My search for William Lynch began last summer after a friend gave me a copy of a 10-page pamphlet that circulated during the Million Man March.
The pamphlet was called the "Let's Make a Slave Kit." It explained how Lynch, a white slave owner from Jamaica, stood on the banks of the James River in 1712 and told Virginia slave owners how to solve their slave "problems."
When Louis Farrakhan addressed the multitudes at the Million Man March in October 1995, he quoted key passages from "Willie" Lynch's narrative to illustrate the lingering vestiges of slavery.
"We as a people now have been fractured, divided and destroyed, filled with fear, distrust and envy," Farrakhan said. "Therefore, because of fear, envy and distrust of one another, many of us as leaders, teachers, educators, pastors and persons are still under the control mechanism of our former slave masters and their children."
Lynch's slave narrative has been around for years, but Farrakhan's speech raised it from obscurity. A prominent Baltimore minister began to mention Willie Lynch in his televised sermons, and a new term, the "Willie Lynch syndrome," made its way into the the black lexicon.
After reading the slave kit, I wanted to know more about Lynch. With the help of Sun researcher Dee Lyon, I began a search that took me to history books, the Internet and some of the leading historians in the country. I'm still no closer to the infamous Willie Lynch than when my search began. Was there ever a Willie Lynch? Or was his speech just an ugly piece of fiction created to explain an even uglier historical fact about the psychology of slavery?
Every black person I know who's read Lynch's narrative has been touched by it. There's something about the message that resonates within the black psyche. It helps explain why there were so few Nat Turners and so many Stepin Fetchits. It explains why so many young black men are filled with self-hatred that leads to prison or the graveyard. And it explains why we've had trouble deciding on a group name. During my life, and I'll soon turn 50, we've been "colored," "Negroes," "blacks" and "African-Americans." The debate continues. None of these names adequately describes the human rainbow produced by the black experience in America.
The slave kit also contains an addendum to Lynch's speech that goes into greater detail about the psychological component of slave breaking. It says: "Accordingly, both a wild horse and a wild or natural nigger is dangerous even if captured, for they will have the tendency to seek their customary freedom, and in doing so might kill you in your sleep. You cannot rest. They sleep while you are awake and are awake while you are asleep. They are dangerous near the family house and it requires too much labor to watch them away from the house. Above all, you cannot get them to work in the natural state. Hence, both the horse and the nigger must be broken; that is break them from one form of mental life to another - keep the body and take the mind."
Who was this diabolical figure, Willie Lynch?
I checked several history books and found nothing. Then Dee went to the Enoch Pratt Library and requested information on him. The Pratt had a copy of Lynch's speech but nothing else. Dee had a similar experience when she called the Virginia Historical Society. Someone offered to fax her a copy of the speech, but there was no information on Lynch.
Next, I went to the Internet where I found the speech on a Web- site maintained by the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The contact person was Anne Taylor, a researcher in the university's Thomas Jefferson Research Center. I gave her a call.
Taylor said she posted the Lynch narrative on the Internet in the early 1990s, and its authenticity has been the subject of a hot debate in cyberspace ever since. No one has been able to determine whether Lynch was real or if he and the speech are total fabrications, she added.
Taylor discovered the speech in a local newspaper, the St. Louis Black Pages. She said she placed it on the Internet to stimulate a discussion about the psychic damage of slavery and to find people who could shed light on Lynch.
Over the years, she's come to the conclusion that the speech is not authentic - a view shared by most of the historians she's discussed it with.
She said the narrative's syntax made her suspicious. It doesn't have the ring of a speech given in the early 18th century. It sounds too American and too modern. "The use of the language during those days was closer to Elizabethan English in its construct and spelling," she explained.
Taylor said the Lynch speech is most likely an "urban myth," something that's based on truth and touches a responsive chord among blacks.
Next, I called Howard Denson, the publisher of the St. Louis Black Pages. Denson said he ran the speech in a commemorative issue of the paper. Asked if the speech was authentic, he paused for a moment and shot back: "I don't know, and frankly, I don't give a damn. I've done a lot of things that I thought would have a lot of appeal. This appeared in one of the ugliest layouts we've ever done. But I've never run a piece that got the response this one got. There's something truly magical about it. Don't ask me to explain it."
