The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System
White Arkansans, fearful of what would happen if African-Americans organized, took violent action, but it was the victims who ended up standing trial
By Francine Uenuma
The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.
“There was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation; instead there was an unwritten law that no African-American could leave until his or her debt was paid off,” writes Megan Ming Francis in Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State. Organizers hoped Bratton’s presence would bring more pressure to bear through the courts. Aware of the dangers – the atmosphere was tense after racially motivated violence in the area – some of the farmers were armed with rifles.
At around 11 p.m. that night, a group of local white men, some of whom may have been affiliated with local law enforcement, fired shots into the church. The shots were returned, and in the chaos, one white man was killed. Word spread rapidly about the death. Rumors arose that the sharecroppers, who had formally joined a union known as the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA) were leading an organized “insurrection” against the white residents of Phillips County.
Governor Charles Brough called for 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike to, as the Arkansas Democrat reported on Oct 2, “round up” the “heavily armed negroes.” The troops were “under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.” They went well beyond that, banding together with local vigilantes and killing at least 200 African-Americans (estimates run much higher but there was never a full accounting). And the killing was indiscriminate—men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were slaughtered. Amidst the violence, five whites died, but for those deaths, someone would have to be held accountable.
Out of this tragedy, known as the Elaine massacre, and its subsequent prosecution, would come a Supreme Court decision that would upend years of court-sanctioned injustice against African-Americans and would secure the right of due process for defendants placed in impossible circumstances.
Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.
In the days after the bloodshed in Elaine, local media coverage continued to fan the flames daily, reporting sensational stories of an organized plot against whites. A seven-man committee formed to investigate the killings. Their conclusions all too predictable: the following week they issued a statement in the Arkansas Democrat declaring the gathering in Elaine a “deliberately planned insurrection if the negroes against the whites” led by the PFHUA, whose founders used “ignorance and superstition of a race of children for monetary gains.”
The paper claimed every individual who joined was under the understanding that “ultimately he would be called upon to kill white people.” A week later, they would congratulate themselves on the whole episode and their ability to restore order confidently claiming that not one slain African-American was innocent. “The real secret of Phillips county’s success…” the newspaper boasted, is that “the Southerner knows the negro through several generations of experience.”
To counter this accepted narrative, Walter White, a member of the NAACP whose appearance enabled him to blend in with white residents, snuck into Phillips County by posing as a reporter. In subsequent articles, he claimed that “careful examination…does not reveal the ‘dastardly’ plot which has been charged” and that indeed the PFHUA had no designs on an uprising. He pointed out that the disparity in death toll alone belied the accepted version of events. With African-Americans making up a significant majority of local residents, “it appears that the fatalities would have been differently proportioned if a well-planned murder plot had existed among the Negroes,” he wrote in The Nation. The NAACP also pointed out in their publication The Crisis that in the prevailing climate of unchecked lynchings and mob violence against African-Americans, “none would be fool enough” to do so. The black press picked up the story and other papers began to integrate White’s counter-narrative into their accounts, galvanizing support for the defendants.
The courts were another matter altogether. Dozens of African-Americans became defendants in hastily convened murder trials that used incriminating testimony coerced through torture, and 12 men were sentenced to death. Jury deliberations lasted just moments. The verdicts were a foregone conclusion – it was clear that had they not been slated for execution by the court, they mob would have done so even sooner.
“You had 12 black men who were clearly charged with murder in a system that was absolutely corrupt at the time – you had mob influence, you had witness tampering, you had a jury that was all-white, you had almost certainly judicial bias, you had the pressure of knowing that if you were a juror in this case that you would almost certainly not be able to live in that town…if you decided anything other than a conviction,” says Michael Curry, an attorney and chair of the NAACP Advocacy and Policy Committee. No white residents were tried for any crime.
The outcome, at least initially, echoed an unyielding trend demonstrated by many a mob lynching: for African-American defendants, accusation and conviction were interchangeable.
Nonetheless, the NAACP launched a series of appeals and challenges that would inch their way through Arkansas state courts and then federal courts for the next three years, an arduous series of hard-fought victories and discouraging setbacks that echoed previous attempts at legal redress for black citizens. “It’s a learning process for the NAACP,” says Lentz-Smith. “[There is] a sense of how to do it and who to draw on and what sort of arguments to make.” The cases of six of the men would be sent for retrial over a technicality, while the other six defendants – including named plaintiff Frank Moore – had their cases argued before the United States Supreme Court. The NAACP’s legal strategy hinged on the claim that the defendants’ 14th Amendment right to due process had been violated.
In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.
The verdict marked a drastic departure from the Court’s longstanding hands-off approach to the injustices happening in places like Elaine. “This was a seismic shift in how our Supreme Court was recognizing the rights of African-Americans,” says Curry. After a long history of having little recourse in courts, Moore vs. Dempsey (the defendant was the keeper of the Arkansas State Penitentiary) preceded further legal gains where federal courts would weigh in on high-profile due process cases involving black defendants, including Powell vs. Alabama in 1932, which addressed all-white juries, and Brown vs. Mississippi in 1936, which ruled on confessions extracted under torture.
Moore vs. Dempsey provided momentum for early civil rights lawyers and paved the way for later victories in the ’50s and ’60s. According to Lentz, “when we narrate the black freedom struggle in the 20th century, we actually need to shift our timeline and the pins we put on the timeline for the moments of significant breakthrough and accomplishments.” Despite Moore vs. Dempsey being relatively obscure, “if the U.S. civil rights movement is understood as an effort to secure the full social, political, and legal rights of citizenship, then 1923 marks a significant event,” writes Francis.
The ruling also carried broad-ranging implications for all citizens in terms of federal intervention in contested criminal cases. “The recognition that the state had violated the procedural due process, and the federal courts actually weighing in on that was huge,” says Curry. “There was a deference that was being paid to state criminal proceedings, then this sort of broke that protection that existed for states.”
The sharecroppers that had gathered in Elaine had a simple goal: to secure a share in the profits gained from their work. But the series of injustices the events of that night unleashed would – through several years of tenacious effort – end up before the nation’s highest court and show that the longstanding tradition of declaring African-Americans guilty absent constitutional guarantees would no longer go unchallenged.
