SO WHAT CAN I TELL YOU ABOUT A BUNCH OF UNFORTUNATE NIGGERS stupid enough to get caught and hanged in America, or am I supposed to say lynched? I’m assuming this aggressive tone to establish a little distance from these images of the despised and dead, the better to determine the usefulness of this project, which escapes me, but doesn’t preclude my writing about it. Too often we refuse information, refuse to look or even think about something, simply because it’s unpleasant or poses a problem, or raises “issues”—emotional and intellectual friction that rubs our heavily therapeuticized selves the wrong way. I didn’t like looking at these pictures, but once I looked, the events documented in them occurred in my mind over and over again, as did the realization that these pictures are documents of America’s obsession with niggers, both black and white. I looked at these pictures, and what I saw in them, in addition to the obvious, was the way in which I’m regarded, by any number of people: as a nigger. And it is as one that I felt my neck snap and my heart break, while looking at these pictures.
In any case, America’s interest in niggers—and people more than willing to treat other people as niggers—is of passing interest since America’s propensity to define race and the underclass through hateful language, and hateful acts is well-known, and discussed. What isn’t talked about that the largely white editors (who constitute what we call Publishing), have in hiring a colored person to describe a nigger’s life. For them, a black writer is someone who can simplify what is endemic to him or her as a human being—race—and blow it up, to cartoon proportions, thereby making the coon situation “clear” to a white audience. To be fair, no such offensive non-ideas were put to me when this present collaboration was suggested, but would my inclusion in this book, as the nearly ahistorical, “lyrical” voice have been suggested if I were not a Negro? Or am I “lyrical” and ahistorical because I am a Negro? I am not going to adopt a mea culpa tone here, since I agreed to supply what I have always thought of as a soundtrack to these pictures, which, viewed together, make up America’s first disaster movie.
But before I can talk about these pictures, such as the picture of the beautiful black guy with the incredibly relaxed shoulders who has been whipped—front and back— and who does not reveal anything to us (certainly not with his eyes) except his obvious pain: his flesh-eating scars, and the many pictures of people with their necks snapped, bowels loosened, feet no longer arched—before I can talk about any of the “feelings” they engender in me, I want to get back to the first question I posed: What is the relationship of the white people in these pictures to the white people who ask me and sometimes pay me to be Negro, on the page?
Of course, one big difference between the people documented in these pictures and me is that I am not dead, have not been lynched or scalded or burned or whipped or stoned. But I have been looked at, watched, and it’s the experience of being watched, and seeing the harm in people’s eyes—that is the prelude to becoming a dead nigger like those seen here, that has made me understand, finally, what the word “nigger” means, and why people have used it, and the way I use it here, now: as a metaphorical lynching before the real one. “Nigger” is a slow death. And that’s the slow death I feel all the time now, as a colored man.
And according to these pictures, I shouldn’t be talking to you right now: I’m a little on the nigger side, meant to be seen and not heard, my tongue hanged and with it, my mind. But before that happens, let me tell you what I see in these photographs: I see a lot of crazy looking white people, as crazy and empty-looking in the face as the white people who stare at me. Who wants to look at these pictures? Who are they all? When they look at these pictures, who do they identify with? The maimed, the tortured, the dead or the white people who maybe told some dumb nigger before they hanged him, You are all wrong, niggerish, outrageous, violent, disruptive, uncooperative, lazy, stinking, loud, difficult, obnoxious, stupid, angry. Prejudiced, unreasonable, shiftless, no good, a liar, fucked up—the very words and criticism a colored writer is apt to come up against if he doesn’t do that woe-is-me Negro crap and has the temerity to ask not only why collect these pictures, but why does a colored point of view authenticate them, no matter what that colored person has to say?
