionally chose to put on their badge, don their guns, and work alongside these white police officers who insulted and demeaned them, laboring under a violent system with the sole purpose of harming and terrorizing Black and low-income communities. Similarly, while Goodman’s actions most likely saved many lives during the riot, we cannot allow one moment of decency to erase centuries of racist violence.
The great Zora Neale Hurston once said: “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Her words ring ever true today, and these Black police officers are an excellent example of why. It’s tempting to believe that putting Black folks on the force will solve racial violence, but this is a liberal myth we must break free of. Allowing Black people into inherently racist systems does not make those systems better, safer, or more equitable: a quick look at many Black folks in power today, such as Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, Lori Lightfoot, and Keisha Lance Bottoms immediately prove this to be the case. Everyone supporting racial capitalism must be scrutinized and held accountable, regardless of their identity. We cannot on the one hand say that ‘all cops are bastards’ and then suddenly feel sympathy when those cops are not white. If we want to defund and abolish the police, we must resist the narrative that Black cops have anything to offer us.
Mary Retta is a writer, virgo, cartoon enthusiast — a queer Black writer for sites like Teen Vogue, The Nation, Bitch Media, and Vice.
We all witnessed how whiteness protects white criminals at the nation’s Capitol Building and in DC. Law enforcement and the judiciary operate from principles that are formed from the public perspective of who should be arrested, charged, and prosecuted. For this reason, 100s of criminals were able to break the law and breach the building, and will not face the consequences. We all know what Black people would have faced under the same circumstances. Whiteness is a protection.
In a controversial 1975 article, titled “White Racism, Black Crime, and American Justice,” criminologist Robert Staples argued that discrimination pervades the justice system. He said the legal system was made by white men to protect white interests and keep Blacks down. (At the time this was received as “outlandish and untrue”). Staples charged that the system was characterized by second-rate legal help for Black defendants, biased jurors, and judges who discriminate in sentencing. No matter, study after study demonstrates how extreme racial disparities address for Blacks in the judicial system, no matter the income strata or available resources.
Unwarranted disparity is defined as different treatment of individual offenders who are similar in relevant ways, or similar treatment of individual offenders who differ in characteristics that are relevant to the purposes of charging and sentencing. Whiteness is honored, it is protected and it blinds much of the judicial process. We can no longer deny, racial disparities exist because the system protects whiteness for the most part. It is clear that in sentencing especially, “departure” from the guidelines is reserved for mostly whites, and rarely extended to Blacks. Fair sentencing is individualized sentencing and it is mostly decided by people who value whiteness, having a value system of what crimes are punishable with distinct stereotyping of criminals.
Our guest, Professor Jennifer Taub, in her book, “Big Dirty Money” suggests we first attempt to measure white-collar crime as a whole. Then we need to measure the harm to victims in terms that go beyond the economic costs. She points out that “The wealthy have the resources either to exert political influence or become lawmakers themselves”. But Taub explicitly and persuasively places the breakdown of enforcement and accountability in the context of money and class.
What happens when a group of wealthy bankers fraudulently bring foreclosures on an entire class of people, as they did after the crash of 2008? Unlike a loss of, say, $210, the loss of a person’s home affects their life and well-being in ways that cannot be assigned a dollar amount. Thousands of people have spent the years since the recession uprooted from their communities. Taub posits that “the elite class had the power to define what was criminal.”
What happens when the President of the United States pardons criminals who have violated security, foreign interference, sedition, and treason laws? Trump is a stark illustration of why so few wealthy malefactors are held accountable. Like other members of the .01 percent, he can act with seeming impunity, able to buy or influence his way out of trouble. He empathizes with rich people who run afoul of the law. He minimizes their guilt, suggesting white-collar crimes aren’t really crimes, especially when the accused are white men, as the vast majority of all rich white-collar criminals are. Yet Trump is a symptom, not the cause. What happens when white politicians create laws to intentionally suppress and violate voters? How can we measure the social and political costs of mass dispossession because the defendant and violator are protected by a cloud of whiteness?
We will talk with Professor Taub who clearly articulates in her book, the cause and effect of white-collar crime “blinded by the whiteness” that plagues the judicial system. Leaving white-crime bosses to their devices operated by their money and “white card”.
ABOUT Jennifer Taub, Esq.
Her newest book is, Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime (Viking). Taub was a co-founder and organizer of the April 15, 2017 Tax March where more than 120,000 people gathered in cities nationwide to demand President Donald Trump release his tax returns. She is a professor of law at the Western New England University School of Law where she teaches Civil Procedure, White Collar Crime, and other business and commercial law courses, and was the Bruce W. Nichols Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School during the fall 2019 semester. She formerly was a professor at Vermont Law School.
An authority on the 2008 mortgage meltdown and related financial crisis, Taub is also an emerging expert in white collar crime. In addition to Big Dirty Money, she is co-author with the late Kathleen Brickey of Corporate and White Collar Crime: Cases and Materials, 6th edition (Wolters Kluwer 2017). Relatedly, she has appeared on cable news programs including MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CNN Newsroom to discuss the Special Counsel investigation into links between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.
In the area of banking and financial market regulation, Taub’s book Other People’s Houses: How Decades of Bailouts, Captive Regulators, and Toxic Bankers Made Home Mortgages a Thrilling Business was published in May 2014 by Yale University Press. Recognized as accessible and informative, OPH was honored by the Massachusetts Center for the Book as one of the 2015 finalists in the nonfiction category. Other People’s Houses was favorably mentioned by Nobel Laureate, Robert Shiller in his 2015 edition of Irrational Exuberance. Taub testified as an expert before the United States Senate Banking Committee and a United States House Financial Services Subcommittee. She also co-organized a conference and co-lead a panel discussion at the Financial Stability Law Workshop at the U.S. Treasury Department, hosted by the Office of Financial Research.
In addition to Other People’s Houses, Taub has written extensively on the financial crisis. Her publications include “The Sophisticated Investor and the Global Financial Crisis” in the peer-reviewed Corporate Governance Failures (UPenn Press, 2011) and a case study on AIG in Robert A. G. Monks and Nell Minow’s fifth edition of Corporate Governance (Wiley, 2011). In response to Roberta Romano, she presented and wrote “Regulating in the Light: Harnessing Political Entrepreneurs’ Energy for Post-Crisis Sunlight Hearings” (St. Thomas L. Rev. 2015). Additional works include the chapter “Delay, Dilutions, and Delusions: Implementing the Dodd-Frank Act” in Restoring Shared Prosperity (2013) and “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Banking,” in the Handbook on the Political Economy of the Financial Crisis (Oxford, 2012). She wrote entries on “Shadow Banking” and “Financial Deregulation” for the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor and Economic History (Oxford, 2013) and the chapter “Great Expectations for the Office of Financial Research,” in Will it Work? How Will We Know? The Future of Financial Reform (2010). In addition, she has published Reforming the Banks for Good in Dissent (2014). Her article, “The Subprime Specter Returns: High Finance and the Growth of High-Risk Consumer Debt,” was published in the New Labor Forum (2015). And, she recently wrote a book chapter on “New Hopes and Hazards for Social Investment Crowdfunding” in Law and Policy for a New Economy (Edward Elgar, 2017).
Taub’s corporate governance work often focuses on the role of institutional investors, including mutual funds. Her article “Able but Not Willing: The Failure of Mutual Fund Advisers to Advocate for Shareholders’ Rights,” published in the Journal of Corporation Law (2009) was presented at a conference jointly sponsored by the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and the Oxford Said Business School. Her article “Managers in the Middle: Seeing and Sanctioning Corporate Political Spending after Citizens United” was presented at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and later published in the NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policy (2012). Taub’s article, “Is Hobby Lobby a Tool for Limiting Corporate Constitutional Rights,” was presented at Harvard Law School and later published in a symposium issue of Constitutional Commentary in 2015 on Money, Politics, Corporations, and the Constitution (2015).
Taub has also ventured into the area of legal education and pedagogy. This includes her article “Unpopular Contracts and Why They Matter: Burying Langdell and Enlivening Students,” published in the Washington Law Review (2013). She is a co-author with Martha McCluskey and Frank Pasquale of “Law and Economics: Contemporary Approaches,” published in Yale Law & Policy Review (2016). With McCluskey and Pasquale, Taub is a co-founder of APPEAL (the Association for the Promotion of Political Economy and the Law), a research network linking economists, legal scholars, and policy makers concerned with inequality and instability who view markets and the government as mutually constituted. She has also developed a model syllabus for a course on Financial Stability.
