“No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from.”

The trouble with privilege, of course, is that the system is designed to deliberately blind you from the suffering of others, to make it hard (or, in some cases) nearly impossible to imagine yourself in the position of the person who is suffereing.I think that Elle, phd is spot on today with her description of how that works in the case of black women who’ve been victimized. She’s talking about how “strange” it is that, suddenly, Megan Williams’s outstanding warrants must so urgenly be served against her, so that a woman who just got out of a prison of sorts, where she was held for a week against her will, ends up back in a holding cell. See how easily we slip from feeling sympathy with her? When we first found out about her plight, she was a victim of a bizarre crime just because she was black.

But wait (slip and slide away from her), she knew her attackers. But wait (slip and slide some more), maybe she even dated one of them once. And wait (slipping further from her), she herself is a criminal.

She’s not like us. She’s not us.

Those things would never happen to us. We’re good.

Sometimes, though, you get a glimpse of what it is that the dominant culture would like from black people. And watching the Jena 6 stuff and the Megan Williams stuff, it seems like what we want from black people is for y’all to have no ties–not to each other, not to your families, not to the community, not to history–and that y’all walk around complete blank slates. Something happens to you and you’re just supposed to be confused and surprised. Something happens to another black person you know (not that you’d really know them, but maybe you’d have heard some rumor about them or something) and you don’t draw anything from that about how you might be treated. Nope, I thnk you’re really supposed to be a people without history, without ties.

Let’s talk about small towns. I’m from small town America. I graduated in a class of 47.

I’m not from small town American in the same way most folks are, because my dad’s a Methodist minister and so we moved from small town to small town, but because of that, I’ve seen my share of how they work.

There’s some good stuff to be said for small towns. But let’s not kid ourselves–for a lot of people, they’re not easy places to grow up.

And folks who don’t understand how small towns work can pretty easily misunderstand what’s going on in them.

I mean, please, of course Megan Williams knew her attackers. Of course she probably socialized with them. She lives in West Virginia, for gods’ sake. How many people in a sixty mile radius of her do you think she didn’t know? Hadn’t socialized with to some extent? Is it really surprising that she’d been in stupid trouble before? That’s the kind of trouble folks get in (until you get meth involved, and then, Christ Jesus).

That’s what the heartland looks like. These are those “values” folks on the coasts are always crowing on about. You know people. You get into stupid trouble. You get a reputation. It sticks with you for the rest of your life. Things seem fine on the surface and underneath, bad trouble.

I mean, not to be flip, but that’s the fucking point of almost every Stephen King book ever written and he’s a best selling author. You think he’d sell so well if that idea–heartland America, fine on the surface, bad trouble underneath–didn’t resonate?

Now, let’s look at the Jena 6

CNN is reporting that the U.S. attorney responsible for reviewing the case doesn’t see any tie between the nooses hanging in the tree in front of the high school and the fact that six black kids beat up a white kid.This is laughable on its face.

Is there any person from small town America who doubts for a second that those two things aren’t directly related?

The U.S. attorney says, “there were three months of high school football in which they all played football together and got along fine, in which there was a homecoming court, in which there was the drill team, in which there were parades.” In other words, since everything appeared fine on the surface, it must have been fine. But who in a small town would believe that?

When I went back for my 10 year high school reunion, I had a girl bawl me out for a good ten minutes in front of everyone for thinking I was better than everyone else back in high school. Twelve years she’d been carrying that shit around, twelve years in which she saw me a few times and seemed perfectly happy to see me.

You think some kids can’t carry with them for a few months the fear and anger they must have felt at knowing they lived in a place where you could still have a “white tree” and where the simple act of sitting under it would lead to an implicit threat on your life?

And, while we’re being honest, is there one person here who doesn’t know that the message of those nooses was “You be afraid, ’cause we could hurt you.”? And is there one person here who doesn’t get that beating up that white kid wasn’t a message of “No, you be afraid.”?

First of all, that’s how boys work. You just have to hang out with teenage boys for, oh, say five seconds to hear “Fuck you.” “No, fuck you.” And second, we used to kill black people that way. Not that long ago. Within the living memories of the families of those boys. When they saw those nooses there, they had some tough decisions to make, decisions with old implications.

Do they trust the authorities to take care of it? To really get the level of the threat? Well, they tried that. And the kids got suspended for a few days. Yeah, if you walk into a school and announce you’re going to kill random people, you get tossed out. You walk into that school and make a gesture that threatens the deaths of black people and you get to come back to school.

Do they just take it? I’m not excusing their behavior. It’s wrong to kick the shit out of people. I’m asking though, for you to put yourself in the position of a teenage boy. Are you just going to take it? Or are you going to be a man and do something about it?

