“I pledge that I will be the president for all Americans… Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation.”
—President-elect Donald Trump, November 9, 2016
This fall semester I am teaching a new course called HIST 289: Spike Lee’s America. The course uses Spike Lee’s filmography to engage students in discussion of historical and contemporary issues of race, class, gender, and social politics in America. As fate would have it, we viewed Spike’s 1999 film Summer of Sam in class two days after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. For those of you not familiar with this particular Spike Lee joint, the film deals with the Son of Sam serial murders in New York City during the summer of 1977. David Berkowitz, aka the son of Sam, was a 24-year-old mentally disturbed white male who terrorized the city with a .44 caliber Bulldog revolver. His reign of terror resulted in six murders and seven additional wounded individuals. Berkowitz blamed his killing spree on his neighbor Sam’s demonic possessed dog, Harvey, who instructed him to kill young white women. Spike chose to tell this story by focusing on a group of fictional Italian-American friends trying to survive the summer. My students were required to read a 2008 article by Dan Flory titled “The Epistemology of Race and Black American Film Noir: Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam as Lynching Parable.” Our class discussion prompted me to write this article and to include a message for the newly elected leader of the free world.
Summer of Sam (SOS)
In the article Dan Flory argues that Spike used this film to tackle the uncomfortable subject of lynchings in American history. Unlike the majority of Spike Lee’s films, Summer of Sam consists of a predominantly Italian-American cast. The film’s main protagonists are Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Richie (Adrien Brody). Richie, an aspiring punk rock star, becomes an outcast amongst his friends once he starts wearing spiked hairstyles, blonde mohawks, and skinny jeans – before they were acceptable for men. His friends cannot understand his new look, music, or the strange English accent that he has begun using. Later in the film Richie’s friends learn that he is performing erotic shows and prostituting himself at a gay club. Vinnie remains a loyal friend to Richie for as long as possible while the others immediately turn against him. “Freak, fag, queer, pervert, and pimp” are derogatory epithets used by the other guys to define Richie. Making matters worse is the fact his friends, devout Catholics, take it upon themselves to become neighborhood watchmen in search of the Son of Sam killer. They roam the city streets applying vigilante justice and accosting anyone that looks suspicious. Richie, in the role of the figurative exotic other, becomes a prime suspect.
In the film’s climactic scene, the police arrest the real killer and bring him into the station just as the guys track down Richie and nearly beat him to death. The juxtaposition between these two events is symbolic of the lynch mob mentality. As the killer, David Berkowitz, is brought before a crowd of people standing near the police station you hear screams of “kill him” and “lynch him”. The film then flashes back to scenes of Richie being assaulted by the neighborhood watchmen. According to my interpretation of the film and Flores’s article, Richie and Berkowitz become victims of the lynch mob mentality. Berkowitz is singled out for his wrongdoings. Richie is singled out simply because he is different; he is the exotic other. Both men are viewed as threats to homeland security and public safety. In the eyes of the neighborhood watchmen, Vinny’s sexual preference is enough to equate him with a murderer. Earlier in the film a black television news reporter, John Jeffries (Spike Lee), goes to black neighborhoods in Bedford-Stuyvesant to get the “darker perspective” on the murders. A woman said, “I thank God that it is a white man who kills all those white people, because if it were a black man, there would be the biggest race riot right here in New York City.” Although her remark was meant to be funny, it spoke to a harsh reality for African-Americans in the days when some might think America was great.
Blood on the Leaves
The lynch mobs in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam pale in comparison to the mobs that terrorized African-Americans during the Nadir. Historian Rayford Logan coined the term Nadir in his 1954 book The Negro in American Life and Thought to refer to the post-Reconstruction period from 1877-1901. Logan described this period as the darkest moment in history, after the Civil War, if you were black. At that time newly freed slaves lost many of the gains made during the Reconstruction. Jim Crow and segregation, white supremacy, and racial terror were on the rise. Ironically, it was also at this time that President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882-1943. Lynch mobs were among the worst memories of the Nadir. According to historian Paula Giddings, a lynching is defined as three or more people (constituting a mob) illegally putting someone to death as a form of vigilante justice. Giddings says that lynchings date back to the American Revolution. The term originated from a relative of John Lynch, the founder of Lynchburg, Virginia. Before 1886 the majority of victims were white men. However, in the late 19th century a new social science called Social Darwinism perpetuated the myth that blacks were innately inferior to whites. Black men and women became stereotyped as the exotic other.
Social Darwinism was used to justify the oppression of black people dating back to slavery. Furthermore, this myth perpetuated the notion that blacks were incapable of handling their new liberties gained from the Union’s victory in the Civil War. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, captured the anxiety white supremacists had about black freedom and power. The film, which was Hollywood’s first full length motion picture, portrayed black men as lazy, violent thugs and rapists lusting after virtuous white women. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) were heroes in the film. The film’s box office success ignited a renaissance in the Klan throughout the 1920s. President Woodrow Wilson selected The Birth of a Nation as the first film to be screened in the White House. Wilson praised the film as one of the best historical accounts of the Civil War era.“It’s like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Wilson’s opinion of the film was a reflection of the attitudes underlying (and perhaps precipitating) the lynching phenomenon.