As many college students as well as others have moved back home during the current pandemic people’s houses are feeling more cramped than ever. The conditions of small living spaces feel even more confining as communities are tasked with staying inside as much as possible with orders to shelter in place still intact in some locations. These conditions have left many feeling restless, bored, agitated and sad as they try to carve out private space and a sense of normalcy in such an uncertain time. The feelings of confinement ordinary people are facing contrasts starkly with the views of celebrity housing available through live streams, photos, and videos on social media. Gal Gadot and several other celebrities, for example, released a video of them singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The video was posted to Gadot’s Instagram with the caption “We are in this together, we will get through it together. Let’s imagine together. Sing with us. All love to you, from me and my dear friends.” Immediately, people on Instagram and Twitter noted the emptiness of these gestures coming from wealthy celebrities without the addition of material action.
The pandemic has drawn to a head the inequalities in housing and wealth defining the contemporary US. The nation’s majority have been left scrambling to make rent for their tiny apartments while watching the wealthy squirrel away in large open concept mansions with lush lawns and huge pools.
For Black communities, these contradictions are nothing new, as forced immobility and confinement have defined their historical and contemporary experiences with regard to the matters of space. As West Africans were rendered slaves, one of their primary spatial experiences was confinement, first in slave castles like El Mina in modern Ghana and then aboard the thousands of slave ships that traversed the Atlantic across five centuries. Africans crossed the ocean packed in and chained together with little room to move.
The carceral space aboard the slave ship put captives in a position of increased vulnerability to diseases and illness. Despite slave trader’s efforts to bring only “healthy” Africans across the sea many ships suffered numerous casualties due to yellow fever, smallpox, scurvy, malaria, flux, and several other diseases. Sowande’ Mustakeem has noted that the isolation caused by the sea voyage along with the cramped and unsanitary conditions captives were held in created unique and devastating encounters with disease. The spread of disease was further aggravated by the violent treatment of captives aboard these ships as well as poor nutrition. As people’s bodies attempted to heal from physical and psychological injuries as well as illness, they faced an environment that only further deteriorated their capacities to fight infection.
In the North American context, despite variation in housing circumstances across different regions and time, the enslaved were forced to live in confining spaces. Whether awaiting sale in a dingy and overcrowded slave pen in Richmond, living in overcrowded gender-segregated barracks in Charleston, or making lives in a drafty and inadequately sized cabin on a rural sugar plantation in New Orleans’ hinterland, slaves experienced the quotidian violence of tight living irrespective of other differences in their social conditions and labor. This contrasts sharply with white slave owners who demonstrated their power with sprawling homes on sprawling estates. Consider for example, Thomas Jefferson’s Albemarle County, Virginia mansion, Monticello in contrast to the small and poorly insulated log cabin structures in which the people he enslaved lived. The contrasts between Black and white space also had another dimension related to mobility. Especially in the wake of the Jacksonian era, white people moved freely, while enslaved people’s movements were legally regulated and violently circumscribed. Even free Black people, especially after Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 rebellion, were strictly delimited in their abilities to move freely. Confinement and immobility were twinned conditions for slaves. As Katherine McKittrick analyzes, Harriet Ann Jacobs, spent seven years in her grandmother’s garret or attic space, unable to fully stand upright in nine-foot-long, seven-foot-wide, three-foot-tall space. She hid in this space, carving it as a “loophole of retreat” in order to evade the violence of her master and eventually to escape. For Jacobs freedom required a subtle reworking of the confinement enforced on Black life and Black geographies.
This lack of mobility and confinement continued after slavery as part of its afterlives along with the related condition of predisposition to contagious disease and premature death. In Chicago between the World Wars, Black migrant communities were forced into the West and Southside by legally sanctioned segregation, policing, and vigilante violence. Black families rented small apartments called kitchenettes at exorbitant rates, and as St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton characterized in their influential study, lived in cramped poorly heated and congested conditions. As Rashad Shabazz argues, in the spaces of kitchenettes, Black Chicagoans experienced an expression of carceral power in their ordinary lives, manifest in the arrangement of their housing. He writes “by creating close associations between people the kitchenette made privacy of any kind impossible, shaming its residents by putting all actions under the forced gaze of others in the room.”1 This kind of housing arrangement is psychologically wearing, as Richard Wright’s Native Son disturbingly and dramatically fictionalizes. Many Black Chicagoans, across generations, experienced life-long emotional states like the frustration, restlessness, and captivity some people stuck in their homes due to the pandemic currently are experiencing for the first time.
This confining geography extending out from kitchenette also had deadly effects. In 1918 and 1919 the Spanish Flu pandemic caused mass death and tremendous social upheaval that anticipated and rehearsed what Black communities are currently experiencing with COVID-19. Prisoners today are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19—the highest number of cases tied to a location is a prison in Ohio where 80% of the prisoners have tested positive. This resonates with the history of the Spanish Flu in Chicago. As one Chicago Defender writer noted, “Chicago police stations are doing more to breed disease than any other agency supposed to be working for the good of Chicago.”2 The journalist went on to note the way Chicago jails “huddle prisoners together” without medical examinations and how this led to the spread of the deadly flu.3 The carcerality of the kitchenette also made its residents vulnerable. Shabazz notes that Black Chicagoans had higher rates of mental illness, disease, and death all of which were influenced by their crowded and run-down living conditions. These kinds of vulnerabilities tied to spatial confinement are ongoing in Chicago where 50% of the deaths from COVID are Black, and where segregation and carcerality continue to define the landscape.”4
Blackness’s tie to tight spatial control and confinement,extending between living spaces and formal carceral institutions, and from slavery to the present, puts Black people at greater risk for disease and infection exacerbated by the mental health effects of confinement. This greater vulnerability tied to spatial confinement, overcrowding, and other effects of our nation’s anti-Black geography buttresses the spatial advantages white communities enjoyed historically and which they continue to enjoy. White slave owners profited from the confinement and forced vulnerability of their slaves. White landowners in Chicago profited from overcharging their Black tenants for poor quality housing. The risk of death, disease, and mental illbeing that Black people live with exists to produce white safety and comfort, guaranteed in exclusive geographies away from lead paint, rusty water, over-policing, and gratuitous violence. In order to mitigate the unequal deadly effects of COVID-19 and to prevent the future of devastating conditions disproportionately affecting Black people, we must reimagine the American landscape outside this history defined by the twinned and reinforcing structures of Black immobility and confinement.
Rashad Shabaz, Spacializing Blacknes: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 50. ↩
“Spanish Plague Raging in Chicago: All Places of Public Assemblage Ordered Closed by Health Officials,” Chicago Defender (Chicago, IL), Oct. 19, 1918. ↩
Praise came fast, and then the backlash, especially against the claim that the nation’s true founding should be dated not to the 1776 American Revolution but to 1619, when the first group of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans arrived in North America and were sold to Jamestown settlers. The editors and authors of 1619 are working in the cockpit of Trumpism, with racism and inequality renascent, so their dark take on US history is understandable. But here’s Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 writing near the top of the mountain. Liberalism was seemingly triumphant, on the cusp of passing historic civil rights legislation. If ever there was a moment to put forward an optimistic view of US history—of a country about to fulfill its “promissory note” of equality—this was it. Still, King feels compelled to point out the “broader dimensions of the evil” of US history, of its “myth” of equality:
Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population.
