Ever since the video of the group of Covington High School boys surrounding Native American activist Nathan Phillips and—depending on your interpretation—either harassed him or defended themselves (count me among those who understand it to be the former), there has been a massive national conversation addressing numerous issues that speak to our cultural and political zeitgeist.
As a student of American music and culture, one item—which my wife hipped me to—piqued my interest. In his latest column for the New York Times, David Brooks set the scene, depicting Phillips as “an older Native American man who was banging a drum.”
On first glance, mentioning the drum might just be an innocuous detail that Brooks is giving his readers who may not have seen the video. But going deep into the history of American culture, we see a complicated relationship between the drum and race.
Nick Sandmann told NBC news this morning that “I’m willing to stand here as long as you [Phillips] want to hit this drum in my face.”
In a recent tweet, David French frames Phillips’s drumming as a threatening act:
Kyle Smith echoes and elaborates on French’s point. He opens his recent piece on the incident for the National Review with a series of rhetorical questions: “If you’re in a public place and someone starts heckling you, are you entitled to heckle back? . . . What if that person in fact takes a drum up to you and starts banging it in your face? Are you entitled to heckle back? How about smirking? Are you allowed to smirk?” He continues: “To put it another way, if you were minding your own business in a public place and someone came right up to you and put a drum up to your face and made a huge racket inches from your nose, would you be happy about it?”
French and Smith see Sandmann’s response—and his now infamous “smirk”—as a justified and necessary response: “what else was this kid supposed to do?”
The Right’s defense of Sandmann and their fixation on Phillips’s drum reveals the long associations of the drum with white fear of the savage African/Native in the American cultural imagination. Take, for example, this poster for the b movie, Drums of Africa, which hangs ironically in my office as a reminder of the powerful place of race in American pop culture.
These African drums tell terrifying tales; Africa is untamed; it’s full of forbidden lands; the Africans are portrayed as dangerous savages and kidnappers; etc.
These images and tropes didn’t appear out of nowhere. In antebellum United States, especially after the successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1804, drumming was often banned by Southern slaveholders who were fearful that their slaves would use their drumming as a nonverbal means with which to coordinate an uprising. The nineteenth century is littered with travel accounts by whites who link drums with slaves, and later, freed blacks whose savagery was to be feared.
This yoking of the drums to the potential of blacks to act on their stereotypical savage nature was a key element of how understandings of race were constructed in the United States. It should not be surprising that the characterization of the drum as the dangerous weapon of black people as a way to confirm their savagery was one tool to maintain white supremacy.
In light of this, it shouldn’t be surprising to see members of the Right subconsciously channeling this centuries-long fear of the person of color playing a drum in their defense of Sandmann. French and Smith’s interpretation of Phillips’s drum as an antagonistic action that cannot be ignored is in keeping with and just another manifestation of the long history of dehumanizing people of color in the United States.