cDc paramedia: text #385
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...presents... Black Collectors of White Memorabilia
by Dark Sorcerer
__//////\ -cDc- CULT OF THE DEAD COW -cDc- /\\\\\\__
__ Grand Imperial Dynasty __
Est. 1984 \\\\\\/ cDc paramedia: text 385-06/30/2004 \////// Est. 1984
___ _ _ ___ _ _ ___ _ _ ___ _ _ __
It was 1992. I was eighteen, it was nearing midnight, and I'd just
taken an order for the last place I wanted to go. Sahwatch Street is the
last street that runs parallel to the east side of Interstate 25 in Colorado
Springs. I mainly knew it as being in the vague vicinity of the Red Cross
homeless shelter where an intoxicated man once called in an order from a
payphone, paid me in change and failed to tip me despite the late hour.
Being a pizza delivery driver on the West Side was as good a job as a
high-school kid could've asked for. The work was hardly strenuous, and I was
able to score cocaine and cheap Mexican weed from my co-workers. My boss was
a balding, overweight late-twentysomething who called the Rodney King rioters
a "bunch of stupid niggers" and had a porn stash in his office. I'd often
have some sort of interesting story at the end of the night to tell my
friends: the guy who had passed out in his entryway one Friday afternoon, or
the amiable fellow who just so happened to have a .45 and triple-beam balance
sitting on his coffee table in plain view.
There was always the threat that the bubble of simulation could burst and
I'd be held up at gunpoint, but it was only likely enough in that it afforded
an entertaining possibility... something that had vestigial danger based on
rumors of late-night robberies heard from others. I was also given no
shortage of material for sociological observation. With a small amount of
apprehension, I got in my 1984 Toyota Tercel and started the engine. The
broken tape deck necessitated listening to the radio, which was a constant
bout with lesser-evilism. Z-ROC is a good choice; it's hard to go wrong with
Metallica or Black Sabbath.
I had to get off the highway on to Sahwatch Street, then backtrack two
blocks to get to the actual house in question, which ran parallel to Sahwatch
Street, dead-ending to the north with a chain-link fence and Interstate 25
directly west. The neighborhood was run down. The house was found with no
problem at all, but I double-checked to make sure the address in my head was
in fact correct, because I didn't care to arouse the suspicion of someone who
had erected two lawn jockies to the fenceposts on either side of the entrance.
A glaring sign added to the apprehension: "Sons of Silence."
The hologram fractioned into its constituent parts, replaying a series of
simultaneous images seen in unnamed Southern movies: rusty Pepsi-Cola signs,
cotton plantations set back amongst rows of dogwood trees, burning barns, and
French surnames. I could almost see the Spanish moss as I drove up the
entryway and put my car in neutral.
I rang the doorbell and was greeted by a confused teenage girl, who let
me in to the porch, which was suffering from an almost complete loss of its
metal screening. I leaned against a washing machine while she yelled for
someone. The house interior seemed completely devoid of any furnishings.
After several minutes a white man of medium build came out to pay me. He
didn't say much, but he gave me a rather large four-dollar tip. I got back in
the car, but the radio went off. The lingering effect and late hour required
.-. [ x x ] .-.
With no shortage of things to do that next Christmas break, the jockies
still had to be captured on film. I didn't know why. Easily recalling the
address, I chose the last Sunday afternoon before I left town to go back to
school. I was scared to get out of my car, but mustered up enough courage to
go up the driveway.
The statues seemed to have been repainted to make them particularly
grotesque. Something less like the relatively innocuous Golliwogs thought so
cute by many Englishwomen versus a hideously deformed Coon statue you'd expect
of the old Confederacy. They're in poor repair. The darkness of their faces
was further accentuated by the underlying wood that was exposed where the
paint flaked off, but the red circles that formed their lips seemed relatively
intact. They had simply been nailed to the top of the fenceposts via a single
nail at the base of the statue. The name "Toby" was crudely painted on what
would have been the breast pocket of each statue.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
When I went away to college, I went into a Disneyesque simulacra of what
a bunch of Deadheads from the East Coast thought a small town in Colorado was,
replete with Grand Cherokees. In _The Last Days Of White Rhodesia_, Denis
Hills called Rhodesia an "exotic replica of Wimbledon set among settler
plantations in sunny grasslands whose native inhabitants the white people
scarcely bothered to know." Reading this, you wondered how one could avoid
any sort of interaction with ninety-five percent of the population, even as
they depended on them to wash their clothes and cook their food.
The history of colonial Zimbabwe mattered little to the members of the
local Alpha Tau Omega chapter, who could've substituted Hills' settler
plantations in sunny grasslands for ski trips and good blow overnighted from
their friends back East. Hills' elderly white ladies didn't know any
Africans, and didn't care to.
The native black Zimbabweans had no use for the decorative jacaranda
trees favored by the white Rhodesian settlers, and the few girls in cocktail
dresses had little use for me, sloppy drunk and clad in jeans and a mountain
jacket. Someone decided it would be a good idea to dive headfirst into a
table of gin and vodka bottles. This act was greeted enthusiastically, and
the guy who had been forcing low-grade marijuana on me for the last hour said
that he KNEW it was just a matter of time before someone did some "crazy shit"
- thank god he had his video camera to capture it for posterity.
