Teachable Racial Moment: A Black History Lesson Behind “Son of a Bitch”

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I’m sure by now many (if not most) of us have heard about the President of this country calling football player Colin Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” at a political rally in Alabama. As I looked at the Twitter feeds of some of the President’s supporters, many of them said, “President Trump didn’t call out Kaepernick’s name. He only said, ‘someone who kneels during the National Anthem.’”

As the kids say, let’s keep it one hundred, shall we?

We all knew to whom the President was referring when he referenced a “son of a bitch” kneeling. Because Brother Kaepernick was the one who started the kneeling protests in the first place.

But let’s look at the term, “Son of a bitch.” As all of us know, it is a slur that has animalistic implications. A “bitch” is a female dog. Thus, a “son of a bitch” is the child of a female dog.

“Son of a bitch” has obvious, gendered implications as well. In fact, the insult is less about the son and more about the mother who established lineage. The mother must the original animal to create another animal.

Now, calling somebody the son of a female dog is always an insult to anyone of any racial or cultural background–I feel safe in making that blanket statement–but there is a peculiar, racialized, historical, and legal context to using this term to describe the mother of black person.

Jennifer L. Morgan, author of Laboring Women: Reproduction and New World Slavery, has written and lectured about the change of patriarchal laws in the (then-colony) of Virginia in 1662. Before that time, English common law had established that a child took on the status of his or her father.  That meant that biracial children of free, white fathers and enslaved, black mothers could, conceivably, be free born.

In 1655, a biracial woman in Virginia named Elizabeth Key Grinstead sued for her freedom based upon, among other things, English common law. Her father was a white man, and she wanted to make sure that her free lineage was established for her own children. She won that suit, but seven years later, the colony of Virginia passed a law called Partus Sequitur Ventrem, which made biracial children of enslaved black mothers permanently enslaved.

Here’s where it gets even worse.

The term Partus Sequitur Ventrum is a barnyard term, used for animals. It literally means, “Offspring Follows Belly.” Thus, black women were legally animalized during slavery. And maybe this animalistic status of black women is why, while writing on the difference between black and white in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson accused black women of engaging in bestiality with great apes:

The first difference which strikes us is that of colour…And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

The irony here, of course, is that Kaepernick’s mother is white. Thus, many of you reading this might say, how does this racialized history of animalizing black women connect with white women? In fact, it connects quite tidily.

Those familiar with the history of White Supremacy in this country know that white men were and have been obsessed with white women’s sexual purity, which depends upon those women keeping a very far distance from black men. (I’ll point you to the original, 1915 film version of Birth of a Nation.) Several American mass murders of black people were started because of the (still unproved) charges that black men had raped white women, including the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot in 1921 which left at least three hundred African Americans dead and leveled the black neighborhoods in that city.

On the flip side of this White Supremacist female sexual purity rule, white women who engaged in voluntary sexual congress with black men—as Kaepernick’s mother has—were stripped of their white privilege and white racial status. Many times, white women were beaten or driven from towns for consorting with black men.

Most recently, we saw the murder by vehicle of Heather Heyer, a young white woman who was protesting a White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was doing so alongside black people (including black men) when a White Supremacist decided to drive into a crowd of protesters. The murderous actions of this young, white man were praised by his racist colleagues.

I know that many young women of all complexions revel in reclaiming terms such as “bitch” and “hoe”, and in calling themselves and their friends by these terms. I understand the youthful exuberance and thus, I’m not trying to shut anybody down. Do you, young sisters. Do you.

But when I see and hear the President of my country call somebody’s mama out her name at a rally, in front of television cameras, I’m put in mind of gatherings of white mobs whose goal is violence. (We saw that violence at Trump rallies during last year’s campaign.) Remember, the President was in Alabama, in the deep south, the location of many lynchings and mass murders of black folks.

And right next door to Alabama, there is Georgia, where one lynching that took place has continued to haunt me for years. It is the murder of an eight months’ pregnant black woman who, in May 1918 was killed alongside her husband in or around Valdosta, Georgia.

After she was hung, the woman’s body expelled her baby. Instead of stopping in horror at what they had done and trying to rescue the child, the white mob then took turns stomping the newborn infant, who was still connected by the umbilical cord to its mother’s body.  This woman’s name was Mary Turner.

I thought of this poor lady and her child, as I heard what I can only assume was an all-white crowd cheering as the President of this country of mine, essential calling the mother of a black man a “bitch.” An animal.

How long are we going to pretend that these gatherings of white racists are simply political rallies of those who just happen to differ in party and opinions from the rest of us who want peace between the races? How long are we going to pretend that this current President is harmless, when we have a long history pointing to similar activities, and that long history tells us this behavior is not harmless, not in the least?

These gatherings are where racist mob mentality is nurtured, and where, even those who call themselves “pro-life” have proven time and again that there are specific, racist rules for the sanctity of life and those who provide. That rule is whiteness. And any woman connected to black people–even a white woman– has no place in their world or is worthy of their love or respect.