Image Credit: Kiernan Lofland
. . . to become white in the South is to absorb some large part of its particular iteration of the U.S. racial hierarchy.
—Tressie McMillan Cottom
My tweet was accurate and also a bit disingenuous—the expletive and mild chastising, the know-it-all tone. What the fuck, Virginia, but also I’m not surprised. I fired it off late one afternoon, in the passenger’s seat next to my husband as we drove and chatted our way through the white flatness of the Great Plains in winter. Maybe it was the snow, still coming down as it had so many weekends that January, in crazed, cocooning sheets. Maybe it was the five years we’d lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, the longest either of us has spent in one place outside of our Virginia childhoods. But as I read aloud article after article about the graduate school picture that had surfaced showing Governor Ralph Northam in blackface (or was he the one in the KKK hood? Did he really, my god, want to use facial recognition to find out?), I felt a great, smug distance open up between me and my home state.
This is insane, I told my husband and tweeted. We shook our heads together and changed the subject, gliding serenely into the evening on snow drifts and self-righteousness, and my mind drifted pleasantly, too, casting about on half-formed thoughts until we pulled up to our little Midwestern house, white painted wood rising above the white yard, the icy steps, the frosted windows, and I snagged, hard, on a childhood memory. A joke my father used to tell when he returned home to Virginia after his annual Midwestern hunting trip: There’s no black people out there, you know how they can’t stand the cold.
I was a sensitive child, but it didn’t take much intuition or education, even at an early age, even if I didn’t have the word for it yet, to understand that my family was (is) racist. Just look: the framed pictures of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in all of the family living rooms and parlors, the black maid (Carrie then Annie) at Christmas parties and Thanksgiving dinners, the polite condescension in our interactions with her, the white segregation academies masquerading as private schools my uncle and father got shipped off to in the 1960s, as my grandparents fretted about the integration of Petersburg public schools.
But as a kid it was hard for me to articulate any of this (save for one morning, when I was in elementary school and growing sullener by the day, driving to church with my family, when my dad shouted an expletive at another vehicle, whose driver was black. Dad, you’re so prejudiced, I stammered from the back seat, pronouncing the word PREE-judiced, making my parents chuckle, and the memory fades out with the laughter). Still, the good behavior and Southern propriety that my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles displayed in public, at church, at the dining room table, at hilltop barbecues beside the James river, seemed a far cry from the kinds of talk I heard at friends’ houses or read about in the civil war historical fiction books I toted along with me through much of my childhood and adolescence.
My family praised those black maids and gardeners as hard-working, good, and true. They didn’t use the n-word, or only muttered it in secret. They said they didn’t see color, long before that became the adage of white liberals. As I grew up I’d look to these arguments and see only how they deepened the white supremacy that runs through my Virginia family’s history like blood, like bone. As an introverted child deeply attached to her parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters and cousins, I readily clung to what I hoped provided evidence that my family, too, was hard-working, good, and true.
Hours after my flippant tweet about the governor and blackface, Virginia and its racist predictability, I found myself in bed, pinned down by nightmares of a dead man, his body parts scattered across thick woods and a hot highway, his mother not so much yelling at me as bawling, my reporter’s notebook morphing into a wood-and-wire cross, cutting my hands as I held it. I woke before the dream’s end; having had it for years now I know what happens well, how the Alabama landscape of my crime reporter days morphs into the funeral home, how the casket, open, shows the body reassembled, how I want to close it, how I spell a name over and over in my head until I wake up, Frances, f, r, a, n, c, e, s.
In the paper, in the first story I wrote about Kevin Thompson’s kidnapping, I called it a disappearance and got the spelling of his mother’s name wrong, Francis, i instead of e. But it was an online story, and the cops weren’t concerned yet, and who really cared? As the young, female, white crime reporter who had just broken a much bigger story about the white sheriff’s physical assault of a young black boy, a mother’s crazed worry about her missing adult son didn’t really register. Black men in Calhoun County, Alabama dipped in and out of their families’ lives all the time, the cops’ reasoning went. After weeks of dedicating my full attention to the sheriff story, the outrage from the community (toward the sheriff, brief and burning out quickly, toward me, enduring and passive aggressive, toward that bruised little boy, too quickly vilified and forgotten), I thought I had done my due diligence on the race and social justice front for a minute or two.