The early Rhodesian settlers would name their black servants diminutives
like "Pudding" or "Rhubarb," taking a clue from Polish nobility who would call
their peasants names such as "Onion" and "Rutabega." At the ATO house,
however, you weren't a member of the elite unless you had some sort of pledge
name, which could run the gamut from stupid to obscene. The difference was
that the fraternity pledge was given the promise of being able to mete out
similar humiliation once he'd passed through his year long ritual; if a black
servant were lucky, he might get labeled "loyal" or "dependable."
Both the colonial and fraternity mentality are artifacts. An inherent
curiosity and mystique surrounds them due to their tacit acceptance of a
worldview, the sort of fascination with exoticness Westerners can only have
with systems untainted by self-awareness. Complex Jungian hypotheses about
psychological projections and a "fear of the savage within" do little to
explain spontaneous atavistic behavior. No real psychoanalytic capacity is
needed to understand why Ecstasy would be forced down some girl's throat at a
party. Likewise, no allegory is needed to understand why someone merely needs
to yell "Thief!" at a purse-snatcher in Nairobi and the random passersby will
automatically stone the suspect to death.
Alpha Tau Omega got shut down. I only heard second-hand stories from the
former members I knew, all of which were related with unrestrained glee,
confident that these "good old days" surely couldn't be repeated once they
took a stressful position with their father's company. One of the members saw
fit to drop an Asian kid off clear on the other side of the state with no way
to get back. "He just didn't belong in a fraternity." Three days after a
party had ended, a naked girl was found in a fetal position in the house, and
ran outside in a hysteric fit when someone attempted to rouse her. There were
bragging rights to be had for the insertion of beer bottles into various
orifices during gang bangs.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
"Dude, you HAVE to check out this video." He was beaming with pride.
Surely not just anyone could have been resourceful enough to grab this from
the house. I'd already made the decision to ingest LSD, and felt powerless to
stop what had been labeled only as "One Seriously Fucked-Up Tape." Evil was
personified to me as the images flashed across the screen, and my friend was
determined to get me to tell him what the "sickest scene" in the whole movie
was. I couldn't really decide, but told him the grainy, fourth-generation VHS
scene involving a couple of early adolescent girls and a Cocker Spaniel was
probably the worst. The collusion of factors responsible for seventy-five
minutes of fecal ingestion and zoophilia kept rearranging itself in my head in
the form of a macabre pyramid as I attempted to sort out the causes and
effects that went into such a production. The video's birth, conception,
distribution, and eventual consumption played itself out through countless
scenarios. At one point I imagined that whoever took such great care to
compile all of this smut while in Amsterdam was hearing the same Flemish that
was spoken as fingers and toes were cut off in the Belgian Congo a hundred
After several hours on the couch, the sun came up and I walked home,
still feeling the ergot twitch in my forearms. The flesh of the early-morning
joggers had an ochre-like quality and the clouds over the foothills near
Horsetooth Reservoir seemed inappropriately yellow for mid-summer. Later I
found out that this same tape had made some Manhattanites "back home"
physically ill. Even New Yorkers haven't necessarily seen it all.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
There was an Afro-American Studies professor at school who was absolutely
excellent. His class was very difficult, and none of the students could
possibly understand why a known murderer of a black man wouldn't get convicted
by an all-white jury in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the 1940's. He seemed to
understand my interest in the subject material based my prior reading of
Cornel West's _Race Matters_, or so I hoped. My paper, "Cornel West:
Synthesizing Economic Problems And Their Psychological Consequences," earned
me an A.
I inadvertently provoked a round of laughter in the class when he asked
me to "tell me something about lynching."
"Well, most of the victims were black." Awkward, but he saved me.
"No, he's correct... there were white victims, too." I'd just read Walter
White's _Rope and Faggot_ with a mixture of incredulity and horror. It almost
seemed as though "lynching" was just a nicety; "public torture and execution"
was more fitting.
Lynching occurred with the tacit approval of the higher-ups in a
community, who were undoubtedly content to protect their cheap labor source.
These were community events with a State Fair type atmosphere to them.
Vendors would line up by the event to sell food after advertisement of the
event in the local newspaper. H.L. Mencken stated that the lynching "often
takes the place of the merry-go-round, the theatre, the symphony orchestra,
and other diversions common to large communities." No one would have any
knowledge of the event if a nosy out-of-town law enforcement agent or reporter
came around afterwards.
The public demanded bigger and better thrills as time went on. By the
late 'teens, the passions aroused by the heat, revivalist meetings, and lack
of anything better to do were less satisfied with simple hanging. James
McGovern's _Anatomy of a Lynching_ detailed the last public spectacle lynching
in the United States, that of Claude Neal in Greenwood, Florida in 1934.
Claude Neal had been accused in the murder of a "pretty white girl" named Lola
Cannidy. Despite genuine attempts by law enforcement officials to keep Neal
away from a mob, including transporting him over 200 miles away into
neighboring Alabama, a party of lynchers nevertheless managed to overpower law
enforcement authorities and seal his fate back in Florida. Howard Kester, the
NAACP investigator sent check out Neal's death, learned the details from a
member of the mob ten days later:
After taking the nigger to the woods about four miles from
Greenwood, they cut off his penis. He was made to eat it. Then
they cut off his testicles and made him eat them and say he liked
it, then they sliced his sides and stomach with knives and every now
and then someone would cut off a finger or toe. Red hot irons were
used on the nigger to burn him from top to bottom. From time to
time during the torture a rope would be tied around Neal's neck and
he was pulled up over a limb and held there until he almost choked
to death when he would be let down and the torture begin all over
During the torture, Neal confounded (and undoubtedly annoyed) the mob by
refusing to protest or beg for mercy throughout his entire ordeal. At one
point he asked, "Kind sirs, do you have a cigarette?"
