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.