Blanche McCrary Boyd
I've written five novels and a nonfiction book called The Redneck Way of Knowledge that gave me street cred in New York publishing circles and barbecue joints alike. But I had trouble selling my last novel, Tomb of the Unknown Racist. This wasn't your normal tale of publishing woe. Three years ago, Tomb seemed preposterous, the tale of an ex-radical lesbian feminist trying desperately to find and stop her white terrorist brother, a revered intellectual of white supremacy.
In tracking her brother, Ellen Burns uncovers links between a Silent Brotherhood, the white supremacist revolutionaries reportedly destroyed by the FBI in 1984, and Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City 11 years later. Ellen discovers the rapidly growing white militias and uncovers evidence that supremacists might be operating within our government at all levels. Tomb of the Unknown Racist may have been set 20 years ago, but it was prophetic, as anyone now watching the news knows.
TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN RACIST was a Finalist for the PEN-Faulkner Award, but we couldn’t sell the book until I put a list of Facts at the beginning to convince editors that the story was plausible. I kept feeling like Cassandra, given the gift of seeing the future and the curse of not being believed.
The Boogaloos, the 3%ers, the Proud Boys demand civil war, and by now I think many people understand that and that these very dangerous people have been encouraged and loosed violently and nakedly upon our government by a cunning, racist president.
Since many supremacists believe that race war will be essential, they want to have it as soon as possible, so their tactics are ‘accelerationist.’ Their goal is the ‘survival’ of the white race, and they have organized through the internet, many espousing apocalyptic predictions of the unidentified figure known as Vox, who may or may not be a real person.
Trust the plan, Vox followers are told, and this always felt particularly chilling since we must ask ourselves if there really is a plan being executed and we can’t glimpse it yet. On Jan. 6, we got that glimpse--and that's all it was, so far: a glimpse.
After the pandemic forced us all indoors, I had retreated into peaceful silence, enjoying the presence of my children sent home from college, watching TV with my wife, and reading mystery novels. Then, along with the rest of America, I witnessed videotape of a black man named George Floyd being carefully and slowly murdered by four white policemen who appeared to be enjoying themselves.
Demonstrations and riots resulted, the violence deliberately exacerbated by a new incarnation of extremists who called themselves Boogaloos. Now Boogaloos have become part of a much larger coalition of white supremacists that includes the 3%ers and Proud Boys. So here’s Cassandra. I understand where their beliefs originate since I grew up with people like them.
I was raised in the Deep South in the 1950s, my social environment so shuttered and provincial that all I knew about Eleanor Roosevelt was a dirty joke my high school principal told me. I believed Strom Thurmond was a hero and e wrote him a fan letter when I was fourteen. (That year I also wrote a consolation letter to Elizabeth Taylor about the death of one of her husbands.) It’s hard enough to grow up, especially without any context or accurate historical information. I went to Duke and felt it was in the north because it was in North Carolina. Until I got to college, I had never met anyone as liberal as Democrats, who seemed breathtakingly daring participating in anti-racist demomstrations, because I already sensed the real dangers that had undergirded my upbringing.
I left South Carolina as if it were a burning building, desperate to escape the dreadful visibility of racism, but racism turned out to be everywhere I lived: Boston, New York, Washington, Vermont, and California. I moved back home at thirty-three to write a nonfiction book called The Redneck Way of Knowledge, in which I tried to explore my painful legacies. My mother’s most cogent remark was, We learned a lot while you were gone, didn’t we? She meant I’d come to understand that white supremacist beliefs and institutions, whether conscious or unconscious, were an American problem, not a Southern one. I recently recorded, for Audible, REDNECK: The Author’s Cut, an edited and revised version of The Redneck Way of Knowledge, and 40 years after I wrote it, my tales and insights still seem fresh.
Boogaloos show up at anti-racist events like the one in Charlottesville and recognize each other by their outfits, Hawaiian shirts combined with combat clothes (don’t ask), and by hand signals. 3 Percenters have tattoos; they believe their small numbers will not prevent their goals because they believe (wrongly), that only 3% of American settlers opposed the British. Proud Boys mostly seem to be overweight belligerents with beards.
