I’ve always known that rhetoric, speech, and writing serve as weapons to sever communities or as tools to bring them together. Because of this, I know that individuals in power will use that weapon to keep individuals below separate through demonizing one group and promising hopes to the other. This has occurred throughout history, and in regard to race in America, it has occurred with some politicians and those in power telling whites who are beneath them, “You can be like me one day. You’re not like Blacks. Latinxs. Muslims. You should fear and hate them. You’re white.” This weapon serves, then, to construct a dispensable army that’s been promised riches but will probably never see them. It works to buttress those in power, making everyone beneath them expendable.
Numerous thinkers, artists, and scholars have discussed this from W.E.B. Du Bois to Keri Leigh Merritt and more. Over the next couple of posts, I want to delve into this topic a little more, specifically by looking at two songs: Brother Ali’s “Before They Called You White” and Run the Jewels’ “walking in the snow.” Each of these songs points out the ways that the powerful flatten whiteness and present it as a unifying mechanism which separates whites outside of power from others in the same situation. This severing causes those whites to stand against their own self interest in favor of upholding those who reside above them, ultimately continuing their own oppression while they oppress others.
Frank Yerby shows how whiteness gets flattened in novels such as Benton’s Row when Oren tells Wade, after the Civil War, that he is free now and has the ability to make something of himself. Merritt points to the aftermath of the Civil War and the South’s “economic ruin” as the way for poor whites to achieve landownership, taking advantage of the wealthy landowners’ falling to the wayside. In The Vixens, Yerby begins the novel by highlighting the ways that those in power keep the “white men out in the piney barrens, debased and starved,” using them and their poverty to wage war on Black communities.
All of this occurs in “smoky rooms,” as Yerby says, where the wealthy concoct plans to divide. In Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois argues that the Civil War arose from “the South[’s determination] to make free white labor compete with Black slaves, monopolize land and raw material in the hands of the political aristocracy, and extend the scope of its power.” This occurred after the Civil War too, as Yerby and Du Bois showed. It occurred into the twentieth century as Lillian Smith showed.
Throughout her writing, Smith noted the ways that the wealthy severed the connections of those beneath them. One of the monologue speakers in Our Faces, Our Words, a young white civil rights activist speaks to her father telling him,
You went to Harvard–and yet you fall for the lies Mr. Rich White told Mr. Poor White long ago, to keep him satisfied with poverty and sharecropping, and all the rest of it. How can you? Don’t you know why all that was said? Don’t you know it was to keep poor whites from demanding their rights as Americans? Do you need me to tell you that is Mr. Rich White handed them a drug instead of bread? A tranquilizer for their hungry souls to feed on–and now it has driven some of them mad.
The lies said that the white man was superior to all. The drug fueled that fire and made him forget about his own suffering and poverty because, as Smith wrote in 1942, the wealthy allowed the poor white man to feel as if he could succeed “[a]nd now white men believe men who once had said I am as good as you, and believed it, could believe it still only by adding For look at all the black folks we both are better than!”
Smith points out that after the Civil War, and once the frontier ceased to exist, wealthy whites pumped up poor whites with hopes of upward mobility and fears of others, leading those whites to essentially become foot soldiers in a war being orchestrated in “smoky rooms.” By keeping people blind to the ways that those in power manipulate and use those below them, the wealthy and powerful could stoke hatred, fanning the flames and making poor whites believe in their superiority to Blacks and others.
Brother Ali, “Before They Called You White,” dissects the historical construction and flattening of whiteness. Along the way, he points out the same things that Yerby, Du Bois, Smith, and others do about the ways that the powerful divide and conquer. Brother Ali calls this the “sickest system that ever existed,” a system that a “dirty hand” first crafted. He continues by noting that individuals who came to American were Dutch, Irish, German, Greek, and other nationalities. They were not “white.”
However, the wealthy saw a way to bring these disparate groups together and formulate “whiteness.” Brother Ali raps,
Rich bloodsuckers saw new soil to seize
And they ain’t ’bout to get their hands dirty, cracker please
Swindled you to trade in your identity
Showed you pie in the sky and promised you a piece
With symbolic image in the scripture that you’re reading
White holy angels and black evil demons
You were so starving that you started to believe it
Now you’ll die colonizing for somebody else’s greed
Don’t you see the overseers are still in the field?
Through this, the wealthy sowed division. They psychologically trained individuals to think “white=holy, pure, good” and “black=sinful, impure, evil.” This move caused whites to see themselves as pure and upholders of “civilization” and enlightened ideals and others as “uncivilized” and savage. The goal of this, though, was wealth and power, fueled by greed. The method of obtaining it, stirring the pot and creating antagonism below, pitting one group against another.
What this does, as Brother Ali continues, is promise poor whites success but the prison warden will never let them “own that farm or the prison for real.” The carrot gets dangled in front, but it always remains out of reach, tantalizingly within eyesight and smell, yet just far enough away to elude one’s grasp. This is the false hope that Smith discusses. This is the myth of the American Dream. This is the reality of the systems that work to maintain power. Until individuals open their eyes to this, we will keep repeating the same things over and over and over and . . .
Next post, I’ll finish up looking at Brother Ali’s “Before They Called You White” and Run the Jewels’ “walking in the snow.” Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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