Throughout the South here in the US this phrase was used for many years to describe an escalation of stupid and senseless rhetoric that was likely to end in violence. When the talk involved irrational fear of The Other it became more likely to be literal killing, not just a bloody fight with one’s brother-in-law or best friend.
It often preceded something far worse: a lynching.
I’ve been hearing a lot of killing talk here in the Republic lately, and it’s not confined to the South by any means, and never was, though we were most famous for it. The incredibly stupid, insane, and vicious talk being uttered now is no longer small town stuff. The White Worm has crawled out from under its rock, having been given what it sees as semi-official sanction to say and to do as it will. The green light was seen by many bigots, racists, White supremacists and neo-Nazis on January 20, 2017.
Yesterday a noose, the most potent symbol of lynching, race and “other” — based murder, was found in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
This is, to put a sufficiently sharp point on it, not acceptable.
Listen. I’m a Southerner from a family of Virginians and Southern Marylanders. I was born and raised in DC, a segregated Southern city in the mid-20th century, watched that city hurriedly and clumsily desegregate its schools following Brown v. Board of Education, and then watched it struggle to close the rest of the deal and ultimately implode before becoming the relatively enlightened and cosmopolitan place it is today, except perhaps in the White House and certain seats in the House and Senate.
The photo of the guy in the pickup truck full of junk with the American flag flying was taken by me at the corner of 14th Street and Park Road NW, in DC, my beloved home town, during reconstruction of the 14th Street corridor which was destroyed during the riots of 1968 following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. The picture is cryptic in its content, something I captured in a momentary pause at a traffic signal while I was looking around the old neighborhood where I spent the first half of my childhood, thinking I might return from my long-term stay in California to live somewhere near there and regain something I couldn’t quite articulate at the time. There is something glorious about this madman’s rush toward the center of history.
Back when I lived around that corner, when I wasn’t at home I was either in southern Prince George’s County, Maryland, or Fredericksburg, Virginia and the surrounding countryside, visiting relatives. My father was a 5th generation Washingtonian. My mother arrived here when she was very small and spent the rest of her life in DC. I am a 6th generation Washingtonian, and I could not be more proud of where I was born and raised.
Strange and unsavory things do happen here from time to time, though. They are happening now.
Jump sideways with me for a minute:
A while back, during a period of unrest, a good friend posted on Facebook, as a bitter commentary on the free-floating hatred were seeing and hearing then and are again lately in our divided country, a photograph of a lynching. It was graphic, ghastly. It would be difficult for any feeling person to look at it and not be horrified, and that was the point. I in no way find fault with it, though I expect there are those who would feel compelled to look away, out of revulsion or some, perhaps, out of denial or shame. I look away out of the deepest sort of revulsion, because at the age of four I was accidentally led, momentarily, into the presence of a hanged black man in the woods of what is now a rapidly developing part of Virginia. For many reasons, not the least of which is the taste of bile that rises in my throat when I think of this occasion and my subsequent experience with haters of all sorts who hate all sorts of people.
Suffice it to say that I was taken along on a fishing trip with my father and some much older cousins (cousins about the age of my father, who was then 33) and in an unguarded moment someone who knew something failed (or hoped against hope he wouldn’t have) to warn my father off as he led me away up a path away from the others so I could pee in the woods. I was four. I was modest.
We walked into a small clearing up a hill that overlooks the Rappahannock River and right into the scene of the aftermath of what I eventually came to understand had been the lynching of a black railway porter.
The next few minutes are blurred in my otherwise usually morbidly accurate memory because my father saw too, and spun me around, leading me away, talking all sorts of nonsense, answering my questions about “the man in the tree” with a litany of non sequiturs.
We wound up somewhere else, but I could still smell the scent of death in the air, still hear the flies buzzing, and still had that glimpse of the face I would later learn once belonged to a porter I had seen numerous times pushing carts full of suitcases up and down the ramp in the Fredericksburg station. I didn’t understand precisely what I had seen, but the reaction of my father reinforced the alien and unspeakably evil nature of it. There was a small huddle of the men when we came back to the river’s edge, and my poor father kept trying to keep watch on me while talking with the other men there. An air of deep conspiracy is how I would come to regard the strange, quiet interlude before everyone suddenly returned to what they’d been doing and while I never for a moment forgot what I’d seen, my four year old brain did shove it to the back of the agenda, as I was about to learn how to fish and I’d been excited about this. My excitement resumed, since I still had, as my friend John Fahey would later describe the mind of a small child, “no sense of cause and effect. I was an idiot.”
Things I remember from the fishing trip included learning how to bait a hook, how to hold a little river bass without getting finned (I sustained a nasty paper-like cut in the process, but somehow the company managed to make it seem like a badge of honor). I remember one of my cousins, a veteran of the Normandy invasion and a bestial, crazed man, drunk in most of my memories of him, gutting a fish and talking about things he had done to German soldiers on the beach during the landing at Normandy and subsequent to it. He became legendary for his stories of unspeakable sadism. Some applauded his savagery. After all, those people were Nazis, people who wanted to subjugate or kill us, destroy our way of life, kill us most likely.
Others were offended by his bragging about these acts.
