EXCERPT: ‘Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness’
A 2010 Tea Party rally gives a glance at what's to come
Baynard Woods‘ new book, Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness, follows the author through his boyhood in Columbia and Greenville, South Carolina, into a journey of discovery around the role whiteness played not only in his own life but in an ancestry he found shameful. In this excerpt, he visits a Tea Party rally, where he saw the stirrings of the fascist white power movement that would sweep Trump to office in 2016. But he was not ready to see how it implicated himself.
When I attended the first Tea Party rally, on Tax Day, 2010, I was struck by how the low-grade horror of the obvious was transforming into the potential for real political terror. Of course, this was what whiteness looked like.
I met my friend Liam at Freedom Plaza early that bright spring afternoon. Liam was a big, tough, blue-collar dude I played country music with. He was a D.C. cop until he got shot. Then he worked on the railroad until two cars coupling crushed half his right hand. Then he became a union organizer, and he was a perfect fit for the job — the loud-talking, confrontational type of organizer who might just slam you up against a wall to make a point. He was the perfect guy to go to the Tea Party with.
When we got there, we found thousands of people wearing tricorne hats and other colonial-era garb along with signs reading “Don’t Tread on Me,” “Obama is a traitor” or “My freedom is a big fucking deal.” Pretty much everyone was white and over 45. I thought of Dad. He wasn’t the type to attend rallies — his political actions were largely confined to cursing at the television or the radio — but he shared the sentiments of these Tea Partiers.
How much of their anger was the anger he’d expressed when I talked to him about school desegregation? This generation of white men had entered a world where they had to compete with Black people for jobs that had previously been reserved for them. And now, for the first time, there was a post-boomer president, and he was Black. And to them that was unbearable.
I started talking with a white guy named John, who had long wavy hair coming out of a white baseball cap. He had on shorts and a loosely buttoned shirt showing off his gold chains.
“I’m ready for the next revolution,” he said. “I firmly believe that the guy in the White House is a Muslim. He hates America, I think he hates whitey. He’s a self-loathing piece of shit.”
“What do you think the post-revolution world would look like?” I asked.
“It would look like me,” he said.
After a while, I needed to escape the constant barrage of aggressive whiteness that was almost bowling me over, so Liam and I went to a bar. Then we went to another one, where we ate oysters for a couple of hours. As it got dark, he left and I went down to the main event, where thousands of people crowded the mall and I wandered off through the apocalyptically Caucasian crowd into the heart of what looked to me like white doom.
I spotted one odd sign. “Defend Obama: Outlaw White Supremacy,” it said. Then I noticed that people were standing around it, holding other signs with arrows and the word “Infiltrator!” written across them.
I decided I needed to go see what was happening and snaked through the crowd until I reached the sign, which was being held aloft by two young people, a white woman and a Black man. Around them, a crowd of angry old white people were yelling and jeering.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I asked, walking up with my tape recorder out.
The couple with the sign said nothing. They just looked straight ahead and did not react.
“We’re blocking them off,” a Tea Partier told me.
“Is there a reason for that?” I asked.
“Because that’s offensive and no one should see it.”
“What is offensive about it?” I asked.
“‘Outlaw white supremacy’?” the woman sneered. “These Kool-Aid drinkers think all the Tea Partiers are racist.”
“If the Tea Party movement isn’t white supremacist, why block the sign off?” I asked, doing my best to appear as a neutral journalist. “Wouldn’t the Tea Party also want to outlaw white supremacy?”
“They don’t belong here,” the woman said.
She would not give her name.
A blond woman stepped toward me, aggressively.
“I can’t find a white supremacist, can you? Let’s go find one,” she said, and grabbed my arm, digging her fingers in.
“Hold on, hold on. Let go of me, please,” I said, my voice rising to an embarrassingly high pitch.
“Come on, let’s go,” she said, gripping my arm harder and pulling as people jostled around us. I jerked my arm away from her grasp.
“Let’s go find a white supremacist,” she said again, reaching for me once more as the crowd that had been focused on the sign now turned all its attention to me.
“Hold on,” I said.
“Let’s go find one. Do you know one? Do you know one?” she asked, grasping again at my arm.
“Do you have to know a crack smoker to outlaw crack?” I asked.
“Do you smoke it?” she asked.
Then she paused and sniffed, pointing at my face.
“Have you been drinking?”
I stepped back, trying to get away from her grabbing hands.
“You’ve been drinking,” she announced, delighted, her swelling southern accent almost a slur, moving across the word drinking like a truck over an oil slick. “You’ve been drinking. How much did you have before you came down here?”
People chanted, “USA, USA” in the background.
“You been drinking, haven’t you buddy?” she said.
The crowd around us loved that. It confirmed all their stereotypes about the liberal media. More people started yelling at me.
“Did you beat your wife before you came here today?” one guy bellowed.
Others started waving their “Infiltrator!” signs at me like tomahawks. I held up my arm to keep one from hitting me in the head.
I had swiftly lost control of this situation.
“Let me show you a picture of my grandchild,” the blond woman said as she dug into her purse. “Let me show you a picture of my grandchild.”
I knew what was coming. I hated every second of this confrontation.
“Look!” She pulled out a picture.
“He is cute,” I said.
“He’s Black!” she cried. “Isn’t he cute? He’s Black. Isn’t that great? My grandson is Black!”
“And that means what?” I asked.
“That means I’m not a white supremacist,” she said.
“He’s been drinking,” someone else yelled.
“I didn’t say you were one — but if you aren’t, why worry about this sign?” I asked.
“We’re not white supremacists,” the blond woman said. “Obama is a Black supremacist. That’s what we’re against. To be against Black supremacy isn’t white supremacy.”
“He’s been drinking,” a man yelled again.
More white people in tricornes and American flag T-shirts had gathered around. I didn’t even know what the couple’s sign really meant. It was hard to imagine what outlawing white supremacy would look like in a country where, with the exception of the first Black president, the political and law enforcement establishment was overwhelmingly white. But I applauded their sign and the courage it took to hold it.
“Well, thanks a lot for your time,” I said, easing back, hoping no one would push me down from behind. I felt as if I was in danger and I needed to get out.
“Going to smoke some crack?” the blond woman asked.
“He needs another drink,” a man said.
I did need another drink after I managed to extract myself from the rally. But more than that, I needed to get my ass home.
On the Metro ride back to Greenbelt that night, I stared at my reflection in the darkened window, exhausted, my buzz already a hangover. And as I thought about the Tea Party and its white anger, it was as if I saw Dad’s face superimposed over mine.
All of this rage came from insecurity. Whiteness is the fear both of being seen and of not being seen. Whiteness demands to dictate its own terms — and everyone else’s terms too. For white people, politically, “Don’t tread on me” also means “I can tread on you.” Whiteness sees any Black gain as white loss.
This anger wasn’t confined to the Tea Party event, it felt intimately familiar. It was the same anger and sense of aggrieved loss that had suffused Columbia, South Carolina, when I was growing up and the shared feeling in my community that the Civil War and the world had turned out wrong. It was the anger that suffused people I loved.
It was the anger I had, far too often, felt in myself. I started to sense that whiteness would be one of the most pressing political problems of the coming era. But it implicated me. And so I forgot. But the furies would find me soon enough.
Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness by
Baynard Woods was published on June 28.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.