Nations have a sort of psyche, and, as with the psyches of the individual people who make up these nations, the fears and beliefs formed in a nation’s youth have both a stubbornness and an invisibility that make them powerful sources of behavior. When Dylann Roof allegedly chose to open fire on a group of unarmed congregants on June 17 in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., he was choosing — knowingly or not — a date and a location that played a profound role in forming our nation’s young psyche, giving rise to fears that have become persistent cultural themes, and which may have fueled Roof’s apparent racism
One-hundred and ninety-four years and one day before Dylann Roof’s attack — June 18, 1821 — was the date Denmark Vesey had chosen for his army of freemen and slaves to rise up and take the city of Charleston, by force. The plot was hatched almost entirely within the community of Charleston’s AME church, the very site of Wednesday’s shooting, of which Vesey was a founding member.
Vesey’s plot never came to fruition. The only massacre was of 35 of the city’s free and skilled blacks, who were hanged along with Vesey. But the revelation of Vesey’s intricately planned uprising helped to vivify the terrifying specter of black revolt that came to dominate white Americans’ nightmares during the Haitian Revolution of 1791.
Slaves had risen up in the United States before the Haitian Revolution. Slaves had risen up in the colonies before they were states. But it was the Haitian Revolution of 1791 that struck the most profound terror into our young nation’s psyche. To men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who were still trying to turn their experiment in democracy into a lasting, stable nation, the model of a successful slave rebellion only hundreds of miles off their shore was an existential threat on every level.
In fact, the model of a nation forged by slaves-turned-soldiers, who had fought off not only their masters but the full force of the French army, was so frightening to the Southern Founding Fathers that Jefferson’s son-in-law, Virginia lawmaker John W. Eppes, called on Congress to pledge “the Treasury of the United States, that the Negro government should be destroyed” lest its example incite the “immediate and horrible destruction on the fairest portion of America.” And President Jefferson himself made good on his son-in-law’s word by pushing through passage of the Logan Bill of 1807, forbidding any trade with what Jefferson elsewhere called “the usurped government of that unfortunate island,” and greatly contributing to Haiti’s lasting legacy of poverty.
Eppes and Jefferson weren’t wrong to view the Haitian Revolution as a threatening example of black heroism and self-determination. Vesey was himself deeply inspired by the model of the Haitian Revolution. Friends reported that he often read aloud from newspaper accounts of Haiti, and his goal had never been to end slavery in the United States, but rather to bring his followers to Haiti and “live in freedom among [Haitian General] Toussaint [L’Ouverture]’s descendants.”
Three years after Vesey’s uprising was thwarted, the South Carolina legislature reminded its citizens that the slave quarters might still “raise up a Toussaint or a Spartacus against us.” And, they added, “Let it never be forgotten that our Negroes are truly the Jacobins of our country, the barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.”
This warning never has been forgotten by white America.
So long as slavery was still the law of the land, it would have been impossible for whites to forget that the very people who cooked their meals, cared for their children, and tended the fires in their bedrooms might reasonably bear them ill will. And should any slave owners have wanted to forget, there were periodic rumors of uprising to remind them. After Nat Turner’s revolt of 1831, which resulted in the death of 55 to 65 white people in Southampton County, Va., and many more blacks, the Virginia legislature made it illegal for a black man to even preach without a white man present to monitor what sort of hope he was spreading.
Emotional patterns and beliefs formed in early childhood are notoriously persistent, even when they prove maladaptive in one’s current circumstances. None are more so than those that form in response to an existential terror.
If the same were true of our national psyche, we would expect to find persistent national beliefs and attitudes that are irrational when considered under current conditions, but at least comprehensible as a response to early national fears. And, indeed, our national obsession with “black rage” — by which I mean to pick out both our tendency to see rage in any expression of black self-determination, no matter how mildly expressed, and our tendency to see as frightening true expressions of black anger, no matter how justified, as well as our tendency to react to both as though they threaten the very fabric of our society — does seem more comprehensible when viewed not as a reaction to current circumstances, but rather as a legacy of the terrifying specter of black revolt. White America reacts to black rage and black self-determination as though they threaten the very fabric of our society because they once did — back when the fabric of our society was woven from black misery.
There’s been a lot of justified black anger recently. Starting with Trayvon Martin, gaining steam with Ferguson and the black Lives Matter movement, and most recently with the reactions to unconscionable police brutality against a group of schoolchildren in McKinney, Texas, we have seen a renewed vigor in expressions of black anger and black self-determination. And now in Denmark Vesey’s former church a young white man has declared himself a protector of his country and in the name of that protection allegedly opened fire on a group of unarmed black men and women.
“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” Dylann Roof reportedly declared before beginning his slaughter. It’s unlikely that he ever came across the exact wording of the dire warning his state legislature issued in the wake of Denmark Vesey’s rebellion. But, even so, it’s clear from his declaration of war that he’s done as they urged and not “forgotten.”
Not all of a nation’s citizens are equally susceptible to the workings of its psyche, just as not all people are equally susceptible to their own inner demons. We have inner resources — logic, empathy, resilience, a will toward flourishing — to protect us from both our individual and national demons. The majority of white Americans who partake in the obsession with black rage don’t view it as a sign that their black neighbors pose the constant threat of an enemy within. And among those who do, far fewer believe, as the South Carolina legislature warned, that their black neighbors “are truly the Jacobins of our country, the barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.” Even among those few, a vanishingly small number would believe they are therefore called upon to slaughter those neighbors.
But these fears can cause harm short of bloodshed, and before others ride them to their ends (bloody or otherwise), we should open our eyes to their beginnings, and to the ways in which, through public stoking and private silence, they continue to reach us today.
Yael Goldstein Love is a novelist and an associate editor of a forthcoming Voices of Witness volume on Haiti.