The Constitution is the sacred text of the civic religion that is U.S. nationalism, and that nationalism is inexorably tied to white supremacy. This week on Intercepted, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the Second Amendment, which is rooted in genocide and slave patrols, should be abolished. She describes the relationship between U.S. wars abroad and guns at home and tells the story of how the NRA was transformed from a sportsman’s club to a “white nationalist” organization. Artist Tanna Tucker and historian Nestor Castillo take us on an audio tour of their new graphic history for The Nib, “Black and Red: The History of Black Socialism in America.” And acclaimed novelist Mat Johnson talks about guns, the NFL, the film “Black Panther,” and growing up biracial in Philadelphia. Johnson is featured in the new Topic series, “The Loving Generation,” about children born to one black parent and one white parent in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision striking down a ban on interracial marriage.
“Super Friends” Narrator: Deep within a bleak and dismal swamp, hidden beneath its murky waters, lies the headquarters of the most sinister villains of all time: A legion of doom.
Newscaster: The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is taking place this week in Maryland. Next, Vice President Mike Pence speaks to attendees on topics including a wall on the southern border, North Korea and the 2018 midterm elections.
Narrator: A meeting will come to order. A Legion of Doom is now in session. We have gathered together the 13 most ruthless villains on earth. The sinister mind of Sinestro.
Sebastian Gorka: Push back on the fake news. They’re liars!
Narrator: The awesome Bizarro.
Dana Loesch: Crying white mothers are ratings gold.
Narrator: And the super intelligent computer android Braniaic.
Ben Shapiro: Political correctness is dying a slow, painful, bloody agonizing death and all I can say is, “Hell yeah!”
Narrator: The feminine yet ferocious Giganta!
Jeanine Pirro: The trashing of our Judeo-Christian ethics, and an American overrun by people who actually hate our guts.
Narrator: And the humorous but sinister Riddler.
Ted Cruz: I call young people Generation Freedom. The Internet should be free! [Maniacal laughter.]
Narrator: Not to mention the evil genius and brilliant leader.
President Donald J. Trump: I’m thrilled to be back to be back at CPAC. So what are we doing? What are we doing? This is called the snake and think of it in terms of immigration and immigration — You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in!
Narrator: Nothing will stop us now, with our combined powers of evil, we must pledge to wipe out the super friends. One for all, and all for doom!
Jeremy Scahill: This is intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is episode 46 of Intercepted.
Newscaster: — Swaggered into the state’s capital yesterday carrying rifles and pistols, today was herded into Sacramento Municipal Court to face criminal charges of conspiracy.
JS: On May 2, 1967, two dozen men and six women marched into the California state capitol building in Sacramento. They were carrying pistols, shotguns and rifles. But this was not a SWAT team or a security force — at least not a government one. In fact, this heavily armed group was more of a well, well-organized militia.
And they’d come to the Capitol that day to try to stop the legislature and the state’s governor from passing a law that would strip them of their ability to openly carry their weapons as they patrolled the streets of their neighborhoods and communities in an effort to keep people safe.
Huey Newton: The California Penal Code Section 12020 through 12027, and also the Second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the citizen a right to bear arms on public property and the legislature — I talked to Mulford last night and he said the legislature has made certain rules that are superior to the United States Constitution, and also superior to the statutory law of California. And that is, that they made a rule that no one could walk on their property with a weapon. I’m saying this is a bold contradiction and also Mulford is a liar.
JS: Now, it may come as a surprise to some of you, given today’s discourse on guns to discover that the National Rifle Association, and the Republican governor of California at the time, Ronald Reagan, came out passionately in an effort to strip this militia’s right to carry arms.
Governor Ronald Reagan: But I would think that some of the bills that have been suggested, such as not carrying a loaded weapon on a city street or in town, this might certainly be a good one, there is absolutely no reason why out on the street, today, civilians should be carrying a loaded weapon.
JS: Why was Ronald Reagan so up in arms? After all, California was an open carry state. These Americans were exercising their God-given, Second Amendment rights. So what was the problem?
Male Voice: Am I under arrest? Take your hands off me, if I’m not under arrest!
JS: That militia that marched into the Capitol that day was the Black Panther Party, and the street patrols that they were engaged in were operations to protect their communities from the police, police that had been targeting, abusing and killing black people.
Bobby Seale: The Black Panther Party for self-defense calls upon the American people in general, and the black people in particular, to take full note of the racist California legislature, which is now considering legislation aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of black people. At the same time that the American government …
JS: California lawmakers were terrified when the Black Panthers came into the Capitol — some of them reportedly hid under their desks. The entire establishment including the gun lobby denounced the armed black people.
And the bill, which became known as the Panther Bill, was aimed at taking the way what the NRA and the Republicans portrayed as their sacred rights as Americans.
In fact, the Panthers in the Capitol that day were charged with felonies.
Newscaster: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover today asserted that the Black Panthers represent the greatest internal threat to the nation. Hoover said the Panthers have perpetrated numerous assaults on police, and have engaged in violent confrontations throughout the country.
JS: This so-called Panther Bill made one thing clear: having armed black revolutionaries patrolling their own neighborhoods with weapons was seen as a greater threat than all Californians losing the right to openly carry weapons.
In fact, this bill resulted in some of the strictest gun-control laws anywhere in the United States at the time — all because some black Americans exercised their right to carry loaded weapons.
And around that same time, major media outlets across the United States were aghast as Malcolm X called on black people to arm themselves and to defend themselves against racist violence. Malcolm X regularly cited the Second Amendment in asserting the rights of black people to bear arms for self-defense. Listen to how Malcolm X was questioned about this.
Mike Wallace: You have called for self-defense units.
Malcolm X: Oh yes.
MW: Rifle clubs, ready to execute on the spot those who threaten Negroes.
MX: I don’t think that I said.
MW: Yes, you did.
MX: No, I don’t think I said that.
MW: All right.
MX: I have called for rifle clubs that I think negroes should, in areas where the police, whether it be federal state or city have proven their inability or their own willingness to defend Negroes, the lives and property of Negroes, then it’s only intelligent and it’s only right that Negroes protect themselves. And I have encouraged them to buy a rifle and a shotgun, which according to the Constitution is legal.
MW: For what purpose?
MX: So that at anytime, anyone makes any effort whatsoever to brutalize them or attack them or endanger them, they should have something to defend themselves.
JS: This history of the reaction of white communities, the white media, to black gun ownership is a very telling one. Because it reveals that the sanctity of the Second Amendment for all Americans is a myth. It’s a myth today and it’s been a myth from the beginning.
The real history of gun laws in the U.S. is not about hunting and it’s not about fighting tyranny. For the most part, if we’re really being honest, it’s been about white people having the right to bear arms and to use them against black people, indigenous people, and other not real Americans.
Just to put this in perspective: More than 80 percent of gun owners in the United States are white, and the majority of those are men. And it’s no coincidence that gun sales skyrocketed during the administration of the first black president of the United States.
Charlie Daniels: You might have met our fresh-faced, flower child president and his weak-kneed, Ivy League friends. But you haven’t met America. You haven’t met the heartland, where the people will defend this nation where their bloody, calloused bare hands, if that’s what it takes. You haven’t met the farmers, the cowboys, the loggers, the truck drivers. You don’t know the mountain men. No, you’ve never met America, and you oughta pray you never do.