In writing this, I have become a cliché, another colored person writing about a nigger’s life. So doing, I’m feeding, somewhat, into what the essayist George W. S. Trow has called “white euphoria,” which is defined by white people exercising their largesse in my face as they say, Tell me how you’ve suffered. Isn’t that what you people do? Suffer nobly, poetically sometimes even? Doesn’t suffering define you? I hate seeing this, and yet it is what I am meant to write, since I accepted the assignment, am “of the good,” and want to know why these pictures, let along events, have caused me pain. I don’t know many people who wouldn’t feel like a nigger looking at these pictures, all fucked up and hurt, killed by eyes and hands that can’t stand yours. I want to bow out of this nigger feeling. I resent these pictures for making me feel anything at all. For a long time, I avoided being the black guy, that is, being black-identified. Back then, I felt that adopting black nationalism limited my world, my world view. Now I know from experience that the world has been limited for me by people who see me as a nigger, very much in the way the dead eyes and flashbulb smiles in these photographs say: See what we do to the niggers! They are the fear and hatred in ourselves, murdered! Killed! All of this is painful and American. Language makes it trite, somehow. I will never write from this niggerish point of view again. This is my farewell. I mean to be courtly and grand. No gold watch is necessary, as I bow out of the nigger business.
In my life as a city dweller, I have crossed dark nighttime streets so as not to make the white woman walking in front of me feel fear. I have not deliberately come up behind a neighbor opening the door to our apartment building, so as not to make him feel what colored people make him feel: robbed, violated, somehow, I have been arrested on my way to school, accused of truancy. Once, when I was coming out of a restaurant with a friend, four or five cops pinned me to a wall, pointing guns at my head, I looked just like someone else. This is not to be confused with the time I sat with the same friend in his car, chatting, me in the back seat leaning over my friend’s shoulder, and suddenly the car was flooded with white lights, police lights, and the lights on the hoods of their cars were turned on, and five or six cops, guns out of their holsters and pointed at me, were ordering me to get out of the car. We thought you were a car-jacker, they said, as I stood in that white light which always reminds me of movie premiere lights, you know, where people look like all dressed-up shadows as those lights hit them, getting out of their cars?
This is what makes me feel niggerish, I’m afraid: being watched. I go to parties with white people. Invariably, one of them will make a comment about my size. They say, We’d know you anywhere, you’re so big! I mean, you’re so distinctive!, when they mean something else altogether, perhaps this: we have been watching you become what our collective imagination says you are: big and black—niggerish—and so therefore what? Whatever. As long as it can be lynched, eventually.
Once or twice I thought I might actually get killed in my New York of cops and very little safety—a nigger casualty, not unlike the brilliant Negro short story writer and poet Henry Dumas, who was shot and killed in a subway station in Harlem, another case of “mistaken identity” in a colored village? He was thirty-three years old when he was killed in 1968 and had written at least one short story that I consider a masterpiece, “Ark of Bones,” a story made distinct by the number of lynchings that fill the air without being explicitly referred to. All those colored tragedies, even before you’ve had a chance to grow up, Dumas seems to say in this tale of two boys who are ignorant of their history, and then not. That is their rite of colored male passage: having to drag all those lynchings around with them, around their necks: those are their ancestors. Too bad when violent deaths define who you are. Here’s a little of the narrator, Fish, and his voice, which is all he has: “Headeye, he was followin’ me,” Fish begins. “I knowed he was followin’ me. But I just kept goin’, like I wasn’t payin’ him no mind.” What Headeye and Fish eventually see, walking through a wood where maybe a cousin was lynched, maybe not, is an ark floating on a river. The ark is filled with the bones of their black ancestors. The ark carrying those bruised bones is “consecrated” ground, but it is divine ground that can never settle, since its home is a stream. Those bones keep moving, like the dead niggers on these pages. Every time you turn a page, they move.
But back to the idea of being watched by (primarily) white editors and being lynched by eyes. What I mean is that so much care, so much care is taken not to scare white people simply with my existence, and it’s as if they don’t want to deal with the care, too: it makes their seeing me as a nigger even more complicated. I know many, many colored people who exercise a similar sensitivity where white people are concerned, anything to avoid being lynched by their tongues or eyes. Certain colored people want to lynch you, too. They are competitive, usually, and stupid people who believe that if they work hard and sell out they can be just like most white people and hate niggers even more than they do since they “know” them. Those colored people are, in some ways, worse than white people, since they imagine that they are the sometimes-lynched class, as opposed to the always-lynched. Fact is, if you are even half-way colored and male in America, the dead heads hanging from the trees in these pictures, and the dead eyes or grins surrounding them, it’s not too hard to imagine how this is your life too, as it were. You can feel it every time you cross the street to avoid worrying a white woman to death or false accusations of rape, or every time your car breaks down anywhere in America, and you see signs about Jesus, and white people everywhere and your heart begins to race and your skin becomes clammy, and the perspiration sticks to your flesh, just like Brock Peters in the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where he’s on trial for maybe “interfering” with a white woman: it’s her word against his but her word has weight, like the dead weight of a dead lynched body.
