What’s in a name?

A couple of months ago, I started writing a story with flashbacks to the Jim Crow South. The flashback scenes were of two children of sharecroppers – one white and one black – and a relationship between them that they re-access later in their lives. When it was pointed out that I had oversimplified the relationship between the children, I paused. I’ve been steeped in race as a white woman raising bi-racial children in the South, had I ever really researched it like I would any other subject I wanted to write about? I put the writing on hold and put a call out to my network: What should I read to understand this era?

The first recommendation I got was the Library of Congress American Folklife Center collection of the voices of slavery.  As an admitted information junkie, I spent a couple of days lost in it! Many of the recordings were hard to understand but there were transcripts! It was amazing and informative.

As I ranted about the glory of my newfound archives on Facebook, a friend reached out. “You have to remember that these were white people sitting in black people’s homes asking them questions about slavery. The people answering those questions knew that over-stepping their bounds could cost them their life. There are things unsaid in those interviews.”

History is written by the winner, right?

So back to my network: Who really gets race right in their writing? That’s how I came to have the stack of books beside me right now: Growing Up Jim Crow by Jennifer Ritterhouse; The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson; Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell; Blues Done Signed My Name by Timothy B. Tyson and on and on.

I started with Growing Up Jim Crow since it’s focused on the era and about children during the era. I find myself reading sections, then re-reading them after they’ve had a chance to sink in. Today, I hit on a couple of things that I want to share (with all two of you who read) that connect to real-life for me.

As is my way, I will start with a story: Twice in my professional life, I’ve been involved in interactions between a white woman and a black woman in the workplace that felt icky. I wasn’t able to unpack them at the time, but I felt like there was something racial going on and that we should take the time to understand it as such. The first situation was when a white woman at a high level in the organization repeatedly shortened the name of the black woman who didn’t work under her but was at a lower level in the professional hierarchy. I noticed that the black woman didn’t introduce herself as such and asked whether she preferred the shortened name and she said, “No. That person is the only person who calls me that.” The next time I heard the white woman use it, I said, “You know, she doesn’t refer to herself that way. You should call her by her full name.” And that was the end of it. My intuition told me there was something powerful behind it that I didn’t understand, and I didn’t explore it further but I wish I had.

Fast-forward a couple of years and a black woman in my department (the only person of color in the department at that time) asks to be referred to as, “Ms. Smith” (not her real name). She introduces herself as such, refers to herself as such on her voicemail, etc. The big boss gets wind of it and tells her to stop, stating that the organizational culture is informal and asking to be referred to with a title puts a wedge between her and her customers. This time, I did say to the boss, “You know, there’s a lot of power behind titles and names in the African-American community. There may be more to this than meets the eye.”

Today, I was reading Growing Up Jim Crow and came across this: about post-emancipation:

“In our part of the State…the death of slavery is recognized, and made a basis of action for everybody,” he (South Carolina slave owner) informed northern journalist Whitelaw Reid. “But we don’t believe that because the nigger is free he ought to be saucy.”  (p. 28)

Rittenhouse goes on to say that one of the most contentious changes after emancipation was that freedmen and freedwomen were demanding to be referred to as Mister and Missus. In some cases, to escape the names they were called during slavery, they took on new names altogether. But if they became “saucy” by becoming angry or daring to not answer when called by their slave name, they risked the violent wrath of white people who may have been following the law of the land, but made it clear that their former slaves were inferior and not worthy of respect.

“It is hard to have layed our loved ones in the grave, to have them fall by the thousands on the battle field, to be stripped of everything. But the hardest of all is nigger equality and I won’t submit to it.” – Savannah white woman, 1865 (p. 28)

The first thing that occurred to me is how “ethnic-sounding names” are often publicly ridiculed by white people. How if you have a name that sounds black, your resumé somehow goes to the bottom of the pile.

Isn’t this a modern-day way of keeping black folks from getting saucy?

This is the level at which we white folk need to check ourselves in the continuing fight for civil rights, I think. Things that seem so small, something as insignificant as calling a person by their preferred name is a small step toward returning power to the people we disempower with our jokes, our misunderstanding and our refusal to take the time to understand a reality outside our own.

~ D

 

A Million Tiny Pieces

The world is perfectly organized to get the results we are getting right now.

Fellow white folks, I have something to say to you about Dylann Roof. It may be different from other messages you’ve heard this week. I don’t care to discuss whether his actions were terrorism or a hate crime – though I think it’s a useful conversation to have. Neither am I interested in discussing whether stricter gun control might have stopped these murders. While I think gun control is relevant, it’s too easy to devolve into a discussion that focuses, in my opinion, on a symptom rather than the cause.

