Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in Their Place

Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in their PlaceWhen I moved to the Bremo Plantations when I was 14, I met my friend Anna.  She and her sister rode the school bus with my brother and I, and because we were the last four people on the bus, we became fast friends – two hours together a day will do that to people.  Anna and I talked about most everything – from the boys we liked to the teachers we didn’t to the town we lived in. She taught me what it meant for someone’s skin to be “ashy,” and I suspect I taught her nothing about being white because, as a black girl, she already knew the lingo there.

After we’d gotten to know each other a bit, Anna told me about her friend Coffee, who had worked as the cook on the plantation that I lived on (the one my dad managed.)  He was a black man, she said, and the owners at the time hadn’t treated him very well. He’d lived in the apartment over the garden room, and he was expected to be on hand whenever the owners needed him to be, even when he had family obligations of his own. He had left by the time we moved there.

But Claudine hadn’t. Claudine was the housekeeper, and her face lit up with joy every time I walked in the room, her almost toothless smile a beam of light.  Claudine, too, was expected to be on hand for her regular hours and then also for any special occasions, holidays, and weekends when the family wanted to visit the 9 bedroom, 4.5 bath house.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that the owners thought they were “helping Claudine out” by giving her work, and along that same way, I realized that they thought Claudine and Coffee were “in their place” as black people working in domestic situations.

The owners were not terrible people – they loved my family, and I loved them like grandparents – but they were acting out of the racism and upbringing that was true (is still true) for many wealthy and middle class whites in the South. (You’ve read The Help, right?) Their behavior was wrong and hurtful.

So this week, when I read “The Enslaved Woman They Called Lola,” I went back to those days just 28 years ago and thought of Coffee and Claudine.  Lola is Claudine is every other black women who was expected to nanny, nurse, clean, and cook for white people because “that’s just the way it’s done” or, perhaps even more menacingly because “those good white people” are helping black people by giving them work, as if it’s a favor to their employees rather than to them.

Slave vs Enslaved

I am a huge proponent of using the term enslaved person to refer to an individual who lived and toiled under the institution of slavery because, as the article suggests, it places the emphasis on the person and something done to them and separates the person’s identity from their societal status.  But since I wrote the piece that is quoted in The Atlantic article, I’ve also come to understand that sometimes we have to take the terminology of the oppressor and use it to break down the oppression. Hence, the title of my book The Slaves Have Names.  I’m trying to make a point there – about identity, about the power of words to dehumanize. I’m trying to co-opt a word for a purpose.

I don’t know if I do that well.

I do know, though, that we can get all caught up in language and miss the people. . . we do it all the time. Back in the day, we did it by calling enslaved people “servants,” as if they chose their work and their home. Now, we do it by calling people “thugs” or “criminals” as code for our own racism about black people.

So when I talk about individual human beings that I know – Ben and Minerva, Lucy and Nelson – I say they were enslaved – a system was placed on them that held them in bondage, but that system did not make them become what it hoped it could – slaves.  No, these were strong, talented, courageous, perseverant people. PEOPLE.  Always, in every way.

The Legacy

A few years into our friendship, I invited Anna and her family to revival at our church. Her dad was a Baptist minister, and I went to a Baptist church . . . it seemed right.

I sat with them, and after the service, I was all excited to introduce them to the pastor. We all went to the front of the sanctuary to shake my pastor’s hand.  He looked at Anna’s father, scanned his eyes over the rest of the family, and then turned away to shake the next white person’s hand.

His gaze – as much as any other action or word – told me all I needed to know: he thought Anna and her family were out of place, they were not worth seeing, they were not people.

Sometimes, we don’t even need words to oppress.

 

When We Can’t Watch Roots

When We Can't Watch RootsLast night, I didn’t sleep much. Most of my dreams were about a black man, lean and strong, moving through dark, wooded places with speed and stealth. Or sometimes, he was tied down on a board in a basement or the cabin of a yacht. Or he was carrying huge logs by the end across yards.  He was never smiling.

I had watched two hours of Roots before I went to bed, and Kunta’s vestige was haunting my dreams. . . as it should.

In the past week, I’ve had a few conversations with folks about the powerful mini-series Roots, a series I am watching because I believe it is my obligation to do so. Some of these folks are not watching the series because it is too much for them – too much violence, too much stimulus in the form of images.  Some other folks are not watching because “it’s just too sad.”