In 2017, Taub received the Vermont Law School, Women’s Law Association Phenomenal Woman Award in the faculty category. She also served as chair of the Section on Financial Institutions and Consumer Financial Services for the 2017 AALS annual meeting. Prior to joining academia, Taub was an associate general counsel with Fidelity Investments. She received her BA degree, cum laude, from Yale University, with distinction in the English major, and her JD, cum laude, from Harvard Law School where she was the Recent Developments Editor at the Harvard Women’s Law Journal. She was a visiting professor at the University of Illinois College of Law for a short course in 2015 and a visiting fellow at the Yale School of Management during the 2016 spring semester. She was a visiting professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law during the 2019 spring semester.
Taub has written pieces for a variety of platforms including The Washington Post, CNN opinion page, Slate, the New York Times Dealbook, Dame Magazine, The Baseline Scenario, Race to the Bottom, Pareto Commons, The Conglomerate, and Concurring Opinions.
It’s tempting to think of the storming of the US Capitol on Wednesday as toxic masculinity run amok: a mob of mostly white men, carrying guns and wearing animal skins, trying to overthrow democracy on behalf of a president who once bragged about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.”
It’s even more tempting to embrace this narrative when, in a bizarre statement, that president’s campaign press secretary describes him as “the most masculine person, I think, to ever hold the White House.”
But focusing too much on masculinity obscures a crucial truth: Many women were either present at the riot or cheering on the insurrectionists from back home. There was Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran and apparent devotee of QAnon ideology who was killed during the riot. There was the woman photographed with “zip-tie guy” Eric Munchel, now believed to be his mother. There was Martha Chansley, the mother of the widely photographed “QAnon shaman” who wore a horned hat and carried a spear to Congress. She wasn’t present at the riot but later defended her son in an interview, calling him “a great patriot, a veteran, a person who loves this country.”
And, of course, there were the women lawmakers who boosted conspiracy theories and false claims about the election being stolen, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon adherent who railed against Democrats and Black Lives Matter protesters in a speech on the House floor this week while wearing a mask reading “censored.” Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, meanwhile, described January 6 as “1776” before the riot began, live-tweeted from the House during the attack (including a mention that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been removed from the chambers), and this week, refused to allow police to search her bag after it set off metal detectors outside Congress. During her campaign, Boebert promised to bring her gun with her to the House.
White women have been part of white supremacy in America since the very beginning, experts point out, dating back to their role in slavery. “They were at the table when the system was designed,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a history professor at UC Berkeley and author of the book They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, told Vox. “They were co-architects of the system.”
That remained true after the Civil War, through the birth and evolution of the Ku Klux Klan, and during the civil rights movement when white women were some of the most vocal opponents of school integration. And it remains true today, when women hold a key role in spreading QAnon ideology and sustaining white nationalist groups and movements. “Like other parts of our economy and society, these movements would collapse without their labor,” Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, told Vox.
And if we ignore the importance of women in the Capitol riot and the groups that backed and enabled it, we can’t understand white supremacy in America — let alone dismantle it. Trying to fight racism in America without looking at white women, Jones-Rogers said, is like “addressing only the right side of the body when the left side is still sick.”
White women have been part of white supremacy from the beginning
White women’s investment in white supremacy is older than the United States itself and goes back to their role in the economy of slavery. Though white women have been seen by some historians as passive bystanders to the brutalities of slavery, they were in fact active participants, as Jones-Rogers explains in They Were Her Property. Before the Civil War, white women had little economic or political power, with one big exception: They could buy and sell enslaved people. And they did so, using enslaved people as a way of building up wealth that would not simply be transferred to a husband in marriage.
Slavery gave white women “freedom, autonomy, and agency that they could not exercise in their lives without it, so they deeply invested in it,” Jones-Rogers said.
And after the Civil War, white women didn’t simply give up on white supremacy. Instead, as Jones-Rogers puts it, they doubled down.
For many, that meant becoming active participants in the KKK, which at one point had 1.5 million female members. Some women took leadership roles, like Elizabeth Tyler, who helped revive the Klan in the late 1910s and became its “most important propagandist,” according to Darby.
Women became especially important in the Klan once they gained the right to vote. After that, white men began to see their wives, daughters, sisters, and other women in their lives “as potential allies in the effort to politicize white supremacy,” Jones-Rogers said. “They began to see them as a voting bloc.”
And it wasn’t just because of organizations like the Klan that white women invested in institutional racism. They also played a core role in lynching by making false allegations of sexual harassment or assault, which wereused as a pretext to murder Black men. And they were key players in the fight against the integration of schools, with white women using their role as mothers to legitimize their victimization of Black children, Jones-Rogers said.
Indeed, throughout the 20th century, though white women could no longer profit from slavery, they were still deriving real benefits from white supremacy — namely, a sense of social and political power in a world still dominated by white men. “Through lynching, your words have the power of life and death over an African-descended man,” Jones-Rogers explained. “Your vote can secure a place in the state, in the government, for white supremacy.”
In essence, through white supremacy, white women came to “understand themselves as individuals who wield a certain kind of power that men have to respect,” Jones-Rogers said.
Understanding white women’s role is key to fighting racism today
And that dynamic has continued into the 21st century. The landscape of white supremacy has changed, with the Klan no longer a major player (though it still exists). Today, white nationalism is less about specific groups and more about “an ideology that people subscribe to from the comfort of their own desks,” Darby said.
Because of that, it’s hard to measure exactly how many women are involved in white nationalism. It’s easier to measure attitudes. Overall, about 20 percent of white Americans of all genders “feel a sense of discontent” over the status of white people in society, Darby writes in Sisters in Hate, drawing on the work of political scientist Ashley Jardina. And white women are actually more likely than white men to hold “exclusionary views about what it means to be American, preferring boundaries around the nation’s identity that maintain it in their image.”
And while they may not always be in front at rallies or riots, women remain important “recruiters and propagandists” for white nationalism, Darby said. Erica Alduino, for example, had a key role in organizing the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. She was the one directing traffic on messaging apps and answering mundane but important questions like whether there would be shuttle buses to the rally. She didn’t speak at the event, “but that’s not the point,” Darby said. “Whether women are seen or not seen, they are such important actors in this space.”
Women have also been central to organizing pro-Trump events that spread the false claim that the election was stolen. The group Women for America First organized a “Stop the Steal” rally of thousands in November and also received a permit for a rally at the Capitol on January 6, according to the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, women have taken an even more visible role with the rise of QAnon. An ideology that began with conspiracy theories about Trump battling a “cabal” of liberals involved in child sex trafficking, QAnon has grown to include a wider array of theories and misinformation. Last year, QAnon adherents began amplifying the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, which became a vehicle for false claims about the prevalence of child sex trafficking as well as a gateway for more extreme QAnon ideas. And many of the people posting with #SaveTheChildren — including celebrities and prominent influencers — were women.
In general, QAnon has been a way to co-opt messages long targeted at women — messages about the importance of natural living or even healthy food, for example — and turn them into an indoctrination in white nationalism and xenophobia. QAnon plays into “this idea that you can cleanse yourself and your life and your family’s life of pollutants,” Darby said. Messages about avoiding genetically modified foods, for example, can slide into messages about keeping non-white children out of schools.
In the last few months, QAnon has played a key role in boosting conspiracy theories about Covid-19 restrictions and masking, and backing attempts to overturn the election. And some of the most visible proponents of QAnon have been women. Greene, for example, has been called the first QAnon member of Congress and has tweeted support for the idea of the “deep state,” a core QAnon tenet.
Meanwhile, Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was killed by police at the Capitol riot, had been posting QAnon-related content on social media for nearly a year prior to the insurrection, according to the Guardian. The day before the riot, she tweeted a defiant message full of QAnon slogans: “Nothing will stop us….they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”
Despite the participation of Babbitt and others, there’s been a tendency to view the riot as largely male-dominated — and, indeed, to erase the presence of women in white supremacy throughout history. “There has been a tendency, from the colonial period to the present, to frame and to position white women as perpetual victims, in spite of the evidence to the contrary,” Jones-Rogers said.
