From Kobe to Cape Fear: When the Face of Sexual Menace is Black


As I recall the incident some 20 years later, it was my second trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was sitting in the passenger seat of a midsized car alongside my driver, Pierre, and interpreter, Tom and we were returning to the hotel in the capital city of Kinshasa after a frustrating morning of trying to wrest information from government ministers and Western ambassadors. Pierre was already driving slowly on a wide, paved but empty road when we spotted a couple, a black man and a white woman, about 50 yards ahead crossing the intersection. As we approached the stop sign, the young black man did a double-take, and, with his spider-senses apparently tingling, he bundled his blonde paramour in his arms and rushed her out of harm’s way.

Stopped at the sign, Tom, Pierre and myself, all of us black, watched this scene unfold as though we were watching a movie. There was a pregnant pause, followed by this eruption of knee-slapping laughter, and Pierre saying in French: “Brothers and their white women!”

White supremacy represents death by a thousand cuts and accordingly, its psychopathy manifests itself in our daily lives in any number of ways. From the only perspective I have, as that of a 55-year old black man, I am intimately familiar with the self-loathing African who sees white companionship as a kind of validation of his self-worth, and an affirmation that he, or she, is in fact not a nigger. To the Congolese man who saved his partner from the imminent danger of what was essentially a parked car, his date was not a woman, but a prize, or better yet, a talisman, that would ward off the evil spirits that menace we who are blacker than blue, the children of a lesser God.

But the wide-range of responses to the death of the retired NBA icon Kobe Bryant is a reminder that blacks are not the only ones traumatized by the tribalism that forms the fault lines in America’s class war. Using the colonized mind of the black man I encountered long ago on a Congolese street as a proxy for our own illogic, we can plainly see that he viewed himself as a non-combatant in the class struggle. But what about the white woman who was the object of his twisted affection? Is it likely that she saw herself as part of the proletariat, a class warrior responsible for her comrades and her countrymen in fending off a rapacious capitalist system, that grinds, like Grendel, the bone and gristle of the working class, generally, and people of color and women especially?

Or was she more likely to believe that she is, in fact, also a non-combatant, somehow a thing apart, floating above the fray, deserving of the reverence afforded her by her black protector and the Madonna-like status bestowed on white womanhood by the broader society? Or in plain proletarian English, if black people often believe that the white man’s ice is indeed colder, isn’t it likely that most whites will begin to believe it as well?

The remorseless response of many white women to Bryant’s death four days ago in a helicopter crash would seem to suggest that is indeed the case. Bryant was no angel: charged with the brutal sexual assault of a white teenage girl in 2003, he eventually settled out of court, but according to the sportswriter Dave Zirin, was required to acknowledge his criminal wrongdoing in court as part of the agreement. And in black barbershops and salons across the country, he was widely (though not universally) seen as disengaged from the African American community, and his disparaging remarks in 2014 about supporters of the slain teenager Trayvon Martin earned him the enmity of millions, many of whom dismissed him as an Uncle Tom.

But while it is almost certainly true that Bryant committed an unspeakable act when he was 25, he was not Harvey Weinstein, or Matt Lauer, or Charlie Rose, or Jeffrey Epstein, all of whom, I would remind you, were aided and abetted by white women in carrying out a series of rapes over many years.

Yet, from my Facebook page, you would think that Bryant was the moral equivalent of OJ Simpson, or worse, mass murderers like Henry Kissinger, George Bush, or Barack Obama.

“No sympathy for rapists!” wrote one white woman.

“Happy when a rapist dies,” wrote another, “and I’ll also be happy when Michael Vick dies, another privileged asshole who visited unheard-of horrors on other sentient beings.”

“I don’t grieve for rapists regardless of color, creed or status,” wrote one white man. “They can burn in an integrated Hell.”

