The Hood: Bedtime Stories, Emmett Till and FDR
The first horror story of White supremacy I ever heard was not Get Out, it was Little Red Riding Hood. Nubile fair skinned Lolita straight outta Kansas, birthed into a forest by a benevolent narrator. Treading through a darkened forest, the red hooded virgin is blissfully unaware of the danger a big bad wolf brings. We tell this story to children, emphasizing the sound of leaves ominously crushed by a lurking wolf.
Swinging a picnic basket filled with wine and cake for her sick grandmother she greets the menacing beast when he approaches. He asks her to pick some flowers and she gracefully complies, ignoring her mother’s command to go straight to grandma without dallying. Her naïveté heightens the readers fear of the darkened trees crouching over, arms extended as if to embrace her so tightly until the breath and the warmness of her living would be laid right alongside those flowers. Like the ghost town Comala, in Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Paramo, the forest is no mere set for the action to take place, it is a character to be contended with. The story instructs us to be as afraid of the woods as the wolf himself.
Red riding hood, a clitoris spiriting through the thicket eventually makes it to her grandmother’s house. She’s uneasy but enters through the narrow doorway. Finding the wolf laid in her grandmother’s bed, she takes only brief assurance in the clothes laid upon his body like the clothes on Adam and Eve, covering the shame of their sex.
Grimm sets up a story about a girl whose grandmother is consumed by a dangerous wolf. On the surface, the dialogue that follows is her slow realization that she will be eaten by this creature laying before her with her grandmother in the womb of his stomach.
When the girl arrives, she notices that her grandmother looks very strange. Little Red then says, “What a deep voice you have!” (“The better to greet you with”, responds the wolf), “Goodness, what big eyes you have!” (“The better to see you with”, responds the wolf), “And what big hands you have!” (“The better to hug/grab you with”, responds the wolf), and lastly, “What a big mouth you have” (“The better to eat you with!”, responds the wolf), at which point the wolf jumps out of bed and eats her up too.
Little Red Riding Hood killed Emmett Till. We the wolves can see the grandmother’s bed strewn in disarray like his open casket but the conquerors write the history books so we get an allegory about the rape of an innocent white girl by a big bad wolf with dark hair and sharpened teeth. We get Carolyn Donham admitting 64 years later that her statement leading to the lethal and brutal beating of Emmett Till by her husband Roy Bryant and his brother J.W. Millam was a lie.
“Mrs. Bryant claimed Emmett bragged about dating white women up north. She said he grabbed her and asked her, “How about a date, baby?” Simeon Wright, his cousin, heard none of this. But there is no doubt about what he heard when they left the store, he told the AP in 2005.
Standing on the front porch, Emmett let out a wolf whistle
(Chicago Tribune January 28, 2017)
The tragedy is not even that the story of the Central Park 5 is told by the president who put out a full page ad in the Times calling for their execution. It’s that the wolf is your grandmother. Little Red is not traveling from the safety of her paved village through the wild for the first time. She is returning through the world decolonized, hears the sound of birds chirping; the crackling of the leaves and is terrified by the immediacy of an ecosystem she’s always been a part of. She’s coming back to a home left a millennia ago and doesn’t recognize her ancestor or her motherland.
A critical read of Grimm’s fairy tale reveals how the true ontological concerns of whiteness are obscured zooming in to capture the image of violence against a subhuman brown body. Lisa Whittington thoughtfully explores Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” in her NBC piece #MuseumsSoWhite: Black Pain and Why Painting Emmett Till Matters “I saw a peaceful looking boy laying in a casket with some scars painted in an abstract way. It’s painted well. Consistent with her style. But her painting does not move me. I did not feel the horror of his ordeal. I did not feel the anger of Mamie Till in exposing racism when she declared an open casket….Dana Schutz created a metanarrative that downplayed what truly happened in history…Where is the artwork that interprets the lies that got Emmett Till killed? Where are the portraits of the men who lynched Emmett? What was in their eyes during the act of murder? What color is remorse? Does she have nothing to say there?”
