Canon Fodder: Liberty Paints Redux

For those of you who abandoned the humanities section of the ivory tower or were were smart enough to avoid it altogether, we colloquially refer to the literary canon as Dead White Men’s Greatest Hits. Or maybe that’s just me. Still, though, there are a few Negroes who manage to find their way into the woodpile. And I, of course, was reminded of one of those oh-so-exceptional Negroes when Rick Perry’s little situation got put on blast by Stephanie McCrummen.

By now, most of us are water cooler conversant in presidential candidate Rick Perry’s latest speed bump on the road he hopes leads him to the White House. (Or call it a GPS glitch. Whatever.) In case you aren’t, the other week, The Washington Post wasted a few thousand words about the incredibly impolite name given to the Texas hunting camp Rick Perry and his family have used for years. The name, you ask? Why, Niggerhead, of course. There is plenty of racist geography, nice landmark reminders of our pre-post-race past peppering maps of our wonderful nation. Very few, however, are so intimately tied to a presidential candidate.

Apparently the word Niggerhead was painted on a rock at one of the entrances of Perry’s family’s camp. The issue is not the rock, or whether it’s a headstone for a niggerhead (or several) underneath. The issue is also not the fact that the name Niggerhead has been used to name myriad things, which thereby disrupts any amnesiac post-soulster’s notion that hip-hop and basketball sneakers were black people’s (bodies) first foray into commodification (slavery, syrup, lynching postcards, niggerhead soap and oysters and tobacco, oh my!, for example). Nor is the core concern how frequenting a camp called Niggerhead is a banal, gentler version of Perry’s politics. After all, it’s readily apparent that Perry has no beef with the racist-ass death penalty, so why would he ever take issue with a rock called Niggerhead?

The core problem with Niggerhead-gate, so the talking heads inform us, is timing. How long can you not paint over the word and not be considered, well, impolite? If you paint over the word Niggerhead after you put your name on the mailbox but before you put out a welcome mat, would that be all right? Or does it have to be the very first thing you do, otherwise would such inaction–and not the action of murdering more than 200 prisoners under the instruction of an inherently racist policy–allow others to deem you racist?

Perry says he informed his mom and pop about seeing “the offensive word” after visiting Niggerhead in 1983, just after his family had taken over the lease. According to Perry, his father took the “first opportunity” to paint over the word, which just happened to be the Fourth of July weekend. Oh, how romantically convenient. And ironic. Others dispute Perry’s timeline. Several witnesses claim that one could still see the word Niggerhead on the rock throughout the 1980s and 1990s; one even said the word was visible until 2008. Another prognosticated that Niggerhead would cause a hiccup in Perry’s political career. That’s exactly the first thing I would have thought about upon seeing the rock.

What’s so interesting about this entire situation is that neither a Perry adviser nor  Perry himself–potential leader of this fine fucking country–instructed anyone to remove the rock. Instead, they just changed its position, painted it over, and kept it moving:

[Ronnie] Brooks said he saw the rock laid down flat by the gate soon after Perry began bringing lawmakers there. Brooks could not recall exactly when. He did not know who moved the rock.

The other local who visited the ranch with Perry during those years recalled the rock standing upright with the name visible. He said it was painted over years later; he was not sure exactly when but recalled remarking about the change with friends.

“We kind of laughed about it,” recalled this person, who said he would probably vote for Perry if he wins the Republican nomination. “My recollection is that it was several years ago. We were laughing because he had it painted. Because it had always been there. You couldn’t miss it, right there at the gate going in. We laughed about, ‘Rick’s covering his tracks.’ ”

[…]

As recently as this summer, the rock was still there, according to photographs viewed by The Washington Post.

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.

Geniuses.

Now, I understand that resurrecting this story a whole week and a half after it was published is, like, totally against blogging rules since the story is technically stale. Yet, the literary scene it conjured for me perhaps make it still relevant for this space.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is one novel that often interrupts the otherwise white canon one encounters here in this prison of a tower. Upon hearing about the white paint used to cover Niggerhead, I could not help but but recall chapter 10, when Ellison’s protagonist begins his incredibly brief stint as an employee of Liberty Paints.

By the time the IM has landed at the Long Island factory, he has already majorly faux pas’d his way out of Tuskegee college by introducing a white benefactor to the notorious Mr. Jim Trueblood. After getting played six times by Dr. Bledsoe, the IM’s final, seventh letter lands him in the offices of Mr. Emerson. An uncomfortable encounter with Emerson’s son does give the IM the idea of attempting to gain employment at Liberty Paints. His ploy succeeds, and he begins working for a man named Kimbro.

Kimbro instructs the IM how to make Liberty’s best seller, Optic White paint, which is used on government buildings and such. The formula calls for adding ten drops of a black substance  called dope to a can of paint and mixing it thoroughly until all the blackness disappears, until it’s the whitest shit ever. One tests the paint by applying it to a small piece of wood and allowing the paint to dry. Of course, the IM screws up the process. Ordered to refill his dope supply, the IM, unsure of which of the two different black liquids is dope, chooses the wrong one–a white paint remover--and ruins the batch. After being chastised and corrected, the IM begins again, only to notice that this new crop of white paint has a gray tint. Kimbro, however, fails to notice and sends the batch to Washington.

Perhaps Rick Perry just used the wrong paint. Maybe he needed that Optic White:

The rock remained by the gate, the name brushed with a thin coat of white paint. The paint was slightly faded, according to the person who saw it recently.

“That’s something that sticks in my memory,” this person said. “It was kind of a sloppy job. It wasn’t doing what it was intended to do.”

Or maybe not. They never moved the rock not because they couldn’t, but because no matter the effort, one can never really remove all those niggerheads from American history. In fact, any attempt to do so would be decidedly un-American. As Ellison instructs us, whiteness cannot exist without blackness. It just can’t. Yet the only folks with the eyes to see what that purity is contingent upon–that film of gray–are black. It makes sense, then, that the white paint could never strip the blackness of that rock. The reverse doesn’t work. Perry, just like all the powerful, white male policymakers he hosted at that camp, needs his niggerheads. He can’t be who he is without them; America, no matter how post-race it yearns to be, cannot be who it is without them. Ellison told us this almost 60 years ago. It was time for a reminder. And this little forget-me-not couldn’t have been more perfect if a novelist had delineated the scene herself.

Although the talking heads want to compel us to believe that this was an issue of civility, or timing and doing the right thing, they are wrong. There’s a different lesson here, one that we’ve been taught previously. Perhaps it’s time we properly reKindle our memories. Reach into the woodpile. You’ll find what all that you need to remember.