My father fled the American South because of attacks like the one Liam Neeson almost carried out

Is Neeson racist? I cannot see into his heart, nor his mind. Yet the awful chasm that he has revealed to us, of his own volition, holds its own terrible history

Bonnie Greer
Tuesday 05 February 2019 19:45 GMT
Liam Neeson: 'I'm not racist'

My late father Ben told us a story once of having been told about a black man in his community who had been hung from a tree.

This was Mississippi, during the Depression, and a group of black boys known as the “Scottsboro Boys” were on trial for their lives because of what two white girls had said.

My dad was taught to be quiet, keep his head down. But he was so outspoken that his mother shipped him up north. To save his life.

We knew in our family, and still know, that black men were subject to racist, random violence.

Sure, a black man is usually killed by other black people. Murder is more than likely committed by those closest and nearest.

But what I’m talking about is something deeper, something that is almost a kind of template. The template of the “Black Man Who Must Be Taught A Lesson”.

There is the example of the 45th president of the United States leading a personal crusade against several innocent men, most of them black, accused of rape. The Central Park Five had long been exonerated and compensated with several million dollars, but Trump did not stop. He still has not apologised.

Nor has he expressed regret for beginning his political life with the lie that Barack Obama had not been born in the USA. Michelle Obama is right when she says that she cannot forgive him for that. Because he not only endangered the former president: Trump put the entire Obama family in jeopardy.

Just like the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam (whose own history with racism was recently unearthed through college photos of him in blackface and his old nickname “Coon Man”), Liam Neeson is a grown man. And these are grown men capable of knowing and understanding the terrible history of violence against black men.

I worry every day about my brother; my brothers-in-law; my cousins and nephews and great-nephews. Because they are black men.

Neeson is an actor. An actor is trained to pay attention to words. We now see the great revenge characters he created through the prism that he himself created for us. And it is an awful one.

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These are volatile, dangerous and delicate times. There is a kind of responsibility for all of us to think; to measure. Is Neeson racist? I cannot see into his heart, nor his mind.

Yet the awful chasm that he has revealed to us, of his own volition, holds its own terrible history.

We cannot waive it aside. We cannot forget it. It is up to each individual, I suppose, if they choose to forgive.

Neeson was just starting out then. Once, a group of Irish theatre friends told me that they were proud of him because he had been a teacher. He was a cut above. He had done real work, educating kids.

Black male teachers, working in the South, particularly during the civil rights era and before, had educated children too when it was against the segregationist law. Many did not make it; they could not take out their rage on some white stranger.

Perhaps it’s time Neeson committed to that “real work” once more, by unlearning what led him to that violent reaction in the first place.

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, novelist and critic

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