Blogger Chauncey DeVega of “We Are Respectable Negroes” was recently inspired by an episode of HBO’s dramatic series Boardwalk Empire to write about “black revenge fantasies,”1Â stories that depict blacks violently striking back against white racists, most of which are probably too fictively inflected to be considered literal accounts of actual events. Boardwalk Empire takes place during Prohibition, andÂ the episode “Anastasia,” features a subplot in which a black bootlegger named Chalky2 tortures the Grand Cyclops of the Atlantic City branch of the Ku Klux Klan, who is suspected of coordinating a lynching of one of Chalky’s associates. Although the bloody retribution —which DeVega describes as an indulgence in “a dark dream” and “an Inglorious Bastards moment” of “providential justice”—Â is implied and not seen, the gravity of the scenario is established by Chalky’s pre-torture speech, in which he recounts his father’s lynching a generation prior in Texas by whites seemingly threatened by the pride he derived and the respect commanded as a skilled carpenter.
The story in the speech is beautifully written and chillingly related. We learn that Chalky’s father was commissioned to construct bookcases for the mansion of one of the town’s richest men. After succeeding too well in the eyes of racists averse to admiring or even respecting a black man’s deserved reputation as a master of a trade, he was subsequently lured to his death with the promise of a bigger and better project. Chalky recounts that upon completion of the arduous task, he and his father were permitted to enter the rich man’s home through the front door to view the library. His younger self, almost entirely circumscribed by the legally enforced racist codes of conduct that savagely governed every aspect of life in the Jim Crow era South, is mesmerized by the intricacy and craftsmanship of his father’s work.
I cannot sufficiently stress the virtuosity of Michael K.Williams’s performance. At first, Chalky’s face registers a lifetime of grief and anger that is suppressed from full expression with great effort so as to prevent the Klansman from glimpsing into an emotional state Â that he will undoubtedly interpret as a sign of vulnerable primitiveness. When Chalky describes the bookcases as sophisticated, beautiful objects, his coolly vicious glare slackens to allow the memory of epiphanic joy to stream through. Upon viewing the bookcases, the young Chalky is presented with incontrovertible proof that the doctrine of white supremacy is based on easily refuted lies. His father’s lynching comes to represent not only the emotional trauma of losing a loved one to violence, but also the larger collective trauma of having one’s humanity, one’s capacity for civility and creativity, one’s very presence in history excised and crushed into nothingness.
The bookcases represent the procurement of Â a sense of self-worth through disciplined labor and creative vision —things most African-Americans of the time could only experience under the auspices of racist institutions and social settings— but they also represent a link to the literary canon and the historical record, the sphere of cultural legitimacy. If the young Chalky was able to see something of himself in the expert contours of his father’s carpentry, then he could undoubtedly visualize himself succeeding in larger arenas. He could for instance, imagine himself writing books that might occupy those shelves or performing acts of greatness that historians could not easily ignore. A door to a universe of new possibilities was flung open through honest work and promptly slammed shut by a brutal mob that on some level must have recognized the bookcases as a symbolically significant threat to the existing social order.
The particulars of Chalky’s story are the tools by which he devises and inflicts a psychologically damaging punishment on the captive Klansman, before he even gets to the business of physical torture. The act of constructing and delivering the story —which could very well be heavily embellished or even made up— is the true revenge. By the time that Chalky unveils his father’s ancient tool set, the Klansman cannot feasibly excuse the barbarism of lynching. Chalky’s father’s was not an unmannered brute accused of rape, theft, or trespassing. Only a paradoxically irrational adherence to the brittle fantasy of white superiority — which claims, among other things, that it is non-whites that are prone to irrational bouts of violence— could possibly justify the killing. Chalky’s story suggests that white supremacy dehumanizes whites along with blacks; when faced with the fact of his complicity in the larger rotten endeavor of racism, the Klansman has no choice but to accept his role as a scapegoat for personal and collective beefs.3
As in real life, the physical torture does not result in the extraction of useful information. It turns out that the Klansman was probably not responsible for the lynching of Chalky’s friend. To a modern audience, Chalky’s act of torture might have seemed indefensible or at least hugely problematic if his speech had not articulated that the stakes were higher than any personal vendetta.Â In the wake of highly publicized acts of police corruption and brutality, wrongful prosecutions and executions, the profiling and arrest of blacks for crimes of suspicion, the mass incarceration of poor blacks for drug crimes, and the illegal detaining and torturous interrogation of terror suspects, many viewers might hesitate before cheering on Chalky’s Inglorious Basterds moment. One might wonder what kind of progress is being made if the oppressed engage in a simple reversal of their usual interaction with their oppressors.Â But even though the speech precedes a brutal act itÂ has a civil, even quasi-scholarly purpose: it is the means by which Chalky writes his father, himself, and the black collective into the bookcases, into the historical record.
