Societal The Word 9 minute read

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead


May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

The last line of this Irish drinking toast came to mind and as I read messages expressing love for former president, George H.W. Bush after he died two weeks ago at the age of 94.  We have been taught not to speak ill of the dearly departed so, I understand why people wished his family and friends well, thanked him for his military service and admired his 73-year marriage to Barbara.   The former president’s death provided media outlets the opportunity to rewrite or whitewash fairly recent history right before our eyes.  Bush, like other public figures, was remembered in glowing terms without casting a critical eye on the impact of his full political record.

And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead

This line implies that none of us are perfect and upon our deaths the devil will try every trick possible to make sure our names end up in his ledger.  If there is some way we can slip his attention and make it to the Pearly Gates before he realizes we’re gone then, we’re home free.  Perhaps our loved ones try to give us a head start by heaping praise on us at our funerals.  Everyone in the neighborhood may have known that Papa was a rolling stone but, his eulogy will mention only his love of extensive travel and him preparing his kids for the harsh realities of life.  He’ll be remembered for being a people person–a relationship builder who found comfort wherever he slept.

Omitting unflattering facts from the historical record is how imperfect men and women are recast as heroes and their ends are used to justify their means.  Erasing from American history the genocide of Native Americans and the theft of their land allows the perpetrators of those acts and their beneficiaries to peddle the beliefs of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.  Begin the discussion of today’s wealth inequality with the story of how the nation’s richest families and institutions benefited from the slave trade and the trope of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps to achieve wealth fades into the ether.  It is unfortunate that American history is taught by way of hero worship rather than a simple reporting of the facts.  Like the line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) goes, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Printing the legend of Bush’s life allows the public to see him only as a “good” and “decent” man; the affable patriarch of the Bush clan held in high regard by the first African American couple to inhabit the White House.  Never mind that he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights act that would eventually make possible an Obama presidency.  When the current POTUS demonizes (brown) immigrants based on the actions of a few, a direct line can be drawn from his comments to strategies employed during Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. Research the infamous Willie Horton ad and you will learn how GOP strategists seized upon an Al Gore attack line against Michael Dukakis to inject racism and fear mongering into American politics for generations.

Supporters of George W. Bush would employ the same racist campaign tactics years later against John McCain during the 2000 South Carolina GOP presidential primary.  In addition to “swift boating” McCain’s military service, friends of the Bush campaign spread rumors that McCain’s brown-skinned adopted daughter was born out of wedlock after an extramarital affair (with a black woman).  They began a whisper campaign alleging that Cindy McCain abused drugs and the senator was brainwashed to overthrow the US government from within during his imprisonment in a Vietnamese POW camp.

The same “Manchurian Candidate” smear would be echoed by McCain supporters to target Senator Obama during the 2008 presidential race.  Trump’s birtherism attacks against Obama were also piloted during the 1988 campaign to cast aspersions on Michael Dukakis.  Dukakis was characterized as too different, too “other” than the average American due to his Greek heritage.  Never mind that he was born in Brookline, Massachusetts and twice served as the state’s governor.  In short, Trumpism did not just happen, it has existed in a subtler but, deliberate form for decades. The sowing of hate and xenophobia has been perfected through years of trial and error.  A failure to study the past inhibits us from making sense of the present and understanding how to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Printing George H.W. Bush’s legend also omits his most egregious political acts:

  • He failed to use the full powers of the presidency to fight the AIDS and HIV epidemic
  • He led the US into the First Gulf War that resulted in thousands of civilian casualties
  • He vetoed the 1990 Civil Rights Act
  • His war on drugs escalated the mass incarceration of minorities
  • His advisors orchestrated the entrapment of a DC high school student who was tricked into selling drugs to federal agents a block away from the White House for the purpose of lending authenticity to a speech about the war on drugs

“Until the lion has a storyteller, the hunter will always be a hero.”—African Proverb

When powerful white folks die all sins are forgiven and we are urged to show respect for their service, give their families time to grieve and most importantly, to stop dwelling on the past.  Compare that to the immediate character assassination of black victims of police brutality.  The totality of a black life is often reduced to a single bad act, a lapse in judgement, prior drug use or even the scantest criminal record.  If you want to know how your enemies will portray you upon your death, search your social media posts for the most thuggish picture or words you’ve ever shared.  Did news outlets show the same respect for the dead when they reported on the lives of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and the many others executed for what amounted to misdemeanors or simply existing while black?  If it’s ok to dredge up unflattering events in the lives of average American citizens then, why do we shy away from doing the same for public figures, especially when those figures are white?

The Unbearable Politeness of Being (While Black)

For a while I was puzzled by the number of black folks flooding social media sights with glowing tributes to George H.W. Bush.  Had they survived the effects of the same policies I did during the Reagan and Bush years?  Were they influenced by the Obamas’ relationship with the Bush family?  Do they think that relationship would even exist if the former president and first lady were just Barry and Chellie from the Chi?  Would W sneak me a piece of hard candy if we crossed paths in Crawford, TX?  The tributes began to make sense once I remembered how remaining polite in the face of dehumanizing treatment and making white folks comfortable are long-practiced survival skills that have been passed down for centuries from one generation to the next.


By Langston Hughes

Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!

In the cotton fields,
Gentle Breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!

Throughout our history it has been difficult for us to be anything but “sweet and docile, meek, humble and kind” in America.  Showing a hint of anger or aggression, even in response to unspeakable acts of violence against us, has at times led to our mass incarceration, mutilation and death.  Consider that from 1882-1968 there were 3,446 documented lynchings of black folks in America.  That averages to one black person murdered by an angry white mob every 9 days for 86 years straight.  3 people per month.  For 86 years. White folks’ comfort during that period was a matter of life and death because, uncomfortable white folks could become angry white folks and angry white folks are dangerous white folks.

Today, the police are called on us for simply existing while black in decidedly white spaces.  No matter how we dress, no matter our occupation, white folks’ comfort still plays a prominent role in our lives.  Want to sell bottled water?  Better make sure Permit Patty is comfortable.  Want to swim in a public pool?  Better make sure Pool Patrol Paula is comfortable.  Want to barbecue?  Better make sure BBQ Becky is comfortable.  Want to fit in at work or remain in the running for that promotion?  When powerful white folks die, you better show respect for the dead and make sure you grieve along with a grateful nation.

Showing respect is one thing.  Being an active participant in rewriting history is another.  By omitting uncomfortable facts from a public figure’s life story, we diminish their full impact on past, present and future events. We also invalidate the experiences of those that were on the wrong side of their policies.  Perhaps the most dangerous consequence of glossing over their destructive acts is that it encourages others to behave in the same manner knowing that the passage of time will absolve them of all transgressions.  For this reason, we must think critically before heaping praise on those whose magnum opuses run counter to our interests.  Otherwise, we fall prey to group think and as Malcolm warned, “…if you form the habit of taking what someone else says about a thing without checking it out for yourself, you’ll find that other people will have you hating your friends and loving your enemies.”





A veteran educator, activist and facilitator of courageous conversations about race and equity in classrooms. He reads, he observes and he writes. Everyone has an opinion—Greg has several.


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