Roots That Bear Strange Fruit: Misrepresentation, Racialized Violence, & Today

I am dismayed but not surprised — that is a problem.

Yesterday was difficult, sobering. Calling in black to work was definitely on my mind. I wasn’t productive as usual; Terrence Crutcher incident stayed on my mind. I haven’t watched the video because I’ve reached the point where I refuse to experience the repeated shock and trauma.

I stayed on twitter throughout the day, I had to write my way through in between my work project. As I perused my timeline, I saw a question from @TheMelaninPlug that inquired, “Why do you think white America is so afraid of the black man?”

While I have issues with the singling out of black men (as if black women aren’t being shot in the street with us) I immediately answered:

This tweet was the vehicle for a pretty long thread where I discussed the problems of misrepresentation on black bodies, which I’m pretty sure I’ve used this space to write about, but perhaps not as eloquently or with such exigence. I’ve come here today to place sinews on yesterday’s bones.

It isn’t happenstance that white people to this day believe that black people grow tails, or are somehow closer to primates than white people. The fact that both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have been portrayed as an ape in domestic and foreign publications is only a reiteration of the ways in which black people have been likened to animals throughout America’s tragic history by the likes of former president Thomas Jefferson and other writers and pseudoscientists alike.

It isn’t random at all that the general public has this belief that black men are “big, bad dudes” without knowing us, or deeming black women worthy of death because she “had an attitude”, or conjuring often-nonexistent and irrelevant criminal records of victims of police brutality. Literature and media have done their part to completely mark blackness as criminal.

These are not sporadic occurrences, they are results of the ideological patterns of white supremacy addressed, refined, and publicized in literature, films, newspapers, and television shows. The hatred of black people in America is the main portion of conditioning into its racist society. The belief that black people are worthy of annihilation funded this country and continues to be its pastime.

My research in lynching helps to navigate the kind of trajectory between what is often thought about lynching — that it is done through hanging in the backwoods of the South — and what we see in the form of racialized police brutality.

I maintain that they are one and the same.

Lynching was once a phenomenon of the West that happened few and far between. However, as the Civil War ended, and Reconstruction was well underway, white anxieties about freedmen rose. These tensions were provoked by the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.

Such anxieties created organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, who would (and still) terrorize black communities by threatening their lives, demanding they don’t vote, all over instilling perhaps the same fear of white people in black people that white people had about black people. Even romantic tales and movies entered the mainstream to recapitulate the an adoration and fear of the KKK, but to do the work to demonize newly freed men and women. D.W. Griffith’s nationally acclaimed Birth of a Nation stands as the exemplar for these pieces.

Throughout the late 1880s and into the 1900s, anti-black lynching rose tremendously. This wasn’t an unknown or hidden fact, and not one bound to Southern trees as we are comforted to believe today. Lynchings were public. Often made into events, spectacles, that people were invited to. I imagine that it would have been commonplace to announce a town lynching in the newspaper or during a Sunday’s church service.

Postcards depicting the event were not hard to find either. They still aren’t hard to find. And it isn’t a well-hidden secret that organs, or pieces of skin, or the genitalia of the lynched would be torn out or off, bottled, and gifted to a lynching attendee.

Literary fiction and newspapers aided in establishing racialized lynching from a cultural entity to a cultural necessity. Characterizing black men as rapists and black women as sassy seductresses was the motive, meanwhile the white mob would be written into the narrative as “civilians” or performers of justice who eradicated the evil from their town. History would call them heroes.

This kind of linguistic violence positioned black bodies as immediately worthy of death — that language that mandated the subsequent physical violence.

This is not unlike today’s integrated force of violence the rhetorical, the physical, the economic, the political violence against black bodies meet. We know the the pastoral scenes and poplar trees Billie Holiday once sung of have have mutated into the streets where we are shot down in cold blood.

Mainstream media and misinformed Facebook commentors call black men and women thugs and bitches while hiding or hailing the names of the assailants. It is deplorable. There is an anxiety, so similar to that in the 18-and 1900s, about the nation that white people won’t exist in America by 2050, that terrorists and rapists by way of Islamic and Mexican immigrants are invading the country, that we need and are obsessed with guns to survive unknown terrors. And you probably know this, but Trump is capitalizing off of these anxieties to the benefit of his presidential campaign.

But this is why representation matters. If its power is placed in the wrong hands, those misrepresented are subjected to the most gruesome violence. That power must be turned over. Digging up the blood-stained roots is the motive of the Movement of Black Lives. We require a mass turning away from coding black as criminal, away from seeing the police as infallible. We must crush the bottle that inebriates our senses and lulls us to sleep. This is today’s mission, a revision of America’s history of power, violence, and race.