Tag Archives: white supremacy

Unacknowledged Cousins: “White” Womanhood Reimagined

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. 

 

Different Angels from Montgomery

Different Angels from Montgomery   —by Jinny Batterson

Growing up, I wasn’t a huge country music fan. However, like a lot of folks, I developed an infatuation with the John Prine song “Angel from Montgomery” and its signature refrain: “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.” Who/what is the angel? There’s some dispute.  One of John’s friends insists it was an angel atop the Montgomery Ward building in Chicago, near where John was raised. Another theory is that “angel that flies” refers to a prison pardon communicated from the office of Alabama’s governor at Montgomery. Such pardons for prisoners were/are much hoped for but seldom granted, especially for those on death row. To my knowledge, Prine himself hasn’t identified the angel.

The song stayed in the back of my mind as I planned a “southern swing” in late winter. I had friends in Atlanta, relatives in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Montgomery, where I’d never before visited, was not that far out of the way.

This initial capital of the Confederacy and nexus of civil rights activism a century later had some museums I wanted to see. Near my downtown Montgomery hotel was a small museum to early country music star Hank Williams, who first rose to fame in Montgomery in the late 1930’s. Though I read the historical marker to his memory and looked at the window displays, this was not one of the museums I came for. Rather, I wanted to spend time learning more about Montgomery’s role during the civil rights era—about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the bus boycott that helped usher in a decade of civil rights activism.

In a downtown Montgomery branch of Troy University, a Rosa Parks exhibit reconstructed the events surrounding Ms. Parks’ 1955 arrest and the ensuing bus boycott, complete with a vintage bus. Having a chance to see the actual venue that had produced her and then the year-long boycott brought home her fortitude and resolve, along with the solidarity and resolve of Montgomery’s African-American community.

I’d made advance reservations for another pair of museums and memorials, recently opened by the Equal Justice Initiative. The Legacy Museum and its companion, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the Lynching Memorial) show the enduring legacy of racial terror that continues to haunt our nation. The Legacy Museum, a block from Hank Williams’ shrine, documents the horrors of the slavery and Jim Crow eras plus some brutal variants that continue to this day.  One of the museum’s most graphic exhibits is a set of large jars of soil collected from sites of terror lynchings that occurred from the 1870’s up through 1950, peaking in the 1890’s and early 1900’s.

On a six acre site overlooking Montgomery’s downtown, a companion memorial contains two sets of over 800 steel columns, one for each county in the United States where documented racial terror lynchings took place. One set of columns is shielded by a roof. Viewers of the sloping site are led from an initial area where the columns are at ground level toward a section where they hang suspended, like many of the lynching victims they represent.  

Hanging columns at National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama

Words or photos cannot convey the full impact of experiencing a walk among them. The county where I now live in North Carolina had one lynching memorialized; the county in Maryland where I was raised had two. In all, over 4,000 racial terror lynchings have been documented and verified in 20 states.

A second set of columns lies flat on the ground. Rust-colored, it reminded me of the corrosive myths many of us have told ourselves and each other for years, helping perpetuate race-based fears and hatred, going all the way back to the myth of the “happy darky.” There’s the myth of the predatory black man, with its corresponding myth of helpless womanhood. Especially pernicious and pervasive is the myth of white superiority, abetted by the myth of entirely benign police presence aimed solely at preserving “law and order.”

. The duplicate columns are designed to be brought home to the counties where lynchings occurred, as a way to help acknowledge past injustices and then help heal our enduring racial divides. The columns are way too heavy to fly, but these angels represented in Montgomery need to go home. It’s way past time.

Duplicate columns, Montgomery's memorial

duplicate columns lying outside at Montgomery memorial

By now, I’ve become an old woman. Not unlike the wife in Prine’s song, I’m named after one of my grandmothers. I may be old, but I can continue to bear witness. Again paraphrasing Prine’s lyrics—to believe in (and work toward) reconciliation is a good way to go.    

Statues and Time Immemorial

Statues and Time Immemorial   —by Jinny Batterson

Growing up in our long-generation family, I sometimes would hear an older relative talk about an attitude, custom, or monument that had been around since time immemorial.  I figured the expression meant a very long time ago; rarely did I wonder what attitude, custom, or monument was under discussion. As we approach this year’s Memorial Day, I’ve thought a good bit more about what we memorialize, what we don’t, and how an aspect of human life continues to be remembered, even into “time immemorial.”

The past year or two has seen a lot of controversy about prominent memorials to Confederate soldiers and politicians.  Most of these memorials were erected well after the end of the American civil war, not as a tribute to the sacrifices of ordinary soldiers, whose graves generally were elsewhere. Rather, the statues were strategically placed to reinforce Jim Crow segregation and to buttress attitudes and institutions of white supremacy. 

During the decades when I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a former capital of the Confederacy, I got frequent exposure to several equestrian Confederate monuments along a mile or so stretch of expensive vintage homes on tree-lined Monument Avenue: J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson sat astride their mounts at prominent intersections. Near where I currently live, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is embroiled in controversy about the removal or contextualization of “Silent Sam,” a Confederate memorial statue erected in a highly visible location on that campus in 1913, funded jointly by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and UNC alumni.

Back when Stuart, Lee, Jackson, and Silent Sam were installed on their pedestals, I hadn’t been born yet, but I was around when Richmond debated placing a statue of African-American tennis hero and humanitarian Arthur Ashe along Monument a bit further west. After substantial controversy about the erection and placement of the Ashe statue, Richmond’s City Council eventually approved a Monument Avenue location. Sited at the corner of Roseneath Road, the statue was unveiled in 1996 on what would have been Ashe’s 53rd birthday. Ashe has no horse, but is standing on his own two feet, holding aloft a tennis racket in one hand and a set of books in the other. A group of four children gesture eagerly toward him. Ashe had given permission for the casting of his likeness shortly before he died in 1993 of complications from a blood-transfusion-acquired AIDS infection.

During recent decades, statues of several former dictatorial leaders, including Lenin, Stalin, Moammar Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein, have been toppled or destroyed as their regimes or dominance came to an end. Will any of these leaders be remembered centuries or millennia from now? Will they instead share a fate outlined in Shelley’s romantic poem about a fallen monument to Ozymandias, “king of kings”?:   

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

If, eons from now, earthlings continue to create and honor statues, my bets for meaningful reminders are not on the cruel or despotic, but rather on heroes of sportsmanship and learning like Arthur Ashe.