Your silence will not protect you.
Who will speak these days,
if not I,
if not you?
—Muriel Rukeyser, “The Speed of Darkness”
In my childhood home, we were not allowed to call each other liars. It fueled my father’s indignation. Slung with the casual malice that only bickering siblings can summon, Liar! somehow set off a warning beacon, alerting my father wherever he was. A schoolteacher with a reputation for discipline, he wasn’t remotely as stern as my friends imagined. But proper speech was an area he patrolled with diligence, and his radar was remarkably sensitive. Lazy enunciation, insults, and vulgarities were the blunders most likely to set him off. Once, in the middle of an argument, I told my brother to drop dead. My father’s admonishment was calmly but pointedly delivered, and even now my ears burn at the memory of it. His catalogue of deplorable lingo was expansive and, to our considerable confusion, unpredictable. Words that hardly raised other parents’ eyebrows could quickly draw his ire, words like butt, funk, and especially—inexplicably—liar.
No such codes existed beyond our front yard, and the streets presented delectable opportunities to mix it up with the neighborhood kids. We gave as well as we got, diving into the exchange of insults and threats like stragglers in the desert plunging into a sparkling oasis. If we caught someone making an assertion without evidence to back it up, we unleashed our vernacular and let the culprit have it. The local dialect turned you’re a liar into you a lie, a contraction I found irresistible despite my father’s prohibitions. I appreciated the way it transformed people into the very thing they were accused of.
Our lies and tall tales usually revolved around girls or athletic exploits and were only occasionally malicious. They were lighthearted fabrications inspired and shaped by the stories we heard at the feet of our fathers, in barbershops and on front porches, at barbecues and ball games. For black people in the 1960s, even less welcomed as full-fledged members of society than we are today, yarn-spinning presented a rare American ritual in which we could freely participate. Other venerable traditions, like burning our neighbors alive, casting a ballot, or taking communion alongside white Christians, had long been denied us. But lying, now that was an equal-opportunity activity. With roots in stories about Aunt Nancy, Brer Rabbit, and John Henry, our inventions were small-scale variations on the African American experience, more about outwitting the powerful than manipulating privilege at the expense of the weak. Our bluster was closer in style to Troy Maxson recalling his tussles with Death in August Wilson’s Fences than, say, Thomas Jefferson arguing in Notes on the State of Virginia that orangutans find black women sexy. Those differences aside, what could be more American than pretending truths were self-evident when they seldom were? What could be more American than dressing up a lie in tailor-made language, like romanticizing treason as a Lost Cause or sugarcoating genocide by rebranding it as Manifest Destiny? As a bulwark against the realities of life in a racist republic, our fictions helped us believe we belonged.
In our world, the consequences of being caught in a lie were usually no harsher than schoolyard ridicule or parental discipline. A person could get grounded or “put on punishment,” as neighborhood parlance would have it. Our falsehoods possessed little power to influence another person’s circumstances or alter a destiny, and we understood that their relative impotence stemmed more from our blackness than our youth. Anyone could see that “I blamed that broken window on Johnny and he got put on punishment” was a far cry from “I accused that nigger boy of whistling at me and he got strangled, chopped up, and tossed in the river.”
Recently, listening to a white man’s story on National Public Radio got me thinking again about untruths and consequences. At age ninety-four, Joseph Linsk disclosed a lie he enabled when he was eight years old. He stole two dollars to pay off a debt and said nothing when his mother blamed the theft on Pearl, the family’s black cleaning lady. She lost her job and was unable to get another because of her tainted reputation. Linsk remained silent and grew up to be a prosperous physician. Years later, he called on NPR listeners to help him locate Pearl’s family so that he could try to make amends. Carrying the burden of guilt for so long, he admitted, had left him “smitten with grief.” Such a lovely, complicated phrase. Smitten as in struck down, or as in enamored with? And if Linsk considered himself unbearably tormented, one wonders how he would have assessed Pearl’s feelings. I’m tempted to conclude that Linsk, like too many white Americans, was less concerned with restorative justice than with assuaging his own pain.
