Frederick Douglass and D. Watkins: dialogue across the centuries on literacy and freedom

I’ve been really getting into reading memoirs over the past few months. Recently I read D. Watkins‘s The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, the story of his transformation from East Baltimore inner-city drug dealer (and a very successful one, at that) to an adjunct professor and author with three post-secondary degrees. Not long after that I read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the first of his three autobiographies/memoirs; Narrative details his life from his birth into slavery in Maryland, to the time shortly after he obtained his freedom and began speaking on the abolitionist circuit. And then I read Watkins again, this time his first book, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) while Black in America, which is a collection of short essays (most of which were previously published online).

It struck me as I was thinking about these books how similar they are in some respects. These are the personal accounts of two young black men, writing at around the same age, both Marylanders, either born in or having spent significant time in Baltimore. Both are passionate about black emancipation: Douglass from literal slavery, Watkins from poverty and its attendant social forces. And both of them see education and literacy as intimately tied to freedom.

When Douglass was first sent to Baltimore to work for a Mr. and Mrs. Auld, he writes that the wife began teaching him his letters — she was not from a traditionally slave-holding family, and was initially unfamiliar with many of the customary mores of slaveholders. Among the most important of those: that no slave must learn how to read. When her husband found out what she had done, he forbade her from continuing in the strongest terms:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. And Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a n—– an inch, he will take an ell. A n—– should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n—– in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that n—– (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. […] From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. (Douglass, Narrative, 78)

For Douglass, this was a seminal moment, and though he was no longer taught at home, he continued his education in secret, with the help of many of the white boys of Baltimore he met on the streets while running errands for his master and mistress. He would make bets with them that they couldn’t teach him to read a word, or to write his letters, and that was how he learned. Learning to read allowed him to consider new thoughts for the first time, to look at the institution into which he had been born and to start to understand its dynamics and its weaknesses. Watkins recounts a similar awakening in his own life:

I had a professor at the University of Baltimore and we were covering the Reconstruction era and conversations about slavery came up. And through my readings, I came across something that talked about the basic rules for slaves on a plantation. And one of them was that it was illegal for slaves to read. And that made so much sense. I didn’t read for most of my life. I was a slave for most of my life because I didn’t know—no matter how much money I made, no matter what I could buy, where I could go, who I could beat up, who I could put pressure on, I was lost because all my ideas were just somebody else’s ideas. I just borrowed them—and they probably borrowed them, too, because they didn’t read. And they got transferred down to them from another person who borrowed them. So we’re not even working with our own set of ideas. (Watkins, JHU Interview, Sep 2015)

Both Watkins and Douglass found freedom — first mental, then temporal/physical — through reading. But personal freedom isn’t enough to satisfy when one’s friends and family are still in bondage, whether to earthly masters in the slave system or to the grinding forces of poverty and illiteracy. In his essay “My Neighborhood Revolution,” Watkins recounts the moment that he realised that his friend Dub couldn’t read:

“Yo, you sick or something? What’s going on?”

He told me that he had been talking on the phone with his daughter in North Carolina at least once a week. She had the bright idea of them exchanging letters and had even sent the first one.

“So what you want — me to help you write a letter?” I asked. “Isn’t that personal?”

“Naw, D. I want you to read it to me. I don’t know what she talking about. Don’t tell nobody man I swear!”

He looked down at his boots and kicked gravel. I wondered, how could a forty-five-year-old man not know how to read? (Watkins, “My Neighborhood Revolution,” The Beast Side, 74)

For Douglass, this was no revelation: in a world where it was illegal to teach slaves to read, it was a given that the men and women beside whom he laboured were illiterate. When his living conditions changed and he was sent to another plantation, he found that he was able to teach several of his fellow slaves to read — and that he had in them eager students indeed:

Henry and John were quite intelligent, and in a very little while after I went there, I succeeded in creating in them a strong desire to learn how to read. This desire soon sprang up in the others also. They very soon mustered up some old spelling-books, and nothing would do but that I must keep a Sabbath school. I agreed to do so, and accordingly devoted my Sundays to teaching these my loved fellow-slaves how to read. Neither of them knew his letters when I went there. Some of the slaves of the neighboring farms found what was going on, and also availed themselves of this little opportunity to learn to read. It was understood, among all who came, that there must be as little display about it as possible. It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings. My blood boils as I think of the bloody manner in which Messrs. Wright Fairbanks and Garrison West, both [Methodist] class-leaders, in connection with many others, rushed in upon us with sticks and stones, and broke up our virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s — all calling themselves Christians! humble followers of the Lord Jesus Christ! But I am again digressing. […]