I’m the National Rifle Association of America, and I’m freedom’s safest place.
JS: The NRA even ran ads talking about Obama’s daughters, and the protection that they received while their father was president.
NRA Ad: Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools, when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security. Protection for their kids, and gun free zones for ours.
JS: Here’s the thing: The Second Amendment is not in danger at all, and it wasn’t during Obama’s time in office. In the so-called debate around guns in the United States, the Second Amendment is treated as sacrosanct by both Democrats and Republicans alike. Yes there are wide differences in opinion: some Democrats want all assault weapons banned, others say that the Second Amendment is really about hunting or sport. But almost all major party politicians support keeping the Second Amendment on the books.
Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton: Well, first of all I support the Second Amendment. I lived in Arkansas for 18 wonderful years. I represented upstate New York. I understand and respect the tradition of gun ownership that goes back to the founding of our country.
JS: The Washington consensus is that the Second Amendment is set in stone and we just need to tweak various laws and regulations to make sure that the bad guys don’t get the guns, or that certain guns should not be gettable. But that’s really about it — that’s all that’s being debated.
Here’s what Barack Obama, after being confronted by a gun enthusiast at a town hall, had to say about his position on guns.
President Barack Obama: First of all, the notion that I, or Hillary, or Democrats, or whoever you want to choose are hell-bent on taking away folks’ guns is just not true. And I don’t care how many times the NRA says it. I’m about to leave office. There have been more guns sold since I’ve been president then just about any time in U.S. history. There are — there are enough guns for every man, woman, and child in this country. And at no point have I ever, ever proposed confiscating guns from responsible gun owners. So, it’s just not true.
JS: Back in the early 1990s, the conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger broke with orthodoxy on this issue and he said that modern interpretation of the Second Amendment was a dangerous joke. Here’s Burger on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour in 1991.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger: If I were writing the Bill of Rights now, there wouldn’t be any such thing as the Second Amendment —
Newscaster: Which says?
WEB: That a well-regulated militia being necessary for the defense of the state, the peoples’ rights to bear arms. This has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.
Now just look at those words. There are only three lines to that amendment: “A well-regulated militia.” If the militia, which was going to be the state army, was going to be well regulated, why shouldn’t 16, 17, and 18, or any other age persons be regulated in the use of arms, the way an automobile is regulated?
JS: Justice Burger’s straight talk was certainly out of the norms of Washington debate. He’d probably be crucified today for saying some of the things he said.
The NRA is basically one massive dog whistle about white people protecting themselves from dangerous nonwhite people, and more recently from Antifa and protesters and opponents of Donald Trump and, well, let’s just let Dana Loesch rant in this NRA ad.
Dana Loesch: They use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse the Resistance, all to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia, to smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law abiding, until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.
And when that happens, they’ll use it as an excuse for their outrage. The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth. I’m the National Rifle Association of America and I’m freedom’s safest place.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on the Roots of the NRA and the Second Amendment and Why It Should Be Abolished
JS: There’s a new book that just came out that lays out a provocative argument for getting rid of the Second Amendment in its entirety, and the book asserts that the NRA has become a white nationalist organization. That book is titled “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment” and it was written by the radical historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Her book tells a very different tale about the so-called gun culture in the United States and about how the Second Amendment was, at its core, a solidifying of the rights of white people to bear arms to steal native land by force, to capture so-called runaway slaves and to prevent rebellions from oppressed people. It wasn’t about hunting. It wasn’t about protecting against the tyranny of government. It wasn’t about simply protecting your property from criminals and thieves. Sure, those arguments are made by Second Amendment enthusiasm. They’re certainly representative of a lot of people’s motives for possessing guns.
Chuck Norris: Hi, I’m Chuck Norris, a black-belt patriot. If some thug breaks into my home, I could use my roundhouse kick, but I prefer he’d look down the barrel of my gun [Cocks gun]. Millions of other —
JS: It’s all well and good to find white action heroes to extol the virtues of gun ownership and how American-y it is to own those guns. But what’s the actual history behind the Second Amendment? It’s a question we rarely hear discussed in our society, but it is our focus right now.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of many books, including “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” “Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico,” and “Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War.” Her latest book, again, is called, “Loaded.”
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz joins me now. Welcome to Intercepted.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: If the United States has a gun culture, what is that gun culture?
RDO: It’s a weapon of settler colonialism, all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, where settler colonialism was used. But in the United States, by putting it in the Constitution, that sacred document, as an individual right, it veered considerably from those other settler colonies.
From the very beginning, guns and ammunition were required in the colonies, in Virginia and then in Massachusetts Bay Colony and then in Virginia first, that every man, every household had to have firearm and a certain amount of gun powder and bullets. And if they couldn’t afford that, the colonial government would subsidize it.
So, what were they so afraid of? That they had to have all these guns because they were on land that they had stolen by burning people’s villages down, by killing, raping, maiming and driving native people into the periphery where they fought back and tried to regain their land and also keep them from taking more.
So, U.S. settler colonialism was really required, the whole build-up of the United States, a white nationalist democracy: Every man a king with land. And, of course, then, institutionalized slavery took hold by the 1670s — out of these militias they carved slave patrols as well.
So that dual usage: you know, the right to own human bodies and land and to steal them, kidnap people, and kill people — really genocide — is just written into the very cellular structure of the United States: The Constitution, every institution.
And that, plus the militarism that lasted from before, during and after independence, and continued until 1890, more than 100 years of daily, moment-by-moment warfare against native people, at the same time invading other countries: The Barbary wars in 1806 and 1809, and then Mexico, 1846 to ’48, that just continued and continued and then jumped over the Pacific and into the Caribbean and then into the whole world. So, the militarism is the key component of it and only a third of the population even own a gun, and there’s a good portion of those who are combat vets.
JS: Hmm. The exact text, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” — now, I’m not asking you about more recent interpretations by various courts, but at that time, in 1789, when they were referring to a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, what was the historical context, and what did they refer to when they were talking about well-regulated militia?
RDO: Well they certainly weren’t talking about state militias, because those were provided for in the Constitution itself, that’s the genealogy of the National Guard. But the Bill of Rights which was, came later [than] the amendments, these were individual rights, very specifically individual rights, so they could only have referred to the existing citizen’s militias.
But they came to be self-organized — they were very well organized for selfish interests, for their own purpose — the state, the government had no authority over them whatsoever. And this was how the whole continent was taken, was these settlers themselves organized, that every, every settler a soldier, they’re all armed, they say, out in their fields and everything and they’re, they’re all well-organized, so they could in minutes call up of a militia and they knew what to do. It was in their self-interest, so.
JS: Well, what were these militia doing?
RDO: Killing Indians! Taking their land. And, then the land was theirs. And the slave patrols were also self-organized. It was really every white man had an obligation to keep an eye out, even if they didn’t own slaves to keep an eye out and turn in any stray black person that didn’t have a permit on him, that he’s doing some errand for the owner, and if he didn’t have that then he was considered a renegade — you know, had to be captured and returned to the owner.
JS: Right, you write in the book, and this is a quote, “The astronomical number of firearms owned by U.S. civilians, with the Second Amendment considered a sacred mandate is also intricately related to militaristic culture and white nationalism. The militias referred to in the Second Amendment were intended as a means for white people to eliminate indigenous communities in order to take their land and for slave patrols to control black people.”
