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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Blind Spots (p. 478)

From chapter "Resistance"

Earlier, I cited, as an example of my own racism, the fact that I merely stepped away from a group of white teenagers clustered around a pickup. Had they been black, I wrote, I may have walked down a different street. But now I’m thinking about the attention I’ve given to Wesley Everest, Frank Little, and others of the lighter skinned non-Whites. Why does Everest warrant six paragraphs, while Private William Little receives only one sentence, and Lloyd Clay three? Are not their stories just as real, their lives as precious? Sure, I’ve devoted more space overall to lynchings of darker-skinned people than of the lighter skinned, but hundreds of times more darker-skinned people have been lynched. Have I devoted hundreds of times more space?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Maybe the reason is that the research is easier. Whole books have been written on the Centralia Massacre, and I first heard of Wesley Everest’s last words to his chums—“Tell the boys I died for my class”—many years ago. On the other hand, I never heard of Lloyd Clay until maybe a month ago, and an Alta Vista search reveals only two pages referencing him (there are several referencing others of the same name, of course), one of which lists African-American victims of lynching sorted by name, while the other, an associated site, sorts them by date of death. The second is called “The Lynching Calendar: African-Americans Who Died in Racial Violence in the United States by Month of Death, 1865-1965.” Lloyd Clay’s date is May 14, and he receives one phrase in the middle: “Hardy Grady, lynched Effingham Co, Georgia, May 14, 1884; David Cotton, lynched Rosebud, Texas, May 14, 1897; Henry Williams, lynched Rosebud, Texas, May 14, 1897; Sabe Stewart, lynched Rosebud, Texas, May 14, 1897; 2 unidentified black men, lynched Brooksville, Florida May 14, 1900; William Willis, lynched Grovetown, Georgia, May 14, 1900; William Womack, lynched Eastman, Georgia May 14, 1906; “Dock” McLane, lynched Ashdown, Arkansas, May 14, 1910; Lloyd Clay, lynched Vicksburg, Mississippi, May 14, 1919; N/A West, lynched Longwood, Florida, May 14, 1925.” Every day is like this. A Google search reveals a couple of passing references to Clay, and one transcription of a 1919 article from a radical Chicago newspaper: “What the best white citizens here termed the most glorious celebrations held in the city for many years occurred Wednesday, May 14th, when innocent Lloyd Clay, age 23, was lynched and burned on the public highways by men, women and school children. Over 1,000 persons’ voices rent the air with yells similar to that of cannibals when Clay was dragged down Farmer Street to the ‘gallows tree.’ Clay made no outcry as his body bumped over rocks in the street and as knives and pistol shots perforated his naked form. He had been accused of entering the room of Miss Hattie Hudson [the other account I read of this, in an article several days previous, in a different newspaper, had her name as Lulu Belle Bishop], a white woman. Sheriff Scott stood idly by and puffed vigorously on a cigar as the bloodthirsty throng massacred their helpless victim. His mother requested that the charred body be given to her, but there was nothing left of it after the fire had parched it to a crisp and souvenirs were distributed to children, who yelled incessantly, ‘Mother, get me a piece of the nigger’s finger.’”

It continues, “When Clay was brought before Miss Hudson, she was unable to identify him and said she did not want the innocent blood upon her hands. ‘Innocent blood, hell,’ yelled a voice in the crowd: ‘Say, yes, he’s the nigger,’ came from hundreds of throats. Fearing bodily harm might be done her should she fail to accede to the demands of the mad mob, with a response hardly audible she said, ‘I think he is the man.’ This answer was sufficient. Clay was immediately felled by a blow from the handle of a double shotgun. The mob fell upon Clay… and dragged him toward North First Street. Three men climbed an elm tree directly in front of the residence of Mrs. Ida M. Keefe (white) and when a stout rope came into view the mob went wild. During this period little children were smearing kerosene upon the naked form of Clay. His head was pinned beneath a man’s heel and a woman, taking advantage of the opportunity, saturated his hair with gasoline. A match was applied and Clay was lifted into the air. This increased the excitement. Clay lifted his arms, placed his palms together in an attitude of prayer, but made no sound. Shouts, howls and the screech of motor horns made a deafening noise as Clay was strung beneath the elm tree. The dainty hands of young girls, who will represent the future mothers of Vicksburg, Miss., were seen with guns pointed at the victim, eager for a chance to be a party in furthering this gruesome method of cannibalism. A bullet said to have come from a revolver in the hands of a woman crashed into the brain of Charles Lanbookes (white), an onlooker, as he stood on the lawn of Mrs. Ida Keefe watching the charred body of Clay dangle from the tree. He will die. Benny Stafford (white), said to be a member of the mob, was wounded in the chin by a stray bullet. He will recover. The body of Clay, blistered and distorted, was permitted to hang.”

I don’t think my original inclination to devote more space to Everest than Clay came about just because more information is available on Everest: I could easily have substituted descriptions of the hatred manifested toward Denmark Vesey or Nat Turner for that toward Little or Everest. I think there’s something deeper. Sure, I’m making different points here, having to do with how lighter-skinned people, too, can be hated if they remind the majority of us of that which we’re all trying so desperately to forget: that our system is inhuman and unnecessary. But the fact remains that even in writing a book about how our culture perceives certain others, including people whose skin happens to not be so flesh-colored, not as humans but as objects, my descriptions of darker-skinned people are, it seems, at least, sometimes, less personal, and I may present them less as subjective human beings than I do people whose skin happens to be the color defined as flesh. I’m not alone in this. Even after reading the article from the Chicago newspaper—presumably written by someone who wanted the lynchings to end—I still know nothing about Lloyd Clay except how he died, and that he had a mother. At least in accounts of Everest’s death, we learn something of his struggles, and, through them, something about the man behind the name, rather than simply learning (a tad unbelievably, I would have thought, until I read of a black man who sang “Nearer my God to thee” as a crowd of Whites burned him) that Clay held his hands as if in prayer as he was immolated.

I thought for a while about shortening the section on Everest, or on going back to add more details to the lives of some of the African Americans whose deaths I describe (presuming these details could be found; a dubious presumption, considering that we don’t even know the names of many of the murdered; nor did the murderers, and, I guess, that’s the point), but decided in an attempt at transparency to not do that. I want to attempt to make visible as much of our translucent hatred as I can, and revealing my own blind spots seems as good a way to do that as any.