But ignoring the fact that women have long been perpetrators of white supremacy — up to and including violence — will hamper any effort to truly fight it. “When we discount these women and the often violent and brutal roles that these women play,” Jones-Rogers said, “we neglect and we negate the impact that their activities have on their victims.”
If, by contrast, we as a society can reckon with the way that white women have been not just beneficiaries but designers of the system of white supremacy, she said, we will be better able “to dismantle the system and to address the ways in which the system has really pervaded all of our lives.”
The GOP Must Choose Between Conspiracy and Reality
QAnon Is Destroying the GOP From Within
Until last week, too many in the Republican Party thought they could preach the Constitution and wink at QAnon. They can’t.
“The violence that Americans witnessed—and that might recur in the coming days—is not a protest gone awry or the work of “a few bad apples.” It is the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice. When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them. We can be the party of Eisenhower, or the party of the conspiracist Alex Jones. We can applaud Officer Goodman or side with the mob he outwitted. We cannot do both.
If and when the House sends its article of impeachment against Trump to the Senate, I will be a juror in his trial, and thus what I can say in advance is limited. But no matter what happens in that trial, the Republican Party faces a separate reckoning. Until last week, many party leaders and consultants thought they could preach the Constitution while winking at QAnon. They can’t. The GOP must reject conspiracy theories or be consumed by them. Now is the time to decide what this party is about.”
During a symposium on We Are Not Slaves, Ernest McMillen, a co-founder of SNCC, Dallas, and an activist for the incarcerated, observed that, “The prison system is a microcosm, a concentration, of what is actually in the whole of society. This idea of going from the universal to the particular, and back to the particular and to the universal, is very important for people to see,” McMillen continued, “because the very forces [of oppression] that are at work concentrated in the prison system, are the same as those at work in our everyday society—from economic exploitation, to racism, to sexism, to untold injustices that we see every day. They are perfected first in the prison system.” This incredibly thoughtful observation is precisely why I wrote We Are Not Slaves.
*This post is part of our online roundtable on Robert T. Chase’s We Are Not Slaves. On Friday, January 15, at 12noon EST, Chase will be in conversation with Talitha LeFlouria about this book. The event is free and open to all. Click here to register for the event. During a symposium on We Are
“Hicks’ poignant conclusion reminds us that the ravages of COVID-19 leave today’s incarcerated peoples especially vulnerable. In a recent discussion with Kinetik Justice, the co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement, he told me that he had been placed in permanent solitary because of his organizing, but was recently relocated. In his words, “it’s obvious that several people in this neighborhood have been exposed to the virus and it’s very probable that the Administration knew that prior to moving me. Could it be coincidence? Lol. Well, it could be.” 2 This twenty-first century punitive cell displacement near a bio-virus harkens back to the disciplinary strategy I uncovered of purposeful cell displacement to generate racial and sexual violence. The disciplinary tools may change, but the strategies remain similar. Hughett’s final point is where I also concluded We Are NotSlaves, ending carceral violence “will require abolishing the prison.” That political project requires resistance against both the prison particular and the universal carceral apparatus and with a broad coalition of people inside and outside of prison.”
Sometimes the artist Winfred Rembert can’t sleep at night. His wife, Patsy, says that it has to do with his work. “Whenever he do one of those pictures, he gets sick,” she explains. “He has to double up on that medicine in order to get some rest.” Rembert first draws his scenes, full of faces and patterns, on paper, then carves the images onto a sheet of tanned leather by hand, texturing the surface with tools that look almost surgical, before filling in the etchings with vivid dyes. His paintings depict scenes of Black life in the Jim Crow South, and making them means dredging up painful memories from his youth, when he worked in cotton fields and on a prison-labor chain gang. Some artworks are healing or serve as sources of hope, Rembert says, in the documentary “Ashes to Ashes”—but not his.
When he was nineteen years old, living in Georgia and participating in the civil-rights movement, Rembert, now seventy-five, was lynched by a mob of white men. They shoved him into the trunk of a car, stripped him, hung him upside down, stabbed him, and made it clear that they intended to castrate him. The attack was brutal and dehumanizing—“There I am, bleeding like a pig, hanging up in a tree, ready to be slaughtered,” Rembert recalls. The attackers were moments from hanging him. They stopped, Rembert says, only because one man said they had “better things” to do. Rembert survived, but the scars have stayed with him.
Whitaker has a physician’s reverence for history. She says that, when patients come to see her, they may need to have difficult conversations about what has happened in that patient’s life. Those conversations can’t be ignored or elided, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. “Sometimes, patients come and they tell you horror stories. But I can’t discard it, because I need it in order to help that patient live,” she says. Without that information, she says, the patient will never get toward a cure. It’s a striking parallel to the words she delivered at the homegoing ceremony: “Some bad things happened in this country, where Americans tortured other Americans. . . . So we’re looking back in history,” she says, to a church full of mourners. “This patient”—and, here, the patient is something more collective than an individual in her exam room—“can only live and get stronger if we’re willing to look back.”
Taylor Rees, who directed the film, told me that working with Rembert and Whitaker has expanded her thinking about what it means to heal from racial and political violence. “That healing process might never look like a complete recovery from an injury, but it’s the courage to face an injury,” she told me. “Looking at that thing that has caused harm is sometimes the hardest part.” The attack that Rembert describes is so vicious, his attackers so lacking in human decency, that the temptation is, if not to look away, then to dissociate, to ascribe the actions to a distant place and time. But neither Rembert nor the brutality he lived through are relics of history. “The person who endured this is alive. This isn’t generations ago,” Rees said. The truth of that statement could hardly be clearer. We spoke just days after a mob had breached the Capitol building, many of its members wearing white-supremacist insignias and at least one waving a Confederate flag. On the National Mall, some of the group erected a scaffold and noose.
What is racial fraud and how is it possible? The answer would be clear enough, perhaps, if race were a biological reality. But the consensus seems to be that race is a social construction, a product of human ingenuity. So why can’t you choose to be any race you want?
Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane NAACP who identifies as Black despite being born to white parents, clearly believes we are free to choose our racial identity. Her case would seem to expose the limits of thinking of race as a social construction. If races are social rather than biological, some commentators on Dolezal suggest, we are free to make of them what we will; there are no rules. Yet responses to Dolezal tell a different tale. A 2015 Rasmussen survey of 1,000 likely U.S. voters found that 63 percent believed Dolezal was being deceitful in claiming to be Black: she was engaged in a kind of racial fraud.
The subtlest version of racial fraud—the fraud of whiteness itself—is the one we should be most concerned about, for it is by far the most destructive to our polity.
Is it incoherent to believe both that race is a social construct and that racial fraud is possible? In other words, does endorsing the notion of racial fraud require believing races are biological, after all? Literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels makes this sort of argument in his 1994 essay “The No-Drop Rule,” and versions of that idea endure. Michaels’s claim basically amounts to this: in order for a charge of racial fraud to have any normative power—that is, the kind of authority we generally grant to statements about what we should and should not do—it must rely on the claim that race is an essential, biological part of who we are.
But Michaels is wrong: normative significance does not ride on racial essences. In his 2008 essay “Race, Multiculturalism and Democracy,” philosopher Robert Gooding-Williams explains the error. Following Adrian Piper, Gooding-Williams claims that racial classification is the result of being subjected to a practice that counts one as a member of a particular race. Michaels wrongly assumed that for social constructionists, one’s racial identity is determined solely by visual features. But, at least in the United States, racial identification draws on both visual and cognitive criteria: facial characteristics, hair texture, skin color, ancestry. That is why, Gooding-Williams writes, “someone who would not be classified as black on the basis of visual criteria could still be black because Americans’ conventional (though not universal) adherence to the one-drop rule cognitively identifies her as black.” In saying that Dolezal committed racial fraud, you do not have to believe that race is biological. You simply have to think that the practice of racial classification cognitively identifies her as white. In other words, social construction can be ruled-governed without appealing to biological essence.
What does this tell us about debates over racial fraud today? While people like Dolezal, former George Washington University professor Jessica Krug, graduate student CV Vitolo-Haddad, and activist Satchuel Cole dominate the headlines, there are more subtle forms of this phenomenon to which we should pay attention. The most obvious versions are often easiest to denounce, perhaps because they are more easily detected or recognized. But I think the subtlest version—the fraud of whiteness itself—is the one we should be most concerned about, for it is by far the most destructive to our polity. To understand its stakes, we must see how it differs from two other, more familiar types of racial fraud.