RDO: Slave patrols, several scholars have traced the genealogy of slave patrols into modern police forces so we still see the controlling of especially young black men by police forces. It’s not just history; it has led up to the exact kind of situation, both militaristic and institutionally violent society that we have now.
JS: When you listen and watch the current debate about guns in this country, what is your critique of the way that the Second Amendment is discussed by opponents of guns? Can you lay out your perspective on that?
RDO: You know, their arguments are “you don’t need an automatic weapon, you don’t need an assault rifle to kill a deer.” It is so stupid. It was never ever, ever about hunting. It’s never had anything to do with that. And of course for these gun nuts, you know, they think that is hilarious because they know what guns are for: guns are to kill people.
The other argument that liberals make is they create a bogeyman. It’s all about money and it’s advertising and sales and, you can say it’s capitalism. Well, of course everything is related to the evils of capitalism, but it’s not all about money. There is a populist basis, very large and it’s much larger. I consider the NRA the largest and most powerful hardcore white nationalist organization maybe in the world right now, except maybe for the U.S. government at this point. But they argue that either the gun industry or the NRA or both together in cahoots are the problem. It’s because they have so much money and they bribe congressman.
What they do is get these people unelected or elected or out of office through their base. They are a mass-based organization with chapters everywhere in the United States and they’re activists. That is what they live for. They are gun nuts, gun fetishes, and they’re one-third of the population, 80 percent of those are white, but 61 percent are white males.
That is the constituency. It’s like liberals, and even a lot of leftists, do not want to face the fact that there’s this much power. There’s been very little legislation ever, because as long as it was a nice, secure white republic up to World War II, with Jim Crow fully in charge, legal segregation, redlining and everything throughout the north, it was secure.
And then, then the civil rights movement which, of course, had always gone on — black resistance, native resistance — but it had a great success right after World War II, and that was the desegregation decision of the Supreme Court. That was the trigger, that was the earthquake, the tsunami that set off the new wave of white supremacy. It wasn’t really even needed. It always was there. But it wasn’t really needed in an organized way, as long as they controlled everything. I mean they were — they ran the whole government. Southern senators ran the Senate. They had nothing to worry about.
So, you see this tighten up with the founding of the LAPD, the new LAPD: It was an all-white, paramilitary, white nationalist police force. It’s never really lost that veneer or structure. It still has problems.
You know this is a rebellion. This is counter-revolution that started almost, I mean really at the time of the first victory, and built up and built up until it was taken over, the NRA was taken over by a gun nuttery group founded two years earlier, Harlon Carter, former vicious Border Patrol agent.
Harlon Carter: Thanks to you, the members and supporters of NRA, no national gun law has passed this year. We will stand together strong, dedicated, shoulder to shoulder for what is right.
RDO: And they infiltrated and got the vote and took over the NRA: That’s when it became a completely white supremacist organization and started emphasizing the Second Amendment.
HC: Any national gun law, no matter how innocent in appearance, presupposes a still further growth, in a centralized, computerized, gun-control bureaucracy in Washington D.C., a monstrous invasion of the rights to privacy of you law-abiding and decent people who have never committed a crime and concerning whom there is no evidence you ever will.
JS: You write: “By the time of its 1977 convention, the Second Amendment Foundation and its lobbying arm, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which was founded in Washington state in 1974, seized leadership of the NRA. And you state: “The Constitution is the sacred text of the civic religion that is U.S. nationalism, and that nationalism is inexorably tied to white supremacy.”
RDO: Yes. We are weird in the world and the United States with this sanctification of a constitution. They built into the Constitution almost an inability to change it. But again, the originalism arose with this counterrevolution against black freedom.
But it really is an individual right. It was meant to be an individual right from the very beginning. So, you know, it really needs to be abolished, that’s what it needs to be. But it’s not the vehicle that produces the violence; it’s the violence that leans on this phony, sacred object, the Second Amendment, to the point that even all of these liberal congress people, you hear them, over and over, preceding their efforts for gun control, but:
Senator Bernie Sanders: But we have millions of people who are gun owners in this country, 99.9 percent of those people obey the law. I want to see real serious debate and action on guns. But it is not going to take place if we simply have extreme positions on both sides.
RDO: But that’s ridiculous, you know? What are they supporting? You know, do they know what that supporting? And then other liberals like Nancy Pelosi, they argue that it’s out of date, and if you think through what that means, it means, well, we don’t have to kill Indians anymore.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: We all support the right, the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
RDO: She forgets we still have to kill black people, though, apparently, and Muslims and Mexicans. So, it’s really an ineffective argument because they just go round and round: “Well, if you really believe in the Second Amendment.”
But I’ve heard it before. They say, “Oh, these old guns back then.” And, you know: “If we had individual right to a musket and plenty of gunpowder, then that would be fine.”
But, you know, they killed a hell of a lot of Indians with those muskets, they were good with those things, you know, they had whole wars, people were killed in Europe with muskets. It’s not nothing.
JS: Well and you also write quite bluntly, “White nationalists are the irregular forces, the volunteer militias of the actually existing political economic order. They are provided for in the Second Amendment.”
RDO: Yeah. They are. If people want that, then they should continue supporting the Second Amendment, but if they want to find out what the Second Amendment is really about and that takes a historical contextualization, because it wasn’t even debated at the time. It was already in the colonists — when they broke away with the Declaration of Independence, they each formed sovereign states. And of course the Constitution, seven, eight years later was to bring them together in a federation. But in their constitutions, they had already put in the mandate for the continuation of these citizen’s militias and the right of carrying arms. And Thomas Jefferson wrote the one in the Virginia Constitution and imported it to the Bill of Rights.
So, there was no discussion, there was no argument, no one said, “Oh, should we do this? Is it an individual right?” There was no argument. Everyone knew what it was about. What else could it have been for? Since they had actual state militias and the Army and the Navy in the Constitution.
JS: You mentioned earlier, you were giving some of the statistics, 74 of gun owners in the United States are male, 82 percent of gun owners are white, meaning 61 percent of all adults who own guns are white men and that group is around 30 percent of the total U.S. population, and then, I’m quoting here: “The top reason U.S. Americans give for owning a gun is for protection. What are the majority of white men so afraid of? Does anyone believe that centuries of racial and economic domination of the United States by white men have left no traces in our culture, views or institutions?” What are you saying there?
RDO: White men have a problem. We have a problem with white men. It’s not the people I come from: the tenant farmers, the sharecroppers, the poor people — they have their own gun problems. It really is the powerful defense industry, the powerful agribusiness industry, more and more the tech industry, that I think is — we have to bring class into the — I tell you, most of the poor white men in this country can’t afford those — weapons are very expensive and the really nice ones are very expensive. The average gun owner owns eight.
And that means some people, like the Las Vegas shooter, he owned something like 45 high-powered weapons all bought legally, and he’s a very wealthy man, you know, so.
And then we get into ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps], Junior ROTC, in all the schools teaching little kids to shoot lethal weapons, many of them, of course, go into the actual army, but this kid in Florida was from age 11 in Junior ROTC and he was a fanatic. Everyone interviewed said all he would ever talk about was, “Guns, guns, guns, and ROTC.”
And yet in these funerals, you know, and all they’re honoring these JROTC kids who were killed and not at all putting any focus on these defense industry-funded programs in all of our public schools and even middle schools.
