Poet's Notebook: What are they afraid of?

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: What are they afraid of? - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
Poet's Notebook: What are they afraid of?

           after the murder,

after the burial
Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy. 
She sits in a red room, 
drinking black coffee…

The continuing backlash to the riots in Ferguson sent me back to some old thoughts about racism in America. Sixty years ago, in 1955, a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till was tortured, murdered and dumped in the Tallahatchie River outside of Sumner, Mississippi. He had (maybe) flirted with or whistled at a white woman. The photos of his battered body became a symbol of the hatred smoldering in the hearts of American Southerners and others.

In recent months we’ve seen appalling photos of the beheading of two American journalists and others by the ISIS terrorists. Just as Emmitt’s murder helped bring about a change in America’s attitude toward racism (and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1957), so the executions of Steven Sotloff and James Foley have triggered a turning point in our “war” against terror.

Racists and terrorists display similar traits: cruelty to the weak and defenseless, a perversion of religious beliefs, blind certainty that they’re right, and rage based on the fear — or even the knowledge — that they’re on the losing side.

But a “manifesto” I received makes me wonder if America has changed enough. It’s called “Proud to Be White,” and like many similar screeds, it’s mean-minded and untrue in both content and attribution. This one claims to have been spoken by Michael Richards (Kramer in Seinfeld), while defending some racist remarks he made in one of his stand-up routines. Richards had been criticized for using the “n-word,” but he apologized for this on the Letterman show, saying, “For me to be at a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, I’m deeply, deeply, sorry.” Now he has another burden: racists, grasping on to his remarks made in anger at some hecklers, have falsely attached his name to “Proud to Be White,” and are sending it around the Internet.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, another famous comedian, Carroll O’Connor, played the part of Archie Bunker, a blue-collar bigot who despised black, gays, feminists, almost anyone different, including his son-in-law Michael Stivic (played by Rob Reiner), whom he usually addressed by “Hey Meat-head, you dumb Polack.” Audiences laughed at Archie’s bigotry, which was only skin-deep: in the shows, he usually changed his mind when confronted with the actual person he’d been insulting.

The racism of “Proud to Be White” runs deeper. It’s as if Archie Bunker had come back without a sense of humor. It begins, “You pass me on the street and sneer in my direction. You call me ‘White boy,’ ‘Cracker,’ ‘Honkey,’ ‘Whitey,’ ‘Caveman’ and that’s OK. But when I call you Nigger, Kike, Towel head, Sand-nigger, Camel Jocky, Beaner, Gook, or Chink … you call me a racist.”

Oh, the horror!

You can easily find “Proud to Be White” on the Internet. The real problem is that in 2014 America, this rant is pulled from the same dark lava behind Governor Romney’s speech about the 47 percent of “takers,” behind the efforts by Florida and other states with Republican governors to limit the vote, behind the lack of civility toward President Obama, and behind the hatred of “Obamacare” (which, after all, though one can disagree with it, is mainly an effort to give health insurance to the poor among us).

In 1956 William Faulkner, responding to Emmett Till’s murder, observed that “the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him … What are we Mississippians afraid of?”

The question can still be asked. What are the people circulating “Proud to Be White” afraid of?

She kisses her killed boy

and she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.

—Both quotes from the last quatrain of "The Ballad of Emmett Till” by Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper & Row, 1963)     

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