I’m trying very, very hard to find my way to compassion with those of us who feel this way, but honestly, I’m not doing so hot at that.

On one hand, I do understand. I am a Highly Sensitive Person, so when I see (or particularly read) about violence or painful stories, they linger with me – sometimes for days.  I have to monitor how much of that intense experience I take in because I – by nature – relate to it fiercely and can debilitate myself if I’m not careful.  Me crying in a ball on my bed isn’t helpful to anyone.

On the other hand, I don’t understand.  Part of me wants to dismiss these ideas as selfish, to charge out accusations about how “enslaved people didn’t have a choice not to live it, and you can’t bear to watch a recreation of it?”  But accusations aren’t helpful either.  They just push people away and build walls.

So today, I’m choosing to listen and asking this fundamental question:

Is our refusal to watch/read/listen to painful stories of the oppressed truly a way to be wise about our needs, or is it merely an avoidance and, thus, an exercise of our privilege to turn away? 

Some further questions for us to consider.

  • How do we come to understand oppression if we are highly sensitive people? What means can we use to delve deep into the experience of the oppressed without losing ourselves and our ability to act in the pain?
  • What options are available for people to bear witness? Films? Books? Listening to first-person accounts?
  • How can we call out the irresponsible use of privilege when we see it without alienating the people for whom this need to turn away is about health and self-preservation and not about avoidance?
  • How do we hold space for people to come to these experiences and this oppression in a variety of ways, ways that allow for all the ways we as people operate in the world while also calling out white supremacy and working to eliminate white privilege?

I don’t have any real answers to these questions here, and I welcome your thoughts on any of them.

Always in love, folks.  Always in love.

 

 

I Found Out I Was Black, And I’m Still White

I found out I was black, and I'm still white

Photo by Yamon Figurs via Unsplash

A few years ago, I found out I was black.  For most black folks, their blackness would have been self-evident, part of who they were from the moment they were born.  But for me, this girl in a white body, who had always identified as white – or more correctly had not consciously identified as anything since so much of American society sees whiteness as normative, not racialized – this information was new, a new way of seeing myself, of understanding who I was in a world.

It was also something I could forget, put aside, take up when it served me.  I never pulled a Rachel Dolezol, thank goodness, always being sure to say I identify – and am identified – as white, but I still can pick up this black identity when it suits me and shelve it when it doesn’t because it doesn’t reside in my body.

No one touches my hair when I’m out in public.  We don’t do that to white women.

I’m still praying, thinking, working, talking, listening through what it means to be a woman whose ancestors were black, whose ancestors “passed” and became white, whose ancestors chose whiteness – for what I can only know to be powerful, necessary, safety-filled reasons – and so chose that identity for her.  I will probably be building up and tearing down these ideas for the rest of my life.  I’m okay with that.

How could I not be okay with carrying the weight of questions when I only carry blackness for the strength and gift that it is? I don’t carry the weight of the segregation, the oppression, the dismissal. I don’t carry it with the stereotypes about intellect or athletic prowess. I don’t carry it with the assumption of criminality or promiscuity. I don’t carry it with any of the awfulness of things that come from other people and are laid against black bodies.

So today, in my own white body that courses with the blood of courageous, flawed, gorgeous black men and women, I speak loud this question – Fellow white people, what burden are you laying against our black brothers and sisters? What prejudices? What assumptions? What misguided responsibility for racism are we placing on their backs?  

And will you join me in shifting all of that weight onto our own bodies? Will you stand with me as we accept the fact of racism as OURS to mend? Will you let your black brothers and sisters lean into you with their burdens, let them slide some of that heaviness onto your shoulders?  Will you? 

I hope so, I pray so because when we white people shoulder this burden, when we lift it onto our own white-clad bodies, we can sometimes put it aside.  That’s not possible for our friends who walk in brown, yellow, black, or red skin. . . Not ever.

It wasn’t possible for my ancestors, and so they took up whiteness as their shield. The least I can do now is put my own body out as a shield for those who do not, could not have that choice.

I honor, respect, even understand my ancestors’ choice.  But what a shame they had to make it.

 

Immersing Myself In African American Voices

Immersing Myself in African American VoicesI’m still working out how to use my voice to bring more justice, to break down white supremacy, to remember those our society and our institutions have intentionally forgotten.