Again. I’m not excusing it. I think we have fucked up notions of what it mean to be a man and those ideas put boys we love in harm’s way, repeatedly.

I’m just saying, there was a time when black people, when confronted with a whites-only tree and then some nooses hanging in it, a time not very long ago, when they would have just had to take it. Proving to yourself that you no longer live in such times can be a powerful motivator.

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve gotten off track a little.

My point is that we talk about the heartland as if it’s one thing, when we all know that it’s another. Well, that it’s that one thing and that it’s another. It is the smooth surface and the terrible deep.

Why can’t we just admit that to ourselves?

I don’t know.

24 thoughts on ““No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from.”

  1. Not that hanging a piece of rope from a tree gives someone the right to assault you, BUT, the kid that got beaten up wasn’t even one of the ones that did that.

    You can talk all day about smallville, but the bottom line is that the legal types have to follow the law.

  2. In David Lynch’s movie “Blue Velvet” the opening couple of minutes where you see this pretty little town and then the camera goes underneath the dirt.
    That’s how I sometimes see small-town America.

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  4. Exador, if you read my piece, you’ll see that it’s my opinion that the beat-down was not necessarily about that particular kid (though if he did fling the racial epithets he supposedly did, then it was about him), but about sending a message in return.

    I’ll eagerly await the legal types following the law equally in this case.

  5. I’ll say Amen to your sentiment, Aunt B. Although I grew up in Nashville instead of a small town (cynical chuckling permitted), I understand what that U.S. attorney doesn’t. The past, and its fears, have not left us yet, and may not for even more generations.

  6. This seems to go really nicely with this:“Do You Understand Where You Are?”. (via Sara Speaking)

    There are a number of legal bits to be gleaned… but I can’t find it all in one place.
    Here, we see:

    NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A state appeals court Friday tossed out the aggravated battery conviction that could have sent a black teenager to prison for 15 years in last year’s beating of a white classmate in the racially tense north Louisiana town of Jena.

    Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time of the December beating, should not have been tried as an adult on the battery charge, the state Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles said in a five-sentence, three-paragraph ruling.

    Here is a timeline, with links to various sites and analyses, including this legal/social analysis of Mychal Bell’s case.

    And, of course, there are the bloggers we know and love who have covered this:

    Vox Ex Machina (here, here, here, and in text in other entries)

    Sylvia (formerly of The Antiessentialist Conundrum; currently at Afrospear; lots of links there… this is probably the most comprehensive source collected)

    blackamazon (and this one, and this one, and especially this one…)

    Kevin at Slant Truth (see also: everything in this category)

    And, of course, there are whole websites devoted to following it, like JenaSix.org.

    (And now, of course, you’re going to have to fish this out of Akismet, because that’s a lot of links.)

  7. When I heard that a white kid brought a gun to school and the black kids who took it away from him were arrested and he wasn’t charged with anything. That was when I realized that obviously this isn’t about color. How could it be in this day and age?

  8. I came from a small town. I left at the earliest available opportunity, mostly because of the reasons you described, and just an uneasy sense of something … lurking … beneath all the fake smiles and facades. The whole town felt haunted, but by its present, not its past.

    So I don’t understand how we can have a trite, tired cliche like “still waters run deep” and still have people fail to understand that shit like this has roots and many, many more things that go on out of sight of the media cameras, that the people won’t talk about but they’ll think it and feel it and eventually it will erupt and by then it is too late. Shit has gone down that the legal types can’t overlook, the way they overlooked all the small things leading up to it.

    I just hope those boys get the justice they were seeking.

  9. I’ve been watching all the marches and outrage over what “victims of injustice” these poor lads are.
    I haven’t heard a whole lot about the fact that somone punched a kid in the back of the head, and then six men beat and kicked that person, even after he was unconcious.
    And by the way, if an adult pounded on the head of unconcious person, that is clearly

  10. Exador, have you heard that the boy who was knocked unconscious felt well enough to attend a school function later that night? Did you hear about the white boy drew a gun on Black classmates, and although he was not charged, the boys who took the gun away from him were? Did you hear about the nooses with which Black students were threatened simply for entering what white students deemed “their” space?

    No, these boys are not MLK. Nobody is suggesting they are. However, there is much, much more going on here than “six dudes jumped one dude and tried to kill him.” I’d suggest trying to think about the situation when you aren’t under the influence; maybe your critical thinking faculties will work better.

  11. Aw, hon… that’s cute but kind of futile. Exador’s a sweetie, but he’s a contrarian through and through. It’s kind of like banging your head against a wall, only the wall occasionally makes you laugh.