These dear souls came not to the Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race. […] And I have the happiness to know, that several of those who came to Sabbath school learned how to read; and that one, at least, is now free through my agency. (Douglass, Narrative, 119-20, 121)

It’s obvious why Henry and John, and Frederick Douglass himself at one time, were not able to read. But what about Watkins’s friend Dub? How did he fall through the cracks? Watkins posits that the answer is, in part, the legacy of illiteracy and other poor education outcomes left behind by slavery. He notes that it’s hard to discount the head start experienced by the white community at large in comparison to America’s black population:

While African slaves spent countless days cooking, cleaning, being raped, beaten, sweating in the fields, and occasionally lynched, the children of their rich masters were being educated. The 1800s saw schools pop up all over the United States, and by the end of the 19th century, free public education was available for all white children. Blacks have been in America since 1619 and received virtually no schooling until after President Abraham Lincoln decreed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. That is a 244-year head start given to whites — 244 years of exposure to scientific reasoning and philosophical thought, hundreds of years to discover the power of books and reading and to shape dreams into reality. (Watkins, “The School of Failure,” The Beast Side, 49)

I know that this point will read as controversial; some of you just felt your blood pressure tick up a notch! It’s been over 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation; is Watkins saying that all of the problems faced by black Americans can still be laid squarely at the feet of white Americans, despite the significant temporal gap between the end of slavery and today? Is that “head start” supposed to account for all educational achievement gaps between white and black communities? What about personal responsibility? I don’t think this is what he’s saying; I’m cherry-picking quotes here for the purposes of this post, but if you read Watkins more broadly it’s obvious that he recognises the challenges of his East Baltimore community as multi-faceted. Racial discrimination is part of the problem, but so are other things. Poverty is a huge factor (and with roughly 14% of American adults functionally illiterate, we can expect to find a large overlap there, regardless of racial makeup). Food deserts are a problem. Family breakdown is a problem. Addiction is a problem. The relatively easy money to be made illegally on the streets is a problem. In his immediate context, the notorious corruption in Baltimore City’s police department is part of the problem. There are a lot things going on here; Watkins doesn’t dismiss them, but he makes an important point: we also need to consider generational patterns.

We understand this when it’s on the small scale. If you grow up in a family where you’re expected to go to school and succeed there, you’re more likely to do so. If your parents have a strong religious faith, you have a higher likelihood of having religious faith. Tragically, generational patterns are even more obvious when they are destructive: If your parents hit you, you have a higher likelihood of hitting your own children. If your parents were alcoholics, you have a higher likelihood of being an alcoholic yourself. It can be incredibly difficult to break free of these family and cultural molds. This is why it’s such a big deal when someone becomes the first in their family to pursue post-secondary education — we recognise that on the student’s part it takes extra gumption to accomplish something that none of the adults around you have done, and on the parents’ part that it’s hard to champion your child through something you’ve never experienced yourself. Now take those family-sized generational patterns and expectations, and balloon them out to community-sized. This does not absolve anyone of personal responsibility. But I think it does illustrate the kind of pressures that personal responsibility sometimes has to go up against.

So there you have it: a combination of poor schools, institutionalized segregation, and minimal funding not only cultivated the deep roots of educational denial, but also strengthened the foundation upon which achievement gaps are built today. The combination of all these historical events led to what I call the Tradition of Failure. The tradition was not self-imposed. Obviously, African Americans can take some personal responsibility for the state of our race; however, many of us do not have a clue because we come from a tradition of people who never had a clue, leading all the way back to the day our ancestors left Elmina, the former slave port in Ghana that launched us on our turgid journey to this new world. (Watkins, “The School of Failure,” The Beast Side, 50-1)

For all that, Watkins is not without hope for the future. He writes of his own experience that reading changed his outlook almost immediately, as he was exposed to new ideas and learned to think critically. As an English professor, he works to give his students the same experience.

“Reading is boring” is a phrase I’ve been hearing at the beginning of each semester from the freshmen at Coppin State University, where I teach English 101. I give them my soliloquy on why it was illegal for slaves to read and how easy it was for masters to control populations of people with limited thoughts — partially due to illiteracy. I usually say, “Being smart and developing complex thoughts without reading is like trying to get Schwarzennegger muscles without working out.”

The I assign books like Decoded by Jay Z, and The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore. I also scour the Internet for articles that speak directly to them. I believe that everyone would enjoy reading if they had the right material. Obtaining that material would not only provide the foundation for basic skills needed but also spark a greater interest in literature outside of the classroom.

