The Bigger Picture
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The Bigger Picture

White Night: An American Ghost Story

(from Gil Scott-Heron’s music video: “Me and the Devil”)

Dear Grandson,

Thank you for your letter. Each time the mail arrives and I see your handwriting on the outside of an envelope I feel this surge of joy. But it’s so much more than that. I hope one day you will know what I mean. I very much enjoyed your update. And yes, brothers can be like that. Mine certainly were.

To answer your question, it didn’t take me long to think of mine, but it may take me a little bit to explain it. You asked for your class project what’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I may be old but that’s easy. There ain’t no comparison. It has to be the time when the ghosts of slain black people came back to haunt the living shit out of white folks. That’s the damnedest thing I ever did see.

When I was your age, I always wondered if there was a God. I don’t wonder that now. Not after what I seen. Both the good and the bad. It’s the only way to explain it. Someone must be getting their kicks from this show. Someone or something must be getting a laugh watching it all. Maybe not a laugh. But something like that. It’s all too damn weird otherwise. How else do you explain centuries of undead negroes coming back from the great beyond?

They weren’t zombies exactly. These undead negroes weren’t out in the street raising hell or nothing. Personally, I never saw a single one. Not everyone saw them. The only people who did were the white folks who they haunted. But I did see plenty of white folks get haunted. I never laughed so hard in all my life. Saw one guy run right out into traffic. He didn’t get hit. Nothing bad happened to him. But he did crap himself right there in the middle of rush hour. I laughed at that one. I was a boy. Seeing a man crap himself is even funnier when you’re young.

But, one thing was certain, those undead negroes were no joke. They turned the lives of those white folks into a living hell. But that is why they came back. I should make that clear. These weren’t hell-spawn demons sent to frighten the mayonnaise out of them crackers. No. These undead negroes were the souls of the people violently wronged by America, all come back at once to haunt the offspring of the ones who hung, drowned, shot, raped, and lynched them back in the day.

You could tell which ones were haunted, those white folks all had the same look. Like a cat in a thunderstorm, perpetually wondering why is this happening to me? But we didn’t know that it was happening to them. Not at first. None of the rest of us could see the black ghosts haunting them. They weren’t haunting Asians, or Natives, and only the white Latinos. It was just white folks. To the rest of us, nothing in life changed. It was still the same America. The fact we couldn’t see the undead negroes also meant it took a real long time before the affliction became well-known.

I should tell you how it started.

In Shreveport, Louisiana the local police made a terrible mistake. Their names don’t matter. They were just stupid boys who looked like men and someone had decided to give them badges and guns. One day they used their guns. The local police responded to a call in a black neighborhood. When they pulled-up into the apartment complex parking lot, a black woman came running out towards them. But she must’ve forgotten that she was clutching a big shiny kitchen knife. That’s all the cops saw.

This woman was the one who’d called the police for help. But when the cops arrived on the scene all they found was an enraged black woman with a big ass kitchen knife. The woman was pregnant and she was scared. She called the police because her ex had come back, and had threatened her, now he was trying to break into her place, or so she thought. That’s why she was clutching the knife. It was to protect herself and her unborn baby.

Apparently, her ex used to beat her. When he suddenly showed back up in her life and she was alone and pregnant, the stress and panic caused her to have an episode. A breakdown. Like, she just mentally snapped. That happens to people sometimes.

Now what do you think happened next? You’re old enough to guess.

When she wouldn’t put the knife down, the cops got scared, too. And soon enough, they shot her. Shot her dead. She didn’t die immediately.

This pregnant woman had suffered from mental illness her whole life. And they say, in the last few years of her life, she’d learned to treat it. Or so the story goes. I never met her. I have to take their word for it. Point is, when she felt herself about to snap, she did what she’d learned to do: she called her mother, and her mother’s voice brought her back to her body. Then she called the police to come deal with the threat of her ex.

After the police arrived, her mother showed up at that scene. But she was too late by then. Her mother was not a normal woman. She was from the islands. I don’t remember which one. If I had to guess I’d say Haiti. Like many of them island women, she was a witch. A powerful witch from a long and proud line of witches that stretched back to the shores of West Africa. You know they say black girls are magic? There’s a reason for that. Often it’s true. Her people possessed strong magic. Each mother passed it down to her daughter. And had for generations. All through slavery, and afterwards, up to that present day moment. Each mother passing her wisdom and power to the next generation. They taught them their magic, or I guess you’d call them spells, or rituals, but let’s just call it their witchcraft. They’d passed down their witchcraft from mother-to-daughter for centuries. And that cop who shot her daughter ended all of that.

