“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”
Since 1976, when the US government officially recognised Black History Month, February has been a time – especially in state schools – to celebrate the emancipatory struggles of runaway slaves, ground-breaking medics and lawyers, and poets and “freedom riders”. For the young Ta-Nehisi Coates, growing up in Baltimore, it was also a time of bewilderment and shame. Watching newsreel footage of the civil rights movement, he got the impression that “the black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life – love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehouses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into their streets”.
It is comprehensible, then, that there has been a lot of fanfare for Between the World and Me. It appears at a moment when, thanks to mobile phones and social media, the distressing spectacle of black Americans – many of them young and unarmed – being strangled, clubbed or shot by police officers has created a cacophony calling for change. Black Twitter, Black Lives Matter, hashtag activism: it is a marvellous noise, an Occupy-style swarm energy that, for veterans of an older media imperium, can appear muddling.
The letter begins with the author’s childhood in Baltimore at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic, in streets that “transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat down, a shooting, or a pregnancy.” Everyone is afraid all the time. His father must reach for his belt to preserve his son from worse. Children risk assault on the way to school and study fearfully, knowing prison awaits if they do not pass exams. Even the young men with guns concealed in their ski jackets, who terrorise everyone else, are themselves afraid.
Black Americans were enslaved longer than they have been free, and as a result the deaths of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin are “merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations”. Later he argues: “The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”
These are all forceful claims – ones made with a characteristic pivoting towards the (male) black body and the frequent use of words such as “plunder” or “shackle”. They are accompanied by vivid recollections of growing up in gang-ridden West Baltimore where the local lads’ uproarious nihilism is ascribed to the knowledge that “we could not get out” and that “the ground we walked was tripwired”
Coates is at his dreamiest when evoking his time at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, DC, that he calls “the Mecca”. Cosmopolitan, teeming with “Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses”, it’s a place of self-discovery and self-invention, “a machine crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples”. It is here that he immerses himself in black literature and history, meets his future wife and befriends a middle-class student called Prince Jones who is later unlawfully killed by an undercover police officer.
In part, the book is an ode to writing itself. Coates includes excerpts from Baldwin, Richard Wright and Sonia Sanchez as well as Nas and Ice Cube. He describes “the art of journalism” as “a powerful technology for seekers”. And he remembers his time at Howard as being one where he learned the power of poetry as much as of slogans, and that “The Dream thrives on generalisation, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers.”
The Dream is something Coates often invokes and damns as psychically disfiguring. The Dream, he explains, is “perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways … treehouses and the cub scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” It’s hardly news that there are many tens of millions of Americans – of all colours – who have rarely had a whiff of this aroma. As such, the passage merely highlights the inaudibility of class in this book.
When talking about race, he says, it is all too often turned into a sociological phenomenon, rather than a physical reality that affects individuals, allaying shame and tempering our response: “All our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” This is imagery that cannot be ignored, that brings that very viscerality to us without compromise, without relief.
And what hope of breaking this cycle of oppression? For Baldwin, it was to be found in a need, at the time of the civil-rights movement, to move beyond the notion of “the Negro Problem” that handicapped both black and white. For Coates, this is both history and present, for no such reconciliation has come to pass. Rather than seek any grand solution himself, he admonishes his son – and his readers – to wake to the status quo, to consider it for ourselves – and to take what action we see fit.
After 12 years in the US, Gary Younge is preparing to depart – as the country’s racial frictions seem certain to spark another summer of conflict
By Gary Younge
For the past couple of years the summers, like hurricanes, have had names. Not single names like Katrina or Floyd – but full names like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Like hurricanes, their arrival was both predictable and predicted, and yet somehow, when they landed, the effect was still shocking.
We do not yet know the name that will be attached to this particular season. He is still out there, playing Call of Duty, finding a way to feed his family or working to pay off his student loans. He (and it probably will be a he) has no idea that his days are numbered; and we have no idea what the number of those days will be.
The precise alchemy that makes one particular death politically totemic while others go unmourned beyond their families and communities is not quite clear. Video helps, but is not essential. Some footage of cops rolling up like death squads and effectively executing people who posed no real threat has barely pricked the popular imagination. When the authorities fail to heed community outrage, or substantively investigate, let alone discipline, the police, the situation can become explosive. An underlying, ongoing tension between authorities and those being policed has been a factor in some cases. So, we do not know quite why his death will capture the political imagination in a way that others will not.
But we do know, with gruesome certainty, that his number will come up – that one day he will be slain in cold blood by a policeman (once again it probably will be a man) who is supposed to protect him and his community. We know this because it is statistically inevitable and has historical precedent. We know this because we have seen it happen again and again. We know this because this is not just how America works; it is how America was built. Like a hurricane, we know it is coming – we just do not yet know where or when or how much damage it will do.
Summer is riot season. It’s when Watts, Newark and Detroit erupted in violence in the 1960s, sparked by callous policing. It’s when school is out, pool parties are on and domestic life, particularly in urban centres, is turned inside-out: from the living room to the stoop, from the couch to the street. It’s when tempers get short and resentments bubble up like molten asphalt. It’s when, to paraphrase Langston Hughes, deferred dreams explode.
This is not my desire; it is my prediction. You can feel it building with every new Facebook post, viral video and Twitter storm. You can hear it from conversations with strangers at post offices, liquor stores and coffee shops. It is an unpleasant prediction to make because, ultimately, these riots highlight a problem they cannot, in themselves, solve; and it is an easy one to make because, as one bystander in Baltimore put it when disturbances flared there earlier this year: “You can only put so much into a pressure cooker before it pop.”
