Saturday, December 21, 2019

White girl thinking about racism on a Saturday afternoon

Yesterday I was wandering around the quiet echoing rooms of the UNC Wilson Library and reading displays about the writing of enslaved black people of North Carolina, and the experience of being black in this state in the post-slavery period. My eyes were opened to a whole new reading list I'd like to tackle. I was profoundly moved by excerpts written by men and women describing their circumstances, emotions, and reflections with the great skill of gifted writers. I was especially drawn to the only known autobiography of an American enslaved person written in Arabic- a devout Muslim scholar kidnapped in Senegal and sold into slavery in here.

I grew up in a 99% white small northern town, and I only knew a handful of actual black people. In that environment, I was able to firmly believe that racism in my country was a thing of the past and we Americans were past that sort of unenlightened evil. Of course, that didn't last long after growing up and joining the real world. It's odd, remembering how I used to ponder how Germans coped with the history of the genocide that happened in their country and it never occurred to me that I should be figuring out how to cope with the fact that my race brutally kidnapped, murdered and enslaved other humans for hundreds of years and until recently legally discriminated against them.

While I did have the privilege of gaining real, close black friends in college and beyond, it really wasn't until we moved to Baltimore for several years and lived as a minority for the first time in a majority black city that I really jumped into the rabbit hole of learning what brutal effects slavery and racism's oppression have wrought, evils that have not been laid to rest but still beat upon the everyday lives of black brothers and sisters. Every Sunday we went to a church that met in a school that schooled me by its posters and displays of student projects on black history, a history I knew precious little of outside of Martin Luther King Jr and a smattering of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. And in this community I became part of the lives of beloved people who are the most meticulous drivers you'll ever meet because getting stopped by the police might mean getting killed, who have said premature goodbyes to friend after friend caught in the crossfire of violence, and kids that treasure bananas and oranges because the inner city food desert is very real, friends.

I enjoy doing family history research and I am great fan of for finding out interesting details about the daily life of my ancestors, when the society column was the equivalent of today's social media. But it's also an incredible resource for seeing history via first-hand sources. And for every 1903 local mention of Mr Raymond Smith visiting his mother this week, the eye strays to the next column in which a mob of two hundred men "are searching the surrounding country for a negro that attacked Ed Strickland's sixteen year-old daughter in a field last night, who fortunately escaped and hurried to tell her father." Just try searching on the words "lynch" and "negro" and history will slap you in the face with the nasty reality of an entire society that doomed thousands of black men to execution without trial based on the shaky testimony of a teenage girl. And there is no mercy, none, in the way these accounts are written. Any outer space alien picking up a newspaper from the turn of the century would conclude, by the writing, that having black pigmentation was reliable signal of being the very spawn of the devil. Accounts of lynching are written with a satisfactory smugness that justice was served.

Last night I was at urgent care with my mom, and two black nurses were attending her with concern and deep compassion on their eyes and faces. I had a weird moment of thinking "after all that we people of white heritage have done, how can any black person be so kind and loving to us?" But there it is- while we humans have such a capacity to commit evil atrocities on others, we have such capacity to love and forgive and heal and not let the past rule the future.

I have a lot of questions that still aren't answered about the best ways to move forward as a healthy society. There's so much thinking and reading and talking with others I want to do but have little time for, no matter how important it might be to do it. But these intrusions into normal life- a museum display, an old newspaper article, an excerpt of literature written by a black sharecropper in 1930... they call out to me and things rise up in me, anger, sadness, and a desire to smash stupid racist walls down. To be part of the unmaking of the legacy of slavery and racism.

Thanks for reading the ramblings of my the thoughts circling my mind the last few days. It's good to put them down on paper (hah, paper).

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