Over the long years I’ve worked on this book I have talked many other white people who shared with me traumatic memories of racial violence in which they were involved, as perpetrators or silent bystanders.
As we stood in the driveway in which he and I had played as children, an old neighbor recounted sadly how as a teenager he beat an elderly black man with a metal car antenna. Perhaps, I thought, that by calling the man “nigger” he eased the pain of being called “dirty Jew,” that perhaps he had to do it to prove his “whiteness” to the WASPs on the block.
More recently, a new friend, the daughter of a large landowner in one of the most racially violent counties in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, invited me for coffee on the day after Thanksgiving and shared her darkest memory. As a teenager, she and a girlfriend were out driving one day on a country road when a black man tried to hail them down. The girl went home and told her father. The next day the black man’s murdered body was discovered. As we drank our coffee, my new friend told me how she’d told her father what had happened the previous evening. She'd hoped her father would do something to make things right. He told her to forget about it, that there was nothing to be done. The helpless outrage that consumed her at the time has not left her in the more than half century that’s ensued. It calms down for decades then comes roaring to the fore in times like these, as does my own. She feels less helpless, however. Like me, she’s committed herself to working for racial justice.
It was the 1992 videotape, played over and over on television, of Rodney King’s vicious beating by L.A. cops that brought that terrifying Jim Crow history back into my life and I remembered my father’s words: “When your grandfather had some black folks in jail, men would come to him and say, you best be catchin’ the train today, Sheriff Hadley, and he knew they intended to take the men out and so he’d board the Man O’ War down to Columbus.”
As I sat on the porches and in the parlors of Harris County, Georgia, and traveled around the country, talking with white folks and black, I often felt like a one-woman Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I suppose it was something I was cut out for since I’d played that role within my own family from childhood. I was barely 11 when my father told me about my sheriff grandfather’s complicity with the mob. In that same year, 1952, he told me about the young black woman he believed he had accidentally killed when he backhanded her for “sassiness.”
I kept those stories a secret, even from myself for many years, until they would no longer sit silently in my psyche, and kicked up nightmares, stomach troubles, mood disorders. Until that unnamed black woman ghost appeared at the end of my bed and said Go home. Find out what happened. And without a quibble I set out to do just that. (My book is but one of the results.)
Now I urge others to do the same, for we whites have a lot of internal work to do to unearth those long-buried memories that have kept us at a distance from African Americans as well as from the long hand of our ancestors, which yet pursues us all. Together with African Americans we must commit to being uncomfortable and construct a common history, a true history. It is those separate histories from which we operate that constitute the most severe obstacle to racial equality.
We must open our eyes and face the damage the often-beloved and esteemed ancestors wrought with their white supremacist ideas and programs. In all my travels and my talks, I have rarely seen black and white people with a common history in one small town or large city discuss that history together, in a way that each can truly listen to the other, without recrimination, and with the purpose of healing together and moving forward hand in hand.
Coming to the Table, an organization founded by the black and white descendants of the Founders, including Thomas Jefferson, has begun this process nationally. I have begun this process, haltingly and piecemeal, with descendants of the people my ancestors enslaved and I intend to continue it so long as they are willing. I have many stories of other families doing this as families, for as we well know by now, many of this country’s slaves were the biological offspring of the “owners.” (In my book I tell of numerous racially-mixed cousins I discovered through my research.) Recognizing this and acting on it is one of the healthiest, yet least recognized things happening in the United States today.