When I posted a link to his story on Facebook, friends’ responses eloquently lamented the long tradition of white lies leading to disastrous outcomes for black people. Yet my favorite comment was the most succinct: “Hmph!” That single syllable epitomized the tangled web encompassing whites’ misdeeds and the desire for absolution from the people they’ve wronged. The ritual is often seen with representatives from the media thrusting their microphones at traumatized African Americans while their wounds are still gushing blood. Effectively serving as proxies for the white gaze, the reporters demand to know if the unlucky sufferers are ready to forgive their assailants, usually police officers or armed vigilantes tragically warped by delusions of supremacy (see Zimmerman, George). On the periphery, public officials hover uncertainly, trembling like Jefferson considering the prospect of a just God. To take the pressure off themselves, appointees and officeholders place it firmly on their bereaved black constituents by suggesting that healing cannot commence until they indicate their willingness to put the transgression behind them. It would be even more helpful if they could also express faith that justice will be done in court, or, failing that, heaven. A forgiving victim who remembers to discourage street protests before pausing to pray for the killer will do more to “restore trust” than any indictment or conviction ever could. Reviewing footage of several of these predictable ceremonies made me think of an essay I’d read by the British writer Hilary Mantel. “Oppressors don’t just want to do their deed,” she wrote, “they want to take a bow: they want their victims to sing their praises.”
The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other.
Along with brutality, torture, and murder, a principal step in oppression, American style, has long involved getting between the oppressed and their stories. Depending on the circumstances, intervention may involve disputing oppressed people’s versions of events, distorting them or seizing them outright, or renaming and repurposing them. Nurturing the lie at the heart of each method, a maneuver known in some locales as “getting it twisted,” helps oppressors sustain what Toni Morrison calls the master narrative. When individuals in some African American communities get things twisted, often beginning their tale with What happened was, a popular response is Who I look like? Boo Boo the fool? The question is quickly recognized as a way of announcing one’s refusal to be bamboozled, hoodwinked, or misled. But street-level skepticism is one thing; collective willingness to accept the lie of American exceptionalism is quite another. Many descendants of enslaved Africans are no less intentionally gullible than their countrymen in wanting the American tradition—and the white men who established it—to be uniformly virtuous. For example, we know that more than a century before Thomas Dixon and D. W. Griffith started writing lies with lightning, the Framers were dipping them in ink and inscribing them on parchment. Despite the dishonesty inherent in their secular scriptures, the disheartening fractions and lies of omission, we want the nation’s founders to be flawless. We want to believe that one youthful misadventure with a cherry tree was all a typical Great White Father needed to set him on the right path. We want to believe that the original plutocrats were never vain or insecure, that they were never unfaithful lovers or abusive husbands, that they never kept black women in chains and raped them repeatedly, that they never suffered from tooth decay and body odor or knew the heartbreak of psoriasis and regrettable habits. In my old neighborhood this kind of naïveté was called falling for the okey-doke.
Benjamin Banneker, an early American genius, was admirably resistant to willful amnesia. In 1791, he became aware of Jefferson’s exuberant lies about black people in Notes on the State of Virginia. They included:
- Black people were more inclined toward lust than whites, but not sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate or experience the complexities of genuine romantic love.
- It was only natural for black men to prefer the superior beauty of white women, just as the orangutan “preferred black women over those of his own species.”
- Pain, both emotional and physical, was “less felt and sooner forgotten” among blacks.
- Blacks were “induced by the slightest amusements,” “had dull, tasteless and anomalous” imaginations, and were incapable of uttering “a thought above the level of plain narration.”
Jefferson’s whiteness was so fragile that a profligate lifestyle utterly dependent on human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and coerced labor was not enough. He had to buttress it with deliberate falsehoods designed to comfort the planter class and allay their fears of rebellious blackness. Incensed, Banneker called him on it. Including an edition of his almanac with a letter dated August 20, 1791, he wrote:
Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.
In other words, Sir, you a lie.
Jefferson’s letter in reply was tepid and noncommittal:
I thank you, sincerely for your letter of the 10th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.
