It is important that you remember that history is written by the victors.
It is important to note that most of the history of America was written by white people.
It’s also important to note that, historically – white people are monsters.
After vanquishing those who would oppose them, the victors are afforded the supreme reward of determining how they will be recorded. They paint themselves as they wish to be seen, portraits for posterity of their best selves. It is remarkable then, when we consider some of the more gruesome facts of history, that these were the moments chosen by victors to lionize themselves.
Black people rarely get to write our own histories, and as of late – never our epitaphs. Despite the fact that our very survival to this point in history is itself a triumph, our histories are too often penned by others with an asterisk after every accomplishment (and their own names in self-congratulatory parenthetical notations). When our lives are cut short, the news media ensures that our epitaphs are laced in question marks. The final words over white people are definitive statements. Declarations of who and what. Who they were. What they did.
Kenneka Jenkins was found dead in the freezer of a hotel and her story so far – like those of many who died before her – is sullied with interrogatives of why and how. Why did this happen? How did she get there? These questions are both pleas and accusations. The ink spilled around her death has already congealed into something salacious and sensational. Grief has surrendered to gossip and speculation. All we know is that we don’t know anything.
Early descriptions of her death dug a cold pit in my stomach and from that pit, a weary voice cried and echoed – “white people did this.” There is no evidence cogent to her case to suggest this, but to lock a person, or even a body in a freezer is terrifyingly ghoulish – the kind of thing a monster would do. And historically, white people are monsters.
Point 1 • White People are Monsters
If I have to make a case for my point, I will start with this: the soil this country is built on is soaked in the dark blood of grisly Black death. Literally. We have stained sugar cane and cotton fields with the marks of our suffering. Skin stripped and flesh flayed by whips, the searing stench of meat burned alive under the hell-hot fire of the brand, the sickening squelch of wet flesh being rent by dogs – these are the artifacts of American horror.
This suffering was executed by white people and was not incidental to the practice of slavery but central to it. Slavery could not exist without horror and America – this America– could not exist without slavery. Slavery was a wicked machine which ground its gears over the bodies of Blacks folks. This machine was fueled by blood and terror. It was engineered by white people.
Olaudah Equiano survived horror story of slavery and, it’s prequel, the Middle Passage. He was only 11 when traders dragged him aboard a slave ship, “where white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair”, roughly threw him back and forth to see if his limbs could handle the abuse. He had never seen anything like them before. He did not identify them as human beings. He thought they were bad spirits. On the deck, he saw a large clutch of people, Black like himself, “chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow” near them was a massive copper kettle. Olaudah connected the two – and fearing he was to be eaten, fainted.
He awoke to a life where his living space was just about the size of a coffin. Human beings were stacked atop one another in dark dank bowels of a vessel that looked like a great winged beast. They lie atop each other breathing stale fetid air tainted with excrement and vomit. When they died they died on top of, underneath, or beside each other. The sounds in that space where the shrieks of the tortured, the wails of the living, or the groans of the dying. To breathe was to inhale the waste of others. Every exhalation was a threat of vomit. This is the template for modern horror; a 400-year-old set up for Human Centipede.
American history is filled with such setups. Consider this story: a wealthy man with a head full of rotting teeth arranged to have the teeth removed from the mouths of people he kept captive on his property. When their teeth were ripped out he had them put in a contraption that he wore in his own rotten mouth. These are the facts of the tale. This is not horror but history, and the history is that George Washington had wooden teeth. Because history is written by the victors.
“Jim Crow” is an astonishingly appropriate title for a horror film. In the Jim Crow South, a common fun night out for white folks was to buy tickets to outdoor gatherings where Black folk were beaten bloody, eyes gouged, castrated, mutilated, burned and hung from a tree. White people found this entertaining. They recorded this history with photographs and artifacts. White men stood smiling next to the charred and desecrated remains of Black bodies that had just hours before been living beings. They took pictures. They took souvenirs. They kept fingers, lips, and locks of hair. The white attendees didn’t just hold on to these gruesome artifacts for a few days. Not weeks. Nor months. But generations. They were bone collectors. They put pieces of us in small jars, cigar boxes under beds, between the pages of their Holy book.
When antique dealer and curator James Allen began combing the underbelly of the South to find and collect lynching photographs he found them easily enough, along with people willing to show him their secret stashes of collected body parts from the time. Stored and preserved macabre keepsakes of foul deeds done in the name of fun, presented to him matter-of-factly, and without shame, pulled from between pages of their heirloom bibles.
This historical pattern of preserving the remains of the slain is the reason Kenneka’s body in the freezer echoes in my gut as the work of white people. Despite the lack of evidence. Or evidence to the contrary. A young Black girl is looking to have fun being free in her young body. She ends up frozen solid, preserved as an artifact of something horribly wrong. This is the stuff of horror stories. This is monster work.