On Monday night, Michelle Obama painted a picture of America’s political foundations that many still try to paper over. “I wake up every day in a house built by slaves,” she described with emotion, offering an insight into the intertwined histories of White supremacy and Black labor, which are both symbolized and made material fact in the space of the White House.
I was intrigued by the echoes between Obama’s insistent recognition of American democracy’s foundation on Black labor and one of my favorite recent memes–#Blaxit—which takes the opposite tack: imagining an America absent those bodies, labor, and culture. If it’s necessary to reassert the significance of Black American presence in our shared myths of our country’s past, it is also necessary to consider historical moments when Black people have wanted out.
#Blaxit isn’t the first time in modern history that Black Americans considered an America minus themselves. At the height on the civil rights movement in November 1965, playwright Douglas Turner Ward’s program of two one-act plays, Happy Ending and Day of Absence, was performed at the St. Mark’s Playhouse in New York City. In both plays, Ward explores the quiet resolve of Black Americans to survive by resisting in covert and overt ways, refusing to acquiesce to inequality. Described in its stage notes as a “reverse minstrel show,” Day of Absence satirically imagines Black flight as a response to white supremacy. What can we learn from writers who, rather than fight for a space at the table, instead have considered standing up and leaving altogether?
Day of Absence opens with two white men, Clem and Luke, at the moment that they realize that the entire Black community is missing from their town. Unnamed but set in the American South, the town quickly falls into slapstick-style confusion: the white community panics, causing the telephone exchange to become chaotic, as everyone attempts to report the Black Americans’ absence at once; babies cry as their helpless, Southern belle mothers are incapable of caring for them because they had grown overly-dependent on their Black nannies; and some prominent citizens who have also gone missing are revealed to be “infiltrators,” who had been passing racially (44).
The aptly named Mayor R.E. Lee, along with the town’s KKK-inspired domestic terror group—tries to wield control over the Black people’s movement. After sending a group of men in search of the disappeared, the mayor discovers that while there are Black patients at Confederate Memorial Hospital, they are all in a coma-like state, and that even Black prisoners–who Mayor Lee suggests are “the most important Nigras we got”–somehow cannot be reached (43). An on-location television announcer reports that
most critically affected of all by this complete drought of Afro-American resources are policemen and other public safety guardians denied their daily quota of Negro arrests. One officer known affectionately as ‘TWO-A-DAY-PETE’ because of his unblemished record of TWO headwhippings per day had already been carted off to the County Insane Asylum—straight-jacketed, screaming and biting, unable to withstand the shock of having his spotless slate sullied by interruption…” (45-46)
Later, the announcer interviews “a cross-section of [the] city’s most distinguished leaders,”– a Klansman, a social welfare commissioner, and a reverend—who casually espouse racialized stereotypes to explain the plights of the Black American community and their subsequent militant escape (46).
Like a sort of mid-century opportunistic Rudy Giuliani, Mayor Lee spins through multiple incoherent strategies to restore the Black presence to his town: defiance (he’s sure the South will rise again), bartering (he asks leaders to send their “incorrigible” Black populations to serve as temporary labor force in his town), and outrageously false attempts at flattering individual Black workers: he obtusely gestures towards the objects with which they cleaned and labored, and details his fondness for his mammy’s memory, “wit her round ebony moonbeam gleaming down upon me in the crib, teeth shining, blood-red bandana starched, peaked and proud, gazing down upon me affectionately as she crooned me a Southern lullaby” (53-54).
None of his attempts succeed, and the white citizens, unsettled by the sudden societal shift, go on to destroy the town during an all-night riot. The television announcer reports that the National Guard and state militia had failed to stop the violence and looting and “all the other aberrations of a town gone beserk” until the white citizens became too physically tired to continue (56). Early the next morning, the Black Americans reappear quietly, without explanation. Back at the town square, Luke concludes that things are finally back to normal, while Clem expresses uncertainty.
The power of Ward’s Day of Absence hinges on Black refusal: refusal to explain, refusal to take part. The questions that the play prompts for 1965 and 2016 are: Can white supremacy survive without the presence of that which is at once the most desired and most reviled? What would happen if we walked out the door of the houses we have built?
These aren’t meant to be truculent questions, but rather powerful extensions of the cultural satire that Ward found so valuable and contemporary writer Salamishah Tillet has described as “the perfect genre for black dissent and dissidence in the face of ongoing political invisibility and civic estrangement.” In recent weeks, responding to fantasies about “making America great again,” a cadre of Black Americans have responded in a creative, Ward-esque satirical fashion.
Larry Mitchell set-up a crowd funding page to challenge those most committed to the unofficial twenty-first century repatriation scheme to send disgruntled Black Americans back to Africa to put their “money where their hate is.” Black Twitter erupted with hilarious lists of items–many of which included under-acknowledged Black inventions and contributions to American society–that they would relocate with them upon being cast out of the country or perhaps if they ever elected to leave in a Marcus Garvey-like out-migration.
The hashtag #BLAXIT, a blend of “Black” and “exit” (an exodus in the spirit of the portmanteau Brexit) originated with Ulysses Burley, III’s “#BLAXIT: 21 Things We’re Taking with Us If We Leave,” and was continued by the wildly popular writer Luvvie Ajayi who wrote a sequel to Burley’s piece entitled “#BLAXIT: More Things We’re Taking with Us If We Leave,” to which her dedicated, multiracial readership inventively added comments.
Finally, in a turn worthy of a Douglas Turner Ward play, a week after the #BLAXIT satirical speculations began, Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) (who infamously introduced an amendment to bar the redesign of the American twenty-dollar bill to include abolitionist Harriet Tubman who in his estimation, “didn’t change the course of history”) went on a televised, calmly-spoken racist tirade that centered on the supposed intellectual supremacy of white people, and suggested that members of “subgroups” failed to contribute anything worth mentioning to Western civilization.
By the next day, King was already attempting to distance himself from his own white supremacist rhetoric, not by acknowledging the centrality of Black labor and culture to US history and present but rather by remixing the pot and leaving the dregs to people of color: in his follow-up comments he insists that though Americans of “all races” have contributed to this “superior culture,” “whites” are the majority of “Western civilization” and thus have contributed the most.
In what burlesque fashion will the other hypocrites who on the one hand shout, “all lives matter” and on the other hand, hold tightly to philosophies regarding their racial superiority, realize the unsustainability of their senseless hatred? Will they go the way of Mayor Lee’s white constituents and destroy each other with vitriol as they cling desperately to the fading old order? We eagerly await the performance.
–Michelle Commander is an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee. She is the author of Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic, which is forthcoming from Duke University Press. Follow her on Twitter: @professormdc and check out her website: michelle-commander.com