JS: And in the book, you make that connection. You’re talking about the way that we discuss so-called mass shootings in our society, and you write: “Just why these events, horrific as they are and tragic for the families and communities traumatized by senseless violence and loss, loom so large in the public mind is a mystery when during the entire period since the 1966 Whitman massacre, the United States has perpetrated massive amounts of violence around the world responsible for killing millions of people and families.”
What you’re talking about there is something that you, I don’t know if we’ve ever heard that kind of connection being made from politicians on Capitol Hill, the idea that all of these wars that the United States is engaged in around the world to this moment and all of that history of slaughtering indigenous people, the slave patrols, the lynchings, etc., that they are also connected to the violence that we see happening in our movie theaters, our churches and our schools.
RDO: Every U.S. war, if you exclude the two shortest wars, World War I, World War II, where the U.S. came in at the end and took the spoils in both, there’s never been a moment in U.S. history that it’s not at war somewhere. Most people don’t even know about all these wars, the endless ones in Central America and the Caribbean all through the 19th century and 20th century, sort of ingrained, you know?
But now they’re more in the open and they were actually covertly with CIA counterinsurgencies during the ’50s, because people were tired of war. And after Vietnam, they had to go convert back into Central America and Afghanistan, those were covert CIA-run wars.
But with the Gulf War, H.W. Bush said, “Well finally, we got rid of the Vietnam syndrome and we can be proud of invading a country.”
President George H. W. Bush: Should military action be required, this will not be another Vietnam. This will not be a protracted, drawn-out war.
RDO: The school shootings, and especially workplace shootings did not start just then. They started with the Vietnam veteran who shot from the Texas towers. He was never in Vietnam by he was trained as a sniper.
Reporter: This is a KLRN news bulletin. A sniper with a high-powered rifle has taken up a position on the observation deck on back of the tower on the campus of the University of Texas. He is firing at persons within his range. All Austin-area residents —
RDO: And then you have the workplace shootings, the postal workers, as they begin to shrink the post office and government institutions, you know, in the late ’70s, and “Going Postal” became the phrase.
Reporter: Good evening. Here’s what’s happening: Someone in the post office had killed 14 people inside, then taken his own life. That somebody was 44 year-old Pat Sherrill. He shot everybody in sight.
RDO: Other kinds of shootings: Charleston, South Carolina.
Reporter: Witnesses say he announces that he is there to shoot black people and he does, opening fire, killing nine people: six women and three men.
JS: You’re talking about Dylann Roof and something about that case that I had never heard before that you pointed out was that he carried out that massacre on the 193rd anniversary of the Vesey-led revolt. Denmark Vesey who was born into slavery, then won the lottery, purchased his own freedom was unable to purchase the freedom of his wife and his sons.
Then this potential opportunity arises when the Missouri Constitution is being discussed in 1820 and he thinks, maybe it will go in his direction and he could actually facilitate freedom for his wife and his children. It doesn’t go that way. He, and again, there, you know, you’re saying that you’re citing your own historical research on this, but you believe that he felt extremely disappointed and felt like there was no hope of getting them freed through the law and he began to, inspired by the Haitian revolution, organize other free Africans to engage in an uprising in Charleston. And before that uprising could kick into effect, white militia and slavers descend on him and his cohort and they very brutally murder them.
RDO: He’s a very charismatic preacher, and he had an open public church. Slaves on their Sunday, you know, on their off-time could come to the church, they could see his family there, even. They started plotting and you know these slave patrols, they had ears everywhere, so they were able to prevent it from happening and then they hung and desecrated the bodies.
And that church, you know, still is a sacred place to all descendants of enslaved Africans and that Dylann Roof chose this place and came into a prayer meeting where he was welcomed, there were only 8 or 9 people at that prayer meeting, I, you know, I grew up in the Southern Baptist church and I know those Wednesday night prayer meetings, and he sat there through the whole prayer meeting, and then killed almost all of them. He actually left one alive to tell what happened.
Well, you know, very quickly they found out that Dylann, he had been in delving into the white nationalist websites. Dylann Roof was completely unrepentant, was very proud of what he did, obviously in no way mentally disturbed.
This mental disturbance thing, you know I would think Barack Obama could be considered mentally disturbed, if you ask who’s killing people every day, isn’t that crazy? But, you know, in fact it’s normalized. So certain things were in the boundaries of being normalized, and Dylann Roof was, I didn’t hear anyone calling him mentally ill and he was, they didn’t even make that argument at trial, he refused it.
But I don’t think it’s just marginal, I think it’s almost like, in a nutshell, symbolic of what I said of it being a counter-revolution, this whole Second Amendment, it’s rise again and importance and the sacredness of it. We’ve just got to stop giving that to them, and that means soul-searching about the gun fetish, and gun culture.
JS: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted.
RDO: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is author of the new book “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment”
Artist Tanna Tucker and Historian Nestor Castillo Talk About Their Comic “Black and Red: The History of Black Socialism in America”
JS: It may be hard to imagine today, but once upon a time, the United States had an active and thriving Communist Party. And early on, black leaders played an influential role in organizing and shaping the American Communist movement.
There’s a great new comic up at our sister publication The Nib that connects the history of black socialism in America to the resurgence of socialist politics in the U.S. and modern day anti-racist struggles. That comic strip is called “Black and Red: The History of Black Socialism in America.” The creators, artist Tanna Tucker and writer Nestor Castillo, parallel the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia to the surge of black workers fleeing Jim Crow violence and the poverty of sharecropping in the South. Tanna Tucker and Nestor Castillo dramatize this little-known history in their comic and they highlight the striking parallels to modern struggles in the United States.
Tanna Tucker: I’ve been, in the past couple years, using comics and drawing as a way to map my relationship and political identity to these histories and to explore and interrogate these histories as a black woman who identifies as leftist. And I had started researching this particular historical moment around the time that Nestor approached me about collaborating on a piece.
Nestor Castillo: We thought that the starting of the Russian Revolution was a good place to begin. Black Americans were looking at Russia as a source of inspiration and a world that was free of oppression and exploitation.
TT: We both, I think, were already kind of thinking about this and wanting to create a visual piece that explained this still pretty mostly obscured history.
NC: I think you can start probably at the period of World War I, the Great War, “The War to End All Wars,” there’s actually this really great welcome home parade, if you could call it that, that takes place early in 1919 in Harlem to receive the Harlem Hell Fighters, hundreds of thousands of people in the streets who are receiving black soldiers who have just come from fighting in Europe.
A Harlem Hell Fighter: As we marched along Fifth Avenue, everybody was astounded that we used the new man’s formation, 16 oppressed. That was never seen before in this country, was a formation that we learned in France from the French leftists. And it was quite a sight.
NC: In World War I, those veterans come back and they expect this promise of democracy, right? I think it’s W.E.B. Dubois who’s talks about “make way for democracy.” Of course, it never happens.
Male Voice: When we got back home, I couldn’t even buy a job, no matter what I would do. I couldn’t even buy a job to shine shoes.
NC: As that war is taking place, it’s coinciding with the great migration.
TT: In large part it was to escape Jim Crow South.
NC: Five hundred thousand black people headed from the violent South.
TT: The horrible state violence being committed against black people, and also work.