Expectedly, much of the criticism of The 1619 Project comes from political conservatives. But a group of liberal historians reacted harshly as well, among them Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, who, along with four other esteemed scholars—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes—sent a letter to the Times demanding a retraction of the claim, made by Hannah-Jones, that “one of the primary” causes of the American Revolution was that colonists “wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Wood, Oakes, McPherson, and Bynum also gave extended, critical interviews about the project covering a wide range of topics: colonial history, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s views on race, Thomas Jefferson’s late-in-life turn toward pro-Southern extremism, the relationship of ideas to politics and economics, and the links between capitalism and slavery. Wood and Oakes, especially, objected to Hannah-Jones’s argument that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery, and Wilentz, in a comment to The Atlantic, took exception to her remark that African Americans fought for their rights “largely alone.”
Striking is what was not discussed, and that’s what King noted in 1963: indigenous subjugation. The historians mentioned above said not a word, either in their collective letter or in their extensive interviews, about the dispossession of native peoples, the destruction of their societies, and their deportation west.
The omission is odd. For whether their criticism was motivated by a desire to defend a Whiggish narrative of liberal progress (Wilentz’s position) or insist on a stronger focus on political economy (Oakes’s concern), indigenous subjugation is key to understanding the history here being debated. Imperial expansion west over stolen Indian land shaped the American Revolution’s relationship to slavery. Expansion west drove the dynamism of the United States economy. And expansion west ignited slavery’s vast and rapid postrevolutionary growth, and allowed for its endurance, long past its abolition in every other country in the Americas (save for Brazil and Cuba), accounting for its deep and lasting imprint on US political culture, economics, and institutions.
American revolutionaries might have argued over slavery, and what place unfree labor would have in a republic founded on the ideal of liberty. But there was one thing that nearly all agreed on: the right to move west. British Americans, before their break with London, chafed at what was called the “Proclamation Line.” Running along the crest of the Alleghenies, the demarcation was made by the British Crown after its 1763 victory in the Seven Years’ War against France, as an effort to sequester white settlers on the Atlantic Coast. With British subjects already moving through the mountain passes, the policy became a major source of resentment against colonial rule. Settlers—the “overflowing Scum of the Empire,” as a British governor described the drifters and squatters who rushed down the Mississippi Valley—wanted land, which brought them into deadly conflict with Native Americans. In 1763, for instance, the Scotch-Irish Paxton Boys rampaged through Pennsylvania, murdering over a dozen Conestoga, scalping their victims, mutilating their corpses, and breaking up their communities (Dwight D. Eisenhower’s great-great-great grandfather, Hans Eisenhauer, was a Pennsylvania Indian killer during this time).
Not just material interests drove settlers west. The United States was founded on the idea that the ability to move wasn’t just a natural right but a condition of all other natural rights, a guarantor of many different kinds of virtue. Franklin provided an early political economy: Unlike in Europe, “labour will never be cheap” as long as farmers can continue moving west. James Madison offered a political theory: “Extend the sphere,” he said, and you’ll dilute factionalism and mitigate economic conflict. And Jefferson, two years before his draft of the Declaration of Indepedence, presented a moral history: Our “Saxon ancestors,” Jefferson wrote, “left their native wilds and woods in the North of Europe” and “possessed themselves of the Island of Britain.” As they did so, no German prince presumed to claim “superiority” over them. By what law, then, did the Crown presume to stop colonists from settling “the wilds of America”?
The American Revolution answered: none at all. The new nation came into the world doubling its size. The treaty recognizing the independence of the original 13 colonies ceded to them the territory between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi. The United States then proceeded to move swiftly—as if weightless, as the Mexican diplomat and writer Octavio Paz put it—across the West.
What would have happened if the United States had stayed confined, either east of the Alleghenies or of the Mississippi? What if the new nation hadn’t used its full federal apparatus to cleanse its eastern lands of Native Americans? Counterfactuals are a mug’s game, which historians anyway like to play (even if many consider them an invalid form of historical reasoning). Economists, though, have no problem with asking “What if?” The Berkeley economist Bradford DeLong isolated some variables and built a model that suggested that a “little America…penned behind the Appalachians would probably have seen its living standards and productivity levels not growing at 1% per year from 1760 to 1860 but shrinking.” Wages, as a result, would have been lower than they actually were, which would have decreased European migration somewhat but not much, considering the direness of rural life in Europe.
The history of chattel slavery would have been different in “little America.” With large numbers of immigrants working for lower wages, in a more constricted economy, fights over the moral meaning of labor, free and slave, which the historians who criticize The 1619 Project make much of, might have come to a head earlier. Or maybe not. For without taken indigenous land to expand into (land that was used as collateral for loans to finance buying more slaves and building more plantation, which in turn contributed to the growth of the cotton, real estate, finance, and insurance industries), slavery probably wouldn’t have transformed into the even larger monstrosity that it did become. Many Northerners and Southerners, Gordon Wood says, sounding wistful, as if he wishes he were living in little America, “thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away.” And maybe the racism forged in a rump slavery would itself be a rump, and wouldn’t have had the lasting impact that it did.
But “big America” is what we got, thanks to a “national policy to wipe out its indigenous population,” as King noted in 1963. The United States flew over the continent like a whirligig, with not one “removal” but hundreds of removals, not one Trail of Tears, but many, with massacre after massacre, until Native Americans were reduced. This expansion—the acquisition of Florida, the Louisiana Purchase, Jackson’s Indian removal, the incorporation into the union of Texas, founded as a slaver’s utopia, and Oregon, founded as a white supremacist arcadia, and the taking of a third of Mexico—delayed a political reckoning with slavery, even as it provided the conditions for the robust progression of slavery. By the 1850s, chattel slavery had, in big America, insinuated itself into national life, into politics, law, philosophy, medicine, the new science of mental health, culture, city planning, and of course economics, in ways that, as The 1619 Project argues, last till today. It was during the Jacksonian period of imperial expansion, Indian removal, and the fast growth of slavery that a minimalist interpretation of the Constitution’s regulatory and fiscal power, and a maximalist interpretation of its war power, took shape—an interpretation that to a large degree remains regnant.