My mother was one of those latter, and over the years I heard her castigate him for disgracing his uniform. I remember him showing up at my grandmother’s walk-up apartment in DC roughly a year later, with a friend, both crawling drunk. I remember him saying he was “drunk as a monkey” as he and his friend simply walked in on us, unexpected, and I remember him vomiting in our toilet. I remember looking in there after he’d staggered away and thinking he’d vomited blood. I think he had. I remember the look of contempt on my mother’s face when she instructed them to leave, the vaguely threatening remarks from my cousin answered by not-so-vague retorts from my mother.
I also remembered how the day of the fishing trip, before the sun was down, this cousin of mine had grabbed me drunkenly by my right arm and held a lit cigarette near my skin, talking about seeing if I was “tough” or not. I remember the heat, then the burn when I screamed and my mother realized what was going on, came over and slapped him hard with the back of her hand. I remember him losing his grip, staggering backward, laughing, as my mother grabbed me and cursed him. And I remember something I’d been taught by my mother in the aftermath of the cigarette incident, back at home. I had said I hated the cousin in question. I’d heard the word hate, vaguely understood what it meant, and I think I did hate him. That’s when my mother sat down, took my right forearm in her hands, and said to me: “There are two words I never, ever want to hear you say, ever. One is hate. You don’t understand what it means. It’s a bad word and you don’t hate anyone, so never let me hear you say it.” I nodded silently in agreement. My mother was an awesome woman. Then she gave me the rest of the short talk. “I also never want to hear you say the word nigger. Do you understand me?” I nodded again, then started to say “I didn’t say…” but she cut me off with “You are never, ever to use that word, do you hear me?”
“Yes ma’am,” I answered. My lip was beginning to quiver. I felt my mother was angry with me for something I hadn’t done. She continued, “That is a terrible, mean, hateful word, and if you don’t hate people you don’t use that word, and you do not hate anyone. You may not like someone, but you don’t have hate in you.”
The look on her face was grave. The words burned into my heart far more memorably than my drunk cousin’s cigarette had into my arm. I never forgot either, but I did associate them forever. My cousin, who shall remain nameless, was a hateful, sadistic, ignorant, bastard. The questions that came and went regarding the hanged man were always deferred. I would forget, then it would come to me in a dream and I’d wake up with the smell of shit and gasoline in my nostrils, not knowing where it came from. Then I’d carefully bring it up again. Always I was left with vague answers.
In the summer of 1960 I was radicalized by an experience involving a civil rights worker I met at a church-sponsored youth retreat at Bethany Beach, Delaware. During that week we visited a migrant worker’s camp and I saw things nearly as unspeakable as the hanged man near the river. I saw at least one thing, not an act of direct violence but of exploitation and neglect, that was so horrid I will not repeat it here. I have never forgotten any of these things. I have never forgotten, either, the “killing talk” I heard when I was a child and later, in my teens. Some of it was even aimed at me. It helped me determine I would live my life as I chose and if that meant someone would try to keep me — or anyone — from living out our right to move upon the face of the earth as we might choose, I would thwart their efforts or die. So far I am still alive. “I look this way because I’ve been living.” And all the time I’ve prided myself on having been born in the United States, in the District of Columbia, in the 20th century. For all its faults and shortcomings our Republic has always had this sense of promise to live up to the hyperbole we were all raised on, that sense that anything is possible and that everyone can exist here in an otherwise unavailable kind of harmony.
Then I hear all the ugliness start to leak into the clarity of that vision, and I begin to feel, once again, how I felt way, way back, when I saw what I could not cause to be explained; not only when I was four but when I was 15 and, later, more and more frequently, as we moved from one bogeyman to another, always needing someone to hate, someone we could feel free to marginalize, then brutalize, then kill.
Now it’s all around us, but it comes, for me, most clearly, at this moment, from evil and murderous bastards who invariably mention Donald Trump as someone they admire and at times were inspired by to commit heinous acts.
As recently as a few days ago a White nationalist in Portland, Oregon, murdered two men who were trying to intervene in his harangue directed at two women who appeared to be Muslim. The killer (a third hero survived), whose name is Jeremy Joseph Christian, had written on his Facebook page something to the effect that “If Trump is the new Hitler, I will rush to join his SS…” and some other Christianity-related hate. After his apprehension he said “I hope everyone I stabbed died.”
Christian is not insane, not a drug user, not homeless (he lives with his mother).
Michah Fletcher, the only survivor of Christian’s rampage, said, in a six minute video on his Facebook page, that Portland “has a white savior complex,” because people there were heaping praise on him for trying to help the Muslim women Christian was haranguing before the killings took place. Fletcher reminds us the women who were being badgered by Christian are “the real victims here,” and expressed concern for their emotional well-being.
Donald Trump, after several days, issued a weak two-sentence statement condemning the incident — via the White House Twitter account instead of his own @theRealDonaldTrump feed, which is the one most people follow. In no way did he issue a formal statement of any kind in front of people or in writing.
Meanwhile the killing talk goes on, the nooses are left to remind us the White Worm lives, and Nazis occupy space in the White House, a tacit endorsement of the current killing talk.
It will not go unanswered.
Epilogue: Yes, the bestial cousin, in the end, turned out to have had knowlege, at least, of the lynching, which was never acknowleged as such by the sheriff’s office in the county where it took place, but it was confirmed, many years later, during a visit by me to that cousin as he lay dying in a Veteran’s hospital. Everyone else involved was dead by then.
And yes, the bill was delivered.