NC: And there is this rise of one unionism, so there’s hundreds of strikes that take place. Right? There’s all sorts of labor unrest, 4 million workers go on strike, the Russian Revolution takes place so there’s this spread of Bolshevism and the fear of something similar happening in the U.S.
And all of that energy and that tension is then taken out on black people, on the returning black soldiers, on black communities in the North where sort of all that tension has begun to build up.
TT: It was an incredibly violent year across the country. The amount of violence was really profound and overwhelming. In Chicago you had riots after a young man like, accidentally trespassed a Chicago beach and was killed. And that set off incredible rioting, to the point where the militia had to come in and suppress it.
Sometimes, it was just to suppress any kind of organizing, and of course that created more reaction and resistance, rightfully so.
NC: In Elaine, Arkansas, there was a group of sharecroppers who were attempting to form a union, and as a result of attempting to form this union, right, there’s this great quote that comes out of it by Robert Hill who was sort of leading the effort to unionize sharecroppers and it says, “The union wants to know why it is that laborers cannot control their just earnings, which they work for.” And there’s security patrol outside of this meeting that takes place. It’s unclear who starts the shootout, whether it’s the security forces that are outside, or whether it’s the workers inside this meeting, but as a result there’s a mob of 1,000 white people who come to sort of quell this insurrection.
TT: With each moment, you had a violent and swift reaction and suppression from the state, but also from the community and white supremacists and white racists in the community.
NC: The end result is that 237 black people are killed and 5 white people are killed at the end of this violent action that takes place.
TT: There was no protection or any kind of sense-making to how you could navigate safely. And then that kind of led into: How do we reorganize society? How do we provide defense and protection for ourselves?
NC: The relationship between blacks and socialism begins to emerge and it isn’t until the Russian Revolution, the establishment of the Communist Party in 1919 that black people and other folks of color sort of are drawn in into the socialist movement or the Communist movement.
TT: At that point, in desperation, I think the imagination can really be expanded. Once you start to examine how we would have to remake society to really eliminate that, and how, in this case they had to look abroad, there was no precedent for it in our country.
NC: Early on, the Communist Party didn’t actively recruit black folks into the party, and you know, there’s different, there’s debates around whether it was sort of a black initiative coming directly from folks or if it was Lenin calling the question of recognizing black folks as the most oppressed sector within American society and therefore should be a critical part of the movement.
There was this moment and there’s few and far in between, these moments in which there’s an opportunity to create something that’s much better. recognizing that in order to do away with racism they would have to reorganize society itself.
TT: To me, that always struck me, like we had to go to another country to even find a map or some kind of example or something that made it feel possible.
NC: The African blood brotherhood was a secret organization. It starts off sort of to organize against the violent actions that are taking place throughout the summer 1919. There was this definite call for self-defense similar to messages put out by the Black Panther Party. So, it’s a response to that violent summer, for example, the Ku Klux Klan. And it’s really an all-secretive organization.
But eventually the inner circle of the African blood brotherhood, they would eventually join the cadre of the Communist Party that would make this sort of core of the black membership of the Communist Party.
TT: We are already trying to escape state-sanctioned violence and oppression and then you actually go abroad and experience that it does not have to be this way. You’re bringing that back into the country — that’s only going to galvanize the efforts that are already there. I’m sure it’s terrifying for the government.
NC: You know, around August 1919, young J. Edgar Hoover becomes the head of the Bureau of Investigation, which is now I believe the FBI, the General Intelligence Division.
J. Edgar Hoover: The revel-rousing communists, the boot-stepping bondsmen, their stooges and seemingly innocent fronts.
NC: And he’s pursuing what they refer to at that point, the Reds. At first they begin targeting mostly European immigrants who identify with anarchist or communism, socialism.
JEH: Adhere to the doctrine of falsification and of distortion. They seek to weaken law enforcement in every conceivable manner, as their first step toward turning law and order into revolution and into chaos.
NC: But then they begin sort of focusing towards black folks, especially those who are politically active, and doing this thing that is a reoccurring theme throughout the 20th century and even now today, was sort of this idea of Black Lives Matter being black identity extremists, but sort of putting together anti-communism and racism in order to Red-bait folks. And so anyone who was an activist, was a communist. Anyone who was involved in the struggle was therefore an agent of Soviet Russia, right? With the idea of depicting all activism as being communist-inspired.
TT: So, with the art, and the way I approached the panels, particularly in the earlier part of the comic, I wanted to start normalizing the relationship between black Americans and the radical politics that were happening around the world, and the solidarity that would come out of that later on would form that solidarity in a really powerful way.
NC: My intention with this piece was to provide a snapshot of what was going on during that time period and connect that past with the present. A lot of the time, we look at the past as a way to sort of legitimize the present, right? So, we only learn about history, we only learn about the past in order to confirm what’s in the present and not necessarily to give us ways of changing the future or writing our own history.
And so, I took the quote from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,” all issues involving folks of color, you know, whether immigrant, women issues, all those issues that fall under the umbrella of anti-racism, those are all working class issues.
And so really that was my intention with this piece is to do sort of a jumping back and forth between the past and the present, an attempt to connect those dots, in order to forge a different future.
TT: This comic is just a piece of a bigger exploration from myself of, first of all, mapping this history and mapping blacks and our relationship to this history and proving that it’s much older, but also there are answers that we can use to solve our problems today. And just really examining all of the moments where we got very close to reorganizing society.
[Singing and chanting, “Black is beautiful.”]
And even though you know, maybe we were defeated or pretty brutally punished; there are moments of hope that are relevant to today.
For me, you know, I’m using visual art to map this but if I can map those things and really remember that there is a consistent history of this resistance, it, to me makes it feel more hopeful that we can continue on today with that.
[Chanting, “Black lives matter.”]
JS: Tanna Tucker is an Oakland-based artist who illustrated the graphics for “Black and Red: The History of Black Socialism.” That’s up at The Nib right now.
And Nestor Castillo wrote the story for “Black and Red.” Nestor is a lecturer in the College of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University and he’s a columnist for El Tecolote, a bilingual newspaper based in the San Francisco Mission District.
Novelist Mat Johnson on Growing up Biracial in Philadelphia, Guns, the NFL, and “Black Panther”
JS: In 1958, a Virginia couple, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving married in the District of Columbia. About four months after their marriage, the Virginia county that they lived in issued a criminal indictment charging the Lovings with violating Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage. Mildred was black and Richard was white.
Mildred Jeter: The night we were arrested, I guess it was about 2 AM, and I saw those lights, you know, and then I woke up and it was the policeman standing beside the bed. And he told us to get up, that we was under arrest.
JS: Their case, Loving v. Virginia eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and it would take nearly a decade before all state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were struck down. A new series from topic.com tells the story of Americans born to one black parent and one white parent after the 1967 Supreme Court decision. The series is titled: “The Loving Generation.” From Melissa Harris-Perry to Mat Johnson and Panama Jackson, “The Loving Generation” features a diversity of voices examining the borderland between blackness and whiteness.
Mat Johnson: You have who you think you are. You have the larger community how that larger community sees who you are, and then you have like, the like legal test case of who you are. When all three of those things are working in the same direction, everything is fine, everything is chill.
Like, if you’re a mixed person who looks black and everybody thinks you’re black, and you think you’re black, you’re like, there’s no conflict there. The problem is, one of those things is off.
