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Spectrum of Violence

The savage white-on-white violence of the Old South has spread like a terror across the land--begetting a cycle of black-on-black violence

By J. Douglas Allen Taylor

ONE AFTERNOON during the period when I was doing research for this essay, someone beat up "Uncle" Bud Sawyer about a half a block from where I work. Uncle Bud had been sitting in his car when he was attacked. The blows to his face were so severe, they opened up cuts a quarter of an inch thick. His skull was fractured; he suffered a concussion. He stayed in the hospital for more than a week.

Uncle Bud is an elderly African American man. He has little money. He is gentle and soft-spoken, painstakingly particular about minding his own affairs and keeping out of the business of others. He is a frail person, weighing perhaps 105 pounds. He has only one eye, the result of an old industrial accident. Last year he suffered a stroke, leaving his right side partially paralyzed. Whoever beat him had to deliver several great blows to the head and face of an old man who had no way of defending himself. Uncle Bud will not say one way or the other, but given the neighborhood and the circumstances, the attacker was almost certainly an African American.

Increasingly, the violence of blacks against blacks is becoming the way of life within many African American communities of our country. If you are looking for the reason why this is so, you will not find the source in the inner cities or on a "gangsta rap" video or in liberal criminal policies or in the permissiveness of the welfare state or in the weakening of the black church or in the breakdown of "family values." Some of these exacerbate the problem; some of them are the result. But they are not the source.

For that, you must look to the Old South.

In the Old South, you will find places like Edgefield County, South Carolina, one of the more frightening places in this country. At least, it is for an African American. I know. I've been there.

Edgefield is peach country, and on the surface, it is beautiful. The orchard rows of sweet-flowered trees stretch on for mile after rolling mile. Along the main north-south highway that runs from Savannah to Charlotte there are clean, white-board houses and old, restored colonial mansions dotted here and there between acres of farmland and groves of green woods.

Wave to folks, both white and black, and they will smile and wave back. Passing through in your car, you think that this is where you might want to return when you retire. But stop and stay long enough, and you will catch the odor. It does not take long to recognize it.

It is the smell of fear so old and ingrained that it taints the very earth. It is the smell of terror. It is the smell of death. Stay long enough and you will understand the real Edgefield County, sprawling along the Georgia border like some great sick Beast--sullen and brooding ... uneasy ... malevolent ... the stench of its old segregated systems buzzing its blacktop highways like hot flies on the rotting veins of a dying regime ... the clayed ground so dank and red it seems as if it is oozing up blood from the bodies of the murdered martyrs buried in its fields and creek banks. Black martyrs.

"I don't even much go through there," I once was told by an older African American woman who lived in a neighboring county. "I just drives around it, always. It's bad things happened up in Edgefield. It's bad things still happening."

One flees Edgefield County in deep fear, hoping you can leave the images behind you. But you cannot. Ghosts first emerge from their own graveyard, but they do not remain there. Like some deadly, unidentified disease, the Edgefield Terror has slowly spread itself north and west, infecting the entire country.

THOUGH at first he had no idea where it came from or where the trail would lead, New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield picked up the stench in the late 1980s, in a prison in upstate New York.

The New York Times had assigned the highly respected co-author of the Pentagon Papers series to write a background story on Willie Bosket, a 24-year-old African American man whom New York prison authorities considered one of the most violent criminals in New York State history. The paper wanted to use Bosket as a test case, to find out why so many young African American men were becoming so violent.

Bosket was a good example. While in reform school, where he was first confined at the age of 9 because his mother could not handle him, he "assaulted his social workers with scissors or metal chairs, [and] set other inmates on fire. ... Psychiatrists prescribed antipsychotic drugs; they had no effect. ... By the age of 15, Willie claimed he had committed two thousand crimes, including 200 armed robberies and 25 stabbings."

When he was 15, Bosket shot and killed two men during separate robberies on Manhattan subways. His five-year sentence for the murders, the maximum possible for a juvenile offender in New York at the time, prompted the state legislature to pass the first law in the nation allowing juveniles to be tried as adults for certain heinous crimes. It was called the "Willie Bosket Law."

