A couple notes:
- BIG CONTENT WARNING: This story discusses racial violence and terror, from slavery to the present.
- I wrote this a couple months ago when we were still on our trip. We are no longer traveling.
Part 1: Whitney Plantation, Wallace, Louisiana
The haunting question that white people like me ask ourselves when faced with the honest roots of white supremacy and violence in this country: What would I have done?
Would I have fought against slavery? Been part of the Underground Railroad? Would I have been like most white people (then, later, and now) and stayed silent? And the most terrible of wonderings: Would I have taken part in or encouraged racial terror or violence during or post-slavery?
We were faced with these questions and a stark reminder of the horrors of slavery when we visited the immensely powerful Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana.
Very few white people actually owned slaves — about 1% according to our tour guide, which makes sense knowing what we know about the 1%, doesn’t it? In many chilling ways, nothing has changed in the last 200 years.
For me there was a brief comfort in this statistic. Well at least I wouldn’t have owned slaves. We white people are always looking to be comforted when confronted with tough racial truths, and when I noticed this tendency in myself I returned to the hypothetical. What would I have done?
My family and I are on a yearish-long trip around the U.S. in an RV. My partner and I have two children, who are almost ten and almost eight. We are incredibly privileged and lucky to be able to do this, and our children are lucky to be learning about the history of this country while standing on the ground where things actually happened. It would be easy to avoid the ugly parts, and even easier to stick to the places that stubbornly resist reality and tell a “lighter” version of history. One designed for white people who wish to maintain their comfort and sense of innocence. One designed to encourage the enduring myth of America, the benevolent land of “justice for all.” I have no interest in that version. I know it well. My children will know the truth.
If you ask my children whether they are lucky to be learning about the traumatic and violent history of the U.S. — beginning with the genocide of Indigenous peoples and continuing with slavery and beyond — they might not agree with me. Because it’s hard, and sad, and not fun, and often deeply painful. We try to highlight that a big part of what we’re learning is that there were people who fought these injustices. That in all this pain and violence there remained hope. Resistance. Strength of spirit. Those who resisted are the people I want my children to remember most. They are the people I want my children to be. But the pain is part of it. It is the pain of discovering just how horrific humans can be to other humans, and it’s the confusion of possessing the skin color of the most violent people in the U.S. Then and now. What my children feel is what people should feel when faced with this. It’s what I feel too. The feelings are real and valid. But we cannot allow ourselves to place our own sadness at the center of this story. White people are used to being the center of the story. We are used to seeing ourselves reflected everywhere. We have to let go of that expectation and be intentional about centering the people who have been hurt by the centering of whiteness.
I highly recommend visiting the Whitney Plantation if you find yourself in southern Louisiana. The swamp tours are great too, but for the sake of all of us, please make this a priority. I do not recommend visiting any other plantations, because although I have not visited them myself, I have heard and seen in brochures how white-washed their version of history is. How pretty the plantations are. “Oh, and these were the slave quarters,” like an afterthought. No. But the Whitney Plantation is something different. Their sole goal is to educate and tell the real story of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved.
Before we got to Louisiana someone shared that they had stayed at a plantation somewhere down there.
People stay at plantations. As if they are fun places to visit. As if they should ever be presented as anything but horror. (Thanks a lot, Gone With the Wind.)
People get married on plantations. And I know without knowing them that they are the same people who pretend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was all about everyone getting along. Which, for those who don’t speak White Fragility*, means, “Calling me out for committing racial aggressions (of all sizes) is mean, and you hurt my feelings, and you should just let me be racist and get along with me.” Because it’s always about submitting to the oppressor.
When you take a tour of Whitney Plantation, you are given a card attached to a lanyard that has the name of a child on it. A real child who was enslaved on the land where you’re standing. All over the property these same children are featured in The Children of the Whitney, a series of sculptures by artist Woodrow Nash. Their eyes are just empty holes. They are profoundly powerful. Chilling and lifelike.
I watched my own free, white children stand and face them sadly, as if to drive the point home.
Children. Babies, who would pass their trauma down to their own babies. If you think for a second that everyone has a level playing field, consider how many people are born with generational trauma as a result of racial violence. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes beautifully about this. Read his work.
