Why I Say “Black Lives Matter”

Two paragraphs in my forthcoming book, Liberty and Insanity in the Age of the American Revolution, continue to haunt me.

The paragraphs reference the 1770 protests in New Bern, North Carolina. Like their seventeenth-century English ancestors, these protestors believed that the people had a duty to “regulate” the government, and particularly to step in when political leaders became corrupted by power or enacted legislation for their own gain. Calling themselves “regulators,” white men and women in western North Carolina who were upset by high taxes and corruption addressed their concerns to government officials. Like many Anglo-Americans in the 1760s and 1770s, when their demands were not met through formal channels, they turned to extralegal tactics.

In September 1770, the regulators in New Bern kept the court there from sitting. They then went after Colonel Edmund Fanning, whom they believed guilty of embezzlement and abuse of tax collection. After shutting down court proceedings, they pulled Fanning out of the courthouse. The presiding judge, Richard Henderson, was sure Fanning would be killed by the “Rage and Madness” of the mob, but Fanning managed to escape.1 His house however, did not. The regulators destroyed his belongings, drank his liquor, and then pulled down his house. Continuing in their rage, they put the rotted body of an executed enslaved person at “the lawyer’s bar and filled the Judge’s seat with human excrement.”2

I do not know the identity of the man or woman they placed at the bar, nor what they had been executed for. I also do not know if the body was buried and then dug up or if the man or woman had been left to rot in the open air as a warning for other enslaved people. Absent other means to overturn a system that worked against them, the regulators resorted to violence against person and property and grisly and grotesque symbolic gestures of derision. Beyond disrespecting judges and lawyers with a repulsive spectacle, what did the protestors want to achieve with this particular action? For people protesting the absence of their own liberty, what did they see in the symbolism of using the body of a dead enslaved person? It is unlikely they thought deeply about the inherent hypocrisy of using this body to protest for their own liberty or about their utter disregard of Black bodily autonomy in life and death while they demanded that their own autonomy be recognized. While white regulators claimed they had been made into slaves by the legal and governmental system in North Carolina, their bodies were not the ones desecrated and then used for political fodder.

My book is not specifically about slavery but it is about slavery in the way that any book about the age of the American Revolution is a book about slavery. Slavery was woven into the very fabric of existence, and Anglo-Americans referenced it through their words and their actions. My book is also not specifically about the ways white Americans, from the political elites to the people out of doors, disregarded the political rights and bodily autonomy of Black Americans—but any book about politics and medicine in eighteenth-century North America needs to be about that as well.

In my own place and time (Grand Junction, Colorado in 2020) when we say, “Black Lives Matter,” many in our community respond immediately with, “all lives matter,” or “blue lives matter.” If those community members will listen to me, I tell them that I say “Black Lives Matter” because the historical record time and again tells us all the ways those in our past have made it very clear that Black lives did not matter to them. If they continue to listen, I tell them the stories that show up in my research and my teaching. It was clear that Black lives did not matter to the white settlers in Jamestown who bought “20 and Odd. Negroes” in 1619. It was clear in New Bern, North Carolina in 1770 as shown above. It was clear in 1834 when white residents in Philadelphia tore down Black churches and homes and attacked and beat any Black person with whom they crossed paths. Every moment that I research and teach about is filled with violence toward and disregard for Black lives.

Residents of Grand Junction, CO gathered outside City Hall in June to call on city council members to act against racism in the city. (Courtesy Grand Junction Sentinel)

After Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black residents and their white allies in Grand Junction, Colorado formed a new social justice organization called Right and Wrong (RAW). RAW immediately set about making change, working with police, the local school district (District 51), and Colorado Mesa University to bring about long-delayed and needed actions. RAW secured a commitment from District 51 to incorporate more Black history, cooperatively taught by district teachers and Black community members, and to form a task force to combat racism in the schools. They have opened a dialogue with Grand Junction’s Chief of Police Doug Shoemaker about policing in the community. They secured the removal of the name of Walter Walker (a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s) from the Colorado Mesa University soccer field. They have also attended every single city council meeting to raise their voices, to tell the stories of the racism they face on a daily basis, to raise awareness, and to make change.

Local white supremacist organizations, as well as individuals outside of these organizations, now pay close attention to any public announcement RAW makes. At first, only a few white men from that segment of our population showed up at RAW events. Now white men and women show up in droves, conspicuously armed with a variety of weapons. At the last city council meeting, Michael Anton, then a member of the Western Colorado Business Alliance, publicly said, “This RAW. This BLM. They need to go away. They’re not Grand Junction and you need to send them down the road because, believe me, there’s a lot more of me here in this valley than there is of you. I guarantee it and it will not be a pretty day if that comes forth.”3 This is not the first nor will it be the last threat against the lives of Black people in the city in which I live.

Mark Coutu openly carried a sidearm to the 2020 Juneteenth celebration in Lincoln Park in Grand Junction, CO. (Courtesy Sarah Swedberg)

Like all the historians that I know and love, that intersection of the past we teach about and the present that we live in is not new but, at least for me, it still often startles. When white Grand Junction resident Mark Coutu gave public comment at the June 17 city council meeting claiming that “racism didn’t exist on the western slope until BLM moved here,” I thought of Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider. Strider refused to investigate the Emmett Till case in 1955, claiming, “We never have any trouble until some of our Southern [n-word] go up North and the NAACP talks to ’em and they come back home.”4 In Grand Junction, Colorado it is “Antifa” or “BLM” rather than the NAACP – but the sentiment is the same.

White supremacy is not a historical artifact but a monster that continues to threaten Black lives with violence and death in my community and communities throughout this country. This is why the two paragraphs with which I started this piece continue to haunt me. Between regulators using the body of a dead slave for political purposes through the long history of slavery in this country, through lynchings and Jim Crow, through the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and through to the violent threats against members of my community run a clear and continuous line of violent racism. The stories of the past do not seem far away but exist parallel to the stories of the present. Because of that, as a citizen, as a moral person, and as a historian, I will continue to say, “Black Lives Matter,” and will continue to tell the stories of all the ways whites refused and refuse to acknowledge that fact in both the past and the present.

Notes

  1. Richard Henderson, An Account of Mob Violence Witnessed in the Courts of New Bern. Adams Matthews Colonial America Database. Return to text.
  2. James P. Whittenburg, “Planters, Merchants, and Lawyers: Social Change and the Origins of the North Carolina Regulation,” William and Mary Quarterly 34.2 (April 1977), 237. Return to text.
  3. Quoted in “Counter-protesters meet marchers,” The Daily Sentinel, 6 August 2020. The Western Colorado Business Alliance asked Anton to resign when these comments were made public. He did. Return to text.
  4. If you want to hear all of Mark Coutu’s comment, you can find it starting at the 1:08 mark. Return to text.

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