Updated: Oct 29, 2020
I started this blog to discuss Caribbean issues but these days it’s difficult to ignore our cousins up the road, whose stupidity and obnoxiousness have become truly spectacular and intrusive.
It used to be entertaining, like the stories of my friend whose childhood was spent in the American mid-West during the sixties. She described their fear of Cubans crashing through the cornfields to kill them. Her father constructed an underground bomb shelter and her school drilled them in hiding under their desks in the event of a nuclear strike.
At the time I laughed at their paranoia but now that kids really have to hide under their desks the comedy has become a horror. The past decade has seen 400 shootings targeting US schoolchildren, which increased two-fold after 2017. Not only children. Between 2013 and 2019 there have been 2,128 mass shootings, in which at least four people are killed (excluding domestic violence, gang violence and terrorist acts sponsored by an organization) in the US. Approximately one a day.
Michael Moore’s brilliant Bowling For Columbine explains it as a general cowering that originated in the white fear of black people. Once the European settlers violently subdued (read "exterminated or enclosed") the scary Native Americans, they imported enslaved Africans, who terrified them even more, and continue to do so.
And it’s true: fear and trembling abide deep in many white Americans, who constantly add to their list of people (and things) to be scared of. Once World War II took them out of isolation, they added foreigners to their fears. Politicians have cynically manipulated this panic in their own interests, so it changes face often. But at the heart of it is their fear and hatred of black Americans.
The common explanation goes as follows: White America has always been afraid what would happen if or when victims take revenge for slavery, for Jim Crow, for the systemic racism that is ingrained to this day in the structure of the society and economy.
I am not convinced. A ruling class never feels guilty about what they do to their subordinates. Humans are too adept at dodging self-recrimination. The white Americans who accept that, well, ok maybe some white Americans oppressed black people, they dismiss it as dead history: that was then, now is now; and anyway I didn’t oppress nobody.
Not even the very stupid would brutalize and murder a group out of guilty feelings about having brutalized them in the past. No. People who feel guilty about abusing you in the past are inclined to let you get away with anything: like how Israel is allowed to do anything because of the holocaust.
Besides, we in the Caribbean experienced an even more brutal slavery than the US, with a far higher mortality rate. The African population here had to be continuously replenished because it could not reproduce itself. Here, black people have long been the vast majority, which gave whites something real to fear, especially after Haiti showed what could happen. Yet we have never seen the terror and hatred that endures in the US. That required more than slavery. It needed the toxic American brew of disgust, desire and shame.
Disgust is common to all rigid class societies, a sense that the lower class is physically revolting: ugly, unclean and malodorous. That is the animating idea behind Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, Parasite.
Its clearest expression is found in India’s caste system, which is culturally based on ideas of pollution and disgust. There, lower-caste people had to be kept kept at a distance so as to not pollute upper-caste people. “A person in the lowest sub-castes,” explains Isabel Wilkerson, “had to ‘drag a thorn branch with him to wipe out his footprints’ and prostrate himself on the ground if a Brahmin passed, so that his ‘foul shadow might not defile the holy Brahmin’.” Touching, or even approaching, an “Untouchable” was polluting to the higher castes.
Hence too the segregation in the USA. Separate hotels, separate water fountains, separate seats in the bus, separate restaurants. “Each time I shook hands with a Negro,” confessed George Leonard, civil rights advocate and editor of Look magazine.“I felt an urge to wash my hands…. The hand that had touched the dark skin had a will of its own and would not be dissuaded from signaling it was unclean.”
But Leonard was born Macon, Georgia. Black hands would have soothed him when he was a child in the South; they would have prepared his food and when he was older perhaps caressed him at nights. That’s where the US diverges from other rigidly segregated societies, from caste India and Nazi Germany. Desire came before revulsion.
The sixties added another twist to the explanation when Black Panther Minister of Informaton Eldridge Cleaver published Soul On Ice. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers party, summarized Cleaver’s argument: “The master took the manhood from the slave because he stripped him of a mind… In the process the slave-master stripped himself of a body… The slave being a very strong body doing all the practical things, all of the work, becomes very masculine. The omnipotent administrator in the process of removing himself from all bodily functions realizes later that he has emasculated himself.”
Idres Elba and Kate Winslet in The Mountain Between Us.
There’s no one a man hates more than the man he fears his woman desires. Contrariwise, there’s no woman a man desires more than the one belonging to his emasculating oppressor.
Still, that cannot be all. Every divided society has a lower class grown strong from physical labour; we too had black slavery, yet nowhere else became as psychologically, sexually fractured as is the US, where the last ingredient in the brew was the founding fathers’ puritanic Christianity.
Christianity in general castigates the body, starting when Eve gave Adam the apple to eat and they became ashamed of their bodies. But in its Protestant variation North American Christianity alienated whites even further from their own physical, sensual nature.
“The Christianity brought to Mexico by the Spaniards was the syncretic Catholicism of Rome, which had assimilated the pagan gods, turning them into saints and devils… in popular Mexican Catholicism the old beliefs and divinities are still present, barely hidden under a veneer of Christianity,” explained Mexican poet Octavio Paz. “In the US, the Indian element does not appear…The Christian horror of ‘fallen nature’ extended to the natives of America.”
That horror of the body was then extended to the enslaved Africans, which twisted the culture into all sorts of contradictions. But the religious belief is contradicted by its own practice. Bodily denial is preached but in an African way that W.E.B. DuBois described as a trinity of “the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy.” The contradiction is between the doctrine of Christianity and the African way it is practiced, and both black and white people live that contradiction.
It produced people like the Proud Boys, who blame black people for their emasculation, and cling to their guns and bibles and hatred. It produced black men like OJ. But it also created those who could wholeheartedly embrace the African spirit, such as (among many many others) Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklyn, James Brown and Prince:
“I’m not your lover/ I’m not your friend/ I am something that you’ll never comprehend/ No need to worry/ No need to cry/ I’m your Messiah and you’re the reason why.”