McGovern summarized Neal's likely psychological attitude towards the
affair thusly: "He died without remorse or protest, accepting his fate as a
Negro who was in bad trouble with white folks, as he had from the beginning."
.-. [ x x ] .-.
Almost seventy years later, the television program _Frontline_ aired a
story entitled "The Lost Children of Rockdale County." Sixty-some high school
students in an upper-middle class Atlanta suburb contracted syphilis, a
disease then so rare that this comprised about half of the total number of
cases reported in the state for an entire year. All manner of experts,
including pathologists for the Center for Disease Control, were sent to
investigate. Black men were unwittingly given syphilis in the infamous
Tuskegee Experiments only a few decades earlier; the irony of a bunch of white
teenagers contracting the same disease didn't at all please me, but my
visceral reaction was still one of chickens coming home to roost.
A subsequent investigation revealed detritus that was instantly
recognizable to any number of us who spent their adolescence in the suburban
frontier over the last twenty years. Parents watched their programs in one
room while their children watched their programs in another. A mother felt
bad that a boy who was temporarily staying with them died after a drinking
binge, but the family still didn't show affection to one another after the
death. Her husband dished out child-rearing philosophy from his La-Z-Boy in
the living room: "You have to give kids some space."
Howard Zinn remarked in his 1957 essay "The Southern Mystique" that
Southern white people seem whiter, and black people seem blacker. This was
attributed to "a whiteness unsullied by the admixture of Slavic and Latin
blood found in the North, and kept homogenous by the simple expedient of
tossing over the wall in the night all offspring from black-white sexual
encounters." Rockdale's teenagers seemed to have a wall that left no wiggle
room between Bible study and sexual depravity. One particularly inarticulate
youth lamented at how he had repented from his formerly evil ways for a good
six months, being nothing but a "faithful servant" to God and attending church
group regularly, but he now wondered where his reward was.
Orgies and gang-bangs took on a banality usually associated with quaint
suburban deviations as getting drunk or stoned before class. A psychologist
made the academic observation that the kids managed to rebel even further by
engaging in still-taboo interracial sex: one white girl recounted a specific
"sandwich" where she took it in all three orifices at once from three
different black men. Girls were expected to hook up with other girls as a
matter of course, but male homosexuality was off limits.
Lynching was once defended by sons of the Confederacy as the only
possible recourse if a white woman were to be raped by a Negro, although only
a sixth of the total number of reported lynchings were said to be for sexual
assault, with suspect evidence in any case. The lighter skin color of
American blacks compared to native West Africans betrays the fact that there
was no similar penalty ascribed to the assault of a black woman by a white
slaveowner. One can only wonder what the reaction of white Southern women
must have been to the endless recurrence of light-skinned babies born to
slaves with little guess as to who the father might have been. White women
would occasionally take up the company of a black man using lynching as a
threat if the black man failed to bow to their demands; clearly there was
little moral high ground occupied by either of the sons and daughters of
Europe south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Well into the millennium, the defense of white female honor seemed to
have reached its logical conclusion. Prairie castles long since supplanting
slave quarters, Rockdale's white teenagers had little problem sharing their
conquests with their black schoolmates. But throughout the documentary, the
focus was almost exclusively on the girls. It seemed taken for granted that
this was merely the natural outcome of males being allowed to indulge in their
wildest sexual fantasies. Even as girls engaged in lesbian acts as a bow to
peer pressure, the restriction on male homosexuality was unbowed. White
Southern womanhood remains an eternal tabula rasa, a nonentity that still
elicits disdain at its violation.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
My professor also lent me the 1986 documentary _Ethnic Notions_, which
showed the likes of a bug-eyed Stepin Fetchit juxtaposed with Bugs Bunny as a
watermelon-eating Coon. "Ten Little Niggers," a long-since-deleted nursery
rhyme which details ten black boys who accidentally kill themselves
one-by-one, was the running commentary throughout the film.
I watched it at my friend's house, a girl from Louisiana. "I used to
have a pickaninny doll," she said in a fairly matter-of-fact tone. I
shrugged. I remember watching Popeye escape from bone-nosed African cannibals
as a youth, and the captured native on Jonny Quest was always incapable of
saying anything other than "oonga boonga." This was in Detroit.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
One of my last days at college found me in a coffee-shop reading the
latest issue of the _Village Voice._ No fewer than twenty pages of escort
service personal ads helped to bring the world the feature story: "A Murder In
Clubland." It was about one Michael Alig, a New York club kid promoter prone
to the farthest reaches of dark excess. Alig liked to dose boys with
Rohypinol and rape them, called Puerto Ricans "dirty" and had long since
eschewed Ecstasy and ketamine for heroin and crack by the time his little Club
Night Kingdom came toppling down on him.
Michael Alig ended up killing one of his friends over a money dispute.
His remorseless confession, "I killed Angel," will live on forever in the
documentary _Party Monster_.
