Blanche McCrary Boyd
Why don’t you write books people will want to read, my mother once asked. She’s dead now, but she would have hated my final novel, Tomb of the Unknown Racist, that came out two years ago. The narrator, Ellen Burns, is an ex-radical lesbian feminist not unlike myself, just braver and more ornery. Ellen embarks on a quest to find and confront her long-lost brother Royce, an iconic, brilliant figure still lionized by white terrorists. Royce Burns is supposed to be dead, but it’s turns out he may be alive and planning renewed destructions. She also tries to save his daughter, Ruby, whose mixed-race children have been reported kidnapped.
Okay, so that’s not a cheerful book. In tracking her brother, Ellen uncovers links between the Silent Brotherhood, the white supremacist revolutionary group he had been mixed up with, reportedly destroyed by the FBI in 1984, and Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City 11 years later. Ellen also discovers the growing presence of vigilantes and organized militias and uncovers evidence that white supremacists might still be operating within our government at all levels.
Tomb of the Unknown Racist may be set 20 years ago, but its warning is raw and painful. My mother had suggested I should write more like Danielle Steele – Her novels are so lovely! – but I suspected I was more like Cassandra, given the gift of seeing the future along with the curse of not being believed.
After the pandemic forced us all indoors, I retreated into a peaceful silence, enjoying the lovely presence of my children sent home from college, watching Killing Eve with my wife, and reading novels by the Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny. Hillary Clinton said that after she lost the election, she’d been comforted by the novels of Louise Penny, and I thought I had earned some comfort.
Now we have all witnessed the videotapes of a black man named George Floyd being carefully and slowly murdered by four white policemen who seem to be enjoying themselves. Continuing demonstrations and riots here and around the world are a result. Violence is being deliberately exacerbated by the latest incarnation of white extremists, the Boogaloos, so I am sounding the alarm again. Because I get it about the Boogaloos, by which I mean, I know where their beliefs originate.
I grew up in the Deep South in the 1950s, my environment so shuttered and provincial that all I knew about Eleanor Roosevelt was a couple of dirty jokes. I thought Strom Thurmond was a hero and wrote him a fan letter when I was fourteen. Of course, that was also the year I wrote a letter of consolation to Elizabeth Taylor, upon the death of one of her husbands.
It’s hard enough to grow up, especially without context or accurate historical information. I believed Duke was in the north because it was in North Carolina, and, until I got to college, had never met anyone as liberal as a Democrat. I thought Democrats breathtakingly daring because I understood the dangers that had undergirded my upbringing.
I left South Carolina as if it was a burning building, assuming I could somehow escape the dreadful impacts of racism, but it was everywhere I lived: Boston, New York, Washington, and California. I moved back home at 33 to write a nonfiction book called The Redneck Way of Knowledge, in which I tried to explore my legacies. My mother remarked, We learned a lot while you were gone, didn’t we. She meant I had come to understand that white supremacists, conscious or unconscious, were the result of our history of slavery, and they were not an exclusively Southern problem.
The Boogaloos want civil war. Most believe race war is essential, and they want it as soon as possible. Their tactics are deliberately ‘accelerationist,’ their goal the ‘survival’ of the white race. They are organized loosely through the internet, through sources like 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter, and many espouse the apocalyptic predictions of the unidentified figure known as Vox, who may or may not be a real person.
Boogaloos show up at anti-racist events like the one in Charlottesville and recognize each other by their outfits, Hawaiian shirts combined with combat clothes (don’t ask), by hand signals, and by “III%” tattoos. Three Percenters believe their small numbers will not prevent their goals because they believe (wrongly), that only 3 percent of American settlers opposed British rule. They may also communicate in ways we don’t yet know about.
Online, some Boogaloos allude to dotr, ‘day of the rope,’ referencing The Turner Diaries, a novel that recounts a white revolution in which large-scale hangings eliminate all remaining people of color, Jews, and queers. This novel provides quite a popular blueprint among white extremists and has sold over a million copies. One reader was Timothy McVeigh. When he was arrested for the largest incident of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168, including 19 children in a daycare center, he had with him the pages from that novel containing instructions about how to build a fertilizer bomb like the one he used.
