Secrets

Diane Harriford and Becky Thompson

Diane Harriford

Becky Thompson

In a recent conversation about the intricacies of the landmark Civil Rights case involving the 1964 murders of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekian Dee, Margaret Burnham asked what segregation means given that Henry Dee lived in the same neighborhood as one of the murderers? She asked: “What is the sociology of the proximate relations among victim and perpetrator, how do we make sense of the fact that victim and perpetrator—black and white—lived in the same neighborhood in the deeply segregated South? What does it mean to be ‘deeply segregated’ if blacks and whites in some sense lived together?” As two public sociologists intrigued by her question, we set off to clarify how a visible and codified segregation has long obscured a private, twisted intimacy that has existed among black and white people. This case illuminates why Moore and Dee became so threatening to the white establishment and how the settlement of this case enables the possibility of another layer of healing—one that uncovers secrets at the root of patriarchy and racism.

The common notion about the South is that segregation created two separate and unequal societies historically. That is true. The law kept people from each other—separate houses, schools, churches, restaurants, juke joints—to maintain the racial caste system. Existing along side of that, however, was a familiarity and a sense of connectedness that was created by complicated and emotionally intense relationships, a reality at the root of much white instigated violence. We know that historically, the plantation system of the South was the place of a troubled and twisted intimacy.  It was possible for everyone on plantations to know that people assigned different races had the same fathers. In fact, many of these people would play together as children and then, as adults, enter separate spheres. The very same black women entrusted to take care of white children were the ones susceptible to systematic rape and terror at the hands of white men. The white children who grew up trusting Black women to take care of their little and big worries were the same people taught they were superior to these women.

The South’s secrets are tied up in the link between patriarchy and racism, how they sidle up to each other. One of the underpinnings of the patriarchal family is the male claiming of his kin. Patriarchal power rests of a man’s claiming of as many children as possible. This is the story of harems, of Mormon polygamy, of-out-of wedlock children that the man still counts as his. Under slavery, we have centuries of children who have white fathers, mixed-race brothers and sisters, who have not been consciously acknowledged. Of course, what is not made conscious goes underground, coming out in violent and confused ways.

The twisted reality of the South is that white men had children that they sometimes lived with, sometimes disowned, sold, or never saw again—typically acting as they were not their own. Strom Thurman is a chilling example of someone who spent almost his whole life vehemently supporting segregation while sending his black daughter to college. Patriarchy is based on men being able to count the production from their sperm, to count the product created from each conception. Racism, as substantiated in laws, customs, religion, and everyday behavior, makes it so that men cannot count the black people. This, in fact is the rub, the source of the violence as the rules of patriarchy rub up against the mandates of racism, resulting in all manner of unclaimed relations—between father and child, sister and brother, mother and son.

We can only imagine the sense of loss that came from the tearing of bonds as well as the desire on the part of white people to disown their connection to blackness. James Baldwin has said that white people are blacker than they know and that they seem to long for black people. Whiteness is a myth, as is the notion of purity. According to Toni Morrison, in many novels written by white people, there are black people in the background, a haunting, yearning for the black person to come back, to be reunited. She writes,“Images of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious  and forgiving, fearful and desirable—all of the self-contradictory features of the self.  Whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable.”1

Race-consciousness enables white people to see that white culture is very tied to black people. It is evidenced in the accents and the jazz, the manners and the humor, the swagger and the sway, the preaching and the food. Northerners who travel south and listen to white and black people talk often say that southerners sound like they are from the same family. Consciously, white people have to keep black people away from them. Unconsciously, they want black people back—their sisters, their nannies, their playmates. They want the family back.  They want their kin back.

Within this context, lynching becomes a pathological way of bringing the body parts back, no longer threatening, dead but now close at hand, close enough to be witnessed, close enough to touch, see, witness. Keeping the dead around is a way to keep people around. The showcasing of body parts in store windows, the publicizing of body parts on post cards, the calling for whole communities to witness the butchering of body parts keeps the black body close. Even if black people are dead, that doesn’t mean they move out of the family. But the connection is no longer dangerous.

Dealing with the psychic pathology underlying lynching requires talking about the broken family that racism reveals. When the Nation of Islam announced that black people need to take new names, that was akin to symbolically leaving the family, a possibility that is very threatening to white people who know they are inextricably linked, who consciously can’t say that black people are family members but who know they are.2 When Henry Dee traveled north (to Chicago) and came back looking different (wearing a bandana on his head), he was threatening to leave the family, he was threatening to take on a new name, to look and smell and act different than he had before. In the twisted white psyche, he had to be killed; it is better to kill him than lose him entirely, to keep his bones close, to submerge him in water where he could be visited, witnessed for a long time, perhaps generations. This is the ugly truth about domestic violence as well—a man who knows and supposedly cares deeply about his wife, his lover, would rather kill the woman he loves than to let her be with someone else, to let her leave. In death, their spirits will never be lost, will always haunt, be a presence, keep company.

