On December 5 1917, citizens of Fremont, a tiny town in western Michigan, forced Ben Kunnen from his home. They brought him at night to Fremont Lake, and there they put a noose around his neck, wrote “Hun” on his forehead, and instructed him to sign a loyalty oath. Articles published in the following days blamed Kunnen’s “unpatriotic statements” and “pro-German utterances.” His loyalty oath, first circulated in the Grand Rapids Press, goes into more detail. “In a spirit of utter humility and supplication,” the oath begins,

I, Ben Kunnen having come to realize my unfitness and unworthiness to share the protection of the United States government, hereby beg of the citizens of the United States…forgiveness and mercy for my hitherto grossly insulting and unpatriotic remarks concerning the President of the United States and the Government.

Subsequent articles massage out the harsher details of that night. “Ben Kunnen…was forced to sign an apology to the public for his alleged Pro-German attitude,” reads one article in The Fremont Times-Indicator, “and kiss the flag as a token of humility and of submission to the United States government.”

Another piece, a blisteringly self-righteous editorial published a week later, dismisses the whole ordeal as a mere “‘hazing’ incident.”

I learned the story of Ben Kunnen, or Albertus (Ben) Kunnen, my mom’s grandpa, only recently. For years, I’d heard rumors that something had happened, a tarring and feathering that was possibly connected to the first World War. But from my perspective, they were rumors only. Who was involved, and why, I didn’t know, and it never occurred to me to ask.

Then one night a few weeks ago, while I was at a Christmas party with my in-laws—the room where we’d gathered all bright with lights, and warm, and awash with chatter and tinkling music—my mom emailed me. The email was a forward of a forward, and it included attached newsletters from an international genealogist group. In this group’s fall 2018 newsletter, under the heading “Fremont in 1918,” were transcripts of the above articles, detailing the near-lynching of my great-grandfather.

I read the articles there, during the party, gob-smacked—gob-smacked, but also perversely delighted. “You won’t believe this,” I said, turning to Jes. And then because I lack tact and, evidently, holiday cheer, I bullied her into reading them too.

“Isn’t that wild?” I said, pointing out lines. “Isn’t that just bonkers?”

Why I felt compelled, then and there, to share a hundred-year-old story with Jes in the middle of a Christmas party is hard to say. Sure, a puerile fascination with sordid details and with people behaving badly accounts for some of it. Yet on reflection, I see at least two other reasons for my impatience, for why I couldn’t just let this scrap of family history wait.

The first reason has to do with what makes this story exceptional: that it happened to a white man like me. After all, in a way that the guillotine and firearm do not, the noose has a long symbolic association with racial terror and white supremacy in the US. This is not a contentious claim. The noose recurs across the thousands of lynchings carried out against Black Americans after Reconstruction. It appears in the so-called Day of the Rope meme, promulgated by white-power activists and vile screeds like The Turner Diaries. And it continues to crop up today with unsettling frequency. Thus, the fact that Ben Kunnen, son of a first-generation German immigrant, was threatened with a symbol of anti-Black violence says something about whiteness. It defamiliarizes it. It shows that whiteness is neither given nor natural, and that to be “white” in the US is not primarily a matter of appearance. Instead, it’s a dubious and tenuous achievement, one whose affordances, given sufficient provocation, can be taken away by force.

The second reason for my impatience stems from the first. As I reflect on that evening—as I think back to me sitting on the couch, scrolling through lines of text on my phone, transforming history into digitized spectacle while in the background Bing Crosby crooned—I hear in words like wild and bonkers a note of incredulity. Incredulity, yes, but also and inseparable from that, a desire for safe distance.

Because 104 years is a long time, isn’t it? How different things were, back then. How much we have progressed. But confronted with the uncanniness of one Ben at Christmastime staring across a century’s gulf at another Ben at Christmastime, it’s hard not to notice all the other tendrils connecting my time to his. In 1917, for example, as Ben Kunnen was being threatened with a lynching, the KKK was having its second revival.[1] One hundred years later, in 2017, white supremacists marched down the streets of Charlottesville. And in the early twentieth century, eugenics and fears about racial purity drove increasingly hardline legislation against immigrants from undesirable countries. Meanwhile, here in the twenty-first century, national politicos gear up for yet another battle over immigration and the border, while on Fox News Tucker Carlson, frowning theatrically at the camera, launders white supremacist talking points about the “Great Replacement” for a national audience.

I’m not much for that old chestnut: that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. Or at least, I don’t think history repeats itself. But of this I am confident: history does chime with itself. It rhymes with itself. It’s rhyming right now, in fact—even now, in the midst of all the holiday cheer.

Past and present. Ben and Ben.

So what we must do now is to refuse to look away. And that is only the first step. 

 

[1] It bears noting here that after further research, I found the story of Ben Kunnen repeated in at least one academic publication. This book, by a historian named JoEllen McNergney Vinyard, is titled Right in Michigan’s Grassroots: From the KKK to the Michigan Militia (University of Michigan Press, 2011).

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