The Stories We Learn
“Whose stories do we believe in? We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, but still imperfect picture.” From Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
(Quilt, Faith Ringgold, Dancing at the Louvre 1991)
Interestingly, last Sunday, my blog had the most unsubscribes to date, surpassing even the negative responses to my Independence Day post. This week’s, though, unsubscribed silently, while the Independence day post inspired personal emails: “Don’t ever send me anything again!” “I hope you get over your bitterness soon.”
I can only assume that my readers were so invested in the stories they previously learned that they found mine disturbing and unpalatable. I get that. New information that challenges assumptions can be difficult to digest, all the more so if you somehow feel implicated. Or, perhaps they had heard me only in a different voice. And were caught unawares. I get that too. I find myself, since the murder of George Floyd, laser focused and more
I write not to point fingers, but to illuminate. The last few months have made patently clear how, in some ways, Black and white people inhabit vastly different worlds. Though I have only recently learned some of what I write, family stories with which I grew up and those I read in Ebony, Jet Magazine and the Amsterdam News, a weekly Black New York City paper, about contemporary Black lives never appeared in Life Magazine or the New York Times, which also came to our house. Emmit Till’s post mortem photograph was so disturbing that the mainstream press did not publish it at time; only the Black press did. And it galvanized the Civil Rights movement.
We are all products of the sum total of our exposures. And though each of us is unique, I believe sharing our stories is the key to the most important quality needed, both for this moment of reckoning and to thrive in community: empathy. And understanding births and nurtures empathy.
So for the many of you who have written in appreciation, or with thoughtful questions, I thank you. I am heartened. I will continue to write, and to share research for the show I am developing.
Let me challenge you with a few scenarios (2 essay questions, two multiple choice) in Black and white:
On New Year’s Day and the 4th of July antebellum, after the days’ festivities and feasting, the highlight was holiday “Slave Auctions”. If being sold were part of your history, would the way you view those dates shift?
Jefferson’s Montecillo tour recently began to address the role of Sally Hemmings, showing the room where she was kept and contrasting Jefferson’s public sentiments (as expressed in the Constitution) with his private behavior (enslaving 600 and fathering children by a woman he owned and never freed). You, a descendent of a woman Jefferson owned, are on that tour. Another woman complains: this isn’t the tour she signed up for, she doesn’t want to hear anything about slaves. How do you react? How do you feel?
You’re planning a dream destination wedding. The wedding planner hands you a brochure of an idyllic scene, saying she can get a great deal on that Charleston Plantation House. Do you a) Fire the planner? (And doubt your own hiring skills!) b) Look at the brochure and consider your self lucky? c) rue that in 2020, the big house of a forced labor camp with bones of your ancestors in unmarked graves is open for parties? (Such a deal!) or d) other.
You’re remodeling your home. You want to replace a fence, but your contractor tells you current code prohibits new fences of the same height. You call City Hall to complain. “Oh, don’t worry,” the clerk tells you. “Your fence is grandfathered in.” Do you a) grit your teeth b) jump for joy c) school her on the racism implied * or d) other?
* Thanks to my friend Irma Herrera, I recently learned the derivation of the phrase “grandfathered in, ” which entered our lexicon in the time of Jim Crow!
Literacy tests, poll taxes and constitution requirements for voters would disenfranchise too many poor whites. But what could, with surgical precision, prevent only Blacks from voting? A requirement that one could only vote if one’s grandfather was able to vote by a certain date, say, before 1867. Hence, “grandfathered in” is a wink and a nod, exempting you, if you are white.
Just as today finds realtors renaming the largest bedroom in any home and a musician composing a new song for ice cream trucks, we are just beginning to reckon with how much the more the 250 years of enslavement and forced labor camps is incorporated into our language, attitudes and customs. As some have said, racism is so much a part of America, that when you protest racism, people think you are protesting America.
I realize that much as I might distill in these essays, I will likely never learn enough, and never be able to tell story enough. I shared a number of resources before, but didn’t include books, as so many periodicals, bookstores and organizations created bibliographies for the current moment. Though excellent overviews, two of the most frequently read and cited, So You Want To Talk About Race and White Fragility, do not provide the remedial history lessons most of our educations left us needing.
So, if you are up for a deeper dive, a few groundbreaking books illuminate our history.
1. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer prize winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is the most important book on race written so far this century. Even f you never read another book on race, you must read this one. The audio version is particularly good.
2. Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon. If you ever wondered about how the South sustained the economic blow of emancipation, the wealth gap, broken families, police brutality, black rage, injustice, mass incarceration, systemic racism or reparations, you need to read this. Audio version also good.
3. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by
Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers. Busts the The “benevolent, paternal slave owner” and white women’s lack of agency in enslavement myths, as well as documenting how “currency” in black bodies destroyed family ties.
To all of you who donated to our Grace Nanana Emergency GoFundMe Drive, THANK YOU SO MUCH!! With all of your help, we were able to surpass our fundraising goal, raising in excess of $24,400, a feat all the more remarkable for the times, when so many need so much. So, again, thank you. So appreciate your generosity for girls half way across the globe. Educating women improves not only their lives, but those of their children, families and villages. And the girls who fled the life proscribed and found refuge at Grace Nanana have gumption, courage and fortitude; no doubt many are future leaders.
I include below the short personal notes Ellyn and I wrote to the school's founder.
With Ellyn and our Kenyan Safari guide February 2020
Kudos to you for all you do. We were so impressed by your organization. Ellyn and I were lucky- we were classmates at a public magnet high school for gifted girls in New York City. (Same school as our Supreme Court Justice, Elena Kagan, Audre Lorde, Ruby Dee, and, after they admitted males, Manuel Lin-Miranda.) Though my family always stressed the importance of education- the one thing one can never take from you- sadly, I know well, many never get the opportunity. So, grateful that you offer opportunities to so many girls. I am so grateful for the introduction to Sophie, and look forward to helping her meet her goals. With gratitude.
As Diane noted, she and I met at a school for girls when we were not much older than the girls at Grace Nanana. That school changed my life. My parents never went to college. In my family, as a young woman, I was not valued enough for my parents to see a future beyond marriage for me. It took inspired teachers and peers who challenged and encouraged me to enable me to see a different future for myself. Grace Nanana is such a place. I see it as a nursery for the nation, a place where teachers and doctors, social workers and entrepreneurs are nurtured and will grow into leadership positions. A place where a young woman can learn her value beyond marriage and motherhood. It was an honor to visit and a pleasure to offer our support to the wonderful teachers and students at Grace Nanana.
I will be reading (on live stream) a section from my new piece
Tuesday September 8th , 7:30 pm
as part of David Ford’s Class Performance.
And with apologies for the meander, What We’re up against Part 2 coming next week.