First off, a disclaimer: I’m not a sociologist. I don’t claim to be well-versed in the psychology of racism, bigotry, or prejudice. These are my own thoughts, based on a lifetime of experience and observation from someone born into white privilege and adopted into a generally disparaged faith.
This is a long post. Sorry not sorry.
They taught us about slavery in elementary school. We learned about the ship that arrived in 1620 carrying “twenty and odd negroes.” We learned about how people were stacked in ships like sardines. We learned about the Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation. But we learned nothing about what it was like to be a slave, or the 400-year aftermath.¹
A white citizen in America today cannot really know what it’s like to be a slave, or to live as part of a still-oppressed, marginalized, and often brutalized population.² But I can read, and I can learn, and I can empathize. And over time, in the following works, I have gained a glimmer of understanding about what Africans and African-American peoples have had to deal with over the centuries, up to and including today. There are many, many other accounts out there, but these are the ones that have impacted me the most over the years.
If you have a microgram of compassion in your soul, these books cannot help but touch you, and help you to understand what is happening today in Minneapolis and elsewhere, and why.
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin, Native Son, Black Boy, and 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright:
Baldwin and Wright had different ideas about the black experience and how to chronicle it. Both are seminal writers. Particularly Wright’s Black Boy left me absolutely gobsmacked at what growing up in the South was like for a young man who came to earth with a mind that questioned why life around him was the way it was, and could see the injustice, and express it profoundly and honestly.
A quarter of a century was to elapse between the time when I saw my father sitting with the strange woman and the time when I was to see him again, standing alone upon the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe in his gnarled, veined hands— a quarter of a century during which my mind and consciousness had become so greatly and violently altered that when I tried to talk to him I realized that, though ties of blood made us kin, though I could see a shadow of my face in his face, though there was an echo of my voice in his voice, we were forever strangers, speaking a different language, living on vastly distant planes of reality. That day a quarter of a century later when I visited him on the plantation— he was standing against the sky, smiling toothlessly, his hair whitened, his body bent, his eyes glazed with dim recollection, his fearsome aspect of twenty-five years ago gone forever from him— I was overwhelmed to realize that he could never understand me or the scalding experiences that had swept me beyond his life and into an area of living that he could never know. I stood before him, poised, my mind aching as it embraced the simple nakedness of his life, feeling how completely his soul was imprisoned by the slow flow of the seasons, by wind and rain and sun, how fastened were his memories to a crude and raw past, how chained were his actions and emotions to the direct, animalistic impulses of his withering body…Wright, Richard, Black Boy, Cleveland, World Publishing Company, 1937
From the white landowners above him there had not been handed to him a chance to learn the meaning of loyalty, of sentiment, of tradition. Joy was as unknown to him as was despair. As a creature of the earth, he endured, hearty, whole, seemingly indestructible, with no regrets and no hope. He asked easy, drawling questions about me, his other son, his wife, and he laughed, amused, when I informed him of their destinies. I forgave him and pitied him as my eyes looked past him to the unpainted wooden shack. From far beyond the horizons that bound this bleak plantation there had come to me through my living the knowledge that my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at last fled the city— that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.
Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin
This work was a product of the 60s, but is important for a number of reasons. It’s often disparaged as a naïve social experiment that was doomed to failure precisely because the author was white, but I find it a work that brings me back again and again.
No, it makes no sense, but insofar as the Negro is concerned, nothing makes much sense. This was brought home to me in another realm many times when I sought jobs.Griffin, J.Hl, Black Like Me,, 1960
The foreman of one plant in Mobile, a large brute, allowed me to tell him what I could do. Then he looked me in the face and spoke to me in these words:
“No, you couldn’t get anything like that here.”
His voice was not unkind. It was the dead voice one often hears. Determined to see if I could break in somehow, I said: “But if I could do you a better job, and you paid me less than a white man …”
“I’ll tell you … we don’t want you people. Don’t you understand that?”
“I know,” I said with real sadness. “You can’t blame a man for trying at least.”
“No use trying down here,” he said. “We’re gradually getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plant. We’re taking it slow, but we’re doing it. Pretty soon we’ll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have.”
“How can we live?” I asked hopelessly, careful not to give the impression I was arguing.
“That’s the whole point,” he said, looking me square in the eyes, but with some faint sympathy, as though he regretted the need to say what followed: “We’re going to do our damnedest to drive every one of you out of the state.”
