black lives matter

The Lure of White Martyrdom

Arthur Ashe Monument in Richmond, Virginia, on June 17, 2020. Photo: Kris Graves c/o Sasha Wolf Projects

Between 7:06 and 7:11 p.m. on June 1, 2020, equipped only with a Bible and the long, muscular arm of history, Donald Trump became a hero.

As fumes from the chemical compound approved by his accomplices — officials from the Secret Service; the U.S. Park Police; the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department; the D.C. National Guard; the Federal Bureau of Prisons; the U.S. Marshals Service; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; the attorney general of the United States; and the top two commanders of the mightiest military force on the planet — began to irritate the eyes, throats, lungs, and skin of nonviolent protesters, the conquering hero posed in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church and hoisted a Bible to the heavens. The president of the United States had just tear-gassed his own peacefully protesting citizens for a photo op. But Trump treated this chaos as if it were the final panel of a historically accurate graphic novel.

For what is America if not an epic story? We have all absorbed, to varying degrees, the basic premise and plot of the great American tall tale. Once upon a time, an innocent group of freedoms-loving people were minding their own business enjoying their freedoms (“freedoms” is always with an s). Out of nowhere — a dark force of freedoms-hating “others” arose, threatening to steal the peace, tranquillity, and stuff the spunky freedoms-lovers had built with nothing but hard work, ingenuity, and definitely no help from the others. There was only one choice: They had to eliminate the threat posed by the others.

In this myth, Black Lives Matter is simply the youngest descendant of a foe that has bedeviled America since before there was an America, and the Dylann Roofs of this world are the heirs of a long line of white people who have taken up the mantle of violent, deadly anti-Blackness in defense of this American myth.

Attaching oneself to Black people’s desire to be free, equal, or even human has always been seen as a seditious act worthy of violent retribution. At the beginning of the American experiment, it was literally unconstitutional: “The Federal Constitution therefore, decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixt character of persons and of property,” wrote hero, “Father of the Constitution,” and human trafficker James Madison when debating the value of Black lives in Federalist Paper No. 54. “This is in fact their true character. It is the character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live; and it will not be denied.”

Even the idea of Black lives mattering was the enemy of this America. In the prequel to our current story, both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were communists bent on a violent overthrow of the American government. So were W.E.B. Du Bois, the Black Panthers, the Freedom Riders, and every Black person who organized a peaceful coalition. In our current chapter, kneeling silently before a football game begins is as much a riot as marching in the streets, and Trump’s impromptu tear-gas photo op was simply a throwback to George Wallace sending state troopers to bar Black students from integrating the University of Alabama.

How can you render this tale so that the so-called villain’s perspective is understood or perhaps embraced? You can’t. Not a single Black movement in the history of this country has been universally supported by lawmakers, law enforcers, and white people. You are free to believe that Black people are worthy of their humanity and liberty, but doing something about it means accepting the violent backlash and the collective scorn of a country whose Constitution calculated the value of a Black life at 60 percent of a white one.

The Lure of White Martyrdom