It was a mostly white world. In 1950, the census counted about 900 black residents out of a population of about 13,000 in Haskell County, numbers that have declined steadily. Most blacks worked as maids or field hands and lived in an across-the-tracks neighborhood in the city of Haskell, the county seat, about 20 minutes from Paint Creek.
Throckmorton County, where the hunting camp is located, was for years considered a virtual no-go zone for blacks because of old stories about the lynching of a black man there, locals said. The 1950 Census listed one black resident in Throckmorton County out of a population of about 3,600. In 1960, there were four; in 1970, two; in 1980, none. The 2010 Census shows 11 black residents.
Mae Lou Yeldell, who is black and has lived in Haskell County for 70 years, recalled a gas station refusing to sell her father fuel when he drove the family through Throckmorton in the 1950s. She said it was not uncommon in the 1950s and ’60s for whites to greet blacks with, “Morning, nigger!”
“I heard that so much it’s like a broken record,” said Yeldell, who had never heard of the hunting spot by the river.
And you wonder why black folks had to use The Green Book as a guide for safety while touring this country?
Rick Perry’s family retreat was/is named “Niggerhead.” The Washington Post’s cover story is a distraction of course from more important issues such as a failing economy, Perry’s questionable record on jobs and the environment in Texas, and a far-Right leaning Republican presidential field that would combine Ayn Rand with the Christian Taliban. But a distraction can still be instructive and productive.
For the Left and other critics, Rick Perry’s Niggerhead hunting camp is more proof that he is a racist and a bigot. For the Right, this story will be greeted as “gotcha politics” and more bias from the “mainstream media.” Lockstep, the Right-wing media will revert to form and argue that “all of this race stuff” is playing the “race card” against white people. Who cares anyway since Perry’s dad was a Democrat and he originally owned Niggerhead anyway? Predictably, there will be more spin from Conservatives and a recurring blindness to political history, i.e. Southern Democrats aka “Dixiecrats” are now the base of the Tea Party GOP.
And of course, black Republicans such as Herman Cain will be trotted out to dance on the stage while they answer questions about Rick Perry and racism.
All in all, theatrics that are par for the course of what counts as reasonable discourse in the 24 hour opinion driven news cycle.
I would suggest that Rick Perry’s Niggerhead family retreat is important in so far as formative childhood and adult experiences impact political attitudes and beliefs. Rick Perry is from the Jim and Jane Crow South and has advocated for secession. He also panders to the Tea Party with all of their “take my America” pleadings and is part of a cultural movement that possesses an almost deranged hatred for the country’s first black President. Racism and Conservatism overlap in America; the Conservative political imagination yearns for a return to the “good old days” and is blinded by a myopic White nostalgia for the past.
In all, why should anyone be surprised that there is a Niggerhead skeleton in Rick Perry’s closet? Moreover, I would bet that there are many Niggerhead skeletons in many white folks’ closets in this country.
We must also be cautious and not paint with too broad a brush, or suggest that Rick Perry is somehow unique in this regard. He is not alone in a willful denial of white supremacy and the Slaveocracy/Jim and Jane Crow/Confederacy’s hold on American popular imagination even into the 21st century.
The white racist Southern Redemptionist fantasy and lie that is Gone with the Wind is still beloved by millions of people (all those happy black folks; white people in big houses and fancy clothes; what good fun!). Lady Antebellum is an acclaimed musical group (where are the Auschwitz singers? Or the Trail of Tears emo band?). A significant percentage of Americans do not believe that the Civil War was fought over slavery and the rights of White people to hold Black people in perpetual bondage. The Whiteness of history is glaring. Rick Perry, as demonstrated by his love for Niggerhead, is just one of many Americans who are transfixed by it.
Nevertheless, Rick Perry’s Niggerhead moment is teachable history. For that reason it is important.
Rick Perry grew up in a sundown town. As James Loewen exhaustively and masterfully documents, there were thousands of these communities across the country where blacks (and in some cases Jews, Mexicans and other non-whites) were not allowed to live, journey through, or be present in after dark. These towns were often created by racial violence and the wholesale ethnic cleansing of non-whites through murder, forced exile, rape, banishment, theft, and violence.
When we wonder why some neighborhoods look the way that they do, why there are no black folks or other people of color living there, or stand vexed by the intergenerational wealth gap in the United States, part of the answer lies in American Apartheid. Sundown towns were a key part of the Racial State’s apparatus and how it structured the day to day lives of all people.
Racial terrorism was a tool of economic exploitation. Because many in White America are loathe to acknowledge the power of structures and institutions as they cling to the lie that is the myth of meritocracy, Niggerhead is a reminder of lived history in the present. Yesterday wasn’t even yesterday; it created the present terms of political, cultural, economic, and social engagement.
While some Americans have a limited knowledge of the relationship between housing segregation and the maintenance of the colorline, fewer know about sundown towns and America’s history of ethnic cleansing. This history hides in plain sight. It lives on in debates over the racialized names of rivers, towns, mountains, and other public places. It is present when real estate agents refuse to show people of color homes in certain communities. It is the ether and lifeblood of whitopia.
Ignorance of race and racism’s historic role in structuring life chances, and basic geographies such as where one lived, married, worked, and traveled, is especially common among the post-Civil Rights generation. This dynamic is especially true for Millennials who would be aghast at the reality of white supremacy as the norm for American history where their imagined multicultural moment is indeed an aberration–a very recent development–and one that works through conservative colorblindness as opposed to a deep and radical engagement with human difference, identity, justice.
Rick Perry’s Niggerhead moment will be a short-lived blip on the news radar. Niggerhead will confirm what his detractors already believe about Rick Perry. Niggerhead will encourage his supporters to circle the wagons and double down their support because their “culture” is under assault. Unfortunately, Niggerhead will be a missed opportunity. This could be a teachable moment where White Americans could choose to look in the mirror and see the collective ugliness looking back at them. Whiteness, for most people in America, and indeed the world, was the face of terror. It was ugly and not beautiful.
Folks of all colors should know their shared history; instead it is easier to look away, make up fun fictions, and tell yourself easy lies and platitudes about “post-racial” America.
Remember folks, there is a little Niggerhead in all of us…for some like Rick Perry, a good deal more than others.