Someone in the audience asks the man promoting his new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect—context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then do you realize you are among “the others out in public” and not among “friends.” —Claudia Rankine, Citizen, p. 48
I was one of five students arrested by campus police last school year during a protest at Clemson University. A year before the nine-day sit-in a group of concerned students, myself included, delivered some grievances and demands to the administration. One of those demands called for the university to “prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community.” Perhaps this is poorly worded, giving detractors the impression that we want behaviors or speech that do not break the law prosecuted. I want to be very clear: the only speech that can and should be prosecuted is that which “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” [the and is important there]. That is the law, and so far as I am concerned this is what is being called for in that aforementioned demand, which certainly could have been stated in such a manner to more clearly articulate this.
Folks at Clemson are decrying the erosion of the First Amendment on campus and blaming groups like See The Stripes and people like me for this. This is somewhat understandable, but I would like to offer some clarifications. I actually think Clemson University needs more free speech. Free speech is a good thing. There is no “but” coming. I am glad it exists. I am all for it. While I do worry about the safety of the people living in a community where, last week, strangers yelled “Nigger!” and other slurs and curses at groups of Black people standing on campus, I would rather know those sentiments exist here than not. That was not the first time something like this has happened, and it certainly will not be the last time. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports the KKK has more than doubled its number of chapters in the past three years from 72 to 190, and the evidence of continual recruitment efforts can be seen in the fact that the Klan distributed its leaflets around Clemson University. This happened last week as well. The Clemson University Police Department released an expectedly tepid statement indicating they are investigating the incidents with the flyers and the harassment of the students with racial slurs.
After the flyers were distributed the local news interviewed Rob Locklear, an Exalted Cyclops [I have no clue what that means] of the KKK, who said, contrary to the CUPD press release, “We’re not hiding in the shadows. We’re on your front doorstep.” and “We’re letting people know we are very much still relevant. We’re still here.”
I am not comforted by the presence or relevance of the KKK in Clemson, SC or on campus at Clemson University. I am, however, comforted by the fact that they are emboldened enough to say so in the light of day in 2016. Albeit still under the cover of sheets, they continue to make their thoughts and philosophies widely known. I really wish more of them would be bold enough to do so while unmasked so we can all know who they are. Those of us who disagree with their ideology could knowingly steer clear of them and those of us who believe what they believe could align ourselves accordingly. I’m actually surprised there is not more overt exercising of free speech like the nigger-calling from moving pickup trucks and distribution of Klan literature on a campus with monuments and buildings named to honor proponents of similar ideologies such as John C. Calhoun, Strom Thurmond, and Benjamin Tillman. I should be clear, here, and state that I take far less issue with John C. Calhoun saying slavery is a “positive good” than I do with him buying, selling, and enslaving people. Strom Thurmond’s views on segregation are far less problematic to me than his open hypocrisy and arguable rape of his family’s maid, Carrie Butler. Similarly, Benjamin Tillman’s treasure trove of quotes about killing niggers are far less worrisome to me than the fact that he actually participated in the Hamburg Massacre, killing Black South Carolinians.
Nobody worries about the Klan solely because of their incendiary language. I do not believe people see those white sheets or any of the symbols synonymous with white nationalist ideology and immediately worry, “somebody should really stop those guys from saying anything mean to anyone in this community.” It is more likely the KKK’s history of racial terror and violence to which many people respond negatively, and with good cause. I do not imagine many people in South Carolina want to be in the position of deciding whether a caravan of Klansmen came to converse. It is important to note the New York Times reports, in June 2015, “[s]ince Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.” These are things of which Clemson should be wary and to which it should be responsive. Universities should be concerned for the safety of all their community members and should act in a manner to provide such. But Clemson students should be free to be Klan members if they choose. To that end, the KKK can recruit, burn crosses, yell racial slurs from moving pickup trucks at students on campus, and any of the number of things that sets their confederate flags a-waving, and we can all say they are well within their rights to do these things.
