If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.-Virginia Woolf, The Moment and other Essays, 1947)
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” – Abraham Lincoln, Illinois senatorial acceptance speech, 1858
“We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking to Harry Belafonte, circa 1968
“America, I just checked my following list, and…You mothafuckas owe me” – Childish Gambino, This is America, 2018
In light of this year’s MLK Day and the recent terror attacks on the Capitol, I thought I would continue in the tradition of Tubman, Baldwin, Hamer, and King. I thought I would offer an honest observation of the nation I think of as both a home and a prison…
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On January 6, 2021, US citizen-terrorists (terrorzens?) broke into what was, ostensibly, their own house: ravenously looted and destroyed symbols of democracy; sought out specific lawmakers for vigilante justice; and demanded the immediate end to the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
For the first time in the history of the republic, technology facilitated a global watch party: front row seats to a republic that would sooner burn itself to the ground than allow for the peaceful replacement of a white supremacist, would-be dictator. Like so many, I watched it all in real-time. Malcolm X’s observation on the assassination of JFKennedy immediately came to mind: “The chickens” had, yet again, “come home to roost.”
Sooooo, I took note when Slate Magazine recently published two headlines that I found profoundly typical and incomplete:
“Republicans are tough on terrorism until the terrorists are Republicans”
“Republicans have an insurrectionist caucus”
Full disclosure: I have not yet read these articles, and while I’ve come to expect good, nuanced writing from the folks over at Slate, these headlines are problematic on the surface because, in my humble opinion, they skirt a larger, uglier, and much older issue.
Republicans are not the sole problem. White America at large is the problem. White Americans are tough on terror until the terrorist is white. White America has, and has always had, an insurrectionist caucus.
One could argue, therefore, that America is, at its core, an insurrectionist caucus.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal,” on territory stolen from the Lenape people only 13 years earlier, and James Madison facilitated the Three-Fifths Compromise, the foundations of insurrection were more firmly planted. The lofty ideas of democracy, rule of law, liberty, and justice were drafted in the backdrop of massacre, thievery, chattel slavery, kleptocracy, and white supremacy.
From its inception, the US required white America to ride a spiked fence post–forever teetering between these warring realities–to never pick a side, but rather, to live in a constant, amorphous cognitive dissonance driven by two world views that never require real commitment to one or the other. America’s genuine exceptionalism is thus rooted in making exceptions for its loftier values rather than reaching for them in earnest.
The nation has always capitulated to its base nature–via the Missouri Compromise (1820), The Fugitive Slave Act (1850), The Dred Scott Case (1857), Plessy v Ferguson (1896), all the way through the 2013 repeal of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, just to name a few.
As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw brilliantly pointed out, in the context of the contested election of 1876/1877, for example, President Hayes removed federal troops from the south in exchange for the formal recognition of his presidency from southern Democrats. The compromise ended Reconstruction in the south and paved the way for duly elected Black officials and their supporters across the south to be “killed in political violence” through “…coups across the south.”
In 1877, and for every decade to come, coups and other forms of political violence/suppression are largely tolerated in the American body-politic because the violence is perpetrated against non-white bodies. In 2021, the failed coup attempt and its apparent toleration vis-a-vis the relative lack of violence happened, in part, because the primary actors were white bodies.
America tolerates political violence, both in the name of the state and against the state–so long as everyone involved is white.
Let’s be clear, the US has never known what to do when the “other” is the self. Never forget, the Civil War was white supremacy fighting itself for economic and political dominance.
Slavery in and of itself did not start the Civil War. The south attacked Fort Sumter and sought to secede from the Union. Violence was perpetrated by a white supremacist culture of chattel slavery that would not be appeased until its tentacles could reach from sea to shining sea. Likewise, this violence was also perpetrated against a culture of white supremacy, one that forced the union to stand but never forced an end to its core tenets, policies, procedures, or cultural products.
Why would it? In white supremacy, there was profound agreement. Thus, the north allowed–even encouraged– the south to build temples to the lost cause, wave a traitorous flag, make demands for segregation in the highest courts of the land, and find them supported. Infiltrate every American public school with your revisionist histories and tell the story of the “lost cause” just as you’d like. So long as white supremacy is centered–we stand united.
From legislative policies like the 3/5 Compromise to an officer’s enthusiastic and intimate capitulation to terrorism via selfies in 2021, to media outlets’ painstakingly slow shift toward accurate language to describe the insurrection before our very eyes–never forget, January 6, 2021 was white supremacy fighting itself over voter franchisment.
So as I watched the footage of a Black man single-handedly face down a gaggle of white terrorists and reroute them away from the Senate floor, I had two immediate thoughts. First, he was placing his Black body on the line to protect an institution which has only had 11 Black members since 1776. Secondly, I wondered if any of his white colleagues let those terrorists inside to begin with.
One of the greatest single indictments of the U.S. that American’s often utter in moments like this, goes: “This is not who we are.” This is exactly who you are.
There’s a reason post-WWII Germany didn’t ask for “unity” with the Nazi party. There’s a reason the US didn’t ask for “unity” with l-Qaeda after 9/11. Asking for unity assumes there are “very good people on both sides.” On January 6, 2021, US terror-zens ceased “standing back and standing by.” They showed up and showed out.
Don’t even bother asking me to unify with them. Da fuck? I come from a long line of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, and LGBTQ+ folks who actually take the founding documents at face value, despite having every reason not to. So long as I (and/or other members of the global majority) live on this land, I’ll have the same request of America that King articulated in his final speech: “…be true to what you said on paper.”
“This is America” – Childish Gambino
“The Magic Carpet” – Jazzinuf
“Les Fleurs” – Minnie Ripperton
“Equinox” – John Coltrane
Delma Jackson, III is a Senior Fellow with CWC. His focus is on facilitating system change on campuses and in institutions through transformative practice and the power of story. He received his undergraduate degree in African-American Studies and Psychology, and his Masters in Liberal Arts with a concentration in American and African American Studies at the University of Michigan. He regularly lectures on a variety of socio-political topics with a special emphasis on intersectional approaches to social justice.