It was a mean enough world that people got desperate. For one thing, for day pickers, there was the money. For another, there was their pride. And then there was the fact that they did not want to be there in the first place. Some people collected rocks, hid them in their pockets, and threw them into their sack at weighing time to make a heavier load. Some people picked the stalk and all to add extra weight. Some were the first out in the morning, picking early while the dew was on the bud, which meant much of the weight was water. It was a trick they could get away with unless the planter set the cotton out in the sun to dry it out, which some did. When those who were so inclined didn’t outright lard their sacks, they helped themselves to the peaches and berries on the edges of the boss’s cotton and gave themselves a raise for breaking their backs in the field.
Many years later, the people would stand up to water hoses and sheriffs’ dogs to be treated as equal. But for now the people resisted in silent, everyday rebellions that would build up to a storm at midcentury. Rocks stued into cotton sacks in Mississippi at weighing time. The COLORED ONLY signs pulled from the seat backs of public buses and converted into dartboards in dorm rooms in Georgia. Teenagers sneaking into coffee shops and swiveling on the soda fountain stools forbidden to colored people in Florida and then running out as fast as they’d come in before anybody could catch them. Each one fought in isolation and unbeknownst to the others, long before the marches and boycotts that were decades away.
Isabel Wilkerson pinpoints two separate stages of rebellion in black American history. The first stage was a time of individualized rebellion: rebelling in the cotton fields by stuffing bags with rocks or stems to increase their weight, pulling COLORED ONLY signs from public busses, and sneaking into coffee shops to swivel on stools forbidden for black usage. The second stage was a time of organized, shared rebellion: protests and marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and countless other local leaders.
Warmth of Other Suns released prior to the death of George Floyd which sparked a nationwide moment of protest and discussion of race and inequality. The question, then, is whether we have entered a new third stage of rebellion, or whether this is merely an evolution of the second stage of rebellion.
Is this the third stage of the rebellion? And if so, is this new stage a regression in the overall progress?
There is a valid argument that this is indeed an entirely new, third stage of rebellion. In some ways, the protests of 2020 went above and beyond many of the protests of the 1960s. White Americans joined Black Americans in the protests in much greater numbers than ever before. A police station was burned down in Minneapolis.
But this larger, fiercer response to police brutality and racial inequality has been met with an equally larger and fierce counter by White Americans afraid of threats to the status quo that has been so kind to them. Our country is arguably more polarized than ever. There is a pushback on inclusivity and “politically correctness.” People are belligerent and fall back to identity politics. Social media is changing our brains so that we are losing empathy, attention-shortened, and looking to confirm our own opinions.
Is this more of the same (but in a new way?)
However, there is also reason to believe this might simply be an evolution of the second stage of rebellion. It can be said that we are in an evolution of the second stage rather than in a new stage entirely due to the advancements of technology. In the twentieth century it was a little easier to ignore lynchings and mishappenings in the South due to the isolation of the lynching. If it was not widely reported, it could easily be overlooked. Nowadays, overlooking an instance of brutality is difficult with the many forms of media outlets available at once. George Floyd’s murder was broadcast all over the nation in a matter of miliminutes. It was difficult to ignore the “I can’t breath” while the officer laid his knee on Floyd’s neck. It would be difficult to ignore a lynching broadcast all over the nation.
Additionally, this can be seen as an evolution because the marches look only slightly different. In the 1960s, African Americans were tear-gassed, fed to the dogs, and hit with rubber bullets. The people engaging in these marches may be different, but the marches are ultimately still the same. We’re all marching for the same cause: justice.
Given that we are hardly a year removed from the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, it is not yet possible to tell whether we have entered a new stage of rebellion or are merely in the process of the second stage’s evolution. Only Time Will Tell.