An explosive moment at a Wednesday debate, which spotlighted the vexed racial dynamics in the contest for the Florida governorship, became an occasion for Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee and the mayor of Tallahassee, to quote his grandmother.
“My grandmother used to say, ‘A hit dog will holler,' and it hollered through this room,” Gillum said, reacting to the defense mounted by his Republican opponent, Rep. Ron DeSantis, to the accusation of racism.
It was a roundabout way of saying what he would affirm more directly 40 seconds later.
"I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum concluded. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
Gillum blasted out his grandmother’s words, with video of his delivery, in a tweet that had drawn more than 94,000 likes by early Thursday morning.
The language comes from a 19th-century proverb implying that an offended person will make an offense known. But it took on an additional, and now more common, meaning: that hollering is not-so-subtle evidence of one’s guilt. Gillum’s grandmother appears to have passed down the expanded interpretation.
In invoking the family saying, the Democratic mayor quoted, by extension, the words of a failed lawyer and alcoholic who found God during his struggle to quit drinking and became a famous Methodist preacher in the late 19th century.
Among the first to use the “hit dog” aphorism was Samuel Porter Jones, who was best known in the South but also preached in New York and Los Angeles, and as far as Canada. In revival services, he warned that alcohol, dance, theater, dime novels and baseball were sinful. Known simply as “Sam Jones,” he was “humorous and crude, high-strung and theatrical — not at all what many people expected from a preacher,” according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
He was born in Alabama in 1847, and spent most of his life in Georgia. A drinking problem sank his law practice, as his biographer, Kathleen Minnix, documented in “Laughter in the Amen Corner: The Life of Evangelist Sam Jones.” Jones promised his father on his deathbed that he would quit drinking, and he turned to religion for support. Formal training was not then required by the South’s Methodist Episcopal Church, and so after reading books recommended to him by bishops, he joined the North Georgia Conference in 1872 and quickly widened his preaching circuit.
He relished making people squirm, according to the biography. “As he was fond of saying, it is the hit dog — or hog — that hollers,” Minnix wrote.
Early citations of the proverb — at first mostly quoted as “the hit dog always hollers” — are also evidence of the geographical reach achieved by Jones.
In 1886, the front page of the News-Herald in Hillsboro, Ohio, featured a column that recounted an insult leveled by the leader of a Tennessee singing group during a church service in southern Ohio.
“Maybe he was hitting at me; anyhow, Sam Jones says, ‘the hit dog always hollers,'" the author wrote.
The saying also appeared in “Sam Jones' Own Book: A Series of Sermons Collected and Edited Under the Author’s Own Supervision,” first published in 1887. “I sail into you on your dram-drinking, theater-going, card-playing, and dancing, and the town rises up in arms against me; but it is the hit dog that hollers, you may put that down,” he said in a sermon titled “A New Creature in Christ.”
Already in the late 19th century, the words had taken on the added significance implied by Gillum — that hollering not only testified to the offense, but also to the guilt of the person doing the hollering.
A writer in the Anderson Intelligencer, a South Carolina weekly, maintained on Dec. 3, 1891, that the newspaper had no apologies to make for controversial statements in the previous week’s edition. The paper regularly ran humorous letters.
“It seems that two or three of our little pleasantries in last week’s items have been misconstrued; but we have no apology to make, for we believe with Sam Jones that ‘tis always ‘the hit dog that hollers,’” wrote Lazy Lawrence, presumably a pseudonym.
The reference sums up the approach taken by Gillum, who would be the state’s first black governor, to questions that have been raised about his Republican opponent, who has made statements and appeared at events widely seen as stoking racial resentment.
In an Aug. 29 interview on Fox News Channel, DeSantis described Gillum as “articulate” while arguing that his policies would hurt Florida, warning, “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”
The Washington Post revealed last month that DeSantis had spoken four times at conferences hosted by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a right-wing group that described its mission in a 1998 fundraising appeal: “We combat the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values and disarm this country as it attempts to defend itself in a time of terror.” Horowitz has said that African Americans owe their freedom to white people and that whites are the victims of the country’s “only serious race war.”
As the debate moderator, Todd McDermott of WPBF, enumerated Horowitz’s statements, DeSantis became irate.
DeSantis called the line of questioning a “McCarthyite game,” while McDermott persisted, quoting Horowitz’s incendiary statements — “If blacks are oppressed in America, why isn’t there a black exodus?” — and the candidate’s approving statements. At a 2015 event, he said he was a “big admirer of an organization that shoots straight, tells the American people the truth and is standing up for the right thing.”
DeSantis, a three-term congressman, interrupted.
“How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement somebody makes?” he thundered, drawing boos from the audience at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“Here’s the deal,” he continued. “Let me just say this straight up. You know, I’ve lived my life, whether it’s athletics, whether it’s military, whether it’s serving as a prosecutor, you know, when I was downrange in Iraq we worked together as a team regardless of race. We had the American flag on our arm. We wore the same uniform, and we fought for the country.”
The crowd began to cheer as he added, “When I was a prosecutor, I stood up for victims of every race, color and creed. That’s the only way to do it in our country.” But he also pledged that he would not “bow down to the altar of political correctness.”
That’s when Gillum quoted his grandmother, suggesting that the defensive response by his opponent was a sign of his culpability.
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