Apathetic murder is procedurally neat, a blade swiped across a carotid artery or a gunshot to the head. Till was brutally beaten until his facial features were rewritten. The intimacy of that extrajudicial homicide is a signifier of reptilian panic emerging when the story of whiteness encounters that it’s prologue is Black. America is comfortable keeping souvenirs of the lynchings from postcards to the taxidermied genitals sliced off the victims. What does the widescreen shot tell us about the nature and depth of complicity?
This image features JW Millam and family during his 1955 trial for the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till. His son Harvey Millam on the right is one of the 36 Americans named in the Panama Papers. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, “together with the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other media partners, spent a year sifting through 11.5 million leaked files to expose the offshore holdings of world political leaders, links to global scandals, and details of the hidden financial dealings of fraudsters, drug traffickers, billionaires, celebrities, sports stars and more.”
A lot of time is spent on how racism is unethical but far less on how it is inaccurate. In a 2016 revised obituary of Emmett Till, The New York Times explains how “Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, turned to the federal government to no avail. She tried to meet with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but he refused. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the F.B.I. at the time, declined to make the killing a federal case.” Eisenhower’s refusal is unsurprising given his conversation with Supreme Court Justice Earl Davis after the appointee spent the day presiding over the oral arguments for Brown vs. Board of Education. Michael O’Donnel writes in the Atlantic “Over coffee, Eisenhower took Warren by the arm and asked him to consider the perspective of white parents in the Deep South. “These are not bad people,” the president said. “All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big black bucks.”
The irony of bipartisan consensus around bigoted, white supremacist views historically espoused by the executive branch is how the image of Black predation (typically tied to sexual deviance like in the 1936 film Reefer Madness) is such an effective tool to redirect a fearful populous away from the people that actually drive profound income inequality. Economist Gabriel Zuckman historically contextualizes the Panama Papers, “Wealth was very concentrated in Europe in the 19th century, when there was very little wealth taxation, and was very concentrated in the US in the early 20th century, when there was no federal income tax.” His research reveals the top 0.1 percent of Americans now hold 22 percent of the nation’s wealth, nearly the same level as in 1929. Milam’s inclusion in the offshore tax shelters of the Panama Papers is representative of an ideological transition from the isolationist nationalism of southern racists (who demurred Nazi overtures) to 21st century neoliberal technocrats of international finance transcending regulation by the nation state.
“This global system of tax avoidance is sucking the life out of welfare states in the rich world,” Oxfam wrote. “It also denies poor countries the resources they need to tackle poverty, put children in school and prevent their citizens dying from easily curable diseases.”
I was asked where do we locate hope in the process of unearthing injustice. I think about Virginia Commonwealth University operating a parking lot for over a decade on an African Burial Ground. This is America; sealing in the black bodies of former slaves with the industrial aesthetic of a blacktop stage. The mundanity of parking says more about our process of historic amnesia than the statues of Confederate soldiers littering Richmond’s main streets. Community protests succeeded, the asphalt parking lot was ceremonially removed in 2011 but this raises the question, how do we battle erasure without being consumed by despair?
My neighbor stopped me on the street a week after I organized a public screening of Jordan Peele’s Get Out! “I am your grandmother you know.” We are not blood related but she was defining our relationship as a member of the African diaspora and her role in the community as someone two generations older than myself. “Think of your mother” she continued. I grew up in a close knit Ethiopian community but was primarily raised by my Irish-Catholic white mother. “We cannot imagine a more inclusive future through hatred of white people. Part of our duty as African people is to bring the arc of time to the conversation about racial justice. Do not allow this country to define that mission by beginning the story at our victimhood in the middle passages. We are the keepers of genesis and have to remind people through love that all human beings came from Africa.
You are digging up a lot of historical wounds when you have to move forward. Think about the strong smell of the recently dead. When you exhume the ancestors, the smell of putrid flesh is magnified. Consider how the energy changes the spirit of the gravediggers and the people who live on that land.” She shared her experience as a Biafra baby who escaped to Mali only to have to run again, this time with two children when the country began a civil war. “We know the conversation on racial justice is a long road, think about how you will sustain your ability to be an agent of change when you allow despair of the past to enter.”