JS: That’s Mat Johnson. He is an award-winning novelist and a comic book writer. He’s also one of my most favorite people on Twitter. If you’ve not checked out his graphic novel series “Incognegro,” which is about a mixed race detective who goes undercover as a white man to solve racially motivated crimes, do that ASAP. Mat’s latest work is titled: “Incognegro: Renaissance.”
I recently sat down with Mat to talk about well, all sorts of stuff: guns, the NFL, the “Black Panther” film, Mat’s childhood in Philadelphia. But I began by asking him about the implications of that landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia case.
MJ: It basically got the American legal system caught up to the reality of the civil rights era, you know, larger change in the country.
So, I think like, my parents were married three years later — or actually, I think they’re married a year later, but in Pennsylvania where it was already legal. But I do think it affected the climate and the understanding of what that was. Because part of the fear of the civil rights movement and the fear of really of kind of white supremacy going back into slavery was always a sexual fear, too — that our white women would end up having sex with black men.
And that was this incredibly powerful fear that even affected things like architecture during slave-eras, where you had the rooms of the white women on plantations being kind of protected within the homes.
At the same time there’s, Virginia in particular because of Thomas Jefferson, the idea that there wasn’t interracial actual sex is actually ridiculous. And, you know, interracial rape primarily during the slave era, the African-American community that we have today is significantly impacted by that.
So, like the event of the case was huge as a landmark, but the land was already there. You know?
JS: You grew up in Philadelphia. You’ve written about what it was like to be in a predominantly black neighborhood and trying to find where you fit in. And what was it like for you growing up?
MJ: Well, my parents divorced when I was about 4. I lived with my mother most of the time, but my father was actively in my life. My mother is African-American, comes from a Midwest, you know, small town in Illinois. My father was an old school Irish Catholic Philadelphian. Every mixed person has a different idea about what mixed identity means and, and that ranges from people who believe like African ancestry doesn’t really matter, and if they look white, they can define themselves as white, to people who, probably many more people who believe, it doesn’t matter about your mixed ancestor, you’re black and that’s kind of the end of the story. So, there’s a really wide spectrum.
In my case, I look at it as not really, it’s not really a like genetic thing. Like almost all African-Americans are part African, part European, and sometimes some native in there. So, like the African-American community is already mixed both genetically and culturally. Right? We speak English; we wear European-influenced clothes for the most part.
When I think about it, what I’m thinking about is very specifically, a mixed ethnic experience. So for me that meant my mother was working class and then became a social worker, which is basically working class, you know, financially. And I had my experience with her and I lived in a predominately black neighborhood, and then my father who also basically lives in a predominantly black neighborhood but like the white block in the predominantly black neighborhood, who like, went to the co-op, Weaver’s Way co-op in Mount Airy, shout out, and you know so I did my hours packing peanuts, and like you know had a very much like middle class, NPR experience. You know, my mother smokes menthols and drank Pepsi and had a lot of like the ill effects in her life of being a working class black person and a lot of stresses of being a working class black person, and my dad had a lot of the sort of, what you would call the stereotypical NPR tote bag existence. He still drives a Subaru Outback, you know what I mean?
When I first got out of college, I worked a lot of like temp jobs and stuff for the electric company, things like that and the only thing that would get me through was listening to Terry Gross, and this was before it was a national show. So, I don’t know if you notice, it’s like Philly people talk about Philly all the time because we’re generally insecure, but —
JS: I heard something about the Super Bowl this year.
JS: And saw some stuff on TV about something about Philly.
MJ: Right, right, so when like she went national, it was like a point of pride for me. Like I had actually don something. Same way when like, the Eagles won. I really felt a level of accomplishment. But like —
JS: Can I ask you something like that though?
JS: You know my colleague Shaun King boycotted the NFL this year and you know was certainly not the only person, but one of the one of the big voices that was really advocating for Colin Kaepernick and talking about race in the NFL, and we had, then we have the president calling black NFL players “sons of bitches.” What was that like for you watching all of this unfold?
MJ: We’re gonna get real here.
JS: I do want to get real. I think it’s interesting.
MJ: To me it was the classic American experience. Right? One of my best friends who I grew up with and a lot of the guys I grew up in Philly refused to watch the NFL this year and these are like hardcore Eagles fans, and so there was a real moral quandary when the Super Bowl came, because it was like I’ve been waiting for this my entire life and now it’s here and I’ve also made a moral position not to participate in this.
And I really have immense respect because they, most of them that I know of stuck to their guns on it.
I’m not a football fan. Well I like, I like football. I don’t like CTEs.
MJ: So, when the Eagles win, in my mind, I felt like, “I’m not going to let these crackers rob me of seeing a championship for my city.” But I also told myself this: When this goes down, this is my last football game. Like this is it. Because like part of me like, I’ve been wanting to quit football. There’s so much going on with the football culture, I mean the idea that politics is new here is ridiculous. Every single game I’ve ever been to there has been an almost sexual fetishization of the military, fetishizing of military life and military families to the point that it’s pretty dangerous.
And I come from, my family, my grandfather was in the 82nd Airborne, all-American, fought in Naples in World War II, and several of my family members have been in the 82nd Airborne, and so you know I actually come from a military family. But my family are just jerks like everybody else. Like it’s not like they have superpowers or, you know what I mean? And so, there’s a lot that I have a problem with.
But I do imagine that there could be a football that is both physically and also culturally nontoxic. Until that time, I can’t watch it. So, to me this game morally was sort of a release, where I haven’t been willing to kind of give it up because I just like, I wanted to see this, this city win. You know? And now that the city’s won, like, and I’m not saying that as like an excuse, I think it’s a moral failure on my part and I wish I was a strong as my, my friends who didn’t have anything to do with it.
I do have a hope because I live in Texas now and I have seen good come out of actual football, and good from a perspective of somebody on the left. I have seen, you know, people from a variety of different cultures come together in this larger sense of community building out of football. I’ve seen strangers, you know, go to other people’s cars and hang out and eat and talk, cross party lines, which you see almost nowhere nowadays, and have something to talk about that’s not Trump or not all the things that divide us.
I mean, of course sports is also used to kind of divide people along city lines and tribal lines too, but I’ve seen people connect in ways that I don’t see lately. But I don’t know — it’s like a lot of things.
Like, even the gun debate, living in a rural area, deer are everywhere, if they’re not kept in check they get into the streets, they cause real problems. I’m OK with basically 19th century hunting rifles to deal with them.
JS: Even people who are diehard opponents of guns, in general, I don’t think the issue there is like, “We don’t want people to have a hunting rifle.” The point now is that you have these weapons of war where you can gun down 40, 50 people.
JS: You can go in and take out, you know, a couple dozen 6-year-olds, and it’s like we’re insane in this country.
MJ: Oh, it’s nuts.
JS: And the NRA would say like, “Oh Mat, that’s exactly what we’re about, too. We think that people have the right to have these for hunting. But the AR-15, you know the Second Amendment doesn’t say we can’t have an AR-15.” I mean at the level of logic at play here is so insane.
MJ: The level of logic is basically nonexistent, because what is happening —
JS: Right, that’s a better way to put it.