The twisted intimacy we are talking about tells us something about what it means to live in a society frequented by racialized and sexualized secrets. According to sociologist Georg Simmel, there are parallel societies—one that is available for everyone to see, and one that is only seen by those inside the secret society. They have to keep those secrets away from everyone else. When black and white people remained living together in the South after the end of slavery, they stayed amidst those secrets, rituals, and customs, many of which those who are not from the South cannot see.

While the public understands the South historically as deeply segregated in reality, the lines have been much more blurred.3 When Henry Dee traveled north, he ran the risk of giving up the secrets, a call that was threatening to the Klan, a keeper of the secrets. In this case, the sheriff and the deputy went to their graves with a secret—that they had searched the church for possible guns, had known that Edwards and Seale had learned about this “tip” from young black men they had been torturing, and that, regardless of whether the guns were found or not, the young men’s fates had been sealed. This was the secret that Edwards finally testified to—with the promise of immunity—more than forty years later, the secret that, in fact, cracked open the case. The documentary research that Thomas Moore (Charles Moore’s brother) worked on laid groundwork for this testimony, linking the Klan to the holder of secrets in cahoots with the local law enforcement. The fifteen law students and Margaret Burnham who worked for two and a half years with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project to solve this case took on many of the secrets.

The Klan is the most visible secret society in this mix, but other institutions and cultural practices reinforce these secrets as well. The twisted intimacy can be seen and felt in the forty plus years that the members of the Dee family, the Moore family, the sheriff’s family, and the Seale family, remained in the South. When Edwards moved himself and his family out of that community the day after the murders, he moved based on a worry that the secret might not be kept. But it was still there, living in the Mississippi River, in the Homochitto National Forest, in the church where the KKK and law enforcement rummaged for guns.  And it lived on in the faces and bodies of those whose young men would never get to have the full lives they deserved.

The most visible reminder of this secret could be seen on a hand made sign posted in front of an ice cream stand, cold solace on these still hot days when about two dozen cold cases from the Civil Rights era still remain to be solved.

Given the twisted intimacies at the root of white violence, we find ourselves asking, what does it do to name and convict the killers 40 plus years later? What are the benefits of solving these cold cases? Does such resolution present the possibility of untwisting some knots? What does it mean to remove the murderers from the community when so many others knew of the murders at the time and have been living side by side with this knowledge? Clearly the legal settlement is only one step in remedying the trauma caused by these acts of violence.

One lesson we know from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is that finding a witness can be a huge step toward healing. Solving the Civil Rights cold cases in the US is a big step in confronting and letting go of the secrets that continue to unconsciously bind people to each other.   When an outside body is allowed to be a witness, those who have long carried the memories in their bodies, in their psyches, in their unconscious have a chance to let them go, to release them. This allows us to begin the process of creating an intimacy built on equality and recognition, rather than on destruction and psychic annihilation. This is the promise, the hope.

Further reading:

Alexander, Jeffrey. et. al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004).

Baldwin, James.  The Price of the Ticket (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985).

Caruth, Cathy. Trauma: Exploration in Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995).

Cole. Catherine. Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Stages of Transition (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009).

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin, 1989).

Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox (New York: Knopf, 2004).

Eyerman,Ron.  Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Felman, Shoshona and Dori Laub. Eds. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Giesen, Bernhard. Triumph and Trauma (New York: Paradigm, 2004).

Gobodo-Madikizela. Pumla. A Human Being Died that Night:  A South African Story of Forgiveness (NY: Houghton Mifflin. 2003).

Hale. Grace Elizabeth. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South,
1890-1940 (New York: Vintage, 1999).

hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1999).

Jones. J. Linwood. Justice in the Raw: A story about Racism and Vengeance in the South(New York: Publish America, 2000).

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).

Roediger, David, ed. Black on White (New York: Schoken Books, 1999).
Schultz, Mark. The Rural Face of White Supremacy (Champaign: University of Illinois, 2006).

Simmel, Georg. “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies” The American Journal of Sociology 11, 4 (January 1906), 441-198.

Sommerville, Diane Miller. Rape and Race in the Nineteenth Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

About the authors: Diane Harriford is Professor of Sociology at Vassar College and co-author, with Becky Thompson of When the Center is on Fire: Passionate Social Theory for our Times (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008). Becky Thompson is Professor of Sociology and author/editor of several books including A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) and Fingernails across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora (co-edited with Randall Horton and Michael Hunter, Third World Press, 2007).  Diane and Becky write a regular blog on international feminism and human rights issues for Ms. Magazine.  For more info see: tonkathompson.wordpress.com.