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  13. Yes, Magniloquence. Debating with Exador is a lot like watching the Bush administration sell their Iraq adventure in 2002-3. Every time you shoot down one of his talking points with facts or reason, he’ll jump to another one and so forth. After you get done shooting those all down, he’ll cycle back to the first one (he’ll have the decency to rephrase it, of course) and start the process again. It would be amusing if the subjects weren’t so heavy, but knowing that so many millions of our fellow citizens think like this and vote does not leave me optimistic about the future of the republic.

  14. Thanks mag. Yes, baby, I know of all those things. i’ve been following the story for some time.

    The boy who was assaulted was able to make it to the school function briefly, leaving early due to pain.
    Hopefully, the spotlight will force a followup on the gun incident you mentioned.
    Hanging a rope from a tree is an asshole thing to do, but as I posted earlier, they suspended (or was it expelled?) the ones who did it, and this kid isn’t one of them.

    Just adding some cold-logic-perspective.

  15. I find you entertaining as well, CS. Now tell me how this is Cheney’s fault?

    And when you said that fact and logic have a liberal bias? Gold, Baby! That was pure gold!

  16. (OT)

    Every time you shoot down one of his talking points with facts or reason, he’ll jump to another one and so forth. After you get done shooting those all down, he’ll cycle back to the first one (he’ll have the decency to rephrase it, of course) and start the process again.

    So wait, you mean it’s like all those articles in Redbook and Cosmo that just keep coming back … and back … and back … OMG ZOMBIES.

  17. Don’t listen to CS. He’s one a them crazy liberal yankee types.

    I found a column in the KC Star, by Jason Whitlock (a black man, for those keepinig score)
    According to Mr Whitlock,

    Mychal Bell was brought before the court [over this incident] for the third time on assault charges in a two-year span.
    Bell was already on probation for assault when he was accused of participating in Barker’s attack.

    A black U.S. attorney, Don Washington, investigated the “Jena Six” case and concluded that the attack on Barker had absolutely nothing to do with the noose-hanging incident three months before. The nooses and two off-campus incidents were tied to Barker’s assault by people wanting to gain sympathy for the “Jena Six” in reaction to Walters’ extreme charges of attempted murder.

  18. I admire your consistency, Exador. “If negroes disagree, it can’t be racism!”

    I don’t know if Whitlock is always this clueless, or if he is out of his element when not writing about sports. I don’t care. But the “two off-campus incidents” he strategically minimizes were part of a pattern of white antagonism toward the black students that should have been taken into account after the six students assaulted the one white student. Hell, if the authorities with jurisdiction over all those incidents had acted responsibly, there would have been no “Jena Six” to rally behind.
    Just so you know, I am not calling Whitlock clueless simply because I disagree with him. These statements of his earn the prize:

    The best way for a black (or white) father to ensure that his son doesn’t fall victim to a racist prosecutor is by participating in his son’s life on a daily basis.

    How about weeding out overtly racist and race-baiting prosecutors (of any skin color)? If overly aggressive prosecution was unfair to the Duke lacrosse team (which wasn’t composed of saints, either), then it is unfair to the Jena Six.

    And I am in no way excusing the nooses. The responsible kids should’ve been expelled.

    Well, jeez, Jason, they weren’t. And not only was the asshole who had earlier pulled a gun on young black students not adequately prosecuted, the victims who disarmed him were arrested and charged with theft. Those are just two aspects of a volatile, hostile situation that local authorities failed to take seriously– until a white student was assaulted, that is. I don’t condone what those six kids allegedly did, but I can understand how they might have felt they were in a position of being forced to fend for themselves. Aunt B. has already explained this part.

    But the kids responsible for Barker’s beating deserve to be punished.

    Ah, the Straw Man argument. No one is suggesting that the Jena Six kids go unpunished for their act of violence. It was inexcusable, even if understandable. But charging them as adults with attempted murder– in essence throwing away their lives– was by any reasonable, non-racist metric– quite excessive. As a first step to addressing this situation in a mature and constructive manner, why not give them probation?

    For the moment, at least, Whitlock must be a hero to the right-wing, ex-frat-boy, million-dollar-nigger hating segments of his readership. I can understand some African-Americans (especially those who feel they’re safe from the kind of institutionalized racism smacked down on the Jena 6) feeling a bit of fatigue at having to look upon the vigorous, die-hard remnants of Jim Crow. But blaming the victims of racism– no matter how complex and ugly their own actions might be, and no matter the skin color of the one doing the blaming– is still no solution.

    Exador, if you find any other African-Americans who’ve publicly played the house negro role on this issue, you’ll be sure to tell us, won’t you?

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