Almost four years ago, on September 23, 2019, I posted a blog entitled My Southern Education: A Confession. It was prompted by a book I’d just read, Disunion, by historian Elizabeth Varon. I re-read my blog this spring and found it weak stuff indeed. It wasn’t much of a confession and it badly understated the malign influence of the Southern society in which I’d grown up. You can read the particulars below, but first skim the original blog. It’s short — a 5-minute read.
Nudged by Varon’s book, it seemed a good time to come clean about my own racism. I did it the same way one peels an onion, layer by layer. After removing only a couple of layers, I came to an unsettling truth: I had been infected with the same virulent rot that contaminated the Dixie of my youth and continues to do so in my adulthood.
Recalling the racism of my adolescence and young adulthood, I wrote that “years later … my blinders came off and I confronted my own racist past.”
I was fooling myself, though. The blinders weren’t completely off. Yes, I had acknowledged my own racism in that weak-kneed blog, but I came nowhere close to understanding the extent of racism’s corrupting effect on my forebears, on me, and on Southern culture as a whole.
It would take four more years of introspection, culminating with a deep dive into my family’s past, for me to realize that my 2019 blog had only scratched the surface of the racism of my past. One reason it took me so long was the comfort I took in my immediate family’s liberal bona fides. I was proud of our reputation as being ahead of the times politically and societally. We had for generations reaped handsome profits from the labor of thousands of Black and White people who worked in our businesses and we felt a keen obligation to give back. At home, my parents made sure their eight children grew up feeling part of our mostly blue-collar community, not separate from it. My mother would have worn me out with her hairbrush had she ever heard me utter the N-word. One of my brothers took on the notoriously racist Strom Thurmond in a failed bid to oust him from the U.S. Senate.
As for me, I moved to Haiti — “The Black Republic,” some historians called it — at age 18. I spent 4 months there, alone and white in a country where nearly everyone else was black. I immersed myself in the culture, proving that I’d shed any racist leanings — or so I told myself. After all, how could anyone who chose to live in Haiti be racist?
After returning to the U.S I felt racism seeping back into my core. I wasn’t yet open to confronting it head-on, so I pushed it to the back of my mind and went on with my education, then marriage, work and raising a family. I often returned to Haiti to help at a convent whose nuns worked heroically to relieve Haitians’ suffering. I started a charity aimed at providing jobs for Haitians. In midlife I began theological training to become an Episcopal deacon. It became crystal clear that racism and godliness could never exist side by side.
It was against this backdrop — with racism and morality colliding more than they ever had — that I read Elizabeth Varon’s Disunion. It jolted me and inspired the 2019 blog in which I repudiated Southern racism and confessed my own failings. I was harsh on the South and on myself, but not nearly harsh enough, as I would later realize.
About a year ago I resumed my unfinished business, embarking on an intentional process that opened my eyes wide to the horrors of slavery, the Jim Crow South of my youth, the racism of my forebears, and the wealth it had brought them and me. My sister Gracie joined me in this journey with guidance from our friends at the ACLU of Louisiana. I wrote about this collaboration earlier this year in a Jan. 12 blog entitled Learning from the Whitney Plantation. And I warned you that I would revisit the subject from time to time.
This spring, I read three books that impacted my thinking about racial injustice. They were: Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson; How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith; and Freedom’s Dominion, by Jefferson Cowie. In addition to the visit to Whitney Plantation, our visit to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL, also advanced our understanding of slavery and racism. Perhaps the most important and jarring part of our journey was learning about our own family’s involvement in slavery, something that hadn’t been discussed much in our family. Our ancestors had grown wealthy thanks to the plantation economy, exploiting the free labor of the enslaved people. And, in the case of one prominent ancestor, wealth was accumulated through the buying and selling of enslaved people – he was a slave trader as well as the master of Springfield Plantation. There is little doubt in my mind that I would have been no different than my ancestors had I grown up in the 19th century; so I am not saying “how could they have done such things?!” Nevertheless, the fact remains that I have benefited from their participation in the enslavement of others all my life.
What had been a nagging suspicion became an inescapable fact: The institution of slavery had made it possible for 10 generations of my family to live in wealth and privilege. It is undeniable that free labor of enslaved people who worked on my ancestors’ two plantations generated the cash needed to start what became a sprawling textile business.
I knew little of this back in 2019. The thin outer layers of the onion I had peeled back then hadn’t revealed it, so it’s only now that I feel a visceral revulsion about our history (our family’s, our region’s, the country’s).
I compare this experience to another one that profoundly affected me. Half a lifetime ago, I became obsessed with the history of the Holocaust and began reading about it. Some 10 or 12 books later, I became convinced that anti-Semitism had been and still was a monstrously evil force in the world. This led me to study the roots of anti-Semitism in Christianity. Constantine’s Sword, by James Carroll, had a huge impact on me. After immersing myself in the study of anti-Semitism, I could no longer think of it in the abstract. Rather, I saw it as a clear and present evil in our daily lives, one that each of us should combat. I remember arguing that The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich should be required reading before graduating from high school. I’ve given up any hope of that, but I still believe students should be taught about the horrors wrought by anti-Semitism.
Likewise, it would be wonderful beyond imagination if school children could be taught a curriculum based on Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. But because we don’t want to confront our past — peeling off that figurative layer of onion skin to reveal what’s beneath — such a suggestion is anathema. Caste would be lumped with Critical Race Theory and forbidden. What a tragic shame. While racial relations in our country slide backward, the best argument Democrats come up with for CRT is that it’s not taught in secondary schools anyway, so there’s no need to ban it. I don’t remember hearing a single prominent Democrat championing classes in CRT. No, it’s a political third rail — something our under-educated country deems too controversial to even discuss.
Finally, our voting rights battles — now fought mostly in the South — are a replay of battles we thought had been won after the “good trouble” during the Jim Crow era led to the Voting Rights Act. Rather than just reading about the ways Republicans are fighting to hold down the Black vote — as if we were students in political science class — we should react with outrage, horror and activism. If we don’t, we are aiding and abetting a return to overt racism a la the Jim Crow South. Republicans have all the tools they need to dilute Black voting power: gerrymandering, closing polling places in predominantly black neighborhoods, eliminating drop boxes — all measures that translate to long lines at polling places for voters of color. Hell, Republicans can even make it illegal to bring a glass of water to someone waiting in those long lines. They are doing all these things and more to keep lower-caste folk away from the polls.
“Make America Great Again” has nothing to do with creating a resurgent America where equality and opportunity abound. Nope, among other evils it supports, it’s a call to bring back Jim Crow voting restrictions, and half the people in our country are all for it!
I have never had the experience of being treated as some sort of inferior human being. I have never been denied my dignity because of the color of my skin. I have never been poor. I have never had my achievements denigrated because of alleged affirmative action. I have never had people ridicule me with “white people” jokes. I have never been red-lined out of a neighborhood because of my skin color. I have never had anyone cross the road to avoid passing me on the sidewalk. I have never had the study of my history in an AP course outlawed by the state I lived in. I have never waited in line for hours to vote or had my name expunged from the voting rolls on a technicality. So I don’t know what it is like to be a person of color in the USA.
But millions of Black Americans do know how it feels and that just doesn’t seem like justice or freedom to me.