For Black History Month, I present to you a very young man who had a dream -- and to achieve it, he murdered and marauded. Half-black and half-Indian Rufus Buck and his gang of four black and Native American teens killed both black and white men, and terrified blacks, whites and Indians alike in the Indian Territory during the summer of 1895.
What? How dare I? Not the "first black this," or the "first black that?" Not some civil rights-era saint, all-forgiving and all-forgetting? Not an entertainer whose struggles and pain are miraculously disappeared?
No. None of the above. He was a young man who, near the turn of the century, formed a multi-racial teenaged gang in Indian Territories to wrest the land back from encroaching whites. His dream was impossible; and he used the same violence to achieve it that he saw all around him. The Rufus Buck gang were childish and vicious, innocent in their naivete and brutal in their outlook. Their 13-day reign of terror is historically fascinating in that it marked the end of the Indian Territory, soon swallowed whole by the land-hungry United States. Their execution marked the end of the judicial tyranny of Judge Isaac Parker, the "hanging judge" of legend. They marked the end of the era of the great western outlaws, like Cherokee Bill, half-black and half-Indian himself. They also shed a rare light on the multiracial old west of the Indian Territories. No... the Rufus Buck gang were neither saints, nor victims. But they are part of our history -- the part we foolishly agree to ignore because it does not fit the normative view of who we ought to be.
I use the opportunity of 'Black History Month' while remaining generally repelled by its execution. Watching a multinational corporation hoist a commercial about some "good Negro" to feed the mainstream public's vision of us as saints or willing victims -- the two states that absolves America of her sins... it nauseates. It's been said that American slavery bred modern racism, not vice versa. A very young country whose people consider themselves anointed by God can't afford to remember the vicious crimes they've committed in brutalizing a people, so they revile those who remind them. In modern America, our black faces have been reminders of America's crimes -- crimes in which she shamelessly reveled for the majority of her history, crimes she must forget in order to perpetuate the myth of her perfection in the eyes of an adoring God.
So Black History Month becomes a paean to revisionist forgetfulness. It's just a concentrated mirror of our skewed historical presence throughout all 12 months of the year. For we have allowed ourselves to be historically gutted. Our historical passions and fury have been neutered for mass consumption. Historically, we are only pieces of men. Accordingly, slavery, Jim Crow and American apartheid left no bitter taste, for we are all-forgiving, white-Jesus-loving saints subject to no natural human reaction akin to anger. Rosa Parks felt no rage, but was in fact thinking only of bettering white people when she refused to leave her seat on that bus. Martin Luther King channeled no fury, but only sought to cleanse white America as any good servant seeks to serve his masters. Ossie Davis, like Harry Belafonte and many other entertainers, is hailed as 'prominent in the civil rights movement.' But you'd never hear that he said of Malcolm X, "[he] knew that for a black leader to be effective, you had to frighten the white man." Let's not even mention MLK; we have allowed the majority to sanitize him into a parody of himself.
Black history for white Americans is destined to be a lie. It has to be, for too many Americans will accept nothing less. Their national self-image demands that our black history disappear because the truth of it puts the lie to the fantasy of white American cleanliness and perfection. That's why black history month grates on me so. It's American kabuki: mainstream media and organizations pretending to honor a history many find repugnant due to the pockmarked reflection it flashes back at them.
So I offer a piece of real history for Black History Month -- warts and all. A young, half-black, half-Indian renegade determined to do the impossible and willing to be as vicious as any white man to reach his goal. His story is prototypically American. It's a story of violence and innocence, butchery and grace. His is part of the history that dare not rear its head, for it treads perilously close to the truths that, during Black History Month as in all others, we tirelessly ignore.
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