Lynchings were used by white supremacists who wanted to make America great again. In their eyes, America had been great until a former lawyer from Illinois got elected to the White House by promoting policies that made life better for minorities. White supremacists viewed such promises as a threat to their way of life, employment opportunities, and stake in society. Lincoln’s presidency incited this silent majority to secede from the Union leading to the Civil War. The Reconstruction, with its efforts to grant blacks citizenship, voting rights, education, and land, was a clear indication for supremacists that the country had gone to hell. In an attempt to make America great again, the Ku Klux Klan was formed. Under the banner of the cross and Christian rhetoric, the Klan vowed to defend good Christian white people against these black heathens. By the 1920s, the Klan had turned its attention to European immigrants “invading” their land. The Klan was not alone in its “Make America Great Again” campaign. During the Reconstruction groups of southern Democrats known as “redeemers” arose, dedicated to removing blacks and their northern white Republican allies from political office in the South. As we entered the Nadir, lynch mobs continued this campaign of purifying the nation from the stain of emancipation.
According to the Tuskegee Institute, 4,730 people, mostly black, were lynched from 1882 to 1951. Victims were tortured, burned alive, dragged behind vehicles, and in several cases their bodies were dismembered. Ida B. Wells, a black investigative reporter and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and The Red Record (1895), pamphlets which described many of the lynchings in the country since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Wells’ close friend Tom Moss had been lynched in Memphis, Tennessee in 1892. His death inspired her to begin investigating these lynchings throughout the South. Through her research Wells discovered that many of these victims were black men falsely accused of raping white women. The most gruesome lynching in the state of Maryland occurred just five minutes away from the university where I teach. On October 16, 1933, in Princess Anne, Maryland, Mary Denston, a 71-year-old white woman was robbed by 23-year-old black man named George Armwood and a white man named John Richardson. Ms. Denston told authorities Armwood raped her.
The police found Armwood hiding at his mother Etta’s home and immediately jailed him. For the sake of his safety he was moved nearly three hours away to a jail in Baltimore. Judge Robert Duer and the state’s attorney, John B. Robins, assured Governor Albert Ritchie that Armwood’s life would not be in danger if he was brought back to Princess Anne. They were wrong! A crowd of 2,000 whites used two 15-foot timbers as battering rams to break into the Princess Anne jail and kidnap Armwood. The local sheriff and his 23 police officers were unable to fight the mob off. The mob placed a noose around Armwood’s neck, dragged him out of the jail, stabbed him, and tied him to the back of a truck. Then they cut an ear off and removed his gold tooth. His body was taken to the town courthouse, hung from a telephone line, and set on fire. As the corpse burned mob members danced around singing “John Brown’s body” (Sherilyn Ifill, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century, 2007).
As horrific as the George Armwood execution may sound, such brutality was not uncommon in southern cities. A lynching had a festive atmosphere for the onlookers who treated it like a mass picnic. Pictures from famous lynchings show children in the audience and smiling young couples. People would take photographs of the body and cut off body parts (ears, fingers, genitalia, etc.) to keep as souvenirs. Theologian James Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, notes that it was “good Christian folk” that often participated in these mobs and condoned the lewd behavior. The NAACP unsuccessfully pushed for a national anti-lynching bill from 1909 to 1939. President Franklin Roosevelt rejected an anti-lynching bill in 1933 out of fear of alienating southern congressmen. Roosevelt’s complicit behavior demonstrated the fact that political support trumped, no pun intended, equality and human rights for all citizens. The mob violence took on a new form in the 1950s and 1960s. African-Americans began protesting and marching for jobs, equality, protection under the law, and an end to voter suppression during the Civil Rights Movement. White supremacists, not just in the South but in Boston and Chicago, responded by unifying to make America great again. They wanted to return to the good ole days prior to World War II. Examples of this new form of white terror included the beatings of the Freedom Riders, attacks on the Fisk University students conducting sit-ins in Tennessee, the murder of the three civil rights volunteers during Freedom Summer, and the beating of the Selma marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Civil disobedience in the face of terror eventually gave way to civil unrest and rioting in black communities outside of the South.