Perhaps the most familiar type of racial fraud amounts to identity theft. A classic example occurs in the 1986 movie Soul Man, in which the character Mark Watson (played by C. Thomas Howell), a white Californian, poses as a Black man in order to get a scholarship from Harvard Law School. To pull it off, Watson takes tanning pills, perms his hair, learns a few cultural references, essentially donning blackface for the sake of personal gain. He attempts to defraud Harvard and others by misrepresenting himself, the white son of a wealthy psychiatrist, as a Black man.
Racial fraud as identity theft seems to be quite clearly what is happening in cases like that of Krug as well. Krug outed herself as a white woman last fall after having claimed various Black identities over the years. She deceived others by misrepresenting herself as something she isn’t, appropriating the identities of North Africans, African Americans, and finally Bronx-based Afro-Latinx. Krug’s posing took place all while building her career as a scholar working on the history of Africa and the African diaspora. Perhaps she believed doing so would boost her credibility as a scholar.
However, personal gain is only one basis for engaging in this kind of identity theft. Another basis is fetishization. Sometimes a person’s admiration for a group of people can result in a kind of conflation where that person no longer recognizes a distinction between themselves and the group. Arguably, this is what may have happened with Dolezal. Before her true parentage was revealed, part of her identification included claiming a Black man as her father, claiming her adopted Black brothers as her sons, wearing hairstyles typically associated with Black women, and tanning her skin to make it darker. Dolezal continues to identify as Black even after being exposed. This suggests a different motivation from that of the personal gain of things like money or social status.
It is the need to protect the ultimate fraud of whiteness that imperils not only the vulnerable other, but everyone.
Perhaps a clearer instance of fetishization is the case of German model Martina Big. Once a blonde-haired, white-skinned German woman, she has since transitioned into a brown-skinned, black-haired “Black” woman. On her website, she says she changed her ethnicity in 2017 to Black and has changed her legal name to Malaika Kubwa. She also notes that she very much likes her “new African look” and will complete the transformation by changing her facial features to “African” and enlarging her buttocks. Big—along with her husband, Michael Eurwen, who has also been injecting Melanotan to darken his skin—expressed plans to move to Kenya to “be with her ‘people’ and learn how to raise a family in the African way.”
Why should we be concerned with racial identity theft? Engaging in racial fraud for personal gain is wrong because it typically cheats members of marginalized groups out of resources intended to redress historic injustices. Racial fraud motivated by fetishization, however, is more complicated. Dolezal, for instance, was certainly wrong for the lies she told in presenting herself as Black. Big, on the other hand, does not appear to have engaged in such behavior. Her actions appear more pathological than diabolical. Big is also an extreme case. Less extreme cases may provoke more debate about what exactly is at issue. Perhaps the mildest form of these cases falls into a second type of fraud—a certain kind of appropriation.
In her book White Negroes (2019), Lauren Michele Jackson thinks through the stakes of cultural appropriation. She makes clear that the “act of cultural transport is not in itself an ethical dilemma. Appropriation can often be a means of social and political repair.” What matters, in her view, is the combination of cultural appropriation with power: white people profiting from the cultural productions of Black people, all the while denying credit to the originators—resulting in the erasure of Black contributions to society. And as Jackson notes, these kinds of appropriations exacerbate and prolong our society’s inequalities.
Instances of these kinds of erasure are quite widespread. In music, Elvis Presley is a vivid illustration; Jackson alerts us to instances of erasure in the culinary world, too. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, a white-owned restaurant based in Nashville, has become the embodiment of this distinctively Nashville cuisine. But as it turns out, Black-owned restaurants—Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish—are responsible for its creation and existence. When the mainstream culinary outlets got wind of it, Prince’s and Bolton’s were all but erased from the picture. What makes both of these cases instances of racial fraud is the consuming of the cultural productions of the group coupled with the erasure of that group’s contribution. Apportioning credit to the Elvises and Hattie B’s of the world rests on a fraud, a fraud perpetrated by the erasure of someone else.
Beyond these two types of racial fraud, however, there is a third type—less often discussed, but perhaps most consequential—that has to do with one’s relationship to one’s own history. By “history” I don’t mean exclusively, or even primarily, a person’s particular history, but more so corporate or social history: the kind of thing a person is a part of with others in virtue of being identified in a particular way. There are narratives that provide a unified sense of the various happenings to a group of people who evolve over time. But the sense of history I have in mind is slightly different. It is the notion of history found in James Baldwin’s essay “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes” (1965):
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history 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.
The presence of this history in our present, its impact on our frames of reference and identity, is crucial to the third type of racial fraud.
There are at least two versions of this type. The first is exemplified by the incident last year in New York City’s Central Park when Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, an African American man (no relation, despite the common last name), after he asked her to leash her dog. Amy became more and more irate in response to Christian’s insistence that she leash her dog. She became so upset that she called the police and claimed Christian threatened her, making sure to emphasize that he was “an African American man.” Amy signaled the urgency of the situation in her voice, sounding agitated and fearful.
What preexisting ideas and practices did Amy have available to her to make her think her indignation over being told to leash her dog was a violation worthy of police intervention and to lead her to emphasize the perpetrator was an “African American male”? It is the latter thing that is most revealing. Amy’s inclination to point out Christian’s African American maleness drew—consciously or not—on an understanding of the world as one in which African Americans stand in a particular kind of relationship to white people. Christian was out of line, out of place, in calling Amy’s attention to the park’s rules and insisting she follow them. Given the kind of person she is, as well as the kind of person he is, this was especially egregious.
The basis of white identity is a “lie of their history,” a lie used to justify dominating others.
This understanding of the world presumes a natural relationship of ruler to ruled, reminiscent of the one Aristotle describes in his Politics. To be sure, Amy Cooper and many others would likely deny believing anything like this, but her reflex to act this way hints at something present practically, almost like muscle memory. I think that Amy’s actions can possibly be linked to what Baldwin might say is her belief in being white. In “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies” (1984), Baldwin details the fraud of those who “believe they are white.” In a powerful passage, Baldwin registers a catalog of the effects of white racial fraud:
Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety. Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife—looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.
Baldwin points out that the “price of the ticket” for Europeans immigrating to the North American continent was to become “white.” What this meant, in essence, was leaving behind their history as English or Spanish or German to forge something different. But this newly forged whiteness was so monstrous that it became necessary to misrepresent it as something else—something grander, superior, innocent.
This kind of racial fraud differs from the others in that those perpetrating it do not attempt to pass themselves off as a member of another race or attempt to pass off as their own the cultural traits or mannerisms of another group. Instead, perpetrators of this fraud commit to something so disturbing that it becomes necessary to hide it even from themselves. The basis of their identity is a “lie of their history,” a lie used to justify dominating others. A stark example of this phenomenon is arguably present in our current political context. The election of figures like Donald Trump reflects, at least in part, the desperation of some to hold onto whiteness. It is as Baldwin noted: “Just so does the white community, as a means of keeping itself white, elect, as they imagine, their political (!) representatives. No nation in the world, including England, is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre.”
A second manifestation of this type of fraud is highlighted in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks (1952). Fanon considers the case of an Antillean who spends time in the French metropole getting educated and then returns to his homeland with a new outlook, one that has him looking down on his fellow Antilleans with disgust:
All colonized people—in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose local cultural originality has been committed to the grave—position themselves in relation to the civilizing language: i.e., the metropolitan culture. The more the colonized has assimilated the cultural values of the metropolis, the more he will have escaped the bush. The more he rejects his blackness and the bush, the whiter he will become.
The fraud in this instance is in the colonized believing the deceptive history of the colonizer. The colonized Antillean who goes to France for a “civilized” education and believes the terrible lies told about him and his descendants has failed to confront his history honestly and has identified himself with a fraudulent identity. Once again, the basis of this racial identity is a lie, and to behave on the basis of that lie is to perpetrate a fraud.
The pervasiveness of the third type of racial fraud is a grave problem. Addressing it is much more difficult because it is less detectable, even by its perpetrators. It is not just dyed-in-the-wool racists, confident in their superior racial stock, who are racially fraudulent. The good white liberal is also guilty of this kind of fraud. That is, good white liberals also believe they are white. Amy Cooper’s political contributions to Barack Obama, Pete Buttigieg, and John Kerry suggest she identifies politically as a liberal.
