Books

Heart of Whiteness

Heart of Whiteness

For the first time, a spacecraft has sent back pictures of the sky from so far away that some stars appear to be in different positions than we would see them from Earth. More than 4 billion miles from home and speeding toward interstellar space, NASA’s New Horizons has traveled so far that it now has a unique view of the nearest stars, but it looks like an alien sky. The difference is due to parallax, the same effect you see if you hold up a finger and close one eye, then the other. It’s a shift in perspective, caused by New Horizons’ great distance from Earth.

I love the concept of parallax. My latest novel is named for it. A shift in perspective changes . . . everything. But once you’ve dared experience it you might mourn the time you lost believing your previous perspective was the only one. Or you might get angry at certain lies you’ve been fed and the way you consequently acted on information you trustingly swallowed.

White U.S. citizens now seem to be trying to achieve a shift in perspective about race. European Americans are hungrily surfing the Internet for information on African American history, apparently startled awake by the idea that there is such a thing. It makes me grateful all over again for that late 1960s at-the-time painful moment when black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement told us participating white folks to please go organize in our own communities now, sometimes adding candidly that they were tired of educating us. Some of us went back to cushy suburbs to lick ego wounds of rejection. But some of us tried to do what was being asked of us and that turned out rather well—for me, certainly. I found a just being reborn Women’s Movement and the rest is, well, herstory. Just as the suffrage movement had been founded by women activists in the abolitionist movement against slavery, so again, contemporary U.S. feminism was born out of the struggle against racism. Nor is that coincidental, since sexism and racism are inextricably combined. (Here’s a really short mini-version of a subject on which I’ve written 20 some odd books: a woman always knows her own child, but a man doesn’t; he needs to control reproduction so the progeny looks the same as he does; control of women’s bodies is central to women’s oppression; sameness and “other” are central to racism; patriarchal control— sexism and racism—are from the same root.)

But enough truncated analysis. If you want to read more of my ravings on the subject, check out The Anatomy of Freedom and The Demon Lover; both are also available in all e-book formats. In any event, today, when I encounter white Americans who are thoughtful, considerate, some highly educated, some even feminist, who are so certain they’ve never been racist but who just somehow never got the systemic part, I feel I should go organize harder in my own community all over again. Obviously, I didn’t do a good enough job last time.

It definitely can boggle the mind, the inculcated ability of otherwise genuinely good people to un-see racism while waltzing blithely through a world saturated with it. Aunt Jemima pancakes and Uncle Ben’s rice, sure—and Eskimo bars, Frito Bandito and Chiquita banana ads, “flesh colored” Band-Aids, “nude colored” pink bras, Indian maidens on Land O Lakes butter, fried chicken and watermelon memes, Mammy dolls, “model minority” jokes, the implications in phrases like “black as sin,” but “a white knight,” the common equating of darkness with menace or gloom but whiteness with purity—how is all this and so much more somehow invisible to the principled white eye? Or, if visible, how are such images and tropes conveniently dismissed as being cultural artifacts, leftovers from the 1950s when “nobody knew better.”

Not knowing better was intentional. People were schooled in not knowing better.

That’s systemic racism: when you don’t see the thing standing out against the background because it also IS the background.

The myth that racism is not at work unless it’s a KKK cross-burning lynching means that a thousand micro-aggressions every day don’t count as racism. Thus letting everybody except Klansmen off. It’s comparable to those who claim rape isn’t really sexual assault unless five men with weapons are gang raping one woman. Dramatic extremes are employed/deployed as definition so that the far more frequent, everyday, soul-debilitating acts of physical and emotional violence that really do define the lives of those with less or no power can slip by unnoticed. Many white people still feel it’s OK to post a boast about being “color blind.”

In a racist society, color blindness regarding race is impossible.

What we white people need to become is color literate–which takes work.