This is the summer I will leave America, after 12 years as a foreign correspondent, and return to London. My decision to come back to Britain was prompted by banal, personal factors that have nothing to do with current events; if my aim was to escape aggressive policing and racial disadvantage, I would not be heading to Hackney.
But while the events of the last few years did not prompt the decision to come back, they do make me relieved that the decision had already been made. It is why I have not once had second thoughts. If I had to pick a summer to leave, this would be the one. Another season of black parents grieving, police chiefs explaining and clueless anchors opining. Another season when America has to be reminded that black lives matter because black deaths at the hands of the state have been accepted as routine for so long. A summer ripe for rage.
I arrived in New York just a few months before the Iraq war. Americans seemed either angry at the rest of the world, angry at each other, or both. The top five books on the New York Times bestseller list the month I started were: Bush at War (Bob Woodward’s hagiographic account of the post-9/11 White House); The Right Man (Bush’s former speechwriter relives his first year in the White House); Portrait of a Killer (Patricia Cornwell on Jack the Ripper); The Savage Nation (a rightwing radio talkshow host saves America from “the liberal assault on our borders, language and culture”); and Leadership (Republican former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s post 9/11 victory lap).
There has barely been a quiet moment since. First there was the jingoism of the Iraq war, then the re-election of George W Bush in 2004, Hurricane Katrina, disillusionment with the Iraq war, the “Minutemen” anti-immigration vigilantes, the huge pro-immigrant “¡Sí se puede!” protests, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, the economic crash, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Obama’s reelection and the current rise in anti-racist activism. Being a foreigner made all these phenomena intriguing. Politically and morally, I picked sides. But, when reporting, it was more like anthropology. I saw it as my mission to try and understand the US: why did poor white people vote against their economic interests? How did the descendants of immigrants become xenophobic? Why were people disappointed in Obama when he had promised so little? The search for the answer was illuminating, even when I never found it or didn’t like it.
But the cultural distance I enjoyed as a Briton in a foreign country felt like a blended veneer of invincibility and invisibility. I thought of myself less as a participant than an onlooker. While reporting from rural Mississippi in 2003, I stopped to ask directions at the house of an old white couple, and they threatened to shoot me. I thought this was funny. I got back into my car sharpish and drove off – but I never once thought they would actually shoot me. How crazy would that be? When I got home, I told my wife and brother-in-law, who are African American. Their parents grew up in the South under segregation; even today, my mother-in-law wouldn’t stop her car in Mississippi for anything but petrol. They didn’t think it was funny at all: what on earth did I think I was doing, stopping to ask old white folk in rural Mississippi for directions?
Yet, somewhere along the way, I became invested. That was partly about time: as I came to know people – rather than just interviewing them – I came to relate to the issues more intimately. When someone close to you struggles with chronic pain because they have no healthcare, has their kitchen window pierced by gunfire or cannot pay a visit to their home country because they are undocumented, your relationship to issues like health reform, gun control or immigration is transformed. Not because your views change but because knowing and understanding something simply does not provide the same intensity as having it in your life.
But my investment was primarily about circumstances. On the weekend in 2007 that Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, our son was born. Six years later, we had a daughter. For the most part I have kept my English accent. But my language relating to children is reflexively American: diapers, strollers, pacifiers, recess, candy and long pants. I have only ever been a parent here – a role for which my own upbringing in England provides no real reference point. One summer evening, a couple years after we moved to Chicago, our daughter was struggling to settle down and so my wife decided to take a short walk to the local supermarket to bob her to sleep in the carrier. On the way back there was shooting in the street and she had to seek shelter in a local barbershop. When the snow finally melted this year one discarded gun was found in the alley behind our local park and another showed up in the alley behind my son’s school. My days of being an onlooker were over. I was dealing with daycare, summer camps, schools, doctor’s visits, parks and other parents. The day we brought my son home, an article in the New York Times pointed out that in America “a black male who drops out of high school is 60 times more likely to find himself in prison than one with a bachelor’s degree”. Previously, I’d have found that interesting and troubling. Now it was personal. I had skin in the game. Black skin in a game where the odds are stacked against it.
Obama’s ascent, I was told by many and frequently during his campaign, would change these odds. Whenever I asked “How?” no one could say exactly. But his very presence, they insisted, would provide a marker for my son and all who look like him. I never believed that. First of all, one person cannot undo centuries of discrimination, no matter how much nominal power they have. Second, given the institutions into which Obama would be embedded – namely the Democratic party and the presidency – there would only ever be so much he could or would do. He was aspiring to sit atop a system awash with corporate donations in which congressional seats are openly gerrymandered and 41% of the upper chamber can block almost anything. He was the most progressive candidate viable for the presidency, which says a great deal, given the alternatives, but means very little, given what would be needed to significantly shift the dial on such issues as race and inequality.
Pointing this out amid the hoopla of his candidacy made you sound like Eeyore. I was delighted when he won. But somehow I could never be quite as delighted as some people felt I should have been. When Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary – in the first southern state to secede from the union, which sparked the civil war, where the Confederate flag still flies above the state capitol and a white supremacist recently gunned down nine parishioners at a black church – the crowds chanted “Race Doesn’t Matter”. (An odd rallying cry, since it was precisely because he was a black candidate that they were shouting it; it’s not like Hillary’s crowd would have shouted the same thing if she had won.)
I was delighted when Obama won. But somehow I could never be quite as delighted as some people felt I should have been. The symbolic advantages of Obama’s election were clear. For two years I pushed my son around in his stroller surrounded by a picture of a black man framed by the words “Hope” and “Change”. A year or so after Obama came to office, my son had a playdate with a four-year-old white friend who looked up from his Thomas the Tank Engine and told my son: “You’re black.” It was a reasonable thing for a child of that age to point out – he was noticing difference, not race. But when my son looked at me for a cue, I now had a new arrow in my quiver to deflect any potential awkwardness. “That’s right,” I said. “Just like the president.”