There's another story in the _Voice_ as well. It's about a bald white
man - the sort of guy who looks like he'd be more at home discussing the
intricacies of Microsoft Windows than anything else - who had assembled a
collection of 'black memorabilia.' No attention was paid to his race, and in
the likes of the _Village Voice_, this can only be chalked up to the
overwhelming sincerity in the endeavor. However, we were told something to
the effect that "whiteness" could be construed to be nothing more than "the
absence of culture." It's as if white people never existed as anything but an
Abercrombie & Fitch demographic, with porcelain Mammies borne in a void
detached from any sort of environmental context. I wondered if the author
could actually be serious about his assertion. Undoubtedly my relatives in
the Midwest, with their unbroken family ties, idiosyncratic speech, and dress
influenced only by the utilitarianism required of the environment would find
this sort of chic self-loathing incomprehensible.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
After graduation, I moved to Denver with dreams of gainful employment. A
Saturday morning ritual was jogging through the affluent neighborhood directly
south of Cheeseman Park, which was a gateway to the even-more-affluent Country
Club neighborhood. This was a welcome bit of escapism from the drudgery of my
work-week, and I fantasized about a potential life in one of Country Club's
three million dollar manors.
One morning in the late Spring I found another lawn jockey outside a
home. I went back and got a picture of it. All of the usual questions popped
into mind: were the homeowners white? Black? Was its presence ironic? Its
light brown skin did not even imply blackness. Was its mulatto-ish hue
intended from the time of its creation?
.-. [ x x ] .-.
Hiawatha, Kansas is situated approximately ten miles from both the
Nebraska and Missouri borders in the northwest corner of the state in Brown
County. Resisting even the faintest trace of a changing demographic, its
ethnic composition has changed little since it was populated by mostly German
settlers in the mid to late 19th century. Surnames on my mother's side of the
family include Yoesel, Schoewengerdt, and Plaguer. My mother's maiden name is
Hillyer, taken from the more Teutonic Hellyer. This was brought about by the
religious desire to "get the hell out of Hellyer," as my grandfather once put
Despite a noticeable decline in shotgun-riddled stop signs, the
appearance of new satellite mini-dishes, and a downtown devastated by
Wal-Mart, very little has changed here in the twenty some years that I can
remember. More of the roads are paved. Most of the decrepit, unused farm
structures have been bulldozed, their once de facto accompanying windmills
undoubtedly sold as antiques. Herbicide overuse has meant that sunflowers and
elderberries are no longer the ubiquitous roadside fixture they once were, but
summer nights in the country still bear the timeless humidity of my childhood
on my grandfather's farm, the silence punctuated by the steady drone of
I had not been back in the several years since my grandparents had passed
away. There was a perfect opportunity to return for my cousin's wedding, and
I imagined the sort of place where one could step inside a distant relative's
kitchen, only to find the unironic presence of a wide-lipped Sambo cookie-jar.
Pristine, undiluted Americana. True culture, the sort that must develop over
multiple generations as a result of convergence of a multiplicity of social,
environmental, and material factors, with no silly notions of postmodern
reflection off of some Hyperreal. I had thought of the combination of
repulsion, mystical intrigue, and titillation that had occurred when I had
first seen 'Toby' the lawn jockey a few years earlier, and purchased a camera.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
Driving through Colby, Kansas, there was some sort of black figurine in a
garden along the north side of I-70, which only served to tease me with its
presence. I certainly couldn't bother my parents to stop, much less
articulate the nature of my ambiguous mission.
Hiawatha did not yield any of the results I'd hoped for. There was no
shortage of vintage water-pump windmills, particle board women with exposed
polka-dotted bloomers, or garden gnomes, but lawn jockies were nowhere to be
found. Perhaps they were never marketed around here to begin with. I
certainly wasn't in the deep South. In fact, it's hard to think of Brown in
Kansas without prefixing it with a "John the Christian martyr" to the
A.N. Riley's _History of Brown County_ details a lynching that occurred
near the Brown County Courthouse mid 1890's Hiawatha. The official record is
that it was instigated not by the local white population, but rather by the
black population against a black man accused of theft. Unusual, but most
likely accurate given that Riley's history was written only twenty-some years
after the fact - there was certainly no pressing need to give the event the
patina of racial respectability in the 1920's. Besides, white people
certainly weren't above lynching other white people.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
It was on one May evening in 1982 that Michael Ryan attended a lecture
given by the Rev. James Wickstrom in a musty Hiawatha community hall. An
audience of about fifty farmers, almost all of whom had fallen on hard times,
listened intently on folding metal chairs as Wickstrom preached:
You're all hurting, aren't you? You see friends losing their
crops, their livestock, their property - you're afraid your
turn might be coming up. You're thinking what's happening isn't
right. You know what? You're right there. What's happening isn't
right. I'm here to tell you that God knows it isn't right. Being
God-fearing Americans, wouldn't you figure that if the American
farmer was in serious financial difficulty, the federal government
would be rushing in to help? After all, the government trips over
itself bailing out the Jew-owned airlines, tobacco companies,
railroads, and steel industries. But then, you don't find too many
Jews working the land, do you? No, you don't. Do you know why?
Nobody? Not even you who thought you knew the Bible? Well then,
I'll tell you why. Almighty God put a curse on Cain, the father of
the Jews. That's right. Genesis 4:12 says the earth would not
yield her fruit to Cain and his descendants. Matthew 23:35 tells
us that Cain is the father of the Jews.
Mike Ryan was skeptical at first, but later contacts with Wickstrom made
him a believer. Wickstrom showed Ryan a surefire way to receive messages from
Yahweh, the Old Testament god of wrath: one of the Chosen would raise an
initiate's hand to the sky, and the Chosen would ask Yahweh a question. If
the hand stayed up, the answer was yes; if it went down, the answer was no.
