Sunday, February 10, 2008

Black History, Very Black History

Liberal shock and awe at the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in U.S. imperial domains must have been a source of bitter amusement to black people, whose two and a half centuries of enslavement here were certainly no human rights picnic, and whose experience with lynching just might be described as a form of torture, however much white people might prefer to believe otherwise.

Most intriguing are the so-called "spectacle lynchings," which were typically given enthusiastic advance billing on the radio and in screaming headlines on the front page of daily newspapers. Thousands of white men were summoned from far and wide, encouraged to bring the wife and kids and make a day of it. In a gleeful, picnic-like atmosphere, son sitting on papa's shoulders to get a better view, a black man was dragged into the presence of the mob, ritually castrated, and burned alive for the entertainment of the cheering crowd, which urged the torturers to go slow so they could savor the victim's every last agonized scream. After the deed was done, the crowd sifted through the embers looking for souvenirs - a charred piece of bone, a severed tooth, a chunk of barbecued flesh - while lamenting how short-lived the day's festivities had been. It was not unknown for some of the victim's body parts to end up in a local store's display case, to keep the memory of good times alive.

These black victims were routinely described as having died "at the hands of persons unknown," though photographs of proudly grinning lynch mobs were regularly published in the newspaper, which should have made identification of the perpetrators a rather straightforward matter, had there been any interest in bringing them to justice. But there wasn't. These barbaric acts were the product of the entire white community, not specific individuals, and if there were whites who had any misgivings about them, they kept them to themselves.

The reigning racial theory behind such events held that whites were genetically pre-ordained to create civilization, while blacks were predisposed for savagery. Whites remained optimistic, however, as it was fervently believed that the civilized master race could guide blacks from savagery to civilization via Christianity.

At the turn of the 20th century the reigning religion of Anglo-Saxonism held that descendants of select German tribes carried a genius for self-government, nation building, technology, and conquest, which had caused them to soar over the "lower races" for the previous 1500 years, especially blacks.

"We are Teutons, God's kings of men," proclaimed ex-Confederate officer Colonel Robert Bingham in 1900. He believed that manhood, suffrage, and personal responsibility were exclusively Anglo-Saxon virtues, and confidently asserted that "every step towards the higher freedom [was] won in the best blood of our race."

Anglo-Saxonists thrilled to the conquest of the world's "waste spaces," i.e., those not yet subject to white domination. Anglo-Saxonism had the backing of "racial science" (eugenics), which posited that racial categories were fixed and final, though somehow still susceptible to corruption via the horrors of "mongrelization." As Thomas Dixon Jr.'s best-selling 1902 novel, "The Leopard's Spots," put it, "One drop of negro blood makes a negro, it kinks the hair, flattens the nose, thickens the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions." Since black men were allegedly permanently in heat around white women, lynch mobs were regarded as the only answer to fatal contamination of civilized blood.

The year before Dixon's book came out, one of the most important books published was called "The Mystery Solved: The Negro a Beast." At the time anthropologists placed blacks somewhere between the great apes and the hominids on the evolutionary spectrum. Biologists reported that their average brain weight was less than that of Caucasians and substantially less than that of English-speaking Protestants. Psychologists claimed they were possessed of a primal sexuality and prone to irrationality, especially under stress or in situations of intimacy. Criminologists warned of their allegedly innate brutality and hyper-fertility. Doctors predicted that they would die out from disease and perversion. The consensus among white experts held that blacks had no mental or physical energy, lacked volition, and worked the least they could get away with. They were said to be bereft of civilized artifacts like architecture and literature, while regarding indolence and sunshine as the earthly paradise. Their capacity for thought was said to be brutally rudimentary, although whites remained hysterical with fear that exposing them to book learning would "spoil" their appetite for menial labor. Teddy Roosevelt summed up the problem thusly: "A perfectly stupid race can never rise to a very high plane." No one thought he was talking about white people.

Black men who served in the U.S. conquest of the Philippines were treated no better than blacks in general. They departed for the front amidst race riots while headlines screamed "War of the Races is Threatened." When the black 49th Volunteer Infantry left San Francisco, The Call published a huge minstrel-style, front page drawing of the men "cakewalking" up the gangplank. A soldier with ludicrously thick lips and bulging eyes was depicted telling his similarly endowed girlfriend: "Jes' one mo' smack at dem cherub lips." The accompanying caption explained that every black officer had "at least two ladies there to bid goodbye," adding that "when dat coon ban' played de cakewalk, 'the men' used their guns as walking sticks and their file man as a partner" and "danced away for dear life."