But the substantial benefits were elusive. Obama inherited an economic crisis that hurt African Americans more than any other community. The discrepancy between black and white employment and wealth grew during his first few years and has barely narrowed since. In 2010, I used this anecdote in a column by way of pointing out the limited symbolic value of having a black president. “True, it is something,” I wrote. “But when Thomas is safely back in the station and the moment is over, it is not very much. Because for all the white noise emanating from the Tea Party movement, it has been black Americans who have suffered most since Obama took office. Over the last 14 months the gap between my son’s life chances and his friend’s have been widening.”
This last statement was as undeniably true as it was apparently controversial. I had not claimed that my son was likely to do badly, simply that his odds for success were far worse than the kid he was playing with, and that they were further deteriorating. A study in 2014 found that a black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a white high-school dropout. “As the recession has dragged on,” the New York Times pointed out just a couple months before my son’s playdate, the disparity between black and white unemployment “has been even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field – in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.” But insisting that racism would have a material effect on my son’s life ruffled some readers’ feathers.
“Nonsense,” wrote one commenter. “Your middle-class status means his future will have more in common with his white friends than any poor black kid.” Another – a Guardian contributor, no less – also chimed in: “For you to claim shared victimhood on skin colour alone is highly disingenuous. Your son is highly likely to do OK, to say the least. He has most of the advantages in the world.”
Such responses betrayed complete ignorance about the lived experience of race in a country as segregated as the United States. Class does makes a big difference, of course: this is America. We have healthcare, jobs, university educations and a car; we live in a community with reasonable schools, supermarkets and restaurants. In short, we have resources and therefore we have options.
We do not, however, have the option not to be black. And in this time and this place that is no minor factor. That is not “claiming shared victimhood”, it is recognising a fact of life. Class offers a range of privileges; but it is not a sealant that protects you from everything else. If it was, rich women would never get raped and wealthy gay couples could marry all around the world.
To even try to have the kind of gilded black life to which these detractors alluded, we would have to do far more than just revel in our bank accounts and leverage our cultural capital. We would have to live in an area with few other black people, since black neighbourhoods are policed with insufficient respect for life or liberty; send our children to a school with few other black students, since majority-black schools are underfunded; tell them not to wear anything that would associate them with black culture, since doing so would make them more vulnerable to profiling; tell them not to mix with other black children, since they are likely to live in the very areas and go to the very schools from which we would be trying to escape; and not let the children go out after dark, since being young and black after sunset makes the police suspect that you have done or are about to do something.
The list could go on. None of this self-loathing behaviour would provide any guarantees, of course. Racism does what it says on the packet; it discriminates against people on the grounds of race. It can be as arbitrary in its choice of victim as it is systemic in its execution. And while it never works alone (but in concert with class, gender and a host of other rogue characters), it can operate independently. No one is going to be checking my bank account or professional status when they are looking at my kids.
Trayvon Martin was walking through a gated community when George Zimmerman pegged him for a thug and shot him dead. Clementa Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator, was in one of Charleston’s most impressive churches when Dylann Roof murdered him and eight others.
I have not only never met an African American who thought they could buy themselves the advantages of a white American; I have yet to meet one who thinks they can even buy themselves out of the disadvantages of being black. All you can do is limit the odds. And when one in three black boys born in 2001 is destined for the prison system, those odds are pretty bad. Having a black man in the White House has not changed that.
Most days, the park closest to us looks like Sesame Street. White, black and Vietnamese American kids climbing, swinging and sliding. Occasionally, particularly late on weekday afternoons, teenagers show up. Like adolescents the western world over, they are bored, broke, horny and lost. They don’t want to stay at home, but can’t afford to be anywhere that costs money, and so they come to the public space most approximate to their needs, where they squeeze into swings that are meant for smaller kids and joke, flirt and banter. Very occasionally they swear and get a little rowdy – but nothing that an adult could not deal with by simply asking them to keep the language down because there are little kids around. Oh, and in this park the teenagers are usually black.
Their presence certainly changes the mood. But the only time it ever really gets tense is when the police come. The better police chat with them, the worse ones interrogate them. Either way, the presence of armed, uniformed people in this children’s space is both unsettling and unnecessary. The smaller kids and those new to the park imagine something seriously wrong must have happened for the police to be there; the older ones (by which I mean those aged seven and over), and those who are already familiar with the drill just shrug: the cops are in our park again. It is difficult to tell which response is worse.
Once, when some adolescents were hanging out relatively quietly one afternoon, I struck up a conversation with a white woman. Her son was roughly the same age as mine, we both lived nearby and neither of our kids would have to cross a road to get to the park. We were discussing at what age we thought it would be appropriate to let our boys come by themselves. “The thing is, you just don’t know if it’s going to be quiet or if the junior gangbangers are going to be hanging around,” she said, gesturing to the youths on the swings.
I was stunned. Whenever I have written about police killings at least one reader reminds me that black people are most likely to be killed by black people. This is both true and irrelevant. First, because all Americans are overwhelmingly likely to be killed by assailants of their own race, so what some brand “black-on-black crime” should, more accurately, just be called crime. But also because black people are not, by dint of their melanin content, entrusted to protect and serve the public. The police are. Over the last decade I have reported from many impoverished neighbourhoods, populated by all races, where I have felt unsafe. That hasn’t made me fear black people or any other racial group; it has just made me loathe poverty and gun culture in general, since it is that toxic combination that both drives the crime and makes it lethal.
