Some of the great masterpieces of American classic cinema are actually homages to White Supremacy, or WS. They include Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind and The Searchers.
The western genre itself properly begins with a novel published in the 1880s called The Virginian, about a man looking for a new life in the west. The title tells you all you need to know.
Virginia was the capital of the Confederate States of America, which launched a war of secession from the United States. The top line of this rebellion was states’ rights. The question: Was the US a union of sovereign states, or did it rule them within its Constitution?
The slave powers, those southern states, whose economy depended on the enslavement of human beings, broke away and in time were defeated. Then the idea of the ‘Lost Cause’, a kind of medieval, Arthurian look at the whole thing, took hold and, emerging from it, came the trope of the noble, lone white man searching for meaning and redemption in the “empty” spaces of the west.
George Armstrong Custer’s punitive raid against indigenous nations therefore became “Custer’s Last Stand”, and also an out-front foundation myth of the White Supremacy that has been part of the very base of the United States from its beginning.
WS has been blamed for the mass shooting in Buffalo, in which 10 Black people were killed. In Pittsburgh, in 2018, a white man with a history of
antisemitic posts gunned down 11 elders in a synagogue because he believed that Jews were responsible for the “invaders” of his country. In 2019, another angry white guy opened fire on shoppers at an El Paso Walmart, killing 23 and telling the police that he was out to kill Mexicans.
We can spend time talking about mental health issues. But maybe not.
Racism has been baked into our culture. I grew up in one of the roughest neighbourhoods in late 1950s Chicago playing cowboys and indians. Like most American kids did then.
It was OK, even encouraged in those days, to give little boys toy pistols and rifles at Christmas. We had ‘Injin’ war bonnets, the feathered headgear familiar from a thousand westerns, too. So here I was; here we were, even while our fellow African Americans were being lynched in the South, playing games which were actually about exterminating the indigenous.
And when my family moved to a better neighbourhood of detached houses and lawns; the local block association threw fancy-dress summer parties. Our parents went as ‘Chinese’ people one summer; they were among loads of Fu Manchu and Madame Butterfly types. All great fun.
I have to laugh when young progressives cite Franklin Delano Roosevelt as some sort of socialist. Until a few decades ago, Japanese Americans tended not to vote for the Democrats because of Executive Order 9066. Signed by FDR, 9066 in effect put American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps. Yet despite this, their young men answered the call to fight in the second world war. They were formed into their own unit, the 442 Infantry Regiment, the most decorated in the entire war.
I could go on and on here, but my points are: White Supremacy is the baseline of the United States; its mother’s milk; its raison d’être.
Even while Thomas Jefferson was stating that “all men are created equal”, the half-sister of his wife was legally enslaved in his house because her mother was of African descent. Her name was Sally Hemings, and she was the mother of six of his children. Her descendants had to fight to be recognised as descendants of Jefferson and this was only done relatively recently.
White Supremacy infects everything. Even where you least expect it. An expression of it is the ‘N-Word’, and there is something very important to understand about that.
The use of that word first by African American rappers, was/is a form of
defiance and also of reality. Street guys use it as a form of identity; of linkage. They have appropriated it and changed it. But it’s way too early in the history and the trajectory and the trauma of White Supremacy for anyone else to do it. That is, if they “get” what is really going on.
Because one of the things that still haunts me is that a witness to the murder of Stephen Lawrence said that what haunted him was that the “n-word” might have been the last word that Stephen heard.
The history of murder, judicial and criminal, is laced with the “n-word” and so to hear it in the work, in the mouth of someone who would not be subject to it, is re-traumatising. Like being dragged to the scene of an execution or having to relive a rape.
And what’s too bad about it all: that somehow this fact, this still-reality, gets caught up in a “freedom of speech” issue when the real point is: care. What we know about our fellow humans; and in knowing what we can forego, even for a moment, so that they can heal. Because it is not possible to forget.
Joe Biden said that he decided to run for the presidency because of Charlottesville, that march in Virginia in 2017 where a plethora of young white men used tiki torches – what Americans use on their patios to light
barbecues at night – while chanting “You will not replace us. Jews will not
It is this fear of white replacement that is at the basis of Viktor Orbán’s
Hungary; Eric Zemmour’s election campaign in France; Donald Trump and MAGA. And Brexit, too, with its anti-immigration baseline (except for the “good” immigrants, usually not of colour).
We need to call White Supremacy out now in all of its guises. Even when
it appears as “free speech”. Even, especially, when it is unconscious.
At the end of John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers, John Wayne’s Ethan stands looking out of an open door which shows us the beautiful Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona state line.
Its real name is Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, as the Navaho call it. It is sacred to them.
And doubtless there are words; sayings; jokes that the Navaho people make about it; about their sacred space. About themselves.
But it is against the agency of minorities: our need and right and ability to appropriate even the words used against us as our own tools of defiance; of healing; even of beauty; that White Supremacy rails. In its various guises. In the end, destroying us all.