Anger And A Sense Of Betrayal Drive 'Why Didn't We Riot?'

Oct 5, 2020
Originally published on October 7, 2020 12:24 pm

It wasn't the racist emails that bothered Issac J. Bailey.

Well, they bothered him — it was just that being a Black columnist for The Sun News, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he accepted that he'd get hateful messages.

It was his well-intentioned white colleagues who he found more exhausting.

"I actually stopped writing about race for several weeks just to see if I would get a tap on the shoulder from my white colleagues," Bailey says. "And as soon as I wrote about race once in two weeks I would get those questions from them about 'why was I actually spending so much time on race?'"

It's one of the stories in Bailey's new book of essays, Why Didn't We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland. It was a painful book for Bailey to write. Not that he has a hard time writing, as a journalist and college professor — more that he had long been suppressing his anger about being a Black man in America.

"Mainly because I never wanted to feel like what I feel now," Bailey says. "And it is a combination of my anger and a deep sense of betrayal, frankly, because it hurts so much to actually deal with these issues, especially with the people whom I loved for such a long time."


Interview Highlights

On the idea of black guilt

At least I know for me, I have spent so much of my time and energy over so many years essentially trying to defend white people, at least like against charges of racism, et cetera, because we have to pray together, laugh together, which is all great and wonderful. But, though, you see folks like that really openly embrace bigotry, racism, which is coming from the White House. Going back through my own family's history, we've actually had prisoners in our family that made us shameful. And so, therefore, I've seen somebody turn that shame into the sort of need to try to cleanse ourselves by going the extra mile, in order to defend our white friends and associates.

On his definition of "riot"

I don't mean looting. I don't mean actually breaking out windows, like, all those other things. What I'm talking about is like this kind of a communal scream, in which we don't let things go back to normal, at least until we have fully gotten real change. So what I mean by that, for me, it is about making things too sort of uncomfortable to hold on to the status quo.

On whether this summer's protests might be that communal scream

At least for me, the heartening thing about it is that this has not gone away yet. That's the kind of action that we need, and also that it needs to continue. And honestly, it almost felt trippy, especially when, like, you've been beating your head against a brick wall for such a long time. And then you finally see cracks — that can be energizing. And it was almost scary as well. Even what's positive change, like, there is stress simply because it is something new, it feels strange. Like, I'm not saying that that is something that should stop us. I am saying that that is evidence of a real change finally, possibly being here. Which is a good thing.

On how it feels to talk about these issues

I feel naked. Yes, I feel exposed. And also I am really exhausted, but I am not worn out. I am also very honest in the book about my own brokenness, and that I tell those kind of stories simply because I need other people to know that in our brokenness, there is still greatness there, if we are willing to actually push forward harder together, at least finally on up to truths and not look away, then I think this really is a better day for us.

This story was produced for radio by Mallory Yu and Patrick Jarenwattananon, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Issac J. Bailey became a columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, he knew he'd get racist emails. After all, he was a Black man in South Carolina writing about race. What surprised him were the comments from his well-intentioned white colleagues. They would ask whether he really had to focus on race so much. So he actually wrote about other things for a few weeks.

ISSAC J BAILEY: As soon as I sort of actually wrote about race, like, once in two weeks, I would, like, get those questions from them asking me why was I actually spending so much time on race.

SHAPIRO: Bailey says he tried to ignore these kinds of experiences. He suppressed his anger, worked to bridge racial divides, took his family to a mostly white church for almost two decades. Now he's confronting these emotions in a new collection of essays called "Why Didn't We Riot? A Black Man In Trumpland."

BAILEY: It is a combination of sort of my anger and a deep sense of betrayal, frankly, because it actually hurts so much, like, in order to actually deal with these issues, especially with the people whom I actually loved for such a long time.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about one of the truths that you explore in the book that people don't often talk about.

BAILEY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: You say we often discuss white guilt. We don't discuss Black guilt.

BAILEY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: What do you want people to understand about Black guilt?

BAILEY: At least, like, I know, like, for me, I have spent so much of my time and energy, like, over, like, so many years, like, essentially sort of actually trying to defend white people at least, like, against sort of charges of, like, racism, et cetera, because we have sort of - like, sort of prayed together, laughed together, which is all great and wonderful. But, though, you see folks like that openly embrace, like, bigotry, like, and sort of, like, racism which is coming from the White House.

And also that - going back, at least, like, actually through my own family's history, we've actually had prisoners in our family. That sort of, like, actually made us shameful. And so, like, therefore, I've sort of actually turned that shame into, like, this sort of need to try to cleanse ourselves by sort of, like, going the extra mile in order to, like, actually defend, like, our - sort of my white friends and associates.

SHAPIRO: OK, so the title of the book is "Why Didn't We Riot?"

BAILEY: Right.

SHAPIRO: How do you define riot...

BAILEY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...In this context?

BAILEY: Yes. I don't mean looting. Like, I don't mean, like, actually breaking out windows - like, all those sort of things. What I'm actually talking about - like, it is, like, this kind of a communal scream, like, in which we, like, actually don't let things go back to normal, at least until we have, like, fully gotten real change. And so, like, what I mean by that for me - like, it is about actually making things too sort of, like, uncomfortable to, like, actually hold onto the status quo.

SHAPIRO: Is that relentless, communal scream that you're looking for what we've seen this summer? I imagine you wrote most of this book before these protests...

BAILEY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Began.

BAILEY: Yes. Yes. And, I mean, at least for me, like, the sort of heartening thing about it, like, is that this has not gone away yet. That sort of, like, is, like, the kind of action that we need and also that, like, it actually needs to continue. And, like, honestly, I mean, like, it has, like, almost felt, like, trippy almost, especially when, like, you've actually been sort of, like, actually beating your head at least, like, against a brick wall for such a long time. And then you finally see cracks. That actually can be energizing.

And also, like, it was almost scary as well. Even when I saw, like, positive change, like, there is stress simply because, like, it is something new. Yeah, so it's like, therefore, that - like, it feels strange. Like, I am not saying that that is something that should stop us. Like, I am saying that that is evidence of a real change finally, like, possibly being here, like, which is a good thing.

SHAPIRO: Finally, can you just tell us what it's like for you to talk about these issues right now? I mean, you're very honest in the book about the PTSD and other experiences that you have struggled with largely as a result of being a Black man in America. And you've now laid it all out there, and you're talking...

BAILEY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...About it publicly. What does it feel like right now?

BAILEY: I feel naked (laughter). Yeah, it's like I feel exposed. And also, I am really exhausted, but, like, I am not worn out. I am also very honest in the book about my own brokenness and also that I sort of, like, actually tell those kind of stories simply because I sort of, like, actually need other people to know that sort of in our brokenness, there is still greatness there if we are willing to, like, actually push forward harder together. At least until we actually own up to truths and not look away, then I think there sort of really is a better day for us.

SHAPIRO: Well, Issac J. Bailey, thank you for talking with us about it.

BAILEY: Yes, sir. Thank you very much for having me, Ari.

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