Tomb of the Unknown Racist came out two years ago, but the story concludes in the year 2000, when, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were already more than 100 armed white militias in this country. Now the SPLC estimates that number to be higher than 500. These white ‘patriots’ have accumulated a large array of lethal weapons. A man wearing a grenade launcher recently went into a Subway and casually ordered a sandwich.
If some of these folks believe race war is inevitable, maybe others simply fear it will happen and want to be prepared. Some might just be a bunch of good ole boys hanging around in the woods playing with their AK-47’s. These guns, I am told, are great fun to shoot.
Their decentralization via the internet makes them harder to track; that is, until they attack. This week three men characterized by authorities as “self-identified” with the Boogaloo movement were arrested making Molotov cocktails they planned to use at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Las Vegas. All three had served in the military. And false tweets promoting violence purporting to be from Antifa, the left-wing anti-fascist movement, have now been exposed as the work of Boogaloos.
White supremacists and sympathizers are scattered within law enforcement. After a young man named Dylann Roof sat praying with black worshippers in a Charleston church before shooting them in 2015, the white policemen who arrested him took him to Burger King on the way to jail because he was hungry.
Supremacists with badges may or may not be organized, but their presence is provable: The investigative reporting project called REVEAL has confirmed hundreds of law enforcement officers belonging to racist, anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant, and pro-Confederacy groups online. The actual number is almost certainly larger. Sometimes, there’s no attempt at obfuscation. A white policeman was caught on video during one of the New York demonstrations giving a white power hand signal and laughing.
To be fair, police officers in many cities have begun to kneel, a la Colin Kaepernick, in support of the demonstrators, or fist-bump, or pray, or even link arms and march. But the racial fault lines being exposed within our police forces make our civil situation even more volatile. It’s probably worth mentioning that many small police departments now have armored vehicles ‘donated’ to them as military surplus. And of course, we have a president whose political success is built on anger and resentment. He retweets white extremist postings that serve as ‘dog whistles’ MAGA devotees might not hear them, but the dogs of war do.
Trump conflates patriotism and nationalism into his promotion of white supremacy, which is only one of the reasons he is so dangerous. We need to understand the fanaticism that can make some of these men willing to die for what they believe in. They heard that ‘give me liberty or give me death’ line when they were in grammar school and believe they are going to restore the white foundations of our country. The Boogaloos and other terrorists view their cause as a fight for survival.
Timothy McVeigh was the prototype. A Gulf War veteran, McVeigh saw himself as a freedom fighter, a soldier, and he rejected the label of terrorist. He asked to be publicly executed in order to inspire followers, a request that was denied.
In Tomb of the Unknown Racist Ellen’s brother is an acquaintance of Robert Matthews, the founder of the Silent Brotherhood. Matthews chose to die inside a building the FBI set on fire rather than surrender. Here is the point: these men may be horrific, but they were not cowards, any more than were the pilots who flew kamikaze jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We need to recognize the level of violence our homegrown white extremists can inflict, and the extent of their commitment.
Remember that anthrax that could not be tracked to a source? Cultivating anthrax, a bacteria found in cattle, is simple enough; turning it into a weapon is something else entirely. Not all white supremacists are idiots. That’s why Ellen’s brother is portrayed as brilliant and messianic, an admirer of Stalin who thinks survival of the fittest in America means white revolution by any means.
Many people think this surge of supremacists in our midst is new. It’s not, it just became more visible with Trump’s election in 2016. When Trump said he could shoot someone in the street without losing his base of support, he shocked many of us who believe in the values of democracy, but he was absolutely right. The violence he sells is an essential part of his brand, while his own lack of anything resembling physical courage gets oddly dismissed. Trump knows that some of his followers are itching for an excuse to launch into slaughter.