While the Krugs, Dolezals, and Vitolo-Haddads attract all of the media attention, the focus on figuring out what motivates their behavior provides a neat scapegoat on which to load all of our anxieties, fears, misgivings, and disdain. Doing this allows us to avoid confronting turbulent histories that become repressed and, in turn, produce fraudulent identities that become the basis for destructive behavior.
Perhaps the fire James Baldwin foresaw in 1963 will be set by those who have had so much practice setting things ablaze.
Our present is full of such instances of destruction, as is our past. Rosewood, a small Black town in northern Florida, was burned out of existence in 1923 all in the service of protecting whiteness. As the story goes, a white woman, Fannie Taylor, was sexually assaulted, allegedly by a Black man. Sarah Carrier, a Black woman employed as a domestic worker by Taylor, remembered things differently. Carrier and her granddaughter were in the back of the house that day, preparing to wash clothes, when they saw a white man—an engineer who worked on the railroad and rumored paramour of Taylor—enter the house. Taylor and her lover apparently got into a heated argument that became physical. Carrier and her granddaughter both heard the altercation and saw him subsequently run from the house. Taylor then made her way into the street, screaming that she had been attacked by a Black man. What ensued was a rampage that resulted in the burning of the town and the lynching of several residents. (Estimates of how many were killed vary, with an official death toll of 8 but claims of up to 200.)
The massacre at Rosewood was made possible by the belief of so many that they were white. The need to protect “the purity of the white woman” from the advances of the ravenous Black man was a pretense used to lynch countless numbers of people. The belief in an identity boasting purity and superiority instigated murderous behavior that has created and sustained various inequalities in our land till this day. As we saw last week, when hundreds of white Trump supporters staged a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it is the need to protect this fraud at all costs—the ultimate fraud of whiteness—that imperils not only the vulnerable other, but everyone. What happens when reality comes crashing down and the fraudsters realize the scam cannot be maintained? In 1963 Baldwin spoke of the fire to come if America did not heed the warning of the oppressed and turn from its wicked ways. Perhaps the fire Baldwin foresaw will instead be set by those who have had so much practice setting things ablaze.
The Rev. Dr. Kejuane Artez Bates was a big man with big responsibilities. The arrival of the novel coronavirus in Vidalia, Louisiana, was another burden on a body already breaking under the load. Bates was in his 10th year with the Vidalia Police Department, assigned as a resource officer to the upper elementary school. But with classrooms indefinitely closed, he was back on patrol duty and, like most people in those early days of the pandemic, unprotected by a mask. On Friday, March 20, he was coughing and his nose was bleeding. The next day, he couldn’t get out of bed.
Bates was only 36, too young to be at risk for COVID-19, or so the conventional wisdom went. He attributed his malaise to allergies and pushed forward with his second full-time job, as head pastor of Forest Aid Baptist Church, working on his Sunday sermon between naps. Online church was a new concept to his parishioners, and during the next morning’s service, he had to keep reminding them to mute their phones. As he preached about Daniel in the lion’s den — we will be tested, but if we continue to have faith, we will come through — he grimaced from the effort. That night he was burning up with fever. Five days later he was on a ventilator; five days after that, he died.
While COVID-19 has killed 1 out of every 800 African Americans, a toll that overwhelms the imagination, even more stunning is the deadly efficiency with which it has targeted young Black men like Bates. One study using data through July found that Black people ages 35 to 44 were dying at nine times the rate of white people the same age, though the gap slightly narrowed later in the year. And in an analysis for ProPublica this summer using the only reliable data at the time accounting for age, race and gender, from Michigan and Georgia, Harvard researcher Tamara Rushovich found that the disparity was greatest in Black men. It was a phenomenon Enrique Neblett Jr. noticed when he kept seeing online memorials for men his age. “I’ll be 45 this year,” said the University of Michigan professor, who studies racism and health. “I wasn’t seeing 60- and 70-year-old men. We absolutely need to be asking what is going on here?”
To help illuminate this gap in knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of why America has lost so many young Black men to COVID-19, ProPublica spent months gathering their stories, starting with hundreds of news articles, obituaries and medical examiners’ reports, then interviewing the relatives and friends of nearly two dozen men, along with researchers who specialize in Black men’s health. Our efforts led us to a little-known body of research that takes its name from one of the most enduring symbols of Black American resilience.
In interviews about the young men who died from the virus, a portrait emerged of a modern John Henry: hard-working, ambitious, optimistic and persistent, trying to lift others along with themselves. They were the very people communities would have turned to first to help recover from the pandemic: entrepreneurs who were also employers; confidants like coaches, pastors and barbers; family men forced into a sandwich generation younger than their white counterparts, because their parents got sick earlier and they had to care for them while raising kids of their own.
They were ordinary men. Time and again, it was their fight that was remarkable.
Bates, the only child of a single mother who supported him as a teacher’s aide, made it to Alcorn State University on football and choir scholarships. When his mother got sick with breast cancer, he had to drop out; after she died, he was almost destitute. Over the years, he built himself into multiple men at once, each a pillar to many others: the pastor whose flock depended on his counsel; the mentor known to school kids as Uncle Officer Bates; the assistant football coach and band director; the adoring father to 5-year-old Madison — his “heartbeat,” he called her. Recently he and his wife, Chelsea, a second grade teacher, had launched One Love Travel, organizing excursion packages and cruises as part of their long-term plan to build generational wealth.
He carried the stress of his efforts in his blood vessels, in his kidneys, in the extra pounds that accumulated with each passing year; he had diabetes and hypertension and at 6-foot-6, he was more than 100 pounds overweight. His official cause of death, on April 1, was COVID-19-related pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
But Chelsea knows that the virus, no matter how powerful, didn’t kill her husband on its own. It was the years of working nonstop, taking care of other people more than himself, that wore his body down. And when the virus attacked, he couldn’t fight back.
In the summer of 1978, the social epidemiologist Sherman James, then a 34-year-old researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, met the man who would shape his life’s work. At 70, John Martin was a retired farmer who suffered from debilitating osteoarthritis and hypertension. He had peptic ulcers so severe that doctors had to remove 40% of his stomach. Recounting his story in his backyard rocking chair, his cane resting on his lap, the old man had no doubt why his health was so bad: “I worked too hard.”
Born in 1907, Martin grew up in a family of sharecroppers who were only paid half of what their labor in the tobacco fields earned. Throughout the South at the time, most Black farmers lived at the economic mercy of landowners who were employers, landlords and vendors all at once. Martin watched as the system ruthlessly exploited his father; after one particularly harsh winter spent hungry, Martin vowed he would be different. Borrowing $3,725 in 1941, he purchased 75 acres. He had 40 years to settle the mortgage but accomplished the near-impossible: He paid it off in five. “That’s the reason my legs [are] all out of whack today,” he told James.
James listened, spellbound, until Martin’s wife called out, “John Henry, it’s time for lunch.” At that moment, something clicked. Holy cow, James remembers thinking. “It was just like the ancestors were speaking to me.” The power of Martin’s story wasn’t simply that it echoed the legend of John Henry; it also echoed the life experiences of most of the working-class African American men James knew.
Five years out of graduate school, James was among a small group of researchers focusing on one of the most enduring public health problems in the United States: why health outcomes for Black men are so poor. Black men live shorter lives than all other Americans — 71.5 years versus 76.1 years for white men — and have for generations. Black men’s life expectancy didn’t reach 65, the eligibility age for Medicare, until 1995, 30 years after the federal health program for the elderly became law; white men were living into their mid-60s by 1950. The shorter lifespans reflect a broader disparity: Black people have much higher rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes and strokes than white people do, and they develop those chronic conditions up to 10 years earlier. The gap persisted this year when the Brookings Institution examined COVID-19 deaths by race; in each age category, Black people were dying at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older.
For generations, public health experts mostly ignored the disparities. When they did pay attention, they invariably blamed the victims — their “unhealthy” behaviors and diets, their genes, the under-resourced neighborhoods they “chose” to live in and the low-paying jobs they “chose” to work. Their chronic illnesses were seen as failures of personal responsibility. Their shorter life expectancy was written off to addiction and the myth of “black-on-black” violence. Many of those arguments were legacies of the slave and Jim Crow eras, when the white medical and science establishment promoted the idea of innate Black inferiority and criminality to rationalize systems built on servitude and segregation.