Once you’re strung up, as they say in “The Ox-Bow Incident,” or maybe the Maureen O’Hara version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” or maybe in “In Cold Blood,” or once they’ve fixed a pain in the neck for you, as they say in “His Girl Friday” (all these movies have lynchings in them, or make reference to lynchings), once that’s happened, what happens to your body? Did the families in these pictures stand at the periphery and wait for all to be over, when someone, maybe the youngest among them, could climb the tree and cut Cousin or Mother or Father down? It’s hard to see if any of the lynched have anything but rope and eyes staring at them in these pictures. When they were lynched their humanity was taken from them so why not their families? They have no names in these pictures—maybe addresses, I don’t know, since I couldn’t look past the pictures, really. What difference would it have made to get the facts of any of these lives, white or colored, right? Don’t we want this story to go away?
I’m ashamed that I couldn’t get into the history of these people. I saw these pictures through a strong light that my mind put up, to obscure what I saw when I looked at all these dead niggers, their bodies reshaped by tragedy. I think the white light I saw was the white light those cops put on me. If you look at any number of old newsreel pictures taken at the big Hollywood premieres held at the Pantages, or Grauman’s Chinese, in the nineteen thirties, forties, or fifties, some of the guests walking past the movie lights—klieg lights—look like shadowy half people trying to fill their suits or dresses. People as penumbrae. That’s the light I saw when I looked at these pictures: it made the people in the pictures look less real. When I thought of that white light, I thought of my introduction to the South, where many of these niggers were killed: it was sitting in a darkened movie theatre with my mother and little brother, watching a revival of “Gone With the Wind,” which some people called “GWTW.” We ignored the pitiful colored people in the film because we wanted to enjoy ourselves, and in Margaret Mitchell’s revisionist tale of the South, Vivien Leigh was so pretty. We couldn’t think of those dumb niggers hanging from the trees in some field or another in Atlanta or outside of it, even though we knew about that by then. I’m sure we did though I don’t think I’d heard Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit,” about all those black bodies swinging in the Southern trees. At any rate, I didn’t like Billie Holiday for a long time: her voice didn’t make sense to me, nor did those black bodies, nothing so terrible was ever going to happen to me in Brooklyn, where I was considered cute and knew I would live forever. The world was going to love me forever. Whites and blacks.
I could make them love me, just as Vivien Leigh made so many men fall in love with her before the fall of Atlanta, in a movie that came out around the time Billie Holiday was singing “Strange Fruit,” and perhaps that’s an interesting thing to try now, watch- ing GWTW to the sound of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” See her black bodies and weariness smeared all over Vivien Leigh’s beautiful face, and Hattie McDaniel’s–-at times–-calculated, inflexible one.
Sitting in the movie theatre, watching GWTW for the first time, I was in love with Vivien Leigh and not all those niggers, the most hateful among them being a brown- faced, oily-skinned carpetbagger who looks at our Vivien Leigh with some kind of lust and disgust. I hated him then because he intruded on the beautiful pink world. Leigh’s girlishness could have smothered me; I would have made her forget that I was colored and that she could lynch me if she wanted to because I knew I could make her love me. But how do you get people to ignore their history? I never thought of those things when I had love on my mind.
In the middle of the movie, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett suffers, and says she will never suffer again, and I loved her so much I didn’t want her to suffer. As I grew up, I retained that feeling toward women who looked like my first movie star love: I didn’t want them to suffer, even though they, like Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, could lynch a nigger to pay for all their hardship: God didn’t make people of her class and wealth and race to suffer. For sure, Scarlett, in real life, might have lynched a nigger in order to make that person pay for all the inexplicable pain she had gone through and eventually come out the other side of, a much better person.
After that, her world might have looked completely different.