What I’d like to talk to you about today, my people, is how we created Dylann Storm Roof.

Roof is not an island. He is held up by millions of inputs over his twenty-one years that led him to execute a plan to murder innocent black people. Inputs that took hold in the South long before he was born that told him black lives are less valuable than his own, then reinforced that notion over and over, every day of his life.

Indoctrination in to Southern racism is as sneaky as Nazi indoctrination was: it grabs our attention by telling us we are special. Chosen. Then it whispers that “they” are trying to take away our power and POOF, we’re prepared to attack this imaginary enemy to defend our position.

I won’t preach – we’ve all heard those stories and then tucked them safely away as “history.”  Let’s talk about today.

Examples of the inputs that support the belief that black people are less than, apart, different from us. It probably started with his parents passing on the belief system that they had. Then, we supported him and sustained him right up until this moment:

1) Referring to Memphis, Tennessee as “Memphrica” – My home town is majority black. I see this reference daily on Facebook and I bet there are other similar references to cities that are majority black that I haven’t seen;

2) Flying the Confederate Flag – I understand that many Southerners have ancestors who fought in the Civil War and that it’s important to honor them. I understand that many continue to support states’ rights and that, at a high level, that’s what the Civil War was about. But many Americans (black and otherwise) have told us that it is offensive and creates a hostile environment for them, and we’ve told them to fuck off .  We can say it’s about history – and maybe it is for some – but isn’t it at least a little about someone else having the power to tell you what you can and can’t do?

3) Way Down in Africa – America’s first black radio station, AM 1070 WDIA in Memphis is referred to in the white community this way. They are separate from us.

4) City Monuments: Until two years ago, there was a monument in Memphis dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Two more monuments: Confederate Park and  were renamed along with this one when City Council voted on it in 2013. Notable, three white City Council members abstained from the vote.  Again, fuck off black Memphians. NOTE: These types of monuments remain all over the South – Memphis isn’t special.

Then there are the countless racist jokes we laugh at, pictures on Facebook of our president as a monkey that we scroll past and saying out loud, “I wonder what he stole?” when we see a young black man running down the street.  When we talk more than we listen and don’t stop to consider – at least for a moment – that what the African-American community is telling us about their experience could be true.

White Southerners, we created Dylann Storm Roof by supporting a system in which he could exist. Through our actions and our inactions, we have chosen to think of the African-American community as our enemy.

We loaded the gun.

~D

Being a white civil rights activist

Four things happened recently that led to this post:

1) The week after a teenaged girl in McKinney, Texas was verbally and physically assaulted by a police officer, I did something I had watched others do many time: I lost it on Facebook. The fill-line in my brain was exceeding and I went into the red zone. From the outside, I’m sure it looked like I was losing my mind: sharing of every article I could find on the subject; arguing with people I didn’t even know; serial rants that went on and on. People were worried about me. I was worried about me. I could feel my blood pressure and heart rate respond with every post I made;

2) I took a fictional work-in-progress set in the Jim Crow South to my writer’s group and realized that while I am pretty plugged in to current-day racial issues, my only real study of life in that place in that time came from my Tennessee History class in the late 70’s. If I was going to do a fair job of representing race and racial relationships during this time, I had a lot to learn about African-American history. Considering most of the history available was gathered and interpreted by white folks, I was going to have to dig to find the rest of the story;

3) Then came the Rachel Dolezal story;

4) This morning, I woke up to the story about a massacre at a historical AME church in South Carolina. Back when my Facebook rant happened, I made a promise to myself that I would read and ponder, but wait 72 hours after an incident to write about it so that I could a) provide a more thoughtful response; and b) avoid getting into a bad place in my head and heart.

“You’re failing,” you might be thinking. But I’m not going to write about Emanuel AME Church.

I’m going to write about being a white civil rights activist.

Some of the first Tweets I saw this morning were  messages to the African-American community about self-care:

@_Rickeh:  Many of us are at a job right now surrounded by Whiteness and nonchalance. It’s tough. I’m STRUGGLING this morning.

Over the coming days/weeks some White people IRL/at work will demand you engage over this-Ignore/separate as much as possible.
@FeministaJones: Self-care and Self-preservation may look like me not being nice to YOU
Life >>>> Nice

Sometimes, people lose their way in trying to do good -thankfully most not to the extent that Dolezal did. Just like my Facebook rant last week, I have guilt and rage and I need to do something with it.

But maybe, in order to do good, what I need should be subordinate to what the African-American community needs.  Maybe, I need to look to the community I want to serve about what my role should be.

