Not Past: Terror in Contemporary Black Literature

Racial terror is not past—not in society and not in the literature that articulates it.

Collected Excerpts by Matthew Clair, Winter 2014


If there is one thing that distinguishes black literature, particularly black literature of the American South, it is racial terror.

Indeed, terror—whether existential or everyday—has dominated the lives of southern blacks for generations. A recent post in the Daily Kos reminds us that it was terror—the “random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people”—that structured the daily lives of blacks before the civil rights movement. In the form of lynching, sexual assault, and imprisonment, a racial order was enforced that held blacks at the mercy of individual and institutional domination.

But here I mean to speak of terror in the present tense. Terror is not past—not in society and not in the literature that articulates it.

Of course there are those who argue that racism is dead; a related argument applies to black literature. Kenneth Warren, a professor at the University of Chicago, has written that black literature—which he defines as the political literature responding to Jim Crow racism—no longer exists because the overt forms of racism it engaged no longer exist. But embedded in this provoking interpretation of black literature is the intimate relationship between literature and terror. To be sure, racialized terror has manifestations that go beyond lynchings and state-sanctioned injustices.

While times have changed, racialized terror lingers in elaborately covert ways, in the South as well as in the rest of the nation. It lingers in our schools, our prisons, our justice system, and our minds. In the social sciences, theories have arisen to interpret all of this: “institutional racismand “laissez-faire racism” are articulations of the covert ways racism subsists. These conceptions of racism are helpful and significant, for they lend a legitimated form of objectivity to our understandings of the persistence of racial inequality. They offer us precise measurement of racism over time, providing avenues for social justice. And yet, social science often misses what literature captures best—the intimate and dramatized portrayal of subjective experiences of racism.

What follows is a collection of some of the most chilling accounts of terror in Southern black literature of the past decade. Excerpted from novels and essays, these sketches, clipped from their larger (con)texts and placed in proximity to one another, tell contemporary stories of terror in a decentered way. If nothing else, this excerpted-chaos only adds to the visceral and nonsensical nature of racial terror.

“How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” (essay, 2013), Kiese Laymon:

A few weeks earlier, George Harmon, the President of Millsaps, shuts down the campus paper in response to a satirical essay I wrote on communal masturbation and sends a letter to over 12,000 overwhelmingly white Millsaps students, friends and alumnae. The letter states that the "Key Essay in question was written by Kiese Laymon, a controversial writer who consistently editorializes on race issues."

After the President's letter goes out, my life kinda hurts.

I receive a sweet letter in the mail with the burnt up ashes of my essays. The letter says that if I don't stop writing and give myself "over to right," my life would end up like the ashes of my writing.

The tires of my Mama's car are slashed when her car was left on campus. I'm given a single room after the Dean of Students thinks it's too dangerous for me to have a roommate. Finally, Greg Miller, an English Professor, writes an essay about how and why a student in his Liberal Studies class says, "Kiese should be killed for what he's writing." I feel a lot when I read those words, but mainly I wonder what's wrong with me.

It's bid day at Millsaps.

Shonda and I are headed to our jobs at Ton-o-Fun, a fake ass Chuck E. Cheese behind Northpark Mall. We're wearing royal blue shirts with a strange smiling animal and Ton-o-Fun on the left titty. The shirts of the other boy workers at Ton-o-Fun fit them better than mine. My shirt is tight in the wrong places and slightly less royal blue. I like to add a taste of bleach so I don't stank.

As we walk out to the parking lot of my dorm, the Kappa Alpha and Kappa Sigma fraternities are in front of our dorm receiving their new members. They've been up drinking all night. Some of them have on black face and others have on Afro wigs and Confederate capes.

We get close to Shonda's Saturn and one of the men says, "Kiese, write about this!" Then another voice calls me a "Nigger" and Shonda, a "Nigger bitch." I think and feel a lot but mostly I feel that I can't do anything to make the boys feel like they've made us feel right there, so I go back to my dorm room to get something.

“Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice” (essay, 2013), Ta-Nehisi Coates:

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by a jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for the lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.

One need only look the criminalization of Martin across the country. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to not receive the above "portrait" of Trayvon Martin and its accompanying text. The portrait is actually of a 32-year old man. Perhaps you were lucky enough to not see the Trayvon Martin imagery used for target practice (by law enforcement, no less.) Perhaps you did not see the iPhone games. Or maybe you missed the theory presently being floated by Zimmerman's family that Martin was a gun-runner and drug-dealer in training, that texts and tweets he sent mark him as a criminal in waiting. Or the theory floated that the mere donning of a hoodie marks you a thug, leaving one wondering why this guy is a criminal and this one is not.

We have spent much of this year outlining the ways in which American policy has placed black people outside of the law. We are now being told that after having pursued such policies for 200 years, after codifying violence in slavery, after a people conceived in mass rape, after permitting the disenfranchisement of black people through violence, after Draft riots, after white-lines, white leagues, and red shirts, after terrorism, after standing aside for the better reduction of Rosewood and the improvement of Tulsa, after the coup d'etat in Wilmington, after Airport Homes and Cicero, after Ossian Sweet, after Arthur Lee McDuffie, after Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo and Eleanor Bumpers, after Kathryn Johnston and the Danziger Bridge, that there are no ill effects, that we are pure, that we are just, that we are clean. Our sense of self is incredible. We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his affection for white supremacy.