Griffin himself even said,
As I had suspected they would be, my discoveries were naïve ones, like those of a child.ibid
The entire book has the overriding attitude of “You mean this really happens? This is what life is really like for black people in the South? Yes, the discoveries were simple, and everything was filtered through the mindset of a white man of privilege, but it’s still very much worth reading.
Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools by Jonathan Kozol:
Above and beyond describing the hideous disparity that existed in the Boston public school system in the ’60s, it shone a light on the vicious racism that took root there. The persona of the “Art Teacher” is especially breathtaking in its ignorance and ingrained evil – she was a master at destroying the souls of children whom she clearly thought belonged to a sub-genre of humanity. Read it and weep.
“All white people, I think, are implicated in these things so long as we participate in America in a normal way and attempt to go on leading normal lives while any one race is being cheated and tormented. But I now believe that we will probably go on leading our normal lives, and will go on participating in our nation in a normal way, unless there comes a time where Negroes can compel us by methods of extraordinary pressure to interrupt our pleasure.”Kozol, Jonathan, Death at an Early Age
To Be a Slave by Julius Lester:
While this book is aimed at youth readership, its collection of tales from people who actually lived through slavery cannot fail to move adults if they have a shred of humanity.
“One day while my mammy was washing her back my sister noticed ugly disfiguring scars on it. Inquiring about them, we found, much to our amazement, that they were Mammy’s relics of the now gone, if not forgotten, slave days. This was her first reference to her “misery days” that she had made in my presence. Of course we all thought she was telling us a big story and we made fun of her. With eyes flashing, she stopped bathing, dried her back and reached for the smelly ol’ black whip that hung behind the kitchen door. Bidding us to strip down to our waists, my little mammy with the boney bent-over back, struck each of us as hard as ever she could with that black-snake whip. Each stroke of the whip drew blood from our backs. “Now,” she said to us, “you have a taste of slavery days.”Frank Cooper, Library of Congress
Don’t You Turn Back by Langston Hughes
As described by Nancy Snyder at Bookriot.com, “Langston Hughes was the chronicler of African American life in Harlem, New York City, from the 1920s through the 1960s. Hughes set out to portray the stories of African-American life that represented their actual culture—including the piercing heartbreak and the joy of everyday life in Harlem.” His poetry is beautiful, yearning, and haunting. It should be on the to-read list of anyone who is interested in the human condition.
Dream-singers,Hughes, Langston, Don’t You Turn Back
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate—
Nurses of babies,
Loaders of ships,
Comedians in vaudeville
And band-men in circuses—
God! What dancers!
God! What singers!
Singers and dancers,
Dancers and laughers.
Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands of Fate.
Be warned, these books are “products of their times,” and the language used in most of them would be highly offensive by today’s standards. But this is the way it was, and you can’t whitewash it or sanitize it.
We didn’t know nothing like young folks do now. We hardly knowed our names. We was cussed for so many bitches and sons of bitches and bloody bitches and blood of bitches. We never heard our names scarcely at all.Sallie Crane, Library of Congress.
A recent post (June 2, 2020) on Facebook by Caroline Crockett Brock illustrates poignantly that these attitudes, these experiences are not a thing of the past. They are not just the stuff of history, of Emmett Till and Rodney King and George Floyd and so many nameless others. It relates the experiences of Ernest Skelton, the owner of Grand Strand Appliance Repair Services.
When Ernest, my appliance repairman, came to the front door, I welcomed him in.
As this was his second visit and we’d established a friendly rapport, I asked him how he was feeling in the current national climate.
Naturally, he assumed I was talking about the coronavirus, because what white person actually addresses racism head on, in person, in their own home?
When Ernest realized I wanted to know about his experience with racism, he began answering my questions.
What’s it like for you on a day-to-day basis as a black man? Do cops ever give you any trouble? The answers were illuminating.
Ernest, a middle-aged, friendly, successful business owner, gets pulled over in Myrtle Beach at least 6 times a year.
He doesn’t get pulled over for traffic violations, but on the suspicion of him being a suspect in one crime or another.
Mind you, he is in uniform, driving in a work van clearly marked with his business on the side. They ask him about the boxes in his car–parts and pieces of appliances.
They ask to see his invoices and ask him why there is money and checks in his invoice clipboard. They ask if he’s selling drugs.
These cops get angry if he asks for a badge number or pushes back in any way.
Every time he is the one who has to explain himself, although they have no real cause to question him.
