MAXWELL:  For some, terror in the mail is nothing new

10/17/2001 – Printed in the NATIONAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When I taught college English and journalism in the early 1990s, I also wrote a weekly column for the New York Times Regional Newspapers Group.

Each week, I received more than two dozen letters oozing hatred. About 95 percent of them came from white people, some claiming to be devout Christians. I collected those letters and soon found good use for them. I copied them and created an anthology for my students to read.

Their assignment was to write an essay based on the following: “Imagine yourself an average Martian visiting planet Earth for the first time. The only documents you have to familiarize yourself with this interesting planet are letters written to Bill Maxwell. Based on these letters, what is your opinion of Americans? Please be concrete, specific and, above all, be honest.”

Because I had to grade and return the essays, I did not save them. But I remember their universal conclusion: For all of our claims of loving freedom, of respecting the opinions of others and of championing the principles of equality and justice, Americans are mean hypocrites.

I told my students we were lucky my mail did not represent all of America. I hope the same is true today, that my mail does not represent our national character.

I came to the St. Petersburg Times in 1994, and, immediately, the hate mail started. Because my readership more than tripled, the number of hate letters more than tripled, too.

Why do I bring up this ugly race-related topic at this time of national crisis? I bring it up because mail _ now carrying deadly anthrax in addition to hateful words _ has become a mode of fear for post-World-Trade-Center America. I bring it up because readers need to know that some of their fellow Americans _ non-conservative African-American columnists _ have had to withstand epistolary terror for decades.

My first column was for the Fort Pierce Tribune in 1986. My editor was Bob Enns, a white Libertarian and a Catholic. Mr. Enns said I could write a column of accolades and be the darling of the public. He warned, however, that if I wrote such a column, I would ill-serve a public that needs to “cut the crap and deal with its ugly side.”

He gave me another warning: Black columnists who remind whites of their past and current bigotry will face the fury of an angry status quo.

He was right. But I had to learn how right. As a child growing up in Jim Crow Florida, I was called nigger every day, especially by my white counterparts, white kids. But nothing prepared me for the raw hatred of white adults, people who have reared and are rearing children, who find time to write letters that attack me personally and not the issues I write about. To this day, I am not prepared for the self-righteous denials of racism, blaming the victim, the dismissal of an entire race (with the exception, of course, of Clarence Thomas and Colin Powell).

Although I have resigned myself to them, I am uncomfortable with the direct threats on my life. Yes, good Christians and Jews threaten to kill me. Why? Because I recognize their bigotry and write as much.

Right here in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa and elsewhere in the bay area, several conservative money market managers, lawyers, doctors, public school teachers, college professors, police officers, elected officials, clergy and journalists have threatened to do me bodily harm in letters and e-mail. A handful has threatened to kill me.

Why? Because I point out racism in unequivocal, unadorned language. For nearly eight years, I have half-jokingly told staff members who deliver our office mail to keep hate mail out of my mailbox. “How can you tell?” one wag asked. Some of my mail is so hateful that I share it with others.

How, they ask, can someone be so consumed with such hatred, with such fear of truth?

For many years, I have inspected my mail at arm’s length. I have learned to recognize certain handwriting and immediately toss the letters. I never open anything with no return address (I get many of these). I recognize certain names and addresses and toss them automatically. The same for e-mail.

I do not need such vileness. And please excuse me for trying to live as long as I can.

I have been punched in public, had my home mailbox blown up, had my pickup destroyed, had my house shotgunned. Last year, I received a letter smeared with excrement.

I have known personal terror, and I do not expect matters to improve. What would the average Martian reading my letters today think of Americans at the beginning of the 21st century? Let us hope these missives are not an accurate barometer of who we are.