[…] I wasn’t hooked on books until I read Sista Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Clockers by Richard Price, and a few Sherman Alexie essays. Those books opened up my mind and led to me consuming more and more. My thoughts changed, I developed new ideas, and I was forever transformed. Within months, I went from a guy who solved problems by breaking a bottle over someone’s forehead to using solution-based thinking when resolving [problems] — reading instantly civilized me. And if it can work for me, I believe it can work for anybody. (Watkins, “My Neighborhood Revolution,” The Beast Side, 75-6)

Watkins’s assertion that control of the slave population by owners was greatly aided by slaves’ illiteracy (and the way that illiteracy impedes thought) is corroborated by Frederick Douglass:

When in Mr. Gardner’s employment, I was kept in such a perpetual whirl of excitement, I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty. I have observed this in my experience of slavery, — that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man. (Douglass, Narrative, 135)

But the analysis of the problem also shows the cure: if a man is enslaved through his lack of thought, which stems from his inability to read, then surely learning to read will free him — or at least start him down that road. It worked as well for D. Watkins at the end of the twentieth-century as it did for Frederick Douglass in the early nineteenth. It was fascinating to me to read these two authors in tandem, to see what has and hasn’t changed in their respective communities, and to see both of them naming literacy as such a major touchstone for lasting change. I’ll let Watkins take us out:


Learning to talk about race and privilege

This book was approximately 0% enjoyable, but I am still glad that I read it.

Over the past year or two I’ve been engaged in an informal, personal reading project on the theme of “try to understand America” — you know, since I live here and all. So I have been reading books about America, on and off, and more and more of my reading has come to centre around that great big issue of race. I don’t keep any sort of reading plan for this project, but I do keep an eye out for books that look like they would help me further my understanding, particularly in regards to the American racial divide. A few months ago So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo came up as a promoted book on my county library’s website, and so I added my name to its long hold list and waited for it to show up.

Its cover copy calls it “An actionable exploration of today’s racial landscape, offering straightforward clarity that readers of all races need to contribute to the dismantling of the racial divide.” I would say that’s accurate. It’s also a hard and uncomfortable read, as should probably be expected. I had to take a lot of breaks to think about things. But though there are a lot of areas where Oluo and I disagree (for example, I will never support Planned Parenthood, for anything, ever), I appreciate her perspective and the explanations she offers. So much of the commentary around racial issues — on either side of the divide — is so very reactionary that it can be hard to figure out what is a real position and what is a strawman and what is something in between. Oluo answers questions about things like what people actually mean when they talk about “systemic” racism, and what being told to “check your privilege” is actually asking you to do, and the question (that I think a lot of us struggle with) of “what if I talk about race wrong?”. It is a gift to be able to encounter these questions and their answers outside of the heated environment of immediate debate, allowing for time to digest and consider on the way. Her examples were very clear and helped me to understand some new things.

Yes, racism and racial oppression in America is horrible and terrifying. The feelings it brings up in us are justified. But it is also everywhere, in every corner of our lives. We have to let go of some of that fear. We have to be able to look racism in the eye wherever we encounter it. If we continue to treat racism like it is a giant monster that is chasing us, we will be forever running. But running won’t help is when it’s in our workplace, our government, or homes, and ourselves. (7)

What I found most personally helpful was Oluo’s discussion of privilege. She defines it, quite simply, as “an advantage or a set of advantages that you have that others do not” (59). These areas of privilege often rest on things outside our control, like our skin colour or the nation we’re born in or the relative affluence that our parents enjoy(ed). And being privileged in one area doesn’t mean being privileged in all areas — consider, for example, someone who grew up wealthy (privileged) but also has a physical disability (unprivileged). Most of us will have some areas where we are privileged and some where we are not — that’s perfectly normal. So then what’s the point of examining our privilege? Is it so that we can feel guilty? Should we be apologizing for areas of privilege — which, again, are mostly outside of our control anyway? Not so; nor should asking someone to “check their privilege” be used as a method of shutting down a conversation.

Rather, it’s asking us to be aware of how the advantages we may have had can leave us blind to others’ struggles. It’s asking us to be aware that where we’ve ended up in life is not only due to our own hard work and merit, and that others might work just as hard and be just as meritorious but still end up in a worse position because they started several steps behind. And it’s also an opportunity, to identify “those areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole. […] When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change” (65).