Many of these folks mention dotr, ‘day of the rope’, alluding to The Turner Diaries, a novel that recounts a white revolution after which large-scale hangings eliminate all people of color, Jews, and queers. This novel has proven to be a popular blueprint among white extremists, and it has sold over a half million copies. The noose displayed at the assault on the Capitol building was a direct reference to that novel’s public hangings.
The events in Tomb of the Unknown Racist conclude in the year 2000, when, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were already more than 100 armed white militias in this country. Now the SPLC estimates that number is higher than 500. These ‘patriots’, these white terrorists, have accumulated a large array of lethal weapons. They have machine guns and sharpshooter equipment and many members are ex-military. Many people don’t know that is legal in this country to buy grenade launchers and RPG’s. A man wearing a grenade launcher recently walked into a Subway and casually ordered a sandwich.
Armed white groups and vigilantes are now scattered across the American landscape, and during the George Floyd civil unrest, two self-identified Boogaloos were arrested making Molotov cocktails they planned to use at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Las Vegas. All three were ex-soldiers.
White supremacists and their sympathizers appear to be scattered within law enforcement. Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three people, killing two, during a demonstration in Wisconsin, was allowed to walk calmly away, and the two white policemen who arrested Dylann Roof after he murdered nine African-Americans in a Charleston church took Roof to Burger King on the way to jail.
Supremacists wearing badges may or may not be organized, but their presence is provable: the investigative reporting project REVEAL has confirmed hundreds of law enforcement officers belong to racist, anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant and pro-Confederacy groups online.
Sometimes there’s no attempt at obfuscation. At the assault on the Capitol Building, some cops opened doors and one posed for a grinning selfie with the rioters. A white policeman was caught on video during one of the New York BLM demonstrations giving a white power hand signal and laughing. The fault lines being exposed within our police forces and armed forces are making our civil situation even more volatile. It’s probably worth mentioning that many small police departments now have tanks ‘donated’ to them as military surplus.
Timothy McVeigh was the prototype. McVeigh was the Gulf War veteran who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, many of them children in a daycare center, in the largest incident of domestic terrorism that had ever happened in the United States. McVeigh saw himself as a freedom fighter, a soldier. He rejected the label of terrorist and asked to be publicly executed in order to inspire followers. (This request was denied.)
Here is the point: these men may be horrific, but they are not cowards, any more than were the Muslim extremist pilots who flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Want to expand on this? Use of propaganda tools similar? Don’t want to expand. Let it stand.
Remember that anthrax that could not be tracked to a source? Anthrax can be made fairly simply from castor beans, but the type of anthrax that was sent to government leaders and journalists was more sophisticated. Not all white supremacists are idiots. The brother in my novel is both brilliant and messianic. He’s a Darwinist who thinks survival of the fittest means white revolution, and he is plotting mass poisonings.
Many people think this surge of white supremacists is new. It’s not, it’s just become more visible because of Trump. When Trump said he could shoot someone in the street without losing his base of support, he shocked many of us, but he was right. The violence he sells is an essential part of his brand (while Trump’s own lack of physical courage gets oddly ignored.) Trump knows that many of his followers are looking for any excuse to launch into wholesale slaughter, and now, with an election ‘stolen’ from their leader, they have it.
All white supremacist terrorists are the direct inheritors of the Ku Klux Klan. If you have somehow managed to live in America and not know what the Klan is, this guerrilla group formed after the Civil War ended during the Reconstruction Era. Their members wore white robes and hoods, ghosts of terror, and they burned giant crosses and lynched countless numbers of black men and women and even children across our country, but especially in the Deep South, where the population of freed blacks was largest.
Cross-burning, this assertion of Christian righteousness, may seem an inexplicable leap away from the white secularists who wrote our Constitution, because membership in the Masons was about as wild as those guys got. That’s why we have Masonic symbols like that eye and pyramid on the backs of our dollar bills. There is absolutely no mention of God in our founding documents. However, in order to get a buy-in from Southerners and declare independence from Great Britain, those founders had to justify this country’s economic dependence on slavery. They did so despicably, by agreeing that African men, women, and children were not entirely human. Their tortuous deliberations led to the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise, which determined that each slave was the equivalent of 3/5 of one white person.