Denson went on to say that slavery had a mental component that was supported by "political control and and physical brutality."
"How else can you explain how whites kept control when they were outnumbered five, 10 or 20 to one?" he asked. "Blacks still carry the negative mental legacy of slavery. I think we really need to address the things that hold us back. Blacks spend $400 million annually, but they believe they're poor and powerless because they've been conditioned to think that way."
As for Lynch, Denson said it's not important whether he existed or not. What's more important is understanding the forces that enslaved blacks' minds as well as their bodies.
Next I called Gerald Horne, the director of the Institute of African-American Research at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Horne said he hadn't run across Lynch during years of research and was baffled when Farrakhan mentioned him during the Million Man March. "I thought Farrakhan had made up an allegorical figure," Horne said, adding that history is often the first casualty of Farrakhan's rhetoric.
Horne categorized Willie Lynch as a product of "urban folklore."
"These myths serve a purpose, not because they're true, but they illustrate truths," he said. "The black community was looking for answers to a very complicated situation, slavery and its aftermath, and this reduces its complexities and folds it into a simple narrative."
Horne said that as a historian he can't justify the substitution of fiction for fact. On the other hand, he recognizes that historical novels, which blend fact and fiction, are often accepted as truth by readers. "They say they want to learn history, but really they're just looking for a good story," he added.
Horne said the death of Charles Drew, the black physician and researcher who did pioneering work on blood plasma and founded the American Red Cross Blood Bank, has also become the stuff of an urban myth.
In April 1950, Drew died after an auto crash in rural North Carolina.
"Many blacks believe that Drew died because he was denied a transfusion at a white hospital," Horne said. "It's not true, but it does underscore the fact that throughout much of the nation's history, there were segregated hospitals and segregated blood banks."
(In fact, two white surgeons made a valiant but vain effort to save Drew's life, according to a book by historian Spencie Love.)
Horne offered another reason for the creation of urban myths: "There are also people who look at it this way: Whites have told lies about us, let's tell lies about them."
Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University and the author of, among other works, "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution," said he's never come across Lynch in his research, and he doubts the authenticity of the narrative attributed to Lynch.
But he conceded that it's virtually impossible to prove that Lynch didn't give his speech on the banks of the James River, as the legend goes.
Foner said there is so much other historical information to draw on that he doesn't understand why someone would bother to invent Willie Lynch or draw on the speech that that's attributed to him.
"There were plenty of books and magazine articles written on slave management, how to keep them docile. Things like this exist," Foner said. "There are so many real documents in the same ballpark as [the Lynch speech] that it's hard to understand why someone would invent this when there is so much truth out there."
The "Let's Make a Slave Kit" that my friend gave me was distributed by Frederick Penn, the president of a self-help, education corporation in Bethesda. His name and phone number were on the pamphlet's cover sheet, so I gave him a call.
Penn explained that he spent more than a year researching the Lynch speech, and the closest he got to the source was a group called the Black Liberation Library, which published it in 1970. He said he was unable to turn up any additional information about the Black Liberation Library.
Penn said it's really not important whether Lynch existed; what's more important is that "slavery existed" and that the speech exposes the thinking of white slave owners.
Which brings us back to Willie Lynch, who supposedly said: "The Black slave after receiving this indoctrination shall carry on and will become self-refueling and self-generating for hundreds of years, maybe thousands."
Hundreds of years, maybe thousands? Blacks have come a long way in overcoming the physical barriers of racism since Emancipation, but how far have we come psychologically and emotionally? Not far, I believe, not far if, in 1998, we still wrestle with the ghost of Willie Lynch.
When I was in elementary school, a teacher told us, "If you tell me a lie, you better make sure it's a circle and not a square. Because if it's a square, I'll catch you in the corners." So far, there are no corners in the Willie Lynch tale. But why do we need a lie to tell the truth?
Pub Date: 2/22/98