Pondering the lessons of John Henry Martin, James began to see what many of his colleagues had been missing. It wasn’t just living in poverty that wore down Black men’s bodies, he hypothesized, but the struggle to break out of poverty. It wasn’t just inequality that made them sick, but the effort to be equal in a system that was fundamentally unjust. “It’s this striving to make something of themselves … to live their lives with dignity and purpose and to be successful against extraordinary circumstances,” James said. “They’re trying to make a way out of no way. It’s the Black American story.”
America has changed profoundly since Martin’s day. Yet the machinery of racial inequality continues to be omnipresent. It’s in the hospitals where Black newborns have significantly lower mortality if they’re cared for by Black doctors rather than white ones. In the redlined neighborhoods where poverty and pollution are concentrated — but not affordable housing or grocery stores or reliable internet. It’s in the crumbling, exploitative economies that force parents to risk their lives working long hours for low pay without sick leave. In mass incarceration and voter suppression. In the innumerable hurdles, one piled upon another, that make Black Americans’ climb up the socioeconomic ladder more daunting than ever, their successes more fragile and their setbacks more consequential.
“Everyone thinks about racism as something that is personally mediated, like someone insulting me,” said Linda Sprague Martinez, a professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work who conducts community health research with adolescents and young adults. “But the way in which it’s really pervasive is how it disrupts life chances and opportunity. … These are systems that are designed for you to fail, essentially, and for you to be erased and to be maintained in a certain position in our society.”
Challenging such a relentless machine, through “high-effort coping,” James concluded, requires three categories of personal traits that are major themes of the John Henry legend: tenacity, mental and physical vigor and a commitment to hard work. To measure them, he developed the John Henryism scale, with scores determined by how strongly people identify with 12 statements, including: “Once I make up my mind to do something, I stay with it until the job is completely done,” and, “It’s not always easy, but I usually find a way to do what really needs to be done.”
To score high in John Henryism, you don’t have to be Black or male or economically disadvantaged. But over the years, James and other researchers have found that Black people, especially those who are poor and working-class, do score high and tend to suffer greater cardiovascular risks, perhaps because the innumerable hurdles in their paths require greater effort to overcome. “The stress,” James said, “is going to be far more overwhelming than it has a human right to be.”
Stress is a physiological reaction, hard-wired in the body, that helps protect it against external threats. At the first sign of danger, the brain sounds an alarm, setting off a torrent of neurological and hormonal signals that whoosh into the blood, stimulating the body to fight or give flight. The heart beats faster and breathing quickens; blood vessels dilate, so more oxygen reaches the brain and muscles. The immune system’s inflammatory response is activated to promote quick healing. When the threat passes, hormone levels return to normal, blood glucose ebbs and heart rate and blood pressure go back to baseline. At least, that’s how the human body is designed to work.
But overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can cause the gears to malfunction. “Your body’s over-producing, always working hard to bring itself back down to the normal level,” said Roland J. Thorpe Jr., a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and founding director of the Program for Research on Men’s Health at the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions. The constant strain “resets the normal,” he said. As blood pressure remains high and inflammation becomes chronic, the inner linings of blood vessels start to thicken and stiffen, which forces the heart to work harder, which dysregulates other organs until they, too, begin to fail. “Your body starts to wear down,” Thorpe said — a phenomenon known as weathering.
The cumulative effects of stress begin in the womb, when cortisol released into a pregnant woman’s bloodstream crosses the placenta; it is one of the reasons a disproportionate number of Black babies are born too early and too small. Then, exposure to adverse childhood experiences — anything from abuse and neglect to poverty and hunger — continues the toxic stream; too much exposure to cortisol at a critical stage in development can rewire the neurological system’s fight-or-flight response, essentially causing the brain’s stress switch to break. The more stress a youngster endures, the more likely he or she is to have academic, behavioral and health problems from depression to obesity.
Weathering isn’t specific to race, but it is believed to take a particular toll on Black people because of the unique, unrelenting stress caused by racism that wears away the body and the spirit, “just like you have siding on the house, and the rain or the sun beats on it, and eventually it starts to fade,” said Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general under the Trump administration. Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, a social epidemiologist at Ohio State University, says the human body isn’t designed to withstand such biological and emotional assaults: “It’s the same thing as if you revved the engine of your car all day, every day. Sooner or later, the car is going to break down.”
The effects of stress can be seen at the cellular level. Researchers have found that in Black people, telomeres — repeated sequences of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes by forming a cap, much like the plastic tip on a shoelace — become shortened at a faster rate, a sign of premature aging. In a 2018 study examining changes in seven biomarkers in cardiac patients over a 30-year period, researchers found that Black patients weathered at an average of about six years faster than whites. And it was the extraordinarily high rates of hypertension in the Black community that prompted scientists to look at the impact of stress in the first place. By age 55, about 76% of Black men and women develop high blood pressure, versus 54% of white men and 40% of white women, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Sustained stress has strong links to obesity, which Black children and adults have at much higher rates than whites. Some of this is physiological: The interplay between cortisol and glucose is complex and insidious, triggering metabolic changes that can lead to diabetes and other chronic diseases. Some of it is psychological and behavioral: Stress is strongly associated with depression and other mental health disorders. “The way that people deal with stress is by strategies that make us feel better,” such as comfort eating, said Thomas LaVeist, dean of Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Stress and anxiety cause sleeplessness, which itself is correlated with weight gain. The result is often a cascade of health problems — hypertension, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome — that strike early and feed off of each other.
Because Black Americans experience many forms of stress, often at once, researchers have more questions than answers about the specific role John Henryism plays in these outcomes. The study of Black men’s health remains an under-examined frontier, with little in the way of funding or will because “Black men are not viewed as sympathetic,” said LaVeist, and because so few go into the health research professions. He and Thorpe, the Johns Hopkins professor, co-founded the Black Men’s Health Project, the first large-scale national study focused solely on Black men’s needs, with a goal sample size of 5,000. They hope to learn how stressors like segregation and adverse early life experiences impact health outcomes.
If this segregated body of emerging knowledge were to grow and infiltrate the mainstream medical and research communities, James can only imagine how beneficial that would be. Health professionals could build deeper relationships with their patients by better understanding the sources of stress that wreak havoc on their cardiovascular systems. They could test for high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol levels more frequently and at younger ages. “Until we can have a society that is more just racially,” James said, “we do need to find these intermediate steps.”
As ProPublica examined the lives lost to COVID-19, themes emerged in the pressure points faced by many young Black men. The wearing down typically begins when they are boys and must become little John Henrys to navigate white spaces or push through the adverse experiences endemic to Black communities. It continues when they grow into men, as most need to navigate the public’s projections of danger with unwavering vigilance. The more they succeed, the more responsibility they feel to lift their families and communities with them, and with that, comes more stress.
As James listened to the stories ProPublica was gathering, he instantly recognized the cycle of striving and succumbing that he has been writing about for 40 years. “They could have done so much more had the struggle not been so intense,” James said. “They were cut down too soon.”
Thomas Fields Jr. was barely a year old when his father first went to prison. The loss altered the trajectory of his life in ways that many children wouldn’t have been able to overcome. His mother, just 17 when he was born, moved with him from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Detroit, where her own mother had recently relocated. The city was in freefall: manufacturing jobs were disappearing; crime was surging; middle-class and white flight was stripping away the city’s tax base, eroding vital services and causing schools to fail. Just waiting at the wrong bus stop could get you robbed or shot.
“When you’re a young male living in Detroit, if you live past 18, it’s like you’re 50 years old,” Fields, then 31, said on a Facebook Live chat last year. “I swear that’s how it feels.”
Mitigating childhood adversity requires deep wells of resilience; researchers say one of the best ways to build those reserves is having a nurturing caregiver. In this, young Thomas was exceptionally lucky. His mother worked two jobs and still managed to watch him like a hawk; she told him constantly that she loved him. His grandmothers looked after him after school and during summer breaks. His father, Thomas Sr., did his best to be involved from behind bars, urging him to not make the same mistakes. “I wanted this Thomas Fields to break the mold,” he said.
To do that, Thomas became a little John Henry. He got decent grades, stayed out of trouble and taught himself to cook — healthy food, not the junk so many of his peers ate. After high school, he attended Grambling State University in Louisiana for a couple of years, then joined the U.S. Navy, where he went from being a talented amateur chef to a trained professional. He also became a father. When there were setbacks, he was already planning his next move. It’s a strategy that Black adolescents absorb like the air they breathe and the water they drink, Sprague Martinez said. “The mentality is: ‘Even if this system is not designed to work for me … I’m going to win this game. I haven’t gotten the prize yet? I must not be working hard enough.’”