MJ: Right. What’s happening is that the NRA and Fox News and the GOP have become bad actors because they can’t say what they actually want to say. What Wayne LaPierre wants to say is: We are petrified of these black and brown people that are coming to into cities, we’re petrified of not being centered in this culture, and we feel vulnerable because of that and we want to have guns so that we feel like we still have complete and utter power. Right? They can’t say that out loud, so they have these disingenuous arguments.
Wayne LaPierre: Knowing that we surround him and protect so much with armed security, while we drop our kids off at school that are so-called gun-free zones, that are wide open targets for any crazy madman bent on evil to come there first. In every community in America, school districts, PTAs, teachers’ unions, local law enforcement, moms and dads, they all must come together to implement the very best strategy to harden their schools, including effective, trained armed security that will absolutely protect every innocent child in this country. [Cheers and applause from the audience.]
MJ: Fox News can’t directly say what their actual agenda is, right? They can’t say, “We promote continued xenophobia and a white supremacist state because it benefits us and it also benefits our corporate connections.” So, they are constantly coming up with these lies.
What scares me on all this false, these kind of false narratives, not only can we not have debate, now there’s a large segment of the population that believes in their hearts that not just truth but actual facts are dependent on their own emotional needs. That’s really scary. They know they’re doing it, but they, but this is a philosophical point. It’s a level of sophistry.
The bigger fundamental thing that just terrifies me is I worry that this is all original sin. And I sound biblical when I say that, but like the original sin we have here about our denial about the realities of slavery, our denial about the realities of, of an attempted genocide of Native people, our denials about what happens in Cuba, what happens in Chile what happens, basically how the CIA in our country has really been acting for 100 years — I mean, it gets organized in the last 50 — we have a pattern of a larger denial where we have as a country, unlike a lot of other countries, every country has their lies. But, in America, it’s more extreme, that we have created a pattern of belief that what we believe is more important than the actual facts in hand. And so, it does feel, like not to quote the line that Malcolm X got in trouble for, but it does feel like a chickens coming home to roost thing, in a sense, that we used to do these denial actions about our activities in South America and Central America — now we’re doing them right here.
JS: In talking about Fox, we have domestic propaganda networks that have a much farther reach than any of those social media campaigns that the Russians supposedly paid for that are going to have very serious consequences for people in this country because of the idea that this is a hoax or spreading rumors about, you know, the president not being a citizen.
DJT: People have birth certificates. He doesn’t have a birth certificate. Now, he may have one, but there’s something on that birth certificate, maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim. I don’t know!
JS: And encouraging from the highest levels of power in this country a white supremacist ideology to come out and be fully out in the open with it. It’s not that it’s ever disappeared. Trump has empowered those who felt like, whose idea that what’s wrong with America is that we’re no longer allowed to be that person in public, it’s somehow become uncouth. And I find that infinitely more frightening than Facebook and Twitter ads that Russia may have purchased in the 2016 election. I mean, I’m frightened what it means that we’ve had this Alex Jones-ization of very big, powerful media entities, namely Fox News.
Jeremy Glick: You evoke 9/11 to rationalize everything from domestic plunder to imperialist aggression worldwide. You evoke, you evoke sympathy with the 9/11 families.
Bill O’Reilly: That’s a bunch of crap. I’ve done more for the 9/11 families by their own admission; I’ve done more for them than you will ever hope to do. So, you keep your mouth shut.
Geraldo Rivera: I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.
Bill O’Reilly: You’re going to have to get people like Jay-Z, Kanye West, all of these gangsta rappers to knock it off.
Sean Hannity: DNC e-mails came from that resulted in Debbie Wassermann Schultz firing. This kid got shot in the back. They said it was a robbery, yet he had his watch his wallet and his phone.
Tomi Lahren: That is what liberal college professors want, they want to do anything they can to erase history, and to erase every shred of patriotism. I think —
Tucker Carlson: An awful lot of immigrants come to this country from other places that aren’t very nice. Those places are dangerous. They’re dirty, they’re corrupt and they’re poor.
Steve Doocy: It exploded during the Obama years because of their lax immigration policy and allowing those undocumented minors to come in, turning many of them into DACA recipients.
JS: I mean it is, you’re right, you’re totally right. Why don’t we talk about it as the threat that it is?
MJ: The idea that that population, their primary ecosystem, news ecosystem comes from Fox News, and then it goes secondarily on talk radio. So, then you get InfoWars kind of stepping in, YouTube generation replacing the talk media generation. But, you know, they’re in this ecosystem and they’re not seeing anything outside of it. And like looking at my own family, you know, who I love, they’re going to work, they’re coming home, they’re watching the game, they’re not trying to pay attention to the news, and they don’t realize it but the reason they can do that is because they have the privilege of being the most protected caste in the country.
Like if you’re a white guy, you know, all of us are vulnerable to things that happen this country, but you’re far less vulnerable than my family is. Like, this election has resulted in, in the last six months both my daughters have been called niggers at school. Right? One by a kid wearing a Trump hat. Like my life is directly affected by that.
My wife who was wearing a head wrap, you know, she’s African-American and like a lot of African-American women, takes a lot of pride in her hair and getting the right products and everything else and she where was wearing a head wrap to go buy some products and was followed out to her car by somebody asking her about, “Why are you wearing that?” And other white people stood around and watched, like nobody stepped in or anything. Like, my life has been affected by this. A lot of people’s lives have been affected by this.
But my uncles lives’ haven’t, they’re just looking at the bottom line, they’re not looking toward the future, they might see a $1.50 tax cut and think like, this is great. But they don’t even see their own race. Like, in their minds they are raceless. Other people have race. They’re just normal people.
So, this whole idea of white nationalism, they don’t think of it as white nationalism, and they think of it as being proud of America, because they don’t see race in that sense that they’re blind to their own race.
So, pointing this out and contentedly having to say, “One of the major news networks is not actually a news network. It is a terrarium of right-wing white supremacy.”
JS: I wanted to ask you about “Incognegro” and particularly “Incognegro: Renaissance.” Talk about the kind of origin of that, and give people like, a kind of sense of the tale that you weave.
MJ: Sure. Well, I’m African-American. I’m mixed. I consider myself both, really. But I look very white to some people.
But when I was a kid, my cousin and I used to play this game where basically we imagined, my cousin is also mixed and to many, like, white-appearing, and we imagined that this thing that kind of made us feel like freaks was actually a superpower and like at the time I remember like imagining freeing slaves by pretending to be white, infiltrating, you know, white supremacists.
JS: Wait, this was as a kid, you were, you had these ideas?
MJ: Yeah, even as a little kid. Like, when I was about 10.
MJ: And I kind of forgot about it. I was at a writer’s retreat thing, and sometimes at the writer’s retreat everybody comes up with nicknames, and Natasha Trethewey, who’s an amazing poet and who was one of the poet laureates a couple of times, who is also mixed, decided mine was “Incognegro” because of the way that I look, and that, when she said it, it kind of brought all this thing back, and I thought, “Wow, that could either be the worst book I ever wrote or the best.” And then I like, and so I started thinking about that and I came up with this character that was loosely based on a real, very loosely, I mean just as inspiration, based on Walter White, who was a former head of the NAACP, who actually, you know, this is not “Breaking Bad” Walter White, this is somebody who actually looked very Caucasian and at one time investigated lynchings in the South, in the 1920s, pretending to be a white man and would come North and then post names of the people who were involved in it and then they would go into the Negro press. It was a way to kind of get some level of justice; otherwise there would have been no mention of what happened really. So, I used that as the basis on the first book, and so, like doing it in a comic, one, let me kind of just have his fun kind of noir action tale, which is not the kind of, you know, I write literary fiction which is totally kind of different.
