History doesn’t repeat, Mark Twain said: it rhymes. And, as poet and playwright Cornelius Eady and performer Joe Morton both noted during their conversation about Eady’s Brutal Imagination, it keeps on rhyming, often in all the worst ways—and will continue to rhyme until we as a nation are able to look fully at our ugly history and our violent present and acknowledge how and why we’ve ended up here.
Eady and Morton both have ownership, in different ways, of Brutal Imagination. Eady wrote it, basing it on the story of Susan Smith, who murdered her children and tried to frame a fictional Black man for the crime before finally confessing to it herself. Morton has performed it several times, both on stage (physically and virtually) as Mr. Zero, the fictionalized man, and in a new Audible edition. Their conversation reflected their mutual ownership, as they used Brutal Imagination as a framework for understanding not only the Smith case on which it was based but the larger framework of America’s past and present.
As both men note, the United States has long built up a fiction of dangerous Black men and innocent white women, one which has been at the heart of much of America’s race-based massacres and brutality, from Tulsa to the lynching of Emmett Till. Indeed, Eady and Morton discussed parallels with the character of Mr. Zero and of Amy Cooper calling the police on birdwatcher Christian Cooper in Central Park. Eady reminded us, when discussing the song he wrote for his band about the incident, that it happened on the same day Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in Minnesota. Eady and Morton noted that the character of the “scary Black man” is enough to stop rational thought. Amy Cooper ramped up her phone call by saying that a Black man was attacking her; Susan Smith, in inventing a fictional Black man who drove off with her children, did the same thing.
The ongoing mythology of the dangerous Black man, Morton noted, has lead to stereotyping and to endless danger for Black men themselves. It’s also been part of the lead-up to acts of violence against African-American communities, as neighborhoods are described as bastions of drug dealing and prostitution regardless of reality. This “brutal imagination,” as both Eady and Morton noted, leads to ongoing violence, to George Floyd, to Christian Cooper, to so many others. It is, Eady said, luck that Smith’s lies didn’t turn into a Black man falsely imprisoned or even dead for a crime he did not commit—and, horrifyingly, Eady made it clear that he’s not sure it would not lead to false imprisonment or death today.
Eady and Morton also discussed the ways in which racism has infused the American political landscape, noting that brutal voter suppression laws were met head-on with activism in the 2020 election, leading to a massive showing of Black political power. Now, however, even more vicious voter suppression laws are appearing, an attempt, as Eady noted, to curtail Black political power, to destroy the democratic process rather than to share power with other people. Their conversation moved to the ways in which American democracy is in peril and the racist underpinnings of the January 6 insurrection on the US capitol.
History, as Morton noted, is written by the victor—and, right now, we see attempts to write reality, to pretend that what we saw we have not seen. It is an ongoing denial of reality. An example, Eady argued, of the ways in which racism is a double-edged sword, which harms the wielder as well as the people at whom it is directed. Eady, in Brutal Imagination, created split consciousnesses: Mr. Zero is a character who can’t understand why he’s apparently so interested in wives and children—the very base of the mythos of the dangerous Black man—but he is also a figment of, as Morton noted, Smith’s own brutal imagination.
Eady hopes that Brutal Imagination can help spur conversations about history and white supremacy and how to get to a better tomorrow. One cannot get there, as he noted, without the power of art to show what is possible. However, it takes courage, as Morton noted, to look fully at Brutal Imagination and admit one’s place in it, and to interrogate the spaces and consciousnesses in which one lives. (Both men repeatedly noted that it was a loss to the conversation that Sally Murphy, who like Morton has performed Brutal Imagination several times, was not present.)
The discussion covered heavy topics, from foundational white supremacy to its contemporary iterations, and from Susan Smith and Mr. Zero to more than a year of plague and death. But it was not without its humor, nor was it hopeless. Eady commented that Brutal Imagination feels even more relevant today than it did when he first wrote it 20 years ago. Yet maybe it, and works like it, also offer us a chance to understand, and recalibrate, and work toward something better.
More information on the panel is available through the Chicago Humanities Festival’s website. Brutal Imagination can be found at the publisher. The Audible edition is free to Audible members and available for purchase to all others.