Unacknowledged Cousins: “White” Womanhood Reimagined —by Jinny Batterson
My early upbringing stressed that I was “white,” as opposed to a few “black” students who began when I was in fifth grade to attend the same Maryland public elementary school I did. Whiteness has benefited me in many ways. For much of my life, it has also partially blinded me to the violence and discrimination visited on those who are “not white.”
As I’ve aged, the whole notion of “whiteness” has become suspect. Much of the history I was earlier taught “whitewashed” the impact of enslavement and supported the myth of white supremacy, upholding both slavery and its more contemporary descendants—Jim Crow, mass incarceration, jingoism, xenophobia, disenfranchisement.
Partway through my work life, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of years in an African country, as junior member of a project supporting small-scale local consumer cooperatives. I noticed that my African colleagues and neighbors were generally darker skinned than most African-Americans I encountered while living in the United States. Once I returned to the U.S., I was advised by an African-American neighbor that most people who self-identify as “black” in the U.S. have at least some “white” ancestry.
That got me to thinking. For much of my work life, I lived in central Virginia. The history I’d been taught as a child idolized Thomas Jefferson among the founders of our republic—author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, President of the United States. Several times I made a pilgrimage to Jefferson’s “retirement” home of Monticello just outside Charlottesville. Little of the story of Monticello as it was then told related to Jefferson’s position as a slave holder. Over time, I began to read and learn more about the seamier side of a slavery-based economy. A few years ago, long after I’d left Virginia, an exhibit was mounted describing the life of Sally Hemings, who in addition to being enslaved, was likely the mother of several of Jefferson’s children (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/16/us/sally-hemings-exhibit-monticello.html). The exact nature and complexity of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship remains controversial, but it’s fairly well established that Hemings was a half-sister to Jefferson’s white wife, Martha Skelton Jefferson, and that after Martha died, Jefferson and Hemings were involved in some sort of relationship for several decades.
Jefferson and other white men whose historical contributions I’d been taught to venerate may very well have been engaged in non-consensual sexual relations with enslaved black women. Might I have African-American cousins who were the result of some of my white male ancestors raping their female slaves? It seems not entirely unlikely, though difficult to prove. An African-American friend recently explained that genealogy in black families is hard to do, because record keeping was skimpy and generally did not include enough information to fully identify an enslaved person.
“Most of us can’t go back further than a couple of generations,” he said.
By contrast, the most thoroughly documented part of my northern European ancestry traces back a dozen generations to the Dutch tavern keeper who late in life resettled in what was then New Amsterdam, along with several of his adult children. Other parts of my lineage are less clear. Some of my Scots-Irish ancestors were likely outlaws, fleeing across the Atlantic to escape retribution. One of my Southern great-grandfathers (in a family with long generations) was born in South Carolina in 1820. By the time my maternal grandfather was born near Carthage, Mississippi in 1869, his family were former slaveholders. I remember my “Pop-pop” as a white-haired old man who spat tobacco juice out the back porch door and hated his ill-fitting false teeth. I remember stories retold to me by my mother of how frightening he’d found it as a small child to live in a Mississippi home that also billeted federal troops.
During the 2020 election season, there’s speculation that an African-American woman will be named as a vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket. Certainly, there are many highly qualified African-American women politicians—Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C.; Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago; Kamala Harris, U.S. senator from California; Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayor of Atlanta; Stacy Abrams, voting rights advocate and former Georgia legislator—to name a few. The challenges faced and overcome by such women have helped forge a strength that most of us “white” women have rarely had to summon. The mythology long fed to “white women,” especially in the American South, that white men were needed to “protect the sanctity of white womanhood” was hypocritical at best, if not deliberately misleading and damaging.
A white woman of my parents’ generation, Anne Braden, whose work I recently discovered, put it eloquently. In the early 1950’s, after reporting on the execution of a black man, Willie McGee, for the supposed rape of a white woman, Braden wrote:
“I believe that no white woman reared in the South or perhaps anywhere else in this racist country can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little girls – absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmate to a man or men. But we also grow up white – absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other.”
The work of freeing ourselves of preconceptions and misconceptions is the work of all. However, in this era of divisiveness and government sanctioned disinformation, it is especially the work of “white” women. May we dedicate ourselves to continuing this work.