I’ll confess that I’ve enjoyed reading about Rachel Dolezal’s fall from grace. It has all the elements of great farce: hubris, disguises, lies, imposters, and absurdity. Unfortunately it also undermines the true narrative of American race relations, which is not always kind. Wednesday’s ghastly shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. makes it clear that racial violence remains part of our heritage.
I usually illustrate my posts with three or four images. Today I’m using just one. It’s a picture taken by my dad when he was stationed in San Antonio, Texas, during WWII. I am going to repeat his story as he told it to me. He’s dead now, and I can’t verify it, but the picture speaks for itself.
Dad washed out as a pilot for the United States Army Air Forces. He was given the job of photographer, which probably made him happier, since he loved taking pictures and hated heights. As a northern boy in Texas for the first time, he enthusiastically visited a rodeo. He brought his Army-issued 4×5 Speed Graphic camera with him.
The black man in the picture was drunk and disorderly and tried to enter the white section of the stands. He was shot dead. The boots are those of the local lawman, who is standing over the corpse flicking cigarette ash into its face. I can’t remember if the lawman was the shooter or not, but from the photo it’s safe to assume that he didn’t have much sympathy for the deceased.
Dad shot a whole series of pictures as the event unfolded. He went back to base and developed the negatives. While he was in the darkroom, the Military Police showed up and confiscated his negatives and prints. They cautioned him to never talk about the event, which he didn’t, except with his family, years later.
They missed this one negative because it was in the enlarger. Although he’d told us about it many times, Dad never developed that picture. I found it years later while puttering in his darkroom. When I printed this copy he was upset with me. He was not supposed to speak about it publicly, and he took that responsibility seriously.
Dad’s dead now, and I think it’s safe to assume that nobody from Homeland Security is going to track me down and demand the photo back.
Rachel Dolezal may be a clown, but that doesn’t undo the reality that some white Americans have a hostile, abusive relationship with our black brethren. That our own ancestors were not KKK members doesn’t negate the fact that others’ ancestors were. That we are not all racists today is patently obvious, but that some of us are, or once were, is also true.
We can laugh at Rachel Dolezal’s foibles, but we need to remember the truth, too. If we ignore it, farce has the potential to explode into tragedy, as it did on Wednesday.
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