This woman and I were looking at the same kids but seeing quite different things.
“What makes you think they’re going to become gangbangers?” I asked. She shrugged. The conversation pretty much dried up after that.
There is a section of white society – a broad section that includes affable mothers who will speak to black strangers like me in the park – who understand black kids as an inherent threat. Beyond the segregated ghettos where few white people venture, the presence of black youth apparently marks not just the potential for trouble but the arrival of it. When George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin, he didn’t see a 17-year-old boy walking home from the store. He saw someone “real suspicious”, “up to no good”, whom he assumed bore some responsibility for recent burglaries.
“Fucking punks,” he told the police, referring to Trayvon. “These assholes, they always get away.”
Indeed black children are often not even regarded as children at all. In Goose Creek, South Carolina, police demanded DNA samples from two middle school students after they were mistaken for a 32-year-old suspect. After the killing of Tamir Rice – the 12-year-old shot dead by police in Cleveland after someone reported him brandishing what they assumed was a “probably fake” gun – a police spokesman said it was his own fault. “Tamir Rice is in the wrong,” he said. “He’s menacing. He’s 5ft 7in, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.” When testifying before the grand jury into the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Darren Wilson described his assailant more like an animal than a 18-year-old: “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Even after Wilson shot Brown he continued to depict him as both physically superhuman and emotionally subhuman. “He was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
The evidence is not merely anecdotal. A study last year published in the American Psychological Association’s online Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that white Americans overestimated the age of black boys over the age of 10 by an average of four and a half years; white respondents also assumed that black children were more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” wrote Phillip Atiba Goff PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” My son is tall for his age; these are the things you worry about.
It wasn’t long before my wife and I began to notice the degree to which some white adults felt entitled to shout at black children – be it in the street, or on school trips – for infractions either minor or imagined.
Last summer, on the afternoon I arrived home from reporting on the disturbances after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a barbecue and music at the local park. I took the kids. The park has a water feature that shoots wet jets from the ground and sprays kids in fountains from all sides as they paddle around. The younger ones peel down to their underwear while the older ones just pile in whatever they have on. It was a scorching day and my son and several other kids were having a water fight – a tame affair with very little collateral damage for those not involved beyond the odd sprinkling. At one stage, while in hot pursuit of his main rival, my son splashed a woman on her leg. She yelled at him as though he’d hit her with a brick.
I’d seen the whole thing and ran over.
“What’s the problem?” I said.
“Look. He’s covered me in water,” she shouted.
I looked. She was barely wet. But even if he had …
“You’re standing in a children’s park, on a hot day, next to a water feature,” I said. “Deal with it. Just stop shouting at him.”
“Don’t you tell me what to do,” she barked.
“Now you’re shouting at me,” I said. “Just stop it.”
“Who the hell are you?” she yelled.
“I’m his dad that’s who.”
“You’re nobody, that’s who you are,” she bellowed. “Nobody.”
One of the first stories I covered on my arrival was the funeral of Mamie Till Mobley, the 81-year-old mother of the late Emmett Till. In 1955 Mamie sent her 14-year-old son, Emmett, from Chicago to rural Mississippi to spend his summer holiday with family. She packed him off with a warning: “If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person goes past,” she told him, “do it willingly.”
Emmett didn’t follow her advice. While in the small town of Money, in the Delta region, he either said “Bye, baby” or wolf-whistled at a white woman in a grocery store. Three days later his body was fished out of the Tallahatchie river with a bullet in his skull, an eye gouged out and his forehead crushed on one side.
Raising a black child in a racist society poses a very particular set of challenges. On the one hand, you want them to be proud and confident of who they are. On the other, you have to teach them that they are vulnerable precisely because of who they are, in the knowledge that awareness of that vulnerability just might save their life. We are trying to raise self-confident children for long lives, not hashtags for slaughter.
We are trying to raise self-confident children for long lives, not hashtags for slaughter
Explaining the complex historical and social forces that make such a dance necessary is not easy at the best of times. Making them comprehensible to a child is nigh impossible without gross simplifications and cutting corners. Once, during our 10-minute walk to daycare, my son asked if we could take another route. “Why?” I asked.
“Because that way they stop all the black boys,” he said.
He was right. Roughly twice a week we would pass young black men being frisked or arrested, usually on the way home. He was also four, and until that point I was not aware that he had even noticed. I tried to make him feel safe.
“Well don’t worry. You’re with me and they’re not going to stop us,” I told him.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because we haven’t done anything,” I said.
“What have they done?” he asked.
He had me. From then on we took another route.
When I interviewed Maya Angelou in 2002, she told me that the September 11 attacks of the previous year were understood differently by African Americans. “Living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America,” she said. “But black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years.” It is that state of terror that has been laid bare these last few years.
The American polity and media episodically “discovers” this daily reality in much the same way that teenagers discover sex – urgently, earnestly, voraciously and carelessly, with great self-indulgence but precious little self-awareness. They have always been aware of it but somehow when confronted with it, it nonetheless takes them by surprise.
The week I arrived, in December 2002, the Senate minority leader, Mississippi Republican Trent Lott, resigned from his leadership position after he said in a speech that America would have been a better place had the segregationist Strom Thurmond won the presidency in 1948. The mainstream media saw nothing outrageous in this – as if it was just the kind of thing a conservative southern senator might say. It took bloggers to make it a story. As I write, some southern states are debating whether to keep the Confederate flag flying on state grounds in various guises – as though it took nine people dying on their doorstep to understand its racist connotations.
