The Official Story: Dead Man Golfing
Introduction by Toni Morrison
We have been deceived. We thought he loved us. Now we know that everything we saw was false. Each purposeful gesture, the welcoming smile, the instant understanding of how we felt and what we needed. Even before we knew what was in our best interests, he seemed to anticipate and execute it right on cue. He gentled us toward our finer instincts; toward the medicine that would cure us; toward the rest we needed. He imitated our language in structure and content. And all with the most charming good nature—joy even. So obvious was his fidelity we had no doubt he would lay down his life for us. It seemed inherent, in his nature, so to speak. It was what he was born for.
It was not so. Not only did he not love us, he loathed and despised us. All the time he was planning to kill us. And if he is let go, he will do it again; kill more of us. Why? Because he is an animal. Cunning, manipulative, subtle, but savage nevertheless. How could we have been so deceived? How could we have let our vigilance become so clouded? Was it the coast—dulcet, permissive, delusional? The weather—a narcotic calm, enervating heat? The long journey to get to where we were? Or was it perhaps our need to be deceived? Desperate to be that effortlessly and deeply loved, had we fashioned and secured our own blindfolds?
Sitting in the courthouse at the trial watching Justice sway her scales; listening to sworn depositions; seeing the witnesses relive their horror, the survivors of the San Dominick
could have pondered along those lines over the trial of the Senegalese man who, with a dagger and ferocious single-mindedness, took by murder control of a vessel in order to reverse his fortune, and who, in so doing, disrupted for a little while the routine business of the trade that bought and sold him. That trial took place in 1799 at the close of the eighteenth century, but an end-of-century population of watchers anywhere in the United States (or the world) has had similar thoughts concerning on the shock of deception; the sudden transformation of the unbelievable into belief.
Like the readers of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” contemporary “readers” of the Simpson case have been encouraged to move from a previous assessment of Mr. Simpson as an affable athlete/spokesperson to a judgment of him as a wild dog. He is clearly, according to mainstream wisdom, the latter. And the wild dog portrait layered over him contains a further incompatibility: cool, cunning, even intelligent malfeasance or raging, mindless, brutal insanity. The language developing around him portrays a thoughtful, meditating murderer capable of slick and icy-cold deliberations and/or
a mindless, spontaneous killer—a kind of lucky buffoon. That each cluster of adjectives cancels out the other is of no moment since contradiction, incoherence and emotional disorder “fit” when the subject is black. A single, unarmed black man on the ground surrounded by twelve rioting police can be seen as a major threat to the police. A beaten up, sexually assaulted black girl wakes up in a hospital and is “convicted” or raping and defiling herself. To ask why? how? Is to put a rhetorical question—not a serious one worthy of serious response. Difficult explanations are folded into the general miasma of black incoherence.
In the Simpson case the prosecution put forward a motive (jealous rage) to explain Mr. Simpson’s alleged feral behavior, but with the accumulation of hard evidence they did not have to prove its credibility. They needed a coherent case, not a coherent defendant. “Senseless” is the term most often applied to crime (and criminals) anyway.
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The gargantuanism of the trial—its invention of wild dogs and angels, stick figures and clown, its out-lawry—aroused immediate suspicion. Examining the wright the case has come to have, one is struck by how quickly guilt was the popular verdict. It may have been this early gigantism that made Mr. Simpson’s guilt increasingly remote to some African Americans. Not because they knew or loved him (not even because he is black); not because they suspected foul play. Early on it began to look like white mischief—the kind that surfaces when the opportunity to gaze voluptuously at a black body present itself. The narrative of the entertainment media and their “breaking story” confederates was so powerfully insistent on guilt, so uninterested in any other scenario, it began to look like a media pogrom, a lynching with its iconography intact: a chase, a cuffing, a mob, name calling, a white female victim, and most of all the heat, the panting, the flared nostrils of a pack already eager to convict. For many, black and white, the passion they felt in the wake of the media onslaught was real, hinging as it did on violence and treachery. Mr. Simpson became the repository of fear. Every woman who had felt or witnessed the insensate brutality of men, who had tenderly touched her body where bruises, swellings and breaks limned the violence she had suffered, saw in him the lover she had (or should have) fled. Men who had let their guard down and actually loved this charming black man, men who relished the comfort they felt in his company, or remembered the beauty of his runs—forever, it seemed—across fields long and wide must have felt they had loved the wrong kind of man. The media’s instant and obvious preference for a guilty man created an early if not immediate public rage at having been deceived, of having profoundly flawed judgment. Mr. Simpson was accused of multiple murder. But he was guilty of personal treason.
A woman opens her door, steps out and has her head chopped off. A man performs neighborly gesture and is cut to pieces. The media response to this obscenity was excessive, manipulative and generally obfuscatory. But the blood it smelled belonged not to the victims but to the prey—a potent sensation aroused by the site and sight of a fallen, treacherous, violent black body, and sustained by the historical association of such a body with violence as dread entertainment.
Within the fecund, self-perpetuation meta-narrative that has followed, not only has the gravitas of the crimes in themselves
been lost and forsaken in favor of excitement and frivolity and profit, not only has the resolution of the trial been declared inoperative, the race-based nature of the narrative is reduced to a footnote, an aside, a secondary debate about whether race mattered in the case and if so, how deplorable. There seems to be a universal sorrow that these proceedings were distorted, sullied by race, that its intervention was false, even shrewd, that it should have been (and but for the isolate Mr. Fuhrman and an “uneducated” [read black] jury, could have been) race-free—confined wholly to non-race-inflected evidence, a disinterested legal process in which even to mention race as a major factor rips away the blindfold that Justice wears and forces her to make decisions based on visual bias. Such massive denial of the social (even the material) world, a denial which found its best and worst expression in the “race card” phrase, still has the capacity to astonish.
Although some of the media made an effort at restraint, flecks of saliva regularly soiled its reportage. The predictable pounce of every scrap, every leak, every mucus thread of lie or gossip associated with these proceedings revolted and mesmerized. And while media avarice and shamelessness were remarked upon and condemned by the avaricious and the shameless, and while the aggression of the journalists, photographers, commentators and hucksters was routinely deplored by the aggressors themselves, the reporters (collectors and distributors of the narrative) seemed somehow as helpless as fawns in the industry headlights with as much choice as bullets in the barrel of corporate media guns. If there were journalists eager to get other stories before the public, their disappointment at seeing their efforts repeatedly collapse must have been deeply painful. The marketing of every iota of the case had its own relentless power and there was no competition between dollars and disinterested analysis. Between dollars and a rival story. Dollars won.
Yet something more was going on; something more than a hot property of mayhem loaded with the thrill that a mixture of fame, sex, death, money and race produces. That something more was the construction of a national narrative, an official story. One of the most alarming aspects of the Simpson case is the shotgun wedding of the commodified, marketplace story and the official story.
A national narrative is born in and from chaos. Its purpose is to restore or imitate order and to minimize confusion about what is at stake and who will pay the price of dissension. Once, long ago, these stories developed slowly. They became over time national epics, written, sung, performed and archived in the culture of memory, ideology and art.
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Copyright © 1997 by Edited by Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.