I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.
I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble Servant,
He made no attempt to directly address or refute any of Banneker’s objections, sidestepping such provocations as fraud, violence, and cruel while tossing back an imbecility of his own. That kind of verbal thrust-and-parry, with its sly implications, coy dismissals, and passive-aggressive misdirection continues to shape disputes between whites and Americans of color over the nature of reality, a conflict I like to describe as narrative combat. Years later, Jefferson speculated in a letter to a friend that Banneker probably had (white) assistance in performing the calculations for the almanac and had possessed a mind “of very common stature indeed.” In the end he let the lies stand.
Jefferson was not an elected official when he presented his inflammatory and patently false “observations” of black people to the world. Although he was minister to France the year he published his Notes, he was opining as a private citizen. Yet he was a public figure of considerable stature and thus his influence can’t be overestimated. His notes enlivened stereotypes that resonate even today. When a white mother called the police in Washington, D.C., because black teens near an ATM made her “uncomfortable”—and police unquestionably followed her implicit commands by detaining the youngsters—that was race-based lying at work. When the manager of a lingerie store made all the black customers leave after a black woman was caught shoplifting, that was race-based lying at work.
A different but no less caustic danger results from the liar acting as an agent of the state. When the state gets it twisted, as it did in the case of the Central Park Five, the consequences are long-ranging and irreparable. After a white woman was raped and beaten nearly to death in Central Park in 1989, the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crime unit railroaded five innocent young black and Latino men into prison. Each served between five and twelve years. The state’s mendacity was abetted by the defendants’ coerced confessions: vague, inconsistent statements in which they lied on themselves. Years later, after another man confessed to the crime and the five were exonerated, former district attorney Linda Fairstein, who had supervised the sex-crime unit, continued to ignore the complete absence of evidence and insist that the jury had reached the correct verdict. Donald Trump, who had fanned the flames of derision by purchasing full-page ads in local newspapers calling for “muggers and murderers” to suffer for their crimes, also expressed no remorse. “They admitted they were guilty,” he said in a statement to CNN. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.” There was no evidence against them, and investigators found no DNA from any of the young men at the scene of the crime. Like Jefferson and many others before them, Fairstein and Trump refused to admit their roles in perpetuating a toxic deception, even when facts inconveniently illuminated their errors.
Deceiving Americans is one of the few growing home industries we still have in this country.
In 1988 Newt Gingrich spoke passionately of a war against liberals that had to be “fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars,” a war in which language would be wielded as “a key mechanism of control.” Two years later his political organization, GOPAC, offered aspiring Republican candidates a key list of words and phrases—sick, pathetic, radical, and welfare, among them—to help voters distinguish between them and their Democratic opponents. If not for such maneuvers, it would be tempting to identify something unprecedented in Trump’s aggressive pseudo-populist postures during the campaign, as well as his tendency to dismiss any coverage that challenges his narrative as merely fake news. Instead, his tactics remind us that getting it twisted is hardly a new method for the GOP. It is the party of Lee Atwater, after all, and the party whose most popular president in recent decades launched his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the bodies of three activists were found during the height of the civil rights battle in that state. Perhaps because of that sordid history, it was just a short spiral from Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens to Trump’s wilding teens, Mexican rapists, death panels, and gay Kenyan Muslims masquerading as American presidents. Our Twitter-happy narcissist in chief, continuing his long history of dissembling and prevarication, rode into power on a wave of such shouts and murmurs (and dog whistles). The “mainstream” press, suffering from an embarrassing lack of diversity, did little to resist Trump’s verbal tsunami, using working class as a euphemism for white people, often uncritically accepting police accounts of shootings involving unarmed black people, and showing a woeful reluctance to identify racists as the unprincipled degenerates they are. The day after Trump declared his candidacy, Dylann Roof executed nine black Charleston churchgoers. As black communities nationwide reeled in horror, initial news reports described the unrepentant assassin as “a bug-eyed boy with a bowl haircut who came from a broken home,” a waif so bedraggled and forlorn that local cops took him for sandwiches before hauling him to jail. Similarly, the media, preoccupied with the prep-school costumes favored by Trump’s youthful troops, failed to seriously consider the visceral trauma resulting from resurgent racist terror. A month before the election, Mother Jones magazine introduced Richard Spencer as if he were a new neighbor at the block-party cookout. “Meet the dapper white nationalist riding the Trump wave,” its promoting tweet cooed. Similarly, ten days after Trump’s victory, the Los Angeles Times encouraged readers to “Meet the new think tank in town: the ‘alt-right’ comes to Washington.” The dithering over the appropriateness of using alt-right, white nationalist, etc., was a sideshow that helped us to avoid the fundamental questions that must be confronted: Is voting for a racist itself a racist act? Can one commit a racist act and not be a racist? Until we delve into that riddle, no real conversation can take place between those who voted for the forty-fifth president and those who did not.