Sure, this exercising of more free speech could make classes a little uncomfortable for many of us who might be called niggers, who might feel such name-calling is aggressive action against which we should protect ourselves. I guess we can only hope that the words we speak do not lead to regrettable actions afterward. Certainly, there will be many people who will speak out against it. Some of the outrage will be feigned and some of it will be genuine. I imagine lots of folks will find out who their true friends really are if they have to make that decision based on what the people they share time and space with are willing to say aloud in front of them. I should clarify here as well: I am not advocating folks who do not understand and do not care to get to know other people stooping to disguising insults as jokes as a means of demonstrating how little they care. Racists may be well within their rights to insult others or make jokes, but I am not saying this is okay. I am saying that it might make it easier for all of us to know, beforehand, who the folks are who do not care to understand us and do not want to get to know us.
To those in agreement with what is written here I want to issue a small caution before freely calling people names or passing out Klan literature, though. Violence is a very real possible consequence of spewing race-based hate. You might get fucked up for doing so. There is no need for hyperbole or overstatement here. You might find your ass in the midst of a good, old-fashioned beatdown … or worse. Ass-kicking might be illegal, but it is a likely result of shit-talking. It might seem like tides are turning because white nationalistic, supremacist language is becoming normalized day-by-day through popular media, but using the cover of night, or yelling from a moving vehicle, or hiding behind sheets might be better for your health and safety. This is not advocacy of lawless action or a provocation to incite such. It is merely a caution highlighting a possible reality. It has often been said that you are free to say what you please but you are not free from consequences. It is perfectly legal to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater; however, nobody should be expected to wait or attempt to decipher what a Klansman means when he yells “fire!” I suspect most people know this but I would hate to be irresponsible and not mention it. It would also be irresponsible for an institution like Clemson to not have a plan of action to deal with potential reactions to such incendiary rhetoric if it might precipitate violence [see paragraph 1].
Inevitably, someone will ask what Clemson might do to intervene. Well, one would hope the people who get paid to handle safety and security, CUPD, or whoever else the university employs to do such things, would be proficient in the negotiation of such delicate matters as ensuring the safety and security of the community while preserving the rights of vile racists to openly practice their First Amendment-protected hate speech. The silence from the Clemson University administration about last week’s events gives me the impression they agree with the Klan’s right to recruit on university grounds, and the rights of the Nigger-Yellers to yell as they please, as well as the rights of the -phobes to -phobe it up all about campus. That there has been no recent, widely reported violence of this sort at Clemson is no guarantee it will not happen. Since I have been on campus there has been only one case in which Clemson seemed concerned with this. When students assembled to march in protest after the racially themed “Crip’mas Party” the president implored the “Clemson Family” via email that “protest marches must not cross the line to lawlessness” with no historical precedent whatsoever. A notorious terrorist group with a well-documented history of violence comes to campus to recruit students, though, and the administration is silent … curious, to say the least.
One way to know you are in the midst of an adversary is to listen. Maybe one way to truly know if you are among friends is to say what you feel and see if anyone laughs. Either way, I advocate – before saying whatever is on your mind – understanding the consequences that may come from those words, whatever they may be. At the very least it will clarify friends from foes. I have much more respect for an open enemy than I do for one who pretends to be otherwise. I do not want any person’s speech censored. A quiet fool might be mistaken for a wise person. I say speak up. Let us know what you really think. Show us who you really are.
A.D. Carson is a PhD Candidate in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson University. His work focuses on race, literature, history, and rhetorical performances. Through the the See the Stripes campaign, which takes its name from Carson’s 2014 poem, he has worked with Clemson students, faculty, staff, and community members to raise awareness of historic and entrenched racism at the university. He is an award-winning artist with work published in The Guardian, The Conversation, Collage, The Alchemist Review, Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public-Radio Program, and Mistake House, among others. He has published essays in the critical readers The Cultural Impact of Kanye West and Jay-Z: Essays on Hip Hop’s Philosopher King. His first novel, COLD, hybridizes poetry, rap lyrics, and prose, and The City: [un]poems, thoughts, rhymes & miscellany is a collection of poems, short stories, and essays. Carson is the recipient of the Grace Patton Conant Award for Literary Creation and is a 2016 recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Excellence in Service at Clemson University.
[Featured image by Rowan Lynam, Editor-In-Chief for The Tiger.]