Opinion Progress and backlash inspire and haunt Black patriotism
Wisdom is a blessing and a curse. It sometimes seems prophetic, seeing around corners and predicting events before they happen. It’s a gift when it helps us make smart decisions or avoid danger. It can be a burden when it sees a bad thing ahead, warns that it can’t be avoided, and advises that we brace for impact. Wisdom is not always right, but it is always valuable.
My father’s wisdom helped me better understand the chaotic month of August, swinging between the poles of joy and pain. On one side, there was the reaction to the Montgomery Riverfront brawl. In the days that immediately followed, it was rather fun to be Black in America. Fun in the way that a people can manage to fashion humor from pain. Fun in the way that a certain cultural understanding is required to appreciate the humor at all.
The story has become legend and inspired a glut of comical memes. On Aug. 5, a Black co-captain attempted to moor his riverboat, and a group of White recreational boaters wouldn’t move their pontoon. The races of the parties matter only because of what happened next. When the White group attacked the Black co-captain ashore, Black bystanders came by land, air and sea to his rescue. Some ran, some cleared railings from higher elevations, and others leaped from boats and swam to the rescue. A chair was used. The jokes were everywhere. Social media. Group chats. Office conversations and happy hours. It was a time.
The following week, I visited my North Carolina hometown and, with a chuckle, brought the brawl up to my father. He responded, “Yeah man, things like that, a lot of people think it’s funny. And I understand.” Then he looked at me without blinking and said, “But for some, it’s traumatic. It’s hard watching that kind of stuff.”
Intellectually, it made sense. But that pier in Montgomery had come to represent a Colosseum where solidarity and self-defense were the victors. Observing that unity in the face of violence was a thrill. The laughs that soon came were the overflowing sentiments of pride looking for somewhere to go. The memes became vessels.
For my father, though — raised in South Carolina during the dark days of Jim Crow — fighting back often meant violence from the state and vigilantes was not far behind. Montgomery was a painful reminder of a powerless past. For some, experience saw beyond the veil, changing Montgomery from a prideful moment of righteous indignation into a flashing warning of imminent racist backlash. Wisdom cautioned that a bad thing lay up ahead; my father had already steeled himself for it.
The wait wasn’t long. August’s pendulum soon swung to pain.
Last Saturday, a self-avowed white supremacist on a racist mission to kill Black people shot up a Jacksonville, Fla., store in a predominantly Black community. He took three lives and then his own. The backlash had arrived. The shooting wasn’t necessarily retaliation in direct response to Montgomery, but the white-supremacist ideology that inspired it was driven by a sense that Black people no longer know their place. Violence has always been used to remind us.
Wisdom advised that when Donald Trump blamed his 2020 election loss on voter fraud in predominantly Black cities such as Atlanta, ugliness would follow. And it did, on Jan. 6, 2021. Then-senator-elect Rev. Raphael G. Warnock (D- Ga.), on the Sunday after the U.S. Capitol riot, told his congregation: “As we consider what happened — the ugliness of it all — I want us to recognize that we didn’t see in that moment the emergence of violence. I want you to see the ways in which the violence was already there.”
When Trump caravanned to his arrest and mug shot in Georgia last week, Black Atlantans were filled with pride and outrage. But then there were those like Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, the mother-and-daughter election workers who became targets of Trump and his sycophants. For them, grappling with trauma can make the wins harder to enjoy. Moss, the daughter, told the House committee investigating the Capitol attack that she received messages like “Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920” — the threat of lynching loud and clear. Freeman, her mother, told the committee, “There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere.”
If the former president is convicted, many will celebrate. Those who were directly harmed, perhaps including Freeman and Moss, might find some small measure of satisfaction in the reckoning. But there will be those, like my father, who will respect the decision of the court, and then steel themselves for the backlash. Alongside Trump, our democratic system of government is on trial, too. But the nation’s culture, the true prize of contemporary political battles, will be final judge and jury.
And so it goes for Jacksonville. By taking his own life, the murderer leaves a community and a country wanting for justice. The wisdom of previous generations tells us that the courts are necessary but insufficient to stop such attacks. The white supremacist who executed Black parishioners at Bible study in a historic Charleston church received the nation’s first death sentence for hate crimes. Yet, Jacksonville still happened. Buffalo still happened.
A White riverboat passenger who recorded the melee in Montgomery said the co-captain was initially confronted by one of the men on the pontoon, who “had this air about him that he was there first and he wasn’t going to move.” That is the same air that the white supremacists in Charlottesville inhaled while chanting, “You will not replace us!” It is the same air exhaled between the shots fired in Jacksonville and Buffalo and Charleston.
A concluding thought: The wisdom earned under the thumb of oppression and threats of violence might be a blessing and a curse, but it has never been defeatist. Frederick Douglass, one of the wisest Americans who has ever lived, as well as one of the nation’s harshest critics, famously said in his 1852 Fourth of July oration — when slavery was very much alive: “I do not despair of this country.”
We do not either. We cannot. It is our home, the only one we have. And we must be wise with it."