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I never met him, but I remember my grandmother telling stories of how he would sometimes take cross-country trips. On many of these trips, he might find himself in a town he didn’t know, and he’d have to find lodging before dark, because ― well, he might be in a sundown town.
In sundown towns, Black folks were relatively free to roam during the day. But once the sun went down, they were liable to be arrested, beaten and sometimes killed, simply because of the color of their skin. The Oklahoma town where I now live used to be one such place. Sometimes, the founders and leaders of sundown towns would try to rationalize their treatment of people by talking about the menace of crime that followed Black folks. But really, it was just a way to keep people who looked like me in their place.
Story has it that one night my grandfather found himself in one of these towns. He had to keep driving for hours until he found a place that would let him stay overnight. He never ran into a police officer, thankfully. If he had, he could have been arrested or killed. That’s the kind of danger that Black people in the American South have historically had to contend with ― and this treatment did not stop with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s.
There were the overt acts of violence, the lynchings and race massacres, that America is only now coming to terms with. But for American people whose skin was kissed by the sun, there have always been other forms of violence as well.
There was the sexual violence visited upon Black women that happened so much more often than it was reported. There was the economic violence that pushed Black kids into underfunded and understaffed schools ― and then people wondered why the educational outcomes for those kids were so poor, when in reality, those in power had set the conditions that made it inevitable. But the most pervasive form of violence in the South was what I like to call silent viciousness. Let me explain.
My mother was born into a segregated community in southeast Oklahoma. When I was in my middle school years, my mother was in graduate school, and every summer, she sent me to stay with my grandmother, who still lived in that community, so she could study. My cousins and I would run wild in the country those summers, but every time a white person would visit my grandmother’s house, we would have to be quiet and, as my grandmother would say, “act like we had some sense.” If ever we were in a store and came across white people, even ones we did not know, we had to call them “Mr.” or “Miss.” Noticing that we didn’t extend the same courtesy to Black folks, I once asked my grandmother why we had to do that.
There are many ways the American South communicates to Black folks that we are only tolerated, not welcomed. The Confederate monuments, for example: You cannot go to a single Southern state without finding either a monument to a Confederate soldier or a street or building named after a Confederate leader. It might feel, to some, like the Black Lives Matter movement destroyed all traces of America’s Confederate legacy, but that just isn’t true. While the Black uprising helped to bring down or rename some 73 Confederate monuments, more than 700 others remain.
Despite all this, Black people in the South were still expected to treat white people with deference, and most Black folks quietly went along. Those who rebelled against this order often became frustrated and left the South, or were labeled as troublemakers. This state of affairs continues to this day in certain small Southern towns. And while this culture of intimidation is not violent on its face, it is supported by the threat of violence indirectly. Black people know that if things are upset too much, if they speak out too loudly, physical violence is not far behind. And that fear of physical violence becomes, itself, another, more insidious form of violence. It leads to altered behavior and second-guessing, a constant sour taste in the back of one’s throat. Knowing that at any moment someone can weaponize their whiteness and self-deputize in order to police Black behavior ― that is violence.
In the 1980s, a Black man (whose name I won’t use here, so as not to endanger him anew) became frustrated with the silent viciousness that clouded his life. In Harris, Oklahoma, he refused to call white folks “sir” and “ma’am.” He refused to give white folks the right of way on the road. He refused to water down his words with self-deprecation when addressing them. He was a local basketball star, but he still was beaten to a pulp one summer night because white folks found him too uppity. This silent viciousness is real, and there are ramifications if one steps out of line too far.
This content was originally published here.