The mother held her daughter as she died from the gunshots. I pray you never know what it’s like to outlive a child. It tears the spirit in ways that can’t never be repaired. As she held her dying pregnant daughter, it also meant she was there for her future grandchild’s last heartbeat, too. The horror of that final moment cleaved that poor mother in two. She split. That’s the best way to say it. There wasn’t no putting her back together. And remember, she was a powerful witch from a long and proud line of witches that stretched back to the shores of West Africa.

So, what do you think she did?

That grieving mother called upon the ancestors for the power she needed for revenge. You may not know this but the most powerful magic requires a sacrifice. This seems to be true no matter what school of magic you follow. A sacrifice binds the magic with dark energy. Since both her daughter and future grandchild were now dead and gone, she couldn’t use them for her sacrifice. But she knew who she could use for her black magic.

The mother sat on the blacktop of the apartment complex parking lot, cradling her dead daughter. In a flash of anger, she made up her mind. White people were doomed after that.

She lifted her bloody hands to her face. She painted her nose and cheeks with her dead daughter’s blood. She said her power words. I don’t know what they were. The cops never reported hearing exactly what she said. Trust me they tried. Afterwards, people were desperate to know what she said in the hopes they could reverse her curse. But the two cops always said the same thing, it sounded like she was chanting, or praying. I like to think it was an ancient chant — one that our people have been saying since before there were written words. Whatever it was she chanted, that shit worked.

Once her ritual was done, she stood up. Charged up like a lightning storm. She screamed one last earthly shriek. And then she ran at them cops, armed with her daughter’s knife. She almost reached the taller cop when his partner opened fire. Three shots. Down she went.

And this was always my favorite part, back when the story was first in the news: them cops say she died with a smile on her face. Like she had a dark secret. They didn’t know why she was grinning, but now you do. Her spell was cast. She’d sacrificed herself. And with her passing she brought back to life all the black people who’d been wrongfully murdered by white people in America.

There were millions of them. One big black zombie ghost army. And they haunted the shit out of them white people. There were undead negroes scaring white folks from sea-to-shining-sea. She’d called them back to haunt America. And haunt America they did.

As ghosts they had every right to be pissed. They’d lost lives to racist violence. Here were all the black women, men, girls and boys, the ones who’d been raped, lynched, shot, stabbed, or hung, the ones beaten, whipped, left for dead, or thrown over the side, the ones whose bodies were mangled and mistreated like a butcher tossing a discarded carcass. It was four hundred years of pissed-off ghosts.

Since the murderers were usually long since dead, the black ghosts began to haunt their living descendants. For most people, the ghost wasn’t someone they’d killed. Wasn’t someone they knew. Most time they’d never heard of the ghost before it began to haunt them. Typically, the black poltergeists that regularly scared them shitless were a complete stranger to them. That didn’t make it any less personal.

The undead negroes would usually visit them white folks every night. Can you imagine that? Every damn night. They’d show up in the still and quiet of midnight. They’d greet them in the last darkness before the dawn. If the conditions were right, they’d scare the shit out of white folks in the middle of the day. All the ghosts needed was enough darkness. The shade of a deep shadow was enough to do the trick. Even a quiet and empty hallway in a windowless passage could suffice. And boom, they’d show up, and a white person would lose their mind.

Wanna know the best part? The fact no one else could see them undead negroes. Only the living relatives of the people who’d wrongfully murdered them could see them. That’s why it took so long for the affliction to become a recognized condition. For those first few months we all thought millions of white people had finally gone mad. And all at the same time. Which no one questioned because, let’s be honest, we always thought white people were crazy anyway.

I don’t know if white people didn’t think anyone would believe that they were being visited by dead slaves, lynched boys, and drowned women. But for the first few months, most white people never told anyone that they were being haunted nightly by undead negroes. Which makes sense, I guess. White people are weird like that. So, thanks to their conservative ways it took months and months before anyone spotted the pattern.

It sounds ridiculous when you put it like that. I know. But it was no joke. White people were suffering badly. They were going insane by the boatload. Before Undead Negro Affliction was recognized as a legitimate medical condition, lots of white people chose to end it all. They’d rather be buried than spend another night with a shrieking slave, moaning at them until sunrise. No way that white man is getting any sleep. And then his performance suffers. At work, at home. That creates more stress. It’s a vicious cycle. It doesn’t take long before he finally snaps, and runs into a busy intersection, and starts screaming about being a Jedi knight fighting dead slaves who won’t let him sleep. Which happened a lot. White people were always running into traffic. Like deer in the country. But you know how white people act wild when they’re scared.

