America has a long and storied history of misnaming things. Like celebrating Cristobal Colon for “discovering” America. Or Kim Kardashian crediting her Fulani braids to Bo Derek. Or America’s penchant for calling indigenous people “savages,” or declaring Blackfolk “savages, or listing Latinx folk as “savages,” immigrants as “savages,” Asians as “savages,” and Italians and Jews before they were classified as white as “savages.” What is it about these “savages” declaring all other folk “savages”?
Another “thing” history books have forever called the wrong thing, has been America’s “race riots.” That phrase suggests groups from two races squared off on each other and resorting to violence. However, a more accurate description of those very American episodes would be “white domestic terrorism” – violence instigated, planned, organized and perpetrated by white Americans on Black individuals, businesses, churches and communities for… for any number of “reasons.”
And as Dr. Carol Anderson writes in her classic book “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” Black excellence, Blacks with ambition, grit, determination, and aspirations, have historically been the reason behind so much of this nation’s racial violence. And any gains enjoyed by Blacks, whether real or imagined, consistently served as the fuel behind white domestic terrorist fire.
Long story short, one of America’s most consistent happenings was groups of whites feeling that the Blackfolk in their midst (the ones they overworked and underpaid, the ones they segregated from fair play and equal access to any and everything) had taken something from them. And only war, destruction, and the purposeful application of violence, torture, murder and mayhem would allow things to be set right in white world.
Why is this history relevant to 2023 and beyond? Because attacks on Blacks have risen exponentially since 2016. And they show very little sign of slowing down. Monthly, weekly, almost daily we hear of these attacks on Black individuals, communities, churches, etc.
An Aug. 30, 2023 Voice of America (VOA) article said this:
“A new report released Tuesday confirms the trend, showing that Black people were the targets of more than one-fifth of all hate crimes reported in major U.S. cities last year, the highest share of any group. The report, based on police data analyzed by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, found that hate crimes targeting Black people fell by an average of 6% last year, after surging in the previous two years. But the trend was not uniform across the country, and many cities and states reported their worst numbers ever.”
So, the issue is not whether or not this violence against Blacks will disappear – hell, we’ve been waiting over 400 years for that outcome. The issue is what, then, are we going to do about it?
In the 1960s, amid heightened violence against Blacks, Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik el Shabazz) was branded a violent extremist for suggesting that Blacks, like any and every other people, have the right to protect themselves from violence, especially since the police and the U.S. government have proven themselves committed to NOT protecting Black U.S. citizens. Brother Malcolm emphasized that he and his people were a peaceful lot who were respecters of all peoples’ humanity. That respect for everyone’s humanity included a healthy and wholesome respect for Black humanity – for themselves. And this recognition of their own Black humanity demanded that Black people not allow others to beat, abuse and bomb them without a willingness to defend themselves, their children, spouses, elders, communities, etc.
It could be argued that Brother Malcolm’s words were the most “American” words ever uttered on these shores – emphasizing our right to defend ourselves from harmful, violent attacks hurled our way.
Roughly 40 years before Brother Malcolm was castigated for suggesting Black people had the same right as others to defend themselves from attacks, another brother with Caribbean roots went even further.
Another moment in U.S. history when white domestic terrorism was off the chain, i.e. violence against Blacks even higher than the norm, was the Red Summer of 1919, when these attacks ran in the hundreds, from sea to shining sea. In July of that year, Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay, a central figure in the New Negro Movement (aka the Harlem Renaissance) had his poem “If We Must Die” published in The Liberator magazine.
Check out his poem for yourself. But, in summary, McKay argued it was better to go out swinging than to be beaten and murdered in silence.
McKay was responding to an atmosphere of beyond over-the-top violence that we, in 2023, seem to be edging toward. The fact that Jan. 6 insurrectionists brought a hangman’s gallow and zip-ties to D.C. to capture and “punish” elected officials for certifying votes that the insurrectionists deemed illegitimate and un-American (Black votes from Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Philadelphia); the fact that bomb threats and mass shootings have visited HBCU campuses; the fact that younger and younger white guys with manifestos are killing large groups of Blacks on an insane pace; suggests the Red Summer of 1919 is slowly being resurrected. My prayer is that this violent rise will cease.
I don’t know if it will or it won’t, but I do know that Black parents have taught their children for decades that the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to them – to be willing to defend yourself if someone disrespects your humanity by putting their hands on you. That’s what Malcolm was suggesting; that we be willing to stand up to the bully so they know there will be consequences and repercussions if you attempt to inflict harm upon us. Contrary to the white-washed, Eurocentric version of 1960s history which paints Malcolm as some violent madman, all he was saying was “Don’t start none, won’t be none.”
But we have to be ready, willing and able to offer that defense in this day and time. That means Black individuals, organizations, faith institutions, civic clubs, frats & sororities and communities have to place self-defense much higher on our list of priorities. We already know folk who neither see nor recognize Black humanity annually sending Christmas cards with their entire family, adolescents and infants included, armed to the teeth, with military-grade firearms twice their size. We also know the whole underground, off-the-grid militia movement has been practicing and training and hoping and praying for some race war so they can use those weapons in real-world situations (hello Kyle Rittenhouse).
Operating with a Malcolm-esque willingness to defend may slow these folks’ violent role so our present and future don’t resemble that Red Summer of 1919.