This is a lot like what Andy Crouch talks about towards the end of Culture Making: spending our cultural power alongside of / on behalf of those who have none. So checking our privilege — or examining our cultural power, to use Crouch’s term — is a chance to ask ourselves not only where we may have gotten a head start in life, but how we can use that to advocate for others. Examples:

  • I was born and raised in a stable, wealthy, democratic country. What can I do on behalf of refugees? What can I do on behalf of those who are still living in war-torn or impoverished countries?
  • I grew up in a stable home and my parents have been married to each other for all of my life. How do I care for the widow and the orphan? How can I support single mothers? How can I advocate for children in foster care?
  • I grew up in a home that valued learning. I received a good public education and went on to both an undergraduate and a graduate degree. How can I work against barriers to education?  How should I vote when it comes to things like public school funding? How can I support teachers and students? How can I help ensure access to the scholarships and bursaries that paid for so much of my own education?
  • I’ve never been hungry. I’ve never been homeless. What can I do on behalf of the poor? How can I address food insecurity in my neighbourhood or county? If the city wants to build a homeless shelter or halfway house in my neighbourhood, will I publicly voice my support?
  • My skin is white, which means that I have been able to largely ignore a lot of racial “stuff” over the years. When people of colour tell me how their experiences are different than mine, do I listen? When I hear a racist joke or prejudicial remark, am I willing to say something? Am I willing to confront my own racial biases?

As Oluo writes, “Every day you are given opportunities to make the world better, by making yourself a little uncomfortable and asking, ‘who doesn’t have this same freedom or opportunity that I’m enjoying now?'” (69). None of us are going to be working towards all of these things at the same time. But if we are willing to examine our advantages, and to create the habit of looking out for those who are less advantaged, we can be working towards more of those things, more of the time. And that’s probably a really good thing. I don’t think we need to feel guilty for the various privileges that we’ve enjoyed — but we shouldn’t feel complacent, either. As a Christian I believe that we are called to use our blessings to bless others. And though Ijeoma Oluo is an atheist, I think we can certainly agree on that.

Real American

This post contains offensive language.

Julie Lythcott-Haim‘s memoir Real American came to my attention via a friend’s facebook post. She’s black and her husband is white, and she asked “Any other parents of biracial or multiracial kids wanna read this book with [friend] and I? Discussion and beverages when we’re all finished.” Now, I don’t fit that category, but this whole race-in-America thing is something I’ve been trying to learn more about and so I asked if I could read along. (I’m also an admitted sucker for discussion and beverages. )

Lythcott-Haims is the child of a white English mother and a black American father; although she was born in Nigeria, her only citizenship is American and she has lived in the United States since she was a toddler. Her father George Lythcott (obituary) was a prominent physician whose work took them to the white suburbs of Wisconsin, where Lythcott-Haims spent her teenage years struggling to find her place as a biracial woman: simultaneously not white enough for the white community, and too white for the black.

… I can’t remember what we were laughing about, but I remember feeling in that instant on that shiny cement floor that I was falling in love. Jenny had the film developed at the local drugstore and ordered prints for all three of us.

I pinned the photo to the corkboard on my bedroom wall. One day Daddy noticed it, looked over at me with a loving smile, then shook his head.

“White boys will be your friend,” he said with his booming bass voice, “but they’ll never date you.”

I trembled. Neither then nor ever did I challenge Daddy’s authority. His decision to move to this remote area. I never knew how to ask, Why’d you move me to this all-white town? (35)

The culminating incident of Lythcott-Haim’s adolescence is perhaps her seventeenth birthday, when her locker was first decorated by her best friend, and then anonymously vandalized — thrice — with a racial slur. The force of that written assault stayed with her for decades, and she closes the first section of her book with these words:

I’d told no one about my locker sign, and I’d go on to tell no one for decades. Not my parents, not the school administration, not my boyfriend Mark, not my best friend, Diana. For more than twenty years, though, the truth of that day hunkered down inside of me and metastasized.

I was the Nigger of my town. (75)

(I had to stop and think about whether I would actually write out that word on my blog, even though it’s part of something I’m quoting directly. It’s not something I would ever, ever write or say myself. But it is an integral part of Lythcott-Haims’s story, and I want to honour her powerful words and her honesty. She didn’t have the choice to avoid the N-word when it was scribbled across her locker in permanent marker. Nor did she ask to have that word scribbled across her psyche in the way that it was. But if there’s anything that Real American makes clear, it’s that we need to look the ugliness of racism in the face, to not shy away because it’s painful and uncomfortable and hard. There is no hope for reconciliation unless we are willing to deal in reality.)

