Content warning: explicit descriptions of slavery.
As I lie next to Hazel while she falls asleep, I read. I’ve been reading “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward E. Baptist for several weeks, often as I’m lying next to her.
She does not want to sleep. Ever. She asks me to read it to her. Sometimes I do, when what I’m reading is simply dates and economics and the brutality of the history is hidden. Sometimes I say, “No, this is a sad part,” and she says, “Stop reading! Eek!” and jumps to the end of the bed.
“Is the sad part over?” she asks.
Hazel is three. I do not tell her about the toddlers the slaveholders drowned for not picking enough cotton. I do not tell her about the heads they put on stakes and let rot in the sun as warnings. I do not tell her about families that were intentionally and strategically torn from each other. I do not tell her about the torrents of blood: our origin story.
“No, honey, just wait.”
There is not room in me for anger. Each time the anger wells in me, it turns into mournful keening. It turns into silence because the lamentation is wordless. There is too much and I will myself to focus. I make plans. I read. I send money. I catch myself speaking only in my head, even when others are in the room with me.
And slowly, slowly, I realize that this is because of Hazel.
Alone, I cannot be hurt. I know the cruelty of our culture because it is in me and I have fought it for decades.
I can be hurt, though. Because of her. The banshees that shriek in my mind know that I cannot save her from what is to come. That the problems I thought we could work on to make our country and world better are now on the other side of the mirror. The Obama years, both the good and the bad, now seem like a hallucination.
When they go low, we go high.
[T]he worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens. It did those things as a matter of course, and as injustice, that denial ranks with the greatest in modern history. But slavery also killed people, in large numbers. From those who survived, it stole everything. Yet the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire—this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power. And once the violence of slavery was minimized, another voice could whisper, saying that African Americans, both before and after emancipation, were denied the rights of citizens because they would not fight for them. –Baptist
I keep telling people (White people, mostly) to read this book. I read it and am horrified. I am reminded of things I know. I am reminded of things I forgot. I was never taught most of this.
It helps me make sense of things. The cruelty is in America’s bones. It is the secret cost of assimilation for those of us whose families came after the Civil War and came from Europe: to become White, it was necessary to adjust to the particular style of cruelty that we have never reckoned with. The cruelty just morphs into whatever will be culturally tolerated.
My great-grandparents did not have a real understanding of the history of the country they came to. They came to the myth of America. I am much more able to speak to the cultural context of the immigrant, someone fleeing poverty or famine or war, who does not speak English, who is looked upon with suspicion due to their religion–because these are the origin stories of how my family came to America.
But this is not the story of how we became White. It is not the story of how we became American.
I want to take this and make sense of it. Figure out how to cleave the stories (true stories!) of overcoming adversity from what was tacitly accepted in order for that to become a reality. I want to show all these people in Minnesota who became White how many wheels were set in place to lift us up. I want them to see the manipulation, the way capitalism’s gears have us all in the teeth, that the toxic whiteness that The Bad Man (as we call him here) explicitly invoked in his rallies and tweets to much success is a terrible inheritance that we can–and must–reject. White supremacy will not get working class people better incomes. It only sinks us further into toxicity.
Of course, it is all more complicated than this. I am in pain because I saw actual progress for LGBTQ people over my lifetime. Most Black women I know were disappointed, but their eyes never stop seeing the cruelty of White America–and generation after generation, they see the cruelty of White America directed at their children.
So in the actual election, we were simultaneously let down by the people who were supposed to inform us of the issues, manipulated via algorithms built by technolibertarians in homogenous Silicon Valley, and manipulated through media savviness by (of all countries) Russia.
Still, many White people in our country clearly crave authoritarianism and believe it will only be applied to others. After all, that is what we used to do and he did vow to make us great “again.” How else could you set aside The Bad Man’s lifelong misogyny, sexual assault, and racism? How else could you set aside the actual words he said during the campaign?
There is the keening in my mind again. There is so much to our history. There is so much to our present. There is so much the GOP is willing to do to turn the clock back centuries. The lows are extraordinary, but they are not unimaginable. White America has done this before.
I spend nights worrying. I wonder if something happens to Megan, will our adoption papers mean anything in four years? The night of the election, as she cried and I quietly and obsessively scrolled through Twitter, I said “They can take our marriage, but they can’t take us from each other. We’re ride or die.” It made her laugh for just a moment.
But Hazel. Underneath the keening in my mind I am begging for her to not be taken. Begging for her future. Begging for her to not go through the same trials that I have.
I do not feel comfortable leaving urban areas right now. My eyes are training on White women in the suburbs and my mind growls: which ones of you were okay with this future? With this pain? Have you not learned?
I return to the book, though. I realize that it is I who has not learned. I have not learned in my heart — despite knowing in my head and living through my body — that whiteness is typically prioritized above all other identities. The Bad Man ran an explicitly racist campaign. That did not repulse White women, it drew them (us) in.