But that got the narrative off the ground and the book had a lot of responses. It was my first New York Times review, it was things like that.
And then we had this amazing opportunity to bring it back. I actually have the rights to it now, along with my artist Warren Pleece, so we brought it back to redo it. We touched up the art to really enhance it, we had more of a budget this time and then we also launched an entirely new series that in part is based on this incredible novel by Wallace Thurman, one of my favorite novels of the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman was a black writer of the Harlem Renaissance who died very, very young, of TB. So almost 100 years later, I’m redoing it but I’m doing it as a murder mystery.
JS: Can you share with people as much of the plot as you feel comfortable without giving it away?
MJ: Sure. In the first graphic novel that’s out now, there is a reported African-American who’s being held in a jail and is about to be lynched. And news comes to the North that it looks like this guy’s going to be pulled out of the sheriff’s office any second and get murdered and it turns out that this guy has a brother who’s working at basically the equivalent of the Amsterdam News and the brother looks, unlike the one in jail who’s brown skinned, the brother looks white, he has pink skin, straight hair, he’s African American.
So, he goes to the South pretending to be somebody who’s a national representative of the Ku Klux Klan to try and basically infiltrate and figure out what the actual mystery is, who the actual murderer is, and free his brother before it came out.
One of the reasons I came up with that is I have twins that are 12 now, but at the time they were just born and one of my twins has skin like mine, more European skin, with straighter hair and his sister, my daughter, has brown skin and African tight hair and I was really kind of struck with like, their lives are going to be different now, but they would have been way more dramatically different 100 years ago. The opportunities they would have had, the way the world would have encountered them.
So, yeah, that was the basis for that one, and then the new one, there’s a black man murdered it seems at a at a Harlem socialite party, the cops aren’t really interested and immediately decides it’s suicide. So it’s an origin story, it actually takes place before the first one, and we had this reporter actually having to basically pretend to be white, to try and use that kind of white-adjacent power to find out what really happened in this murder.
JS: You and I are almost the same age. You remember the Eddie Murphy-era on Saturday Night Live, and remember when he does Mr. White?
MJ: Oh, yeah, I love that one. Well, the funny thing, when he does Mr. White, he basically just looks like me. You know what I mean? Like he has, it’s interesting looking back, he just looks like an old Dominican guy — he does like, he still has his African features, right? But he has the European skin. But I loved that skit when I was a kid.
There was a paranoia that maybe that was the reality, you know, he’s a black man who pretends to be white and all the sudden he goes in the bank to get a loan and they’re like, “Here, just take the money! You don’t need credit. Just go!”
White Loan Officer (On “SNL”): Just take what you want, Mr. White. Pay us back anytime. Or don’t! We don’t care. [Both laugh.]
MJ: You know, and life actually feels like that sometimes. I think of that, I thought of that when I went up for my first house loan, I went up for a Wells Fargo loan in a predominately black neighborhood and this was about two years before it turned out that Wells Fargo had higher interest rates for African-Americans and or people looking to buy in African-American neighborhoods. So, it did like tap into the like something that’s there. You remember, when that came out, there was no discussion of white privilege in this country.
JS: I want to read you one of your tweets. “I’ve never left a movie and felt like I had witnessed a societal game changer before.” You don’t say which movie but I assume you’re talking about “Black Panther.”
MJ: Yeah. That was my earnest tweet of the week. When I was a kid, black beauty was not considered a given and African beauty was not considered a given and Lupita is one of the most beautiful women on the face of planet, Chadwick Boseman, all those guys. I mean it was like the like the most insanely beautiful human beings out there.
JS: And Ryan Coogler is an amazing director.
MJ: Yeah. He’s also pretty, too.
JS: He is pretty. That’s true.
MJ: But then like, in addition to that, though. I mean it wasn’t like, obviously the people, it was the art direction, the outfits, all of them, sometimes futurized versions of them or modernized versions, but all of them had very specific roots in existing African attire and existing African art and showed the beauty of that, and together it was so stunning.
And then the narrative itself was, it was a Marvel movie, and they’re not always great, I see all of them, I love them when they’re not that great, it’s still fun for me to see the world I imagined when I was 10 become life, right? But the narrative itself was both a Marvel movie and it was a discussion of American imperialism, and a discussion, you know, and a continued discussion of, you know Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and one of the central issues with the fantasy Wakanda, Wakanda is basically, in my mind, is a created African-American homeland. Right?
JS: There is no real Wakanda, Mat! You know?
MJ: But listen! How about that? The primary response from the Pepes, from the right-wing trolls, was not that this was a bad movie, was not that these are ugly people, it was, “This place isn’t real.” Which is just, like, I’ve noticed again and again, as I get older, like, you can tell the quality of someone’s counterargument by what they open with. And like you’re going to open with, “This place isn’t real.” Like, neither is Asgard. What’s your point?
JS: Well, I mean, what is so funny is that dipshit Ben Shapiro, I watched some clip of him where he’s going on and on about how, “Wakanda’s not real.”
Ben Shapiro: Sorry to break it to folks: Wakanda is not a real place. It does not exist. It is just as real as Asgard. It’s not a thing.
JS: Meanwhile, he was constantly tweeting about shit happening in Westeros on Game of Thrones.
MJ: (Laughs.) Right, right! One, one of the things that is fascinating, I saw another tweet where somebody is saying, “Can you imagine if, there was a movie set in like, in imagine like, Scandanavian country?” Like, “Thor”? What are you talking about?
But what’s fascinating about that is one of the strategies of whiteness and also probably a detraction of the strategy of whiteness is that —
JS: Most films and TV shows are set in fictional white places, anyway.
MJ: Right. But they can’t see race. Right? They can only see race when it’s not them. So, in their mind, that’s never happened in existence. So, it’s, that’s what’s really stunning about it. Is they can’t see it! Which, when you think about it, strategically is a blind spot.
And that’s part of what the comic book “Incognegro” is about is that if you actually can’t see race, other than looking at black and white, and you’re missing nuance, then you can be infiltrated, you know, that that’s actually a weakness. On the right end side of it, they can’t really see who they are, they just see themselves as normal, which blinds them to so much of what they’re doing.
JS: Well I want to thank you so much for being with us Mat Johnson, and I also want to encourage people to read your work. Your work covers so much more than just the politics of race or the heritage of your own family or your own personal story. I mean you’re a fucking great writer.
MJ: I’m utterly flattered and don’t know how to handle it. So, thank you! (Laughs.)
JS: All right. Mat Johnson, thanks so much, I appreciate it.
MJ: Thank you.
JS: Mat Johnson has written numerous books including “Loving Day,” as well as the graphic novels “Incognegro” and “Incognegro: Renaissance.” Mat’s also a professor at the University of Houston creative writing program. His own story is featured in the new Topic docuseries, “The Loving Generation.” You can watch all four episodes online at the topic.com. And you can follow Mat Johnson on Twitter. That’s @Mat_Johnson.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. If you’re not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log onto theintercept.com/join. Sam Sabzehzar is our honorary producer. We thank you him for his generous support.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Emily Kennedy does our transcripts. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.