By Anthony Boynton
Anthony Boynton is a doctoral student in English at University of Kansas. This Georgia native holds a B.A in English from Fort Valley State University and M.A. in English from Georgia College. Much of his essay writing attends to thinking on race, gender, popular culture, and politics. Boynton also writes creatively about dreams, nightmares, monsters, love, and magic. His writing can be found or is forthcoming in the South Atlantic Review, Open Cultural Studies, Abernathy online, and his personal blog.
“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only include what they feel from the state of their institutions.” – James Baldwin
We are living in what is perhaps the most peculiar political moment America has ever witnessed. The peculiarity of our time is quite frightening, yes, though its strangeness is illuminating on several levels about race, America’s history, and especially about whiteness.
If nothing else, the election of Donald J. Trump to the office of the President of the United States confirmed that we never entered a much-dreamed-about postracial moment. The violence that met former President Barack Obama and his family should have taught us better. No presidential family had the opportunity to see the double standards of race like the beloved Obamas. Barack and Michelle Obama had to graduate several times from our nation’s top schools, prove his American nationality ten times over, and withstand the public disrespect of supposed colleagues and mainstream news outlets all for him to be seen, still, as an incapable president. These racialized strictures become glaringly obvious as 45 continues to push the envelope of what we ever figured possible of an elected official. Certainly, if Barack Obama had no history of politics, mocked the speech and mental health of a disabled man, sustained legal cases with porn stars, colluded with an international power to rig the democratic process, and consistently provoked foreign leaders over Twitter, he would have been dubbed unelectable and eliminated from all and any future consideration in a career of politics. It would have ruined him.
However, this series of actions, along with several other antics and disgraces to the office, seemed to magnify 45’s electability. And despite his failure to garner more popular votes from what is now his constituency, he has risen to power. His ascent and leadership has shown us his lack of moral compass, and that of whiteness. The violence of his tyranny, his embrace of white nationalist protest, airstrikes on Syria, the murders of Palestinians, countless other atrocities are not divorced from what we know about whiteness in this country.
As we question our current political and social moment, with the assassination of Marielle Franco in Brazil, the attempted bombings of several black families in Texas, the shooting of Brennan Walker in Detriot for simply knocking on a neighbors’ door, conversations and protest of guns in schools and gun violence, and police dragging black folk out of public cafés and restaurants, something is going unanswered about the nature of whiteness and racism in our country.
Now yes, this past year’s events are not new or disconnected from a traumatic history of intentional racial terror. When black folk hear about what happened to black homes in in Austin, Texas, we vividly remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s bombed Atlanta home where his children slept. When we heard about the two black men dragged out of a Philadelphia Starbucks and Chikesia Clemons out of an Alabama Waffle House, we can imagine Emmett Till being dragged out of his great uncle’s Mississippi home in the heat of a dark Southern night, and his swollen, illegible face on the JET Magazine cover. Michael Brown’s body lying on the street for hours in the hot sun is not unlike the crosses that blazed in our front yards – violence is familiar to our memory, our intimacy with it is keen. The overt disregard of black folks’ safety and the black body is not new; black pain is the lifeblood of this country.
What is new is perhaps the extent to which white folk in this country, and whiteness itself, now expects us to perform forgetfulness and forgiveness about this history of and ongoing violence. As if we don’t have the verifiable proof of our experiences. As if we cannot look through the annals of our lives and see time and time again the visceral damage racism causes. As if when we are forced to forgive we must also forget that our lives on this soil has been one wherein our consequence for living has been obliteration. And as if our bodies don’t hold the trauma of our ancestors and their blood doesn’t call out to us.
We live in a world that demands black people suspend their belief in the violence of whiteness and how institutions of domination are fueled by it.
It matters that activists of color across various movements, in several different contexts, geographies and times, are imprisoned and hunted by their governments; meanwhile, there are KKK Grand Wizards living out their lives freely, perhaps in secret, with their children and grandchildren.
These same people possibly sent bombs to black families’ homes and you want me to believe in the moral capacity of whiteness? The KKK bombed a black church killing four little girls almost 55 years ago and you expect me to believe in whiteness? Emmett Till couldn’t see his 15th birthday. Tamir wasn’t even 13. Trayvon was 17. Jaquarrius Holland was 18. Tiara Richmond was 24. Sandra Bland was ready to start a new job. Erica Gardner did not have to die to know rest. They had lives to live. Our schools are becoming war zones, occupied by the police state daily. Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water after four years.