Fifty years after Emmett Till’s swollen, battered body was pulled from the muck of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, it was removed from the ground once more on Wednesday, carried away from a quiet cemetery in south suburban Chicago for an autopsy at last. (New York Times June 2, 2005)
An all white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Millam for the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Protected by double jeopardy once acquitted, the men confessed their crimes to Look magazine a year later in exchange for $4000. Keith Beauchamp’s 2004 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is what prompted the DOJ to reopen an investigation into Till’s murder. Beauchamp’s documentary is an example of how storytelling can disrupt kitsch versions of a post-racial American dream repressing grief through omission. However, the film doesn’t show us how to sustain grieving without being consumed by it.
The New York City architects of forgetting, gentrify graveyards with glass condominiums, exposed brick and chalkboards ironically advertising fair trade pastries. Real estate developers carefully curate any acknowledgements of the land they build on. Jerry Wolkoff’s G&M Realty included street art in the lobby of condominiums built where 5 Pointz once stood. This was not an apology to the artists whose work was whitewashed before the graffiti mecca was demolished. In his verdict [awarding $6.2 million to the 21 artists that sued], the judge reportedly said that the owner of the site showed no remorse in destroying the work of the graffiti artists. The inclusion of street art in the lobby was an advertisement to rich hipsters in the outer-boroughs who want the culture but not the wolves.
Becker + Becker Associates shares its luxury rental development, The Octagon “opened [in 1841] as a beautifully designed island retreat by Alexander Jackson Davis” but omits this retreat was actually the New York City Lunatic Asylum. They cite Charles Dickens as having ‘praised the building as “remarkable,” its flying spiral staircase “spacious and elegant”’ omitting the remainder of what he wrote in his American Notes of 1842, “Everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long disheveled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails.” Dickens would write. “There they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror.”
Similar to the Whitney Museum’s decision to feature Schutz’s “Open Casket” without the critical context needed to engage with the historical event depicted in the scene, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park Conservancy ends at the southernmost tip of Roosevelt Island without any context for visitors to understand his 1941 State of the Union address was a justification for war. The park’s website does state “In his address, Roosevelt called for the immediate increase in American arms production, and asked Americans to support his “Lend-Lease” program, which gave Allies cash-free access to US munitions.” but there’s no mention in the physical space. The brief web overview declares “Roosevelt’s call for human rights has created a lasting legacy worldwide. These freedoms became symbols of hope during World War II, adopted by the Allies as the basic tenets needed to create a lasting peace. Following the end of the war, the Four Freedoms formed the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Is this the FDR Memorial that would have been built by Japanese internment camp survivors? Where is the engraving of Executive Order 8066 declaring over 120,000 Japanese men, women and children be forcibly relocated by the military into remote western areas behind barbed wire? Where is the monument to their reparations?
How do we understand Japanese survivors of internment camps being provided reparations by Reagan in the crack era but not African Americans despite Roosevelt’s New Deal concessions to a Southern Democrat majority in congress? David Shriberman’s review of Ira Katznelson’s book Fear Itself in the Boston Globe succinctly captures the Columbia University professor’s thesis:
“Because of the region’s influence in Congress and in the Democratic Party — twin phenomena that persisted through the years of Lyndon Johnson, himself the personification of that power — the South held a virtual veto over the New Deal and thus shaped it as intimately as did FDR. The South gave the New Deal running room — as long as it ran from issues of race. It assured that the New Deal would produce no legislation that would alter the social or racial hierarchy of the region.
‘The New Deal permitted, or at least turned a blind eye toward, an organized system of racial cruelty,’ writes Katznelson
‘This alliance was a crucial part of its supportive structure. The New Deal thus collaborated with the South’s racial hegemony as it advanced liberal democracy at home and campaigned to promote liberal democracy abroad.’’’