Lythcott-Haims traces her journey through college at Stanford, through getting her JD at Harvard Law School, to her work at Stanford as Dean of Freshman. Throughout she skips backwards and forwards in time, telling her parents’ stories and touching on major milestones in politics and the civil rights movement. A major turning-point in her own story comes after the birth of her daughter Avery, her second child, who is three-quarters white, with smooth wavy hair and light olive skin. She writes,

Professionally, I appeared to have taken all the right steps. I had degrees from elite schools. I’d landed prestigious work. I’d done all of this schooling, all of this work, in part so as never to be called Nigger again. But I walked tentatively through my life, unstable, feeling a hollowness inside, as if the very construct of my self was liable to fracture into pieces and fall apart. At any moment I felt I might step on a crack, break my own back. […]

I knew the infection of self-loathing was bad and deep, likely to spread to my precious girl child if I didn’t find a way to get it out of me. I gave myself permission to tell myself that the birthday locker incident had in fact happened. I dared to tell the truth of it inside my head, dared to put it on the page, dared to write it down. Dared to stare at the word some anonymous white American had called me. And to take a deep breath and see that I still lived.

And why the challenge with Avery? I felt her lightness lessened my Blackness among Blacks; I could never pass as white and now, because of her, I couldn’t pass as Black either. This tiny child kicked me deep into a racial crevice, with no ledge to hold on to. I want to drag a Black cloak over my white-looking daughter. To build Black consciousness in a child the world would see as white, by un-hiding her Blackness, by trying to hide her whiteness. […]

By the end of the exercise — and essay of some length I revised and revised for months, I’d finally reached an essential truth.

I wasn’t ashamed about Avery. I was ashamed to be me. (171-2)

Real American is not an easy read — nor should it be. Lythcott-Haims’s writing is beautiful but pulls no punches, especially as her chronology moves her to names and deaths and incidents we know from recent news: to Trayvon Martin, to Freddie Gray, to Darius Simmons, to Jonathan Ferrell, to Tamir Rice, to others. To her own fears for her dark-skinned American son. To the fact that for some white people, black skin is seen as inherently other, inherently threatening:

We the people cannot continue to abide the stories of police and civilians on witness stands telling us that in just seeing our Black bodies they were terrified.

You have to be terrified for a justifiable reason.

God gave us this Black and brown skin. The skin God gave us is not a reason for you to be justifiably terrified.

We are terrified.

Of you. (202-3)

I’ll go to the promised discussion and beverages, and I will listen hard. I’m reading this book as a white woman, whose children are white, who isn’t even American. To me, Real American carries the weight of an indictment. But I can’t imagine what it is to read it as a black woman, or as the parent of a black or biracial or multiracial child. I haven’t had to live these things; not even close. But Lythcott-Haims has invited me in anyway. And that is a gift.

Yes my white friend cry your tears. I know your pain is real as you feel the weight of this history this present lodge in your stomach like a stone.

Go there. Feel it. Hold it. Seek to understand it. Come to me with an open heart and I will show you my own. (258)

“What are you anyway?”

“What are you anyway?” The bluntness of the woman’s tone puts me on edge. […] The woman doesn’t get the subtlety of my response. “Well, I’m looking at you and I can see what you look like. But,” she struggles, “what are you?”

What she doesn’t say, but what is implied, is that I look so white. But I’ve revealed that I’m not 100 percent white. My appearance isn’t to be trusted. That seems to bother her. (235-6)

I just finished reading White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing by Gail Lukasik. I had actually come across her story in shortened form previously, in this Washington Post article; it piqued my interest and I sent away for the book to be delivered to my library’s hold shelves. It’s not written in the best prose out there, but the story it tells about race in America is illuminating,

The story of Lukasik’s family illustrates the complications of racial makeup and identity in America, especially in the South, and especially in Louisiana. Historically, Louisianans lived in the three-tier caste system, made up of whites on top, slaves on the bottom, and “free people of color” in the nebulous middle. The free people of color originated from manumitted slaves, from free black emigrants from Europe, and from the children (sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not) of white Louisianans and their black slaves, and later on, from the relatively common plaçage arrangements set up to get around laws against inter-racial marriage. Over time, the free people of color simply became what we would now call biracial. In the antebellum years many were considered legally white (and/or had terminology/labels applied describing theor proportionate mixture of blackness and whiteness: mulatto, quadroon, octaroon, etc.).

In the 20th century, things got dicier with the “one-drop rule” of the segregated South that said, in essence, having even one black ancestor means that you are legally black. In Louisiana, a person would be considered black even if only 1 of their 32 great-great-great grandparents were something other than white. (Just for reference, and if you will excuse this instance of Godwin’s law, this is more stringent than the Nazis were in determining Jewish descent and identity.) This of course was tied up with white supremacy and eugenics and other nasty things. But what happened when you were mixed race, considered legally black, but looked white? When the census-taker came to the door, that form only had two options for race. You were black, or you were white. So what did you tell them? And more importantly, how did you live?