The Boogaloos and accelerationists and all other white supremacist terrorists are the direct inheritors of the Ku Klux Klan. If you have somehow managed not to know what the Klan is, this guerrilla group rose during the Reconstruction Era, after the Civil War ended. Their members wore white robes and hoods, like ghosts of terror, as they burned giant crosses and lynched countless numbers of black men and women and even children across our country, especially in the Deep South, where the population of freed slaves was largest.
Cross-burning, this assertion of Christian righteousness, may seem an inexplicable leap away from the white secularist founders of this country. Membership in the Masons was about as wild as those guys could get, and it’s why we have Masonic symbols like that eye and pyramid on the backs of our dollar bills. There is absolutely no talk of God in our founding documents, but, in order to get a buy-in from Southerners about declaring independence from Great Britain, the founders had to justify the country’s economic dependence on slavery. They did so by supporting the idea that African men, women, and children were not entirely human.
Tortuous deliberations led to their infamous Three-Fifths Compromise, which determined that each slave was the equivalent of 3/5 of one white person. Michelle Obama, told in high school ‘you’re not Princeton material,' has pointed out that slave labor actually built the White House. And Harvard historian Jill Lepore, in her astounding history of our country, These Truths, calls attention to the fact that George Washington’s false teeth included some that he had removed from his own slaves’ mouths.
White supremacy got mixed up with Christianity during the Protestant revivalism that arose in the 1800s, as our rapidly growing nation continued to try to solve the contradiction inherent in a country built upon the premise of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ while classifying huge numbers of people as beasts, as property that could be bred and sold or worked to death. Economic necessity made the original case for slavery in America, but maybe God could help out too, because slaves were in the Bible, weren’t they? And God gave Adam dominion over the beasts, didn’t he?
By the 1950’s the Klan was considered a low-class organization of louts and rednecks, but it did continue to limp along, and, in the fight over separate-but-equal education, its goals were supported by ‘respectable’ organizations like the White Citizens’ Councils and John Birch Societies, working hard to hold the line against recognition of black human rights.
In Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman, not published until the end of her life, she presented a raw version of the lawyer character named Atticus Finch, who could defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman but nevertheless go off to his White Citizens’ Council meetings and speak against equality.
It’s no surprise that Lee could not sell this book (and literarily it does have flaws), so she next produced To Kill a Mockingbird with its dishonest, romanticized version of Atticus Finch as a white savior, a figure that many white American liberals have come to venerate, love, and sentimentalize. It’s no wonder Harper Lee didn’t write anything else.
"Little Charlie" of the Louisiana Klan models her homemade wedding veil as her fiancé looks on. Anthony S. Karen for Slate.
Like Lee and Truman Capote and William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and a host of lesser white Southern writers, I grew up immersed in the tragic aftermaths of the Civil War. Maybe ‘white’ and ‘colored’ bathrooms are gone now and black people can eat in restaurants and sleep in hotels, but we are still living in that aftermath, whether we recognize it or not. Much of my lifetime’s work has been an effort to try to unpack some of the damage. A fish doesn’t know it’s in water, and I have flailed around in this guilty cauldron of white supremacy, this legal and cultural morass of interlockings that often seems impossible to untangle or alter significantly.
“There’s something wrong with you,” Toni Morrison once said about white people, and “you need to talk to each other about it. Leave me out.”
So, white people, let’s talk to each other.
We inherit the debts of racism in this country the same way we can, if we should be so fortunate, inherit money and property. We also inherit privileges, no matter what our circumstances. But try telling a white working-class man or woman that they have privileges, and you will often encounter the fury fueling the rise of white supremacy.
We are standing on the bones of black people, I once said to my mother after I first began to understand the culture I’d been raised within. Her face rendered instantly into an expression of anguish as she snarled, You don’t know a thing about my life.
Eventually I did learn some of it. My mother had been forced to quit school in the eighth grade, a source of shame she hid all her life, and she worked long hours during those teenage years for paltry pay in a tobacco factory, because her father died and it was the Depression and she needed to help her mother survive.
The pains and losses of my mother’s early life are not lessened by the fact that, on the floor beneath where she and the other white women and girls worked, black women and girls entered the cigar factory through the ‘colored’ entrance into the basement to conditions so much worse than my mother’s.