Doing that kind of work is scary. It’s scary because it hurts and because it may lead to action. I’ve long believed that what lies at the heart of white racism is fear, projected fear emanating from “the heart of whiteness,” an internal deep admission of what whiteness has done to black people, and an assumption that black people would do what whites would do if the roles were reversed. Not all the tiny black children praying before they were fire-hosed by Bull Conner could allay that fear. Not all the reassuring “please, sir, just let me walk home” appeals offered by Rayshard Brooks could allay that fear. Not scores of non-violent marchers chanting “hands up don’t shoot” has allayed that fear. That fear has been a force that drives (and claims to justify) lip service at best, historic and ongoing brutality at worst, dehumanizing of “the other,” and resistance to paying owed and just reparations—all in turn employed in a flight from acknowledging the truth.

Many of you who follow this blog are book-readers, and I believe in the transformative alchemy of good writing. So I’ve cobbled together what I hope may serve as a helpful, suggested, annotated short list of compelling books on this subject, and am attaching it at the end of this blog post. One or two were published a while ago; most are recent. The list could run into the thousands, but this is a start. All of these books make for stimulating, moving, and inspiring (summer or anytime) reading. I was sorely tempted to point toward the arts, starting with the brilliance of Zora Neal Hurston or the greatness of the late Toni Morrison. But I gave up somewhere between Octavia Butler’s stunning science fiction and Toi Derricotte’s memorable poetry. Besides, just as my white sisters and brothers needed to see with their own eyes videos like that depicting the death agony of George Floyd, so do we/they now need hard facts.

Fortunately, we live at the time of a great flowering of scholarship on and mostly by African American women, and these books—my personal choices—largely focus on the enslavement of black women in the United States. This is a new, crucial unearthing of black history and U.S. history that has been denied to black Americans and from which white Americans have been kept protected and ignorant. Almost all of these authors have been guests on my podcast; the episodes on which they appeared can be found indexed in the archives of “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” where each of these books has been discussed in detail, along with numerous others on this and related subjects.

All of these authors share standards of excellence and a generous capacity for irony—as in dealing with the contradictions embodied in Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, “father of the constitution”—all slaveholders. These authors are not interested in simplistic denunciation that will raise what they know is the already high defensiveness of many white readers. They’re interested in the truth, and in how the compartmentalization actually worked. Which is precisely the lesson we need to learn today.

If you’re an African American reader or other reader of color who happens not to know some of these books, I would wager that you will come all the more into your own power through them. If you’re a European American or other white reader, you may discover that guilt is not the point; guilt is counterproductive and boring. Knowledge is the point, is not boring, and is also power—including the power to change things. This particular knowledge can free you from the “unbearable whiteness of being,” and make you furious at having been denied what you had a right to know.

However and wherever you enter this other reality, you’ll encounter a parallax view. The stars won’t look the same. It changes you forever. And that kind of change is a great gift indeed.

“Color Literate” Book Suggestions—Robin Morgan’s personal list

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From the Womb to the Grave, in the Building of a Nation, by Daina Ramey Berry.
This is a read that delivers shock upon shock, even if you think you knew something about the subject. Dr. Berry, Professor of History and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, has done research both stupendous and specific. In life and in death slaves were commodities, their monetary value assigned based on age, gender, health, and market demands. A pregnant woman cost more at market: two for the price of one, after all, plus it meant she was fertile for the future including through rape, because the law sanctioned slavery through a woman’s womb. A man could rape, impregnate, and increase his wealth in slaves all at the same time. So careful attention was paid to female slaves’ gynecological health. The “father of gynecology,” Dr. James Marion Simms, conducted his research on enslaved women—sometimes performing experiments without anesthesia because anesthesia was expensive and they were merely slaves. Every aspect of an enslaved person’s life was commodified. Even in death you were a product, via the efficiently organized cadaver trade’s connection to 19th century medical education. When enslaved people died, some were sold again and trafficked along the same roads and waterways they had traveled while alive. Corpses were “harvested and anatomized” because the “products” had to make it to their destinations well-preserved in cadaver bags. Physicians at Southern and Northern medical schools participated in this booming business. Although slavery supposedly ended in 1865, the black cadaver trade—what Dr. Barry terms “the ghost value” of deceased African-Americans, many formally enslaved, continued until the 1880s.