In Wickstrom's Christian Identity theology, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel
are American Anglo-Saxons; Jews are false pretenders in claiming to be the
true children of God, and blacks and Asiatics are the cursed children of Ham.
It was a Christian Identity group, "The Order," that assassinated Jewish radio
talk show host Alan Berg in 1984 outside his home at Adams Street and 14th
Avenue in Denver.
Mike Ryan quickly knew he was one of the Chosen, and he didn't need
Wickstrom for very long. He'd had a premonition of his grandfather's death
which reassured him of his Chosen status, and it didn't take him long to find
a group of susceptible locals who viewed him as some sort of Messiah. With
farm foreclosures a daily event across the heartland, what he was saying made
a lot of sense. Yahweh's wishes included the theft of farm equipment and
livestock, which was used to purchase firearms, ammunition, and survival gear.
The battle of Armageddon was slated to take place in a "wheat field" according
to Wickstrom's teaching; the existence of Meggedio in Israel had obviously
escaped them. Not that that mattered, as any knowledge gained by the group
either served to reinforce its existing beliefs, or was false Satanic
Ryan convinced one of his followers, Rick Stice, to set up a survivalist
compound on Stice's failed farm near Rulo, Nebraska, a good fifteen minute
drive from Hiawatha. The battle of Armageddon came down to eighteen men,
women, and children living in two trailers, running around in camouflage, and
firing off automatic weapons in the middle of the night. Ryan grew
increasingly controlling with his disciples. He forced all of the women into
"marriages" with him and extorted money with threats of violence as Yahweh
continued to command livestock heists, dictated by the "arm test."
When FBI agents finally raided the compound in August of 1985, they
unearthed the bodies of five-year old Luke Stice and Ryan's older disciple
James Thimm. Both had suffered immeasurable abuse for months before their
death, with Ryan calling Luke Stice "Satan" or a "mongrel." James Thimm was
kept in chains, and forced to engage in homosexual acts and bestiality before
Ryan's son accidentally shot him in the face, a shooting which proved to
justify his subsequent torture and murder, which rivaled that of Claude Neal's
in terms of inhumanity.
Ryan's Armageddon shacks have long since been razed, the farm now lying
fallow in order to prevent soil erosion into the nearby Missouri River.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
Rulo, Nebraska is approximately fifteen miles from Hiawatha, a true "wide
spot in the road" if there ever was one. Situated next to the mighty Missouri
River, you can't help but notice the extra dampness and the particularly
thick, green deciduous foliage, which makes many of Rulo's two-hundred-some
inhabitants practically invisible from the roadside. If one had to choose a
place that epitomized the state of Small Town America today, you'd be hard
pressed to find a more archetypal example. Long-since boarded up shops on
Main Street betray a dying town fallen on hard times. You can't help but want
to eat at the only local restaurant, Camp Rulo: a genuine honkey-tonk tavern
with a sloped awning that serves fried catfish caught just a few feet away in
the Missouri. It's the sort of place that could have only existed in that one
spot, never destined to be a hip marketing concept in a larger city.
Driving through Rulo, I see the ceramic statue of a small red-lipped
black boy with a fishing pole in a Rulo yard, but fail to take a picture of
it. I want to ring the doorbell and see what the owner looks like, but am
unable to stop. Given Rulo's existence as a river town and the black statue's
fishing posture, it seemed more than likely that it could have very well been
some sort of craft made by the homeowner. I wondered what year it was made;
it had surely been repainted over the years. I asked my parents what they
thought of it. My dad said something like he was a "cute little guy." I
didn't inquire further; it probably already seemed strange that I would be
asking about a random lawn ornament.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
Falls City, Nebraska is about the same distance from Hiawatha as is Rulo,
but is a source of richer, detailed childhood memories. An ice-cream store
called Goodrich always followed many outings my cousins and I had to the Falls
City Municipal Pool. One time one of my cousins was obviously harassing a
black child at the pool, which culminated in the black kid chasing him around
and repeatedly calling him a "bigot." My cousin just threw the "bigot" back
in his face in a mocking tone. Not knowing who instigated the incident or
even what "bigot" meant at that time, my seven-year old self was highly amused
by this spectacle. My cousin threw his flip-flop sandals at this kid in an
effort to keep him at bay while he continued to mock him until my aunt
intervened and gave him a lecture on why it was wrong to be prejudiced.
While Nebraska is only a few miles from Hiawatha, it has a sparseness to
its topography that "just makes it look poorer," as my mother once put it.
Crumbling old farm structures have resisted bulldozing to a far larger degree,
and new John Deere tractors do not seem as common as old Cases and Massey-
Fergusons. My relatives in Nebraska are failed farmers, now forced to eke out
a living performing odd jobs and raising a few cattle. This is a sharp
contrast to my Kansas relatives, who have prospered throughout the years
through a combination of education, business acumen, and particularly rich,
Falls City's most striking feature is its brick streets. Other than
that, it could be any other town in the Midwest that will never recover from
the farm crash of the early 1980's. The last time I was there, a series of
obscure chain restaurants and retail stores had still resisted the small town
inevitabilities of Wal-Mart and McDonald's: Payonia served retail needs;
Hardee's, Old Swiss, and Li'l Duffer for hamburgers, and the Breezy Hill
restaurant when one had a craving for a good piece of grilled meat and an
iceberg lettuce salad. These stores don't quite provide a jocular frame of
reference for the media saturated twentysomething. There was no 'Tastee-
Freez' to my recollection, rendering it immune to renditions of John Cougar
Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" performed by touring college kids in SUV's. If
any connotation was made by the average passerby, it was undoubtedly that
Falls City was the site of the 1991 slaying of Teena Brandon, a tale told with
some degree of condescension in the 1998 movie _Boys Don't Cry_.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
My mother's extended family was slated to meet at the Breezy Hill
Restaurant outside of Falls City. The place was as unpretentious as
vegetarian-hostile; the fried chicken and mashed potatoes were superlative.