High-effort coping can confer mental health benefits even for children raised in the direst of circumstances. Dosha DJay Joi endured the kind of trauma that dooms many children — beatings, neglect, sexual abuse. Born in Chicago, he spent much of his adolescence in group homes in the Wisconsin system. For years he was afraid to talk about the abuse and scared to tell his birth mother he was queer. He learned to channel himself into education and advocacy, helping other LGBTQ and foster kids; he especially wanted to make sure children remained connected with their siblings. He was inspired to study social work because of what he’d been through, said his mother, Kecha Kitchens. “Then a family member got sick, and he didn’t like how the nurses were treating the other patients in the nursing home, so he wanted to become a nurse.”
By the age of 28, Joi had a bachelor’s degree in human services, he had trained as a substance abuse counselor and he was working toward his nursing degree. He served as a court-appointed special advocate for kids aging out of foster care and lobbied lawmakers in the Wisconsin capitol and Washington D.C., forming a special bond with Rep. Gwen Moore, who represents Milwaukee in Congress. But the years of hardship took an enormous physical toll; Joi suffered from hypertension, heart and lung problems and at his heaviest, he weighed more than 500 pounds. When COVID-19 arrived in the Midwest, he was particularly vulnerable. He died on May 14.
For young John Henrys, the psychological benefits of high-effort coping seem to be complicated by what’s happening inside the body. “Typically when you study resilience in any group, and [subjects are] doing well by our typical metrics” — going to college, getting a good job, not taking drugs — “we say, ‘Woo-hoo,’” University of Georgia researcher Gene Brody said. “Logically, we thought this would transfer to have health benefits.” But for Black young adults trying to climb the economic ladder, they found just the opposite. “When you look under the skin, doing blood draws and using other kinds of measures, they look like their health is starting to suffer.”
In more than 25 years spent tracking the health of Black families in rural Georgia, Brody and his colleagues found that adolescents identified by their teachers as being success-oriented already had higher “allostatic loads” — science jargon for wear-and-tear on the body — at age 19 than their peers. By age 25, those from more disadvantaged backgrounds who scored high on the John Henryism scale were more likely to have metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that are precursors to diabetes and heart disease, than people from less disadvantaged backgrounds. Brody and his colleagues have dubbed this phenomenon“skin-deep resilience.” The same effects are not found for young white strivers.
In his late 20s, Fields was diagnosed with such a severe case of diabetes that his military career came to a screeching halt. When he returned to Detroit last year, he was a little brawnier, with more tattoos. “Diabetes was something that he was going to beat, because he wasn’t going to lose to anything,” said the Rev. Torion Bridges, one of his best friends for 20 years. He became a personal chef and motivational speaker, started a podcast and wrote a cookbook. He helped out his mom, who had multiple sclerosis. And he took a job as a “school culture facilitator,” working with kids who had discipline problems, at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, the pioneering Afrocentric public school he had attended. He was especially good with troubled boys who didn’t have a father at home, said principal Jeffrey Robinson, his onetime homeroom teacher, later his boss. “He could identify with the feeling of the loss.”
In March, Fields and his mother caught the coronavirus at the same time.
She recovered. He did not.
To navigate life as a Black man is to be constantly vigilant. The ubiquity of racism means that everyday interactions, while driving or shopping or birdwatching, can have potentially dangerous outcomes. So John Henrys live in a heightened state of awareness, continually adjusting. It might mean placing family photos near the front door to quickly prove your son belongs should police ever respond. It often means being able to “strategically assimilate” — to assume a public identity aimed at neutralizing stereotypes of blackness and defusing irrational white fears. This, W.E.B. DuBois explained more than a century ago, is “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
New York Times columnist Brent Staples would whistle Vivaldi in graduate school to signal that he was too cultured to be threatening. Darrell Hudson, who researches health disparities at Washington University in St. Louis, scans the closet each day before teaching class to select what he calls his “Non- Threatening Black Guy Uniform.”
“What’s not appreciated fully, I think, is how much energy it takes,” said Derek M. Griffith, professor and director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health at Vanderbilt University. “All of these different things that you have to do to modulate your body and so forth, all that additional attention that you have to pay to that, is a burden that most people don’t have to bear. It is a cause of weathering that we don’t fully appreciate.”
A 2014 study found that vigilance was positively associated with the prevalence of hypertension for Blacks but not whites. The more vigilant Black people were, the more the disparity grew. And researchers have found that Black people who are on guard against anticipated discrimination have higher blood pressures while they sleep. “When you experience racism or discrimination and it could cost your life, it’s good to be vigilant; but a prolonged and heightened state of vigilance is not good,” the University of Michigan’s Neblett said. “It can kill you in the end.”
Leslie Lamar Parker grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs, in a state that was 84% white. Like many John Henrys in this story, he was large — tall and wide — in a way that made him stand out to cruel classmates and clueless teachers. Bigness can be perilous for Black boys, who are often seen as older, stronger and less innocent than their white counterparts, stereotypes that underlie higher rates of school discipline and police violence. Parker learned to play the class clown and questioned authority. “School couldn’t hold his attention, not because he wasn’t smart. He wouldn’t go,” his mother, Tyuon Brazell, said. Because he wasn’t on track to graduate, she did what other parents might not and suggested he drop out his junior year. That’s when he started to thrive, earning his GED, graduating from college and becoming an IT specialist in his old school district, where he mentored students of color, ordering them lunch from DoorDash and supervising the tech club. “That was really important to him,” said his wife, Whitney, “making sure they didn’t fail any other brown kids like they failed him.”
One key to his coping was overcorrecting for how he might be perceived. Strangers would approach him to say how lovely it was to see him with his son and daughter, a microaggression masquerading as a compliment. He was so sensitive to stereotypes about absent Black fathers, his wife said, he was “a present parent on steroids.” To walk through the world as a Black man is to be simultaneously hypervisible and invisible, under surveillance yet never really seen. So he turned his wardrobe into a “conversation starter,” an expression of his irreverent personality but also armor against snap judgments about his imposingness. He carried a Spongebob SquarePants backpack to work and often wore a pro-wrestling or superhero T-shirt during off hours.
Parker was constantly scanning the horizon for threats against his family and his kids at school, wondering whether there was something more that he could do for them. He projected a cool demeanor, his argumentative wit camouflaging worries that his mother knew kept his head in overdrive. “I kept telling him: ‘Son, you need to rest. You don’t have to do everything in a day.’” He was diagnosed with high blood pressure at just 27 and worried it, and the extra pounds, would keep him from seeing his two children grow up. He died in May from COVID-19 at the age of 31.
Joshua Bush, who died in April of COVID-19, slammed up against racial stereotypes in his work as a nurse in South Carolina. There were funny looks from people who didn’t expect to see a Black man when he arrived at job interviews and white patients who refused to let him touch them. He told them, “That is your choice, but you’re missing out on great help,” his mother, Linda, recalled. He and his wife, LaKita, saw the health care industry as their route to upward mobility. She worked in hospital administration; at 30, he was studying to become a registered nurse, working as an LPN.
Bush also suffered from a rare enzyme abnormality that caused severe muscle cramps from overexertion, and because of it, trips to the emergency room weren’t uncommon. He’d come to accept that the first image doctors and nurses saw — someone Black and overweight — influenced their bedside manner. They treated him like he had no medical knowledge and lectured him about diabetes, though it had nothing to do with why he was seeking care. His experience informed the way he cared for his own patients, part of his “fight against the system,” his wife said. At the same time, she could see her husband’s stress “all over his body.”
Lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go. Words that started as a call-to-action at the rise of the Jim Crow South have become an enduring part of the African American experience — and can serve as a unique form of stress. The proverb was born of Black suffragist Mary Eliza Church Terrell’s belief that it was incumbent upon the growing Black middle and upper class to use their position to fight racial discrimination and help others rise through education, work and community activism. It is why Thomas Fields was told as a boy that he was “duty-bound” to give back to the community once he got an education. Why Dosha Joi advocated for young people in the system “because someone helped bring out the sunshine in me.”
