“He looked like a demon”: the distorting mirror of racism

When I was 14-15 or so, I only cared about writing. I devoured fiction in all forms, and had an attachment to the works of the Southern Gothic writers: Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor. I wrote a story in that vein, about two older women, one white, one black. The plot had the two of them remembering the reason that both became friends during segregated times. The white woman was turned out of her house for her romantic dalliance with a black boy, and her subsequent pregnancy. The boy’s family took her in, and the other woman was the boy’s sister. I don’t have a copy of the piece—the draft was done on college ruled notebook paper. I imagine that it was a jejune attempt, bit of Southern Gothic fan fiction.

I submitted the piece to the high school literary magazine, and it was accepted. And almost as soon as it was accepted, it was pulled. The school vice principal, who I’ll call Mr. D, objected to the content matter. It was immoral, and ‘ghetto.’ Mind you, I heard this second hand from the teacher who edited the literary magazine. Now, the school I attended was nominally a Christian Academy, and you were required to take religion class. Even so, the line of what was and wasn’t acceptable. For instance, we were required to read works by Wright and watch films about lynching—not exactly warm and fuzzy fare. I recall being kind of shocked that Mr. D had characterized it as ‘ghetto,’ as the story occurred in a rural small town. Then the light turned on in my head. It was ‘ghetto’ because it was about black people and I was a black person. Therefore, black = ghetto. So, the story about immoral, scary black people (and their white friends) was pulled. As a consolation, the editor/teacher published some of my poetry. (Thank God, I can’t find the literary magazine!)

I was never called a demon or a thug. You see, I was one of the ‘good ones,’ from a Talented Tenth in-tact family that lived in Washington’s Gold Coast. At five feet two inches tall, no-one is going to mistake me for a super scary black man. But even when you’re unthreateningly diminutive, and have a bonafide bourgeois pedigree, sometimes all people can see is your black skin.  Blackness that, in the white supremacist imagination, has corrosive properties.  See, racism is a funhouse mirror that distorts reality. It turns a gentle story about friendship into a lurid story about debased moral values.

That funhouse mirror turns a black boy into a demon or thug. It turns a slightly drunk young woman ringing a doorbell (because, doncha know, thieves always ring the doorbell) into a threat. A boy, carrying a toy gun in an “open-carry” state, becomes a threat. And on it goes.

Tamir Rice
Tamir Rice

Anyway, the magazine came out, and it had a story written by white girl. The story was about a young, unwed welfare mother who kills a john with lead pipe to feed her hungry son. The story begins with the words, “Momma, I be hoooongry.” The story had prostitution, murder, illegitimacy and actually was set in a ghetto. But, it was written by a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl; she could publish a fantasia no doubt inspired by Reagan’s mythical welfare queen. Somehow, that piece got past the moral crusader, but my piece, set in the rural South, was ‘ghetto.’

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