Let’s walk softly today, white civil rights activists.

Let’s listen more than we talk.

~D

On passing – there’s plenty of work for you, Ms. Dolezal

Did you see this story?  Apparently, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, is white. She’s being accused of presenting herself as black for the past ten years or so.

Like the folks at Jezebel, I have questions. Many of them. And I’m going to listen for understanding as this unfolds. But there’s one point that I think is worth reflecting on. It’s clear that her family of origin was diverse and that she was interested in civil rights issues from early in her life. She teaches African-American studies. There’s no doubt she cares about this issue.

But, why did Dolezal think she needed to be black to do this work?

As a white woman who cares about civil rights, I see an immense amount of work to be done. How do we, as white folks, unpack our thinking about race and examine them? How do we identify the beliefs that we have and where they came from? And how do we draw the line between our thoughts and behaviors and systemic racism that plagues our country? This is work, in my opinion, that belongs to white people. And there’s a metric shit-ton of it to do. We could have used Dolezal to help move the needle in ways that stem from her own experiences rather than her pretending to share the African-American experience.

The white voice is critical to social justice. There are still people that hear the voices of people of color as whiney, too sensitive and “playing the race card.” We can be heard by people whose racial issues are so deep, their brains won’t even allow for the possibility that they are wrong. It’s incumbent upon us, white folks, to use our voices in a way that our people will hear. This is not a black issue – this is an American issue and white people have the biggest role in changing the way we function around race. We created it, we have to fix it.

Ms. Dolezal, whether she intentionally misrepresented herself or not, didn’t correct the misconception that she was black. That was the moment she could have empowered people of color and taken up her responsibility as a white woman in American.

It may be too late now.

 

Like this post? Hate it? Pass it on to get a conversation going!

 

Writing matters to race

When I first moved from the south to the midwest, I found activism to be much more prevalent. Most everyone I met had a thing that they were passionate enough about to spend their time, energy and money fighting for.

“I don’t have a “thing,” I remember saying. No bumper stickers, no buttons, no passion.

That was nine years ago – around the same time I started to notice how different racism was in the midwest from the south. Not better, mind you. Just different. And somewhere along the line, race became my thing. Since my children are biracial, I’ve always been cognizant of race and its complexity. But something changed for me when my environment changed and I saw things as an outsider. I became passionate (rabid?) about calling out racism in all its ways of being and holding myself and others accountable for the damage it causes.

And then, I started writing publicly. And I have to admit, I tried to reign it in.  Knowing that I do aspire to make a living by writing, I didn’t want to offend for fear of driving off potential readers. I bit my tongue. And I’m ashamed of that.

So here’s my public declaration: I am passionately anti-racist. And I will write about it. I’ll write about it because writing is both my way of understanding the world and my way of impacting it. I’ll write about it because writing matters and people who fancy themselves writers have to talk about things that matter.  Writing matters to racism. Art matters to racism.

Some people will go away. And that’s okay. To those people, I bid all the best.  To those who stick around, thanks. Let’s learn something from one another.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Speaking of race, I’m working on a story that flashes back to 1940’s south and a farm that is sharecropped by both white and black sharecroppers.  If you – or anyone you know – has experience in that subject matter, I’d love to hear from you. I’m finding research to be particularly difficult because, well….history is written by the winners. In order to do right by the black folks in the story, I need to better understand the time period.

 

~D

The “ick” of writing memoir

Today, I spent time on the phone with the marketing team for Wailing Wall. November 10, 2015 is the official launch date, and we needed to do some planning about how to make the biggest splash. It was exciting and thrilling and then…I had a moment. A moment where the whole thing just seemed icky. Wrong. Scary.

I’m planning a strategy for how I’m going to spend a month talking about the book – ergo, talking about my Joshua’s death. And since (I hope) that Wailing Wall is not the last book, I’ll publish, I’m talking about building my “brand” as a writer on the back of losing my kid.

Icky, right?

How do people do it – write and publish and tell horrible stories about people they love and not feel at least a little icky about it?

I just looked back at a Facebook chat I had with Joshua a couple of months before he died where he asked me how writing was going. He was always encouraging, always positive about my aspirations to write something that the world would one day see. If he were here right now, he’d say, “Ma, you’re being ridiculous. Get out there and sell the damn book.” I know he’d be stoked about the book – especially the cover. I know he’d be proud of me. And he would gladly have given his story to me if it helped me heal, become more human, and live again. And still, it feels odd to be excited about the book launch, to be asking people to read it and review it or host a book signing. Odd. And icky.