The landscape I witnessed on the drive over was identical to what Marvin
Thomas Nissen and John Lotter must have seen as they drove from Lincoln to
Falls City just a few years before. Lotter and Nissen arrived with rope and
hatchet and an intent on killing Teena Brandon, or Brandon Teena, as she came
to be called. Enraged that they'd been duped into friendship by a woman
posing as a man, Lotter and Nissen raped Teena at a Christmas party in 1993,
and then calculated her murder afterward, searching for an entire week to find
Even after Teena reported the rape to the local police, Richardson County
Sheriff Charles B. Laux saw fit not to arrest Nissen and Lotter, dismissing
Teena's sister's pleas for assistance and saying that "you can call it 'it' as
far as I'm concerned." A week after the rape, no concrete action had been
taken, but supposedly the Sheriff's Department had been "pursuing" rape
charges against the two perpetrators.
Whatever Laux set in motion - if anything - it was not enough to stem the
incipient bloodshed. Nissen and Lotter managed to track down Teena in a
farmhouse outside of Falls City, where they shot and killed "it" along with
"its" two friends Lisa Lambert and Philip DeVine, dispatching each with an
execution-style shot to the head. Laux lost his reelection bid in 1994, but
Norm MacDonald still saw fit to make the following crack on _Saturday Night
Live_: "Sorry if this sounds harsh, but in my opinion, everybody in this case
deserved to die."
Sheriff Laux had embarrassed Falls City's residents enough for them to
dispose of him while Norm MacDonald got some laughs in the most liberal city
on the planet before moving on to some Clinton jokes. I mulled over Norm's
words and wondered how funny they would have seemed if the victim were black.
Whatever the case, all of these hatemongers were sure doing a good job of only
killing those of their own ethnic group. From the blacks who lynched a black
man back in the 1890's to the Teena Brandon slayings, there seemed only to be
a nebulous, visceral hate, attaching itself to whoever was in its nearest
vicinity after being awakened.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
I had one last trip to a relative's house to make before my cousin's
My mother's cousin showed us his player piano with great pride, as he had
restored it to its original condition and had an extensive collection of piano
rolls. He picked up a random roll of music and fed it in to the piano and it
played an automated "Take Me Back To Old Virginny," an ancient minstrel-show
tune that ended with the lines "Dat's where dis old darky wants to go."
This final line elicited deafening silence on all our parts, apparently
causing a degree of embarrassment to my mother's cousin. However, the
implicit agreement among small town Midwesterners - that one must be pleasant
and prone to spouting excessive niceties at all times - quickly allowed him to
shift gears and start talking about his collection of Oreo Cookie
paraphernalia. The "darky" line proved to be nothing more than a subtle
moment of awkwardness that one would have if the Spice Channel were suddenly
unencrypted while watching TV with one's family. After we perused his
collection of Oreo mugs, I looked at his collection of vintage tractors that
he had restored.
The token use of "darky" on a piece of automated piano music failed to
satisfy. Empty-handed and somewhat disappointed, I drove home with my family,
attempting to get some sleep the night before my cousin's wedding in the musty
basement that I'd been relegated to since my grandparents had moved out of the
country almost a decade ago. The same two books adorned the headboard of the
bed, unmoved since my early adolescence: _Pilgrim's Progress_ and _Profiles in
Courage_. I afforded JFK a token nod of appreciation by reading a few
paragraphs from the latter before dozing off.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
Before the wedding, my uncle had informed us that there had been a last-
minute, unexpected change in the DJ for the evening. As it turned out, the DJ
was a black youth from Topeka and the people he was originally scheduled to
play for didn't like blacks - would it be acceptable if he sent a black DJ?
"I thought that was a little... interesting," he said, with no small amount of
derision in his voice. The owner of the DJ company had also made it an issue
to make sure that HE didn't have a problem with a black DJ, either, he just
wanted to make sure.
As the two-stepping commenced, I wondered just who these people were,
that they considered themselves above having a black nineteen year old play
them "Achey Breaky Heart" and the "Hokey Pokey." What disenfranchisement had
led them to come to one of the last outposts of a small town where I had not
once ever heard the word "nigger" spoken before? Slavery never turned blacks
into economic competition upon emancipation, afforded by fortuitous
convergence of crops inclined to mechanized agriculture and post Civil War
European settlement. White people simply had no economic impetus for keeping
black people "in their place"; in fact, there were very few black people here
Rather, it was most likely that these black-hating people came to
Hiawatha as a place where they could get away with such an action. Their
racism was certainly not a result of the exigencies of rural Kansas life.
Marx and Engels simply didn't have anything to say about this situation. It
was also doubtful that the rednecks who didn't want some coon playing "Achy
Breaky Heart" for them were interested in Jungian analysis about their
projection of their own feelings of inferiority onto some phenotype - this was
just ignorance in its purest form.