Similarly, I find little purpose in referring to the Richard Spencers and Donald Trumps of this world as advocates of “white supremacy.” To use that term, even while condemning it, is to flirt recklessly with absurdity, and uttering it even in that context leaves a rancid, intolerable taste. I’d like to suggest that it has outlived its usefulness. As a phrase describing a specific psychosis deriving from a race-based lie, white insanity seems far more suitable.
And while we’re at it, self-styled liberals might consider arming their own vocabularies. Help those Americans who support full equality for all human beings by using words like the following to describe those who oppose it:
It’s time to replace the timid discourse of pragmatic centrism with the aggressive language our situation requires. Unlike Barack Obama, who spent both terms of his presidency hamstrung by conventional notions of propriety and understandably wary of coming off as an “angry black man,” the rest of us have license to speak freely—and speak out. “It is a very grave question as to whether or not the slavery and degradation of Negroes in America has not been unnecessarily prolonged by the submission to evil,” W. E. B. Du Bois once observed. Replace the archaic-sounding evil with blatant corruption and the question applies not just to black people but also to any American who’s not a member of the gilded one percent. As I watch the forty-fifth president and his lackeys attack the tender flesh of opponents, with claws fully extended and fangs dripping saliva, I can’t help thinking of Benjamin Franklin’s words to his sister Jane. “If you make yourself a Sheep,” he wrote, “the Wolves will eat you.”
This whole country is full of lies. You’re all gonna die and die like flies.
Lately, I’ve been revisiting the work of Ronald Fair, an inexcusably unsung writer. I admire him not only because his deeply empathetic portraits of black boys and men encourage my own literary ambitions. I also admire him because he laid out the structure of narrative combat as well as any American novelist ever has. Especially in his books Hog Butcher (1966) and We Can’t Breathe (1972), Fair exposed the limitations inherent in what he called “this lie they call democracy, this insidious myth they call fair play, this vicious thing called the-American-way-of-life.”
Both novels address issues that continue to resonate today, including economic inequality, a legal system designed to promote white impunity and accumulate black convictions, and the ferocity with which whiteness challenges black people’s right to narrate their own experiences.
Like Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks, Fair took readers inside the tenements and kitchenettes of South Side Chicago. Like August Wilson, he created characters who insist on reevaluating the wisdom of the Great Migration. What is the point of them fleeing north, they ask, if they are only going to encounter the very conditions they fled? Fair called the myths of a liberal North “glorious fantasies about a new and better world,” but refugees from Dixie turned a deaf ear to skeptics. Huddled masses of black people, yearning to breathe free, broke for St. Louis, Chicago, Harlem, and Detroit like displaced European tribes hell-bent for Ellis Island. But when they arrived, they sometimes discovered there wasn’t enough air to go around.
“We came to the North, and we’re still victims of discrimination and oppression in the North,” Wilson complained in an interview. “The real reason that the people left was a search for jobs, because the agriculture, cotton agriculture in particular, could no longer support us. But the move to the cities has not been a good move. Today … we still don’t have jobs. The last time blacks in America were working was during the Second World War, when there was a need for labor, and it did not matter what color you were.”