For this revision of official history to happen, it must be acknowledged that the lynching of Chalky’s father is worth avenging because the conditions that allowed it to occur still prevail a generation later, at a time when ethnic whites and white women are beginning to make strides towards full equality before the law (and by extension, full whiteness in a cultural sense), as DeVega notes. The speech announces the injustice, places it in a specific time frame, then connects it to more recent injustices, simultaneously giving up the ghost while permanently etching the atrocity into history. The lynching becomes a symbolically powerful story to evoke, an atemporal cathartic fable,Â but it also remains a traumatic incident that must be rectified in the present. After an adulthood of criminal behavior that is quite possibly rooted in the destruction of his childhood dreams of achieving legitimized greatness, Chalky gets the opportunity to right a wrong, verbally. The words cut, in a way, but they also claim a precious inch of moral high ground for the oppressed.
It is this kind historically conscious verbal revenge that rappers have often aspired to inflict upon the institutions that they feel are stained with the legacy of centuries of anti-black racism.Â This verbal revenge impulse is present in numerous rap songs performed by aesthetically and ideologically disparate artists; the extent to which any given song succeeds in enacting a revenge similar to Chalky’s speech varies. The main difference between Chalky’s speech and most rap songs that describe a revenge impulse is that the rap songs tend to view past incidents of racism as rhetorical talking points. Chalky’s speech closes the temporal rift between his friend’s lynching and his father’s lynching and is energized by the pain and anger that stems from both; they are treated as the same crime. Songs like Ice Cube’s “I Wanna Kill Sam,”4Â on the other hand, assume that listeners will be outraged when they realize that educational inequities/police brutality/shady record contracts, etc. are the vestiges of an anachronistic world view. The linkage is far more detached.5
In such rap songs, past incidents of suffering in and of themselves are not usually meant to inspire anger or any other form of emotional connection to the suffering of the people who went through these tribulations, even though a nominal kinship is typically stressed. It is assumed that black people are already written into a legitimate historical record. Even Ras Kass’ searing paraphrase of a text by Elijah Muhammad that graphically describes Â the intimidation tactics of slave traders in the West Indies on his song “Nature Of The Threat” is intended to elicit outrage at deplorable conditions of the very recent past.Â As is the case with most anti-establishment rap songs, Ice Cube’s “Uncle Sam” is a catch-all bogeyman that represents every white colonizer, slaveowner, president, congressman, and war hero rolled into one destructive colonizing force. This allegorical simplification makes perfect sense in the context of Â Death Certificate, which is so heavily concerned with the bind of dual consciousness across historical periods that it requires an atemporal representative archenemy to act as a foil to Ice Cube’s righteously indignant narrator.
Uncle Sam proves to be both easy to caricature and difficult to pin down; Ice Cube’s narrator wonders if he can be found “in Watts, Oakland, Philly, or Brooklyn” and notes that “It seems like he got the whole country behind him.” The “ultimate drive by” seems quite difficult to pull off.Â Just how difficult is made clear in the second verse, where it is decided that the beef spans across centuries, prior to even the founding of the United States. Slavery and its attendant atrocities are blamed for the perpetuity of ghetto misery. More importantly, the physical violence of slavery is identified as a fact that agitates Ice Cube’s narrator, who “to this day” is filled with homicidal rage. Unlike Chalky’s anger however, this rage is not directed at a specific incident nor is it incited by the retelling of family folklore and localized alternative historical narratives. Ice Cube skips the process whereby such tragedies are granted the symbolic power to serve as the justification for a revenge act that carries implications for the greater collective.