Butterfield writes that he had no preconceived idea of what his research would turn up, though he supposed the cause of Bosket's violence would lie somewhere in his upbringing and family background. But Butterfield's research and interviews with Bosket and Bosket's family eventually took him back through 130 years of African American history--and eventually to Edgefield County, where the Boskets were confined in slavery. The simple newspaper story assignment became a book--All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence--a seminal study of how antiblack violence eventually begat an era of black-initiated violence.

In Edgefield, it began with a type of brutality often seen but rarely identified as such: white-on-white violence.

Butterfield attributes this phenomenon in the Edgefield region partly to the history of the large Scotch-Irish contingent among the area's settlers, a bloody history recently glorified in Mel Gibson's Academy Award-winning Braveheart. "Their way of life," Butterfield writes, "was an outgrowth of seven centuries of fighting between the kings of England and Scotland over the borderlands they inhabited. They had grown inured to their towns being sacked and burned and their kinsmen tortured to death. ... When they came to America, they brought with them a penchant for family feuds, a love of whiskey, and a warrior ethic that demanded vengeance." A no-less-noted observer than Benjamin Franklin referred to these Scotch-Irish immigrants as "white savages."

Add the factor of race--so combustible a material throughout American history--and the horror of this "white savage" violence against African Americans in Edgefield can scarcely be imagined.

When the Civil War ended with the defeat of the Confederacy and the breaking of the slave chains, Edgefield and its sister Deep South counties sunk in their teeth and sucked at the life of the African-descendant people within their reach, while the rest of the nation turned its back and looked the other way. When those African Americans tried to exercise their dearly won freedoms of the right to vote and economic independence, the violence broke upon them like great sheets of Hell's Fire.

They lost their jobs. They were thrown off the land. They were beaten. They were jailed. Ghostly men in pale, flowing robes came to firebomb their houses in the silent screaming of the night. They were dragged from their homes and hung from trees and burned, their body parts sliced off and passed around the crowd to be put on mantelpieces in pickle jars as souvenirs.

Butterfield quotes B.O. Townsend, a South Carolina writer of the late 1800s, as saying, "The whites do not think it wrong to shoot, stab, or knock-down negroes on slight provocation. It is actually thought a great point, among certain classes, to be able to boast that one has killed or beaten a negro. It is quite impossible to convict a white of a crime against a colored man."

Butterfield's study shows a family of Bosket men coming of age in such violent savagery, trying initially to exist in peace within its framework but eventually falling into a life of brutality themselves.

Pud Bosket, Willie's great-great-grandfather, grew up a generation after the end of the Civil War and the broken promises of Emancipation. Pud was a notorious "bad nigger," the kind about whom songs are composed and stories written. Unable to find work on any of the area farms because he refused to submit to a white farmer who tried to beat him with a whip, Pud made a living gambling and breaking into stores.

He served time on South Carolina's notorious chain gangs, and was both feared and respected within the African American community. "He didn't bother nobody, but if you pushed him, you had to beat him," Pud's brother once said. "Step on his foot, at a dance or walking by, just brush him, and there'd be a fight. He wasn't never scared."

IN SUCH A MANNER was born the legendary "black-on-black violence," a shimmering time-space in which murderous fights break out in an instant on the basis of seemingly minor and meaningless provocations. An imagined slur or slight. A supposed stolen item. A piece of clothing soiled or moved out of place.

The first felony conviction of Huey Newton, years before he became founder and leader of the Black Panther Party, came after he stabbed another black man for stepping on his shoe. Observers often shake their heads and express bafflement at such actions. There is a cause, of course, but one that such observers either overlook out of ignorance or conveniently refuse to acknowledge.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, August Wilson gives a classic look at how black anger at exploitation by whites turns easily into violence against other African Americans. Levee, the black trumpet player, is arrogant and overbearing with his fellow African American musicians, but he shows deference to Sturdyvant, the white producer. The musicians accuse Levee of being "spooked by the white man," causing the trumpet player to explode.