FDR refused to support a federal Anti-Lynching bill stating, “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass the keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.” He refused to endorse the bill even after the October 1934 lynching of Claude Neal “Neal was then tortured and subjected to castration, forced auto-cannibalism of his genitalia. He was repeatedly stabbed, burned with hot irons, and had his toes and fingers removed.” A mob consisting of thousands of people from eleven southern states then converged on the property and kicked Neal’s body and ran him over with their cars. Photographs were taken of Neal’s mutilated corpse and sold to spectators. A few people were said to have kept Neal’s fingers and toes as souvenirs, which they preserved in jars filled with alcohol.
There have been 4,742 recorded lynchings in American history but the US Department of Justice didn’t issue a formal apology until 2005 (long after lynching stopped being the preferred form of racial terrorism). Of the 100 senators, 80 were co-sponsors of the resolution, and because it passed by voice vote, senators escaped putting themselves on record. “It’s a statement in itself that there aren’t 100 co-sponsors,” Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said. “It’s a statement in itself that there’s not an up-or-down vote."
“Four freedoms are a testament to our nation’s unmatched aspirations,” Hilary Clinton began her 2015 rally at Four Freedoms Park Conservancy while campaigning for president against Donald Trump. The mostly white crowd appeared enthusiastic about the first female presidential candidate. Allida Black, a George Washington University professor and Eleanor Roosevelt expert whose book featured a forward from Clinton shared her thoughts on the the two women, “...her primal understanding of what human rights means in a real-world sense is so real that in a way it almost surpasses Eleanor’s”
These comments stand in sharp relief to the African American experience of the Clinton dynasty exemplified by her 1996 speech on super predators:
“We need to take these people on, they are often connected to big drug cartels, they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience. No empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way but first we have to bring them to heel,”
Her speech was based on the now debunked research of John DiIulio Jr., a former aide to President George W. Bush, professor of politics, religion and civil society at the University of Pennsylvania who coined the term “superpredator” in 1995. In a piece titled, “The Coming of the Super-Predator,” written in November of that year, he wrote:
“There is even some evidence that juveniles are doing homicidal violence in “wolf packs.” Indeed, a 1993 study found that juveniles committed about a third of all homicides against strangers, often murdering their victim in groups of two or more. Violent youth crime, like all serious crime, is pre-dominantly intra-racial, not interfacial. The surge in violent youth crime has been most acute among black inner-city males.”
“[Dilulio’s] prediction wasn’t just wrong; it was exactly the opposite,’’ said Franklin E. Zimring, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the university’s Earl Warren Legal Institute, in 2001. Prison admissions for drug offenses reached a level in 2000 for African Americans more than 26 times the level in 1983. All of the presidents since 1980 have contributed to mass incarceration, but as Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson recently observed, “President Clinton’s tenure was the worst.”
NY Times critic calls the memorial a “new spiritual heart”, inadvertently remarking on the ethics of empire. Where I locate hope is in the profound inaccuracy of stories told by the conquerors. The conceptual failure of the left’s response to the implicit demand for amnesia in fairy tales or memorials to dead presidents, is in the decision to zoom into the unethical rather than seize the strategic blind spot of a nation that in dehumanizing people of color, particularly reducing Black people to super predators wilding in wolf packs, has missed our agency.
The lesson from the administration of VCU operating a parking lot over an African Burial ground is they never anticipated the descendants of the dead returning to reclaim their people. The attempt to integrate 5Pointz street art into the condominiums of displacement offensively codifies the robbery of culture while transforming it into a signifier of safety for 21st century colonizers generously described as hipsters, but like African art in glass exhibit cases, the separation of the objects from the people and culture who created it, render the outcome sterile.
I love how Lisa Whittington’s “Libation for the Lynched” holds grief, reaches for a ritual both African and easily made from the contents of Little Red’s picnic basket. I see us in this painting- those labeled as thugs be prophets pourin’ out a little liquor for the dead.
“I call my son pop” I said to my neighbor “the way you call your son baba (honorific for father in the Yoruba language), our children are the multiverse- simultaneously ancestors and the future that we are fortunate to raise. It’s not just that the prologue is Black you see, the pages not yet written are your grandmother”