Indian removal opened the floodgates, allowing, as one legal theorist would describe the Age of Jackson, “an irresistible tide of Caucasian democracy” to wash over the land. King Cotton extended its dominion through the South, creating great wealth, along with greater forms of racial domination over both enslaved and free blacks. At the same time, Native Americans were driven west, and the white settlers and planters who got their land experienced something equally unprecedented: an extraordinary degree of power and popular sovereignty. Never before in history could so many white men consider themselves so free. Jacksonian settlers moved across the frontier, continuing to win a greater liberty by putting down people of color, and then continuing to define their liberty in opposition to the people of color they put down.
The 1846 war on Mexico deepened the associations of white skin with supremacy, dark skin with subjugation, and expansion with freedom. The nation’s elites “placed their most restless and desperate citizens upon the throat of Mexico,” as the historian Paul Foos described the looting, civilian murder, and terror that US troops—comprised of state militia volunteers and Army regulars—inflicted on Mexicans. Mexico put up more of a fight than the US politicians who plumped for the war said it would. As fighting dragged on for nearly two years, US soldiers committed crimes on Mexicans so terrible that, as General Winfield Scott, commander of US forces, said, they made “heaven weep.” The war was fought in an extremely decentralized manner, with officers’ barely exercising control over their troops, who experienced the violence they committed on Mexicans and Native Americans—“the repetition of the most heinous offenses, murder, rapine, robbery, and rape,” as one US newspaper described them—as a form of liberty.
The United States won the war, and many veterans returned east, to New England’s manufacturing towns or to New York’s Bowery, their battle-hardened racism working its way into local politics and into organizations that were potentially egalitarian, such as labor associations, and the Free Soil movement. Others went west, into California and up into Oregon. Armed with federally supplied rifles, an ample stock of bullets, and the promise of bounty land, they understood Western settlement to be a sequel to the war they had just won, and the genocide that took place on the Pacific Coast its last, long battle. “A war of extermination,” the first US Anglo governor of California predicted in 1851, “will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinguished.”
Others spread out into the Midwest, into Kansas and Missouri, carrying their blood-soaked entitlement with them. War with Mexico simultaneously delayed and worsened the sectional crisis. In this sense, then, imperial expansionism served as both valve and throttle, with each conflict simultaneously venting the hatreds produced by the last while creating the conditions for the next.
The scholars who criticized The 1619 Project rightly argue that the moral debates, economic conflicts, and complicated politics of the Civil War shouldn’t be easily dismissed. There’s heroism, exercised by people of all colors, to be appreciated, which today might help us climb out of our current abyss. But it’s also important to recognize the way in which imperial expansion, including the ongoing dispossession of Native Americans, allowed the United States to continue its great evasion, its ability to take social conflicts that seemed irresolvable in the here and now and imagine their resolution in the there and then: there beyond the line of settlement, and then when the United States wins the West or opens the China market.
It wasn’t just the localized power of Southern elites that ended radical Reconstruction, the closest this nation came to having an honest reckoning with the consequences of slavery. In the struggle between North and South over the direction of a postbellum nation, access to Western lands played a decisive part. As the historians Boyd Cothran and Ari Kelman write, Northerners and Southerners in the years after the Civil War found “rare common ground” on the need to acquire more ground. They agreed on nearly nothing, only that the “Army should pacify Western tribes.” White Southerners bitterly opposed Reconstruction, and especially the hated Freedmen’s Bureau, but they came together with Northerners “on the subject of Manifest Destiny.”
The overseas frontier—wars and military occupations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Haiti—acted as a prism, blurring together the color line that existed at home and abroad. Southerners, in each military occupation and prolonged counterinsurgency they fought, could replay the dissonance of the Confederacy again and again. They could fight in the name of the loftiest ideals—liberty, valor, self-sacrifice, camaraderie—while putting down people of color. The body count in the Caribbean and Pacific was high. Hundreds of thousands died through the 1930s, either directly at the hands of US soldiers or from disease, famine, and exposure. Letters from soldiers, first in the 1898 campaign and then later in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, are notably similar, lightheartedly narrating to family and friends how they would shoot “niggers,” take “nigger scalps,” lynch “niggers,” release “niggers” into the swamp to die, water-torture “niggers,” and use “niggers for target practice.”
As Southerners steadily took the lead in the US military campaigns outward, all the dread, resentment, and hate generated by that campaign “poured back within the frame of the South itself,” as the Southern writer W. J. Cash wrote in his 1941 classic, The Mind of the South, and blended together. Over there, foreign enemies could be called niggers, and over here, domestic enemies—labor, farmer, and civil rights organizers, both people of color and their white allies—could be called subversives and anti-American: Many of the white vigilantes who led the terror campaign against black communities, in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898; Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919 (where veterans, with help from the US Army, slaughtered 237 sharecroppers for trying to organize a union); or the 1921 Tulsa massacre, were veterans.
Rather than atonement and reckoning, the United States offered war and conquest as a way to forge national unity. In fact, war became America’s ideal form of atonement, a way to deal with the past by fleeing forward into the future, by recycling the traumas caused by the last war into new wars.
We are going to need a bigger project, of the kind that Martin Luther King Jr. laid out in 1963. By focusing on the horrors inflicted on Native Americans, by arguing for the unprecedented nature of removal, King was doing more than adding yet another oppressed group to history’s pantheon of victims. Rather, he was reaching for a holistic understanding of how racism is historically reproduced down the generations.
“We elevated” the war against Native Americans “into a noble crusade,” King said, founding our national identity on Indian killing. Imperial expansion became a way of life, one that reinforced deep-seated pathologies and provided mythic justification for a volatile, racialized individualism. Imperial expansion led to alienation, social isolation, free-floating aggression, and fantasies that life was an endless game of cowboys and Indians, played out in all the nation’s endless wars. King, who by this time considered himself a socialist, hoped to build a movement that would achieve the “mass application of equality to jobs, housing, education, and social mobility.” He was acutely aware of the structural barriers to that goal. But he was also attuned to the psychic barriers that blocked full social equality.
Hannah-Jones writes that African Americans mostly “fought back alone.” King said much the same thing when he described nonviolent civil rights activists who faced jeering mobs with an “agonizing loneliness.” King here wasn’t talking about a lack of white allies, or individual isolation. He was talking about the loneliness that comes from fighting for social justice in a nation that is deeply, militantly, antisocial. “There is,” he said, “an individualism that destroys the individual,” that denies the interdependency of existence.
