The black people who Phil Robertson knew were warred upon. If they valued their lives, and the lives of their families, the last thing they would have done was voiced a complaint about "white people" to a man like Robertson.Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks he understands why Phil Robertson didn't see any Louisiana black folk complaining about "doggone white people" as they happily toiled in the cotton fields of pre-Civil Rights-era Louisiana. His thought is that blacks' reluctance to express their grievances too loudly may have been tempered by certain events in their state's record on matters of racial tolerance:
The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche.Ah, 1933. The same year our white European brethren began their novel legislative experiments in civic gentrification, the American South for its part continued to take care of its business the old-fashioned way--by mob rule.
Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl ...
Arrested Oct. 10, 1933, in the slaying days earlier of Anna Mae LaRose, a 15-year-old girl who was his friend, Moore was pulled from the parish jail in Napoleonville the next night by an angry mob of 50 to 200 armed and unmasked people who had the prison keys.
After being hauled from the jail, Moore was brought to the field where LaRose’s body was found, according to an Oct. 14, 1933, account in the black-owned New Orleans newspaper, The Louisiana Weekly. With a rope around his neck and clothes stripped to his waist, the teen was then marched, while being beaten, from the murder scene to the bridge and subjected to a branding iron whenever he fell.In his folksy diatribe about his purported experiences in the cotton fields working alongside "godly" blacks humming spirituals, Phil Robertson refers to himself as "white trash," apparently in an effort to align himself with their experience ("I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash."). He never stops to think about why he had to say "white." After all, trash is trash, right?
Hanging from his body, a sign offered the final indignity: “Niggers Let This Be An Example. Do-Not-Touch-In 24 Hr. Mean it.”
Well, not exactly. Without blacks there'd be no need for Robertson to describe himself as "white trash."
Michael Pfeifer, associate Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has identified 422 victims of lynching in Louisiana between 1878 and 1946. These are among approximately 2500 lynchings in the South that occurred after Reconstruction. The number of lynchings prior to Reconstruction was in the thousands. Whether Moore was actually guilty of the killing has faded from the public record (some witnesses claimed the girl's stepfather later confessed, although distant members of the girl's family disputed this). Other witnesses identified two deputy sheriffs from the Assumption Parish as leading the lynch mob, an allegation also disputed by the Parish sheriff, Lizen H. Himel. A Federal Jury in 1936 ultimately held Himel liable for his deputies' actions and awarded Moore's parents a judgment of $2500.
To his credit, Coates is less concerned about the statements of self-promoters like Robertson than he is about making a "teachable moment" out of this media fiasco. The idea that Robertson could ever place himself in the shoes of these black farm workers--or any other black person in Louisiana -- simply ignores the reality of the times:
That is because governance in Phil Robertson's Louisiana was premised on terrorism. As late as 1890, the majority of people in Louisiana were black. As late as 1902, they still lived under threat of slavery through debt peonage and the convict-lease system. Virtually all of them were pilfered of their vote and their tax dollars. Plunder and second slavery were enforced by violence, as when the besiegers of Colfax massacred 50 black freedmen with rifles and cannon and tossed their bodies into a river. Even today the Colfax Massacre is honored in Louisiana as the rightful "end of carpetbag misrule." .The "Colfax" massacre, as it became known, occurred in 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, and is described as the worst instance of racial violence in Reconstruction. This atrocity as well as the Moore slaying and the never-ending specter of the lynch mob were the realities of black life in Louisiana before the Civil Rights movement.
The black people who Phil Robertson knew were warred upon. If they valued their lives, and the lives of their families, the last thing they would have done was voiced a complaint about "white people" to a man like Robertson.Coates sees a familiar pattern in statements like those of Mr. Robertson--the deliberate willful retreat into a mythical past that never existed:
The belief that black people were at their best when they were being hunted down like dogs for the sin of insisting on citizenship is a persistent strain of thought in this country. This belief reflects the inability to cope with an America that is, at least rhetorically, committed to equality.From the struggle of African-Americans for civil rights, Coates draws a direct parallel to the modern-day struggle for same-sex equality, noting that Robertson's tirade against gays follows the same reliance on Biblical proscriptions, the same type of proscriptions that were once used to justify slavery:
“Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God."
[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.
Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America
Coates concludes that the bigot's song remains the same:
This is not just ignorance; it is a willful retreat into myth. And we must have the intellectual courage and moral strength to follow the myth through. If swindlers, goat-fuckers, and gay men are really all the same—disinherited from the kingdom of God—why not treat them the same? How does one argue that a man who is disfavored by the Discerner of All Things, should not be shamed, should not jeered, should not be stoned, should not be lynched in the street?Phil Robertson is simply a sad, deluded little man. What he thinks or says is of no particular importance except what it reveals, however unwittingly, about America's ongoing struggle with itself over race. The fact that his supporters and detractors have lined up yet again along political lines just shows how little the country has changed in a hundred and fifty years.
Further retreat into the inanity of loving the sinner but hating the sin—a standard that would clean The Wise Helmsman himself—will not do. Actual history shows that humans are not so discriminating. Black people were once thought to be sinners. We were rewarded with a species of love that bore an odd resemblance to hate. One need not be oversensitive to be concerned about Phil Robertson's thoughts on gay sex. One simply need be a student of American history.