I’ve been thinking about this time spent at the Tuskegee University Archives mostly in relation to a lecture I delivered to a colleague’s class in early December. First, a quick backstory on that talk. While watching the ESPN documentary “OJ: Made in America” this summer, I was floored by the way that the producers and writers were able to tie the Simpson case to a longer history of race, celebrity, and (in)justice. I saw a depth to the case and to Simpson’s biography that I had not been made aware of before. My colleague (a brilliant historian named Mary, who is also my dearest of friends) wisely made the criminal case the center of one of her classes for her US history course. Knowing my shared interest in Simpson, she invited me to give the lecture.
When I was preparing for this talk, I was fixated on a USA Today piece Mary had selected for the class reading. This document was a collection of reactions (both positive and negative) to the verdict. One line in particular stands out. Upon hearing that Simpson had been acquitted, a respondent from Connecticut declared: “We are not a society of justice any longer. I’m truly ashamed of our justice system. It does not work. This is not a good day to be an American.” Those familiar with the case (or the FX show) know that Simpson’s trial had become a referendum on issues he had previously chosen to ignore. Instead of focusing on the victims in the case, the defense and media put more attention on police brutality and the systematic injustices that disproportionately affect/ed black men. When I read this particular passage, I was immediately struck by the fact that this person imagined America as a place that had always been just. Reflecting further, I could not help but connect this excerpted statement statement to this brilliant piece by Vann R. Newkirk II. Recalling a childhood run-in with a man he calls “Mr. Confederate Flag,” Newkirk remembers his father telling him, “This is who we are.” What Newkirk’s father was telling him–maybe even urging him to see–was that acts of hate were not anomalous in this country. He was also suggesting that extrajudicial acts by whites (for which there may not be any consequences) might continue to be the norm. This was the world of justice that Simpson’s lawyers were battling in, though they had the decided advantage of playing on Simpson’s wealth and celebrity. More recently, in the wake of this most recent election, Newkirk reflected, “This is who we are. Those words often come to me when I see the ugly things in life now.” Whatever you make of Simpson himself, the crime committed in his former wife’s home was absolutely “ugly”–so, too, were the thousands of crimes committed by others with the privilege to skirt the consequences.
The struggle to tell the truth about the past–and the sometimes “ugly” aspects that make Americans “who we are,” may not seem to have much to do with OJ Simpson. Just like in the early 1990s, however, we are living in a moment when there is tremendous, overwhelming evidence of social injustice. Who could miss the parallels between the filming of the Rodney King incident and the many (too many) videos of untimely deaths that have flashed our screens this year? Here’s my hypothesis. I would suggest that it is sometimes easier, or simply more manageable, for people to focus their energy on a single extraordinary case–take OJ Simpson in 1994 or the fascination with Adnan Syed in 2015–than to ask people to weigh the totality of the criminal justice system. Pushing further, I’d like to consider why Simpson is having “a moment” again. Why, in 2016, do we want to learn more about a man whose wealth allowed him to essentially buy his way out of the justice system? What does Simpson’s story have to teach us in the midst of #blacklivesmatter? Maybe we have been craving a story like this because we would rather see an outrageous (or shocking) outcome as an exception than talk about the obvious patterns that Work and others had to strive so hard to document.
Simpson’s story lies somewhere on a spectrum between distraction and parable. Maybe it is best described as an oracle. Perhaps it will emerge as something that tells us “who we are” and gives us pause when we refuse to see the obvious, refuse to listen to the evidence put forth by Worth and others. If you haven’t already…watch “OJ: Made in America” for yourself. Let me know what you think. Build your own archive.