The Whitney Plantation was a sugar cane plantation. Sugar cane was an extraordinarily dangerous crop to harvest because of how sharp the stalks are and the fact that slaves were out there packed like sardines with machetes. People would often lose limbs. In the act of harvesting or processing sugar cane, people died of machete wounds, fire (the sugar cane had to be burned), wild animals they encountered in the fields, and cuts from the stalks that were not medically treated. But the phrase that Ali, our tour guide, used that haunts me is, “They were worked to death.” The slave owners just worked people to death, and they did so intentionally. It was cheaper for them to just replace a slave than to feed them well or let them rest or take care of them in any sort of humane way. The life expectancy of a slave once they arrived at the Whitney Plantation was ten years, regardless of their age when they arrived.
Never forget that this was all about money. Racism was invented to justify slavery, due to an economic need. As Ali kept saying, slavery was not an if, it was a who. Slavery was a foregone conclusion, because the society the colonizers wanted to build was impossible to construct as quickly without it. Racism was a convenient way to decide who to enslave, and to turn people who otherwise would have been allies against each other.
How does a human look at another human and not see a human? What parts of their hearts and souls did white people have to sacrifice in order to commit this level of cruelty? It’s such a brutal irony that Black people were labeled 3/5 of a person when it was slave owners and proponents of slavery who had given up their humanity. And how do we, those of us working to be anti-racists, process this legacy? It haunts me.
The day I started writing this was the awful day Donald Trump was acquitted of his crimes, and I am asking the same questions. About the same people. White men drunk on power bought with the wealth of capitalist oppression, who have sacrificed even their potential for compassion.
We have never reckoned with this as a nation. That’s why we are where we are. That’s why, when people cry, “We’re better than this!” so many of us respond with, “No. We’re not.” This is who we are. This is who we have always been. Could we be better? Absolutely. And that’s where we find hope and resistance.
By the way, did you know Christopher Columbus was the first person to bring slaves here? Of course he had approval from the Catholic Church, but still what an absolute piece of shit that guy was, huh? Fuck that guy, just, so much.
At one point during the period of the Atlantic Slave Trade the Catholic Church changed the law so that children could not be separated from their mothers until the age of ten. Don’t go thinking this was out of kindness or that the church should be congratulated. But for many mothers, this was probably a small comfort. Imagine this. Being comforted by the fact that your child wouldn’t be taken from you, to be placed on an auction block, until age ten. And by the time that baby turned ten, their mother had worked terribly hard to make sure her child was useful to her slave owner. So she might have a chance of keeping her child with her.
My son is about to turn ten.
I went on this tour, painfully aware of the fact that had I been born in a different era in a different place with a different skin color I would be living in terror of his upcoming birthday. Tears brimmed in my eyes continuously, thinking about those mothers and their babies.
There’s no way to make up for this. There’s no way for our nation to ever be sorry enough. But there are ways to begin to make amends.
How can anyone be against reparations?
Part 2: Civil Rights Museum, Jackson, Mississippi
A few weeks after our visit to the Whitney, we visited the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi, which was similarly moving and powerful (and we had to shelter due to a tornado warning, which was pretty exciting for us Pacific Northwesterners). The museum not only tells the history but has an emphasis on the present, and what strength and hope there is in the Black community. It’s beautiful.
However, the history of civil rights in the U.S. being what it is, there are some exhibits that are labeled with warnings of violence, or disturbing content. I walked into one of these exhibits, not knowing my son was right behind me and had followed me in. This exhibit was about Emmett Till, and contained documents and photographs. When I saw the photo of that young boy’s face and head after those wicked white men were finished with him and realized my son was standing there, I spun quickly to try to warn him not to look, but it was too late. He had already seen it.
He just turned to me, laid his head against my chest, and sobbed. And we both stood there in that dark little room, crying, me cradling his head in my hand and holding him tight.
What do you say to a child in that moment? I wanted to protect him from that photograph because I was feeling like he wasn’t ready for that kind of trauma, but Black mothers don’t have the option of pretending these things didn’t happen or softening the reality. Black mothers want to protect their babies too. Mamie Till was not able to protect her baby boy, and that photograph, that horrible trauma turned exhibit, was her son.