The author’s mother, Alvera Frederic, had to make those choices. On her birth certificate she is listed as “colored”. In one census she is listed as black; in another, white. She left her family in New Orleans behind forever, “crossing over” the colour line and moving to Ohio, where she married a white man who never knew she wasn’t as fully white as he was. Lukasik was a grown woman when she discovered her mother’s secret, and Alvera’s pain and shame over being found out compelled Lukasik to keep that secret until after her mother’s death, some seventeen years later.

After Alvera’s death, Lukasik’s search began in earnest, beginning with an appearance on Genealogy Roadshow and ending with the discovery of a large, multi-racial family into whose arms she has been welcomed — it is a poignant story and a touching one. The book tells not only the story of her mother and her family, but gives a lot of historical context about their lives. In the end, Lukasik finds her African ancestor: a woman named Marta, born into slavery, her parents most likely brought on some of the first slave ships from Senegal. As she tells Marta’s story, Lukasik wrestles with what, if anything, having a black ancestor means (or can mean, or should mean) to her:

But even after I discover Marta, it changes nothing about my sense of racial identity. I have no claim on black identity, no right to declare myself even mixed race. And yet, my African ancestry is there in my DNA: 7-9 percent, more than one-drop, enough that up until 1983 in Louisiana I would have been designated as black.

What does it mean for a blatantly white woman to tell the story of her distant slave ancestor? “What gives me the right?” I ask myself. Is 7-9 percent African DNA enough? Does it matter that it’s me telling her story, as long as her story is told?

My search has never been about claiming a black identity. It springs from another place — the desire to know what my enslaved ancestors endured, how they assimilated into their time and place, and how they survived. I carry their DNA like a badge of honor. (202-3)

More than anything, White Like Her provides a compelling argument for the notion of race as a social construct. What does it mean to be “black” or “white” or “mixed”? Is it your facial features, skin tone, or hair texture that defines your race? Your DNA proportions? Your acknowledged cultural identity or preference? The answer seems to be all of these — or none of these — or some of these, some of the time. And what happens when you’re not white enough for the white community, but not black enough for the black community either? Lukasik quotes an email she received from a young mixed-race woman:

People usually think that I’m Hispanic or at least mixed, and sometimes they’re just unsure. I do come from a very bi-racial or multi-racial family. As a result I definitely have a few of my own racial issues to be honest. Looking the way I do I have personally never been accepted by the black community for the most part, a concept called colorism, you may have heard of. Kids teased me and called my white (though I don’t look white to most white people I don’t think, but by black standards definitely not black enough). […] Even in this time, there are clearly advantages [to being thought white]. It’s sooo complicated. (233-4)

It’s sooo complicated, indeed.

My one beef with White Like Her is the sheer amount of speculative material it contains. I understand that genealogy can provide more questions than answers, and that names on baptismal records and death certificates don’t tell you anything about what that person thought or felt, or how they lived. Lukasik indulges in a lot of “Did she think that…?” and “What was he feeling as…?” which got somewhat tedious. But more alarmingly, in what is supposed to be a biography, Lukasik makes up letters between some of her ancestors, and the reference to the fact that they’re made up is brief enough that a careless reader could easily read it. This isn’t historical fiction; those should never have been included.

Imaginary correspondence aside, I’m glad to have encountered White Like Her as I continue to think and learn about the “sooo complicated-ness” of race in America.

Race in America (a self-education project)

There is part of me that really hesitates to engage with this topic, because I know I’m ignorant in many ways. And even though I live in America, I’m not American.[1] I’ve lived three years slightly north of the Mason-Dixon line, and one year slightly to its south, but I grew up and lived most of my adult life in Canada, and things are different there. I’m not saying that Canada is a magical post-racist paradise; we have plenty of problems of our own. But still … it’s just different.

On the large scale, our history is profoundly different, especially in regard to the history of black Canadians. There were no plantations in Canada. While there were African slaves present in the country, they were mostly house slaves or farmhands, and their total number seems to never have been more than a few thousands (the majority of whom were brought with Loyalist settlers fleeing the American Revolution). Abolition was enacted in Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the 1790s; the slave trade was abolished in 1807 by an Act of Parliament; slavery itself, ditto, in 1833. And Canada, of course, was the fabled last stop on the Underground Railroad. So… culturally, historically, it’s just a completely different beast.

