Kanye West shocked the world when he stood in front of a national TV audience in and declared that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a fundraising telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief. The statement wasn’t shocking because it was revelatory. It was shocking because Kanye West dared to say something black people had only whispered to each other in closed quarters and barbershops.
By 2005, when Kanye uttered those damning words, conspiracy theories about governments plotting to subvert black progress had been pushed to the margins of society and even black culture. Which is surprising, considering there was once a time in American history where black people were fully aware that to want equal rights meant being directly at odds with the United States government.
Since then—whether it be because of the prevalence of respectability politics, a biased education system or, well, I’m not sure what—the black community has lost its penchant for conspiracy theories, for an alternate truth all our own. Instead, black people who reject official narratives are often reduced to the “crazy uncle,” “hotep,” and “conspiracy brother” tropes in black culture. Recent events—from Ferguson to Flint—suggest, however, that black Americans have cause for suspicion.
I was lucky enough, early on in life, to learn firsthand just how deep America’s desire to quell black liberation has been, giving me a healthy belief within every black conspiracy is a grain of truth. I learned all of this for the first time as a 10-year-old in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi.
My dad always explained to me that the men and women involved in the Civil Rights movement never stop fighting. Many never stopped fighting for equal rights. Others found different movements and causes to join. And, admittedly, some totally disconnected. But none of them stopped fighting. They’re all still fighting that internal battle that they haven’t been able to let go of over the course of the last 50 years. It’s a PTSD-induced battle of doubt, second-guessing, and sometimes guilt over surviving when so many of their friends didn’t.
I watched Auntie Sharon fight that mental battle over a plate of beans and rice and microwaved quesadillas. Auntie Sharon wasn’t my real auntie. But was customary when being raised around people who fought for civil rights with my dad, I called her my aunt because she was part of the movement— an elder—so she was my family. That night in the restaurant, I watched my aunt choke out her grief and guilt through pursed, trembling lips while she fought back tears.
Auntie Sharon was in town for a few days, so my parents and I took her out to eat. In the years I’d known her, I’d never heard her talk much about her involvement with the movement, but this night was different. Auntie Sharon had never met my dad during the movement. They instead became friends later in life through work. That night, they decided to talk about co-acquaintances and got stuck on Robert Roundcliff and the night he died.
Auntie Sharon was a member of a radical Black liberation group out of Connecticut with Roundcliff and the last time she saw him, he’d stormed out of a meeting. Roundcliff had wanted to bomb an airplane and fervently argued that the group act out his plan. He was fed up with seeing his friends die and wanted to strike back at the United States government that was perpetrating the murders. His plan got voted down and Auntie Sharon was one of the leading voices against it.
“I just didn’t know what he was going to do next,” she said. Auntie Sharon voice cracked as she spoke and between words she paused to put a finger on her top lip to help her keep composure. “We shouldn’t have let him leave. We didn’t think he’d kill himself.”
That night when Roundcliff left the meeting, his car exploded, killing him instantly. The story went that he’d driven as far away as he could, pulled over on the side of the road and detonated the explosives he was planning on using for his bombing. For 50 years Auntie Sharon lived with the guilt of Roundcliff killing himself out of maniacal frustration that he couldn’t execute his plan. Fifty years she tortured herself over his death, a suicide that wasn’t.
“Sharon,” my dad said, “Robert didn’t commit suicide. He was killed.”
The FBI killed Robert Roundcliff. Here’s how my dad, and so many other civil rights members knew: immediately after his death, news reports stated that Robert and his good friend Hop Johnson were in the car together when the bomb went off, but Johnson wasn’t in the car. He was supposed to be in the car and news being filtered to the media so quickly after the explosion that he was in the car tipped the FBI’s hand in the assassination. The bombing was a planned attack organized by the FBI with help of an informant in the meeting.
By the time I was old enough to revisit the Commission papers in my teenage years, something weird had happened. Black skepticism over the government and police had been relegated to the shadows. Things like COINTELPRO and the idea of drugs being intentionally filtered into black communities during the '80s were reserved for the dinner table and barbershops.
I watched Auntie Sharon absorb the news as my dad told her, waiting for her to show relief or any release of the agony she was showing while retelling the story. She didn’t show any of those emotions. She just looked down and kept stirring her drink, continuing to fight back tears for the rest of the night.
A few months later, the state of Mississippi released files from the Sovereignty Commission, the state-run agency organized by the governor at the time to spy on activists in the Civil Rights movement. My father’s files came in the mail one day and he let me read them. They included files documenting years of government-sanctioned spying on my father and the admission by the state that the murders of the three Civil Rights workers came at the hands of government officials. The letters made clear what my father, other Civil Rights workers, and black Americans as a whole knew all too well in the '60s, that the government was actively conspiring against black liberation through subversive and often violent means.
By the time I was old enough to revisit the Commission papers in my teenage years, something weird had happened. Black skepticism over the government and police had been relegated to the shadows. Things like COINTELPRO and the idea of drugs being intentionally filtered into black communities during the '80s were reserved for the dinner table and barbershops. It was okay to talk about crooked cops or claim that the LAPD was involved in Biggie and Pac’s deaths, but to say them out loud or especially around white people was suddenly something to be embarrassed by. The general thinking seemed to be that it’s okay to talk about these things in private but it sets us back to talk about them on T.V. We became ashamed of our own inclinations and learned to doubt ourselves instead of the government.
When Dave Chappelle joked about police sprinkling crack on victims of police brutality to give just cause, it was a comedic turn on something considered to be an urban legend. Because systemic racism and government-sanctioned murder were no longer things we could discuss in public and if we did, we were met with dismissive scoffs and accusations of being damn near crazy. Sure it was fun to speculate but no responsible black person actually believed the government was conspiring against us.
To be sure, black conspiracy theories are different in form and function from the narratives currently being cooked up on the political right. During the 2016 election, Trump supporters have claimed faulty microphones, falsified presidential birth certificates, and undisclosed illnesses. Those stories are created to offer escape from an inconvenient reality. Black conspiracy theories, on the other hand, seek to make sense of illogical conclusions and inconsistencies in official accounts based on centuries of evidence regarding America’s relationship to its black citizens, a relationship that certainly begs explanation.
So here goes: I don’t believe what the cops said about the death of Korryn Gaines. I don’t trust Michael Brown’s autopsy report. I don’t believe prosecutors are actually trying to bring cases to trial when it comes to police killing unarmed black people. And I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of the dead black people responsible for Chicago’s meteoric crime rate were killed by cops and the blame was put on gang violence.
Do I know these things are true? No, but I now know they're possible. And that’s as big an indictment of our country as any accusation I’ve seen thus far.
*Some names and details have been changed to protect privacy.