Starting around the early 1960s, King began to use the idea of the social frontier to put forward a counter value structure, an alternative to an ideal of freedom forged in centuries of subjugating people of color. African Americans, he said, confronted a reality “as harsh and demanding as that of the pioneer on the untamed frontier.” That harshness forged character and weeded out frivolity; it sharpened “knowledge and discipline…courage and self- sacrifice.” For King, then, nonviolent resistance was more than a tactic. The ability to fight on the “social frontier,” to forge a path through the “wilderness of segregation” without losing oneself to justifiable anger, without giving in to rage or the despair of loneliness, he said, contained the embryo of an alternative society, a way to free the nation from its past, to overcome its cultish adherence to frontier violence and create a beloved, social community.
Then came Vietnam, and King confronted his own agonizing loneliness. First for staying guiltily silent, not wanting to break his productive, for a time, alliance with the Democratic Party. And then, after he spoke out, when he was abandoned by people he thought were his allies and friends.
King started to publicly criticize the war in 1966. His cri de coeur came on April 4, 1967, when he gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in Riverside Church in Manhattan, to an overflow crowd of thousands. There, King didn’t just condemn the US war in Southeast Asia. He condemned all of it: the country’s long history of expansion, its “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” and a political culture where “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.”
King wasn’t just breaking with the Cold War liberal consensus, which conditioned support for civil rights at home on backing anti-communism abroad. Rather, his protest entailed the refutation of an older, more primal premise. The nation was founded on the idea that expansion was necessary to achieve and protect social progress. Over the centuries, that idea was realized, again and again, through war. Extending the vote to the white working class went in hand with Indian removal; the military defeat of the Confederacy by the Union Army didn’t just end slavery but also marked the beginning of the final pacification of the West, with the conquered frontier continuing as an important basis of Caucasian democracy. Millions of acres were distributed to veterans. By the time African Americans started entering the armed forces in significant numbers, with the war of 1898, there was no more frontier land to hand out. But military service remained one of the country’s most effective mechanisms of social mobility, for African Americans as well as for working-class people in general, with the G.I. Bill of Rights providing education, medical care, and homeownership to veterans. King’s dissent, therefore, signaled a schism in US politics worthy of his namesake.
To “go beyond Vietnam” didn’t just mean splitting from the New Deal coalition by demanding an exit from Southeast Asia. It meant breaking with the devil’s bargain that social progress could be achieved in exchange for support for imperial expansion. King well understood that while war made some progress possible, it also threatened progress, activating the backlashers, revanchists, and racists who run through US history. For all that war turns reform into a transactional arrangement (some suffragists, for instance, traded their support for Woodrow Wilson’s war in exchange for his support for their right to vote, as did some trade unionists for his support for labor rights), and for all that imperial expansion worked as a safety valve (helping to vent extremism outward), it also created the aggressive, security- and order-obsessed political culture that King gave his life fighting against.
King was punished for his dissent. Many of his allies, black and white, abandoned him. Others attacked him. The Washington Post essentially gave King notice that his services would no longer be needed. “He has diminished his usefulness,” its editors said. Meanwhile, the FBI stepped up its campaign of surveillance and harassment against King and his family. This campaign had been running since at least 1962, and not one of King’s white allies of considerable influence—not John Kennedy, not Robert Kennedy, not Lyndon Johnson—ever ordered the bureau to stand down. That’s what it means to “fight alone.”
A prophet outcast, King continued, during the last year of his life, to speak out against the war. He put forth, in a series of sermons and press conferences, a damning analysis. Imperial expansion abroad, he argued, quickened domestic polarization. The “flame throwers in Vietnam fan the flames in our cities,” he said; “the bombs in Vietnam explode at home.” Racists killing brown people abroad became more racist. Opponents of war at home became more militant. Imperial expansion had long served to vent domestic extremism outward. But at some point, the vent would stop working. “There is such a thing as being too late,” King said in his Riverside Church speech, warning that the United States, even if it did try to reverse course, might not be able to steer away from self-destruction. “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’” King was executed a year to the day after that speech.
“The purpose of slave breeding was to produce new slaves without incurring the cost of purchase, to fill labor shortages caused by the termination of the Atlantic slave trade, and to attempt to improve the health and productivity of slaves. Slave breeding was condoned in the South because slaves were considered to be subhuman chattel, and were not entitled to the same rights accorded to free persons.”
A cast iron bust of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the slave ship Clotilde, can be found in front of the historic Union Missionary Baptist Church in Africatown. (Graveyardwalker (Amy Walker) Wikimedia Commons )
“The excitement and joy is overwhelming,” says Woods, in a voice trembling with emotion. She is 70 years old now. But she’s been hearing stories about her family history and the ship that tore them from their homeland since she was a child in Africatown, a small community just north of Mobile founded by the Clotilda’s survivors after the Civil War.The authentication and confirmation of the Clotilda was led by the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH Inc., a group of maritime archaeologists and divers who specialize in historic shipwrecks. Last year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) joined the effort to help involve the community of Africatown in the preservation of the history, explains Smithsonian curator and SWP co-director Paul Gardullo.”
“After the Emancipation Proclamation, the newly freed Africans tried, but failed to return to their beloved homeland Africa. The story describes the group reuniting from various plantations, alongside American-born, formerly enslaved men, women and children. The Africans bought land and founded their own settlement, which came to be known as Africatown.”
The Full Story:
BOYKINS, Va. — Kids grow up in rural Southampton County hearing that the mist creeping across the fields might be something unearthly. Old folks warn them not to sneak into abandoned houses, where rotting floors and walls are said to be stained with blood.
This is a haunted landscape.
Nearly 188 years ago, the self-styled preacher Nat Turner led fellow slaves from farm to farm in Southampton County, killing almost every white person they could find. Scores of blacks were murdered in reprisals throughout the South.
The legacy of the biggest slave revolt in U.S. history still hangs over the sandy soil and blackwater cypress swamps of this county along the North Carolina line, but the physical traces of the event are vanishing.
“A lot of the sites that tell the story have been destroyed,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a historian at Norfolk State University. In Southampton and elsewhere, she said, neglect and denial have “tended to obliterate the presence of African Americans . . . as well as eliminating our history of slavery.”
History is Virginia’s biggest cash crop. It drives tourism, sets identity. Until recently, Virginia’s celebration of its grand past glossed over the stain of slavery that marks every statue, parchment and Flemish bond facade.
That’s changing: This year, the state commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first documented Africans being brought to the English colony. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello presents detailed narratives of enslaved life. A museum that will include the perspective of the enslaved on the Civil War is opening in Richmond.
But around the state, tangible reminders of slave history remain unmarked. The landmarks are deteriorating, their significance preserved mainly in memories and stories. Petersburg’s 1854 Southside Depot, for instance, is one of the few pre-Civil War train stations in the South, where the enslaved were both workers and cargo. It sits empty.