On a more personal level, I grew up in Toronto — which is generally hailed to be one of the most, if not the most, multi-cultural cities on the planet. Over 50% of Torontonians are visible minorities; the city’s population hails from over 200 ethnic origins and speaks more than 160 languages. So that environment is my own baseline for normal.

But then I moved to the States, and began to realise that I had been thrust into the midst of a divided country whose politics and history and culture and racial tensions I didn’t really understand. (By the way, don’t let anyone tell you that Canada and the US are so culturally similar that they might as well be one country. Anyone who says that has never lived in both countries; it takes a lot more to unite a culture than a common language.) At any rate, I can frame my growing awareness with a series of snapshots from my first year or two in the USA.


Snapshot: We are talking with a married couple who entered seminary with us: she is black and he is white. They had previously lived in Columbia, SC. She makes reference to the fact that “Columbia is still fighting the Civil War.” I don’t understand what she means. As the conversation keeps going it gets spelled out: they left Columbia in part because of how uncomfortable they were as an interracial couple there. They were tired of being discriminated against. They were tired of being stared at in the street. She was tired of the people at her church not being able to tell the difference between her and the only other black woman in her parish.

Snapshot: Another conversation, this time with a classmate who grew up in the Deep South. He confesses that even though he knows it’s wrong, it’s still jarring to him to see whites performing menial or service industry jobs because culturally he expects those jobs to be filled exclusively by black or Hispanic people.

Snapshot: Hanging out with friends at their house, another couple from a southern state. He is telling a story about one of their son’s former teachers and refers to her as “from the islands.” I don’t understand what he means: “She’s what?” He glances awkwardly at his children (ages 5 and 8, or thereabouts). “You know… from the islands.” It dawns on me. “Don’t worry,” I tell him, “I’m pretty sure they already know black people exist.”


So what do I do with all this? The same thing I do whenever I want to understand something: I read. This has been a slow and sporadic project of self-education on the topic — I’ve read fiction and non-fiction, and of course many articles on the subject that I stumble upon or that cross my facebook feed. A lot of these have been read months or even years apart, but as I look through my book log I can trace their path as one of the particular reading trails I’m following. Here are some of the footsteps I’ve taken along that trail:

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin: In 1959, Griffin, a white journalist, chemically darkened his skin until he could pass as black, and then spent six weeks travelling around the Jim Crow south. This account is drawn from the diary he kept over the course of the trip and was first published in 1961. His book opened the eyes of whites across the nation as to the real living conditions of black Americans; it also saw him hanged in effigy and having to move to Mexico for several years for his family’s safety. (I recognise the complicated nature of reading/believing/etc. the account of a white man pretending to be black rather than the account of someone, you know, actually black — but this is still most definitely worth reading. Here’s a good Washington Post article on Black Like Me.)

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (published in America under the title Someone Knows My Name): This sad and lovely novel by Canadian author Lawrence Hill follows the story of Aminata Diallo, an African woman captured into slavery at the age of eleven. She ends up as a slave in North Carolina, before making her way to Canada during the American Revolution. The title refers to the historical document known as the Book of Negroes, a register of black loyalists who escaped behind British lines during the war and were eventually settled in Nova Scotia. I re-read this book every couple of years; there is also a mini-series.

Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed by Jason Riley: This was set out on one of the Black History Month display tables and the rather provocative title grabbed my attention. I read it; I would say that it lives up to the initial promise of provocation but certainly provides much food for thought. Critics are divided; I’ve seen reviews that laud it, and others that pan it. It certainly checked off a lot of boxes for me in terms of looking for diverse viewpoints; I would be interested to read a direct response to it, if one exists.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters: This novel takes place in an alternate, modern-day America where the Civil War never took place and slavery still exists in four southern “hard states.” The protagonist, Victor, is a former slave who now works as a bounty hunter for the US Marshalls, tracking down escaped slaves and infiltrating the abolitionist movement, for reasons that are… complicated, to say the least. It’s a harrowing book, not only because of the story that it tells, but in its parallels to life today. A line that struck me and has stuck with me (possibly slightly paraphrased): “When black means poor and poor means dangerous, pretty soon black means dangerous.” And isn’t that how it seems to go?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: I know we’re not supposed to admit it about seminal, classic texts — but this was a bit of a slog for me. It’s a long book, and dense, and at times I wished I were reading something a little more gripping. It was good — I’m not surprised at the place it holds on many “top” lists of 20th-century fiction — but it was slow when I wanted to be reading something fast (this is a reflection on me as much as on the book, I think). I may revisit it in a few years and see if my impression changes.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: This is more tangentially than directly related, but I think that it still fits here. It seems that whenever the question of white privilege arises, someone starts asking, “Well, what about poor whites? What privilege do they have?” Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating book and answers the question of “what about poor whites” (at least those in Appalachia). The privilege of the hillbilly — which seems pretty scant, I think — is that, all else being equal, it is still easier in this country to have light skin than dark.

Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi: I haven’t read this yet; it’s currently sitting on the library’s hold shelves waiting for me to come pick it up. But I am especially intrigued that it is concerned with the history not of racist acts but of racist ideas — because, after all, does the idea not precede the action? I am looking forward to diving into this one after I get through the books ahead of it in my current to-read stack.

So that’s where I am. I know that I’m just dipping my toe into what’s out there and I have much more reading to do. And I may never understand as much or as well as I want to — but I am starting, all the same. Suggestions for further reading are always appreciated.


[1] Of course, this is a bit of a cop-out. I’m not American, but I do live here. And Anselm and Perpetua, by virtue of their birth, are United States citizens. So what happens in and to this country needs to matter to me, because one day it will matter to them.

“Pardon me, your epidermis is showing…”

Pardon me, your epidermis is showing, sir
I couldn’t help but note your shade of melanin
I tip my hat to the colorful arrangement
Cause I see the beauty in the tones of our skin…
(DC Talk, “Colored People”)

A month or two ago I re-read Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s excellent book NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children. I first read this book years ago, when I was working as a nanny, but coming to it again after having my own children lent it some fresh interest and relevance to me. Bronson and Merryman bring together some fascinating research on children, looking at (among other things) the “inverse power” of parental praise (see this New York Magazine article), new insights into sibling relationships, and why products like those “Baby Einstein” videos don’t foster language development but actually retard it.

One chapter that seems especially relevant right now is their look at race relations between children, and the surprising finding that the more integrated a child’s school environment is, the less likely they are to have a cross-racial friendship. School diversity isn’t having the effect that most people assumed it would. So what does that mean?

The answer to that question is at least partially tied up with the notion of “white privilege” — bear with me, now. I know that this can be a bit of a loaded term, particularly as it seems to be used in a couple of different ways. But as I understand it, at its simplest, it’s just this: white privilege is the privilege of not needing to think about race. This makes sense to me; I’m not really conscious of my whiteness in my day-to-day existence. When I watch TV, the people I see there mostly look like I do. If I have an unpleasant interaction with someone, it’s never even occurred to me to wonder if the colour of my skin was a contributing factor. Bandaids and “nude”-coloured undergarments always match my skin. Et cetera. (See also: Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay on the subject.)

Because white parents mostly don’t think much about the colour of their skin, they also don’t talk much about racial and ethnic differences with their children, whether out of uncomfortableness with the subject or because it doesn’t occur to them to do so. Or sometimes we assume that if our children are in multi-racial/multi-cultural environments, they’ll simply pick up the notions of equality on their own, without the need for parental guidance or intervention. Not so, say Bronson and Merryman.

The trouble with this thinking is that children naturally notice different skin colours and types of hair (and the like) — and of course they do! Young children are very interested in categorizations and in nearly every other subject we encourage them to discern differences: “this is a boy and that is a girl; this is a dog and that is a cat; this is green and that is blue; this is how you tell which is which.” But without some straight talk about light and dark (and medium) skin, they are left to their own devices, noticing differences but not sure what they mean. And in that situation, they tend to default to people “like me” and “not like me,” and those “like me” quickly become the preferred playfellows.

So what to do? The answer is simple enough: to talk with our children about skin colour and race: regularly, from a young age, and (this is important) explicitly. If we keep it too vague (“Everyone’s equal!”) our children simply won’t have any idea what we’re talking about.  So we’ve started having very simple conversations about it with Anselm, using people he knows as examples: “Mr H– has very light skin, like we do. We call skin like that ‘white skin.’ Mrs H– has very dark skin. We call skin like that ‘black skin.’ [Their daughter] has medium skin. We call skin like that ‘brown skin.’ God made people to have all sorts of beautiful skin colours. People of every skin colour can love each other and be friends.” As he gets older there are a lot more things that will be added to the conversation, but this seems like a reasonable foundation for a two-year-old.

An acquaintance of mine on facebook recently posted this article from Motherly: 20 children’s books to spark important discussions about race and tolerance. Several of them are earmarked as appropriate for youngest readers, and I’ll be checking some of them out from the library over the coming weeks. We’ll see where the conversation takes us.

(Bonus: here’s DC Talk’s 1995 music video “Colored People” — because I love me some mid-90s CCM.)