Michelle Obama, told in high school ‘you’re not Princeton material’, has pointed out that slave labor actually helped build the White House. Harvard historian Jill Lepore, in her astounding history, These Truths, calls attention to the fact that George Washington’s false teeth included some that he had removed from his own slaves’ mouths. So much for the sacred Founding Fathers.
White supremacy got directly mixed up with Christianity during the Protestant revivalism that arose in the 1800s, as our rapidly growing country continued to try to solve the contradiction of being a nation built upon the premise of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ while classifying huge numbers of people as beasts, property that could be bred and sold or worked to death. If economic necessity made the original case for slavery in America, maybe God could help out too, because slaves were mentioned in the Bible, weren’t they? And God gave Adam dominion over the beasts, didn’t he?
By the 1950’s the Ku Klux Klan was considered a low-class organization of louts and rednecks, but it did continue to limp along, and, in the fight over separate-but-equal education, its goals were supported by ‘respectable’ organizations like the White Citizens’ Councils and John Birch Societies that worked hard to hold the line against any recognition of black human rights.
In Harper Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman, which was not published until the end of her life, she presented a raw, more accurate version of the lawyer character named Atticus Finch, who could defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman but nevertheless go off to his White Citizens’ Council meetings and speak against equality. It’s no surprise that Lee could not sell this book (and literarily it does have flaws), so she next produced To Kill a Mockingbird with its dishonest, romanticized version of Atticus Finch as a white savior, a figure that many white American liberals continue to venerate, love, and sentimentalize. After the wild success of this Hallmark Card of a novel, it’s no wonder Harper Lee didn’t write anything else.
Like Lee and Capote and Faulkner and O’Connor and a host of lesser white Southern writers, I grew up immersed in the tragic aftermath of the Civil War. ‘White’ and ‘colored’ bathrooms may now be gone and black people can now eat in restaurants and sleep in hotels, but we are still living in that aftermath, whether we can recognize it or not. Much of my life’s work has been an effort to try to unpack some of that damage. A fish doesn’t know it’s in water, and I have flailed around in this guilty cauldron of white supremacy, this legal and cultural morass of interlockings that often seems impossible to untangle or alter significantly.
“There’s something wrong with you,” Toni Morrison once said about white people, and “you need to talk to each other about it. Leave me out.”
So, white people, let’s talk to each other.
Yes, we inherit the debts of racism in this country the same way we can, if we should be so fortunate, inherit money and property. We also inherit privileges, no matter what our circumstances. But try telling a white working-class man or woman that they have privileges, and you will often encounter the fury that has helped fuel the rise of white supremacy.
We are standing on the bones of black people, I once said to my mother, after I first began to understand the culture I’d been raised within. Her face rendered instantly into an expression of anguish as she snarled, You don’t know a thing about my life.
Eventually I did learn some of it. My mother had been forced to quit school in the eighth grade, a source of shame she hid all her life, and she worked long hours during those teenage years for paltry pay in a tobacco factory, because her father died and it was the Depression and she needed to help her mother survive.
The pains of my mother’s early life are not lessened by the fact that, on the floor beneath where she and the other white women and girls worked, black women and girls entered the cigar factory through the ‘colored’ entrance into the basement to conditions that had to be so much worse.
But try telling a white man who has worked hard in a manufacturing plant or driven a truck all his life or subsistence farmed or repaired cars or sold shoes in a department store or been a traveling salesman that he has white privilege, and you might get a reaction similar to the one my mother had. Working class whites have little to show for the hard labors of their lives, and they are often angry or depressed. Too often alcohol is their cure, and the abuse within families that goes with it. Read Raymond Carver’s short stories to get a glimpse of their despair.
So let me make this clear: Many working class white people do not feel privileged, and they react badly to any suggestion that they have profited in any way from racism. Okay, so maybe they will admit that they don’t usually have to be afraid of the police, and maybe they don’t get arrested for driving while black or thrown into jail for minor or manufactured infractions, and maybe they do get easier breaks for drugs and drunkenness, but it’s also true that they can get followed around inside stores if they look too poor, and educating their children often remains painfully out of reach for them.
