On January 6, white and rich congresspeople were, perhaps for the first time, forced to realise that Nazis can multi-task. Previously, they may have thought racist violence followed a certain logic. Lynch mobs would kill with racial classificatory charts in hand, attacking the people at the bottom rung and then moving up, allowing ample time for the alert and not sufficiently Nazi to escape – if necessary.
They have now discovered that people in The Revenant costumes do not stick to plans. They will not only chase Black men up stairs, like their torch-bearing forebears chased Black children from the Colored Orphan Asylum in the lynch mob riots of New York, or Black pedestrians from main streets dotted with strafer fire in the Lynch mob riots of Tulsa. But they also envision stringing up conflicted vice presidents and fur coat-wearing senators.
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When it was Black churches shot up or burned, or department stores near the Mexican border, or Black drivers at a traffic stop, the blood spilled could be mopped up easily enough with thoughts and prayers and talk of “starting conversations”. But on January 6, it was they – white and rich congresspeople – who had to cower for their lives and think about their children orphaned and forced to watch videos of their bloodstained blouse no longer lifting as they lay sprawled out on the floor. Their lives flashing before their eyes under a howling crowd, convinced and wanting to prove that their lives did not matter.
Suddenly we saw liberals leaving conversations. No more talk of “he is not worth impeachment”, no more waiting for a white supremacist president to “take this opportunity to heal the nation”. Instead, Congress was whipped into action to vote on removing the president via the 25th Amendment of the constitution.
Even a few conservatives joined who previously were content to be silent on conspiracy theories. Traditionally, talk of Jews eating babies, Negroes raping white women, Muslims plotting a stealthy Sharia takeover, Mexico sending rapists and job-stealers and other conspiracies were vote-winners for conservatives and left only non-white corpses in their wake.
The conservative media too appeared shaken, when they realised that the man in the Auschwitz shirt was peeking around corners looking for them as well. They were supposed to incite pogroms only against “blacks” and the “radical left”, their hosts looking directly into the camera to rile up an audience with messages that they are coming for “YOU” with all the urgency of a radio host in 1994 Rwanda screaming “cut down the tall trees”.
Today, however, we are told it is a new day in America. Joe Biden is president. The broken glass in the Capitol building has already been swept away into the past by dutiful essential workers. Anger over the burning of Washington’s Reichstag is subsiding, as the right and the corporate left return to their respective camps and Biden says “folks, we must come together”.
Biden says we must listen to each other, stop the shouting, lower the temperature and end this uncivil war. As if the problem between the two camps is not that one has been killing the other but a problem of decorum. As if the side with the Black Lives Matter placards “just want to be heard” – as liberal politicians continue to misrepresent – and is not ordering that we be left to survive.
Biden smiles, opens his arms, says: “Folks”, and just like that, otherwise critical thinkers who rightly laughed off pundits and commentators who, upon Donald Trump’s every flinch, wondered aloud if it may signify a pivot away from racism, now wonder if this is America’s moment. If this is the moment America might finally pivot in some significant way away from white supremacy. If it would finally “live up to its ideals” and, as President Abraham Lincoln charged, obey its “better angels”.
Biden echoed Lincoln’s unity-themed “better angels of our nature” inaugural speech in his own. He did not, however, mention that the purpose of Lincoln’s speech was to assure the white men of the South, on the eve of the Civil War, that they “were not enemies, but friends”. And, as their friend, he did not intend to steal into freedom the Africans they dragged about in neck shackles.
Liberals report feeling rested and re-invigorated. A late-night show put together a montage of Mount Rushmore and a Martin Luther King, Jr statue singing in celebration. The “push-him-left” crews are rolling up their sleeves. Arnold Schwarzenegger held up a sword. And a young Black woman was given a platform on the steps of the US Capitol to offer her art to the service of critical patriotism.
“Unity!” rings from the church bells and from the mouths of soldier and babe. Democrats warn Republicans no hugs without accountability but signal a way back to bi-partisan governance, once the last of the broken glass is swept under the rug.
