When I got home, I read about the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a teenage boy in Mississippi, in our 1981 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia. The one or two paragraphs said they tied an industrial fan to his neck with barbed wire and threw his 14-year-old body in a river for whistling at a white woman. The article mentioned the picture of Till’s open casket as one of the sparks that ignited the fire of the civil rights movement, but I still did not understand the joke.
The next morning, I bicycled to the library at Essex County College in Newark to find the picture of Till’s mangled face.
I did not whistle for more than 20 years.
If I close my eyes, I can still picture the layout of the Jet magazine microfiche page showing Till’s bloated, disfigured face. I can see the top left corner of the page where he smiled standing next to his mother, Mamie. I can see the man standing next to the fan as I felt my whistling prowess whoosh out of my body like the current of the Tallahatchie River that coughed up Till’s body.
I did not realize that my brain was making space for a more valuable lesson that I was reminded of when I first saw the video of Amy Cooper calling 911 on Christian Cooper, a black man who simply requested that Amy Cooper leash her dog, as is required by the rules that govern Central Park. The video showed Amy Cooper responding to Christian Cooper’s request by informing him that she planned to call the police and “tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” which she promptly did.
Amy Cooper’s actions sparked an understandable firestorm of backlash on social media. The potential harm that Amy Cooper’s white-caller crime posed to Christian Cooper’s life became clear when a video of Minneapolis police officers kneeling on George Floyd’s neck before he died circulated across the Internet.
But Amy Cooper’s act of violence was noteworthy only in that it was caught on tape. I was lucky enough to learn it in a community college library, unlike the 100 or more black people massacred in Ellenton, S.C., when Lucy Foreman Harley claimed she was attacked by two black men in 1876; or how a white girl’s screams sparked the 1921 Tulsa massacre.
Black men have heard the stories of how white men attacked, tortured and lynched every black resident they could find after a white woman’s fabricated claims in the 1923 Rosewood massacre. We bear the scars of Joe Coe’s lynching after a 5-year-old said he raped her. And the Scottsboro boys in 1931. And Breana Rachelle Harmon. And Nikki Yovino. And Sarah Braasch. And Patricia Ripley.
And probably tomorrow … And next week … And next year.
The menace of whiteness is an always-present stalker of black children waiting for them to forget the slightest of these life-preserving teachable moments. Like most black parents, I have handed down these lessons to my children. I have coached them on how to announce their intentions to move before reaching for a driver’s license in the presence of a police officer. I have lectured them on how to present themselves as nonthreatening when in a parking lot or elevator.
All of these lessons are centered on how to make white people feel comfortable, why their existence often makes white people feel uncomfortable, and why they must learn these lessons or die.
And sometimes, the “or” is replaced by “and.”
These are remnants of a country whose economic and political structures were built, in part, on the disposability of black lives and the premise that black people are inferior. It is illogical to believe that this country automatically turned its 350-year institutional-racism trajectory when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and rained equality on everyone. And, while white women were never allowed to control the driver’s wheel, their privilege has historically manifested itself in their ability to weaponize the hate, violence and death that America has held toward black people.
How white women wield the whip of white supremacy is a pedestrian intergenerational lesson passed down to black boys long before the existence of Twitter, Facebook, Essex County College or the Dewey Decimal System. We learn it one way or the other, and — for Till and countless others — it is the last lesson they will absorb before they are struck by racism’s deathblow.
Amy Cooper is only guilty of being caught on camera and making the subtext the text. As fragile as they may be, white women know that even the shards of their shattered privilege are still sharp enough to slit our throats. They don’t even have to scream bloody murder.
Sometimes, a dog whistle will suffice.