It is as though the centuries-old narrative of racial inequality is too tiresome to acknowledge, except as a footnote, until it appears in dramatic fashion, as it did after Hurricane Katrina or the protests in Ferguson. At that point the bored become suddenly scandalised. In a nation that prides itself on always moving forward, the notion that they are “still dealing with this” feels like an affront to the national character. That’s why Obama’s candidacy had such a simple and uplifting appeal to so many Americans. As the radical academic and 1970s icon Angela Davis explained to me in 2007, it represented “a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change”.
This most recent episode of racial awakening has lasted longer than most. For the last couple of years the brutal banality of daily life for some people in this country has become visible and undeniable to those who have no immediate connection to it. But nothing new has happened. There has been no spike in police brutality. What’s new is that people are looking. And thanks to new technology (namely the democratisation of the ability to film and distribute), they have lots to look at. As a result, a significant section of white America is outraged at the sight of what it had previously chosen to ignore, while a dwindling but still sizeable and vocal few still refuse to believe their eyes.
* * *
I’ve never found it particularly useful to compare racisms – as though one manifestation might be better than another. Every society, regardless of its racial composition, has overlapping and interweaving hierarchies. Insisting on the superiority of one over another suggests there are racisms out there worth having – a race to the bottom with no moral centre.
In June 1998, as the public inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence laid bare one of the more insidious examples of British racism, news arrived from Jasper, Texas, about the murder of James Byrd. Byrd, an African American, had been picked up by three men, one of whom he knew and two of whom were white supremacists. Instead of driving him home, they took him to a remote country road, beat him, urinated on him and chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck before dragging him for more than a mile until his head came off. Then they went for a barbecue.
The next day, during an editorial meeting at the Guardian which featured a discussion of the Lawrence inquiry followed by the Byrd murder, one of my colleagues remarked, of Byrd’s killing: “Well at least we don’t do that here.”
“That will be of little comfort to Doreen and Neville Lawrence,” I thought.
I have more cousins in the US than in Britain. They are doing fine. At one stage I fully intended to immigrate here. While that plan no longer stands, it still doesn’t strike me as insane.
While I have been in America, I have not been shot at, arrested, imprisoned or otherwise seriously inconvenienced by the state. I do not live in the hollowed out, jobless zones of urban economic despair to which many African Americans have been abandoned. I have been shouted at in a park, taken different routes to school, and occasionally dealt with bigoted officials. (While driving through Mississippi to cover Katrina I approached a roadblock that all the other journalists had easily passed through, only to have a policeman pat the gun in his holster and turn me around). These experiences are aggravating. They are not life-threatening.
I am not Michael Brown. But then Michael Brown wasn’t Michael Brown before he was shot dead and had his body left on the street for four hours; Eric Garner was just a man trying to sell cigarettes in the street before he was choked to death in Staten Island; Tamir Rice was just a boisterous kid acting out in a park before a policeman leaped out of his squad car and shot him within seconds. Being shot dead by the police or anyone else is not the daily experience of black people in America.
But what became clear following the Department of Justice report into the Ferguson police force was just how extreme and commonplace these aggravations could be. To cite just a few examples: between 2007 to 2014, one woman in Ferguson was arrested twice, spent six days in jail and paid $550 as a result of one parking ticket for which she was originally charged $151. She tried to pay in smaller instalments – $25 or $50 a time – but the court refused to accept anything less than the full payment, which she could not afford. Seven years after the original infraction she still owed $541 – this was how the town raised its revenue. It was not a glitch in the system; it was the system.
Then there was the 14-year-old boy that the Ferguson police found in an abandoned building, who was chased down by a dog that bit his ankle and his left arm as he protected his face. The boy says officers kicked him in the head and then laughed about it after. The officers say they thought he was armed; he wasn’t. Department of Justice investigators found that every time a police dog in Ferguson bit someone, the victim was black.
Then there was the man pulled out of his house by the police after reports of an altercation inside. As they dragged him out he told them: “You don’t have a reason to lock me up.”
“Nigger, I can find something to lock you up on,” the officer told him.
“Good luck with that,” the man responded. The officer slammed the man’s face into a wall and he fell to the floor.
“Don’t pass out, motherfucker, because I’m not carrying you to my car,” the officer is claimed to have said.
This was the same month Brown was killed. Were it not for the disturbances following Brown’s death, there would have been no investigation – not only would we have heard nothing of these things but, because no light had been shone on them, the Ferguson police would be carrying on with the same level of impunity. This was a small midwestern suburb few had heard of – unremarkable in every way, which is precisely what makes the goings on there noteworthy. If it was happening there, then it could be happening anywhere.
It is exhausting. When the videos of brutality go viral I can’t watch them unless I have to write about them. I don’t need to be shocked – which is just as well because these videos emerge with such regularity that they cease to be shocking. Were it not for the thrill of seeing an unjaded younger generation reviving the best of the nation’s traditions of anti-racist resistance, I would be in despair.
The altercations in the park, the rerouted walks to school, the aggravations of daily life are the lower end of a continuum – a dull drumbeat that occasionally crescendos into violent confrontation and even social conflagration. As spring turns to summer the volume keeps ratcheting up.
“Terror,” the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai writes in his book Fear of Small Numbers, “is first of all the terror of the next attack.” The terrorism resides not just in the fact that it happens, but that one is braced for the possibility that it could happen to you at any moment. Seven children and teenagers are shot on an average day in the US. I have just finished writing a book in which I take a random day and interview the families and friends of those who perished. Ten young people died the day I chose. Eight were black. All of the black parents said they had assumed this could happen to their son.
As one bereaved dad told me: “You wouldn’t be doing your job as a father if you didn’t.”