Using the N-word had simply become an expected accoutrement to the Jeff
Foxworthy demographic just as black youth wear their hats sideways on their
head. Why even bother trying to explain it? Inserting economic powerlessness
and notions of "urban defiance" have doubtlessly garnered a lot of people
PhD's, but I still just couldn't stop thinking that a lot of this behavior was
just plain dumb. I'd already gone through the motions of guilt and faux-
intellectual class analysis with the likes of the Nation of Islam, and didn't
feel the need to do it again. Yes, silly ideas are attractive to the
downtrodden, but that doesn't change the fact that any sort of education
usually pre-empts taking Dr. Yacub or white American Anglo-Saxons Israelites
So I had finally been given all the proof that I thought I needed to
justify my nascent liberal superiority complex. Middle-America WAS full of
intolerant hicks and pickaninny doll crafts, inevitably breeding Ed Geins and
Michael Ryans due to the inherent "idiocy of small town life," as someone once
called it. I felt slightly elitist, but in my mind at least it was all out in
the open: there was no threat of me getting an advanced degree in comparative
literature from NYU in order to justify my condescending tone. I'd
effectively rationalized doing a full 360 on the issue back to the point where
most people never leave: that a lot of things simply don't make any sense, so
why even bother to think about them? Thank God I was from the Big City and
smart enough to know all of these sorts of things.
I had talked little during the trip, undoubtedly cementing my "quietness"
in the minds of my relatives. In fact, I had just felt alienated from the
whole experience. I was still being told how much I must have grown since I
was last seen, asked what my employment consisted of, but my apparently sullen
behavior was certainly not disinterest in their goings-on, or any sort of
condescension, but rather intrigue that nevertheless I knew they wouldn't
understand. Unable to slather faux niceties and superlatives upon everyone
and everything I came in contact with, I undoubtedly came off as either a boy
who'd just always been quiet at best or a sneering, big-city snob at worst.
I felt powerless to do anything about this perception, which made the
lack of alcohol at this wedding especially annoying. I'd been tempted to hop
in the car and run down the street for a quick sip of gin, realizing that this
would not exactly make me the Dutiful Son. My presence was for my parents to
imply that we were just as close-knit as everyone else was back home; we
certainly wouldn't have missed this event for the world. It was the same
guilt that kept me going to church every Sunday with my parents until I left
the house. My one futile attempt to tell my father of my nascent agnosticism
resulting in little but a patronizing speech implying that all I was doing was
being a rebellious teenager.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
The last lawn jockey I saw was in the Spring of 2000. I'd made a wrong
turn in an extremely affluent neighborhood in East Boulder and it lurched out
at me in a way only something totally unexpected can. If this had anything to
do with fate, it certainly wasn't in my favor as the picture turned out
horribly. The possibility some Very Important Man calling the police after
some unknown was taking photos of his house caused me to snap a hasty photo
without getting out of my car.
The blackness of this piece was its only potential offensiveness - it did
not have exaggerated facial characteristics. Its remote location on a
dead-end road assures that it will remain incognito from the public-at-large.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
Less than a year ago it hit me like a ton of bricks: surely I could go
out on the Internet and find all of the "Black Memorabilia" that I wanted!
The temptation was too good to resist. I felt that if finally I could have a
few of these things in my own possession, I'd find the unknown that I had been
The first thing I managed to find was the Virtual Jim Crow Museum, the
brainchild of a sociology professor David Pilgrim at Ferris State University
in Michigan. Hundreds of racist artifacts are available for viewing,
conveniently subdivided into the typical stereotypes: Mammies, Brutes, Coons,
and Pickaninnies. I was fascinated by all of the images. I did further
Internet searches and found a couple of interviews with people who collected
this stuff - all of them were black. Apparently my interest in this subject
is comparatively mild, as one collector reported owning over fifteen hundred
pieces of Black Memorabilia.
It seemed like a good time to start collecting this stuff myself. Within
the next couple of weeks I'd made several orders to online Internet antique
auction houses. I chose to purchase all glassware, keeping in tune with my
very first purchase of a shot glass. When selling these things, it often
increases the value immensely if a common theme is established in a
collection. Whatever it was, I knew it wouldn't be long until I could grasp
one of these artifacts for myself.
The pieces started arriving in the mail. The first thing I got was a
shot glass showing black African cannibals getting ready to cook a white woman
with the caption "Down the Hatch!" More pieces followed: a glass with a
couple of cartoon minstrels on the front and the lyrics to "Dixie" on the
back; outlandish African tribesmen on a set of six iced tea glasses;
"Plantation Scenes" showing a happy darky serving the grandmothers of future
sorority girls; a mug from Sambo's Restaurant decorated with an American flag
motif, and a truly pretty German teacup depicting black children picking
Stripped of the context that created them, they seem to puzzle more than
offend. Their producers seem guilty of little else than perpetuating the de
facto standards of their time - without being indicators of wider-ranging
social control mechanisms in place, they seem guilty more of tackiness than
anything else. This impression is disingenuous. Viewing them as mere
exhibitions of poor taste without understanding their role in the systematic
dehumanization of black people would be to do them a disservice. Most of the
people who produced these and consumed them probably didn't spend an
inordinate amount of ruminating on their hatred of black people. But when
blacks have been represented to them as little more than watermelon-eating
buffoons, it makes for unease when too many of them start attending your local
When you look at the glasses, you have to wonder how it would have been
possible for them not to exist. They are the natural consequence of
provincialism and the human tendency to classify the world based on phenotypic
characteristics. After all, our brains are best at performing simple tasks:
tracking game, identifying poisonous plants. The same ability that allowed
our ancestors to differentiate leopards from mastodons is naturally going to
lead us to classify humans in a similar manner. What is surprising it not
that these artifacts ever existed; what is surprising is that most people no
longer view them as being in good taste.