Even white leftists are offering theirs and Black people’s forgiveness to white supremacists, sketching out ways for the far left to build bridges to the far right in the fight against liberal hegemony. Indeed, almost all of the colony looks forward to the day when they will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old white nationalist spiritual: “Unity at last! Unity at last! Thank God Almighty, we have unity at last!”
But all of this will not be enough. America, like Trump, will not pivot.
American unity is run through the ribs of the Negro. It has been white nationalist from its inception. As early as 1676, unity meant legislating into existence the category of “white people”. This new category of humans was to be given privileges Africans were explicitly denied. White people, it was hoped, made legally superior and thus led into supremacism, would never again be tempted to join Africans in a rebellion against the state as they had during Nathaniel Bacon’s anti-Indigenous rebellion of that year.
Bacon enticed indentured servants, white and Black, to join him, in exchange for their freedom, in a settler landowner’s war against Indigenous people which later spiralled into an all-out war against the government. Like the deliberate creation of a middle class in several African colonies, white people were, in part, invented to be a buffer between the anti-colonial population and the governors.
The American Revolution, as historian Gerald Horne has shown in his book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, was not, as is relentlessly advertised, the birth-pangs of a great experiment in liberty. On the contrary, it was a colony-wide counter-revolution and its aim, in no small part, was to put down the nascent Black abolitionism of plantation rebellions and the fugitive formerly enslaved who joined the British to fight their former masters: the American Patriots.
The patriot-settlers were victorious against the British not long after smallpox felled much of the “Ethiopian Regiment”, troops made up of enslaved Black people who had escaped the patriot-masters to join the British side following a proclamation by Lord Dunmore, the British colonial governor of Virginia.
Lord Dunmore, desperate against the insurrectionists, ordered that any indentured servants and Negroes who fought for the British crown against the American patriots would be set free. Thousands joined, but their stories have been lost to the middle passage of American nationalist history, swept under the rug, along with the “Colonial Marines” – a British-trained regimen of formerly enslaved Black people – who burned down the White House, and the rest of the history of Black rebellion against American patriots, American patriotism, the masters and their colony. The bust of Crispus Attucks is placed atop the rug to keep these voices securely suppressed.
Having chased out the British, the settler-patriots went on to institute a new republic: America. It was an experiment in democracy, they say. An imperfect project that extended the promise of freedom to more and more folks in each successive generation. But this is a lie.
Freedom is not a gift to be bestowed upon folks. It is the absence of slavery. There is no second tier of freedom, no ever-perfecting or ever-expanding freedom. It is either one chains people or one does not. A bit of slavery is still the antithesis of freedom.
A slave owner’s republic cannot be said to be an imperfect conduit of freedom any more than can a man who kept women chained in his basement be said to be an imperfect liberator. Nor should his story be believed that eventual liberty was embedded in the structure of his basement, nor that he merely failed to live up to his stated ideals. Nor should his argument that the freedom to enslave or freedom for everyone with the small exception of the slave is still freedom be taken seriously. Enslavement is not a project of freedom.
Of course, the American colony has always been a colony of men who kept captives chained up in the basement. It was always to be expected that they would one day say – as serial kidnapper, rapist and enslaver, Ariel Castro, did at his trial – “I am not a monster”. But it must be contradicted. This is, in fact, who they are. It is who they intended and are constrained to be. That some jump up to deny this is not proof of the audacity of their hope but of their disregard for and dismissal of the lives crushed under their slave state. The audacity of their dedication to the big lie.
That the constitution protected slave property in 10 of its 11 clauses was not an irony of the “founding era”. Black people were not a glaring omission in the project of freedom. It was not that liberty missed its target. There is no inexplicable contradiction in the framers’ thought, who otherwise had their minds stayed on freedom. It was quite simple. Black people were kept unfree for the cause of American unity, which is always to say, white unity.
It was required to safely include the planter slave-owner classes in the Union, to quell their fears that they may lose their property in flesh in an era when slavery was being voraciously fought against in the colony and world by arson, machetes and pens.
The framers were not limited by being “men of their times”, regrettably unenlightened in a society that still had ways to go on race. On the contrary, they read widely the criticism of the “peculiar institution”. They knew well the critics of slavery. They shot at them.
