Thursday, August 22, 2013

Is the Willie Lynch Letter a Useful Lie for Teaching Young Black Boys About the Meaning of Manhood?

I came across this story about the good people trying to reach out to black youth in Oakland as a means to break the school to prison pipeline that so many of the latter will find themselves both sucked into, and yes, also choosing to be a part of.

The following part of The San Francisco Chronicle's profile about the efforts of the Oakland school district's African-American Achievement Office to mentor black young boys and teenagers jumped out at me:
Staring at the page in front of him, 16-year-old sophomore Marcell Stargetti began to read aloud. The text was from "The Making of a Slave," a speech by early 19th century slave owner Willie Lynch. 
The 301-year-old words rattled around the suddenly quiet classroom, bouncing off the walls featuring images of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, and motivational posters promoting "hope," "positive people" and "peace." 
"I have a foolproof method for controlling your black slaves," Lynch had written. "I guarantee every one of you that, if installed correctly, it will control the slaves for at least 300 years." 
His scheme: pit slaves against each other - the light-skinned slaves against dark-skinned slaves; female versus male; old versus young. 
Robinson held up his hand. 
"What does Lynch mean?" he asked. 
In his hand was a beanbag, one of several he had in the shape of a basketball, football and baseball. Whoever held the beanbag in his class had the floor. 
During discussions like this, the beanbag would fly across the room from one student to another, as each offered comments or observations on topics from race-themed movies to a classmate's presentation about careers or college applications. 
If more than one hand was raised to receive the beanbag, it was never ignored. "I got you," Robinson said each time. 
The small gesture let students know that what they wanted to say mattered, and would be heard. Marcell raised his hand. 
"It's black on black," he said, bridging the 19th century to the violence he sees in his own life.
"They're doing it against each other," Marcell said. "When we see that we put up our guards, don't trust nobody, everybody for themselves." 
"It's tough to trust people - how many feel that way?" Robinson asked the class.
Every hand went up.
The Willie Lynch Letter is a lie crafted during the 1960s in order to do the political work thought necessary by its author(s) to increase a sense of "black consciousness" and responsibility on the part of its readers. The Willie Lynch Letter is political theater and agitprop fiction. However, I have not encountered an equivalent example of propaganda which does an equivalent amount of positive political work among the black barbershop, hair salon, organic intellectual crowd.

Or course, there are many examples of true and useful lies that can help people to live better lives. Religion, what is a type of mythology, being an obvious example.

But, as I try to make sense of the power of the Willie Lynch Letter, I am led to several questions.

Is the Willie Lynch Letter just one example of the many lies that folks use to try to better themselves. Ultimately, who cares as long as there is some positive externality that results from such a decision?

In the black community, there is a centuries-long and still ongoing conversation about the politics of "black respectability" and what constitutes "black manhood". Do other groups engage in such a dialogue? And if so, is it parsed in such transparent and direct language?


Vic78 said...

Do the negatives outweigh the positives? How far can some people go without their myths? Do noble lies really exist?

I believe we're better off with the truth. I'm like Jamie Foxx in White House Down. "Stop lying to children." Just tell them what really happened. They'll be ok.

chauncey devega said...

What do do you do if the truth is not as inspiring as the lie?

Gat Turner said...

Are you implying that the tactics in the Willie Ltnch letter were never imployed on Black American slaves...or does it just bother you that the letter itself was fabricated? If what it say's is true then someone at some point in time actually did devise ways to separate the slaves and sow dis-unity. Who actully put the plan together is irrelevant.

! said...

This is a tough one. The temptation of the Willie Lynch letter, and what makes it so compelling, is that it says that systems like racism, colorism, misogyny were consciously invented by someone. It sets up a literal villain with even a name that's as obviously symbolic as "Dr. No" or "Darth Vader." For a child, it might be easier to think "I shouldn't disrespect my parents or put down my dark-skinned classmates because that would be doing what evil slaveowner mastermind Willie Lynch wanted me to do." And I have to say that I'm not against the idea of fantasy, folklore and allegory as a tool to get people thinking.