"Levee got to be Levee!" he shouts. "And he don't need nobody messing with him about the white man--cause you don't know nothing about me. ... I was 8 years old when I watched a gang of white mens come into my daddy's house and have to do with my mama any way they wanted. ... My daddy came back and acted like he done accepted the facts of what happened. But he got the names of them mens from mama. ... He sneaked back, hiding up in the woods, laying to get them eight or nine men. He got four of them before they got him. ... My daddy wasn't spooked by the white man. Nosir!

"And that taught me how to handle them. I seen my daddy go up and grin in this cracker's face ... [a]ll the while he's planning how he's gonna get him and what he's gonna do to him. That taught me how to handle them. So you all just back up and leave Levee alone about the white man. I can smile and say yessir to whoever I please. I got time coming to me."

But when Sturdyvant cheats Levee out of some songs the trumpet player has submitted for publication, Levee holds his anger and says nothing. Instead, boiling over with bitterness and disappointment at losing his big chance at becoming a published songwriter and bandleader, Levee returns to the band room and picks a fight with Toledo, the piano player, who accidentally steps on his shoe.

"Nigger gonna step on my goddam shoe!" Levee rants. "Look at that! Look at what you done to my shoe, nigger!" Despite Toledo's repeated apologies and the other band members' attempts to intervene and smooth things over, Levee cannot be contained. He pulls out a knife, lunges at Toledo, and kills him. For stepping on his shoe? No. As a substitute for the white man he dare not kill, or even confront.

For many years, America turned a deaf ear to such black victims of violence as Wilson's thoughtful philosopher Toledo, thinking it all right or acceptable or tolerable because the victims were--well--black. The justification for this practice was laid out in one of the more unforgettable lines of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, an Italian Mafia don declares his belief that it is morally defensible to deal drugs to "the dark people, the coloreds [because] they're animals, anyway; so let them lose their souls."

But violence knows no boundaries. It is no respecter of law, nor of person. Once unleashed, it is a dog that roams and bites at will. The Boskets carried it with them, out of Edgefield, and within time they ceased to care whether those they victimized were black or white.

All the male descendants of Pud Bosket were molded in his "bad nigger" image. All became brutally violent men and professional criminals. Willie Bosket's grandfather, James, traveled up and down the East Coast as an armed robber. James once so savagely beat Willie's father, Butch, with a belt that it left slavelike scars on the boy's back. In turn, Butch killed two men with a knife in a Milwaukee pawn shop because he thought one of the men had cheated him out of some pornographic pictures. The two victims were white.

It is Butch who best demonstrates both the pathos and the potential of the Bosket family. While in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth he received his GED and then began taking courses at the University of Kansas, receiving a bachelor of arts degree "With Highest Distinction." He finished in the top 3 percent of his class, receiving 38 As and 2 Bs out of the 40 courses taken. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the only prison inmate ever to earn this honor. Butch was later killed in a shootout while trying to escape from a prison hospital.

Besides the tendency toward violent behavior, Willie Bosket apparently inherited at least one other important characteristic from his father: his IQ has been measured at the genius level. Not smart enough, however, to escape his family's troubles.

Are we?

TWENTY-FIVE hundred miles we have come from the killing fields of Edgefield County, and set our backs to the great Pacific, and dug our heels in the rocked sand of California's coastal cities, but like Willie Bosket marking time in his upstate New York prison cell, we have not been able to leave our past behind us.

The herds of sharks do not wait in anticipation beyond the entrance to San Francisco Bay as they once followed the slaving ships along the Atlantic route of the Middle Passage, but African Americans continue to die violent deaths. Sometimes at the hands of police or jailhouse guards but more often killed by our own kind--black martyrs, still, to a cause no longer identified.

So the questions are asked often these days: Why are so many African Americans becoming so violent? And why is that violence so often turned against other African Americans?

One answer comes in the response of the Oakland police to the beating of Uncle Bud Sawyer. A police officer arrived shortly after the ambulance. She tried to question Mr. Sawyer, but even in his best days after his stroke, it was difficult to figure out what he was saying, and now the combination of shock and painkillers was dropping him into a state of complete incoherency.

The officer gave up, her investigation quickly over. The vicious beating of an elderly, defenseless, disabled man did not merit more than a couple of questions, not even a walk across the street to knock on a single door. And what signal does that give to the rest of the community? The signal that violence against an African American is no big deal. It is an old message, often passed down only indirectly, sometimes in old folks' stories, sometimes in song.

