Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Talking Outside the Bounds: "Strumpets," History, & White Privilege

The email called me “whorish” and the “strumpet of a carpetbagger.” It called my recent editorial about my grandfather “revolting.”

Hot damn. Really? I had just published a New York Times editorial about a painful incident during the Civil Rights movement in Danville, Virginia. My grandfather wrote a letter of protest to a judge who had doled out stiff sentences to Civil Rights protestors. Arrested for writing the letter, my grandfather served a bench warrant and was ridiculed and publicly humiliated in his small mill town. 

In my article, I retraced the events. I meditated on some of what had been at stake for my grandfather, a white man, to speak out against the brutal violence and stark injustices faced by black protesters (and black people). I meditated about how my grandfather’s action both was and was not adequate protest to the era's injustice. And I’d interviewed the minister who organized the protests, Lawrence Campbell, to see how he looked back on that time now.

My piece mostly got a warm reception. What surprised me was that this virulently sour note, in my inbox, had the power to make me feel—at least briefly— ill, angry, defensive, hurt, small. I felt singled out, threatened. Eventually I called some friends and laughed off the hurt. After all: The man was accusing me of tying Danville to this violent and unsavory history—yet he was the one calling me a carpbetbagger. Oh please. Dear sir, I regret to inform: It’s hard to escape history if you go around calling people strumpets.

As I thought about it more, however, it seemed to me that this reprimand – its unpleasantness, its rotten smell – was one of the mechanisms by which racism is maintained and one of the reasons white people stay quiet about racism. If we talk outside the bounds, we might get dinged.

White people in my circle rarely say anything racist, but they also rarely want to talk about privilege, and, unless we’re really comfortable with someone, we don’t talk about race at all—we tiptoe around what might be lurking. We don't want to risk the pain, embarrassment, discomfort, and shame that might come out of conversations about race. After all, who really wants to confront that unsavory neighbor, that boorish uncle? We bite our lips at Thanksgiving thinking, "We don't agree." And then we also don't speak up. 

I’m aware, too, that the ability to sidestep threats of racial rudeness or violence is central to white privilege: As long as we’re quiet – as long as we don’t stir up fuss – nobody will be mean to us. We can “pass”- we can blend in. If need be, our personal politics can be hidden behind our skin. We can always change the subject.

The fabulous late poet Jake Adam York writes about traveling near lynch sites in the South, hearing his own voice and seeing his reflection as “conspiratorial” – as “resembling the redneck at the end of a joke.” If he needs to avoid white racists, he says, he can blend back in, become a big white man.

He’s describing a bodily privilege I’ve taken for granted, too. I once spent a summer driving through the South with a friend with a middle eastern complexion, an Israeli name. We were visiting my family. He mentioned how uncomfortable he felt on rural roads. Something deep in him kicked in to say, “You are not safe here.” In the rest of the country, in California or New York, he was white enough. But in rural Virginia, he felt other. That otherness felt terrifying.

The poems in my book The Forage House try, in part, to trace subtle margins—where something dangerous, not quite said, governs and creates racialized experience.

I begin to feel that white people need to talk openly and among themselves, intentionally – about how they learn race, how they learn racism, how they experience it, where, why, what purposes it serves in their lives, and how to begin to unlearn it. I ask these questions in full realization that many white people have not really asked them of themselves. I wonder what might happen if we gave a soul-searching reckoning. I have a theory that white people are also traumatized by racism, but privilege allows us to exist in spaces where we don’t see racism at work. It’s almost as if we are in a zone governed by an invisible electric fence—touch the fence, get a shock, retreat again. But how can we find the fence, take it down?

Certainly not by not talking about it. We must learn to map and name these shocks. We must not be afraid to name them, even if doing so comes at a cost. “Don’t you doubt for a moment that your grandfather went through hell, baby,” said Lawrence Campbell, the black minister I interviewed. “Those white people—they can be mean.” 

Oral History 1963

.....Now you ladies won’t you please take warning . . .

Year of Granddaddy Leigh in Danville.
Sign still up, dead mill
still open. He sang “Wreck of the Old ’97,”

built trains in the basement.
Year my aunt M. saw colored girls at the white beach.
She wrote home “it’s ok I think—I didn’t tell”—

That June, for marching
in the Confederacy’s last capital,
50 black men and women were beaten.

Hoses, dogs, a raw violence
deliberately unreported in the Danville Bee—
even blocks away it was possible

“not to know” who had been hurt by what.
(It’s a mighty long road from Lynchburg to Danville.)
The paper they drove to Greensboro to get

did not record the demonstrator’s names. Of 50, 47
required hospitalization.
.....(Louise Pinchback, Cleveland Holt, Rev. Lawrence Campbell—)

When these were then sentenced to fines and labor
(the law dated from Nat Turner’s rebellion)
granddaddy wrote Judge Aiken

and said: “you have served to aggravate” the town’s situation.
And: “Petulant.” “Inane.”
And: “I thought you should know what some people were thinking.”

By Monday policemen
arrived at his office. Bench warrant.
His sentence: hard labor, double the fine.

White man, mill executive:
He made all the state papers.
Only later, standing court in his own town

he backpedaled.
Expressed fear for his reputation.

............................Judge Aiken:
“Mr. Taylor, you should have considered your wife & children”—

from The Forage House

TESS TAYLOR currently reviews poetry for NPR’s All Things Considered and teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first book of poems, The Forage House, was released this month by Red Hen Press. She lives in El Cerrito, California. Tess will be reading from The Forage House at Sunday Kind of Love, Split This Rock's series in collaboration with Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC, January 19, 2014.

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