In 1831, 55 years after the founding of the patriots’ republic, Nat Turner, an enslaved man from Virginia, and crew enacted a decidedly un-American interpretation of freedom, one closer to the Haitian model, which looked nothing like that of the white supremacist kind. In response, the white poor and wealthy joined hands and formed mobs to torture and purge freedom-seeking Black people and anyone who looked like them.
Formerly enslaved Harriet Jacobs recalled the “motley crowd of soldiers” ordered by the “country gentlemen” to seek out Black people wherever they could be found. She wrote in her memoirs the following:
“By sunrise, people were pouring in from every quarter within twenty miles of the town. I knew the houses were to be searched; and I expected it would be done by country bullies and the poor whites […] It was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no negroes of their own to scourge. They exulted in such a chance to exercise a little brief authority, and show their subserviency to the slaveholders […] Those who never witnessed such scenes can hardly believe what I know was inflicted at this time on innocent men, women, and children, against whom there was not the slightest ground for suspicion. Colored people and slaves who lived in remote parts of the town suffered in an especial manner. In some cases, the searchers scattered powder and shot among their clothes, and then sent other parties to find them, and bring them forward as proof that they were plotting insurrection. Everywhere men, women, and children were whipped till the blood stood in puddles at their feet.”
The planting of evidence upon the bodies and clothes of Black people, killing Black people for disrespect or resisting arrest is an American tradition older, more integral to and more representative of the country than the liberty-talk of its anti-Black founders. As is the armistice in the class war between the white rich and white poor that is established and signed with lashes across Black backs.
In the first half of the 1860s, half of the country attempted to overthrow the other half to keep it from destroying its culture of imprisoning, torturing, coercing labour from and killing Black people with impunity. It fought against the country forcibly being made to join, belatedly, most of the rest of the world which had outlawed slavery at least a generation earlier.
Again, the American experiment was not one in freedom. On the contrary, it was one of the last holdouts for the right to enslave. This is one of the reasons why, unlike most states, the American battle flag used in the war to maintain slavery is still universally recognisable today. The Confederate Battle Flag is still flown in memory of those Americans lost in the war to keep Black people molested.
At the end of the civil war, the North occupied the Confederate South, enforcing abolition and then the Civil Rights law of 1866 that made it possible for Black people to hold political office in the American South. It was a new world mourned and mocked in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, inspired by Thomas Dixon Jr’s novel and homage to the Ku Klux Klan, The Clansman.
The film portrays white politicians outnumbered by their Black colleagues in the South Carolina state legislature of 1871. In a scene with a title card reading “The riot in the Master’s Hall”, Black representatives drink whisky at their desks, give speeches while eating fried chicken and remove their boots and place their bare feet atop the hallowed wood of the tables. They pass laws requiring “that all whites must salute Negro officers on the streets” and legalise miscegenation. The film celebrates the hunting and lynching of Black people and is considered the first classic of American cinema.
In 1876, Democrats – then the party of white conservatives – suppressed the votes of Black freedmen during the presidential election. In the midst of allegations of fraud that threatened to re-ignite the civil war, an agreement was made called the Compromise of 1877, which allowed the more liberal Rutherford Hayes to become president with the proviso that the troops enforcing abolition and civil rights for Black people were removed from the South.
With the departure of federal troops, former Confederate generals and slave-owners and other violent white conservatives who were engaged in the 19th-century form of anti-Black terrorism under the hoods of the newly born Ku Klux Klan and other white terror organisations regained the monopoly over violence in the South. This established the terrorist state of the South that made possible everything from regularly burning Black people alive in front of concert-sized fields of white folks to the red “Trump country” of the present day.
Biden’s unity is a compromise with and among anti-Black white supremacists. American unity always is. It is amnesty for torturers as long as their victims are not white and as long as any resulting suffering is borne chiefly by Black people. It is never imagined as unity with the groups and efforts committed to the radical defence of Black survival but a unity with and among their enemies.
Trump, like every white supremacist politician before him, called for a return to the time when America was great. Biden calls for a return to an imagined time of unity, when the temperature in America was cooler. Neither politician has been specific about the time they are speaking about. To do so would be to expose the big lie that is America. It is not the land of the free. It is a colony.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.