Eyes on the Prize recounts the fight to end decades of discrimination and segregation. It is the story of the people — young and old, male and female, northern and southern — who, compelled by a meeting of conscience and circumstance, worked to eradicate a world where whites and blacks could not go to the same school, ride the same bus, vote in the same election, or participate equally in society. It was a world in which peaceful demonstrators were met with resistance and brutality — in short, a reality that is now nearly incomprehensible to many young Americans.
Through contemporary interviews and historical footage, Eyes on the Prize traces the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Voting Rights Act; from early acts of individual courage through the flowering of a mass movement and its eventual split into factions. Julian Bond, political leader and civil rights activist, narrates.
The driving force behind Eyes on the Prize and Blackside, Henry Hampton (1940-1998) won numerous awards for this landmark series including the duPont-Columbia Gold Baton, the Peabody Award, and Academy Award nominations. He set out to share his vision of what he called “the remarkable human drama that was the Civil Rights Movement” through the Eyes on the Prize documentary and a book of the same title by Juan Williams. In recent years, a number of key figures who appear in the films (including the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott; Coretta Scott King, wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and an activist in her own right; Kwame Ture, also known as Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and George Wallace, the 1960s Alabama governor who resisted integration) have died, making this record of their testimony all the more valuable.
Programs in the series:
1- Awakenings (1954-1956)
Individual acts of courage inspire black Southerners to fight for their rights: Mose Wright testifies against the white men who murdered young Emmett Till, and Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.
2- Fighting Back (1957-1962)
States’ rights loyalists and federal authorities collide in the 1957 battle to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School, and again in James Meredith’s 1962 challenge to segregation at the University of Mississippi. Both times, a Southern governor squares off with a U.S. president, violence erupts — and integration is carried out.
3- Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961)
Black college students take a leadership role in the civil rights movement as lunch counter sit-ins spread across the South. “Freedom Riders” also try to desegregate interstate buses, but they are brutally attacked as they travel.
4- No Easy Walk (1961-1963)
The civil rights movement discovers the power of mass demonstrations as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerges as its most visible leader. Some demonstrations succeed; others fail. But the triumphant March on Washington, D.C., under King’s leadership, shows a mounting national support for civil rights. President John F. Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act.
5- Mississippi: Is This America? (1963-1964)
Mississippi’s grass-roots civil rights movement becomes an American concern when college students travel south to help register black voters and three activists are murdered. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenges the regular Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.
6- Bridge to Freedom (1965)
A decade of lessons is applied in the climactic and bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. A major victory is won when the federal Voting Rights Bill passes, but civil rights leaders know they have new challenges ahead.
7- The Time Has Come (1964-66)
After a decade-long cry for justice, a new sound is heard in the civil rights movement: the insistent call for power. Malcolm X takes an eloquent nationalism to urban streets as a younger generation of black leaders listens. In the South, Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) move from “Freedom Now!” to “Black Power!” as the fabric of the traditional movement changes.
8- Two Societies (1965-68)
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) come north to help Chicago’s civil rights leaders in their nonviolent struggle against segregated housing. Their efforts pit them against Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard Daley. When a series of marches through all-white neighbourhoods draws violence, King and Daley negotiate with mixed results. In Detroit, a police raid in a black neighborhood sparks an urban uprising that lasts five days, leaving 43 people dead. The Kerner Commission finds that America is becoming “two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” President Lyndon Johnson, who appointed the commission, ignores the report.
9- Power! (1966-68)
The call for Black Power takes various forms across communities in black America. In Cleveland, Carl Stokes wins election as the first black mayor of a major American city. The Black Panther Party, armed with law books, breakfast programs, and guns, is born in Oakland. Substandard teaching practices prompt parents to gain educational control of a Brooklyn school district but then lead them to a showdown with New York City’s teachers’ union.
10- The Promised Land (1967-68)
Martin Luther King stakes out new ground for himself and the rapidly fragmenting civil rights movement. One year before his death, he publicly opposes the war in Vietnam. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) embarks on an ambitious Poor People’s Campaign. In the midst of political organizing, King detours to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he is assassinated. King’s death and the failure of his final campaign mark the end of a major stream of the movement.
11- Ain’t Gonna Shuffle No More (1964-72)
A call to pride and a renewed push for unity galvanize black America. World heavyweight champion Cassius Clay challenges America to accept him as Muhammad Ali, a minister of Islam who refuses to fight in Vietnam. Students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., fight to bring the growing black consciousness movement and their African heritage inside the walls of this prominent black institution. Black elected officials and community activists organize the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in an attempt to create a unified black response to growing repression against the movement.
12- A Nation of Law? (1968-71)
Black activism is increasingly met with a sometimes violent and unethical response from local and federal law enforcement agencies. In Chicago, two Black Panther Party leaders are killed in a pre-dawn raid by police acting on information supplied by an FBI informant. In the wake of President Nixon’s call to “law and order,” stepped-up arrests push the already poor conditions at New York’s Attica State Prison to the limit. A five-day inmate takeover calling the public’s attention to the conditions leaves 43 men dead: four killed by inmates, 39 by police.
13- The Keys to the Kingdom (1974-80)
In the 1970s, antidiscrimination legal rights gained in past decades by the civil rights movement are put to the test. In Boston, some whites violently resist a federal court school desegregation order. Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, proves that affirmative action can work, but the Bakke Supreme Court case challenges that policy.
14- Back to the Movement (1979-mid 80s)
Power and powerlessness. Miami’s black community — pummelled by urban renewal, a lack of jobs, and police harassment — explodes in rioting. But in Chicago, an unprecedented grassroots movement triumphs. Frustrated by decades of unfulfilled promises made by the city’s Democratic political machine, reformers install Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor.
Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race”. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalised, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.
Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.
Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colourblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:
There are more African American adults under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war began.
As of 2004, more African American men were disfranchised (due to felon disfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the 15th amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labelled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste – not class, caste – permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.
There is, of course, a colourblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.
The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades – they are currently at historical lows – but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the “war on drugs” and the “get tough movement”. Drug offences alone accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, between 1985 to 2000, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.
The drug war has been brutal, but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of colour, even though studies consistently show that people of all colours use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youths are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youths. They also have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.
That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.
This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of colour and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.
Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working-class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing and affirmative action.
A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicising inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.
The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes – sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.
Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words: “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offence) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labelled a felon.
But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes … in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.
Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.
The results have been predictable: with black people rounded up en masse for relatively minor, nonviolent drug offences. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s – the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war – nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.
In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time – a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of colour are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.
Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers – not to mention president of the United States – causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.
Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in developing countries. And that’s with affirmative action.
When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colourblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure – the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.
“Herein lie buried many things which, if read with patience, may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the 20th century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line”.
This prophecy may have seemed far-fetched when first published in 1903, but it was to prove more and more compelling as the century advanced. Its author was WEB du Bois, the greatest of the early civil-rights leaders, a figure of towering significance in American politics and letters, whose life and work are – alas – little known on this side of the Atlantic. Remembered for his single-minded commitment to racial justice and his capacity to shape black consciousness, Du Bois used language and ideas to hammer out a strategy for political equality and to sound the depths of the black experience in the aftermath of slavery. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois set out to paint a vivid portrait of black people in the decades after emancipation in 1862 – how they lived and who they really were: and thus to enlighten white America – still profoundly attached to the myths of black inferiority – as to the true meaning of being black in post-civil war America.
The book was, as Du Bois’s biographer David Levering Lewis describes it, “like a firework going off in a cemetery… sound and light, enlivening the inert and despairing. It was an electrifying manifesto, mobilising people for bitter, prolonged struggle to win a place in history.” It combined life portraits of characteristic individuals, based on Du Bois’s travels in the south, with descriptions of the social and economic conditions of the rural poor, a deeply historical understanding of American race relations, and reflections on leadership and the role of education.
It also included fiction, poetry and musical scores. His chapter, “The Sorrow Songs”, expands on the significance of the bars of music from famous Negro spirituals which, alongside verses of English poetry – the two representing the Negro’s divided inheritance – are threaded through as epigraphs to each chapter. Despite his own agnosticism, the vernacular “sorrow songs” became the privileged vehicle for expressing “the deep religious feeling of the real Negro heart” – the soul of black experience. The biblical echoes and cadences of the black church in the book’s language made it for later generations, as critic Arnold Rampersad has said, itself “a kind of sacred book”.
William Edward Burghardt du Bois (he insisted on the pronunciation “Du Boyce”) was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, a small, Republican New England town set among the rivers and hills of south-west Massachusetts. He was a mulatto, of Huguenot Calvinist and Bantu African slave descent. His father, Alfred, disappeared early, and Willie was brought up by his mother, Mary Silvina, and her family, the Burghardts, free blacks who prospered in small farming, and had lived in Great Barrington since the 17th century. Precociously clever as a boy, and moving easily in Great Barrington’s inter-racial society, Du Bois was nevertheless the only black child in his class; an episode when a white girl refused to accept his visiting card made him aware that he was “different from the others”. Later, he expanded this sense of isolation into a fully-fledged philosophy.
He went to Fisk University in Nashville, his first experience of the black south, and taught for two summers in rural Tennessee, where he “touched the very shadow of slavery”. “Hence forward,” he said, “I was a Negro.”
He came to understand how emancipated slaves who, as Levering Lewis observes, had come “singing, praying and aspiring out of slavery”, had so swiftly fallen into poverty, degradation and indifference as a result of their marginalisation. Du Bois aimed to show instead the spiritual depth and complexity of life behind “the veil”. This was one of two metaphors he coined to characterise the black experience; the other was the concept of “double consciousness”.
The veil has biblical associations; double consciousness, philosophical ones. Du Bois argued that racism and the practices of segregation excluded blacks from mainstream American life – “shut them out of their world by a vast veil”. Exiled within, a stranger in his own home, always looking at himself through the eyes of another race, being both African and American, the Negro was destined to have a double self, a divided soul, the bearer of a “double consciousness… One ever feels his two-ness… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.”
Du Bois offered no resolution, accepting that blacks were destined to live permanently with this tension. Paradoxically, he also believed that the veil offered the Negro a profound insight into his divided nation. As in Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave, the slave, confronting “the mortal terror of his sovereign master”, was driven by this struggle-to-the-death to a higher consciousness of freedom than that of white Americans.
Du Bois went on to Harvard, the summit of his educational ambitions (he said he was “at – but not of – Harvard”), where he fell under the influence of teachers such as Josiah Royce, William James and George Santayana. After graduation, he became the first African-American to study in Berlin. There, this prickly, somewhat arrogant young man was liberated. He found the relative lack of racism in Europe remarkable. He mimicked the German student style, grew a Kaiser-like moustache and adopted Bismark as a hero. He discovered classical music and opera, especially Wagner.
Lohengrin plays an important part in the fictional “Of The Coming of John” chapter, where John, a southern black man returning from a northern education, murders his white “double” (the other John) for taking liberties with a black woman, and faces lynching by his townsfolk. Du Bois read German literature and philosophy – Goethe, Heine, Schiller, above all Hegel. The imprint of Hegel’s view of the progress of the World Spirit as a series of stages marked by successive conceptions of freedom, remained with him throughout his life, as sociologist Paul Gilroy has suggested. More significantly, he made contact with the powerful tradition of the German social sciences – Alfred Wagner, Schmoller, Max Weber – and became fired with the desire to turn these critical tools on the racial situation in the US.