Scholars are racing to identify slave cabins across Virginia before they disappear. In Richmond, leaders squabble over how to mark the site of the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail, a slaveholding facility, as well as the city’s slave market — one of the most active in the South — without disrupting the hip restaurant-and-condo scene growing up around it.
After years of research, Bruce Turner, 71, of Virginia Beach, believes Nat Turner was his great-great-great-grandfather. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
“What we choose to preserve is really a reflection of what we care about,” said Justin Reid, director of African American Programs for Virginia Humanities, who is helping coordinate a statewide effort to recognize slavery’s legacy. “When our cultural landscape is devoid of these sites, we’re sending the message that this history is less important, and the people connected to these sites are less important.”
Nowhere is the tension stronger than in Southampton County, where the history carries particular pain. Nat Turner is both a villain and a hero of American history. The split has long inflamed racial divides.
Born into slavery around 1800, Turner was literate, charismatic and deeply religious. He once baptized a white man, and some accounts describe how he spent 30 days wandering the county in search of his father before voluntarily resuming his life in bondage.
According to the confessions he allegedly made shortly before being executed, Turner saw visions from God urging him to seek vengeance on his white oppressors. A solar eclipse that passed over Southampton County in 1831 was the sign to act. On Aug. 21, he met with a half-dozen other enslaved people at a pond in the woods, where they plotted for several hours before striking out into the night, taking knives and farm implements to use as weapons.
Attacking farmhouses in the darkness and picking up supporters along the way, Turner and his rebels killed some 55 white men, women and children over the next two days. They were eventually scattered by militia infantry, and some were rounded up and killed or put on trial. Turner escaped and hid out for two months mostly in a crude “cave” — a hole dug under a pile of wood — before surrendering on Oct. 30, 1831.
He was tried and hanged Nov. 11, 1831, in the county seat of Jerusalem, known today as Courtland.
Until recently, the all-white county historical society was uncertain how to handle its macabre legacy. Within the past 10 years, though, as popular interest in Turner’s story has grown — including through the controversial 2016 film “Birth of a Nation” — attitudes have loosened.
Work is underway to establish slave-insurrection-history trails: a walking route in Courtland and a driving tour through the southwest corner of the county where the rebellion took place. Much of the information for both resides in the mind of one man.
“If you want to know anything about Nat Turner,” said Thaddeus Stephenson, 55, a black man who said he lives near one of Turner’s hideouts, “Rick Francis is the man.”
Seeing the past
Behind the wheel of a Chevy Suburban with 338,000 miles on the odometer, Francis pulls onto the shoulder at a featureless crossroads. Open farmland stretches in every direction.
This is Cross Keys. Francis begins to populate the scene. There was a wide, shallow building there, he says. A smaller structure across the street. In the summer of 1831, some 1,400 white people gathered here, pouring out of surrounding farms in fear of Turner and the armed rebels.
Militias converged from around the state and from North Carolina. When some members of Turner’s band were rounded up, they were held in a small cell in one of the buildings.
It’s all gone now, not even a mound or brick left to mark the spot. It exists only in Francis’s spirited retelling.
Francis, 63, who is white, is clerk of the county’s circuit court. Several of his ancestors were either victims of Turner’s insurrection or had narrow escapes. Over the course of an afternoon driving around the remote reaches of the county near the village of Boykins, Francis spins a tale of terror, violence and colorful characters — from Red Nelson, the enslaved man who helped save Francis’s pregnant great-great-grandmother, to Will Francis, perhaps the most fearsome killer in Turner’s band.
Rick Francis stands outside the Rebecca Vaughan House in Courtland, Va., where several people were killed in the slave rebellion. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
“He trimmed my family tree,” Rick Francis says of Will Francis, a man owned by one of his ancestors. “I mean, that guy was a killing machine.” But he gives him credit: Where Turner was a “religious fanatic,” he says, Will Francis “was motivated solely by freedom.”
As Francis drives along the old carriage paths, most of which are now paved, he sees things others do not.
Over there, where the dark grass meets the light, that’s where Joseph Travis and his wife were the first ones hacked to death in the insurrection. Where a rusted double-wide trailer stands was the site of Capt. John Barrow’s home. He warned his wife to flee, but she delayed to change her clothes, so he had to fight the rebels on the front porch. His wife escaped out the back; Barrow’s throat was cut.
Many of the homes were still standing as late as the 1970s, but time and weather have ravaged them. Local landowners cannot afford to rebuild so they just clear the rubble. The Richard Porter House is a dark hulk of warped wood, half of it collapsed, all of it shrouded in vines. Here, a young enslaved girl warned the family what was coming and they fled into the woods.
A few miles away, Francis swings off the road, switches on the four-wheel-drive and powers to a nondescript mound of brush. Only when he stops do a low row of bricks, a collapsed tin roof and jagged piles of gray boards become visible under the greenery: the remains of the house of Jacob Williams, who returned from measuring timber in the forest to find his slaves standing over the bodies of his wife and three children.
Nearby, the widow Rebecca Vaughan was allowed to pray before she was killed. Her house, the scene of the insurrection’s final killings, was relocated a few years ago to a spot in Courtland across from the county agriculture museum. It has been neatly restored by the county but remains empty.
The tree where Turner was hanged fell long ago. Francis puts the site in the yard of an old foursquare house on Bride Street in Courtland. A short distance away, around the corner on High Street, is the ditch where Turner’s torso was said to have been tossed after he was decapitated. Sure enough, Francis said, human remains have been found there. At some point, the county hopes to excavate. In the meantime, the spot is marked by tiny wire flags stuck in the weeds, the sort that might designate a property line or a cable route.
The county courthouse stopped flying the Confederate flag in 2015, but a Confederate monument stands on one side of the complex. Inside, in the county records room, Francis maintains a mini-museum to the slave insurrection, displaying old newspapers and artifacts.
The sword believed to have been carried by Turner during the 1831 slave rebellion is kept in the county courthouse. The Southampton County Historical Society is planning a free walking tour around Courtland, Va., that highlights many historical spots in town, many related to Turner and the rebellion. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
The biggest prize is Turner’s sword, which is locked away in a courthouse storeroom in a padded rifle case. Francis tucks a pistol in his waistband when he goes to retrieve it. He opens the case and unfolds a white cloth. The curved blade is pitted, and though Turner complained that it was too dull to kill the woman he struck with it, the edge feels plenty sharp.
The Southampton County Historical Society has resisted putting the sword on display. Francis said its members worry people won’t take the tour if they can see the most memorable artifact up front. But maybe there is also a squeamishness about showing off such a fraught piece of history.