At the same time, doesn't this lead kids into the trap of thinking that white supremacy is set up and perpetuated by individual bad actors? Couldn't it leave kids ill-prepared to understand a world in which systemic racism is a major problem? You've written about the problem of whether or not to consider slaveholders evil. Well, the Willie Lynch strategy involves teaching children that slaveholders were absolutely, bone deep evil masterminds.

In my own life, I don't think I could use it in a "necessary lie" type of way. Maybe taught in context, as the description of a system which was written in the 1960s and to get kids thinking about what's so compelling about the idea of a single evil white man inventing all the wrongs of white supremacy by himself. But I'd be worried about building understanding on shaky foundations. I wouldn't want to be responsible for the moment a kid finds out that the letter isn't real - some people are likely to throw out the baby with the bathwater if they find out they've been lied to.

chauncey devega said...

If I had the resources--hmmmm, what an idea--I would love to do a take on Willie Lynch in a graphic novel or cartoon. I actually wrote a treatment for a 30 min episode for an adult anime that dealt with some of those historical themes interestingly enough.

There was of course personal wickedness and cruelty bordering on the demonic in how black chattel was treated in the "new world". There is also plain old institutional racism that is still with us today and all manner of violence and wickedness between the two extremes.

I call old Willie Lynch a useful lie for a reason. As you pointed out maybe you can use it to get at the real facts which are in many ways far more troubling. I think your suggestion is a good one as a start. I still marvel at how upset so many folks become when you tell them the truth about good old Willie Lynch.

chauncey devega said...

Slavery as a system varied from region to region in the U.S. and also from place to place in the Black Atlantic. Once you get into the specifics matters really become even more fascinating and troubling for how adaptive the institution was.

Yes, as I wrote above slavery was evil, and there were slavers who did things that are out of a horror movie to black people during our Holocaust.

I am just uncomfortable with the image of some white villainous cartoon character with so much power he can devise a system to control a whole race. That is just as silly as believing that the white man was invented in a laboratory by a devious scientist.

If you want to be really disturbed read some of the agricultural journals from the U.S. during that period where blacks were discussed right along side pigs and cows. The plantation was an industrial operation--when I realized that after some reading (I am not a historian) that blew my mind w. how obvious and cruel the arrangement was.

How do we tell the truth about history? Do we lie when it suits our purposes?

Vic78 said...

I think we can get kids working together in elementary school. They need Willie Lynch as badly as I need Santa Claus. Willie Lynch is not going to help them. I'd rather teach them about Paulo Freire.

Learning is Eternal said...

Why not CDV? They use the bible the same way. I was being sarcastic but there is truth in every joke is there not?

! said...

Honestly Learning is Eternal, the same analogy occured to me too! One reason why I am unsure about teaching the useful lie to get across the truth, is that I see many of my white Evangelical friends (don't know if there is a similar issue going on in Black churches) rejecting their religion entirely and really having to question all their values, now that they've realized evolution is real, or the world isn't actually only 6000 years old, or gay people aren't possessed by demons.

You see, by saying that creationism or other nonsense is a core part of the Bible, their elders have set up a system that will chase them out of church the second they start to consider the actual facts. By analogy you can see how teaching Willie Lynch as fact could be a good short-term tactic but a bad long-term strategy...

The Sanity Inspector said...

There is an alternative to frauds such as the Willie Lynch letter, and it doesn't involve finding a real-life equivalent. Surely there is a powerful work of suitable fiction somewhere, or some other type of art, which could capture young people's imagination. There never was an Uncle Tom, nor a Bigger Thomas, nor a Daddy Cool, and no one is trying to trick people into thinking that there was. But the works of literature that they appear in were potent works of social criticism, which helped change public opinion for years afterwards. Great art is not to be concocted on demand, of course, but a work of fiction that profoundly resonates (without being didactic) would leave much more of an impression than an artful lie--no matter the message intended.

Learning is Eternal said...


The Sanity Inspector said...

If you want to be really disturbed read some of the agricultural journals from the U.S. during that period where blacks were discussed right along side pigs and cows.

Also read some classified ads from Southern newspapers from the early to mid 1800s. What's really jarring is not so much the For Sale ads for slaves, but the For Sale ads for other capital items, such as farms, shops, warehouses of dry goods and the like, in which slaves were accepted as payment. "Terms: Cash, or Negroes".

As someone once said, the past is a foreign country--they do things differently there.

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