Ernest used to help folks out after dark with emergencies.
He does not work past dinnertime, not because he doesn’t need the business, but because it isn’t safe for him to be out after dark.
He says “There’s nothing out there in the world for me past dark.”
Let me say that again. Ernest, a middle aged black man in uniform cannot work past dark in Myrtle Beach in 2020 because it’s not safe for him.
He did not say this with any kind of agenda.
It was a quiet, matter of fact truth.
A truth that needs to be heard.
Ernest has a bachelors in electronics and an associates in HVAC.
Ernest says most white people are a little scared of him, and he’s often put in a position where he has to prove himself, as though he’s not qualified to repair appliances.
After getting a job for 2 years at Sears appliance, Ernest started his own company, one he’s been running for several years.
He is the best repairman we’ve had, and has taught me about washer dryers and how to maintain them myself, even helping me with another washer/dryer set and a dishwasher without charging me.
I highly recommend his company, Grand Strand Appliance.
Ernest doesn’t have hope that racism will change, no matter who the president is.
His dad taught him “It’s a white man’s world”, and he’s done his best to live within it.
When I asked him what I could do, he said, “everyone needs to pray and realize we’re all just one country and one people”.
I am a 45 year old white woman living in the south.
I can begin healing our country by talking frankly with African Americans in my world—by LISTENING to their lived experience and speaking up.
I can help by actively promoting black owned businesses. That’s what I can do today.
Let’s start by listening and lifting up. It’s that simple.
The Watts riots. The Rodney King riots. The George Floyd riots. These are “the methods of extraordinary pressure to interrupt our pleasure” that Jonathan Kozol mentioned. Taken by themselves, the destruction and looting are senseless and wrong. Taken in the context of 400 years of systemic oppression, they are entirely understandable. These things happen because the white establishment refuses to listen, to understand, and to act.
The BLM movement is being used by opponents of progress and maintainers of the status quo to show their ignorance. There is no implied “only” in front of “black lives matter.”
An exquisite example of this happened in 2016, when a supposed group of law students wrote a letter to Patricia Leary, a professor at Whittier Law School, taking her to task for wearing a BLM teeshirt “on a day in Criminal Procedure when we were explicitly discussing violence against the black community by police.” ³ Images of the letters and concomitant transcripts can be found at Imgur; the professor’s response to these entitled and presumptuous brats is a takedown worthy of 1998, when the Undertaker threw Mankind from the top of Hell in a Cell, and he plummeted 16 feet through an announcer’s table.⁴
Of course all lives matter. Despite the fact that there are pervasive problems of racism, discrimination, racial profiling, and unwarranted brutality among police departments today, blue lives matter too. But as mentioned before, BLM is not about “only” black lives. It’s a movement because black lives are the ones that have been being – and continue to be – devalued and oppressed and taken.
Two recent artistic representations of current events:
We are at a difficult and critical juncture of our nation’s history right now. Things could go a number of ways. It’s not inconceivable that given the attitudes of our current leadership, we could see a Tienanmen Square type of event in our country. Or much in the way of Occupy Wall Street, the BLM movement could peter out into irrelevance and we could see a return to the status quo. These are extremes. It is my hope that the momentum gained in recent times will continue, and that rational heads will prevail, because we owe it to our founders to preserve the republic that they gave us.
Edit: This belongs here.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
¹ Just in passing: Most of the kids in my class were white and Jewish. I was one of only three goyim. There were two black kids. Most of us have stayed in touch for 65 years. We never heard from the black kids again, even though we tried hard to find them for our 50th reunion.
Edit: recently found one – he was delighted to be contacted!
² Some white people in this country know what it’s like, even if for a brief time. I refer you to the depredations suffered by members of the newly-formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as they were cursed, hunted, slaughtered, mobbed, abused, robbed, subject to a statewide legal extermination order, and driven west across the country from 1830 to 1847. It was a small taste of what slaves and their descendants have suffered for over 400 years. But the point is that unless you’ve experienced this kind of systemic hatred and persecution first hand, you can’t really understand what it’s like.
Edit: It occurred to me some time after writing this post that understanding persecution does not always automatically translate into compassion and sensitivity. The history of the Latter-day Saints with regard to people of color is unenviable.
³ Although the text has been widely shared with critical details redacted, Inside Higher Ed posted the relevant details to show that this was an actual event that really and truly happened.
⁴ With thanks to redditor u/shittymorph for the useful reference.