New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, by Wendy Warren.
From the beginning, slave trading contributed to the rapid growth and economic success of the northern colonies. Did you know, for example, that it was not Virginia that first legalized slavery in the colonies, but Massachusetts, in 1641? By the middle of the century, more slaves inhabited the North than all of the Chesapeake; by the 1680s over half the ships plying the waters up and down the Boston coast were intrinsically tied to the commerce in Caribbean rum, sugar—and enslaved human beings.

Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, by Elizabeth Fox–Genovese and Eugene Genovese.
This is a study in exposing and analyzing denial, and is eerily familiar; prescient of arguments made today by some conservative “thinkers” and religionist apologists. Research by the late women’s studies professor and her husband lets us spy inside the thinking of slaveholders, as they became more and more preoccupied with presenting the institution of slavery as a benign, paternalistic structure in which slaves were happy with their fate. Southerners’ version of “Christian slavery” was presented as the most compassionate of social systems. The romanticized view of life on a plantation that saturates Gone With the Wind and other sentimentalized presentations of atrocity grew out of the need to morally justify a system of rank exploitation. In other words, they knew what they were doing. They knew.

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.
When the brain balks—at the waves of statistics, the varying prices listed for different ages and sexes, the enormous scope—the heart needs a specific story. Dr. Dunbar, Distinguished Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware, put a face on just such a story. When George and Martha Washington moved from Mount Vernon in Virginia to Philadelphia (then the nation’s capital), the new president and his first lady brought nine enslaved people with them. Slavery in Philadelphia wasn’t popular, though, and there even was a law requiring slaveholders to free their slaves after six months. But clever Washington thought he would circumvent the law by sending his slaves back south every six months, thereby resetting the clock. Martha’s chief attendant, Ona Judge, was an intelligent young woman who had been interacting with Philadelphia’s sizable free black community; she figured this out, and before she could be sent back to the plantation to be “reset,” she ran. This is the only book that examines the life of an 18th-century fugitive woman in detail—and it certainly provides you with a shift in perception about the father of our country. Professor Dunbar was researching a different project about black women in Philadelphia when she came across an old advertisement in the Philadelphia Gazette offering a reward for finding a runaway slave “who had escaped from the President’s house.” She followed that thread to Ona Judge through 50 years of fugitivity across New England until, in 1845 and 1847, Judge granted interviews to two reporters for abolitionist newspapers: her voice comes alive in this pulse-racing true story of escape and pursuit.

The Hemmings of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reade.
This is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who brought us the truth about Jefferson and Sallie Hemmings, complete with all the attendant ironies of Jefferson having been so committed to the rights of “mankind,” plus the complexities that Sallie, his enslaved de facto wife, was the half-sister of his dead white wife and the two women shared similar features. Gordon-Reade presents these intimate, intricate, familial truths with a compassion balanced by the precise eye of a historian, and one who can really write.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson.
The book, a best-seller, deservedly won numerous awards for its unflinching expose of how, ever since the passage of the 13th amendment, every time African Americans have advanced toward full participation in this democracy, white reaction has ignited a deliberate, relentless rollback of any gains. Professor Anderson links historical flash-points, from the post-Civil War “Black Codes” to expressions of white rage after President Obama was elected, and she renders visible the long lineage of different names under which it hides.

A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools, by Rachel Devlin.
Bringing us toward the present, Devlin’s fine work punctures the sexism that infected even the Civil Rights Movement and challenges us to see a parallax view of that movement and history in an entirely new way—what has been in plain view but kept invisible: the role of intrepid young women and fierce little girls who stood at the center of the massive, excruciating effort to desegregate American schools—an exercise yet to be completed.

That’s at least a beginning….