My big brother lives in Charlottesville. We grew up together in Groveport, Ohio, rode the bus with a girl whose dad was a Columbus cop, whose grandfather was a World War II machine gunner, whose older brother bashed in a fifteen-year-old black kid’s head with a baseball bat, as the Columbus Dispatch reported, “because he was black.” The older brother was sentenced to three to fifteen years for felonious assault, but then a judge released him to probation after only eight months. He pled no contest and was found guilty of the ethnic intimidation charge after six years of appeals through which he challenged its constitutionality. The judge sentenced him to the maximum eighteen months, then suspended the sentence. Instead, he had to do twenty hours of community service, three years of probation, and a three-day sensitivity class offered by the Anti-Defamation League. I remember him standing in the driveway sometimes when the bus dropped off his little sister, she and my brother still arguing through the open window as we pulled away. I remember him often calling her a racist. I remember her often saying she wasn’t. She was.
That’s what I think of when I see the photos of a black teen beaten with a pole in a parking garage by white supremacists. I think of the baseball bat swung with the power to kill outside that movie theater by Eastland Mall, where I saw horrible movies like Time Cop, where I had my first French kiss while watching The Brady Bunch Movie. I processed, back then, at nine years old, the fact that there were white supremacists all around me. How would I move through the world? I remember seeing kids from my little league football team—some quiet and angry, others hyperactive and angry—turn into Neo-Nazis right before my eyes. I remember being an eighth grader talking to a senior, one of my brother’s friends wearing a jean jacket and a bandana giving way to long blonde hair. I remember him saying he hated our high school because they were always trying to do “this” to him, and he tapped his wrists together to pantomime being cuffed. I remember seeing him at the Groveport Pool three years later, shirtless, a Confederate flag tattoo spanning his left shoulder, his pale head shaved clean.
And when I think of the guy arrested for driving a Dodge Challenger into a crowd, killing a white woman, I think of the fact that white supremacists have never really been concerned, ultimately, with protecting white women and girls. Terror is a force that wrought manhood in America, from the beginning, with the blowback from public acts of murder, mutilation, castration, and dismemberment being an unsealable fracture within white communities and their psychic life. The compulsive repetition of ritual murder and riotous violence are attempts to exorcise the disavowed knowledge that for every black man you falsely accuse and execute for a horrendous crime he did not commit, you’ve left the real monster free to roam, to marry your daughters, assault your friends, molest your children. And it is this white monster lurking even deeper than the black monster in the white supremacist mind, fueled by the knowledge that the price of the ticket is not only forgetting your history to then be adrift at sea, in irons, but the knowledge that your very sense of belonging that gives you your entire measure of self-worth is a bond braided with blood, so that even child-rearing and love become a kind of self-victimization. For, as Baldwin pointed out, a community constituted through barbaric acts necessarily makes their children into barbarians.
I am just beginning to write the history of white supremacist violence against whites and the way the infliction of pain and threat on the other (which is always a part of the self) necessarily touches the very community said to be protected by the terror. Love, then, when fully interwoven with racism, freights this unspoken weight, where we all know that we will suffer because we have told ourselves that the evil is out there, not in here; that our own monstrosity is a mark of our heroic superiority, while theirs certifies their soulless subhumanity. Any human community that sells itself this lie is doomed to wound itself again and again, to be trapped inside the cage of mirrored bars that only reflect slivered, distorted versions of themselves. But those bars dripping with stars let in the sunbeams, don’t they? And the breeze and its breath of magnolia, so the imprisoned one can tell himself he is free.