I was tired, I wanted to put the pen and recorder and notebook away for a few days, to look away from the privilege and complications of covering crime, race, and justice as a just-out-of-college, newly liberal white lady. That this was even an option for me. That I rolled my eyes when Frances called me to correct her name in the paper and to chastise me for believing the police. She knew something bad had happened to her son, a kind third-grade teacher who never would’ve just disappeared on his students. I don’t trust the police, I wanted to tell her, thinking of the sheriff’s deputies cars that had taken to trolling slowly by my duplex at night. And yet I could dip back into that trust, couldn’t I? Pull my white lady self together a bit, get some rest, pipe down, and all would be well. Sure, this black lady on the other end of the phone sounded hard-working, good, and true but, well, so was I. And while I was sitting there, telling myself I had bigger fish to fry, more important stories to write, Kevin Thompson’s kidnappers were driving him around to banks across northeastern Alabama, forcing him to withdraw his hard-earned money, forcing him to his death in a scraggly wood, leaving his family to mark that moment with a cross in the dirt.***limited sub (link)
I sit here now, cradling a cooling coffee, fretting over the dream, my tweet, my white Virginia history as a doctoral student in Nebraska who each semester teaches students about the importance of critical questioning and self-awareness. We must examine our personal and familial histories, I tell them, and be willing to uncover and mark in those histories our mistakes and missteps, our prejudices and apathies. I quote writer Jessa Crispin to them and to myself: “We all occupy space on top of one atrocity or another, blood has coated every square inch of this earth.” The point of turning a critical eye toward the violence of our history, she continues, is not to resign ourselves to its inevitability or ubiquity. And nor is it, I add quietly to myself this morning, to resign ourselves to picking at old wounds, a kind of self-centered flagellation instead of a resolve to do better, to be better than who or what came before.
Of course I wasn’t surprised about the governor in blackface, the attorney general in blackface, the lieutenant governor in rage over new sexual assault claims. The question of shock or its lack, which really is just another way of saying resignation, is and always has been the wrong question in the first place, a way of distancing the self from the scene of a historical moment, from its reckonings and implications. I’m in Nebraska now, I have nothing to do with Virginia and its racisms anymore, my tweet now seemed to say. That kind of arrogance, my dream reminded me, you know where that road leads. (And my father, after my sisters and I graduated college, packed up himself and my mother, their dogs and their heirloom furniture and moved to the “black-less” rural Midwest, in pursuit of space and solitude, all that vast, pale distance, no matter how willingly they dismiss the history of the land or whose blood actually marked that great place first).
I cannot dismiss my own history of whiteness and racism any more than I can dismiss that Virginia is my birthplace, was my beloved home for 22 years of my life, is the lush, vexed place my husband and I hope to one day return to. The story I so often tell myself about myself is one of waking up and distancing myself from the white supremacy of my family: The sheltered, upper-middle-class white girl trading Anne Rinaldi for James Baldwin and Toni Morrison in college, speaking truth to racist powers as a reporter, uncovering how she herself benefited from and was implicated in those very same racist systems through her grad school scholarship. It’s a nice story, the Southern white woman coming to terms with her whiteness, with her entitlement, and, at its surface, it’s true. But it’s not the right one or, more to the point, it’s not the whole story, either.
My coming of age as a white woman in Virginia is also a narrative that must examine how, at every stage of my life—whether furiously trying to pretend the color-blindness of my father and grandparents as a child or waking up to the racism that fortifies the very structures of my family tree, its oppressive roots reaching back to the first settlers in Jamestown—my whiteness has afforded me the opportunity to turn away, to persist in seeing myself and my body as normal, to embrace the greed, cowardice, and violence of my own history when it suited me, to be untroubled by the hypocrisy therein. My story, then, is also the story of how, like my grandfather before me, I attended Washington and Lee University, with its marble statue of Robert E. Lee at rest in his chapel, its Confederate flags, its veneration of Lee’s leadership there, his honor and politeness—the “talking tradition” passed down from generation to generation as a gesture toward that good Virginia man’s ethics and civility. How brutally unbothered I was by any of that, how it seemed not even to be on my radar—even as I went to poetry classes, studied, and wrote about the lack of black and brown bodies and voices in America’s canon. How I walked the uneven colonnade, its red bricks and white stone columns, unaware and unconcerned the bodies of some 80 enslaved men and women were part of what supported those old, comforting structures around me, sold to the school as an estate some 180 years before I strolled those halls.
And, yes, I found wonderful teachers there, women and men in the English, Journalism, and Anthropology departments who tirelessly dedicated themselves to challenging the untroubled heritages and bored assumptions of that largely white, wealthy student body. These teachers help me embark on a journey of self-examination and of listening to the people I had not considered or been introduced to in my girlhood—Audre Lorde and Ralph Ellison, Lucille Clifton and Nella Larson, Ethel Payne and Octavia Butler. And yes, my resolve to reckon with whiteness, to begin the lengthy process of extricating myself from my family’s beliefs, strengthened under their tutelage. But how easily I cast that important task aside when it served me—how easy it was for me, my freshman year of college to don antebellum hoop skirt and bonnet and attend, giddy with drink and desire, an Old South formal on the arm of my Confederate-costumed date. Those formals, a longstanding tradition of Kappa Alpha, were banned by the fraternity in 2010, the year I graduated college. But the memory of Old South and my frivolous role in it comes back to me in shame, underscoring for me, (and, perhaps, for certain white politicians in Tennessee) how my desire to periodically normalize my whiteness or render it inconsequential in the face of “more important” pursuits of love, rest, fun, and good cheer absolutely undermines my work toward envisioning an anti-racist life or future for myself.
