William Parker, 9/11 and American Mythology

One thing for sure can be said of what 9/11 has meant; when this country recoils into itself, when it is hit – be that hit real or perceived – and it rallies itself around itself things get worse for damn near everybody else. Flags wave, planes fly and more Black people lose their jobs and go to jail. More Brown people get deported or kept here and also imprisoned or worked at slave-labor wages. Indigenous nations get no more land or jobs and none of the wealth their lands continue to create for a handful of White people. And if you live elsewhere in the Black or Brown world rest assured that US munitions will soon be headed your way. 9/11 has literally become commercial propaganda advertising the great myth of the U.S. as the bringer of freedom and, of course, commercial products. Especially during this week’s pro football opening weekend which corresponded to the 10th anniversary, 9/11 was used to sell everything from cars to clothes and, of course, was used to re-sell the empty state-sanctioned conspiracy theory of that day’s events. Mostly, however, 9/11 has become the ultimate barrier to progressive movement building.

On the political right 9/11 has been used to enrich a handful of the banking, military and political elite and used as a bludgeon against the political Left who themselves have used 9/11 and its mythical effect to enrich a handful of pundits, liberal authors and activists and as a bludgeon against the genuinely politically progressive or radical. In fact, 9/11 has become the big dog form of picking the lesser of evils; liberals telling us we must vote for the Democrat to save us from the Republicans has, since 9/11, worsened to we being further encouraged to follow liberal defenses of the country because even a bad America is better than anything else that does or could exist. So when Dr. Mark Bolden suggested recently that we adopt a truly anti-terrorist 9/11 story of William Parker as our own, it just sounded right on. We, too, need our own myths. And what better way to really commemorate a 9/11 than with reminders of radical organization and resistance to state-sanctioned terrorism?

On September 11, 1851, William Parker organized community defense against the state-sanctioned terrorists who had come to re-enslave nominally free Black people in Christiana, PA. The terrorists, so-called “slave catchers,” were merely acting on what the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had, if not made perfectly legal, certainly encouraged the capturing of Black women and men, anywhere in the country, for sale or re-sale into southern bondage. This is part of that foundation of Malcolm X’s famous statement of the real Mason-Dixon line being the Canadian border. But Parker, a formerly enslaved African who had escaped Maryland for what he once thought was safety in Pennsylvania, had along with his wife and neighbors organized an armed self-defense unit to protect against the now legal theft and deportation of his people. But on that 9/11 it was only the terrorists who lay wounded and dead upon trying to reclaim what could never be theirs. Parker and his family would, a century before him, take Malcolm X’s line seriously and fled to Ontario. And no one was ever convicted of the killings.

And we would be justified in re-imaging 9/11 for our own political purposes as others have done for theirs. For example, according to Richard Prince, Time magazine – I think speaking for the entire country – included no Black people in its 64-page commemorative. Like the Washington Post said this week of Obama, to the nation, to the White political world (Left or Right), Black people are “irrelevant.” Or perhaps this omission is a response to the still widely understood notion that Black people, who know White people better than anyone are, as Prince also reported, twice as likely as Whites to reject military action and at least that likely to suggest that this country might have to suffer the consequences of its actions in the world.

Either way, William Parker stands as a reminder of the power of organization and also the power of myth. Rather that our mythology be driven by Parker’s reality than by American political fantasy. And besides, who can question Frederick Douglass who said after housing the Parker family during their flight farther north, “to me they were the heroic defenders of the just rights of man against manstealers and murders.”

* originally published 9/14/11

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