“You’re socialized to say it’s not just about you. It’s really about what you’re going to do for your broader community and for your family,” Washington University’s Hudson explained. “People take it very seriously, trying to light a path for those behind them — even when they’re not necessarily in the most stable situation themselves. … But they’re lifting as they climb. That’s taxing. That’s a visceral stress.”
In the Brookhaven, Mississippi, of Eugene Thompson’s youth, Black business owners understood that Brookway Boulevard — at least the stretch that ran through downtown — was for white businesses. The election of Barack Obama was a turning point; Thompson figured if a Black man could become president of the United States, surely he could rent a modest space on “the Boulevard.” Publicly, his goal was to grow his client base by cutting white people’s hair, too. His family knew his aspirations were grander. “He wanted to do something in Brookhaven to help Black people to get off their knees,” his mother, Odell Edwards, said. “We are on our knees.”
It’s not easy earning a living in Mississippi, where the single most common job is working as a cashier and the $7.25 minimum wage hasn’t budged in a decade. Cutting hair came naturally for Thompson, who started on himself at 12. He attended a local beauty academy before he could afford to go to barber school and over the years took the same methodical approach to growing his business — buying secondhand equipment, doing the construction himself, all without bank loans, mentoring or government support.
But Thompson’s real ambition was to start his own school. “He always tried to encourage the boys in the community, or people who had been in prison and couldn’t find a job — ’I can teach you how to cut hair and you can have your own business,’” his younger sister, Dedra Edwards, said. After three years spent earning his teaching credential, Thompson opened his TaperNation Barber Academy for students last fall. Then he realized graduates needed places to work, so he launched his next project: renovating a second shop nearby where other barbers and hair stylists could rent chairs.
“It was running him ragged,” Odell said.
At 46, Thompson was severely overweight and suffered from lifelong respiratory problems as well as anxiety and sleeplessness. High blood pressure and diabetes ran in his family, but Thompson’s true health status was unclear — like more than 15% of Black people in Mississippi, he wasn’t insured and avoided going to the doctor except in an emergency. When he started feeling symptoms of COVID-19 in late March, he shrugged them off at first; he’d been having heart palpitations and panic attacks, which his family attributed to stress from work.
After he died in early April, leaving behind six children, TaperNation had to shut down. “You have to have a barber’s instructor license to keep it going, and no one else in the family has one,” his sister said. “We had to sell almost everything.”
Recent disasters — Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession — have shown that Black communities aren’t just more vulnerable than white populations to economic and social dislocations; they recover more slowly. The impacts of the pandemic are likely to be magnified because so many deaths have occurred among Black people under age 60, the peak earning years when people raise families, start businesses, amass social capital and create lasting legacies. In addition to the lives it took, COVID-19 has robbed wealth that John Henrys were only beginning to accrue and toppled what they had begun to build for themselves and those around them.
In many cases, they were the structural beams, holding everything up. “These are people who help pay bills for people who aren’t their biological family members,” said Sealy-Jefferson, the Ohio State social epidemiologist. “They bring food when somebody dies. They watch kids when a single mother has to work.” Some of the biggest losses are intangible, she said: “social support, emotional support, resource sharing, encouragement, storytelling, role modeling— all of these things that are vital for African Americans in particular, given our history in this country.”
Fields couldn’t comfort students reeling from a crisis that has killed more than 1,600 of their loved ones and neighbors. “It’s a tremendous loss,” said Robinson, his principal. Bates’ wife, Chelsea, was too bereaved to go back to work when school resumed, which meant living off of her husband’s death benefits and savings; she focused on trying to help Madison process a grief she’s too young to understand. “Sometimes she lays on the floor and kicks and screams that she wants her daddy, that she misses daddy and why did he have to leave?” she said. “I tell her, I’m sorry, I wish that mama could do something to bring him back. I really do.”
Weekday mornings have been quiet without Kendall Pierre Sr. puttering around the house before sunrise so he could open his barbershop by 5 a.m. That’s when workers from nearby chemical plants would stop in for a cut or shave after their graveyard shifts. Sundays are different without his sermons at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, in the little town of Ama, Louisiana, followed by a family breakfast his son always looked forward to. “My grandmother would come. Some of my aunties and cousins. He would put Aunt Jemima batter in the waffle iron and say: ‘See? This is better than Waffle House!’”
Since his dad died in May of COVID-19, Kendall Pierre Jr., a 20-year-old student at Louisiana State University, has felt an overwhelming absence and, at the same time, his father’s equally consuming presence. “I can still hear him,” he said.
Don’t drive with your hoodie on.
Work twice as hard.
Real men don’t wear slippers in public; put on some shoes.
The only child of a single mother, 45-year-old Pierre Sr. took his role as father figure seriously. To nieces and nephews, he was Uncle Dad. To his sons’ basketball teams, he was Coach Kendall with the pep talks.
If a task has begun, never leave it until it’s done.
Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.
When players couldn’t afford uniforms or travel for tournaments, he would pay. “Their parents would send them with all they could, which was sometimes only $5,” Pierre Jr. said. They could count on him for food, deodorant, even a haircut. “He would bring his clippers to make sure all the players looked nice.”
When the killing of George Floyd roiled the country, Pierre Jr. had no doubt about how his father would have reacted. He would have talked to officials at the sheriff’s office, school board administrators, government leaders. He would have organized community meetings at the church.
We’re living in troubled times.
His son thought about that when his friend texted him about organizing a Black Lives Matter protest. “Since my dad passed, I’ve had this newfound courage, and this urge to act on things … to just do things outside of my comfort zone,” he said.
On a Saturday morning in June, 400 people joined in the 2.6-mile march from Westbank Bridge Park to St. Charles Parish Courthouse. A local reporter covered it and interviewed Pierre Jr. for a story. “If we don’t speak about systemic racism and police brutality, no change will ever happen,” he said. “I feel like it’s something that I have to do and be a part of something bigger than just me.”
He knows his father would have been proud. His mother was. But she worries, too. Her husband didn’t make enough time for doctor’s appointments to monitor his Type 2 diabetes, nor did he get much sleep. “I would tell him, ‘Kendall, you need to rest,’” recalled Sabrina, his wife of 24 years and a registered nurse. “He would say he could rest when he’s dead and gone.”
She knows how much goes into taking care of yourself as a Black man and thinks about that every time her sons walk out the door; her daughter, too. “Lord, I pray for them. … I tell them: ‘Put the seat belt on, drive the speed limit. Make sure you don’t get any tickets.’ I don’t want them to get stopped by a cop.” Her husband’s stature in the community conferred a kind of protection. “Because of my husband and who he was, people would be looking out for my sons. We don’t have that anymore.”
Zipporah Osei and Mollie Simon contributed reporting.
Art Direction by Lisa Larson-Walker.
About the Art
Elliott Jamal Robbins, 32, is an artist who works in a variety of media, including drawing, printmaking, sculpture and video/animation. He has exhibited artworks in group and solo exhibitions in New York, Chicago, Miami, Berlin and the Netherlands. This is how he described his thinking behind the art in this story:
For me, the story of John Henry presents problems. Namely, its focus on the physical attributes of the man and celebrating the labor that killed him. In the original tale, John Henry is almost Christlike in his willingness, if not gleeful, in sacrificing his own body. In my own work, I’m always more drawn to the mundane scene. Rather than consider the figure of John Henry as a type or didactic prop to expound the ills of systemic racism, I decided to focus a narrative as though from the point of view of the subject, and we witness his day-to-day experiences as he does.
Beginning on the bus, we are reminded of this as the site where African Americans fought for the basic human right to sit where they chose. From one mode of transportation to another, the horseback rider recalls the notion of the American west, which most often represents a connection to the land, and freedom. In contrasting the horse from the rider, we see that while one figure experiences a kind of liberation, another body is at work which propels this motion. This relationship between horse and rider is a corollary for the relationship between John Henry and the train, a mechanical achievement that would bring with it the promises of cross country travel, commerce and economic prosperity.
The story of John Henry is a means of making visible the unseen labor, exploitation and oppression of nation building. In this way I want to consider the real impact of systemic racism on those experiencing it daily, as well as decentralize the notion of racial violence from images of murdered black men and women. Instead, I want to consider how violence is enacted everyday, and its key actors are those who participate in systems which are propped up by the degradation of others.
Clarification, Dec. 24, 2020: This story was updated to clarify a figure on Black infant mortality.