The Great Folks
Chapter 4: The Great Folks
Early Monday morning, on my second full day in Bristol, I begin reading an article Katrina gave each of us entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.1 She writes, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”
McIntosh’s interest in the subject began with her frustration with men who were unwilling to admit their privilege in comparison with women. She then recognized that she benefited from overprivilege based on her race. She listed several privileges she experiences in her daily life solely because she is white. I see many that apply to me. “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” That’s easy to do in Bend. “I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.” Again, this pertains to me. I keep reading.
“I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” True.
“I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.” Again, yes.
“I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” I’ve heard that one before. I think Archie Bunker used to say it on All in the Family on TV.
“I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” That’s interesting. No white person is ever asked to speak for all white people. But as I reflect about it, I can remember thinking that if a black person said something, I figured all black people probably felt pretty much the same way.
McIntosh lists dozens of different ways she was privileged because of her white skin. Intellectually, I understand most of them. I’m surprised by several and realize I’ve had the privilege of not needing to reflect on them before. I’ve never been followed around in a store because the owner thinks I might steal something or ever even contemplated the fact that most of the people I see on television or in newspapers look like me. I never realized that when history teachers presented our national heritage, they always talked about the white people who were involved in its creation. I never thought about black people not being able to find a hairdresser who could cut their hair. I fidget while I read because I begin to see how my white skin has given me privilege that I’ve had the luxury of taking for granted.
McIntosh hits home when she writes about the importance of relinquishing the myth of meritocracy. “If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.” She describes unearned advantages males receive due to their gender, and essentially calls for a redesign of our social structure. Of course, the people in position to effect such change are the people in power: primarily white men, and the question of whether, or why, this demographic group would choose to change is a pro-found one.
Beginning in the early 1800s, one tactic white northerners used to help distance themselves from the slavery experience was to vilify black people. Joanne explains how white people made fun of the Africans’ speech, looks, dress, and activities. Consciously or unconsciously, the result was to create and expand separation. Whites hoped to get blacks to move back to Africa, a place most of them had never lived and knew nothing about.
She passes around an old cartoon as an example of the kind of literature that began to appear in newspapers and magazines.”Here’s a black woman in an exaggerated hat because she’s living above her station. She’s got two black men with their arms around her because, of course, she’s lascivious and unchaste. There’s a black man you can’t see very well who’s drunk on the floor. And look at the language: ’12th annebersary ob Affricum bobalition,’ because, of course, that’s the way black people speak.”
The story of an enslaved South and a free North is willful and constructed amnesia: whites, who, a few generations removed, had no recollection or knowledge of northern slavery, reasoned that blacks were disproportionately poor and illiterate due to an innate inferiority. Separation between the races increased, and whites felt superior. This explains much about northern racism.
Joanne asks Elizabeth if she knew she was descended from a major slave trader.
“I didn’t know it was major,” she answers. “I knew it was a slave trader.”
“Was it an open discussion in your family?” Joanne asks.
“No, not at all,” says Elizabeth.
James says that’s been his experience as well. Family and the past were very important, but his family was very selective about what they focused on. Elly says that, to be fair, what she heard from her mother would have been what her mother experienced in life. She didn’t know any slave traders. Who knows much of anything about family members more than one or two generations back?
“If you forget that history,” says Katrina, “then when current events are about racial injustice, you’re not implicated. You can point the finger elsewhere. It explains a whole northern, white, liberal thing. We know we’re not supposed to be prejudiced and we’re supposed to consider everyone to be equal. But that’s the end of the story and you put it out of your mind because you’re a good person. Your region and your family have always been good. If there’s a problem it must be somebody else’s problem.”
“Does it strike you that there’s an unusual absence in your lives of engagement with people who are not like you?” asks Joanne.
“Not at all…,” says Dain with a laugh. I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or serious.
Joanne explains one argument that has been made since the Civil War: northern racism is evidenced by an engagement with issues of social justice on the one hand, but an almost deliberate disengagement with actual black people on the other. They support civil rights but haven’t ever had a meaningful conversation with a black person.
“Yet,” says Dain. “I don’t know the numbers on this, but my impression is that a huge number of people from New England went down to civil rights marches in the South.”
“Bull’s-eye!” says Joanne. “Oh yes, because they’re going to straighten out the South! We marched south in the Civil War. During Reconstruction we sent schoolteachers south to improve the literacy rate among black people. Aren’t you proving my point? White northerners have been terribly concerned about social justice and black empowerment somewhere else, not here. God forbid you empower them next door. Empower them in Alabama.”
I choose this moment to toss in a thought as the California boy. I don’t think New England is the Lone Ranger here. I struggle to explain that I did not know how to talk to black people about my fear when I was young. There was no basis or education for that kind of dialogue. I also didn’t know about any of the family history, let alone about slavery in the North. There’s no amnesia, there’s no guilt—for me, it didn’t exist. Katrina asks what I would think if I were my ancestor Simon. Even though I’m not guilty, how I would deal with the fact that my brother was a slave trader?
I pause for a moment. “It was almost two hundred years ago. It was a different time, it was a different culture. I don’t want to defend anything that happened in this family or in New England or in America but I don’t want to vilify these people either because I don’t know. I wasn’t walking in their shoes.”
Although I’m not aware of it at the moment, in Ghana I will have an epiphany that will profoundly alter my beliefs.
Over the past week, Katrina met individually with each of us in order to capture some personal background along with our hopes and fears regarding this journey. Ledlie said, “My fears about going to Ghana are that it won’t mean a lot to me. I will see where the slaves were imprisoned and it won’t come alive for me. My other fear is that it will come alive for me.”
His words haunt me.
Excerpted with permission from Inheriting the Trade by Thomas Norman DeWolf. Beacon Press, Boston, © 2008.
Thomas Norman DeWolf was born and raised in Pomona, California. Tom began writing Inheriting the Trade in 2001, during the summer in which he joined Katrina Browne and eight distant cousins on their life-altering journey to Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba, to make the film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. He has been writing full time since 2005. Tom and his wife, Lindi, live in Oregon. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.