Book Review: A Terrible Thunder

Buy this book at! In my little world (which has been getting smaller by the day), Africaness is about innovations of Man since the dawn of time—proclaiming through constructive culture and a few Earth-shaking civilizations, the triumph of the human spirit over the material world. On the other hand (a hand which has usually been a clenched fist), Blackness is about directly and materially responding to whiteness. And for those of us that may not consciously know what whiteness is, just imagine an entire village of Hobbits being kicked out of their grassy holes in Hobbiton to make way for an imperial Roman, Wal-Mart, multi-level parking structure—the guys who plan such “urban development” are white guys—no matter what color his/her skin happens to be.

So my point seasoned by this dash of wormwood is this: Mark Essex was the “perfect” Black Man—he responded “directly and materially” to whiteness. He did not see himself as one of the underclass in Oliver Twist, resigned to live in a cesspool of conspiracy-based poverty, grubbing like a crab in a barrel. He did not clench his teeth, complete his education and settle down into the second-class “colored gentry,” living constantly under petty apartheid and melanin-based stigma. He did not take to criminal forms of capitalism like selling illegal drugs and/or women only to end up in the penal system. Instead, Peter Hernon writes, “At ten-thirty on the morning of January 7, 1973, a Sunday, Mark Essex, rifle in hand, burst from hiding, beginning one of the most incredible sniping attacks in the nation’s history.” He picked up a rifle and started shooting “white people,” eventually knowing that he was going to die. Unfortunately, he identified and responded to “white people” using the very tools of whiteness I am certain he hated: the phenotypic stigma of skin color and hair texture coupled with the violence of overwhelming force.

Author Peter Hernon does the best he can with the story of Mark Essex under the circumstances. He elevates the subject matter above side-show “true crime” pulp and connects Essex to a larger historical context of late-1960s-early-1970s North America. Hernon successfully salvages the scant details of this young man’s life beginning in, Emporia Kansas, a small prairie town in the Midwest. We find that Essex was discharged from the Navy after documented incidents of racial harassment (a Navy psychiatrist concluded that Essex had an “immature personality”). We explore his subsequent flirtations with the increasingly impotent Black Panthers (being sabotaged by white people who mostly look, talk and act just like Black people—again, using the identification methods of whiteness). There are even a few family snap shots of a smiling Essex among the chilling crime-scene photographs.

He picked up a rifle and started shooting “white people,” eventually knowing that he was going to die. Unfortunately, he identified and responded to “white people” using the very tools of whiteness I am certain he hated: the phenotypic stigma of skin color and hair texture coupled with the violence of overwhelming force.

The bulk of the material in the book comes from the United States government, corporate media archives and the New Orleans police department. This makes the story, by default, in my eyes (which are only two eyes compared to the millions out there), biased toward the official authority figures. I am certain Hernon had to put these folks in their “political comfort zone” in order to have access to the material. His impressive achievement was won either through heroic self-censorship or through the endemic assimilation that allows obedient corporate employees to regard themselves as independent thinkers. But, this criticism is minor and petty as the harsh reality is this: we would know almost nothing about Mark Essex were it not for this book. Moreover, Hernon’s straight-forward and fluid writing style (obviously honed by his editorial work with the Chicago Tribune) makes this story accessible to the masses while many books dealing with “unpopular” but vital areas of American history are often written by academics who, by habit or due to institutionalism, use very dense prose weighed down by jargon.

Buy this book at! It has been said that the journalist is spanning the two extremes between the historian and the dramatist. Hernon leans heavily toward the drama, using and reusing two or three techniques of suspense, but the Essex story is so dramatic the temptation must have been overwhelming—and I found these tricks very effective as they certainly kept me reading! Nevertheless, more historical research might have revealed the work of the Callaway Professor of History at Georgia College, William Ivy Hair. Professor Hair’s book Carnival of Fury chronicled the life an obscure laborer Robert Charles, who, in 1900, drew national headlines when he shot twenty-seven Euro Americans including seven policemen. Here is the punch line: these events precipitated a “race riot” in the city of New Orleans. It is fascinating that not only did the author fall victim to this oversight but not one of the officials of New Orleans that Hernon interviewed, recalled what happened in their home town just seven decades ago. Many of us are ambivalent about being unaware of so-called “black history” but to not know that your home was almost burned down just over 70 years ago is just plain ignorant.

However, I assume that Hernon purposely did not associate Mark Essex with the original sniper, Charles Whitman, The Texas Tower Sniper. Whitman was the first man, a Euro-American man, to make “all” citizens of the United States question their public safety but he is often described as a simple criminal, an ex-Marine who was suffering with a brain tumor. To make any connection between Essex and Whitman might explicitly suggest that Mark Essex was a common criminal, an ex-sailor with a mental problem. I will volunteer to make a connection between the two but only to illustrate that Mark Essex was not an innovator—he was not a man of Africaness. He was a Black man—and Blackness cannot exist without whiteness. Essex envied his oppressor in a relationship based on passionate, suicidal hatred. He became a murderous sniper just like the Charlie before him—Charles Whitman. Simultaneously, I still maintain that Mark Essex did not have a mental problem—and, by definition, he was not a common criminal. I entertain such sophisticated nuance in the relative obscurity of this paragraph. On the other hand, Peter Hernon, in his obvious attempt to appeal to a mass audience, could not draw such fine lines. It’s an American tradition to respond to cartoon drawings of African suffering and often condescend to them—anything else, as of this writing, is overlooked or met with deafening silence.

Peter Hernon’s A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, available at, can be purchased directly from the publisher, Garrett County Press, as well.