This vitriol, some friends have suggested, does not reflect racial animosity but rather the many women who have endured the horror of a sexual assault; the nonstop news coverage of Bryant’s death is a trigger that forces them to relive the experience. I have no doubt that this is true and while as a man who has never experienced sexual assault I can’t imagine the deep sorrow and rage that these women feel on a daily basis, I can say that I try, every day, to do my part to demolish a rape culture that is as old as the Republic.

But black people also have triggers, and white women’s preoccupation with the black rapist, real and mostly imagined, is one of them, in no small part because of the outsized role that the ideal of the black sexual menace has played in our social alienation, and physical death. Flip through the American family album, and there he is, the black boogeyman, lurking in the shadows to attack the virginal white woman. Birth of a Nation? Check. Willie Horton? Check. Scottsboro Boys? Check. Emmett Till? Check. When the heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson and a scion of America’s royal family, William Kennedy Smith went on trial at roughly the same time for rape, only one was convicted. Guess who? Shit, the feds accused the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson of raping his own Goddamn wife. The slander even travels: the initial news reports of the 2003 ambush of Private First Class Jessica Lynch depicted the petit blonde as Rambo, valiantly fighting off her Iraqi attackers until finally she was captured by the brown-skinned Iraqi brutes, who, it was suggested by the Washington Post, violated her as she lay unconscious in a hospital bed. (To her credit, Lynch would later say that her slain Native American best friend, Lori Piestewa, was the real heroine in the saga, and Iraqi medical personnel would later tell reporters that they were especially vigilant in caring for Lynch because they knew that the Americans would capitalize on any misstep to question their basic humanity and therefore, qualify their colonial annexation of the country. Moreover, there was no dramatic rescue; Iraqi doctors phoned the nearest U.S. military installation to inform them that Lynch was healthy enough to be transferred to their care).

But nothing compares to the incomparable horror that gripped the nation in the autumn of 1994: a young, white single mother was stopped at an intersection while driving alone with her two sons on a dark and desolate South Carolina road when suddenly she was accosted by a man who materializes, like an apparition, from the shadows. He is black, armed, and in a hurry, hijacking the maroon Mazda compact and forcing the frantic 23-year old Susan Smith to drive before finally kicking her out, and speeding off into the night with her two towheaded boys. When the car was dragged nine days later from the bottom of John D. Long Lake in Union, South Carolina, the bodies of the two toddlers were found still strapped in their car seats.

An hour’s drive away across the state line in Charlotte, another white woman, Glenda Gilmore, was driving her own son to preschool when she first heard of the shocking affair on National Public Radio.  “I hugged my own little guy and stumbled out of the car,” she wrote later. “Some of the other mothers were crying. We said lingering goodbyes that morning and arrived early that afternoon to gather our children.” That evening the television news broadcast the composite sketch of the gunman who had abducted Smith’s sons, three -year old Michael and 14-month-old Alexander. On the screen appeared a scowling, dark-complexioned black man, lithe as a bantamweight, with beady eyes that peered from underneath a knit cap.  A wave of clarity washed over Gilmore like a riptide following a full moon, and she knew, just as surely as she knew her own name, that the kidnapping was a hoax.

“Susan Smith was lying, I realized in a rush,” wrote Gilmore. “For I had ‘seen’ this man before in sources almost 100 years old. He was the incubus: in mythology, he is a winged demon that has sexual intercourse with women while they sleep; on the ground in 1898 he represented the black beast rapist.”

In her madness, Smith had subconsciously described for a police sketch artist a replica of the chimera conjured by three white supremacists-cum- warlocks who met in the spring of 1898 to plot the violent overthrow of North Carolina’s biracial government, known as the Fusionists, which was delivering the goods to the working class in the state. Holed up at the Chattawka Hotel in the coastal city of New Bern, the three men — Furnifold Simmons, chairman of the state Democratic party, Josephus Daniels, the publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer, and a young attorney Charles Brantley Aycock — acknowledged that they had virtually no chance of beating the opposition in a fair fight at the ballot box because the Democrats hadn’t done jack for the people during their abysmal 18-years as North Carolina’s governing party. They needed a distraction.

