Cowboys and Insinuations

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and allies have charged General Kelly’s “empty barrel” remark is racist. Everyone laughed: there’s no traditional connotation between the two. But I like to think Kelly’s opponents get it, just like I do: an “empty barrel” making a lot of noise is a black mediocrity making of herself a spectacle. Weary whites know the type. Weary blacks know the type. You must not show you know the type. Perhaps if it was a little less common.
And that’s the problem. Nothing is so evident as that which is so strenuously ignored.

Racial slurs not directed at whites are becoming rarer. But they help maintain the sustained moral panic that is “anti-racism.” Sometimes slurs are repurposed as needed.

New slurs are being added all the time–not by racists, but by anti-racists. Honest people going about their business are often waylaid by some new, unexpected restriction. They should know better–it’s been decades since “niggardly” became unacceptable for just sounding like a word with which it had no etymological relation.

Lack of racist intent is no excuse. Ignorance of the laws of racism are no excuse. This being racism, there is no reference too obscure, no connection too tenuous. It isn’t enough to not be a racist, one is expected to fight racism, report it, to hate it with his very soul. Justice is diligence.

As a result of our hyper-sensitivity to black sensitivity, the target of any offense determines offense, not some objective social standard.

Criticizing a black person’s intelligence is almost always construed as a criticism of black intelligence generally, revealing a lack of confidence in black intelligence, mostly. This is getting embarrassing. The brilliant black thinkers of television and cinema still aren’t showing up. Hailing Ta Nehisi Coates, Neil de Grasse Tyson and Barack Obama as exemplars of the black intelligentsia is a bit of a back-handed compliment. The condescension is driving aware black intellectuals out of their minds, but the aware are increasingly rare.

But the insistence on the existence of a thriving black intellectualism is making its absence obvious.

People are still paying attention, even in their forced silence. The increasingly absurd charges and demands of anti-racism and attendant injustice erode the perceived legitimacy of the anti-racist movement. It’s a crisis that can’t be recognized because it reveals the corruption of the entire endeavor.

It’s always better if you can find the use of a racial epithet. It’s simple, it draws the flag and stops play immediately. A hush falls. There’s no explaining what so-and-so is inferring, which is a lot more work and frankly embarrassing when you’re working with such material as Congresswoman Cowboy Hat.

But the accusation that “empty barrel” is racist is not entirely baseless, just hipster-level obscure.
“There’s this racial epithet, you’ve probably never heard of it, it’s a little obscure…”
The source is out there, if one is willing to slog through the narrative/historic jungle like an explorer looking for the mouth of a river. But yes, empty barrels are empty of justice and full of hate.

Thomas Wictor is a science fiction author with expertise in warfare munitions who produces epic Twitter threads. He’s an often vociferous Trump supporter without white nationalist, anti-Semitic or racist tendencies, but he’s not humoring the congresswoman. He’s been all over the Wilson-Kelly controversy.

Vachel Lindsay was a poet of the early 20th Century who innovated what he called “singing poetry”–his poems were designed to be read at certain tempos, cadences, intonations, etc according to instructions in the margins (“a deep rolling bass”; “shrilly, with heavily accented meter”; “like the wind in a chimney”). The works were designed to be performed. Wictor calls him the first rapper. He’s also an early sort of performance artist.

His work was popular, and still familiar enough to make it into a 1964 edition of  “A Treasury of the Familiar” anthology I have at home. The poem above, The Congo, is the source of the “empty barrel” epithet says Wictor, and if this was anything but “racism” I would scoff. But I suspect he’s right.

The poem is subtitled “A Study of the Negro Race” and is in three parts: “Their Basic Savagery”, “Their Irrepressible High Spirits” and “The Hope of their Religion”. The first part portrays black Americans as boisterous primitives ill-suited to the industrial world, and is the source of the supposed empty barrel epithet:

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able, Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
THEN I had religion,
THEN I had a vision. I could not turn from their revel in derision.

The poems were meant to be performed and in accordance with margin notes for tempo, inflection, style “like the wind in a chimney” ; “with a philosophic pause”, etc.

The first part portrays blacks in their most threatening light: bloodthirsty savages with a historic grudge:

Boom, steal the pygmies,
Boom, kill the Arabs,
Boom, kill the white men,
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s Ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell

Lindsay thought African brutish would be redeemed by Christianity.

In the third part the Apostles and “pioneer angels” cutting through the brush bring the Africans to Jesus, and the sinister “Mumbo-Jumbo” of voodoo is left in the jungle:

Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.
Redeemed were the forests, the beasts and the men,
And only the vulture dared again
By the far, lone mountains of the moon
To cry, in the silence, the Congo tune:–
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,

I suspect Lindsay was too forthright and literal-minded for that last line–the vulture invoking voodoo after its defeat–to mean what I want it to mean: the vulture is foretelling the certain return of Mumbo Jumbo, in due time.

All of this is horribly racist now but Lindsay was sympathetic to the cause of black civil rights and some of his earlier work endeared him to such as W.E.B. Dubois.

The only thing I see him guilty of is naivete and condescension. In that way this bizarre character from another era is very much like your average earnest white liberal.

Mumbo Jumbo, for his part, is alive and well.

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