Francis believes the insurrection needs to be more widely recognized as an important turning point. It brought the Virginia legislature within a few votes of abolishing slavery, but ultimately, lawmakers tacked the other way, passing harsh crackdowns that prohibited blacks from preaching or learning to read.
Turner is a complicated figure even for African Americans who grew up in Southampton County. Bruce Turner, 71, said his older relatives spoke in hushed terms of a family connection to “the Nat mess.” After years of research, he believes Nat Turner was his great-great-great-grandfather. And by learning more about him, Bruce Turner has become proud of the association.
“I wasn’t sure what he did was right or wrong,” said Turner, a retired computer engineer who lives in Virginia Beach. “Today I admire and honor Nat. I think what he did was correct.”
It’s important to view the insurrection through the historical lens of fighting for freedom, Turner said. The houses, the landscape of Southampton County, evoke that for him now that he knows the full story.
“The houses that were down there . . . we used to call those the haunted houses,” Turner said. “And we were told something terrible had happened there.”
In his childhood, the hanging tree still stood, and the Vaughn house was abandoned in the woods.
“I was always told, oh, you don’t want to go in there, there’s blood spattered up on the walls, and stuff like that. I went in there. I only saw some spots. But it could’ve been mold,” he said.
Stephenson, who lives near one of Nat Turner’s hideouts, heard the same tales about the old houses. “The bricks from the chimney — sometimes when it rains, blood is supposed to seep back out of them,” he said. “That’s some folklore.”
But when you preserve those vanishing sites, you keep the history from fading into myth, Turner said.
“Why preserve Mount Vernon? Or preserve Monticello? They’re part of the history,” he said. “Just because something bad may have happened at a place, or something that was distasteful, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be kept.”
We estimate marriage rates for enslaved African Americans using unique hospital records that report marital status for both free and enslaved patients. We find that marriage rates increased with age, that females had higher marriage rates than males, and that relatively more enslaved African Americans than whites were married, a result we partly attribute to the demographic composition of the hospital population. In addition, the admission records allow us to identify those slaves owned by slave traders. We find relatively high marriage rates among enslaved African Americans but significantly lower marriage rates for those slaves owned by traders, a result we attribute to the demographic composition of traded slaves and marital disruption caused by the slave trade. Comparisons with other postbellum sources provide suggestive support for the antebellum marriage patterns found in these hospital data.
“On the marital status of U. S. slaves: Evidence from Touro Infirmary, New Orleans, Louisiana” was just published. We provide new evidence on slave marriage and the extent to which the slave trade disrupted black marriage patterns.
Dr. Logan is the Hazel C. Youngberg Distinguished Professor of Economics @OhioState. Author of Economics, Sexuality, and Male Sex Work.
Frederick Douglass knew that America has a white democracy problem. That rot was never corrected. The result? Donald Trump and his human deplorables. Racism is destroying American democracy. But then again racism is the real foundation of this country.
I was first introduced to Frederick Douglass while in elementary school. My sixth grade teacher, a stern but kind black woman, knew that I, the only black boy in her class, would benefit greatly from his wisdom and example. She was right.
The book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” was wondrous.
It was the amazing adventure of a man who fights to free his people by first liberating his mind and then his body from the evils of white-on-black slavery.
Douglass tricks gullible white children to teach him how to read . . . ”
How Oscar-nominated films misrepresent African-American history
The Academy Awards have made progress in terms of racial representation. This year a film about slavery is the clear front-runner in many of the major categories, and if “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity” wins best picture, it would be the first time a movie by a nonwhite director takes the prize. It’s also possible that Lee Daniels (“The Butler”) could join Steve McQueen (“12 Years”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) to make best director a majority-minority category for the first time ever.
It’s certainly a relief to see Oscar-nominated films about black experience actually written and directed by black people (unlike, for example, recent Oscar darlings “Django Unchained,” “The Help,” and “The Blind Side”). But it’s the movie’s producers — who have more power over a film’s content than most recognize — who will actually walk up to accept the best picture statuette. Unsurprisingly, most of them are still white.
That might be one reason why the representations of black experience that the Academy deems best-picture-worthy remain fundamentally unchallenged. Out of the 120 films that received a best picture nomination in the last 20 years, only 17 featured nonwhite protagonists or major characters. In all but four of those films these characters were either extremely poor or criminals. Out of the four remaining, one featured a slave (“Django,” 2012), another an entertainer (“Ray,” 2004), another an athlete (“Jerry Maguire,” 1996). Needless to say, the white characters in these and the other 103 films nominated for best picture held a much wider variety of occupational and socioeconomic positions.
When “The Butler” is nominated this year — as it will surely be when nominations are announced on Thursday — it will buck this trend by featuring a black domestic servant who happens to be middle class [editor’s note: the film was not nominated for best picture]. The biopic traces the civil rights movement through the eyes of one of the White House’s black butlers. In its version of 20th-century black struggle, the civil rights bill came about because the movement appealed to the goodness of JFK’s heart (rather than forcing his hand with its power), the Black Panthers were overaggressive youth who got what they deserved, and Obama’s election is the apotheosis of everything the movement was fighting for. “The Butler” won’t win, but it would have had a much better chance last year, when historical-revisionist ideology celebrating the executive branch (“Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln”) was all the rage.
Based on a true story
A much better film, “12 Years a Slave” focuses on the visceral horrors of American slavery. Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and John Ridley, among others, ittells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold in the decades before the Civil War. Based on Northup’s memoir of the same title, it’s a well-crafted and emotionally powerful film, and for many has provided a devastating condemnation of slavery.
And yet it has major shortcomings. The film portrays the North in 1841 as a racism-free place where black and white live in harmony. White characters get much more dialogue and characterization than black ones: We learn more about the life story of Armsby, a white laborer who appears for two scenes, than we ever do about Patsey, one of the film’s slave protagonists. The slaves are often singing but rarely speak to one another: They remain mostly-silent extras whose graphically suffering bodies make us feel bad about slavery. Though there is a plethora of white stars, the three famous black actors outside of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead character get token roles, appearing only once or twice. What happens when we recognize the white characters and actors, while the black people remain largely anonymous? Who does this suggest the film is for?
In the predictable ending, the good white people outmaneuver the evil white people and return Northup to safety. The obvious defense of this dramatic device — “but that’s what really happened!” — shows exactly how “based on a true story” shuts down critical thought. The point is not to question its factual accuracy: The film by all accounts keeps quite close to Northup’s memoir (although some scholars debate the memoir’s veracity). But that objection ignores the fact that the filmmakers chose to tell this particular story and to tell it in this particular way.
