Revolution #74, December 24, 2006


Michael Richards’ Racist Rant, Strange Fruit and 50 Shots

Two recent news stories — comedian Michael Richards’ racist rant and the NYPD murder of Sean Bell — bring to mind the Billie Holiday song, “Strange Fruit”:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

When Michaels Richards, of Kramer/Seinfeld fame, was heckled at a comedy club by some Black people in the audience, his unrehearsed response was to lash out repeatedly with the N word. This tells you something about Richards’ whole mindset. But even more revealing was how Richards started his whole tirade.

He said:

“50 years ago you would have been hung upside down with a fork up your ass.”

Think about what he said:

“50 years ago you would have been hung upside down with a fork up your ass.”

You can’t even begin to discuss and understand Richards’ use of the N word here without looking at this blatant celebration of LYNCHING.

When Richards struck out in anger, trying to put some Black hecklers “in their place” – what did he immediately pick up and lash out with? Lynching — the institutionalized terror and murder that was widely used to keep Black people “in their place.” When an outraged person in the audience responds by saying, “That’s un-fucking called for, that ain’t necessary,” Richards shoots back, “Well you interrupted me pal. That’s what happens when you interrupt the white man. Don’t you know?”

Later, Richards made a public apology, saying he was “deeply, deeply sorry” and that he wanted to “get to the forcefield of this hostility, why it’s there, why the rage is in any of us…”

Such a question should be asked – where such a rage comes from. And people need to confront and understand that one place this comes from is the actual privilege and entitlement that comes with being a white man in America. But this goes way beyond, and is not really about Richards. It points to a bigger historical truth about the meaning and use of the word “nigger” and the all-American practice of lynching.

In one of the numerous back-and-forth discussions on the internet about Richards’ racist rant, I found this insightful comment:

“Here’s how I feel about it… it isn’t so much the word ‘nigger’ that bothers me or the black people I know, it is the reference to lynching. I don’t believe anyone here has commented on that. I’m a white woman from Maine who had racist white women in my family years ago. They would spit on black people if upset or openly wipe their hands on their skirts if they shook hands with a black person. I’m married to an African-American today (been married to him since 1986 since we left high school) and that does have its problems in society because we don’t live in a colorblind world. Once, a black woman told me that black males (Emmett Till comes to mind) have been shot for looking at women like me. [In 1955 14-year-old Emmett Till was tortured and murdered by white men in Mississippi who said he whistled at a white woman.] I’ve been called horrible names for being married to a black man, by both blacks and whites. My husband is from the South and that was the haven of lynching back then. The most recent incident of lynching happened in 1981, with 20-year-old Michael Donald walking to the store and being violently beaten, castrated, and having his throat slit by two white racists, then tied up to a tree. Kramer didn’t do anything this extreme and many people have become desensitized to the word ‘nigger’… but it was the comment that referred to lynching that bothers people, both black and white. He specifically said: ‘Fifty years ago we would have had you upside down with a fork up your ass.’ That can be construed as racist because quite simply, it IS. He said it to two black men who might be too young to know much about lynching in terms of experience, but still know the historical connotations behind his words.”

Unlike this writer, I am bothered (and more than bothered) by the N word. But the point being made here about lynching and historical connotation is very true – and this has been far too absent in most of the discussion and controversy surrounding the Michael Richards’ incident. There is an objective and historical reality tied up with the use of the N word and no matter how much people might try to give this word a “new meaning” or some kind of “different context,” this does not and can not change the actual content and meaning of this word. You can’t separate the N word from a whole history of, as well as current reality of, white supremacy in this country. So it isn’t that surprising that someone in an uncontrolled racist tirade can very quickly find themselves connecting the N word with one of the most horrific expressions of white supremacy and murderous terror against Black people.

According to the Tuskegee Institute, from 1865-1965, 3,446 Black people were lynched.

Three thousand four hundred and forty-six.

In Mississippi alone, 539 lynchings were recorded during this period.

Everyone should go to the website and look at the photographs of lynchings, of burned and mutilated bodies, and happy mobs — whole families of white people, celebrating and enjoying the “sport” of hunting down and publicly torturing and executing Black people. Postcards with these photos were sold as souvenirs. Such is the ugly history of this country that went on for a long time, even after slavery ended.

In the DVD, “Revolution — Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s all About,” Bob Avakian talks about the selling of postcards of lynchings and makes the point that such horrors like lynching were shaped and encouraged by, and served to keep in effect a whole system that could not have existed without first slavery, and then near slavery, and segregation and terror entered in the south, while the great majority of Black people lived there, chained in one way or another to the rural south and on white-owned plantations.

If you’ve never seen these photographs, look at them. If you’ve seen them before, look at them again. And think about how this terror against Black people permeates the history of this country. White supremacy is built into the very foundation of the American capitalist system. Segregation and discrimination continue against Black people and other people of color in every part of society. And this continues to be backed up with brutality and violence.

For many decades after slavery ended, up through the 1940s, KKK mobs held mass public rallies, burned crosses, dragged Black families out of their houses, and tortured and murdered people – for no other reason than that they were Black. In such a situation, no Black man in the rural South could escape being traumatized by the fear of being lynched. It was like living under a death sentence – that might or might not get carried out. You could be killed for holding your head too high, for not saying “yes sir” quick enough, for appearing to be a “threat” in any kind of way — or for nothing at all. And this had an effect on Black people as a whole.

And what about more recent history?

In 1981, Michael Donald was randomly picked out by members of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan who were angry that a Black man on trial had not been found guilty of killing a policeman. They beat him with a tree limb before cutting his throat and hanging him from a tree.

In 1998, James Byrd, Jr. was abducted in Jasper, Texas by three white men tied to a white supremacist gang. James Byrd was beaten, chained to the back of a truck, and then dragged for three miles until his head was separated from his body.

Yes, this is still going on. And today, such terror against Black people is most especially carried out by the police. Those who “serve and protect” the system, who are like an occupying army in Black neighborhoods, harassing, jacking up, brutalizing, and murdering especially the youth. If you are a Black man, like Sean Bell, you can be celebrating the day of your wedding and then be cut down in a hail of 50 bullets.

In such a situation, no Black youth living in the ghetto can escape being traumatized by the fear of being killed by the police. It is like living under a death sentence – that might or might not get carried out. You could be killed for holding your head too high, for not saying “yes sir” quick enough, for appearing to be a “threat” in any kind of way — or for nothing at all. This has an effect on Black people as a whole.

What kind of a society gives rise to such a system that requires first lynching and then police terror to maintain itself?

And shouldn’t we all do everything we can to put an end to such a system?

Send us your comments.

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