Perhaps you have seen the news headlines from the past few days?
I think we can all agree that the murder of this unarmed child is both disgusting and disturbing. However, I ask you to see this recent slaying of yet another black American at the hands of the police NOT as an isolated incident of police brutality but instead a result of a centuries-old system of oppression of black bodies.
If you have already decided that systemic racism and white privilege do not exist, I implore you to first read my story before clicking away, for white privilege and systemic racism are both things that just two years ago, I too would have denied the existence of because I, too, was raised by and in a society that denies the existence of systemic racism.
What happened to me then? Was I kidnapped by a group of radical liberals and scientifically brainwashed under bright fluorescent lights in a sterilized laboratory deep underground? Although this scenario is probably very close to what my parents think has happened (sorry, mom), this is just not the case. Over the past several months, several things have caused my perspective to radically shift.
Firstly, over the past semester I have had the great privilege of taking a class that covers American literature from post-Civil War to present. And before you say, “It all makes sense now! Hannah has been indoctrinated in a very liberal, anti-American state school! No surprise there,” just hear me out. One cannot read the first-hand accounts of slavery by Booker T. Washington or Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s newspaper piece about the widespread lynchings and violence against blacks in “Mob Rule in New Orleans” and remain emotionally unscathed. Learning about W.E.B DuBois’ ideas of double-consciousness forced me to realize that although slavery ended hundreds of years ago, the systems of white/black power structures are still ingrained in society and as DuBois revealed in Souls of Black Folk, still cause a devastating fracturing of identity for black Americans. Reading so many works from America’s greatest authors inspired me to dig deeper and to read even more works by black Americans. I understand that many do not have the luxury of enrolling in a literature class, but I believe many of the works that I read this semester are vital for us as Americans to read, so be sure to check out the book list I’ve included below!
Because of this class, I began to seek out novels by authors like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and found documentaries such as 13th about mass incarceration which led me to non-fiction books like The New Jim Crow, a book full of dense research on the same subject. It was, specifically, these two resources that made me aware of the crucial idea that slavery of black Americans has not ended but has rather morphed into the system of mass incarceration. For example, are you aware that African Americans are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of whites despite the fact that they commit crimes at the same rate? I was not aware of this fact either until watching 13th. I listened in disbelief to podcasts about the continued segregation of schools and the concept of white flight. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, an open letter by Coates to his teenage son about being black in America, and literally wept as Coates described his constant and visceral fear for his son and the fragility of and constant danger endured by black bodies.
Every single book that I read, every single podcast and interview that I listened to, every documentary that I watched, every lecture that I attended, made me realize that indeed-systemic racism and the oppression of people of color is a reality. Even in 2017 America. Even after 8 years of a presidency by an African-American man. Even in a country where school children recite “with liberty and justice for all” every single morning. Even in a country that is (allegedly) “the land of the free.” Although slavery has been illegal since 1865, the old methods of oppression (slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws) have only morphed into new forms of oppression. But you don’t have to take my word for it. There are so many resources for learning about this topic. (See below)
As I slowly became more aware of the profound injustices that black Americans face daily, I became more and more horrified. I, and, a group of several women meet at a local coffee shop every Tuesday morning to discuss race, religion, politics, sexuality–all of the hard things. A few months ago, after a particularly heavy week of race related reading in my American literature class, I expressed to the group how overwhelmed I felt with all of this new knowledge. “So overwhelmed,” is how I constantly described feeling after my personal discovery that America is not “the land of the free” for our black brothers and sisters. While I felt a very present and heavy sadness at my knowledge, it was also coupled with shame. Shame for living 23 years of my life in complete ignorance of this huge system of oppression. I remember on this particular Tuesday morning talking to my friend Toni who was born and raised in Ferguson, Missouri, and saying, “I am so sorry, Toni. I am sorry for being so shocked and I am sorry for just now discovering a system whose oppression of you and your family has been your reality for your entire life.” Because while Toni’s knowledge of racism in America is visceral and the result of constant acts of discrimination, my understanding is purely reliant on statistics and second-hand accounts.