The murder suspect in Charlottesville lived in Maumee, Ohio. I’ve been to Maumee. In college, I went camping there with my girlfriend. We slept in a tent. She was born in the South, loved sunbathing and running, caught snakes with her cousin out in Wayne County for fun. She dated a guy after me who had a Confederate flag tattoo, or was wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt one time in a photo I saw. I don’t remember which. I think they had a kid together. The geography of memory works like this: a barn on Rager Road had “Groveport Fabulous” spray-painted on the side and within it we found a climbing wall of hay bails and a smear of porn mags and blood; the black shuttle driver from the Cincinnati airport back to Oxford said he grew up in Hamilton but that they never went to Lebanon and definitely not at night when he was a kid, too much KKK there, and he still won’t go to that town if he doesn’t have to; when I rode dirt bikes with two of my best friends, who were Appalachian twins, the only helmet in the garage that fit my head was their dad’s Confederate flag helmet, so I wore it and rode through the soybeans and dormant cornfields with my afro sticking out of the earholes, the Stars and Bars glittering in the heat. I could tell you about their dad coming home late from the bar and sitting on the porch with me, asking me about why his sons don’t love him, his face so red from the cigarettes and the beer and from that time a black widow bit him on the wrist in the hills near Lake Hope, and they said there was a visible line of darkness running up his arm toward his heart as the venom traveled through his veins. I could tell you about Ohio, but we’d need more time.
I live in Burlington, Vermont now. I can tell you that many people I’ve met here don’t seem to know that the Midwest exists, not because they haven’t visited it, but because they think that time moves chronologically. Where I grew up, I knew that knowing where you were was not as important as knowing when you were, that when you stepped into a living room, onto a back deck, into a clearing where a pig roast and horseshoe toss was happening, that you were stepping into a world distinct from the one you came from, distinct from the one just across the street, or down the road. You learn not to expect. You learn that everyone in the American cast of characters, the long rogues’ gallery of the ever-shifting frontier, is still here. You can assume guns are everywhere. When Leroy sits on his front porch downing gallons of Blatz beer and spit-shouting playful and lewd jabs at passersby, you know it will be funny for the first half hour or so, and that you can jab at him too and he can take it. But you know that after that the racism will start coming out, that the war he fought in the jungle never ended inside him, that you will become the enemy.
You know that when your white girlfriend in eighth grade has to make sure her dad doesn’t know you’re dating, you know that she is in real danger, more danger than you in fact. You know the story she told you about the time they were walking past the Statehouse downtown, and he flashed back to when he was captured, and there he was on the sidewalk, his whole body crying and shivering and struggling under an invisible tiger net, getting more and more tangled and desperate as he fought against it. Things made so much more sense once you learned that there was a POW camp for Confederate soldiers at Camp Chase on the west side of Columbus, and that instead of arranging a POW exchange, a Confederate general massacred a black regiment he’d captured, so Lincoln said no more exchanges, and the Rebel prisoners were stranded at the camp, and dysentery and smallpox swept through and killed hundreds of them, and when the survivors were released, some of them didn’t return to a South that didn’t exist anymore. Instead, a number of them settled in Franklinton, a flood plain just south of downtown, a neighborhood now being populated with artists’ studios and microbreweries. When I was a kid, the kids of the kids of the kids of those POWs were around. Where did they live?
They lived in the place that kids like Arthur lived. I remember when they suspended him in seventh grade for wearing a jean jacket with black magic marker scrawled across the back—“The South Will Rise Again.” He, like J.R., who used the n-word casually on the bus one day, truly had no idea he was saying something that would offend anyone. That was the kind of house that raised him in the early 1990s, just down the road from my house, where my mom and dad told stories some might find hard to believe, including one involving my white mother as a teenager talking to a black friend on the sidewalk, and a car, and her dad driving it. I could tell you about it, but we’d need more time. I’d have to lay out an entire world, and then another, and then another, and eventually, we’d have enough to stitch together a single Ohio town. We’d have to resist setting the stories in a specific year, though. To do so could be misleading when I talk about my white grandfather confronting my black grandfather in a liquor store on Rickenbacker Air Force Base, when I tell you that their kids were dating across the color line and on their way to making my big brother and that my grandfather carried Virginia within him, that his great-grandfather who served in the Confederate forces never actually died, that my black grandfather was never actually alive, that I was there in the store, ten years before I was born, learning about this realm, about how the human heart is a twisted thing.
I processed this week’s events when I was a child.