Thursday, January 13, 2011

"True Grit" and the Whiteness of Vengeance

I am not writing this post to criticize on the Cohen brothers’ film True Grit for its garden-variety racism. That outlaws and their pursuers seem to outnumber Native Americans in “Indian Country” is not particularly remarkable. Nor is the fact that two of the three Native Americans encountered by the protagonists are horse torturing children, who receive their comeuppance when Rooster Cockburn knocks them off of a porch railing onto the ground, not once, but twice. No. The thing I think is worth reflecting on about this film is what New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calls “that old-time American religion of vengeance [which] runs like a river through True Grit.”

“But”, you may be thinking, “What does vengeance have to do with race?” Well, this is a fascinating question, one which requires us to reflect honestly on the American national character, and the way that character has been, since the first colonial settlements, bound up with whiteness (the U.S. was of course a legally white nation for most of its history) and with vengeance. Vengeance, indeed runs like a river through this nation’s history and shows up dependably whenever the white majority imagines a threat to its collective entitlement to safety.
As early as the 1630s, the colonists’ growing appetite for land set the stage for a confrontation with the Pequot people. When an English trader and his associates were killed (by some unknown persons for some unknown reason) the incident was used by the English colonists to justify the Pequot War. The outcome of this so-called war was the compete annihilation of the Pequot. This pattern in which a story detailing some horrific offense against whites (usually innocent women and children) is followed by genocidal vengeance against “those bloodthirsty savages” was repeated with nauseating consistency throughout the period of westward expansion.

There is hopefully no need for me to do more than remind the reader of the grizzly history of lynching in this country. I’ll just say that this heinous practice was perpetrated primarily against African American men to avenge the honor of white women, whom the men were often accused of raping. Of course almost any “improper” interaction between a black man and a white woman could end up being construed as a rape or an attempted rape, which had to be avenged. 

It would be nice to imagine that the peculiarly American preoccupation with vengeance would have passed into history with the American frontier and the Antebellum South, but I’m afraid this motif is more essential to the American identity that we’d like to admit. The familiar emotional joy ride that satisfies us with a moment of cathartic and justifiable violence is a well-worn formula realized in about a zillion Hollywood films, not to mention books (fiction and non-fiction alike). The reason it never seems to get old may be that its appeal is on the level of myth.

Mythic story telling is, of course, one of the chief means by which a culture reaffirms its sense of identity and thereby sustains and reproduces its cosmology. The reiteration of the vengeance narrative reassures white folks of our treasured identity as essentially good and honorable, but not-to-be-fucked-with Americans. On the level of cosmology, it establishes the desire for revenge as human nature and its realization as a moral ideal. I’m not denying that there is something natural about the desire for retribution, but the way that this emotion and its translation into action are celebrated and valorized in North American culture is, I believe, peculiar to American culture.

And make no mistake. This cosmology is racialized. Besides the history of racist vengeance described above, and the fact that our avenging heroes have traditionally been portrayed as white men, consider the way that the revenge theme is played out at the institutional level in U.S. society. There are two ways that revenge is institutionalized in the U.S. The first is capital punishment. Notwithstanding the deterrence argument, it seems obvious that public support for the death penalty is to some extent grounded in the public’s craving for revenge. I honestly don’t know how else to explain the extreme focus supporters place on the suffering of the victims and their families. And then there are the staggering racial disparities in death penalty sentencing. Not only are black defendants in similar cases as much as four times more likely than white ones to be sentenced to death, the differential in death sentencing between defendants charged with murdering white people and those charged with murdering black or brown people can be even greater, regardless of the defendant's race.

The second example of institutionalized vengeance in the U.S. is our imperial foreign policy. In a manner strikingly consistent since the days of the Pequot War, the state has pursued its expansionist agenda by provoking its adversaries into attacking us (or not, as in the case of the Spanish-American, Vietnam, and Iraq wars), and then going to war in retaliation. That the wars of U.S. imperialism have more often than not been fought against a racialized enemy only makes the connection between revenge and white American identity that much more transparent.

I think I’ll leave it here. This topic could no doubt be a PhD dissertation, but this is just a blog. I hope it provokes some juicy thoughts, and I welcome your comments. 


  1. Wow! Just saw True Grit last week. This is fascinating, Gregory. Thanks for posting this and starting this blog.

  2. This is a good reflection on vengeance and how it's very much racialized in the U.S., while packaged as a "universal" desire.

  3. The more I learn about who you are, the more I want to know.

  4. Gregory: I am not sure if the world needs another blog but I am certain the world needs your voice and if hearing you is through this blog, then so be it! Your “True Grit” post brings up the hidden transcripts of American history that I believe need to be told, and with the telling, the possibility for healing, and perhaps, the re-envisioning of a new collective narrative? (Wow. I really have been drinking the CIIS Kool-Aid, huh?!). I live in the “gold country” part time (Nevada City). I walk by the many remnants of what was the Maidu culture on my walks with my dog every night but nowhere is that culture remembered in any significant way by the community. Instead, the big to-do is the 49ers from the gold rush days. One of the hidden stories of our history is literally in my backyard. When gold was found here, miners tore apart the hillsides, excavated river beds, and used mercury to extract gold from the ore, unleashing tons of toxic chemicals into the rivers and lakes. The local tribes, like the Maidu were systematically chased off their lands – some taken to missions, others enslaved, and thousands massacred – quite deliberately. Many of the Maidu were sold – prices ranged from $60 for a boy to $200 for a girl. I get this information from old newspaper articles. What was most shocking to discover is that the California State government paid out two million dollars for scalping missions to slaughter the remaining native Indians in this, and surrounding areas. I find it important to tell these stories like you are doing on your blog. It is part of the healing process for all of us. It certainly is helpful in unraveling the stories I have been told and forming my own narrative.

  5. I really enjoyed reading your post especially considering I do not know much about the eco-spiritual movement. Nevertheless, many of the things you say about race are also applicable to class. (Meaning I would guess the movement is comprised mainly not only of white people...but of middle class/upper class white people. Working class white people are excluded much the same way as people of color (despite class background). I feel like it would be beneficial if conversations like this also addressed this point.