But try telling a white man who has worked hard in a manufacturing plant or driven a truck all his life or subsistence farmed or repaired cars or sold shoes in a department store or been a traveling salesman that he has white privilege, and you might get a reaction similar to the one my mother had. Working whites have little to show for the hard labors of their lives, and they are often angry or depressed. Too often alcohol is their cure, and the abuse within families that goes with it. Read Raymond Carver’s short stories to get a glimpse of their despair.
So let me make this clear: Many working class white people do not feel privileged, and they react badly to any suggestion that they have profited from racism. Okay, so maybe they can admit that they don’t have to be afraid of the police, and maybe they won’t get arrested for driving while black, or thrown into jail for minor or manufactured infractions, and maybe they do get easier breaks for drugs and drunkenness, but it’s also true that they get followed around inside stores if they look too poor, and educating their children often remains out of reach.
My father grew up in a house in rural South Carolina without glass in the windows - they’d covered the openings with newspapers to try to keep warm – and his father and brothers supported the family by bootlegging. He graduated from high school without being able to afford any books.
I am proud of my family’s working-class origins, of the way my father was ambitious and worked so hard to become a plumber and then started a business and then bought a rickety plantation where my mother could dream about Tara and my father could hunt squirrels to his heart’s content, at least until he was killed in a car accident. My parents believed wholeheartedly in the American Dream, in the American promise of renewal and self-invention and in ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’, and, luckily, they taught me to believe all that too. If they had not, I might never had found the courage to break free from their racist beliefs and try to reinvent myself, become authentic, dare to be an artist.
But none of that history means that they – and I – haven’t been the recipients of many white privileges. For my Irish forebears, America was where you came to escape the famine. It was a land of promise as well as survival. But Africans were brought here in ships as commodities, packed together like fish, and they certainly did not inherit any part of the American Dream.
Instead they endured slavery for generations and then an abrupt emancipation that created a dreadful, confusing mess – read historian Jim Downs’ book Sick from Freedom to get a sense of it– and they continue even now to persevere through the fleecing of their property by redlining and punitive taxes, the theft of their labor through mass incarceration, and, as we saw so vividly last week with the murder of George Floyd, the very real possibility of being capriciously murdered by law enforcement.
It’s easier for me, as a white woman educated at excellent schools, to talk about structural racism and try to figure out ways to take responsibility for it, but the whites attracted to MAGA and to more radical organizations like the Boogaloos, or those who are arming themselves and joining the white militias, absolutely reject my analysis. They feel used, mistreated, coopted, stained by the relentless encroachments of government into their lives (socialism!), whether by income taxes or social security or even those laws about wearing seat belts.
And now this pandemic? This mass version of house arrest? The loss of their jobs? Wearing masks to go to the fucking store? They are done with it. They cannot imagine that the yokes on their necks are not so different from the yokes holding the people of color below them, that they might have more in common there than they do with rich white people. That’s way too threatening.
But these folks, when they’re not terrifying, can also be heartbreaking. I once asked a girlfriend from a poor family what she wanted from her life, and it took her many minutes to locate her deepest ambition: “I’d like to own a brick house.” She once gave me a gold-plated medallion with my name engraved beside a tiny diamond chip, and she’d even spelled my name wrong. I wore it until the gold came off and the chip fell out, long after she was gone from my life.
No degree of understanding for the plight of the white working class negates white privilege, which is structural and institutionalized. For those of us who understand that, there seems to be no way to reach across the widening gulf to MAGA. So let’s face that truth and think what else can we do.
Several events during the demonstrations have given me hope. In Louisville a line of white people – in photos they seemed primarily to be women – formed a human barrier with their bodies to separate the police from the demonstrators. That action has been imitated. Multiple bus drivers have refused to transport people who’d been arrested. And the white police officers who have knelt in front of the demonstrators make clear that they understand their job is to serve and protect. Reports from ‘on the ground’ inside the demonstrations, reveal mutual kindness and aid among the protesters, medics dispensing aid freely, people bringing food and water and milk that can be used to ameliorate the burning effects of tear gas. In Washington, homeowners opened their doors to shelter protestors trapped on their streets by police.
