Phil Robertson, Sin, and History

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a superb article about Phil Robertson’s views on homosexuality and racism. I’m just going to quote part of what Ta-Nehisi has to say on Robertson’s comments about African American history, since those seem to have gotten a bit lost in the reaction to his suspension from Duck Dynasty for comparing homosexuality to bestiality:

I’ve yet to take in an episode of Duck Dynasty. I hear it’s a fine show, anchored by a humorous and good-natured family of proud Americans. I try to be good natured, and I have been told that I can appreciate a good joke. I am also a proud American. With so much in common, it seems natural that I take some interest in the views of my brethren on the history of the only country any of us can ever truly call home:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field …. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

That is Robertson responding to a reporter’s question about life in Louisiana, before the civil-rights movement. I am sure Robertson did see plenty of black people who were singing and happy. And I am also sure that very few black people approached Robertson to complain about “doggone white people.” 

I have some idea why:

The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche.

Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl …

Arrested Oct. 10, 1933, in the slaying days earlier of Anna Mae LaRose, a 15-year-old girl who was his friend, Moore was pulled from the parish jail in Napoleonville the next night by an angry mob of 50 to 200 armed and unmasked people who had the prison keys.

Some accounts say the lynchers were unknown and from out of town, as far away as New Orleans, while others say the mob was known to authorities. A coroner’s jury, impaneled by then-parish Coroner Dr. T.B. Pugh, said Moore “met death by a mob of unknown persons,” according to news accounts.

After being hauled from the jail, Moore was brought to the field where LaRose’s body was found, according to an Oct. 14, 1933, account in the black-owned New Orleans newspaper, The Louisiana Weekly. With a rope around his neck and clothes stripped to his waist, the teen was then marched, while being beaten, from the murder scene to the bridge and subjected to a branding iron whenever he fell.

Hanging from his body, a sign offered the final indignity: “Niggers Let This Be An Example. Do-Not-Touch-In 24 Hr. Mean it.”

As white people reviewed the scene on the bridge and black residents were warned to stay away, Moore’s body remained within sight of a school and the venerable St. Philomena Catholic Church, its spire above the fray.

One should not be lulled into thinking that the murder of Freddie Moore was out of the ordinary in Louisiana. Between 1882 and 1936, only Georgia, Texas and Mississippi saw more black people lynched. For part of that period four of Louisiana’s parishes led the nation for counties with the most lynchings.

That is because governance in Phil Robertson’s Louisiana was premised on terrorism. As late as 1890, the majority of people in Louisiana were black. As late as 1902, they still lived under threat of slavery through debt peonage and the convict-lease system. Virtually all of them were pilfered of their vote and their tax dollars. Plunder and second slavery were enforced by violence, as when the besiegers of Colfax massacred 50 black freedmen with rifles and cannon and tossed their bodies into a river. Even today the Colfax Massacre is honored in Louisiana as the rightful “end of carpetbag misrule.”

The black people who Phil Robertson knew were warred upon. If they valued their lives, and the lives of their families, the last thing they would have done was voiced a complaint about “white people” to a man like Robertson. Ignorance is no great sin and one can forgive the good-natured white person for not knowing how all that cannibal sausage was truly made. But having been presented with a set of facts, Robertson’s response is to cite “welfare” and “entitlement” as the true culprits.

I’m not as good-natured as Ta-Nehisi, at least not on this subject. I’m part of the demographic that is privileged not to have to know about the history of black people in this country, but even when I was a teenager and in my early 20s — well before I started to read about that history in a deliberate, planned manner — I *did* know enough to know why no black person would have complained about white people to a white person. I can’t say exactly *how* I knew. I *was* raised by very liberal parents — and European ones, who for that reason could perhaps better recognize certain things for what they were because they hadn’t been immersed in it all their lives. Maybe I partially learned enough about the history of blacks and whites in this country in school. I don’t know for sure. All I know is that even when I was in high school, I could have seen what was screwy about someone who thought black people in Jim Crow times (which actually were the contemporary times when I was in high school) were happy and content and never said, “I tell you what. These doggone white people.”

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One response to “Phil Robertson, Sin, and History

  1. When I was a kid in the late 40s and early 50s, I can remember my Dad saying to me several times over the course of years to “Slow down. Watch how the Negroes do it.”

    He told me this when I was trying to help him dig the family garden. I wanted to get the job done ‘yesterday’ and hurried like a fool. He was telling me to observe the Negroes that worked for the town or county as laborers. They did not hurry, hurry, hurry. They were methodical. Did the job right the first time.

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