Once, sitting on the riverbank docks in Baton Rouge, La., I heard a post-Reconstruction-era African American doggerel called "The Ballad of Toby Brown," which gave the ancient, definitive black opinion on black-on-black violence in America:

Mr. Bailey went up into town
To see why they locked up Toby Brown

The sheriff told him,
"Go away
We're hanging him
At noon today."

Mr. Bailey says,
"Now how you figure?
You can't hang that boy.
"I need that nigger."

The sheriff says,
"Toby Brown went and got a gun
And thought he'd have
A little fun.
He went up into Nigger Town
Shooting all the colored folks down
So you may cry and you may sing<
But at noon today
Toby Brown is going to swing."

Mr. Bailey says, "Sheriff, you don't understand.
Toby Brown is my best field hand
My cotton needs chopping
And picking soon.
If it stays in the field
Then I am ruined.
So I don't care
If he pulled the trigger.
You can't hang that boy.

The sheriff says,
"Ain't no need for you to shout.
Hell, I didn't know your crop was out.
I'll tell my boys
To tear the gallows down.
Won't be no hanging
For Toby Brown.
You can take that nigger home
And you can take him soon.
'Cause all he did
Was kill some coons."

EACH IN ITS own way, Toby Brown and All God's Children begin to shed some light on the causes of African American violence, but they leave us with another important question: Is black violence inherited in any way or is it all the creation of the anti-black violence of slavery and its aftermath?

There is a segment of the African American community that believes that Africa is the source of all that is good and enlightened in the world, and that Europe is the source of all that is corrupt and violent. Such a theory assumes that had they not been enslaved by Europeans and brought to America, Africans would have lived in peace and harmony among themselves for the rest of time.

It is the mirror opposite of the old European theory used to justify the slave trade in the first place: That Africans were savages who would have butchered themselves into oblivion had it not been for the civilizing influence of the European conquerors.

Both theories, of course, are bull.

One should begin with the idea that elements of good and evil and tendencies toward violence and peace are spread fairly equally throughout all the races of the world, and that every human being carries some percentage of each attribute around with us. No race has cornered the market either way. Just what type of person we become is a complex combination of the intermix of genetic inheritance, psychological makeup and physical environment, the type of family life in which we grow up, the type of society in which we live.

So the question remains: Whence came this violence? The long line of cause and effect begins to stretch back to the beginnings of human existence on this earth, becoming little more than an interesting, but perhaps useless, academic exercise. The point is not to seek out who is to blame. Once we have begun to understand the why of how we have come to be such a brutal people in a violent nation, the point is to understand how to effect a cure.

I am reminded of the answer of Buster Kilrain, the immigrant Irish sergeant in Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels, to the question of why he was fighting in the Civil War and what he thought of African Americans:

[T]he thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a peawit. You take men one at a time. ... There's many a man alive no more value than a dead dog. Believe me, when you've seen them hang each other. ... Equality? Christ in Heaven. What I'm fighting for is the right to prove I'm a better man than many. ... There's many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don't think race or country matters a damn. ... I'll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved.

UNCLE Bud Sawyer is out of the hospital now. The scars of his beating are dark and deep and ugly, an uneasy and unsettling counterpoint to the mellowing lines of age traveling across his dark face. Before the assault he had been doing minor repairs on cars, trying to supplement his retirement income. Now he can only shuffle along the street as an ancient, pained soul, his feet unable to lose contact with the ground, his body unable to keep its equilibrium without the help of a walking stick.

Uncle Bud's speech has now become so impossibly slurred that when he comes into a grocery store, he must point to the items that he wants rather than asking for them. He comes and goes in our lives now like the whisper of a ghost, a haunt from the graves of Edgefield County.

As far as I can determine, the Oakland Police Department did not conduct any further investigation into his beating. They did not think it important enough, I imagine.

Is the life of a black person in America valued as much as the life of a white person? If Uncle Bud is ever able to talk properly again so that he can be understood on the point, I'll ask his opinion.

All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence
By Fox Butterfield
Knopf; $27.50.

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro's Literary Quarterly

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