I never fully understood why Grace Paley kept getting herself arrested instead of writing those great stories, or why Eve Ensler once chained herself to the doors of New York’s City Hall, but on Saturday I went to a demonstration, the first in many years where I thought my presence might matter, that my white skin might make a useful statement.
Only one person in the crowd shouted, “We have to arm!” But it is counterproductive for people of color and their supporters to take up guns, and, in any case, it is way too late. The white supremacists are already heavily armed, and they have the implicit support of governing forces. When masked whites with machine guns guarded the doors of a state house during one demonstration, police did not interfere. You don’t have to know who the Black Panthers were to imagine what would happen to black demonstrators with automatic weapons.
Our options, as we continue to try to dismantle racism and its horrific effects, can seem puny: voting, running for office, and training for nonviolent resistance. But Gandhi was effective, and, before his murder, so was Martin Luther King. Maybe the Christians submitting to the spectacle of their own murders by lions in the Coliseum wasn’t pretty, but it did help trigger the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
I’m not suggesting anyone kneel for slaughter, just that it’s useful to go limp if arrested, forcing police to carry you. Nonviolent resistance is safer and less easily coopted than rioting, and we need to start employing it again, as demonstrators have begun remembering. Die-ins are a longstanding tactic, and now waves of protestors are lying face down for eight minutes, arms behind their backs as if they are handcuffed, the position in which George Floyd died.
The goal of the Boogaloos and accelerationists is to resurrect open civil war, to continue their fight for white supremacy and freedom from governmental interference in their lives. (Except, perhaps, in the form of VA benefits, or farm subsidies, or paved roads, or cops carrying Narcan.)
They believe such a war is coming and that it will be a race war, and they are enabled both subtly and directly by a president desperate to preserve his power, strutting around declaring Antifa the real enemy, encouraging the abuse of journalists, and demanding a military response to demonstrators. And at night he keeps sending out those tweets.
So listen to me, y’all. Another major outbreak of the War for White Supremacy could get triggered. It really could happen today, or tomorrow, or Monday, or next week. What do you think it would take? Only a few of these self-styled ‘heroes’ wading into the demonstrators armed with their AK-47s and grenade launchers. Or a bombing in a major city that could be blamed on the demonstrators. And then what? Martial law, even wider swaths of death from the pandemic, a suspended election. Whose interests does that serve?
The god Apollo gave Cassandra the gift to see the future, and, when she rejected him, he could not take back his gift, so he added the curse that no one would believe her. I hope I’m not like Cassandra. I hope I’m just wrong. I want to set aside these fearsome visions and maintain my faith in the frail but steady lights of hope and courage. I do believe absolutely in the goodness of ordinary people, and, like Dr. King, I trust that the arc of history is long but bends toward justice. I insist on believing that.
Blanche McCrary Boyd is a novelist and journalist. Tomb of the Unknown Racist was a Finalist for the PEN-Faulkner Award in 2019, and Boyd swears it is her last novel. She teaches writing at Connecticut College. More information about her work is available at blanchemcraryboyd.com
Anger ::: Marvin Gaye
Season of the Witch ::: Donovan
Strange Days :: The Doors
Everything Scatter ::: Fela Kuti
Even a dead man is scared of the night,
Times are tight
Times Are Tight ::: Brian Cullman
Gil Scott Heron ::: Enough
Hugh Mundell :: Run Revolution A Come
Billie Holiday :: Strange Fruit
Burning Spear :: Slavery Days
Skip James ::: Look At The People Standing At The Judgement
Neil Young :: Revolution Blues
Gil Scott Heron :: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
The Last Poets :: When The Revolution Comes
Thunderclap Newman ::: Something In The Air
Fun-Da-Mental :: Wrath of the Black Man
Charlie Palomares y su Yuboney :: Vives Boogaloo
The Sensational Nightingales ::: At The Judgement