My Turn: The path to rehumanization for white America

  • A crowd gathers to view the body of 32-year-old Rubin Stacy as he hangs from a tree in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on July 19, 1935. Stacy was lynched by a mob of masked men who seized him from the custody of sheriff’s deputies for allegedly attacking a white woman. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 9/19/2020 6:20:03 AM

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1950s. Until the Civil War, Baltimore was a major port for slave ships and a major site for the purchase and sale of enslaved persons. In the 1950s, it was a deeply Jim Crow city, and even today it is profoundly segregated.

It was hard to grow up in Baltimore in the 1950s without being acculturated as a white supremacist and as an anti-Black racist. As soon as I became aware of this acculturation, I did my best to reject it in all aspects of my life and never to act in accordance with it. But I have no question that deep in my soul, effects of that acculturation remain. And I have certainly benefited richly from the white privileges available to me by reason of the color of my skin.

Because of the horrible murder of George Floyd and many other recent events, I now feel obligated to do all I can to combat white supremacy, white privilege, and anti-Black racism. I’ve become an activist. It’s not that I feel responsible for white American racism. But this is my country, and I want to do what I can to attack these terrible sins.

Furthermore, I know – I’ve been taught by books like Debby Irving’s Waking Up White – that the white supremacy, white privilege, and anti-Black racism buried in the souls of many white Americans, however much we may reject them, are also profoundly dehumanizing to us as white people; they make us unfree. Without our even knowing it, they pervade our world view and influence how we act not only with people of color but also among ourselves.

But what about those of us who live in New Hampshire – a state in which Black people comprise only about 3% of the population, and in which many white people, including me, almost never interact with Black people? In this situation, what can we do to escape from the acculturation I’ve described above?

Obviously, the answer to this question will be different for each white New Hampshire resident. But I’m a person who lives by books, and I’m convinced that a good way to root out the above acculturation from my own soul is to read.

I have a decent knowledge of the history of the decades leading up to the Civil War, of the Civil War itself, and of Reconstruction. However, there are many questions about these eras and about subsequent years that I presently can’t answer. For the above “rehumanizing” purpose, I want to find answers to them by reading. I’ll list these questions below. Perhaps, if you can answer them for yourself by reading or otherwise, these answers will help you, too, in the difficult white American task of rehumanization.

■What was daily life actually like for enslaved persons in the South? If you can’t answer this question, slavery can all too easily be a mere abstraction. But maybe there is no meaningful answer to this question. In his book titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone, the great Black American theologian, says that to describe the suffering that enslaved Black persons endured for the 244 years of American slavery, “there are no words.”

■Professor Cone has also written that in some respects, the Jim Crow Southern “etiquette” (as he calls it) that followed the post-Civil War Reconstruction that the Ku Klux Klan brought to an end, was even worse than slavery. He has written that because of the ever-present threat of lynching, Jim Crow was, not only for Southern Black people (including himself – he grew up in rural Arkansas) but also for Northern Black people, a perpetual nightmare. He writes that from 1890 through 1970, 5,000 Black people, both men and women, were lynched, at lynching events sometimes attended by 15 or 20 thousand jeering white men, women, and children, and blessed by white Christian ministers. Professor Cone knew at every moment that he himself and his family members could be the next victims of an Arkansas lynching. Photographers attended Southern lynchings. They photographed the mutilation and burning alive of the victims that preceded their lynching; they photographed the lynchings themselves; and they sold postcards made from these photographs. How could so many Southerners commit these evils? How could their ministers bless them?

■In her great new book titled Caste – the Origin of Our Discontents, the New York Times former journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes the intimate relationship between white supremacy and anti-Black racism as constituting a caste system closely resembling the 3,000-year-old caste system of India. And she writes that the American caste system as it then existed was carefully studied by pre-Second World War Nazis as a basis for the Aryan-Jewish caste system of the Third Reich. Did we actually live in those years in an India-like caste system? Do we now? Is Wilkerson right?

■What is it like for American Black people to deal with day-to-day life in contemporary racist America? In Becoming, her remarkable 2018 memoir, Michelle Obama seems to say that even for herself, for Barack Obama, and for their daughters, it is a life of constant disease-inducing stress. Is life like this the experience of all American Black people?

■How can it be that even our greatest American theologians and social ethicists – for example, for decades, Reinhold Niebuhr and the rest of the faculty at Union Theological Seminary until Professor Cone joined that faculty – were completely silent about America’s greatest sin against American Black people other than slavery itself – the sin of lynching?

Perhaps for some white Americans – perhaps for me – answering these questions can be a path to rehumanization and freedom.

(John Cunningham is a Concord tax and business lawyer.)

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