The Uppity-Negro Syndrome

What Jimmy Carter and a pivotal scene from “Rosewood” have to say about President Obama and America’s increasingly hostile race relations.

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The furor over former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s remarks that “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man" reminds me of a scene from John Singleton’s 1997 film, Rosewood, which dramatized the real-life lynching and burning of a rural, predominantly black Florida town in January 1923.

President Carter’s statement reminds me of one scene in particular: Two white men are talking about the town of Rosewood. The people of Rosewood were black landowners, and for the most part, they had escaped the shackles of sharecropping and much of the Jim Crow oppression of that time.

In the scene, the two men talk about the alleged rape of a white woman and the false rumor that a black man named Jesse Hunter had raped her. (It was alleged that a local Rosewood resident named Sylvester Carrier, a private music instructor who played the piano, was harboring Hunter.) This, of course, was false, but it was used as an excuse to inflame tensions and anger.

Then came the line that’s still etched in my mind: “Oh, that's them uppity folks that own a piano,” one of the white men says. “I don't even own one.”

This bit of dialogue sparks what culminates in a 200-person, white lynch mob that burns Rosewood down, killing dozens of black women, children and men. Black people died because of a classic case of “uppity Negroes” not “knowing” their place.

My point is this: President Carter is speaking a truth that few Americans are willing to hear. He grew up at the height of Jim Crow in the Deep South—the man knows racism when he sees it. Most white Americans simply cannot face the ugly past of “race in America” and how much it is still with us today.

In my opinion, folks, it’s the piano, stupid!

Rep. Joe Wilson’s, R-S.C., inability to contain himself from yelling out “You lie” at the president during a joint session of Congress is a classic case of an angry Southern white male reaching his limit with the uppity Ivy-League educated, one-term-senator-turned-president. Some may argue that this doesn’t make him a racist. But at best, his outburst demonstrates an intolerance and a lack of respect that he never would have shown to a white commander in chief. Such is the case with much of what we hear from our fellow citizens. There is an anger, a vitriol, a hatred of this president that seems deeply personal. And it is unnerving.

As Americans, all of us should be alarmed at the increasing hostility of our dialogue: There’s Fox News TV host Glenn Beck calling the president a “racist.” Rush Limbaugh declaring that “Obama’s America” is one “where black kids can beat up white kids on a bus.” Then there’s the “birthers” who swear that Obama is not a legitimate commander in chief and those who sob that they want “their country back.” My question is: From whom do you want your country back?

The problem is that we’ve gotten so used to not dealing with racial tensions in this country. They’ve become so nuanced that we cover or shrug them off because they are not as blatant as they were in the 1790s, 1840s, 1920s or 1960s. That’s a mistake. Whether we like it or not, those tensions are still here with us.

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