It’s tempting to grieve that violence as if it were all in the past. (No, boomers, you did not solve racism.) But think of Samaira Rice, who lost her 12-year-old son Tamir to police violence, or Sybrina Fulton, whose 17-year-old son was murdered by a vigilante asshole who got away with it. Incidentally, Trayvon Martin would have turned 25 the day I began writing this.
There are so many others. And these Black women have done what they have always had to do: They fight. They fight to better their communities so no other parent has to feel the deepest grief. It is a grief I cannot imagine. To lose a child is unimaginable already, but to lose them to racial violence and then be told it was their child’s own fault? The strength these parents find is inspiring, but the fact that they have to be strong is infuriating.
White people have to stop prioritizing our kids’ innocence over teaching them the truth and talking about race, or they will continue to embody the oppressor. They will become the cop who sees a Black child as a threat and shoots.
Looking at pictures of Mamie Till desperately sobbing in grief, it is impossible, as a mother, not to feel a part of it with her. And as a white mother, I stood there crying for this mama’s grief and the loss of her little boy while fully aware that the tears of white women have been used as a tool of violence and oppression since racism was invented. Emmett Till’s own story is an example of this. A white woman’s tears were the first weapon employed in the murder of Emmett Till.
Tears like mine could kill. They still can.
“He was 14,” my son whispered through tears.
“I know baby,” I said. And Mississippi’s confederate state flag waved in the wind outside.
Part 3: Peace and Justice Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama
It was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, founded by the Equal Justice Initiative, that brought out the deepest sorrow in my heart. It was not until I visited this solemn and important place that I had a true sense of just how many racial terror lynchings occurred in the south between the years 1877–1950. (Some occurred later, Emmett Till’s being a notable example, having occurred in 1955.) From their website:
“EJI documented more than 4400 lynchings of black people in the United States between 1877 and 1950. EJI identified 800 more lynchings than had previously been recognized.”
Please read their website for the full explanation of the place and the pieces within it, because I will not do it justice and I would write forever if I tried to discuss every part of it. Just know that the place is dedicated to African Americans and their experience in this country from slavery to mass incarceration (the present), but it’s the racial terror lynchings that take up the most space, physically and emotionally.
The memorial appears simple at first, almost sparse. This turns out to be the most painful irony, as the whole point is how populated this space actually is.
The memorial is outdoors, and begins with haunting sculptures of enslaved people and plaques on the wall explaining the history of slavery and how it led to the reign of racial terror lynchings. I refer to them as racial terror lynchings and not just lynchings because this is the specific language EJI uses and it has a purpose. These were acts of terrorism.
After this introduction, you enter the space that contains a series of 800 six-foot-tall steel columns. Each column has the name of a county and state etched at the top, with a list of the names (where possible) of the people lynched in that county. Every southern state was represented. Some columns had one lone name, others had dozens. I want to write their names here, but there are 4400+ of them. But I’m so glad their names are being seen and honored.
As you walk through the columns, the path heads down hill and the columns get gradually higher above you until you are looking directly up at them.
Like so many bodies were hanged.
There are some pieces of narrative shared throughout — the reasons that justified these acts of terror. “Annoyed a white woman,” for example.
Sometimes entire families were lynched at the same time. Can you imagine the terror? Can you imagine a mob of white men breaking into your home, seizing you and your children? Knowing your fate, and theirs? The thought of it paralyzes me. You would be brought to a public place while a crowd of white people jeered and cheered for the deaths of you and your children. You have done nothing wrong. The people who committed these acts of terror were inhuman. It’s the only way I can make sense of it. They had traded their humanity, and for what? A perceived sense of superiority. Power. Fear and control.
I still have not processed this experience fully. I can’t stop thinking about it.
How could they have done this? How could we have done this? We all know this history but we don’t really know this history.
I tried to keep my sobs under control, not so much for my children but because everyone working there was Black and I did not want to create a situation that made any of them feel like they should comfort me. Not this white woman, hell no. Not in this sacred space. Not anywhere. The tears of white women are still weaponized. Mine will not be weapons. My grief is my own to hold.
For several days after visiting the memorial, I looked at trees differently. I have always felt a strong affinity with trees. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I have spent countless hours among them. I love trees, and feel peaceful in their presence. But as we drove through Alabama and into Georgia, all I could think about when I looked at those old, majestic trees adorned with Spanish moss was whether their branches had felt the weight of human bodies.
