America’s suddenly rapacious appetite for theater about the slave era — whet first in 2013 by that year’s winner of the Academy Award for best picture, “12 Years A Slave,” and fed most recently by the Broadway hit “Hamilton” — will be satisfied again in October. Hollywood is scheduled to serve us “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker’s biopic of Nat Turner, the slave who led what turned out to be the deadliest slave rebellion in American history.
Turner experienced a vision that God chose him to lead enslaved Africans and their progeny to freedom. He sought to do God’s work by cutting a swath to the heavens painted with the blood of every white person he and his gang encountered after nightfall on Aug. 21, 1831. By midday the next day, Turner’s gang had slaughtered upward of 60 white people in rural Virginia. White mobs responded by killing at least 200 slaves.
Turner was eventually captured. After his execution, he was skinned.
Slavery was outlawed 34 years later, or 151 years ago. White America needn’t sweat another Nat Turner, another slave revolt.
But it still must worry about the aggrieved black man.
America witnessed him late Thursday in the form of Micah Xavier Johnson. Johnson was the black, 25-year-old former soldier who went on a murderous rampage specifically against white cops, as he admitted to police negotiators. This model of the revenge story has existed since 1900, when Robert Charles, a 35-year-old black man in New Orleans, felt so wronged by racial injustice that he went on a murderous rampage against that city’s white cops. Charles’s murders included four officers; Johnson’s counted five.
Charles and Johnson, though separated by six generations, are one and the same. Just as black slave insurrectionists like Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey were 18th- and 19th-century white America’s biggest nightmare, Charles and Johnson are that to 20th- and 21st-century white America — black men who violently sowed their disillusionment.
There were upward of 4 million Africans and their descendants enslaved in this country in the run-up to the Civil War. A century and a half later, half of black men are arrested by age 23, a study said, and they are locked behind bars at a disproportionate rate to whites, which damages their ability to continue schooling and be full participants in our society. In 2013, there were more than 1.2 million black men locked in chronic, or long-term, unemployment, according to a 2013 federal report, which noted that black men suffered unemployment at a greater rate than any other demographic group.
It was at this crowded intersection of race, societal order and emasculation that Johnson, like Charles, picked up his gun. Both men were exorcising pent-up frustration with historical and systemic injustice with horrific consequence for those nearby.
In the only book written exclusively about Charles, “Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900,” historian William Ivy Hair noted that Charles grew up as a sharecropper in Mississippi before migrating to New Orleans as a day laborer. But he pointed out that those who knew Charles described him as openly agitated by the violently repressive apartheid system of Jim Crow, under which black remnants of slavery were forced to live. Charles was known to keep himself armed with guns for which he manufactured his own ammunition.
What little we learned about Johnson the past few days is that he was a high school graduate from the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Tex., and onetime private first class in the Army Reserve.
News reports said he was a carpenter and masonry specialist who served six years until April 2015, including a tour in Afghanistan from November 2013 to July 2014. In the wake of his rampage, it was reported that his Facebook account showed he liked pages for Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, the New Black Panther Party and the Black Riders Liberation Party, all of which the Southern Poverty Law Center deemed “black separatist hate groups.” Dallas police said a search of Johnson’s home “found bomb making materials, ballistic vests, rifles, ammunition, and a personal journal of combat tactics.”
So Johnson, like Charles before him, metamorphosed into a monster, acting out in ultimate defiance against ultimate authority, white law enforcement.
After all, when Charles was found holed up in some building, police and military troops incinerated it and then riddled his body with what was reported to be 100 bullets after he appeared from the flames and smoke like some apparition. Johnson had to be stopped with a bomb.
But many white people among us don’t understand, as former House speaker Newt Gingrich admitted Friday, how it feels to watch the 136th and 135th black men killed by police this year likely because they shared your skin color: Philando Castile, 32, in Falcon Heights, Minn., on Wednesday; and Alton Sterling, 37, in Baton Rouge the day before.
They haven’t thought about what it is like to witness the deaths of black men so normalized by media — from 18th century lynching photographs, to the 1967 “Life” cover of a 12-year-old black boy in a pool of blood from a policeman’s bullet, to cellphone video of Castile and Sterling mortally wounded. It has become so common that everyone views it with all the empathy of witnessing a fender bender.
They struggle to believe that the human indignity of being seen, apparently, as only a close-range shooting target by so many of those entrusted to protect and serve, can produce such heinousness. They refuse to understand what it means to be shot by police at 2.5 times the rate of whites, as are black males, according the The Washington Post’s database.
They don’t, or maybe can’t, comprehend what it is like to know that you make up 24 percent of all deaths at the end of law enforcement’s muzzle despite being 12 percent of the population.
Instead, they’ve tried to find another reason Johnson could turn into a Charles. Maybe he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his tour in Afghanistan? Maybe he was otherwise mentally disturbed? Maybe he was radicalized?
Especially for the families of the victims of Johnson’s outburst, he understandably will be seen forever as the madman he became. But as the best-selling white author of many sports books, Peter Golenbock, noted on Facebook on Friday: “For years we have seen the pictures of senseless murders of black men and children by white policemen. Afterwards, the cops are rarely indicted and never convicted.”
Golenbock continued, before knowing Johnson was the sole shooter: “After all these years a group of blacks, tired of this and obviously military trained, started shooting back in Dallas yesterday at white cops, and now everyone is scared to death. What is surprising is that this hasn’t occurred earlier.”
What is fortunate for America is that most black people, like those in the Black Lives Matter movement who marched that dreadful Thursday in downtown Dallas, just seek a fairer shake.
Blackistone, an ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.