But as the old worn-out adage goes, the more things change, the more they
stay the same. It's unlikely that most of the lawn jockies I detailed in this
article would have survived a couple of complaints from neighbors, at least in
Colorado; there are probably many cases of clueless whites who erect these
every year who are oblivious to their true meaning. Howard Zinn wrote that
while keeping blacks "in their place" might have been important to a lot of
Southerners, it was likely that staying out of jail and avoiding trouble was a
lot more important to them at the end of the day. So, while reproductions of
racist artifacts seem to be a hot commodity on the Internet (a Texan sells
matchbooks touting early-20th century products such as "Nigger Head Oysters,"
and a South Carolina antique dealer reproduces derogatory images of blacks in
advertisements designed to help realize "country decor") it's unlikely that
all but the most hardcore racists would be willing to prominently display such
items for very long.
Over-analysis of these artifacts is a disservice to everyone involved,
because the glasses are kitsch, little more than pop-culture detritus from an
earlier time. Some sort of grand universal law dictates that they could not
have been produced by any great talent; they look Below, not Beyond. They do
not seem to have any real purpose outside of their immediate utilitarian
function. Whatever dark current it was that I was chasing turned out to be
little more than stuff that people probably couldn't give away for free twenty
years ago. Their garishness excludes them from irony, and despite whatever
intentions I had, it's doubtful anyone would ever understand. I certainly
wasn't going to buy a display case for them. They remain in a box, destined
for shipment to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University.
The America I was looking for - the one that I'd only heard of, where
customs and habits arose out immediate material surroundings - simply didn't
exist anymore. Pockets of racism can now manifest only impotently, with no
tacit approval from the community at large. Whatever was perpetuating
ignorant behavior now, it stemmed from a distant First Cause, fueled only by
the inevitability of human anger. Michael Ryan might have believed that Jews
were Satanic, but all he ended up doing was killing a five year old white boy.
.-. [ x x ] .-.
In _North of South: An African Journey_, Shiva Naipaul wrote after months
in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia that, "black and white deserve each other.
Neither was worth the shedding of a single tear: both were rotten to the core.
Each had been destroyed by contact with the other - though each had been
destroyed in his own way." One of the last conversations Naipaul overheard
was of a self-proclaimed white racist who claimed he "wasn't this way before
he came to Africa" shortly followed by a woman who said she was "slowly coming
to hate being white."
"It makes me boil inside when I read of the things the white man has done
to Africa," she said. "I can even sympathize with Idi Amin. When you think
of the way white men have treated black men over the centuries, you can't
blame them for wanting revenge. It's only natural. Amin's only reacting to
all the dreadful things we whites have done to the blacks. I don't condemn
him. Not for one minute."
Of course, Idi Amin killed a whole lot more blacks than he did whites by
a magnitude of hundreds of thousands. But this fact seems to be lost on the
woman in question. I felt like I was parroting David Horowitz, but the
stereotype was open for all to see again: whites were being held to a higher
moral standard than blacks. If a white colonial government killed a few dozen
blacks in a riot, there would have been a worldwide outcry. But when hundreds
of thousands of blacks are killed by their supposed fellows, the only thing
that seemed to matter was that the few whites who got caught in the crossfire
"deserved what was coming to them."
How much guilt can people take before their bodies naturally rebel
against it? Naipaul quotes George Orwell arguing against deliberate,
conscious efforts at class-breaking. "You have forced the pace and set up an
uneasy, unnatural equality between class and class; the resultant friction
brings to the surface all kinds of feelings that might otherwise have remained
buried, perhaps forever - the opinions of the sentimentalist change into their
opposites at the first touch of reality." Of course, social progress has
never been easy. But there is a big difference between aspiring to a higher
level of being - that which was the initial goal of the civil rights movement
- and merely justifying the bad actions of a different group. When a trio of
white junior-high school age girls sing the lyrics to some filthy hip-hop tune
in unison on the _Frontline_ episode, I can't help but think that there has
been little actual elevation of the human spirit transpire since the
Montgomery bus boycotts almost fifty years ago.
As I took one last look at my racial artifacts before I boxed them up and
shipped them off to the Jim Crow Museum, I found it hard to disagree with
Naipaul's gloomy conclusion. European contact with primitive cultures had
merely resulted in "us" turning into Colonel Kurtzes: red-lipped Sambo
cartoons proved that "we" were about as far from the highest achievements of
Western culture as we could possibly be. Likewise, the "Wabenzi" - Africa's
new "tribe" of Mercedes-Benz owners - at least dispelled the notion that there
was some sort of unblemished humanity that was being spoiled. We really are
all human after all!
My curiosity was satiated. I wanted no more to do with any of this,
realizing that it would be impossible to write anything at all about these
artifacts and not be misunderstood. I found the artifacts to be revolting,
but I didn't feel guilty at all when I looked at them. Whatever connection I
thought I might have had with them had been severed long ago, and what had
seemed so elusive was now ridiculously simple to comprehend. The last thing I
thought of before I sealed the boxes were the words of Dr. Benjamin Mays,
Martin Luther King's mentor: "I am disturbed, I am uneasy about man because we
have no guarantee that [to] train a man's mind, we train his heart; no
guarantee that when we increase a man's knowledge, we will increase his
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