My father grew up in a house in rural South Carolina without glass in the windows - they’d covered the openings with newspapers to try to keep warm – and his father and brothers supported the family by bootlegging. He graduated from high school without being able to afford any books.
I am proud of my family’s working-class origins, of the way my father was ambitious and worked so hard to become a plumber and then started a business and then bought a rickety plantation where my mother could dream about Tara and my father could hunt squirrels to his heart’s content, at least until he was killed in a car accident. My parents believed wholeheartedly in the American Dream, in the American promise of renewal and self-invention and in ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’, and, luckily, they taught me to believe all that stuff too. If they had not, I might never had found the courage to break free from their racist beliefs and try to reinvent myself, become authentic, dare to be a writer.
For my Irish forebears, America was where you came to escape the famine; it was a land of promise as well as survival. But Africans were brought here in ships as commodities, packed together like fish, and they certainly did not inherit any part of the American Dream. Instead they endured generations of slavery and an abrupt emancipation that created a dreadful, confusing mess – read historian Jim Downs’ book Sick from Freedom to get a sense of it– and they continue now to persevere through the fleecing of their property by redlining and punitive taxes, the theft of their labor through mass incarceration, and, as we saw so vividly with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the very real possibility of being capriciously murdered by the people who are supposed to protect them.
It may be somewhat easier for me, as an educated white woman, to talk about structural racism and try to figure out ways to intervene and alter it, but the whites attracted to MAGA and those who are arming themselves and backing the white terrorists absolutely reject my analysis. These men and women feel used, mistreated, coopted, ignored, and stained by the relentless encroachment of government into their lives (socialism!), whether by income taxes or social security or even those laws about wearing seat belts.
And now this so-called pandemic? This suspicious version of mass house arrest? Their loss of jobs and small businesses? Wearing masks just to go to the store? They are done with it. They cannot imagine that the yokes on their necks are similar to the yokes holding people of color below them, that they might have more in common with people of color than they do with affluent whites. That’s way too threatening an insight.
But rednecks, when they’re not terrifying, can be heartbreaking. I once asked a girlfriend from a poor family what she wanted from her life, and it took her many minutes to locate her deepest ambition: “I’d like to own a brick house.” She once gave me a gold-plated medallion with my name engraved beside a tiny diamond chip, and she’d even spelled my name wrong. I wore it until the gold wore off and the chip fell out, long after she was gone from my life.
No degree of understanding for the plight of the white working class negates the reality that white privilege is structural and institutionalized, and there seems to be no way to reach across the widening gulf to MAGA and the terrorists. S let’s face that truth and think what else can we do.
Several events gave me hope. During the Louisville demonstrations a line of people – in photos they seemed primarily to be white women – formed a barrier with their bodies to separate the police from the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and that action has been imitated. As a writer, I never fully understood why Grace Paley kept getting herself arrested instead of creating more great stories, or why my friend V, formerly Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, once chained herself to the doors of New York’s City Hall, but maybe I’m beginning to get it.
But listen to me, y’all. Another major outbreak of the War for White Supremacy may get triggered now. What do you think it will take? Only a few of these ‘patriots’ wading into the state houses or the presidential inauguration armed with their AK-47s and grenade launchers? Grenade launchers and sharpshooters have a half-mile range.
I hope I’m not Cassandra. I hope I’m simply wrong. I want to set aside these fearsome thoughts and maintain faith in the frail but steady lights of hope and courage. I still believe in the goodness of ordinary people, and, like Dr. King, I trust that the arc of history is long but bends toward justice. My belief was shaken on June 6, but I’m keeping the faith for Jan. 20.
Blanche McCrary Boyd is a novelist and journalist. Tomb of the Unknown Racist was a Finalist for the PEN-Faulkner Award in 2019, and Boyd swears it is her last novel. She teaches writing at Connecticut College. More information about her work is available at blanchemcraryboyd.com
Note from Journal of the Plague Year editors: We couldn't put this novel down. And that was before the guys in fur pelts stormed the Capitol.