When Historical Blame and Present Obligations Get Sticky
By the time you read this, I’ll be at my grandma’s cabin in Vermont. I’ll be splashing in her spring-fed pond, laying out on the deck with a cold Saranac (or whatever they drink up there), hiking the Appalachian Trail and… devouring a book I just ordered from Amazon.com called Slaves In the Family. Yes, I have been in a state of near obsession about the implications of my forebears’ participation in the American institution of slavery, and have been trying to figure out in what other ways they might have helped shape patterns of white domination and brown oppression that persist today. And while this northern sojourn will be a greatly needed opportunity to shed the weight of work-related stress and preoccupations with the fate of my adopted city of Greensboro, this slavery business will probably not leave me alone. Mainly because my grandma is both a generous research partner and my most pointed critic in this project. When I told her that I planned to publish a personal apology for slavery, she did not hesitate to share her own opinion. “It seems to me that it may come across to your readers as somewhat odd – even mildly fatuous – for an individual to apologize for the actions and culture of one’s ancestors,” she wrote in an e-mail before reading my piece. “It is a bit different if an institution such as the State of NC does so. The obverse of an apology would be bragging about your grandfather’s grandfather, Dr. Joseph C. Green (who happened through no virtue of his own to have been born in Ohio) who was a surgeon in the Union Army!” Her e-mail ended on an encouraging note: “Good luck! Your loving and very proud grandmother.” My foray into the past raises some sensitive issues in the family, particularly because my link to slavery runs through my grandma, whose father shipped out of Norfolk, Va. in the early 20th century to sell tobacco in China. His grandfather and great grandfather were landed gentry and community leaders in antebellum Northampton County, NC. While we don’t have any evidence that these two men owned slaves, we have copies of wills showing that earlier ancestors in Virginia most certainly did bequeath human beings with brown skin to their heirs, right along with their pigs, cattle, furniture and whiskey stills. Two days later, after reading my apology, my grandma wrote again to express some objections before signing off, “Much love and see you soon.” “One small bit of clarification,” she wrote. “My father really had no ‘advantages of accumulated wealth, access to education and… business connections.’ He was the youngest boy in a large family and had an 8th grade education and worked as a simple clerk at Brown and Williamson. And I speculate that out of boredom he signed on to go to China and work for British American Tobacco, the holding company for B&W.” That probably gets straight to the heart of the question about inherited privilege. Family fortunes certainly rise and fall, and ours peaked well before the 20th century, but who makes the determination about whether such a career reflects white privilege and the residual benefits of slavery? Defending my argument, I would first suggest that such opportunities would not have likely been open to a young black man with an 8th grade education. And, I would ask, how do we know that my great-grandfather didn’t have white family friends with connections to Brown & Williamson who helped him get that clerkship? Wouldn’t a clerkship for a global tobacco company be considered a position of privilege in the New South society in which he lived? The most interesting part of this for me – and I have to admit that it’s even enjoyable – is arguing with other white people about the relative merits of my gesture of apology. I like it because it shifts the conflict from between the largely separate worlds of black and white to within the world of white. Among us white folk is where I hope to find the possibility of moving past some old and unfruitful patterns. The harder part of it is figuring out what to do next. Once you’ve acknowledged that harm was done, that your people were involved in it, and that you benefited from it, what do you do to make amends? I’ve joined up with a small group of similarly inclined white people to pursue this question. We’ve agreed on at least one thing: that atonement does not automatically wipe the slate clean, nor should it be solely a way for us to feel good about ourselves. It never has been about that; atonement means reparation for an offense or injury. I don’t know exactly what reparation means, although I’ve heard enough about it to know that the word brings out resistance, fear and derision among most white people. Our group has talked about speaking up in defense of black people who are hounded and abused by public criticism that we believe is motivated by racism, as a form of reparation. It’s very uncomfortable territory for me. The profession by which I earn a living – journalism – strongly frowns upon taking sides. Adhering to the rules offers the possibility of safety, comfort and respectability; bucking them risks being considered “beyond the pale” – and the pun is intended. To be clear about the stakes, I’m talking about standing with people like Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small and the Rev. Nelson Johnson – polarizing figures who inspire passions both affirmative and hostile – as well as the unrecognized and scorned poor. I don’t know how far I’m willing to take this. For now, I’ll commit to assiduous and fair reporting – going beyond the requirements of the job to set the record straight.
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