A meme started to appear on my social media toward the end of April. It simply read, “May she rot in Hell.”
It took me a few minutes to realize it was referring to Carolyn Bryant, the grocery store proprietor who falsely accused a 14-year-old teenager, Emmett Till, of unwanted sexually suggested remarks.
Her accusation led her husband and her half-brother to savagely beat the youngster, shoot him in the head and throw him into the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound industrial fan tied around his neck.
What she did was horrific, and I have no intention of minimizing or excusing her complicity with this satanic deed. And yet, I remained troubled by what appears to be a celebration of her eternal torture.
Why am I disturbed? If there is a hell, and if those claiming to be Christians are called to unconditional love, then is desiring a person to burn for all eternity something to celebrate?
Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that the God who I claim exists is a God of justice, and surely this God of justice will judge justly. But am I called to rejoice when some face either the eternal or temporal earthly punishment for their actions?
There is something sadistic about getting pleasure from the suffering of others – even when it is deemed to be justified.
I am called to pity those who embrace ignorance with death-dealing choices; in this case, choices made by a white woman also trapped in a violent patriarchy. She did, after all, divorce her child-murdering husband for also beating her.
Of course, this is no excuse for her actions and complicity in the brutal killing of a teenager, but it is to signal that if we hold her guilty, then so too should the culture which normalized and legitimized the Jim and Jane Crow milieu be condemned.
More important than simply not rejoicing over the consequences of merited justice, is how focusing hatred on just one evildoer deflects from the complicity of everyone else. Yes, her accusation and the actions of her husband and half-brother were evil. But this was not the exception; it was the norm.
Maybe by making her the personification of evil, the focus of our righteous indignation, we do not have to reckon with the fact that she is but a sign signifying white America. By demonizing her, it lets our grandparents, or parents, or even today’s so-called “patriots” off the hook.
I sincerely doubt that most white people during her time, rooted in her culture, would have acted any different. There is a banality to Carolyn Bryant’s evil, à la Hannah Arendt.
Bryant, her husband, her half-brother, the members of the jury during her trial, her neighbors and pretty much every other white person of that era were part of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”
The mythology that that generation was the greatest masks the depth of depravity for what they were truly known for. Their self-idolization is based on them enduring the Great Depression and a World War fought against fascism on two fronts.
In fact, Carolyn’s husband and half-brother fought against the Arian Master race ideology over there while defending that same white supremacist ideology through Jim and Jane Crow over here. One cannot call themselves the greatest while imposing economic distress and violence upon those who fall short of their whiteness.
Some of the returning GIs perpetuated their own Arian master race ideology by joining the Council of Conservative Citizens and the Ku Klux Klan. And even those who did not join such organizations remained complicit through their approving silence.
And before we today simply disparage our grandparents for their complicity, it might do us good to admit today’s America is not that different from theirs. Today’s Carolyn is called “Karen” as she voices an imaginary feeling of being threatened by dark male bodies, willing to call the police on Black men who are birdwatching or Black preteens whose backpack accidentally bumps them.
Her husband and half-brother are absolved today from killing darker bodies so long as they claim they feared for their lives as they face an unarmed Black teenager ringing the wrong doorbell while they remain fully armed. They even wear official uniforms and let loose their white rage on Brown bodies crossing a desert or Red, Black and Brown bodies driving around town with a broken taillight.
Today, Jim and Jane Crow culture supported a president – and still does – who calls for making America great again, a time when Aryan Master race ideology reigned supreme.
And when they failed to win an election, the equivalent of Carolyn’s husband and half-brother, honorary members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, stormed the Capitol to impose apartheid structures upon those not considered patriots.
Some people may be rushing to demonstrate their liberal credentials by gleefully condemning Carolyn to hell. But if we just scratch the surface of today’s America, Carolyn was not and is still not alone. Also, her demonization simply deflects from white America’s complicity – then and now – with her actions.
I tremble every time I hear some white person pine for making America great again, for the America of Carolyn Bryant, for the America of the greatest generation.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.