Rap songs that deal with the middle passage, slavery, Jim Crow, or lynching tend to take for granted the right to condemn contemporary racists for the sins of their fathers. Chalky’s revenge opportunity is incidental, so he takes that opportunity to punish a racist in the figurative sense, knowing that it is a more powerfully subversive gesture than physical violence. Rappers recognize the force of their words but often presume that their constitutional rights and their record contracts guarantee them a permanent venue to air their grievances.Â Interestingly, many rap songs that conflate recent racism with its historical antecedents, including “I Wanna Kill Sam” characterize the record industry or even specific record labels as the modern equivalents of slave ships or plantations. Ice Cube’s cousin makes the connection on “Del’s Nightmare” and the Gravediggaz based their first album on the idea that the record industry is something of an exploitative macabre freak show that can be legitimately compared to the system of chattel slavery.6
Most rap songs of this type, however, make fleeting references to past injustices to dramatize their response to current ones. The horrors of the middle passage, slavery, the aftermath of Reconstruction, and Jim Crow are invoked to draw attention away from their existence as historical realities and highlight their current usefulness as rhetorical devices.Â There are rap songs that empathize more directly with blacks who lived and suffered prior to the Civil Rights movement, but those songs are for the most part uninterested in exploring the emotions and ideologies that are funneled into a revenge impulse, let alone describing violent revenge through rhyme.7 For all of the genre’s rhetorical bluster, revenge fantasies are actually few and far between. Defari’s “These Dreams”8 bucks the norm and comes closer to being a full-fledged Inglorious Basterds moment than most rap songs: Â the narrator sketches out plans to arm slaves and coax them into rebellion, even going so far as to fantasize about supplying a traumatized concubine with an M-16 and instucting her to seduce and then kill her master.
Defari’s narrator insists that his ritualized daydreams form a direct bond to his ancestors’ suffering. He makes the suggestion that his modern predicament bears a certain similarity to the past, but spends the majority of the song’s two verses plotting out an insurrection. He laments the fact that his time travels are merely imaginative rituals but finds some measure of solace in their utterance, making verbal revenge an act that collapses the perceived gulf between the past and present. Project Blowed affiliate Ganjah K’s narrator on “Time Warp”10 is even more invested in the concept of atemporal revenge.
Over an eerie Nonce produced track which slows Steve Miller’s famous lyric “time keeps on slippin'” to an uncanny crawl for part of the chorus, Ganjah K gleefully describes hunting down and killing Columbus, the Pilgrims, slavemasters and even “house negroes” are targeted and killed with modern automatic assault weapons. The narrator claims to be “lost in time” but he knowingly and systematically marches through history, knocking down all barriers between himself and his people’s historical situation, his revolution spilling out in all directions. Amidst the verbal carnage, moments of levity bring to mind the “Time Haters” episode of Chapelle’s Show, in which time travelling “player hater” Silky Johnston shoots a slavemaster after deciding that “now-ish” is the right time for slaves to be freed. —Thun
- “Black Revenge Stories, White Manhood, and Historical Memory: Boardwalk Empire‘s Episode “Anastasia” Reviewed.” [↩]
- Played by Michael Kenneth Williams, best known for his role as Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire. [↩]
- This also places the Klansman squarely in a space familiar to blacks throughout most eras of American history: standing accused of a crime and suffering the consequences because his innocence is considered immaterial by those in possession of authority. [↩]
- “I Wanna Kill Sam” appears on Ice Cube’s sophomore solo album, Death Certificate. [↩]
- This is understandable given that Chalky is only separated from his father’s lynching by a generation. [↩]
- On their second album, they go back to talking about the historical realities of slavery on “The Night The Earth Cried.” [↩]
- I compiled a bunch of these songs and wrote about them in this post from two years ago. [↩]
- “These Dreams” is from Defari’s album Focused Daily. [↩]
- Props to Odnet for pointing my attention to this song. [↩]
- “Time Warp” is from Ganjah K’s unreleased album Harvest For The World. [↩]
- I was made aware of this song by alienationradio.net. [↩]