Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Race Story

Author Jonathan Odell explains why it is important for all of us to know our own race story.

The ticket to get into an authentic dialogue about race, is to have a coherent narrative, detailing not only about how race affected you in the past, but how you struggle with it in the present. Otherwise you are a voyeur, no matter how good your intentions. Only whites with a conscious, on-going race narrative can communicate deeply and effectively with those who are not white.

Here is Jonathan telling parts of his own story.

It was his admonition and example that started me thinking a couple of weeks ago about how I was similarly affected by my grandmother saying things like "When a chigger becomes a chigero, a n****r will become a negro." I realized that ordered my world in the same way that Miss Helen had ordered his.

But I had another experience this week that took things a little deeper for me. I grew up mostly in a small town in northeast Texas. Recent movies have detailed some of the very real terrorism experienced by African Americans very close to what I once called home. For example, I mentioned that this week we watched Deacons for Defense at an all staff meeting. That takes place in Jonesboro, LA - about 150 miles from where I grew up. And The Great Debaters happened in Marshall, TX, only 20 miles away.

Thinking about all of that, I recalled a very vague memory I have about a group of men sitting around our kitchen table when I was young. I didn't hear or don't remember what the conversation was about - but I do remember someone joking about getting guns and killing some n*****rs.

When I relayed this memory to a friend this week - the tears came all of the sudden. I suspect its some of the same feeling Jonathan had when he talks about - for the first time - recognizing that "his people" were those shouting and throwing things at the civil rights marchers. The tears were about the recognition that, in the events portrayed in those movies, it was all of the sudden very real to me who "my people" were.

I don't say that to suggest that wallowing in guilt is where I need to be. But I do need to face the fact that race has always been a part of my life. As Jonathan says in the video - "this isn't Black history, this is my history...this is what formed who I am." It begins to make me a participant rather than a voyeur.

And perhaps that's part of why we so often want to avoid it all in the first place.


  1. Thank you, Smarty, for sharing this painful story. I remember the first time I cried at being called a nigger at an antiwar demonstration at the World's Fair in New York in the 60s. Such a charming little redhead came out of the Howard Johnsons exhibit all petite in her little striped uniform and asked if "y'all niggers would like a glass a awnj juice?" Well, maybe she said "nigras"--sounded the same to me. And I burst into tears! I never remembered being called that to my face before, even though I'd experienced racist hostility in so many of its up-South demeaning permutations. But since that incident I remember it like a knife thrust to my innocent little psyche;-)

    When I first read about Walter White's trip to the South and his interview with the breathless little white girls and their celebratory reminiscences about the previous night's lynchings I wondered what kind of women they grew up to be. When I've seen the photos of burnt bodies hanging and closely examined the faces of the white folks in their Sunday-go-to-meetin' attire, I've wondered about their descendants, because I've never heard anyone taking any responsibility for their murderous forebears, or should I say taking any recognition of them. I've heard some brave souls saying, "Well, my family was left broke after the Civil War."

    I knew a young white man who worked with the handicapped and imitated 'Big Black Mamas' on the gay drag circuit who swore he couldn't be a racist--not in the American traditional sense of being a child of the racist south--because his people were fresh over from oppressive Europe.
    No good talking about stepping into white privilege without sharing a legacy of white oppressor. No good. Just hang-up the phone and avoid him at gay marches.

    I guess I always thought I 'knew' white folks because I've always been so afraid of them. But they do mystify me. And I thought I understood me because I live in my own not-quite-dark-enough Black skin. But this saga of race and the internalization of American racism is constant pain and revelation. Even for a 67 year-old dyke.

    Thank you for sharing your pain and revelation. It's easier to sleep without a cover in the summer light.

  2. Anonymous - Thanks you so much for that beautifully profound comment.

    I'm actually not surprised that we don't hear more stories from the descendants of the lynch mobs. I'll tell you something that might surprise you. It wasn't until this week that it finally dawned on me that I probably knew some people who were involved in that kind of terrorism. And that's true even though I grew up white in a small town right in the middle of it all.

    Frankly, I'm still trying to unpack why that is. So I guess I join you in being mystified.

  3. The good news is, the word you mentioned seems horrific to most Americans now or at least I think it does.

  4. Thank you for sharing Odell with me. I'll be reading his blog. And your honesty and courage really shines through.

  5. princss6 - Thanks!

    I started thinking about Odell again when all the controversy erupted over "The Help." He wrote a book titled "The View from Delphi" that had a similar theme - but was SO much better done! And in February, he has a new book coming out titled "The Healer." Its about the role of midwives during slavery.


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