Though we didn’t have a proper boogeyman to worry about at night, and God was ever-present—if not in song, in spirit—Grandma did give us something to avoid by day. White folks.
My mother says Grandma was never intentionally racist, but she grew up in Tennessee, on what was “pretty much a plantation.” She had this persistent memory of a little white girl who would hit and pick on her, but she could never retaliate because that meant trouble not just for her, but for the rest of her family as well. Before she passed away, while in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, my mother was her primary caretaker. Mother says Grandma would sometimes mistake my niece for a white child and my mom would have to intervene, lest Grandma take out her frustrations on her great-granddaughter.
I’d love to think that in her description of white folks Grandma meant “bad” white folks, since she was so fond of Matlock, Marshal Dillon, Billy Graham, Robert Tilton, and the like, and I don’t remember any qualifier ever being used. But warnings about white folks always came as dismissals of terrible behaviors and counsel to avoid them whenever possible. The same admonitions came from my mother who, at one point, chided me for wanting to be in the Jr. Beta club at school despite having all the qualifications but not being invited to the ceremony.
Her advice: “Them white folks told you they didn’t want you in their club already. You should listen to them.”
My mom and grandmother’s admonishments were full of very real fear. They weren’t trying to indirectly warn me about what might happen; they were wiser than that and didn’t have the time to worry about foolish hypotheticals. No, they were warning me about what did happen, what is happening even as we speak.
Perhaps it was because of this that I don’t remember ever being afraid of the Boogeyman as a kid, although we had plenty of other fictions to keep us in line. I was certainly afraid of God and the evil spirits Grandma, my mother, and her siblings casually credited with so many people’s odd behaviors. I was scared of death, too, since it meant I would most likely burn in Hell eternally if my understanding of their explanations of salvation was correct. Grandma would remind us that “God don’t like ugly.” anytime we did anything she didn’t like, conferring her connection to Him through their mutual disdain for our earthly disobediences. Perhaps this gave me and my siblings no need for a so-called “boogeyman” with such a title because God was one of sorts. And we did fear him. Despite that fear–which I never fully came to appreciate as the kind of reverence she hoped we would– she taught us that He was someone we should see as a friend, a comforter whose primary concern was our souls.
I don’t imagine anyone would ever try to convince a child to befriend the Boogeyman, or to seek comfort in his reputation. An adult would likely never entertain the ridiculous notion. By the time many of us reach adulthood, we have not only dismissed, but have effectively had the Boogeyman of our childhood nightmares murdered, dispelled by some higher authority. That’s a comforting thought, if a bit morbid, and we all rest easier because of it. We know the power of the fiction because we know the fear we felt. And we sleep better knowing we could do what’s necessary to eliminate whatever caused our fear. While many of us successfully killed off the mythical bedtime bugaboo, other fictive fears persisted, and we carry those along with us through our day-to-day lives as omnipresent as my grandma’s God. And just as comforting.
By the time many of us reach adulthood, we have not only dismissed, but have effectively had the Boogeyman of our childhood nightmares murdered, dispelled by some higher authority.
But we find ourselves in a strange state when the Boogeyman is Blackness. The fear of Blackness causes people to spring into action, following people they suspect of crimes with no evidence to prove it or pulling a gun on someone with unmerited presumptions of that person’s guilt. Others call the cops, looking for some higher authority to slay the monster on their behalf as we all looked to our parents to do when we were children. Some are left fearing their safety because of their long-held belief in the stories they’ve been told that control their every interaction with the world, and the rest of us are left questioning our safety because of those other people’s fears.
We know race is no realer than the Boogeyman, yet children all over are still scared of what’s hiding under the bed, lurking in the closet, or waiting in the dark … and plenty adults, too. Children didn’t invent the Boogeyman, even if they’re some of his most convincing spokespeople. Similarly, today’s racists didn’t invent racism, even though many practice it with an inventor’s mastery. And maybe– just maybe– this was the reason for Grandma’s cautions, something she learned during her Tennessee upbringing: When white people see you as the Boogeyman they’ll do anything in their power to destroy you:
The Boogeymen masquerade as Starbucks patrons and want to use the restroom.
The Yale-educated Boogeyman sinisterly naps in her dorm’s common room.
A family of Boogeymen barbecue in an Oakland park on the lake.
Boogeymen are spotted loading their luggage in an AirBnB in Rialto, California.
The list goes on forever. They elicit the kind of fear that is apparently only quelled by calling law-enforcement. In other cases, such as the 17-year-old walking through his father’s Sanford, Florida neighborhood or the 12-year-old playing with a pellet gun in a Cleveland, Ohio park, the fear ultimately led to the killing of the physical manifestations of the kind of myth so many of us came to realize was irrational before such an incident could occur.
And maybe–just maybe–this was the reason for Grandma’s cautions, something she learned during her Tennessee upbringing: When white people see you as the Boogeyman they’ll do anything in their power to destroy you.
Maybe there’s something to this notion of killing our boogeymen, so long as it remains metaphorical, a death in the imagination rather than the taking of an actual life. Sadly, though, when we are able to project imaginary fears onto real people it makes it all the more difficult to see them as people rather than mythic creatures dead-set on our terror and demise.
Perhaps this is how we can have racism with no racists, white supremacy with no white supremacists, inequality with no bad actors, which all ultimately lead to injustice with no accountability. After all, the Boogeyman of childhood fantasy creates issues within homes, perhaps between children, but the racial variety realizes a kind of racial terror many people of color might call America’s Nightmare, a perpetual darkness.
Perhaps this is how we can have racism with no racists, white supremacy with no white supremacists, inequality with no bad actors, which all ultimately lead to injustice with no accountability.
As real as the terror of a child, it seems this unreal, racial Boogeyman still strikes fear in the white imagination. As I Black man, I can hardly imagine the immobility my life would suffer if I called the police every time I suspected white supremacy or racial terror, or if I possessed the privilege to even consider it. Given that they’re inextricable, I’d literally have to find someone to call on the police upon their arrival. Though she warned me to avoid white people, Grandma would probably tell me to give my fear of being their Boogeyman to God. But I’m not so sure how the God she feared handles the business of eradicating fictional monsters. Especially the kind made in the image of man to scare children into compliance. Much less the kind made in the image of me– the kind that would easily scare my neighbors into calling the police on me for being in my own neighborhood and undoubtedly give them just cause to eliminate the fear I elicit by murdering me. So, here we are together, in the dark, somewhat prepared to do the work neither our grandparents nor our gods ever finished, wholly unsure how or why, and deathly afraid of what’s under the bed.