Once in the Philippines, white soldiers jeered at their black officers rather than salute them: "What are you coons doing here?" General Otis protested to Washington that black racial loyalties made them overly fond of Filipinos, and that they got along "too well with the native women," causing "demoralization" among the fallen females. A black soldier offered a less theoretical explanation, positing that Filipino women liked blacks better than whites because they do "not push them off the streets, spit at them [or] call them damn 'niggers.'" There's no accounting for taste.

Well-published and highly educated Woodrow Wilson regarded blacks as fit subjects for "darky" stories in cabinet meetings but unfit for high office. Coming to the presidency in 1913, he prepared to reverse longstanding policy by appointing white instead of black ministers to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Blacks had not been admitted to Princeton during Wilson's earlier tenure as president of that university, a policy unique among Ivy League institutions at the time. Their purging from voting rolls and public offices in the wake of Reconstruction Wilson attributed to the "inevitable ascendancy of the whites." After Wilson re-imposed segregation on federal offices, W. E. B. DuBois complained that, "In the Treasury and Post Office Department colored clerks have been herded to themselves as though they were not human beings." DuBois inquired about one "colored clerk" who allegedly "could not actually be segregated" on account of the kind of work he did, so that he had had "a cage built around him to separate him from his white companions of many years."

In 1915 Wilson screened the racist "Birth of a Nation" at the White House, pronouncing the White South's version of Reconstruction, replete with ape-like black legislators and virginal white women threatened by blacks who were virtual walking phalluses, as "all so terribly true." The popular film incited an escalating wave of race riots and lynchings throughout the country. A disgusted W. E. B. DuBois pronounced the movie abominable, "with the Negro represented either as an ignorant fool, a vicious rapist, a venal or unscrupulous politician or a faithful but doddering idiot."

Wilson's Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, touring U.S.-occupied Haiti in 1917, recommended that the island be directly run by the military, thus avoiding the continuing conflicts between white supremacist U.S. officers and mulatto Haitian elites. While looking forward to this prudent solution to black people's assumed incapacity to govern themselves, Roosevelt devoted himself to official ceremonies, impressing his Haitian hosts with his French, his strict observance of protocol, and his disregard for the color line. On the prospects for Haitians to become civilized, he waxed optimistic: "I cannot agree . . . that just because the Haytian native population does not use knives, forks, cups, etc. that they will never use them. As a matter of fact I feel convinced that during the next generation the Haytian population will adopt the living standards more generally in vogue."

Looking on Haitians as "little more than primitive savages," Roosevelt assisted the Marine occupations of both Haiti (1915-1934) and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924), regarding such actions as noble efforts to civilize the "backward" countries of the world. When Marine Corps Major Smedley Butler machine-gunned 51 Haitians to death at Fort Riviere, Roosevelt made sure he got the Congressional Medal of Honor for it.

When he became president he declined to back anti-lynching legislation, fearing the political clout of Dixiecrats in Congress, while lynchings were publicly announced and carried out even in Washington D.C. Such events allowed a rising Adolf Hitler to boast without rebuttal that Germany treated Jews better than the U.S. treated blacks.


Philip Dray, "At The Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America," (Random House, 2002)

Willard B. Gatewood, "Black Americans and the White Man's Burden, 1898-1903," (University of Illinois, 1975)

Willard B. Gatewood, "'Smoked Yankees' And The Struggle For Empire," (University of Illinois, 1971)

Daniel B. Schirmer, "Republic or Empire - American Resistance to the Philippine War," (Schenkman Publishing Company, 1972)

David Levering Lewis, "W. E. B. DuBois - Biography of a Race, 1868-1919," (Henry Holt, 1998)

Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau (with Eve Pell), "To Serve The Devil," vol. 2 (Vintage, 1971)

Blanche Wiesen-Cook, "Eleanor Roosevelt, 1933-1938," (Penguin, 1999)

Noel J. Kent, "America in 1900," (M. E. Sharpe, 2000)

Stuart Creighton Miller, "Benevolent Assimilation - The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1898-1903," (Yale, 1982)

Hans Schmidt, "The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934," (Rutgers, 1995)

------Michael K. Smith is the author of "Portraits of Empire," and "The Madness of King George" (illustrations by Matt Wuerker), both from Common Courage Press. He can be reached at

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