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Today in Post-Race History: A Rock and a Hard Place

I really hate it when politics interrupt my fantasy football preparation. There I was checking Twitter for tweets that might help my abysmal fantasy team when I started seeing posts about presidential candidate Rick Perry’s little problem.

In case you missed it, according to a story published in The Washington Post last Saturday, Perry’s family’s hunting camp was known as Niggerhead. In fact, the word was etched on a rock at the camp’s entrance and, according to the article, the word was not painted over for quite some time.

Gosh, don’t you just love vintage America?

Of course, Perry disputes several witnesses (some of them anonymous) who claim that there was a noticeable delay between when the Perry family began leasing the camp and when Niggerhead got the Sherwin-Williams treatment. Some claim Niggerhead could be seen on the rock throughout the 1980s and 1990s, while one alleges that Niggerhead was readily viewable on the rock as recently as 2008. Perry issued a patriotic nuh-unh with the following explanation:

“When my Dad joined the lease in 1983, he took the first opportunity he had to paint over the offensive word on the rock during the 4th of July holiday,” Perry said in his initial response. “It is my understanding that the rock was eventually turned over to further obscure what was originally written on it.”

And later:

“My mother and father went to the lease and painted the rock in either 1983 or 1984,” Perry wrote. “This occurred after I paid a visit to the property with a friend and saw the rock with the offensive word. After my visit I called my folks and mentioned it to them, and they painted it over during their next visit.”

I love this response. If one has decided to lie, one might as well embellish. And Perry does so quite nicely. In Perry’s version of the story, it’s his moral fortitude that brings the issue to the attention of his parents, because otherwise I suppose they wouldn’t have noticed. Isn’t it fun just imagining that conversation?

Perry: Hey Mom and Dad! Didn’t know if you noticed, but there’s a big rock that says ‘Niggerhead’ at the entrance of our camp.

Mom and Dad: Sure we did. Is there a problem?

Perry: Mom and Dad, the n-word is totally offensive. Didn’t you guys see Roots? Eyes on the Prize? Any movie starring Cicely Tyson?

Or something like that. To ensure that discerning ears realized he was lying, Perry suavely mentions that his family had the word painted over during the 4th of July holiday…because they are patriots like that. Yet, if I may crudely paraphrase Frederick Douglass, what, to a niggerhead, is the 4th of July? But seriously, who outside of the campaign cares about Perry’s statement regarding the matter? Isn’t this the kind of response that we expected? God knows I hope this statement was sufficient. Otherwise, we may be hearing Perry’s version of “A More Perfect Union,” a speech I couldn’t stomach the first time.

This entire issue isn’t about Perry’s or his response, though; it’s about ours. It’s about our collective feigning of surprise that stories like this exist. It’s about how offended we are–and why. We’re not offended by the fact that Niggerhead existed, but about how long a future presidential candidate waited to paint over the words. Because, I suppose, we all always do what would be regarded as the right thing in a timely manner.

I’m not sure, though, what this story tells me about Rick Perry that I wouldn’t otherwise know. Actually, I’m somewhat irked by the fact that The Washington Post allowed this many words to be dedicated to such a story. I understand, though. Such tales get clicks; they titillate us. They get us talking. But what they also do is allow racism to return to the realm of the impolite. Timing, after all, is everything. And one week after I joined the cavalcade of folks writing in response to the unjust killing of Troy Davis, we are talking about the name of the camp the governor who holds the modern-day record for prisoner executions. The death penalty is both classist and racist–and it is policy. Not painting over the word ‘Niggerhead’ is comparatively uncouth. But it is our wont to deal with surface level issues that allow us to believe we have positively exorcised racism from our body politic, instead of demanding acts that would eradicate racism to the degree that we would have to revolutionize our lifestyle. Responding to stories like ‘Niggerhead’ allows us to pretend that we’ve changed our diet. Getting riled up over the name ‘Niggerhead,’ then, is the moral equivalent to weight loss surgery.

In fact, I appreciate the symbolism of a rock with ‘Niggerhead’ on it at the entrance of a space where some of this country’s most powerful (white) men have convened to engage in the violent act of hunting at one time or another over the years. As the article notes, the rock had been painted over, but a close observer could still see the words, ”In the photos, it was to the left of the gate. It was laid down flat. The exposed face was brushed clean of dirt. White paint, dried drippings visible, covered a word across the surface. An N and two G’s were faintly visible.” Eventually the rock was turned over, but it was never removed–maybe it can’t be. I think that’s one of the most apposite stories about race we’ve had in a while. Don’t you?