They Say This Isn’t America. For Most Of Us, It Is.

Kaitlyn Greenidge
·8-min read
Photo credit: Ingrid Frahm
Photo credit: Ingrid Frahm

From Harper's BAZAAR

When I was a kid, my grandfather would never let us open the blinds in his house. “We don’t want anyone to be able to see us inside,” he would tell me. The windows in my grandparents’ house were covered in golden velvet drapes and sheer white nylon curtains. The shades facing the street were always closed. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized he lived by that rule because of his legacy as the first Black family to live on the block of our Boston-area suburb. Keeping the blinds shut kept him protected from white people who had firebombed and harassed similar families in other towns.

When I got my own apartment, I always kept my blinds open. One of my joys is sitting on my bed in a pool of sunlight. Yesterday afternoon, though, as my family watched Trump supporters storm the Capitol and police, on camera, moving the barricades to allow them in, my mother told me to shut my blinds. “Don’t let people look in,” she said. I thought we were past that. I had hoped we were past that. But my daughter and I are quarantining in the Boston area, in a suburb that voted overwhelmingly for President-elect Joe Biden, and where still “Back the Blue” and “We Love America” signs are posted by at least one house per block. I had hoped we were past this. Nevertheless, I shut the blinds.

Like so many of us, I started the morning hopeful. I woke up to the news that Reverend Raphael Warnock—a Black liberation preacher; a sexual health advocate; a man, in short, too good for U.S. politics—had been elected as Georgia’s first Black senator in history and only the 11th Black senator in U.S. history. I’d forgotten the knowledge my family had, the story we knew, the truth that every Black family knows in this country: that whiteness reacts with rage and violence whenever it feels Blackness has encroached on its space. This encroachment is always read as a threat, and the violence against it is always read as justified, as understandable.

We have spent the last four years watching this fact play out with the thudding obviousness of an object lesson. Reporters who work to find any reason other than racism for so many white voters’ embrace of Trump; the many implorations to understand white anger at former president Barack Obama and Black gains; the repainting of white supporters from the overwhelmingly wealthy demographic they have consistently proven to be to a more romantic, more empathetic story of poor and disenfranchised white people feeling left behind. In national politics, especially concerning race, white innocence is always presumed. White people, we are told, very rarely act in consciously racist ways. They are innocent of their actions, so it would be cruel to hold them accountable, we are led to believe. And since they are innocent, we must continually express surprise at their violence.

The collective surprise is unearned, of course. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Jelani Cobb, Jamelle Bouie, and many, many others warned that this violence was coming. It was, in fact, the logical conclusion of Trump’s political machinations. Masha Gessen, in the weeks after Trump’s election in 2016, warned that this was the end point for a demagogue. Yet, over and over again, those in power yesterday insisted, “This is not who we are”; “This is an abomination"; ”This is not America.”

But isn’t it? It is America if you know any history deeper than the United States’ greatest hits. This coup deeply echoes the end of Reconstruction, the defining political realignment of our age that the vast majority of us knows nothing about. During Reconstruction, as the North backed ruling coalitions of pro-democracy whites and former enslaved Blacks, there was a flowering of Black excellence. Townships founded, newspapers printed, schools established—all by a people less than five years out of annihilating bondage. The response was swift: deep, unending white anger and violence. The federal government defended those newly established governments for a short while, but after the contentious election of 1876, it essentially abandoned the project of a multiracial democracy and ceded Southern governments to white supremacists. We have been living in the consequences and violent repercussions of that action ever since. If you think I am perhaps being esoteric in citing these events, academic or abstract, I point you to the fact that Senator Ted Cruz cited the 1876 court ruling cementing the end of Reconstruction when he attempted to challenge Biden’s win last week. White supremacists know this history well. White people invested in their own innocence, however, have a vested interest in forgetting it and derailing conversations whenever it is brought up.

In its retelling in popular media, the violence of Reconstruction was quickly whitewashed and justified. A key tenet in justifying the massacres of Reconstruction was to insist on Black people (and their white allies)’s inherent inability to govern justly and without corruption, and white people’s inherent ability to do so. This belief is the backbone of most of the coverage of this coup. This logic is laced through statements comparing this to “something that happens in a third-world country.” Never in America.

The most famous mythmaking of Reconstruction is the early film Birth of a Nation. Still considered by many as the start and foundation of the American film canon, of Hollywood, and of the power of image, The Birth of a Nation is based on a novel by a prominent white supremacist. D.W. Griffith, its director, was the son of a KKK member. His film tells the story of the founding of the Klan, justified because the newly freed Negro in the post-Civil War South doesn’t know his place. In one of the scenes of Black insurrection, the inside of the Senate chamber is shown, full of Black men lounging on desks, feet up, acting up. It’s a direct mirror image of a Trump supporter in Pelosi’s office, feet on her desk, leaning back in her chair, taunting the camera. Film historian Ashley Clark tweeted the images side by side last night, and I was struck, again, by the ways we are living in a story so many of us refuse to actually read.

Part of this willed ignorance, of course, is an unexamined belief in easy redemption. You can tell a person’s values by who they afford grace to, who they afford forgiveness to, who they presume to always be welcomed back into the fold of community. The people who stormed the Capitol did so precisely because they knew they would face very little consequences. A group of men planned to kidnap and kill the governor of Michigan three months ago, and they are all currently home on bail. Still, many are surprised by their behavior. Compare this to how disability rights activists were mass-arrested in 2017 when they attempted to occupy the Capitol to protest the attempts to repeal Obamacare. Those who stormed the Capitol yesterday were allowed to enter the buildings and leave, escorted by police, with very few arrests. Only a few hours after they left, blood still on the Capitol grounds, Republican senator Ben Sasse took to the Senate floor to preach, “You can’t hate somebody who just shoveled your driveway,” purposefully ignoring the long, unending American history of hating, persecuting, massacring, and committing genocide on the Black, Brown, and Indigenous people who perform the manual labor of this country under racial capitalism. Ignoring the Black, Brown, and Indigenous people who were forced to literally clean up the damage left behind by Trump’s mob.

These people will be extended grace. But the rest of us will not. Watching these people on television, I could not help but think, as many did, of Miriam Carey. She was a Black mother, driving with her young daughter to the Capitol in 2013. She went through a security checkpoint and then made a U-turn. For this, Capitol Police shot her to death in front of her daughter. Lawmakers rushed to thank them for doing so afterward. I tweeted about her early last afternoon, but deleted it when her sister asked me to. I chose my words without care, recommitting violence against her memory. I became lost in the story, unable to remember the human cost of it.

What is perhaps most terrifying is that there appears to be no way out of this particular story. Our elected officials tweet and speechify platitudes about the power of democracy and the inherent decency of Americans. Our media seem incapable of asking basic hard-hitting questions of those claiming voter fraud. And most of our social media platforms are actively promoting misinformation while insisting that there is nothing they can do to stem it. We are in a different story now, but it’s one in which we can read and think far enough ahead to maybe come back with a better, truer ending.

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