Warning Lynch images below. – I have reversed my ban on such images on the blog in order to bring home the true severity of lynch metaphors to those who remain in denial and also in case you would like to include them in your emails or letters to Bill O’Reilly requesting he not make light of such a history.
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Last night when most people were being bored by the lack luster Oscars (lowest ratings in history of the show according to nielson), I was reminded of Bill O’Reilly. You see, John Stewart came out and told a “joke” about Obama’s name rhyming with Osama and him sharing the same name as Hussein. I missed it, thankfully. Though he certainly isn’t the first person to make such “jokes,” it seemed entirely inappropriate for the Oscars and reminded me once again what a certain kind of psuedo-news celebrity can do for your ability to spout offensive drivel in the guise of joking. In Stewart’s defense, he really was joking, but the joke he was repeating is based on anti-muslim sentiment in N. America (what some call islamaphobia and I just call racism) and was originally generated by the conservatives to discredit Obama’s candidacy. In that context, and the fact it was said at an award show not his show, makes it jarring at best. It also reminds us how easy it is to return to more overt versions of racialized discourse should Obama get the nomination.
In fact, just a day later a new photo of Obama is circulating the internet and likely to end up on MSNBC and CNN broadcasts later tonight. It shows Obama in a traditional draping visiting Kenya. Instead of people talking about how his previous trips to Kenya might make him the ideal candidate to de-escalate tensions in the increasingly election-torn country and elevating his image as someone who can handle African and Middle Eastern foreign affairs, the focus has been on the turban he is wearing. Obama’s camp claims the photo was deliberately circulated during this contentions point in the primaries and to capitalize on comments like Stewarts and the people who originally penned it by the Clinton Campaign. As with the initial days following the “drug dealer” comment, Clinton has denied any knowledge of the photo or sanction of its use. Regardless of its origin, the photo also capitalizes on anti-muslim racism in N. America and hopes to cast Obama as an outsider unworthy of political office.
Yet Stewart was only a teeny-tiny-bit of the reason I found myself thinking about O’Reilly last night. The other reason was the one time airing of the documentary by Marco Williams entitled Banished. Banished tells the story of forced expulsions of black land owners in the early 1900s from Pierce City Missouri, Harrison Arkansas, and Forsyth County Georgia. Harrison banished the black community twice, having failed to permanently scare them away the first time. It is now the home of one the most vocal leaders of the Klan in the area and a retirement area for people who choose it, as one retiree says, “because of the lack of blacks.” Though some in this same town have made minor effort toward reconciliation, the town itself remains similar to the other two towns in their absence of racial diversity, their inability to locate or mark the thriving black communities that they destroyed, and a reticence to pay reparations to survivors. In one particularly telling moment in the documentary, a man returns to Pierce City to gets his father’s remains removed from the cemetary and is told they not only refuse to dig him up but that he owes back “burial taxes” for the amount of time his father has been buried there. When the cameras arrive, the funeral home changes its tune, but once they are gone the harassment and condemnation over the request that the town foot the $750 bill for the exhumation as reparations to a family whose land was taken and who was driven out of their home town to start again become unbearable. In the end, the man paid the bill himself to stop the harassment and the public demeaning of his character in Pierce City which he no doubt feared may lead to violence. People of color in neighboring towns to the three in the documentary remain quite clear that”you don’t want to be caught in Pierce City after dark.” So the threat of violence remains over 100 years later.
What does this have to do with O’Reilly?
Banished was completed in 2007. In 2007, whole towns in N. America have built their entire histories on the forceable expulsion of black land owners. They continue to use words like “n” and “coloreds” in their every day speech. Even those who will publicly admit that the taking over of whole neighborhoods of color was wrong have no intention of thinking about or addressing any kind of reparation that requires permanent public admission of guilt (like a monument), the return or pay for land or loved ones, or the telling of their history (both white and black) outside of a discourse of white supremacy. These towns do not exist in isolation but have become thriving retirement communities for people all over the nation who want to live where black people fear to tread. This is what history has made and what the present perpetuates.
When Bill O’Reilly claims we should lynch Michelle Obama if she did in fact say pride for her nation has been tempered until now, he is calling up not only the history of lynching but also its present ramifications. Though he may want to unhinge the comment from its connotations we must be clear that lynching was used as a tool to prevent the exercise of the black vote (either to stop registration or to stop registered voters) and black political aspirations (by lynching black leaders). It was also used to enforce a mythic version of white womanhood through the policing of perceived and real sexual transgression between white women and black men. As part of this myth it remind black women that they were not “women” nor should they aspire to be in similar positions as white women; hence the multiple black women who were lynched for becoming housewives and refusing to work after the end of slavery. Finally, lynching was used to steal the economic and social power of black people whose ability to thrive despite racism offended some white people as in the case of these three towns and possibly many people in this election. These are all references that underpin O’Reilly’s comment about lynching a potential black first lady.
Between 1860 and 1920, hundreds of U.S. cities expelled black people from their towns. In all most every case they used the supposed violation of a white woman by a black man as the excuse for the expulsion. First they lynched the man and then a mob drove out the rest of the black community. Once they were gone, their property was taken over by white townspeople and passed down to their descendants. N. American law continues to enforce property dispute statute of limitations that would have been impossible for black people under threat of lynching to have met in these cases.
The effect was not only economic but also pyscho-social. As California Newsreel says in their review of the documentary:
African Americans not only lost their hard-won homes, farms and businesses, but saw their communities and families dispersed and their very right to exist violated.
When Bill O’Reilly says he “doesn’t want to lead a lynch party unless . . .” this is the history he is calling up. When he goes unsanctioned for these comments, he is like the people in 100s of towns in N. America who have built their cultures around successful supremacist pushes to drive out people of color. His particular targeting of Michelle Obama, not Barack, and the subsequent silence or erasure by certain segments of the population also smacks of the sexism and cult of white womanhood that also underpins lynching.
In the same way I mourn the inability for certain segments of feminists to reconcile with certain other segments, I mourn the loss of this history for anyone but white supremacists and the families that suffered and survived them. If you do not know about expulsions as part of the making of modern day racially homogeneous regions, Black history month is the ideal time to find it out:
- talk to a librarian – If you are lucky, you live in a town with an African American archives specialist who can show you the collections your city holds and talk to you not only about the history of expulsion and lynching at the national level but also the history of African-Americans in your own community.
- check out online databases – there are several these days that will show you primary resources even. Temple University has an amazing collection that was recently featured in the news as well. Do an academic (vs a google) search and you should find everything you could possibly want to know.
- watch Banished – it toured January of last year but is currently playing on Public Broadcasting and should be available for purchase soon.
One more thing you can do, write a letter condemning Bill O’Reilly’s comments and demanding that real action be taken to prevent such hate speech from going unchecked:
- Bill O’Reilly – email@example.com or call 1-888-369-4762
- Rupert Murdoch – call 212-852-7000 or write:
Chairman and Chief Executive
1211 Avenue of Americas
NY, NY 10036
- David Tabacoff, Executive Producer of the O’Reilly Factor: email
- The FCC – official complaint forms or contact info
No matter which candidate you support for president, I hope that we can all get behind the idea that using a lynching metaphor and/or encouraging lynching on a national broadcast (or a basement ham radio) is not ok. Given the history of lynching as both a race and gender issue there is no excuse to not be able to tackle both in our response.
When remain silent about the small slights, like Stewarts or the latest supposed Clinton camp photo, we make room for O’Reilly’s comments and ultimately the actions and honoring of histories like that presented in Banished.