“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” — Toni Morrison
Some time into my studies at university, as I was walking up the avenue that cut between the green fields of east campus and the wide blue of Lake Michigan, headphones in my ears and daydreaming about something or other, I came across a white classmate who was a rather good friend of mine striding along in a KKK costume.
He was in full regalia: the sheet covering the entirety of his body, the rope tied around his waist ready for lynching, the eye-slitted hood carried under his arm. He saw me and stopped to talk, so I had to stop as well. But, unlike him, I was unable to carry off a nonchalant conversation, and I asked him what he was doing with all that. He blushed, as he began to register how he appeared to me, and said it was for a joke. Then, at my shocked expression, he said it was for a class project. When I asked which one, since we were the same major and in nearly all the same classes that year at Northwestern, he muttered that it was something to do with his fraternity, and that he had to go.
We never spoke of this again. Instead, I remained silent, and we remained friends. He was part of the central group of the privileged, popular, and powerful in my predominantly white university—the kids whose parents’ money or connections already made them players in the careers to which the rest of us aspired. He and I worked on independent film projects together for years, attended the same parties where offers were extended; both my summer internship and the housing situation for that internship were landed because of this group of friends. As second- and third-generation legacies, scions of generational wealth and cultural capital, they had power and access. I, as the first-generation child of refugees, had only the brains and work ethic my parents had gifted me, but which were enough to secure me a tenuous place.
Speaking, I knew even back then, would have meant being shut out of that world. And learning to understand that world, my father had told me, wide-eyed with surprise that I did not yet get it, was the real reason for taking on the student loans and the work-study jobs necessary to afford the elite university I attended. The straight A’s were only half the point, my father had said. The other half was everything else—the cultural capital, the access—which my father, who had worked harder than I could ever understand to survive a genocide and get us to America, knew that I would need in order to succeed in this country.
But mostly, I was just afraid.
So, like many Black people in my situation, I stayed silent even as the racism grew. It was training, I was understanding, for the real world after university, which would be more of the same.
I have had the KKK joke made to my face by non-Black people not just at school, but also in personal situations and in professional ones—from after-school jobs as a teenager to the boardrooms I sat in decades later. Now, in the midst of the current global Black Lives Matter protests, when someone wields the KKK joke, I think about how my aunt’s Minnesota neighborhood and several students in my town here in Nebraska have recently been attacked by the KKK and other white supremacists. Since he was six months old, my son and I have had run-ins with white supremacists, unhooded and in daylight, who tell us to go back where we came from while they threaten what violence they are going to do to us if we don’t.
There is no one KKK joke. There is, however, a wide catalogue of unabashed racism to choose from in creating one. There is always a certain kind of person who feels like it is important to make jokes about the KKK, whether or not Black people are present. This is often the same kind of person who thinks Blackface and pretend AAVE—or jokes about raping women or killing transgender individuals—are important as well. It is part of a consciousness—often white, often male—that does not see us as human beings but as objects to be violated because of our Blackness. And, if it cannot be physical or legal violence, then it will be the violence of language and ideas, disguised as humor. This is what I call the KKK joke.
The pain of the KKK joke is so big you can’t even process it all at once—like how can’t you see the solar system, or even the planet, because of the overwhelming immensity. The pain of the KKK joke is that because you cannot name it directly, everyone else pretends not to see it, not to notice that it is there. The pain of the KKK joke is that no one defends you; you must be the one, yet again, to speak up and say: Racism is bad, please don’t do it; it hurts me. It hurts others.
The pain of the KKK joke chokes all the air out of your lungs like a handheld noose slung around a Black unbreathing throat and up over a tree on a hot, wet, American summer night.
Sometimes, driving on the highway here in Nebraska, I will see a burning—a wooden shape on fire—and I will think I must not have seen what I have seen. It could have been an accidental bush or twisted tree; maybe a scarecrow could account for that long crossed shape visible through the flames. It cannot be that other thing—my faith made weapon and set aflame.
The first time I was called nigger was in second grade. We had just moved to California. A white girl pushed me off the swings. She said she was named after the state where her people were from, where her daddy and uncles n’em in the KKK strung niggers like me up from trees so shove off, she said.
We learned where was safe.
Victorville. Palmdale. Central California—the central wide space that cuts between the liberal white north and the diverse warm south. These areas were off-limits. The KKK was there. We stayed away.
We know what it means when Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch are found strung from trees, one in front of city hall with racist graffiti scrawled close by; we know what it means when another Black teenager is found lynched in an elementary school in Texas just prior to Juneteenth or when, just afterward, the only Black driver in NASCAR, Bubba Wallace, finds a noose in his garage stall. We know what it means when, in the days after that, a Black teenage girl named Althea Bernstein is set on fire by a mob of white men she described as “typical Wisconsin frat boys.”