So I must question if you think I suffer from amnesia, for you have the gall to believe that I’ve forgotten what the violent gravity of poplar trees feels like. Do you believe black bodies forgot the lash and screams of slavery, or that they should? Or the feeling of water filling lungs as they jumped from enslavement ships?
All of these are connected. These are incidents and murders wherein whiteness must be held accountable.
So we must come to a point wherein we must question the moral capacity of whiteness.
Despite what American history tells us to be true, to be fact, we are asked to continue to believe in the moral capacity of whiteness, to trust in this unseen ability for it to treat us well. This is a condition of the white imagination that plagues this country; an imagination that lives in amnesia and regression. It is solely self-serving.
45’s administration refuses to name the Austin bombings as terrorism or linked to it. So what definition of terror are we using? One that only terrorizes white people? Do not several bombings, with the same method, across a capital city, with similar targets qualify as terror? The same administration refuses to be honest about the president’s goings and comings, his objectives, and scandals.
The counterpoint to this is the evidence of what and who is allowed to exist in spite of morality; who is given the permission to not be exterminated. Especially by the evidence of consistent immorality of whiteness. And white folk need to answer this promptly. After the rigging of the 2016 election, the constant scandal 45 is allowed to stay in, the near-election of a senator with excused sexual harassment in Alabama, and the rise of the alt-right, we must inquire, boldly, the moral sense of whiteness. What may sadly be a radical question in our time is, how is Trump still in office?
We should be appalled at how forgetful the administration thinks we are. They assume constantly, and work off of the premise, that we suffer from amnesia. They are betting on it. That our condition will hush questions so they may work with impunity. Forced amnesia, confusion, and silence are tactics of white supremacy.
We know all too well what the violence whiteness performs and that when we rely on whiteness to see black bodies as human they will break their promises.
Despite the evidence of American history, of whiteness and racial terror, we are asked to not hold whiteness as culpable. To not examine how whiteness shows itself in our lives.
For systems only seek to exalt themselves, they’re only mission is self-preservation. Any option presented by systems of oppression are not in the favor of the oppressed.
Whiteness never wishes to name itself as violence. As terror. As debasing. As sacrilege. As desecration. As colonizing. As racist. As itself.
For example, the reason why gun violence can’t be addressed in this country is because the inherent whiteness of the Second Amendment will not be addressed by the right. If we are to have a national conversation about guns and gun violence, or about police brutality and racial terror, we would have to admit the violence of whiteness as the problem and its patriarchal and colonialist symptoms. We would have to address white men directly. If we are to address the unnecessary calling of police on black people, we would have to address how whiteness refuses to see black bodies in public space, and white women’s participation in this practice.
Our present day is filled with examples, the option to arm teachers in school is a response out of whiteness. The belief that teachers can be trained and will respond to an active shooter is madness birthed out of a violent white imagination. Instead of paying teachers a living wage, or providing students the tools to succeed, provide give clean water to Flint, to heat the schools of Baltimore, millions of dollars will be used to arm hundreds of thousands of teachers.
A day of reckoning where the neglect of folk on the margins will ruin all systems that abide in their oppression.
This era of the violence has introduced an era of resistance and questioning in variant ways that activists, scholars, artists, writers, and other thinkers have lead and engaged. Across our communities, physically and digitally, many of us are moving toward a consciousness wherein we learn the language and action that resists this violence.
Our memory is the power of resistance we have left when all else fails. Our memory helps us retain the language that reminds us who we are. Our memory captures the vernacular of how to be free, and how to search it out even when chains hold us. Our memory, and its ancestral, spiritual weight, reminds us that we fight for something larger than ourselves, that people before and behind us surround us and that the systems we question and seek to break are able to be questioned and broken. Whiteness has never had the opportunity to be questioned and now is the time to render the language of remembrance, of resistance, of accountability, of revolution, and of the groundbreaking truth that rests in the mouths of those often unheard. And we will be heard. And you will remember us.
“Leitmotif” by Annie Fletcher
Annie Fletcher received her BFA in drawing from the University of Tennessee. She is an award-winning illustrator and currently works as a freelance artist in Memphis and Knoxville. Some of her accolades include Outstanding Graduate in Studio Art, Drawing, and the Mary Lynn Glustoff Scholarship for watercolor.