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Being black in a world where white lies matter

In a world of fake news and alternative facts, fabricated fears can have serious consequences

Last week, Vanity Fair reported that the woman who in 1955 accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of sexually harassing her in a Mississippi store, leading to the black teen’s gruesome murder, fabricated her account of that day.

In his new book The Blood of Emmett Till, Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson writes that Carolyn Bryant Donham — who was married to one of the men who killed Till in 1955 — admitted in 2007 that the black teen never verbally or physically abused her. This contradicted statements she made during the slain teen’s trial where she testified that Till “grabbed her hand … clasped her waist, and … told her that he had been with white women before.”

“That part is not true,” Bryant, who was 21 at the time of the trial, told Tyson in the book.

That lie led to Till being beaten beyond recognition, shot in the head, having his eyes gouged out and a 74-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire before being thrown in the nearby Tallahatchie River. The murder — and the gruesome images of his open-casket funeral published in Jet magazine — catalyzed the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

But even a half century after Till’s murder, Donham’s lie still reverberates through the African-American community.

Just as there is an ongoing debate about the threat of radical Islam on American freedom, there’s long been the perceived threat of black masculinity to white female safety. We currently live in the world of fake news and alternative facts, but white lies have tangible consequences, which is why it’s that much more concerning when white women — like Donham — feel comfortable blaming black men for gruesome crimes.

Whether it’s a woman in Michigan falsely claiming that a group of black men kidnapped, beat and raped her; another woman claiming a black man kidnapped her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons (whom she actually killed); the infamous Amanda Knox accusing a black man of the heinous murder she was initially convicted of; or even a man claiming that black men stabbed his wife to death (whom he actually killed). In each instance, the initial story was believable because of the troubling belief that a black man is capable of such a thing.

It’s because we’ve always been told this is what black men do.

The original The Birth of a Nation — a movie that was screened at the White House — depicts the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan after a white woman chooses death over the threat of rape by a black man. In 1988, the notorious Willie Horton ad by the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign effectively ended Democrat Michael Dukakis’ candidacy, because what’s scarier than a black felon raping and stabbing an all-American white couple?

Five black and brown teenagers in New York City’s Central Park were accused of stabbing, assaulting, and raping a pretty 28-year-old white woman. Despite forced confessions from the police, the teens — dubbed the Central Park Five — were sentenced to between five-15 years in prison. President Donald Trump, then just a real estate mogul, advocated for the return of the death penalty in New York based on this case. The case reeked of the threat of black male sexuality to not only New York City, but the entire country.

Kaela Carpenter, the wife of Buffalo Bills kicker Dan Carpenter, was so threatened by Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman that she threatened on Twitter to castrate the All-Pro defensive back after his late hit on her husband. While Carpenter passed the tweet off as a joke, her comment was tied to a history of black slaves who were dismembered because of the perceived threat to white women’s safety.

In 2015, convicted murderer Dylann Roof fatally shot nine parishioners at a South Carolina church because blacks were “raping our women.” This, despite historical data finding that nearly 90 percent of rapes involve a victim and offender of the same race.

It brings to mind what Kanye West was talking about on hit song “Black Skinhead”: Enter the kingdom, But watch who you bring home/They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong/Middle America packed in, Came to see me in my black skin.

Black boys are seen as a threat to social hierarchy from the minute they are born. Black kids — even preschoolers — are suspended and expelled at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Despite being just as likely to commit a crime as white boys, black boys are more likely to be imprisoned. The threat is so severe that students in Missouri could be charged with a felony for a run-of-the-mill school fight. It’s why 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. became the youngest person in the 20th century to be executed after being convicted for the murder of two white girls in 1944. Police coerced the young boy into admitting that he wanted to have sex with one of the victims.

As trivial as it sounds, there’s a reason that black parents have long warned their sons about dating white women. This isn’t due to “reverse racism”; parents legitimately fear for their sons’ lives. Ask any black woman how she feels about the Beyonce-led film Obsessed and she’ll answer matter-of-factly that she knew that white girl was crazy.

White men, on the other hand, aren’t perceived as threatening no matter what they do, hence convicted rapist Brock Turner spending only three months in jail for assaulting an unconscious Stanford University co-ed. The judge in that case said a “prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.” Turner’s father called the rape “20 minutes of action.”

Despite evidence that he admitted to grabbing women by their genitalia and bragged about being able to get away with it, 52 percent of white women voted for Trump and his race likely played a major role. For a second, imagine former President Barack Obama even insinuating that, let alone saying it.

It’s the difference in police response to the Women’s March on Washington compared with any protest surrounding Black Lives Matter. The women — mostly white — were applauded for having zero arrests among the half-million of them, but that wasn’t so much an accomplishment as it was an expectation. No one truly expected riot gear, military tanks and tear gas for a group of pink-hatted white women. Where’s the threat in that?

Late feminist scholar Alice S. Rossi noted that “sexuality is a product of psychobiological readiness, historic conditioning, circumstance (social context), self-identity, and generalized others’ definition of self,” and that “black hypersexuality is a product of limited life prospects, failed legitimate economic mobility, an exploitive generalized other self-definition, and belief in the myth of black sexual superiority.” While black men are legitimately concerned with real-world issues such as unemployment and mass incarceration, Gov. Paul LePage of Maine is worried about “D-Money” or “Shifty” impregnating young white girls.

Black men have long been fetishized as sexual objects by white women, perhaps more so in contemporary times. Last September, Lena Dunham was accused of viewing Odell Beckham Jr. as a failed sexual partner, not as an actual human being. Madonna stuck her tongue down Drake’s throat, two decades after swapping spit with fellow rapper Big Daddy Kane. This was after the Material Girl referred to her adopted Malawian son as “#disNigga” and told SPIN magazine in 1996 that “I have never been treated more disrespectfully as a woman than by the black men that I’ve dated.”

New York Times writer Wesley Morris excellently laid out the threat of the black penis in American cinema last year: “Be careful near white people. The warning between the lines isn’t hard to spot, either: Be careful because your sexuality, to them, is hazardous.”

After speaking with Duke researcher Tyson for the book back in 2007, Donham’s whereabouts have been kept secret by her family members. The author told Vanity Fair that the case “went a long way toward ruining her life” and that Donham, someone who directly benefited from white supremacy, “thought the old system of white supremacy was wrong, though she had more or less taken it as normal at the time.”

While speaking with Tyson, Donham also accused her former husband Roy Bryant — one of Till’s murderers — of being “physically abusive to her.” Ironically, it wasn’t a black man (or boy) who was the biggest threat to her life.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"