We know what it means when there is a civil rights struggle and Black bodies start showing up hanging from trees, when warning signs start showing up hanging from other places, and Black women’s bodies are violated with impunity by prowling white men. This is Black history that has never stopped being Black present.
And you can hear, if you listen, the pain of the KKK joke in the quiet sshhhhhh the trees make at night.
In 1918, one year before my grandmother was born, a young Black woman, eight months pregnant, was captured and beaten, then hung upside down from a tree by the standard mob of white supremacists of the time who set her on fire, then, growing bored, shot at her. They had already killed her husband. It is unclear at what point the white mob cut out her eight-month-old fetus from her stomach and beat the unborn Black child, bloody and senseless, into the ground, but reports say that when they did, the lynched and burned Black woman was still alive.
The woman’s name was Mary Turner. It is said the white mob targeted her because she had spoken publicly about her husband’s murder by white supremacists. How did they know this? The fact that Mary had been heard to speak was reported in the local papers—as were the actions of any other Blacks who tried to speak, own property, vote, or do anything that was deemed “uppity”—in order to assist the local KKK in bringing that “uppity Negro” to a violent end. This was the normal for Black folks in the South in that time.
Today, the tiny memorial to Mary and her unborn child embedded in the side of the road in Lowndes County, Georgia, is shot through with bullet holes from deer rifles fired by white men eager to kill something. This, too, is the normal for Black folks in America in our time.
The KKK, the abbreviation for the Ku Klux Klan, is the most famous and long-standing American white supremacist group. Founded by disgruntled ex-Confederate soldiers in 1865, within a year the KKK had begun a reign of terror against Black communities. Although briefly suppressed in 1872, the KKK resurfaced and continued to use lynching and intimidation—the burning cross and destruction by fire of Black businesses and homes—to terrorize Black families in America.
It is estimated that 6,500 Black women, men, and children were lynched in the United States during the years from 1865 to 1950, according to the latest report by the Equal Justice Initiative. During the twelve years directly after the American Civil War, Black Americans were lynched at the rate of one every other day. In the sixties, the KKK diversified into shooting and bombing. Among their most infamous acts of violence during the sixties are the murder of NAACP leaders Medgar Evers, Harry Moore, and his wife, Harriette Moore, all in their own homes, and the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four little Black girls.
We know the history of lynching as a terror tactic. How innocuous it was—regular Sunday-afternoon fun for white society, complete with picnics on the village green. We have seen, many times, the chilling pictures: the laughing, happy white watchers pointing at the Black hanging dead bodies as a job well done; the watching white children, learning this lesson well. The spectacle of the death of the Black body as a public warning—a tactic still very much in use today.
Because this history is our present, I can never get used to it. But I do not want to ever get used to it—I do not ever want to become so numb and beaten down by racism in America that the pain and rage of this strange fruit can become strange fodder to joke about instead.
There are always three violences. The first is the violence itself.
The second is the violence of not righting the original violence. This is, for example, the violence that lets Breonna Taylor’s killers still roam free; this is the violence that let the killers of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery roam free until public outcry led to their arrests; this is the violence that left Michael Brown’s murdered black body baking in the hundred-degree Midwestern summer heat for hours—something no American would let be done to a stray dog.
The third is erasure of the violence.
Sometimes, in the first uncertain moments between sleeping and waking, when I cannot tell if the liquid oozing from the trees is black sap or Black blood, I can hear the silenced stories of the lynched rising outward in the language of kinship—of blood and bone and memory—that cannot be denied.
This is the pain of the KKK joke: when you share your trauma from racist experiences in order to get people to care that Black lives matter, one of the people listening will make the KKK joke and will expect you to stay silent and take it—like you have taken everything else and stayed silent and then taken some more, for so long.
The pain of the KKK joke is that when you respond, you are attacked for speaking out against its racism rather than the racism that was said; you are made into a stereotype of an angry Black woman. But even though you are scared you have no choice but to speak; after living for a year in a domestic violence shelter with your newborn, the promise you made to yourself, upon leaving, was to never to let another man harm you again; to never let anyone or anything, even the white supremacy of the KKK joke and those who wield it, harm you again.
The pain of the KKK joke is the denial of the racism and white privilege that created it. The pain of the KKK joke is that it keeps weaponizing this violence.
But sshhhhhh, the trees still whispering. If you listen, late at night, they are telling the history of the KKK joke.
Hope Wabuke is a poet, writer, and assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.