On January 6, white and rich congresspeople were, perhaps for the first time, forced to realise that Nazis can multi-task. Previously, they may have thought racist violence followed a certain logic. Lynch mobs would kill with racial classificatory charts in hand, attacking the people at the bottom rung and then moving up, allowing ample time for the alert and not sufficiently Nazi to escape – if necessary.
They have now discovered that people in The Revenant costumes do not stick to plans. They will not only chase Black men up stairs, like their torch-bearing forebears chased Black children from the Coloured Orphan Asylum in the lynch mob riots of New York, or Black pedestrians from main streets dotted with strafer fire in the Lynch mob riots of Tulsa. But they also envision stringing up conflicted vice presidents and fur coat-wearing senators.
When it was Black churches shot up or burned, or department stores near the Mexican border, or Black drivers at a traffic stop, the blood spilled could be mopped up easily enough with thoughts and prayers and talk of “starting conversations”. But on January 6, it was they – white and rich congresspeople – who had to cower for their lives and think about their children orphaned and forced to watch videos of their bloodstained blouse no longer lifting as they lay sprawled out on the floor. Their lives flashing before their eyes under a howling crowd, convinced and wanting to prove that their lives did not matter.
Suddenly we saw liberals leaving conversations. No more talk of “he is not worth impeachment”, no more waiting for a white supremacist president to “take this opportunity to heal the nation”. Instead, Congress was whipped into action to vote on removing the president via the 25th Amendment of the constitution.
Even a few conservatives joined who previously were content to be silent on conspiracy theories. Traditionally, talk of Jews eating babies, Negroes raping white women, Muslims plotting a stealthy sharia takeover, Mexico sending rapists and job-stealers and other conspiracies were vote-winners for conservatives and left only non-white corpses in their wake.
The conservative media too appeared shaken, when they realised that the man in the Auschwitz shirt was peeking around corners looking for them as well. They were supposed to incite pogroms only against “blacks” and the “radical left”, their hosts looking directly into the camera to rile up an audience with messages that they are coming for “YOU” with all the urgency of a radio host in 1994 Rwanda screaming “cut down the tall trees”.
Today, however, we are told it is a new day in America. Joe Biden is president. The broken glass in the Capitol building has already been swept away into the past by dutiful essential workers. Anger over the burning of Washington’s Reichstag is subsiding, as the right and the corporate left return to their respective camps and Biden says “folks, we must come together”.
Biden says we must listen to each other, stop the shouting, lower the temperature and end this uncivil war. As if the problem between the two camps is not that one has been killing the other but a problem of decorum. As if the side with the Black Lives Matter placards “just want to be heard” – as liberal politicians continue to misrepresent – and is not ordering that we be left to survive.
Biden smiles, opens his arms, says: “Folks”, and just like that, otherwise critical thinkers who rightly laughed off pundits and commentators who, upon Donald Trump’s every flinch, wondered aloud if it may signify a pivot away from racism, now wonder if this is America’s moment. If this is the moment America might finally pivot in some significant way away from white supremacy. If it would finally “live up to its ideals” and, as President Abraham Lincoln charged, obey its “better angels”.
Biden echoed Lincoln’s unity-themed “better angels of our nature” inaugural speech in his own. He did not, however, mention that the purpose of Lincoln’s speech was to assure the white men of the South, on the eve of the Civil War, that they “were not enemies, but friends”. And, as their friend, he did not intend to steal into freedom the Africans they dragged about in neck shackles.
Liberals report feeling rested and re-invigorated. A late-night show put together a montage of Mount Rushmore and a Martin Luther King, Jr statue singing in celebration. The “push-him-left” crews are rolling up their sleeves. Arnold Schwarzenegger held up a sword. And a young Black woman was given a platform on the steps of the US Capitol to offer her art to the service of critical patriotism.
“Unity!” rings from the church bells and from the mouths of soldier and babe. Democrats warn Republicans no hugs without accountability but signal a way back to bi-partisan governance, once the last of the broken glass is swept under the rug.
Even white leftists are offering theirs and Black people’s forgiveness to white supremacists, sketching out ways for the far left to build bridges to the far right in the fight against liberal hegemony. Indeed, almost all of the colony looks forward to the day when they will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old white nationalist spiritual: “Unity at last! Unity at last! Thank God Almighty, we have unity at last!”
But all of this will not be enough. America, like Trump, will not pivot.
American unity is run through the ribs of the Negro. It has been white nationalist from its inception. As early as 1676, unity meant legislating into existence the category of “white people”. This new category of humans was to be given privileges Africans were explicitly denied. White people, it was hoped, made legally superior and thus led into supremacism, would never again be tempted to join Africans in a rebellion against the state as they had during Nathaniel Bacon’s anti-Indigenous rebellion of that year.
Bacon enticed indentured servants, white and black, to join him, in exchange for their freedom, in a settler landowner’s war against indigenous people which later spiralled into an all-out war against the government. Like the deliberate creation of a middle class in several African colonies, white people were, in part, invented to be a buffer between the anti-colonial population and the governors.
The American Revolution, as historian Gerald Horne has shown in his book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, was not, as is relentlessly advertised, the birth pangs of a great experiment in liberty. On the contrary, it was a colony-wide counter-revolution and its aim, in no small part, was to put down the nascent Black abolitionism of plantation rebellions and the fugitive formerly enslaved who joined the British to fight their former masters: the American Patriots.
The patriot-settlers were victorious against the British not long after smallpox felled much of the “Ethiopian Regiment”, troops made up of enslaved Black people who had escaped the patriot-masters to join the British side following a proclamation by Lord Dunmore, the British colonial governor of Virginia.
Lord Dunmore, desperate against the insurrectionists, ordered that any indentured servants and Negroes who fought for the British crown against the American patriots would be set free. Thousands joined, but their stories have been lost to the middle passage of American nationalist history, swept under the rug, along with the “Colonial Marines” – a British-trained regimen of formerly enslaved Black people – who burned down the White House, and the rest of the history of Black rebellion against American patriots, American patriotism, the masters and their colony. The bust of Crispus Attucks is placed atop the rug to keep these voices securely suppressed.
Having chased out the British, the settler-patriots went on to institute a new republic: America. It was an experiment in democracy, they say. An imperfect project that extended the promise of freedom to more and more folks in each successive generation. But this is a lie.
Yannick Giovanni Marshall is an academic and scholar of African Studies.