Guest blogger David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at the University of New England, in Maine. His book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others won the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for non-fiction. His website is www.davidlivingstonesmith.com
It’s no secret that Donald Trump has used animalistic slurs against and demonized people of color on a number of occasions. The most recent example (at the time of writing) was his tweet of August 14 calling his former aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman a dog. That same day, on his MSNBC television program Morning Joe, talk show host Joe Scarborough drew on my 2011 book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others to argue that this sort of speech has often paved the way for mass atrocity. Scarborough was right. But to recognize this, you’ve got to be well enough acquainted with history of white supremacist rhetoric in the United States. So, let me describe a couple examples to insert Trump’s slurs against people of color into their larger historical context.
On February 1, 1893, a twenty-seven-year-old cognitively disabled man named Henry Smith was tortured and burned to death. Smith, a Black farm worker in Paris, Texas, was accused of raping, mutilating, and murdering a white policeman’s four-year-old daughter. He was apprehended a little over a hundred miles to the east in Arkansas and taken back to Paris in handcuffs to be lynched before the eyes of ten thousand spectators. The crime for which Smith was arrested, and the gruesome spectacle that followed it, was widely covered by the national media. The New York Sun reported “the city was wild with joy over the apprehension of the brute” and that the citizens were determined that “the punishment of the fiend should fit the crime.” Schools, businesses, and even saloons were closed in honor of the festivities, and the town mayor announced that Smith’s punishment would proceed in a “businesslike manner.” A specially commissioned excursion train brought White onlookers from as far away as Dallas to watch the macabre show. First, Smith was paraded around the city on a carnival float, where he was displayed as a king on his throne, holding a makeshift scepter. Then:
His clothes were torn off piecemeal and scattered in the crowd, people catching the shreds and putting them away as mementos. The child’s father, her brother, and two uncles then gathered about the Negro as he lay fastened to the torture platform and thrust hot irons into his quivering flesh. It was horrible—the man dying by slow torture in the midst of smoke from his own burning flesh. Every groan from the fiend, every contortion of his body was cheered by the thickly packed crowd of 10,000 persons. The mass of beings 600 yards in diameter, the scaffold being the center. After burning the feet and legs, the hot irons—plenty of fresh ones being at hand—were rolled up and down Smith’s stomach, back, and arms. Then the eyes were burned out and irons were thrust down his throat.
Next, Smith was placed on a mound of cottonseed hulls, doused with kerosene, and burned alive.
The Negro rolled and tossed out of the mass, only to be pushed back by the people nearest him. He tossed out again, and was roped and pulled back. Hundreds of people turned away, but the vast crowd still looked calmly on.
Finally, when the burning was over, trophy hunters picked through the ashes for pieces of bone, buttons, teeth or even pieces of charcoal to take home with them as souvenirs.
Now, consider the language that Smith’s tormentors and their sympathizers so frequently used to describe him, and the relationship between that language and his ghastly execution. In the report in the Sun from which I’ve already quoted, Smith was described as a “fiend” and a “brute,” terms that appeared very often in newspaper coverage of the incident. He was described in other media outlets as a “Black beast” (San Antonio Gazette), a “bestial negro” (St. Louis Gazette), an “incarnate monster” (New Orleans State), an “unnatural monster” (Texarkana News), “the most inhuman monster known in current history” (New York Sun), and “a [subhuman] being in human shape.” The reverend Atticus Haygood, a Methodist Bishop and former president of Emory University, informed his readers that the murdered child was “torn asunder in the mad wantonness of gorilla ferocity.”
These characterizations of African Americans were by no means unusual. Black people who were victims of mob violence in retribution for their real or imagined crimes were routinely described as subhuman animals, predatory apes, or demons in human form. Lacking paradigmatically human sensibilities, and endowed with superhuman strength and insatiable sexual appetites, they were imagined as monsters terrorizing White society—monsters that needed to be kept in their proper place, ideally in chains.
Just six years after Henry Smith was tortured and incinerated, Sam Hose, a twenty-one-year-old Georgia man, was accused of murdering his employer, raping his employer’s wife, and physically harming their children. Descriptions of Hose in the mass media of the day were virtually indistinguishable from those that had been used to characterize Smith six years previously. He was a “fiend incarnate,” a “monster in human form,” a “black brute whose carnival of blood and lust has brought death and desolation,” a “fiendish beast,” and his punishment was every bit as hideous. Fresh from their Sunday morning church services, the God-fearing citizens of Palmetto, Newnan, and Griffin—small, rural communities that are now parts of Metropolitan Atlanta—as well as four thousand spectators who arrived on packed excursion trains, dragged this young man to the center of town, chained him to a tree, and began to mutilate his body.
The torture of the victim lasted almost half an hour. It began when a man stepped forward and very matter-of-factly sliced off Hose’s ears. Then several men grabbed Hose’s arms and held them forward so his fingers could be severed one by one and shown to the crowd. Finally, a blade was passed between his thighs, Hose cried out in agony, and a moment later his genitals were held aloft.
Hose was then set alight but burned very slowly in order to prolong his agony. As the flames gradually consumed his living body, he somehow managed to break away, but was pushed back into the flames by members of the surrounding crowd. After the burning, men removed the heart and liver from his charred corpse, cut them up into small pieces, and broke his bones into fragments, all to sell to trophy hunters who fought over the souvenirs. “Those unable to obtain the ghastly relics direct,” one journalist wrote, “paid their more fortunate possessors extravagant sums for them.” Hose’s ears, nose, and penis, which were cut off before the fire started, were especially prized, and a set of his knuckles was displayed in the window of an Atlanta grocery store.
The atrocities committed against these two men, as well as thousands more like them, seemed to fit with their status as subhuman beings. It’s common for people to slaughter and barbecue non-human animals, to display their body parts in butcher shops, and to preserve pieces of their bodies—a boar’s head, a deer’s antlers, a rabbit’s foot—as trophies or good-luck charms. Black life, like animal life, was cheap, and killing Black people was considered to be morally inconsequential. But Black people were not just seen as animals. The extremes of rage and contempt, the efforts to degrade and humiliate the victims, and the pleasure that the White mob took in causing them the maximum amount of suffering in the name of “justice” before letting death liberate them from their torment, are not typical of how human beings treat the animals that they hunt and eat. Smith and Hose were not simply seen as animals, they were demonized as what a century later would be called “super-predators”— fiends who are devoid of conscience and intent on satisfying their insatiable appetites for rape, murder, and mayhem. Even those Black people who were not accused of committing violent crimes—those who were seen as peaceful, or prudent, or merely subservient—were suspect. It was regarded as a truism that even if Black people did not behave violently, they all “had it in them” to do so, because criminality was assumed to be a permanent and unalterable condition of their nature.
This terrible legacy is still with us. I do not know what Trump had in mind when he called Manigault-Newman a dog. But I do know that terms like “dog” and “animal,” when applied to people of color, can’t be brushed off as mere insults. They bear the weight of centuries of horror that White America has yet to honestly confront.