Whereas Wilson saw the Great Migration as a mistake, Ernie Johnson, the observant young man at the center of We Can’t Breathe, sees the epic journey as the result of a lie of omission. “I read about the South and things whites had done to my people there,” he says, “and I wondered why more people had not written about atrocities in the North—in many ways they were worse because they were committed behind a smiling face that always kept you thinking that things were going to be better.”
Ernie’s neighborhood differs little from that of Wilford Robinson, the headstrong young hero of Hog Butcher. The landmarks, hurdles, and pitfalls of their ’60s-era Chicago streets would not be out of place in Tamir Rice’s Cleveland or Trayvon Martin’s Sanford, Florida. Ernie, developing the sharp eye of the novelist he hopes to become, has already recognized the local policemen as “assassins for white society.” Similarly, Wilford sees the motorcycle cops who menace his community as “a special squad created not so much to protect them as to keep them in line.” The plots of both books hinge on the protagonist witnessing a police killing of an unarmed black man. With social media and cell phones still a twinkle in a technologist’s eye, all each boy has is his own account versus the official story that the police will tell.
When Ernie tells his father what he has seen, they discuss going to the state’s attorney. Ernie deduces a world of significance from his parents’ exchange of glances. “He looked at my mother and I could see how desperately he was trying to find the right thing to say, how he was trying to save himself in my eyes as a man, how he was trying to give me something meaningful to hang on to for the rest of my life, a feeling of fairness about our world if nothing else.”
His father concludes that going to the state’s attorney would be a misstep that could end disastrously. The solution, he says, is to take control of the narrative. “Write it down,” he advises Ernie, who is about to enter high school. “Write down how much a black man has to pay for bein a black man in this country. Write down what happened here today so the whole damn world’ll know what we take just to do the simple things we do, and let them see if they’d be strong enough to be black.” With no hope of justice for the slain black man, Ernie and his family dream of redemption in the form of art he will someday create.
In Hog Butcher, a precinct captain stops by Wilford’s house to intimidate him into silence before he can testify about what he has seen. “It’s not that we don’t want you to tell the truth,” he says to the boy. “It’s just that we don’t want you to say anything just now. Now that’s not tellin’ a lie, is it?”
But Wilford remembers his teacher’s advice: “If you know somebody else is tellin’ a story and you don’t say nothin’ about it, well, then, that’s the same as you tellin’ a story right with ’em.” Unlike our nonagenarian friend in the NPR segment, Wilford realizes that enabling a lie will leave him entangled in remorse.
Wilford’s experience appears headed to a hopeful resolution when his steadfast bravery moves a black policeman to breach the thin blue line of silence. On the witness stand, the cop resolves to free himself from a timeless trap pitting “black man against black man to maintain a goddamn white lie.”
Ernie, the author’s alter ego, continues to face bitter circumstances but regards them with a defiant glare. “I was extremely cold, but my mind was occupied with a story that I wanted to write about the North,” he confides, “a story that I felt no one would believe or take seriously. Undoubtedly, it was something that had happened to someone’s cousin or uncle or brother or father, and was told over the years from black neighborhood to neighborhood, from city to city, north and south, until I finally heard it. I don’t remember having been told the whole story, only certain aspects of it. I knew it would be good, and I also knew that the truth of this story would be denied by whites. But I was going to write it anyway.” Nearly half a century before it became a battle cry prompted by the police killing of Eric Garner, Ronald Fair made We Can’t Breathe a ringing declaration of intent.
Echoing his resolve, we continue to write—and resist. In the tradition of black bards known and unknown, we compose with purposeful fury. We muster our candor and eloquence against a master narrative advising us to patiently attend those who continue to cling so eagerly to anti-black racism, to sit with folded hands and hear them out. It’s what we might call a morality tale, a parable in which embracing white people at their worst inspires them to return the gesture and open their arms to us in all our complicated, flawed, and wonderful coloredness. The warmth of our newfound mutual affection will be so intense and contagious that it softens hardened minds and changes the direction of the American future. It’s a story that requires a substantial suspension of disbelief.
Or it’s simply another lie.
Image: American Progress, John Gast, 1872