He returned to Harvard to complete his PhD – another African-American first – before launching his unprecedented programme of sociological research. His work on the conditions of life among Negro communities in Philadelphia and around Atlanta provided the foundations of several chapters in The Souls of Black Folk as well as underpinning the avalanche of political journalism, novels and other writings he launched on the world.
Passionate about the power of ideas, Du Bois was also a determined political activist. He wrote, lectured and travelled everywhere. In 1905 he launched the Niagara Movement, the first black-led organisation committed to civil and political rights, and subsequently co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the most powerful integrated civil-rights organisation until the upheavals of the 1960s. He began to edit its enormously influential campaigning journal, The Crisis, writing polemical editorials that addressed every conceivable topic of interest to black Americans.
By the 1890s the abolitionist dream had faded, and Black Reconstruction, designed to build emancipated slaves into the political system, had been defeated. The old southern white oligarchy and the “new rich”, in collusion with northern industrialists, who wanted to invest in a south with a plentiful supply of cheap black labour, began to roll back the tide. Ex-slaves, without incomes or capital, were driven off the land into the indebtedness and poverty of share-cropping. Following the Plessy v Ferguson decision, in which the Supreme Court upheld Homer Plessy’s conviction in Louisiana for travelling in a whites-only train carriage, “Jim Crow” legislation spread through the south, segregating public facilities. White supremacist ideas began to circulate again. Then the lynchings began…
The Souls of Black Folk was Du Bois’s attempt to stem this reversal. It was distinctive for its unswerving commitment to the black ballot and the liberal education that had helped Du Bois to expand his own mind. This brought him into collision which the most powerful black leader of the time, Booker T Washington – known for his manipulative cunning as “the wizard” – with his influential base at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and his supporters among the northern philanthropists. In his autobiography Up From Slavery (1901) and elsewhere, Washington advocated an accommodation with the south- the famous “Atlanta com-promise” – based on trading the black right to vote against better economic opportunities, and advocating a narrow, vocational training for blacks, designed to equip them to be industrial workers.
This quarrel split the black movement down the middle, and was compounded by Du Bois’s ideas on leadership. In Souls, Du Bois criticised Washington’s charismatic style and educational programme, and called for a “saving elite”, or “talented tenth” of educated African-Americans to give direction to the civil-rights struggle, offering “leadership by exceptional men” (though it should be pointed out that Du Bois was passionately pro-feminist and forged political as well as emotional relationships with many women activists).
Was Du Bois’s “talented tenth” idea, as Washington and others charged, elitist? Du Bois had spent long periods in, and learned much from the south: his experiences there had transformed his political outlook. However, he was formed, intellectually, among northerners. His peers and political associates were largely drawn from the talented sons and daughters of urban, middle-class, northern black professionals, with privileged backgrounds and university educations. Washington claimed to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, poor southern blacks who lacked such prospects. For Du Bois, this was no reason for denying them their political and educational rights.
Certainly, Washington’s “industrial training” was not designed to produce committed political leadership. Besides, where was the leadership of the immediate post-slavery decades likely to come from other than the ranks of the educated, politically conscious, free black professionals of the north? This elitist/populist tension recurred in the later split between Du Bois’s integrationist perspective and the Afro-centric approach of Marcus Garvey, whom Du Bois strongly opposed. It surfaced again during the “Harlem renaissance”, Du Bois, in this instance, finding the leaders of the “arts and letters movement” too removed from the concerns of ordinary black folk. In different versions, it continues to haunt African-American politics today, for example in the suspicion shown by black community activists towards mainstream politicians.
In fact, though Du Bois was constantly locked in argument of this kind about the future direction of the struggle, his outlook was constantly expanding. He spent more time in Europe, began to learn more about the plight of colonial peoples of African descent, and met the leaders of the anti-imperialist struggles of the day. He helped organised several Pan-African congresses, including the famous fifth held just after the end of the second world war in Manchester, and attended by Amy Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. This growing Pan-Africanism helped him to place the race issue in a wider, trans-Atlantic context.
In the later part of his life, as the situation for African-Americans worsened during the depression years, Du Bois became increasingly pessimistic about the chances of equality, and disillusioned with the land of his birth. His racial thinking shifted emphasis, from the integration of a new group into an old nation, to the creation of a new, black nation. He mistrusted the motives behind the American Communist party’s growing involvement in race issues during the 1930s, arguing that the racial division between white and black workers made America an “exception” to Marx’s class-struggle theory.
However, as his disillusionment grew, he showed increasing communist leanings. After his 1947 appeal to the UN on behalf of the black struggle was supported by the Soviet Union and opposed by the US, he gravitated towards the far left, defending the Rosenbergs and eulogising Stalin. He joined the Peace Information Centre, defined by the US government as an “agent of foreign interests”, was refused a passport and, when finally allowed abroad in the late 1950s, met Khrushchev, Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai before attending independence celebrations in Ghana and Nigeria. He had supported Martin Luther King in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955-6, but had become deeply alienated from America, partly as a result of continuing passport problems, and in 1961 he accepted Nkrumah’s invitation and went into self-imposed exile in Ghana, becoming a Ghanaian citizen in 1963.
On August 27, aged 95, on the eve of the great civil rights march on Washington, he died and was given a state funeral in Accra. His place in history was publicly acknowledged from the Washington march platform by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP – “at the dawn of the 20th century, his was the voice calling you to gather here today in this cause”.