The New Nadir
A day after Donald Trump won the presidential election Lawrence Ross posted an article on The Root titled “Welcome to the New Nadir”. Trump’s victory, according to Ross, signified the beginning of possibly the worst period in race relations since the Civil War. His feelings were expressed the night preceding the election, with watch parties on black cable networks BET and TV One. The election night watching parties on both networks hosted by Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and Roland Martin, respectively, felt like funerals. Gospel legend Richard Smallwood was the morning preacher at my church the first Sunday after the election. Smallwood referred to the day after the election as the darkest day in his life since his mother died. Such sentiment is the result of Trump’s endorsement from the KKK and white nationalist groups. It also results from months of racist and xenophobic rhetoric at Trump campaign rallies across the nation. “Make America Great Again” became the rallying cry at these campaign events, which drew upwards of 30,000 people. President Bill Clinton called the slogan a racist dog whistle. “I’m actually old enough to remember the good old days, and they weren’t all that good in many ways…What it means is I’ll move you back up on the social totem pole and other people down.”
While it is unfair to cast all Trump supporters as racists, a disturbing number of people who attended those rallies conducted themselves in a manner that eerily resembled the lynch mobs of the past and the angry crowd depicted in Summer of Sam. A black University of Louisville student, Shiya Nwanguma, was pushed and shoved by Trump supporters because she attempted to protest as he spoke. The word “nigger” and other racial slurs were hurled at her as she exited the venue. A video has footage of Trump telling the crowd that in the good ole days when “they protested” they would get carried out on stretchers. Who is “they”? The rhetoric and rough treatment was not limited to people who look like me. A group of Hispanic protesters at a rally in Miami were not only kicked out, but attacked. One of the protestors was thrown to the ground. At a different rally some participants shouted “build a wall, kill them all” in reference to immigrants. Trump contributed to vitriol by labeling illegal immigrants criminals and rapists. When a man wore a t-shirt reading “F_ _k Islam” to a rally, he was asked to leave. But he was treated like a sympathetic figure by some of the other folks at the rally as he was escorted out of the venue. Hate crimes have been on the rise since Trump won the election. Three mosques in California and one in Georgia have received hate mail stating that Trump will “do to the Muslims what Adolf Hitler did to the Jews.”
Journalists across the globe have compared Trump’s victory to Brexit. The similarities between Trump’s victory and the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (or Brexit) are pretty scary. The campaign slogan used by politicians to win support for the Brexit referendum was “Take back control”. Paul Bagguley, a sociologist at the University of Leeds, cites immigration as the second biggest factor in the Brexit vote. Since 1997, the United Kingdom has welcomed double the number of immigrants as in the previous 50 years. Many of these immigrants came from South Asia and the Caribbean. Fourteen percent of the population in England and Wales consists of immigrants. Eric Kaufmann, a scholar of nationalism, said the white British population was uncomfortable with the rapid growth of immigration in their country. It was believed that by severing ties with the European Union, the United Kingdom would have more control over its borders and who is given visas. This would give British officials more control over the groups of people being allowed into their country. Bagguley says that Brexit unleashed a celebratory tone of racism that had been hidden prior to the vote. According to the British online newspaper, The Independent, 1,546 racially or religiously aggravated crimes were recorded over the two week period leading up to the vote on the referendum. UK organizations such as Stop Hate UK and Tell Mama reveal reported cases of Islamophobia increasing from 40-45 a month to 33 within 48-72 hours after the wake of the vote.
Wake Up, Mr. Trump
If I could send a message to President-elect Donald Trump, I would urge him to watch two Spike Lee films, Summer of Sam and Do the Right Thing. He should watch the former to see what happens when fear and hysteria become the norm. We end up with a society that resembles our bleakest memories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mr. Trump can learn a valuable lesson from the latter film as well. Do the Right Thing was dedicated to Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old black man accidentally hit by a car on the Belt Parkway after having been beaten by a mob of Italian-American teens. The film focused on a Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn that was divided by race and ethnic differences. On the hottest day of the summer in 1989, tension reached its boiling point after the death of a young black man named Radio Raheem, whose crime was being a big black man with a loud boombox that kept Public Enemy’s protest anthem “Fight the Power” on a continuous loop.
Radio Raheem, standing 6’4” and weighing over 200 pounds, was placed in a chokehold by two white police officers. The camera pans in on Raheem’s feet dangling in the air and his eyes rolling back in his head as the officers suffocate the life out of him. The film’s protagonist Mookie (Spike Lee) could have used his platform in the community as beloved pizza delivery man to calm down the feuding groups of Italian-Americans, blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Asian-Americans. Instead, Mookie threw a trash can into the window of the Italian-American owned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, where Raheem was killed, inciting a night long riot. Mr. Trump must choose between playing the role of unifier or agitator. As he gave his victory speech, a gracious Trump pledged to be the president of all American citizens. I certainly hope that our President-elect is not afraid to stand up to the bigots who elected him hoping that he would make America great by turning back the clock. America needs a leader who will protect the rights of all citizens. We need a leader who will not condone divisive rhetoric that will lead to lynch mob-like behavior or a riot. History and Hollywood have given us far too many examples of what happens when Americans turn against each other out of fear, misunderstanding, ignorance, or prejudice.