President Obama: “We need to do some soul-searching”

President Obama’s historic remarks yesterday about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdit were striking for their clarity on on race and racism.  Addressing how the Zimmerman case unfolded, President Obama said:

“If a white male teen would have been involved in this scenario, both the outcome and the aftermath would have been different.”

 

All of this, of course, set the right-wing media machine into overdrive, calling President Obama’s remarks “race-baiting,” a claim that boggles the mind for a second term president, but no matter. You can read the full transcript of his remarks, and we’ll have more to say about these in the coming days on this blog, but the place I wanted to start with is near the end:

“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.”

It’s perhaps not surprising coming from a man who wrote a memoir, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, that contains his own soul-searching around race.

Memoirs about Race

A quick survey of the landscape of contemporary U.S. memoirs, there are quite a few that take on this task of soul-searching around race, including James McBride’s The Color of Water, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, June Cross’ Secret Daughter and Michelle Norris’ The Grace of Silence.

Yet, when it comes to soul-searching memoirs by white people about race and racism in the U.S. there are just many fewer of these and they are mostly disappointing endeavors. There is Clara Silverstein’s White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, in which the author uses her experience to undermine the entire project of integrating schools.

Then there is the whole sub-genre of memoirs by white people that I refer to “one-drop” memoirs. These are memoirs written by white people who discover that a relative was black even though they had passed as white. The chief example here is Bliss Broyard’s One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets.  There are others, like Joe Mozingo’s The Fiddler on Pantico Run: An African Warrior, His White Descendants, A Search for Family.  Related, is Mishna Wolff’s I’m Down her memoir about growing up as one of the only white kids in her neighborhood.

There are a few notable exceptions to these, including Thomas DeWolf’s Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family, and Cynthia Carr’s Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America.  Mab Segrest’s Memoir of Race Traitor stands out as another welcome exception to this general pattern, as she offers and engaging, critical analysis of her family’s racism and her struggle to move away from that legacy while still embracing her family. And the Claire Conner’s Wrapped in the Flag looks promising (although I haven’t had a chance to read more than this excerpt).

Truth and Reconciliation

Debra Dickerson asks, “why are white people suddenly so interested in race?” and goes on to point out, memoirs such as DeWolf, Ball, and Carr’s:

“do what America never will; participate in all the truth and reconciliation we’re ever going to have—piecemeal, caveated, hazy, [and] statute of limitations-expired…”

Dickerson is right.  There’s been no truth and reconciliation process in the U.S. for the centuries of chattel slavery, rape, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, discrimination, and ongoing extra-judicial killings. Beyond these few titles, there’s a paucity of writing by whites who are doing any of the really difficult “soul-searching” about the past or the present in the U.S.

I recently watched the documentary, “Hitler’s Children,” which chronicles the stories of descendants of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime. One of the people featured is Niklas Frank, who wrote a book about his father, Hans Frank, convicted and hanged at Nuremberg as a Nazi war criminal.  Frank’s book Der Vater: Eine Abrechnung (“The Father: A Settling of Accounts”), was published in English as In the Shadow of the Reich, is a scathing account of his father’s participation in the Third Reich’s genocide of six million. The interviews with Frank in the film capture his unflinching courage at looking at the legacy of his father. In one of the most touching scenes, Frank has a conversation with this daughter and asks her if she ever thinks about Hans Frank, her grandfather the Nazi war criminal.  She responds that she rarely thinks of him because, she says to her father, “You were a fortress against that. Because of what you wrote, I felt like I was protected somehow.”  It’s moving encounter that reveals so much about why this sort of soul-searching is necessary.

Yet, this sort of grappling with hard truths is mostly missing in the U.S. context. It’s part of what prompted me to start work on my own memoir.

My Memoir

In my experience doing research for my first book about white supremacist groups, I did some of my own personal, familial history and soul-searching. I learned that my paternal grandfather, in addition to being the mayor of the small town of Eden, Texas, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. This was especially startling given the family mythology I was raised with which was that we were, on my father’s side, descendants of Native Americans (tribe unknown).

(My father, Jim Tom Harper, with his parents, George and Bernice.)

 

If your ancestors, like mine, were actively involved in making sure that systems of inequality were entrenched and continued in perpetuity, then going back and looking at – not to mention looking for – that history is can be a painful exercise in shame. The tendency for most people when confronted with that kind of history is to dismiss, deny, ignore. My tendency, for whatever reason, is to poke, prod and reveal.

Uncovering the history of racial privilege can affect the present.  When I learned the facts of my grandfather’s participation in the KKK, I used this newly discovered fact about my grandfather’s involvement to situate my own work about white supremacy in the preface to White Lies. As a result of this discovery, I also changed my given name to Jessie Daniels. For me, seeing that my last name (Harper) was the same as my grandfather who was in the Klan, seemed wrong. And it seemed especially wrong to be on a book in which I was critical of white supremacy.

When my father read a draft of that piece, he threatened to stop publication of the book and had me briefly committed to a psychiatric ward.  After the seventy-two hour hold, my older brother came to the hearing considering my release, testified that I was mostly sane, and got me sprung. That first book was published, I moved far away and lived under my new name, teaching about racial privilege to college students on the East Coast. My father died two years after the book was published, and we never spoke again. The last time I saw him was at a hearing where he wanted to have me locked up for telling the truth about our family. I think my father’s reaction was extreme, but in many ways, it was not. As I learned, there are powerful cultural and social forces – like fathers and judges and hospitals – that can align to keep family secrets about racism.

It’s important that we do the kind of “soul-searching” that President Obama called for. Whites in the U.S. in general are incredibly naïve about race and about their own complicity in creating and maintaining this system of racial inequality. My naïvete was in not realizing how profoundly upset my father would be about these revelations. Even with my difficult experience with my father, I still think it’s important for whites to go back and look at what their genealogy of racial privilege is as painful and unpopular as that might be.

Ask your grandparents about the G.I. Bill – did your grandfather go to school on that government subsidy? Did he buy a house with help from the G.I. Bill?  Were there “deed restrictions” on the house you grew up in? Ask about the college admissions policies when your parents or grandparents went to school – who was excluded?  Ask about the employment policies – who was hired  — who was not?  How many whites know the answers to these questions going back even a generation?  Two generations?  Three generations?  Very few.

My point here is not to remain in the shallow eddy of thinking about race that is “white guilt,” but rather to use this sort of “soul-searching” to move the conversation forward in some small way.  Only then can we begin to step up and take responsibility for what our ancestors have wrought and more importantly, take some responsibility for dismantling the system of inequality they put in place and from which we still benefit.

 

~ Jessie Daniels, PhD, is a CUNY Professor, and is writing a memoir called, No Daughter of Mine.