One of the ideas I’m considering is committing to read almost exclusively African American authors for the rest of 2015. I need to make some radical choices to shift my perspective, to unnormalize my own whiteness.  This may be one way I try to do that.

As I read from Drew Hart‘s Trouble I’ve Seen this morning, I realized how very much I am still steeped in white supremacy, how so much of my understanding of the world is shaped by the idea that the white perspective is the right perspective . . . or worse, that it isn’t perspective at all, but truth.  I need to dismantle that for myself, first, so I can help dismantle it for others.

Years ago, when I was still teaching freshman composition, one of my students, Michael, said, “Why is white English the right English, Ms. Andi?”  I’ve carried Michael’s question with me for years. It’s one of those shaping statements, the ones that burrow in and disrupt.

I’m learning that when I feel uncomfortable, I need to pay attention. When something challenges my perspective, I need to silence my urge to defend myself or feel hurt and turn instead to empathy, to reach and stretch to understand.  It’s not a pleasant thing, this growing, this unnormalizing whiteness, not for this white woman.  But it’s essential.  Absolutely essential as a work of justice in my own heart.

So I am, I am going to read almost exclusively books my African American authors for the rest of this year.  I’ll be sharing my thoughts on those books here, and I welcome your recommendations for my reading.  What books by African Americans would you recommend I read?  Please share in the comments below.  

Today, I leave you with the Bowie State Cheerleaders using their bodies and their talents to speak the truth.

Ken Burns Says Race Is the Central Theme of American History

Ken Burns Says Race Is The Central Theme of American HistoryEver since I saw his Civil War documentary, I’ve LOVED Ken Burns. . . . here’s another reason to love him today:

We were founded on the idea that all men were created equal, but oops—the guy who wrote that owned more than 100 human beings and didn’t see in his lifetime to free any one of them; didn’t see the contradiction or the hypocrisy. And so it set us on a journey where we are constantly having to struggle not with race, but racism.

It’s definitely worth your time to watch this whole clip of Burns on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. His words on the importance of Jackie Robinson in our history are profound, as is the great clip with the Obamas.

Too much, I fear we relegate people of color, people like Jackie Robinson, or Sojourner Truth, or Maya Angelou, to the position of exemplars of a race when really what we should be doing is admiring them as exemplars of the best of what it is to be human.  We take someone like Jackie Robinson and taint both his accomplishments and his punishments by implying – or directly stating sometimes – that he is only great because he was the first black man to accomplish what he did. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we, instead, recognized that his greatness is even more profound because he WAS a black man who had to overcome more than any of his white colleagues and who still stood out for both his athletic prowess and his strong, gentle spirit?

I hesitate to say we should try to imagine a world where race is not a factor because we too often act as if that is the case now instead of actually recognizing the racism that hinders us all.  But at the risk of feeding the delusion of the color blind, I do for a moment imagine what Jackie Robinson, Nat Turner, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou would have accomplished if they did not first have to overcome white supremacy and racial hatred.  What would the world look like if we’d actually gotten out of their way and let them do their thing loud and hard?  Oh what a world that would be.

Did any of you see Burns’ documentary on Robinson yet? If so, what did you think? 

Unsettling Racism in the Church – The Work of Austin Channing and Drew Hart

Unsettling Racism in the Church: Austin Channing and Drew HartLast week, at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I had the opportunity to hear Austin Channing and Drew Hart had finished laying out some truth, I was tearing up and tingling with the energy of honest accountability.

Channing said:

I try to be authentic. I am giving voice my experience of the world.

Hart said:

My goal is to unsettle people. My goal is to change people.

When an audience member asked them to explain why they used the phrase “white supremacy” instead of white hegemony or other less, what he called, “antagonist” terms, Hart broke down the history of white supremacy and laid out the realities of our society.  Channing said, “I’m not trying to antagonize. I’m telling you about my experience of a world that antagonizes me.”

I’m weary of the blue-eyed, yellow-haired Jesus. I’m weary of segregated Sunday mornings. I’m weary of the church acting as if racism is not our problem, so I am eager to learn from Channing and Hart so that I can work to dismantle the racism that is part of my faith tradition and my society more generally.  Because, after all, as a white woman, it is MY JOB to break that down.  It’s my responsibility to unsettle people, to be about the work of unsettling racism.

I highly recommend you follow both of these folks, on social media and through their blogs (linked above.) Also, be sure to check out Hart’s new book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.  I can’t wait to read it.