What was birthed by Simmons, Aycock and Daniels in that New Bern hotel room was as monstrous, and farcical, as any marketing strategy in the 19th century, surpassed in both horror and preposterousness only by the Belgian King Leopold’s genocidal reconfiguration of the African Congo into the largest labor camp in recorded history while grandstanding as the leader of a global campaign to abolish slavery.

What issue could possibly convince white men to vote against their self-interest?

Well, sex of course.

Absent any real black rapists to pin the rap on, the three coup-plotters simply invented them out of whole cloth. With its large circulation, Daniels’ daily broadsheet, the News and Observer, was especially useful in the plan to depict black men as unfit to participate in public life, and leading the paper’s effort was a young artist named Ethre Jennett, aka Sampson Huckleberry.  Of his roster of minstrels and monsters, none was more effective than the incubus, with his sinewy, claw-like fingers, menacing gaze, spindly overbite, and bat-like wings emblazoned with the words “Negro Rule.”  While there is no way to know for sure, it seems likely that Simmons’ primary inspiration for his creation was a British novel that had been published in 1897 and was all- the- rage- in America at the time: Bram Stoker’ Dracula.

This would, of course, be laughable were it not so effective. Between 1880 and 1950, nearly 5,000 people were lynched, according to the American Bar Association, or nearly six people every month for 70 years.

White women were hardly innocent bystanders. As many as 300 blacks (and dozens of their nigger-loving white allies) were murdered by the Wilmington mob which, make no mistake about it, was largely encouraged by white women, the putative victims of these imaginary rapes. In the runup to the riot, the writer and politician Rebecca Latimer Felton rather famously exhorted her fellow wypipo: “If it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand times a week if necessary.”

The irony, of course, is that while there are, and continue to be black rapists, the world has never seen a crime spree like the 500-year campaign by the white male settler, who has raped so many African and indigenous and white women that he has created entirely new racial categories of humanity. Indeed, classifications such as mestizo and quadroon were necessitated by circumstances in the New World, not the old. The civil rights movement was, in part, a response to the proliferation of sexual assaults by white men of black women, especially in the Deep South.

White women, generally speaking, were fine with this as long as black women showed up for work to nurse and feed their children. In agreeing to this pact with white men, white women were signatories to a protection racket, in which they surrendered their political and economic rights in exchange for a kind of homeland security, which kept the largely folkloric black rapist at bay.

I was not a Kobe fan especially. Had Allen Iverson or Dwyane Wade or LeBron died in a helicopter crash, I would likely be beside myself with grief. And I certainly understand anyone who says that they are not mourning a celebrity, with a checkered past, who they did not know. But I remember Kobe’s dad when he played alongside my childhood idol, Dr. J, and I remember how Kobe gave such joy to so many children, black and white, the way Dr. J did for me. What’s more, I know that at 41, he might well have redeemed himself for the tremendous pain he inflicted on that young woman in a Colorado hotel. His death saddens me, if only because it saddens others, and because he may have contributed great things to this world before all was said and done.

What I don’t understand, however, is the gracelessness of people who cheer his death, the way some cheered him on the court. I remember well the Susan Smith case, and I remember saying to a friend, when South Carolina authorities revealed that she had drowned her children, and blamed it, yet again, on an imaginary black man, that I hoped she did not get the chair. She too is a child of God, who committed an unspeakable act, and spilling her blood would achieve nothing.

But for some reason, the white settler needs the black man, and the black woman on the stake, like Jesus, suffering, dying, for your sins, for no other reason, I believe, than that it reassures them that no matter how much things change, they will forever be the master, and we will forever be their slaves. For this reason, and only this reason, the laboring classes in America are a defeated people, and will remain so for as long as we walk this earth.

And if you think I am wrong, if you doubt what I am saying is true, then answer this question: would white women who are so outraged by Kobe be so animated, so contemptuous, so hateful, if his victim had been black?