This Saturday, an anti-vaxx fundraiser, “Liberate Our Five Freedoms”, will be held—in as of yet—an undisclosed location in upstate NY. It will be headlined by Naomi Wolf: best-selling author, prominent Third-Wave white feminist, former political advisor to Clinton and Gore.
I feel it is significant to mention her place within Third-Wave Feminism—a term coined by Rebecca Walker (daughter of Alice Walker) in her essay “Becoming the Third Wave” (1992)—to impress that Wolf is not part of the far-right (in the 90s she was considered progressive, perhaps even radical) rather she is your run-of-the-mill corporate liberal, who has tweeted support for Black Lives Matter (prior to her ban from Twitter)—so you know, ally AF. And presumably all in attendance will mirror her values and politics, i.e. recycling, NPR-listening, aluminum-free deodorant wearing liberal white folk.
I’m not going to write about anti-vaxxers and the masks they refuse to wear but rather how Black memory, Black bodies, and Black trauma are used as conduits and costumes for whiteness to exercise itself through, to make claim to authenticity with, and to obfuscate and obscure in order to cling to the delusion of innocence.
When journalist Eoin Higgins reached out to the organizer for comment on the appropriateness of the decision to seemingly co-opt Juneteenth, the organizer replied, “The 19th is a day of emancipation, and it's a day when we claim our freedom…It’s when we see that we are not slaves to mandate. It's when we take our power back."
Cool story bro.
During chattel slavery, slavers stuck iron bits in the mouths of my ancestors, as if they were horses, which is similar to wearing a cotton mask purchased on Etsy.
Our language bends towards hyperbole for claim to emphasis—and it feels to me, that the only way these white people can emphasize and truly prove how oppressed they feel, is to compare their supposed ‘oppression’ to the oppression of others—a violence, of course, that was perpetrated and operationalized by people who look exactly like them and/or, their very ancestors-- a violence from which they continue to privilege from.
Let us consider the organizer’s language:
[…Brief interlude, which is to say, a break from this authorial literary voice:
Bruh. They really out here wildin. Not on this Juneteenth sis. Y’all learned about this holiday, literally last year, and y’all already taking it? Couldn’t even give us a year? Y’all needed it that bad? I wish you would. I’m not the one...
Now back to our regular broadcasting…]
In her new book Appropriate, poet Paisley Rekdal muses over why so many white (particularly cis-male) authors have written novels from the perspective of the enslaved yet rarely ever from the position of the slaver. Why, she wonders, is it easier for these white men to imagine themselves as abused rather than the abuser?
Is whiteness capable of seeing Blackness as fully human and not just pain? Our lives are so much more than pain—they are exhalation and exuberance in all its joy and messiness. My steez is too much for you. My drip too ill. My language is jazz; poetry built of soil and concrete and acrylic and fry-oil and glory. Like someone put they whole foot in it. Bruh I would want to be like me too. Look up Audacity in the OED and you’d find a picture of me and mine. Still here. Revolutionary in all the ways. Free Breakfast for the Children. Wu Tang for the Children. My ancestors looking down saying, Look at my Children. Look how they shine.
Why is it easier to imagine my trauma and not their own? For white people are traumatized. It’s not like white people are thriving under late-capitalism (see Dying of Whiteness by Dr. Jonathan Metzl). And yet white anxiety and white grievance, instead of taking form through racial solidarity and a glorious proletariat uprising, prefers to take its form in conspiracy.
Fam, there is no conspiracy. There is only white supremacy and colonialism.
A friend of mine believes that if white people were to face their history, they would crumble.
We’re currently seeing this play out with the moral panic over ‘critical race theory’ (and its relationship to ‘Cultural Marxism’ [which to be clear, is not a thing]—accusations that are entrenched in anti-Semitism).
A number of Republican-led states are considering or have already signed into law, how public school teachers are allowed to frame history. On June 10th 2021, Florida’s state Board of Education banned CRT from public classrooms, saying they wish to shield students from distortions of history such as “that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”
To be clear, the Florida’s Board of Education is saying that racism is not embedded in American society and our criminal law system in order to uphold white supremacy.
Again, cool story bro.
Gov. DeSantis invoked Dr. King (a favorite technique of racist white men to push colorblind racism) to expose the ‘toxicity’ of CRT, “Some of this stuff is, I think, really toxic…I think it’s going to cause a lot of divisions. I think it’ll cause people to think of themselves more as a member of a particular race based on skin color, rather than based on the content of their character and based on their hard work and what they’re trying to accomplish in life.”
Gov. DeSantis, the man who defended a supporter of his who suggested we bring back lynchings, the Gov. DeSantis who told Floridians not to “monkey this up” when running a campaign against a Black man, the Gov. DeSantis who has made his entire career on anti-Latinx, anti-immigrant, xenophobic language and policies, is telling us that Florida does not have divisions and that people do not think of themselves as a member of a particular race based on skin-color. Florida: the post-racial bastion we’ve all been waiting for!
