Breaking a self-imposed rule to not write about the daily events that can mesmerize us into thinking that we are doing something, I can’t help but say a few things about Shirley Sherrod.
An element of the Sherrod story that I have not read in the Oh so voluminous coverage and marination of these events is an obvious one, perhaps so obvious as to not need comment; you decide.
Bob Herbert in his most recent Times piece, Thrown to the Wolves, goes through a litany of the failures of thought, reason and process that allowed the perversion of bigoted men and a powerful movement to act in, and carry on its bow-wave, a rush to judgment. But Herbert only ends with wonderment and explains, yet another time, the superiority of Mrs. Sherrod’s character.
Given the speed with which this quasi-judicial lynching took place and the lack of incredulity, there seemed to be, over purported opinions held by such as Mrs. Sherrod, it is obvious to me that at least three presumptions were being made: (1) that it was natural for Blacks to hold prejudiced attitudes toward whites, (2) put in a position of authority that ‘they’ will work that prejudice and (3) that ‘they’ will not fight back when abused.
If you take these statements out of the context of the Sherrod case, you have an outline of classic prejudice as it functions in the American south. Blacks are and have been long mistreated and it is assumed that they will be angry about it. If it can even be hinted that a Black person is acting in response to that assumed anger, the white south reacts with certainty that it is so. Hidden in the deep and wide reservoir of southern quilt is the fear that all the presumed resentment for the mistreatment will finally come out and overwhelm. And so like a bat hearing the faintest echo from the furtive moth, the southern ear is tuned to hear the slightest sign of Black anger. And southern ‘manhood’ is always tightly wound, ready to stomp on it.
Mrs. Sherrod and her Georgia audience knew these things completely in a deeply shared way. To think that the general public can make competent judgments about the 2 minutes in question or even the whole speech is a terrible hubris; imagine men listening to a woman giving a speech about childbirth to a group of mothers and talking about her feelings throughout the process of labor: “There were moments when I could have grabbed a scalpel and stabbed him.” (A twitter of recognition passes through the audience as self-conscious laughter.)
Blacks in the south polish their every word and motion when in the white world, every possible sign that could even remotely be seen as hostile is removed. This has been required, but has also had the effect of making even the most minor slipup standout like a punch in the nose.
Black 14 year old Emmett Till was tortured and killed in Mississippi in 1955 for speaking to a white store owner’s wife on a dare; his mutilated body thrown in the Tallahatchie River. No one was convicted. The only part of the story that is unusual is that it received attention.
An unguarded look, too rapid a movement of an arm, an inflection of speech that might seem ‘uppity,’ these and other ‘violations’ of expectation have resulted in beatings and worse.
How many of you former jocks would want your locker room antics to be recorded and played in whole or in edited part. I am not saying that a speech made to a NAACP meeting should enjoy the same privacy as a locker room, but I am saying that this was a speech made outside of a white world that expects and requires absolute obedience to the southern protocol. And honest brokers should have known it.
There was nothing strange in the reaction of officialdom: uppity nigger broke the rules, let out a hint of Black anger (it wasn’t even anger so much as confusion – no difference in the south) and had to be stomped. I was only surprised by how generalized the southern expectation had become. The NAACP was trying to polish out the rough spot, so their seemingly strange response is really understandable; and perhaps the same can be said for the administration.
The rest of it is where the real story lies (you may see that as pun): the use of racial fear and prejudice for political power, the hidden support for the whole underbelly of lies and coercive actions that are forming as a substitute for democratic discourse, the increasingly transparent and mad class struggle between the rich and everyone else. It is here that the hydra lives.
Mrs. Sherrod was not tied to barn fan and thrown in a river. Happily, the immediate reaction was, and could be, reconsidered. Finally, I don’t know what this all means. I know that it is easy to say that we have come some distance from the bad old days; then again, it may be that the only real difference is that the story got our attention.