It was therapists who saved the white folks. You see, rich white people started telling their therapists about how they were being haunted by dead black people each night. You hear that same story from enough of your patients, you start to detect a pattern. The therapists began to take notes. They compared their notes with other therapists. If anyone could figure out why all these white people had gone batshit, that discovery could lead to a best-selling book, or a series of lectures. So them therapists weren’t exactly heroes. They had a self-interest.

But once they started talking, the pattern became clear. The problem was undead negroes were haunting white people of America. Trouble was no one had a solution for what to do. And that’s when people started to treat Undead Negro Affliction serious as the Spanish Flu. The newly medically-recognized condition was documented, studied, given a clinical name. For a few years there, it was all everyone seemed to want to talk about. How can we save white people from these undead negroes? That was obviously the wrong question to ask. But they learned that much later.

Were white people suffering for the sins of their forefathers? Or were white people being forced to come to terms with their past? It all depended on how you saw it.

Online the afflicted formed communities. There were forums, subreddits, safe space networks, the whole assortment of ways to connect. Haunted white people found each other online. They shared strategies for living with the ghosts of undead negroes.

Not all the black ghosts haunted the same. Some ghosts haunted whole families. But they’d do it on a rotation. Like, they’d show up a couple nights each month to haunt each family member. One night, would be one family member, the next night another. And they’d haunt each one a few nights each month. Other ghosts would focus on that one motherfucker they didn’t like. And they’d haunt the shit out of them, every damn night. There were no rules. It was all up to the ghosts to decide how to best scare white people.

With so many white folks in America being haunted by undead negroes, you better believe white people threw millions of dollars at the problem. They had “Save the Whites” fundraisers. They sold bracelets, t-shirts, and stupid hats. They were desperate to figure out how to make a deal with the undead negroes so they would just leave them alone.

Eventually, affliction fighters––that’s what they called themselves––found those two cops who’d originally shot the pregnant black woman and her mother. They’d traced it all back to that night. Most of the affliction fighters were convinced that’s when it all started. So they demanded them cops explain what the witch had said when she cursed white people. But them cops couldn’t remember. They’d never heard what she said. Not clearly anyway. So white folks had no way to undo her curse. At least not like that.

After some time, white people settled into two different camps of thought. A few wanted to figure out how to right the wrongs their family members had done. But most of them wanted to strike a deal. They wanted to know: What will it take to make all these undead negroes go away forever?

There was no deal to be made. It wasn’t like the undead negroes had somewhere better to be. They were stuck in limbo. They had all the time in the world. Sometimes you’d hear how a black ghost started out by haunting the eldest member of a family. But when that person died the black ghost would just go and haunt the next eldest person in the family. Like the world’s worst family inheritance. “Now it’s your turn to be haunted…until you die.”

So what happened? Why don’t you still see white people getting haunted by undead negroes?

When it first started we got use to seeing bleary-eyed, miserable-looking white people everywhere you went. It was like the whole race developed a bad speed habit. You see that look but you knew it wasn’t drugs. You knew their unlucky ass was getting haunted every night. And it sure is hard to sleep when you hear chains rattling, and whips echoing and stinging in your mind, whistling there just between your ears. Plus, all the ungodly shrieking. It’s impossible to get any beauty rest with a black ghost moaning in your ear all night long.

Eventually, some black people who felt pity for the haunted white folks tried to use religion to save them. They started baptizing them. They were dunking so many white folks you could make a million dollars just selling towels. But none of that worked. The afflicted white people eventually stopped trying to be forgiven or baptized or any other thing the church had to offer.

After that they returned to the way white people often prefer to handle their problems. They tried to invent a drug that made them undead negroes go away, or at least made white people numb and dumb to their shrieking and moaning each night. Something so they could sleep. They spent billions trying to develop a pill to treat undead black people and mask their cries. None of it worked. That sucked for those white folks. But if you think about it, it was worse for the wrongfully murdered black people who haunted them. They’d lost their lives; white folks were just losing their minds.

Another funny thing about the undead negroes was it made dating a white person impossible. It was like they had a sexual disease no one wanted. Mostly it was because they had nightmares. They’d wake up screaming. They’d fight in their sleep. They could be irritable and mean. None of that is fun or sexy when you’re first getting to know a new partner. Ain’t no one got time for that shit. You have to handle that struggle on your own. And so that’s what white people did. They handled their business on their own.