In our Tuesday morning group, however, Toni and I ask the same question: what can we do about it? And we both agree that the first step is cultivating conversations about race in America.
On March 20th, 2017, Timothy Caughman was brutally stabbed to death by a white supremacist who had driven from Baltimore to Midtown Manhattan with the sole intent of murdering black men. I just happened to be in New York that week for Spring Break and so when I saw a Facebook event for a #blacklivesmatter march in Caughman’s memory, I decided to march in solidarity against white supremacy. Hundreds of New Yorkers met in Union Square Park and marched dozens of blocks towards Midtown and the place of Caughman’s murder. The march was intensely emotional, however, the moment that will forever be branded in my brain happened at the very end of the march when we all gathered in a park and knelt. One of the lead organizers, a woman with purple hair, a bright orange beanie, and a gold nose ring, asked all of the people of color to stand and yell with her a chant that validated their existence as black Americans. I continued to kneel on the filthy New York asphalt and saw the woman beside me visibly shaking as she sobbed. I had thought that coming to the march would be exciting and interesting but for these people screaming, “I am black and I have value!” this was life or death. While I had the luxury of going to the march because I “felt like it,” for many present, their bodies were in constant danger and many had lost family members and friends to the violence of systemic racism- for many present, survival was in it of itself an act of resistance.
This brings us to a question raised in a lecture that I attended a few months ago by Dr. Ben Sanders III. He asked the audience why we, as Americans, have built a memorial on “Ground Zero” to forever remember 9/11. Why every year during the month of September we say, “Never forget.” Why do we memorialize this national tragedy while at the same time insist that “slavery has been over for hundreds of years. Let’s just forget about it?” Sanders informed us that many European countries have made museums and memorials to forever memorialize the Holocaust, and pointed out the fact that the United States has never formally apologized for the horrors of slavery. Where are the memorials for the millions of enslaved people upon the backs of whom America was built? Sanders asserted that progress cannot be made until the horrors of slavery are acknowledged.
I recently read Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine which The New Yorker describes as “a book-length poem about race and the imagination.” In this book, Rankine wrestles with the idea of the “historical self and the self-self.” Part I of Citizen contains dozens of fragmented anecdotes in which everyday acts of discrimination and racism are explored in a second-person narrative. Rankine writes,
“A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self.’ By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning.”
But what does this mean? For me, this idea of the historical self and the self self is a painful reminder of America’s history. As a white American, it is very easy for me to forget the atrocities committed by our forefathers because I have never personally been oppressed because of the color of my skin, however, for people of color, how can they forget? For not only has America never apologized for the obscenities of slavery as Dr. Ben Sanders pointed out, but the oppression in the institution of slavery has just morphed into new forms of oppression as Michelle Alexander describes in her book The New Jim Crow. For black children like Jordan Edwards and Tamir Rice who are still being murdered, the historical self and the self self are very closely entwined.
As Claudia Rankine writes, “ The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you.” Especially when systemic racism still exists.
Here is a list of the texts that have most profoundly influenced me and my understanding of race. The works in bold are the ones that I recommend to you most urgently.
Between the World and Me: Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Jim Crow: Michelle Alexander
My President Was Black: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Sula: Toni Morrison
Beloved: Toni Morrison
Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Angela Davis
Passing: Nella Larsen
Another Country: James Baldwin
The Fire Next Time: James Baldwin
Mob Rule in New Orleans: Ida B. Wells Barnett
Up From Slavery: Booker T. Washington
The Souls of Black Folk: W. E. B. DuBois
Fences: August Wilson
Citizen:An American Lyric-Claudia Rankine
A People’s History of the United States: Howard Zinn
I Am Not Your Negro
OJ: Made in America
This American Life
Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race
On Point with Tom Ashbrook