This should also remind us of the many-years-long battle in Texas to approve the creation of a Mexican-American studies course for public high schools (passed in 2018). Opposition to the course cited concerns that this would create anger among Latinx students towards white people. From what innocence do white people think they will fall from? Bruh we all know that Baldwin quote about rage. To be relatively conscious. Like we haven’t been paying attention?
Or the Arizona HB2281 which imposed a state-wide ban on ethnic studies courses from 2010 until a federal judge struck it down in 2017 (cause you know, unconstitutional). It was a fine seven year run and gave us such gems as this quote from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, “Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds… Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism.”
This is the delusion of innocence I’m talking about; which relies on this strange amalgamation of ahistoricity, colorblindness, and gaslighting. History happened. Some of it was bad but mostly good, especially the Founding Fathers (or Founding Zaddies as I like to call them). No one is at fault and I can bend history and its traumas to suit whatever bad faith argument I wish to make. Like how the American public school system teaches us to be “American” (which sounds a lot like the Indian Boarding Schools) or how any ‘impingement’ upon freedom is equatable to both tyranny and slavery and that somehow whiteness is disconnected from all of this. Yeah yeah yeah that happened all that time ago but why are you making me pay for it?
I was well into my 20s when I learned about Juneteenth. I’ve been embarrassed about this for years as I’ve internalized the white supremacist notion that somehow I have to account for the entirety of Black history, lest I be considered less Black or the “whitest Black guy I know,” which a white manager said to me once. Somehow whiteness is prized except when it can be located within Blackness. And what does it mean for a Black person to act white? Is it elocution? Is it learnedness? Is it a softness, when you expected obsidian? Or, is it the realization that I can quote Virginia Woolf and Lil’ Kim, that I can listen to Fleetwood Mac on the way to the cookout, and that makes me powerful in ways you couldn’t even imagine? And here I am always thinking that you got me pressed but maybe it’s the other way around—maybe my existence has got you pressed up against that wall you’ve erected and that shit is crumbling.
I was adopted by white parents, who loved and cared for me and gave me a wonderful childhood, but taught me nothing of my history (which is also their history)—and probably never thought to. I certainly wasn’t taught about Juneteenth in school. In fact for the entirety of my schooling, up and through college, I never had a Black history teacher—in fact, I only had a single BIPOC history teacher, in high school, who was Japanese-American, and if it wasn’t for him going “off-script”, I never would have learned about the Japanese internment/concentration camps, since at the time it was not required by LAUSD.
I’m not making the argument that the teaching of CRT would have saved us from the delusion of a white anti-vaxx group comparing social distancing to chattel slavery (and calling themselves slaves) but I do fundamentally believe that my liberation is tied to the liberation of white people (whether I like it or not) and that white folks will not know happiness, comfort, safety, security—they will not be free, until they wrestle with their history. Which should remind us of the Baldwin quote from his essay “Stranger in the Village”, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
For racism is not a BIPOC problem for white folks to empathize with and reply with such platitudes as, “I’m listening”, it is a white problem for white people to deal with. In fact, it should likely be called white racism since racism is prejudice plus power and BIPOC folk don’t have the power (nor time nor interest—again, not looking for revenge just liberation) to create an entire system based off of cheap white labor, the mass incarceration of white people, the disenfranchisement of white people from healthcare, public schooling, affordable housing, state-endorsed violence against white people, economic displacement of white people, redlining, voter suppression, and a Moda Center full of rabid BIPOC fans cheering on their all-white basketball team (for the only thing Black about the NBA is its labor and if you took that away, the NBA would look a lot like Google).
Strangely enough, a number of those things are already occurring for white folks with low-incomes, which should probably give them pause and consider who is enacting violence against them, is the refugees at the boarder fleeing destabilized and economically ravaged countries (which the US definitely had nothing to do with) or a trans-continental conglomerate that pay $0 in taxes, only became richer during this pandemic, treats their non-unionized workers like automatons, but hopefully, soon enough, will drone drop, like the bombs of a consumerist dream, our packages filled with microwaves and BPA-free straws, on our crumbling doorsteps. That is the Red, White, and Blue freedom I’m asking for!
On this Juneteenth, I’ll probably put on Aretha Franklin’s record “Young, Gifted, and Black” and thumb my way through whatever Baldwin essay collection is closest to me on the shelf. I will celebrate the entirety of Blackness. I will cry, I will laugh, I will dance. I will thank my ancestors for their strength and grace and remember I stand shoulders that never broke.
Actually, let me do that now.
I’m holding No Name in the Street, one of his later books. It opens to page 128. I’ve underlined something at the bottom of the page. Let me read it now, “People who cling to their delusions find it difficult, if not impossible, to learn anything worth learning.”
Tell ‘em Uncle Jimmy.