Conspiracy theories are one of the common ways that the aggrieved and disempowered make sense of the world. Consider then: the hip hop generation came of age in the aftermath of the failed revolutionary dreams of the 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s, those dreams had morphed into something else--gangs like the Bloods and Crips; street preachers who held the flame for Afrotopia and its deep wells of Afrocentric wisdom; and keepers of sacred truths who had once been soldiers "in the struggle." These decades also spawned conspiracies of the Illuminati, Timberland's corporate symbol as the lynching tree, Snapple iced tea company endorsing chattel slavery, and the agitprop myth that is the Willie Lynch letter.
In my hometown there was one such brother--a former Black Panther who would monologue and grandstand at city council meetings, harangue guest speakers such as Amiri Baraka and Bobby Seale when they would give lectures at Yale University, and preach the hidden in plain sight truth of such books as Behold a Pale Horse at barbershops and hair salons across the Elm City. Almost inevitably, Public Access TV would eventually become his home in The 4th Estate.
There, our brother would find some small amount of fame and validation as he spun wondrous tales of the truth behind the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the attack on the USS Liberty, cloning experiments at Yale, the role of the Rockefellers and the Bilderbergs in shaping global political economy, how the U.S. government routinely experiments on its soldiers and citizens, and the omnipresence of the national security and intelligence state.
I would often smirk at his stories when my father would insist on (re)introducing us time and time again (necessitated because our secret keeper's memory was long damaged by drugs, Agent Orange, as well as too many years immersed in old books and archives). At the time, I do not recall if my dismissal of his wisdom was a function of youthful naivete and patriotic dreams cultivated by too many viewings of Red Dawn. Alternatively, my immediate dismissal of his arguments could also have been born from a fear, much like that experienced by the residents of Plato's cave, when they are shown that the shadows on the wall are not real.
As he got older, and I came around less and less, our street preacher would excitedly share his newest discoveries with me. In later years I discovered that our "spook who sat by the door" (as my mom affectionately called him) was in fact affiliated with the Panther 21, that he did have an FBI file, and was actually targeted by Cointelpro. It would seem that just because one is paranoid, does not in fact make one crazy.
This week the U.S. government admitted some long held truths that were hidden in plain sight. For those in the know-- that the powers that be, "those trusted" institutions would experiment on black and brown folk, inmates, the poor, mental patients, and others similarly judged to be expendable--is not a revelation. That is the tragedy of consumer-citizen in the age of cynicism, spectacle, and illusion. Nothing surprises us anymore. Thus, we raise no howls. Nor do we make any protests.
Some of the information detailed by the Associated Press include the following cringe inducing vignettes:
-A federally funded study begun in 1942 injected experimental flu vaccine in male patients at a state insane asylum in Ypsilanti, Mich., then exposed them to flu several months later. It was co-authored by Dr. Jonas Salk, who a decade later would become famous as inventor of the polio vaccine.
-Government researchers in the 1950s tried to infect about two dozen volunteering prison inmates with gonorrhea using two different methods in an experiment at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. The bacteria was pumped directly into the urinary tract through the penis, according to their paper.
-Researchers in the mid-1940s studied the transmission of a deadly stomach bug by having young men swallow unfiltered stool suspension. The study was conducted at the New York State Vocational Institution, a reformatory prison in West Coxsackie. The point was to see how well the disease spread that way as compared to spraying the germs and having test subjects breathe it. Swallowing it was a more effective way to spread the disease, the researchers concluded. The study doesn't explain if the men were rewarded for this awful task.
Yuck. And double yuck. This begs the question: what conspiracy theories held to be absurd in the present, will in the near future be revealed as true?
I know I am not the only ghetto nerd and respectable negro to occasionally dip my toes in the pond that is hidden history. Pray tell my fellow blues people, for we as students of power and history intimately understand that things are not always as they seem.