But then some smart person did the math. Comedians began to joke: this is going to be the end of white people, they’d laugh. “They’ll likely all go extinct because no wants to fuck white folks anymore.”

So, what do you think happened? Obviously white people are still here.

Well, a tech company from the Silicon Valley created WhiteNight, a new dating app just for haunted white folks. It was instantly popular. Became a huge thing. Bigger than normal dating apps because there were so many of them who needed it. The app lessened their terrified loneliness. However it was still difficult to date a haunted white person, even if you were haunted, too. Two haunted white people ain’t exactly an easy-mix recipe for happiness and love.

Once everyone stopped joking about white folks going extinct, once the scientists stopped worrying that we might need to clone white people to save them, that’s when people started to do the damnedest thing I ever seen.

They began to talk about the wrongfully murdered. They began to read about them. They researched the stories of the black people who’d been killed by racists at some point in American history. They looked into their stories, when they could find them. But most times there weren’t news stories to look up. There were sometimes. When there weren’t, white people would go digging in libraries; they found ship’s logs in maritime records, they found factory labor sheets, they discovered police reports and graveyard plot assignments from funeral directors. Watching white people learn about black history, that was wild. Never thought I’d see that.

Historical fiction became a huge market. White people wanted to read about plantation slavery, ranch slavery, buffalo soldiers, New Orleans turn-of-the-century sex workers, itinerant traveling men, mentally ill artists, Shangahi’d black sailors, orphaned black children. You name it they wanted to read about it. For awhile there, being a black author was a very lucrative career.

And the weird part was the white people started to read those stories aloud to the ghosts who haunted them. One white woman noticed that the stories kinda gave her undead negro ghost a sense of peace. Soon some other white people began reading to their ghosts. And soon after that came the first reports of a haunting that completely stopped. Went into full remission like a lucky cancer survivor. Everyone wanted to know how they did it. The answer was they’d read tons and tons of stories to the ghost who haunted them.

Well, after that, word got out. Haunted white people started reading aloud to undead negroes every night, hoping to be cured. In the meantime, it helped. It kept the ghosts from shrieking. That is, if you were lucky enough to have a ghost who understood and spoke English. Not everyone was so lucky. Some ghosts spoke no English. With those ghosts it took longer to connect. But it was still possible. As white folks read the stories to the ghosts of the wrongfully murdered black people it reversed the curse. Somehow. I don’t rightly know. But it did.

The undead negro ghosts faded back to wherever undead negroes come from. This didn’t happen overnight. It happened one by one. Until, one day, the last officially recognized undead negro ghost stopped haunting a family. That was fourteen years ago. Just before you were born. That’s why people don’t talk about it much anymore. They don’t need to. I don’t even think they still teach it much in schools. It’s been so long, and white people still like to forget.

But as you probably learned in history class, white people used to be convinced they were better than everyone else. The supreme race. Not all white people believed that. But enough did that it was a serious problem for the whole world. Some said God made them that way. Others said science proves it. And others would just point to all the successes white people had brought to the world, up to that point. Yes, they really believed all those things. It was a much different time.

White people first started getting haunted by undead negroes when I was a boy. I’m eighty-six now. It took America my whole lifetime to come to learn about them ghosts of them wrongfully murdered black people. But eventually, they honored their memory, and reified their humanity. That process of education ain’t something you do overnight. It ain’t like toppling a Confederate statue. It takes time to give someone their humanity back after you took it.

The education and healing of the haunted white people went faster for some, slower for others. Eventually white folks stopped being haunted. And no one claimed it was a miracle.

You asked me. And that’s my answer. That’s the damnedest thing I ever did see. Watching America get free of the ghosts of undead negroes wrongfully murdered in the nation’s past.

But that’s also how we got to where we are now. Pretty hard for you to imagine, huh?

Now, it’s my turn to ask. When you write back, please tell me: What question do you think will take your whole life to answer?

stay golden, and don’t let the bastards get you down,

Grandpop

If you enjoyed this, please mash that clapping below so that others can also discover this story.

Thank you.

This short story was partly inspired by the genius poem Black Confederate Ghost Story by Terrance Hayes. Be sure to check it, and his work. This story was also inspired by Gil Scott-Heron’s poem/song Me and the Devil.

As a parting gift, please enjoy the music video below.

“…So if you see the vulture coming / flying circles in your mind / remember there is no escaping / for he will follow close behind / only promise will be a battle / a battle for your soul…and mine”

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