When I was in the 11th grade, I had a U.S. History teacher whom I adored. One of my favorite assignments from that course was to write an essay from the prospective of a slave who had just learned that the institution had been outlawed. Never have I struggled to write as much as I did with that assignment. Trying to imagine what freedom felt like to a person who had never known what it was like was akin to trying to imagine a color I had never seen. But once the words finally came to me, they flowed like water, and when I was done, I was sure it would blow my teacher away.
The morning the assignment was due, my teacher collected them all, and then stood before the class and ripped them in half before throwing them all in the trash. Predictably, the entire class was in uproar. She calmed us and then picked a few students to come before the class and tell her what we’d written, letting us know that if we chose not to participate, we would receive a zero for that assignment. I was one of the students, and visibly angry, I stood before the class and tried to recall what I’d written. I couldn’t, so I spoke from the heart so passionately that I begin crying before the class.
“That’s it,” teacher said. “That’s what I wanted you all to feel. Yeah, you thought your work was done, but I changed the rules. Now you readjust and stay in the fight.”
She explained how as free Black people began to make strides, as they thought that they were finally realizing the freedom they’d craved, imagining the colors they’d never seen, the rules were changed. And just like my classmates and I, that anger and passion had to fuel them to stay in the fight.
That lesson was the perfect segue into Jim Crow.
As Reconstruction legislation established the rights of Black people on paper, Black folks, newly freed and determined to claim the prosperity denied them for centuries, began to imagine the colors they’d never seen. They dared not only to use their vote to influence change but to run for and win political offices. They used their expert agricultural knowledge to build and maintain profitable farms. They founded schools to educate the community. They learned America’s game and began winning at it, “But as Blacks slowly progressed, White southerners resented their achievements and their empowerment,” writes Richard Wormser.
White people who had lived under the delusion that Black people were best suited for lifelong bondage because they were inherently inferior now had to contend with the reality that all that had kept Black people from the American vision of success were the literal chains they used to kidnap us and the figurative ones created by the legislation to ensure our permanent oppression. And never has there been a more demonstrative example of the fact that “White supremacy don’t like clapback.” White men, intoxicated with the fear that their superiority was nothing more than the myth we know it to be, created the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate, harass and murder Black people who dared to exercise the rights of liberty, citizenship and voting granted to them by Constitutional amendments. They reminded them that their oppression was the fiber of this country’s foundation, and that any challenges to collective second-class citizenship would be met with brutal opposition. Like my teacher, they set about ripping apart the hard work of Black people to remind them that their progress was never permanent.
Jim Crow laws manipulating whatever de jure concessions that had been granted sent an unambiguous message to Black people: You may have learned to read and earned to degrees. You may have opened and operated businesses. You may even have served in the lawmaking bodies of this country. But your embodiment of American ideals should never be mistaken for crossing the finish line into true equality. Yes, Jim Crow was always about showing Black people that our freedom is conditional, an afterthought forced into the legal lexicon, always subject to challenge, and as such, always irrevocable.
— Ari Berman (@AriBerman) February 11, 2017
The punishment for Black audacity is always White retribution. And what could be more indicative of Black audacity than a Black man winning two elections to lead a country that was founded on the notion of Black subjugation? NOTHING! So then, with Obama’s presidency representing, at least in the minds of those White people unable to conceive of an America where a Black man is the public face of power, the apex of Black audacity, we can surely expect Trump’s presidency to represent the apex of White retribution in our lifetime.
Even with Black income virtually stagnant during Obama’s tenure in office, with controversial Black scholars being disillusioned by Obama’s diplomatic addresses of police brutality in the Black community, and unprecedented disrespect shown the man occupying the highest office in the land from politicians whose public dissent would be considered abhorrent if shown to Obama’s predecessors, Obama’s time in office has been largely billed as a marker of Black ascension. Yes, representation matters, but to whom? Undoubtedly many Black Americans have been inspired by the fact that Obama achieved what most of us thought was unthinkable a decade ago, but I’d argue that what he represented to some White people was much more telling.
Obama was their colors unseen moment. Black people have always had to at least dream of a Black president. That kind of fantasy, imagining what we’ve never seen, has always been necessary to fuel our fight against the crushing realities of oppression. We couldn’t survive if we had no aspiration. But white people have never had to imagine Black ascension to administer White supremacy. They’ve only had to imagine what rock bottom looks like for us. So even as America looked virtually the same economically and socially on January 20, 2009 as it did on November 8, 2016 to most of us, White America was still coming to grips with a scenario they had never imagined, just as they had in 1865 when the Black people whose enslavement they had always looked to as an indisputable symbol that everything was as it should be were freed.
And just as those who were sickened by Black audacity back then manipulated the law so too will this newest regime. The Trump administration’s Reconstruction 2.0 will be deliberate. It will be swift. It will be ostentatious. Black audacity, at least in their minds, reached it summit. Its descent must be clear, humiliating and strategic. But who can teach a tree anything about leaves?
The war on public schools her opponents insist the indisputably unqualified Betsy DeVos is set to wage is one the parents of Black children have been fighting for decades as the public education system preps them to be funneled through the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline. More than 30 years ago, Mrs. Coretta Scott King leaned on her legacy and drew from her personal experience to derail the newly confirmed Attorney General’s nomination for Federal district judge with a scathing objection detailing how Jeff Sessions used his position to “do what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods.” Richard Bannon’s racist allusions are reminiscent of the less covert declarations of white allegiance made by politicians such as George Wallace and Bull Connor.
It’s not just that we’ve been here before, it’s that we’ve always been here.
The only thing more American than anti-Blackness is Black resistance. We’ve always fought against America’s plan to consume us. The oppressor puts no more effort into his oppression than he must. So Black America will continue to do what it does best and be fueled by terror. So we adapt, we evolve, and we fight. We disrupt the peace. We document our oppression so the next generation never forgets. We sue. We rally. We resist.
LaSha is a writer and blogger who is passionate about Black people. Find her on Twitter @knflkkollective.