You should not be troubled that George Zimmerman "got away" with the killing of Trayvon Martin, you should be troubled that you live in a country that ensures that Trayvon Martin will happen.

“Snakes” (short story, 2010), Danielle Evans:

“Don’t you get smart with me,” said my grandmother. “I never took lip from your mother and I certainly won’t take it from you.”

“Daddy says you took everything from my mother,” I said, more innocently than was honest. There was a thick feeling in my throat.

My grandmother’s eyes narrowed. She was silent for some minutes. When she left the room I could hear my breath coming rapidly in tune with her retreating then returning footsteps. In the moment I first saw the gleam of metal in her hand, I truly believed she was going to stab me.

She never said a word. She started snipping quickly, unevenly, the rhythm of her anger punctuated by the growing pile of tight black curls on the floor. It didn’t occur to me to run. It didn’t occur to me that there was anywhere to go. I don’t know how long Allison had been watching. I only know that when it was over, and all but half an inch of my shoulder-length-when-it-lay-flat hair was piled on the floor, Allison was in the doorway, looking straight at my grandmother.

She walked over to me and grabbed my hand, dragging me toward the front door. I didn’t know what to believe about snakes anymore, but at that moment I would have preferred being inside a python’s belly to seeing my grandmother look at my practically bald head like she had proved something to me. I followed Allison down to our lake, climbed with her to the top of our tree. We were out of stories, or we were out of words. We didn’t pretend to be my mother in the Amazon, or hers on a cruise ship, because we knew what we were right then: people too small to stop the things we didn’t want to happen from happening anyway. The bottoms of my jeans and Allison’s thin ankles were muddy then, our socks wet from a puddle I could not remember having stepped in. I looked down before I remembered not to. I saw our watery reflections blending into one on the water’s wet canvas, pink and peach and beige and denim softly swirling, and wondered how my grandmother managed to see two of us so clearly.

Rebel Yell (novel, 2009), Alice Randall:

You and the father are in your room. It is a Saturday. You have just turned thirteen. The father has come to give you a whipping. When he closes the door to the room you are shivering. He is hissing words you have not heard him speak.

“Fuck them,” the father says. “They can’t do anything but scare you. Fuck them, child.”

You hate the sound of his voice saying “fuck.” You hate the fact he has fucked and you haven’t. You hate the way he swaggers through a world of grown folks and strands you in a world of children. You don’t hate him enough to say any of that. “What’s wrong, child?” he asks.

The door is closed and locked and quiet. Your pants are folded neatly on a chair. Your boxers, soon to be around your ankles, are snug about your waist. All is black and red. All is death and blood. There are no other colors and nothing else the colors mean: not apple, not pomegranate, not stop, not alarm, just blood; not night, not coal, not emphatic, not ink, not raven, just death.

Blood is running down your nose. He hasn’t touched you. There is blood on your fingertips. Your nose is bleeding. Because you think you are about to die, you tell the truth.

“I wet myself,” you say.

“I’ve seen men in the war wet themselves,” the daddy says. His tenderness is a heavy weight. Your thought is narrow, compressed, flattening. The father is the weight pressing your thought down. You say, “You. Ashamed of you, Daddy,” you say.

“This Kind of Red” (short story, 2009), Helen Elaine Lee:

And there was a day I realized, just by his tone of voice, that he was turning on Lamar, that he was next. He could go for him in the night time, and in the morning, say that he was sorry and be proud.

Proud of his desk and his starched white shirt. Don’t let no one dis him or ignore him when he was plant manager, working evenings. I hope, I hope, Lord, please let him meet his quota today. Always checking in the mirror that his clothes, his hair, his shave was right.

The only good thing about the piece of stainless steel that fills in for a mirror is that I don’t have to hide from my body, and the sad, sad story it tells. The soft stomach and stretch marks from being pregnant and the saggy breasts that I swear still aches sometimes from the babies lost to me now. The fat I carry now from the starchy food in here and from being penned, and the healing my skin has done. Faded marks where his cigarettes burned the softest, hidden flesh, and the torn places that did their best to close. Who care about it anyways? No one sees me and this body’s just a shell that never did belong to me.

“Searching for Zion” (essay, 2007), Emily Raboteau:

That’s when they grabbed my luggage, whisked me to the basement, stripped off my clothes and probed every orifice of my body for explosives. When they didn’t find any, they focused on my tattoo, a Japanese character which means different, precious, unique. I was completely naked, and the room was cold. My nipples were hard. I tried to cover myself with my hands. I remember feeling incredibly thirsty. One of them flicked my left shoulder with a latex glove. “What does it mean?” he asked. This was the first time I’d ever been racially profiled, not that the experience would have been any less humiliating had it been my five hundredth. “It means Fuck you,” I wanted to say, not because they’d stripped me of my dignity, but because they’d shoved my face into my own rootlessness. I have never felt more black in my life than I did when I was mistaken for an Arab.


Matthew Clair is a PhD student in sociology at Harvard University. 

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