Executive producer and screenwriter Ridley’s 2006 article “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger,” in which he glorifies Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Ayn Rand and calls on wealthy black people to separate themselves from “niggers” — i.e., poor black folks who victimize themselves — exemplifies this position on race and storytelling. Ridley writes, “If we as a race could win the centuries-long war against institutionalized racism, why is it that so many of us cannot secure the advantage after decades of freedom?” Of course, the idea that institutionalized racism disappeared with Jim Crow is absurd. But Ridley’s answers to this loaded question imply that now that racism is over, then black folks have no one to blame but themselves and should drop their anger and just forgive white people, for their own good.
A historical aberration
Modern filmmakers who want to accurately convey the evils of slavery could do so through the stories of Toussaint Louverture or Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass — or any of the other thousands of slaves who didn’t look to white saviors to escape their bondage. But you’d never know from watching Hollywood movies that a single slave ever freed herself. “Django Unchained,”“Glory,” “Lincoln” — these films all feature the benevolent intervention of white protagonists. Even Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” about a slave uprising, is as much about the white lawyers arguing the slaves’ case.
A particular narrative about slavery is told over and over: The institution was a historical aberration perpetrated by evil white people, but luckily there were good white people who listened to the black people, and they helped free the slaves, and now it’s all over. A similarly simplistic narrative emerges out of Hollywood’s revision of the civil rights movement: In “The Butler,”the cause was noble, but some black people took it too far and it was ultimately victorious because white presidents listened to the brave moderate blacks and beat the evil white racists. Now racism is over, because, you know, Obama.
Thanks to the Oscars, hundreds of thousands more will see the versions of black history told by “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”: A best picture nomination is a huge boon for ticket sales, adding millions to a film’s box office, rental take, and audience. The Academy that chooses who gets that cash is 77 percent male, 94 percent white and 86 percent over the age of 50. As such, if a movie wants that precious Oscar bump, it would do well to reproduce the worldview of the rich old white men who run the industry. And that’s precisely why “Fruitvale Station,”the movie about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, a young black man whose murder by police in Oakland sparked riots, is unlikely to receive a nomination.
The real problem for ‘Fruitvale Station’ is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending
“Fruitvale Station”won the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury award, the same award that “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” another film about black experience in America, won in 2012. Notorious Oscar campaigner the Weinstein Co. distributed “Fruitvale Station,”and it opened in more than 1,000 theaters. It was met with universal critical acclaim and made $16 million at the box office, more than presumptive nominees “Nebraska”or “August: Osage County.” The point being, this is no tiny indie or critical cause celebre: “Fruitvale Station” has a solid resume for a best picture nominee. It’s even based on a true story! Commentators have claimed it’s not “stylistically innovative” enough, but it’s stylistically consistent with the washed-out steadycam of guaranteed nominee “Captain Phillips,” and a markedly better movie to boot. “Fruitvale Station” develops real emotional stakes (unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street”), refuses to stereotype its black characters (unlike “The Butler”) and doesn’t rely on precious twee misogyny to make you care about its protagonist (unlike “Her”).
But the Oscars have never been about celebrating the year’s best movie (“Crash,”anyone?). The real problem for “Fruitvale Station”is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending. It’s about a tragedy that cannot be redeemed. Not that it’s even a particularly radical film — it just can’t pretend that time has solved the problems it portrays, as “12 Years a Slave”does, and can’t give the contradictions of history a tidy conclusion, as “The Butler” does with Obama’s election. Instead, it connects into a current struggle, evoking the trauma and horror that racist violence and overpolicing produce in minority communities across the country.
The point is not to berate the Oscars for not nominating “Fruitvale Station,” but rather to see how the Oscars, and the film-critical apparatus surrounding them, dictate what constitutes a “serious” depiction of race. No one really believes the Oscars are a meritocracy, but the awards still end up giving certain movies massive new audiences, deciding which films critics will write about and people will talk about.
If, come March 2, when the envelopes are opened, “12 Years a Slave” gets snubbed — beaten by, say, “American Hustle” — expect a lot of people to start talking about the racism of the Oscars. They’ll be right to. But if “12 Years a Slave” wins, let’s not be too hasty in celebrating the Academy’s rich white men for an anti-racist victory.
Petition to Demand the U.S. Government form Task Force on Reparations for Slavery and Jim Crow
Let it be known, we are demanding that a Task Force, or Commission, be formed for reparations for the descendants of Africans who were enslaved in the United States of America for centuries.
Whereas reparations means to make amends, to repair, and to compensate, the people who were wronged;
We demand reparations on behalf of the descendants of enslaved Africans in America from the government of the United States of America;
Whereas America was built with and continues to enjoy the benefits of her centuries of forced, unpaid labor known as slavery;
Whereas, slavery in America remains the worst known atrocity in human history;
Whereas, this dehumanizing practice enabled the United States to rise to global prominence, to accumulate massive amounts of wealth, and to build the world’s most formidable military, among others achievements, to become the world’s only Superpower;
Whereas, U.S. House Bill H.R. 40, as it was originally sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, provides a viable outline that best suits this measure. We further recognize reparations as the only way forward to move towards resolution of this human rights issue;
Whereas, the purpose and goal of this Task Force, or Commission, is to determine how reparations will be made to the descendants of the Africans enslaved in America.
Therefore, we acknowledge this as a human rights issue that demands the power and unconditional support of the President and the Congress of the United States of America and that it can be established by Executive Order of the President of the United states; and,
Therefore, we sign this petition to demand that government of the United States of America immediately form a Task Force, or Commission, whose purpose is formulate how reparations will be made to the descendants of the Africans who were brutally enslaved in this country for centuries, and who were further demoralized and oppressed for another 100+ years of Jim Crow.
Thank you for signing this petition and for encouraging all others to sign it, too.
Jeffrey E. Savage
I just signed the following petition addressed to: Jeffrey E. Savage.
Demand President Obama form Reparations Task Force/Commission
We, the signers of this petition, demand that President Obama immediately issue an Executive Order to form a Presidential Task Force, or Commission, that mirrors the purpose, intent and direction of House Bill, H.R. 40, as it was originally
sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-MI.
The purpose and goal of this Presidential Task Force, or Commission, is to formulate a process as to how reparations will be made to the descendants of those Africans who were enslaved in America.
Without question, reparations are owed and the right to self determination is a human right that have been denied our people.
With this petition, we proudly and enthusiastically stand up for human rights by signing it. Additionally, we are asking that you pass it on to all of your contacts everywhere.
Thank you for signing and supporting this human rights issue.