The trees would have protested if they could.
What would I have done?
Most white people act as though this question is unanswerable, which in a literal sense it is of course. “It was a different time,” they’ll say. But it’s maddening how many of us refuse to take the logical leap from those “unimaginable” days — slavery, racial terror lynchings, segregation, etc — to our behavior and choices today. Where we stand and what we do, don’t do, say, and don’t say now. What are your thoughts on Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter? Because that will give me a good idea where you would have stood on slavery, and racial terror lynchings, and Jim Crow. Like the 1%, the people up in arms about a Black man’s peaceful protest are the same people now as they were then. They are the angry white folks who fought to keep slavery and Jim Crow legal. Who cheered or turned their heads in the face of acts of terror. They are those who defend George Zimmerman and police officers who use deadly force against unarmed Black and brown bodies.
The angry mobs are still here. Our current political situation makes this distressingly apparent. I can easily replace the faces of the ugly men gathered for a lynching in old photographs with the faces of Trump, Bannon, Richard Spencer, et al, and a shiver attacks my spine. They are the same. They have found new ways to hurt and terrorize — police violence and mass incarceration being two of their main weapons of choice. Like racial terror lynchings and the rest of our history of racial violence, these tools of oppression are state-sponsored.
But most white folks choose silence, perhaps the most insidious form of conformity with white supremacy. They chose it then and choose it now. Silence.
Meanwhile, trauma is passed from generation to generation and the U.S. government wants to pretend like everyone has the same opportunities. The toxic myth of the American Dream persists, and it is powerful. It is also a fucking lie.
How can anyone be against reparations?
White people must be careful not to fall into the seductive trap of thinking that because we are not as bad as them we are good people who bear no responsibility. That it isn’t about us. White supremacy is the foundation on which this country was built. Many of the original buildings have been knocked down in an attempt to modernize, to make things more fair, but that foundation stayed. It continues to stay.
The way my children are learning history on this trip is going to give them a greater awareness. They will not grow up believing the police are the good guys or that laws should be followed regardless of their contents. They will know the privilege they hold because of their skin and they will know that privilege needs to be destroyed.
The mob of angry white men are holding onto the foundation of this country for dear life, and white women stand next to them, complicit. Silent. We’re going to have to get in there with some fucking sledgehammers and tear that shit up. And if we’re sitting back congratulating ourselves for being the good white people, we’re part of the problem.
The awkward, painful truth is that we have benefited from the pain of other people. I have benefited. Facing that and reckoning with it is hard, and it’s necessary. It’s something I’m trying to do every day.
It’s scary to talk about this stuff. It’s uncomfortable. I know I have alienated some of the white people in my life, and I know other people think I’m just virtue signaling or that my anti-racism is really just white guilt. Should I be silent because of what a few people think of me? I’m terrified that I’m doing it wrong, even right now. The way I’m writing about these issues as a white woman. Am I fucking it up? If so, I hope someone will tell me, so I have the chance to try again and do better, and that’s the point. We have to keep trying. As it is written on the wall at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
Listen to Black people, Black women in particular. Follow and read the work of Black writers. Ijeoma Oluo, Layla Saad, Audrey Lorde, Rachel Cargle, Michelle Alexander, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, Damon Young, Bryan Stevenson, and so many others. My apologies to the thousands of people I left out.
Do your inner work. Examine your biases in an honest way, and work to notice and attack them. Donate money to Black organizations. Shop at Black owned businesses. Join Black Lives Matter protests, but do not attempt to lead or center yourself. You do not deserve a cookie. Black folks don’t owe you shit, including their trust. Talk to your family and friends about race. Talk to your children about race. Send a Black woman some money for coffee. Become a patron of a Black woman on Patreon. Vote for social programs. And please, please, if you ever have the chance to vote for reparations of any kind, DO IT. This country will never heal until we make amends to the people we have systematically tried to destroy (but who continue to rise) from day one.**
Grab a fucking sledgehammer.
*White Fragility is a term coined by Robin DiAngelo. She wrote a book about it. Read it.
**This applies to Native people as well, and that is a different essay.