I do not know how my family members reacted to the Virginia Democratic Party’s blackface scandal, mainly because I have so little contact with any of them anymore. I can imagine, though, the quiet crowing in their living rooms and parlors, over coffee and Fox news and grits, the glee at how this confirms something for them, two things really. One—that, no matter the political correctness and “high-talking” of today’s liberals, every white Southerner believes what they themselves do: That everyone, in his or her yearbook, which is to say in his or her heart of hearts, understands that white people look down on black people, because, well, that’s just the God-given hierarchy in this place, on this earth. (A memory from my childhood: my father trying to explain me, driving through Petersburg’s pot-holed streets, the difference between poor and lazy, hard-working and welfare, all of it colored by race, though as an adult I can’t remember his exact words or even, really, the point other than to prop up our whiteness as well as our class). And two—those so-called progressives and social justice activists don’t really care about racial equity so much as they want to get theirs, whether that be time in the spotlight, money, or power that doesn’t belong to them. With the governor (and lieutenant governor and attorney general) still in the statehouse and unlikely to be removed, it’s easy to fall into a begrudging acceptance of this last claim.
When I look to my own racist equivocations throughout my life, in college in Virginia, as a reporter in Alabama, as an academic in Nebraska, it’s easier still. Still, these are just circuitous ways of answering the rather uninspired question: Aren’t all white Americans racist? The answer to which is simply, unequivocally, yes. As Ralph Ellison writes in Going to the Territory, “since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are.” What if the better question then, the one that reveals a way forward, is to ask how we white Americans can turn toward the violence of that deep inner uncertainty, to claim it, speak it, and, as a result, work to undo the ways in which we have “seized upon the presence of black Americans and used them as a marker” for white identity and its lack?
I’ve read the governor now has a recommended reading list to better help him address the racist histories of his personal life and that of the Virginia office he continues to cling to. Some activists and writers have (rightly) taken to the Internet to offer addendums to Alex Haley’s Roots and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” including, among many others, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete, and David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. I’d also add Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and everything Lucille Clifton has ever written. I know, firsthand, how the right books can change the course of a life, can strike a match that reveals not only a new way through your (our) history’s knotted family trees, but also illuminates your own hand, responsible, pale, aglow, in the flame. How uninvisible and culpable your own white body is, after all. I also know reading is not enough. Even if it’s done in the right spirit. Even, or especially, if it’s done with an eye toward coming to a new whole, a wrapping up of things, a desire to put space between your specious past, your expansive (still white) future. When we read and listen well, we do so not to arrive a sense of completeness, which is a story that is a lie we white people have been telling ourselves forever now. We do so to acknowledge our lack, our limitations. What the fuck, Virginia, I wrote, meaning “aren’t we better than this now?” in the same way leftist pundits and activists wrote What the fuck, America, after Trump. Both of them unimaginative questions pointing to the unimaginative and incorrect belief on which they were based: We thought we might be healed of our racism by now.
One month after police finally found Kevin Thompson’s body amidst that nondescript stretch of Alabama wood and road, his mother and sister invited me into their home and asked me, simply, to listen. They wanted to talk about the kind, smart, motivated young man who had lit up their lives, and the lives of the third-graders he taught, whose picture hung on every wall in the living room, whose absence felt like a physical weight, an immovable presence among the oversized furniture and plush, white carpet. It was the least I could do, and it was not nearly enough. He was 29 years old when he died, which had seemed old to me then, too old and not white enough to raise my missing person alarm bells. And now, at 31 myself, I think of his death, and his mother’s death a few years later, and his sister, now a mother, and I can’t help but think how young, how young he was to die, how very, very wrong I was, and how young and white myself still.
As children, my sisters and cousins and I would play hide-and-seek in my grandparents’ big brick house on Westover Avenue in Petersburg, romping through the attic’s hidden rooms, my grandmother’s labyrinthine garden, our aunt’s life-size wooden dollhouse in the yard. I delighted, especially, in the back staircase, all narrow angles and odd corners, tucked away behind the kitchen liquor cabinet and sink. Over the years it became cluttered with bags and boxes, the odds and ends of any old house, but back then it was kept relatively clean, if darkly lit, and I’d crawl up to the midway landing and nestle in, digging my hands and toes into the nubby white carpet.
The servant stairs, my grandmother once told me, only they probably didn’t have carpet then. I don’t remember if I had asked her about them or if she had initiated the conversation. I don’t remember where we were when we had it, she was forever telling us stories about the history of her beloved house, which we were forever forgetting and muddying up with our outdoor shoes. I only know for years I thought of those steps, the first thing you see when you walk into the house from the back, the family entrance, as the servant staircase. But it was always wrong, a kind of romantic revision of what they really were, the polite euphemism of servant when the word my grandmother really meant all along—the world I really meant all along—was slave.
Cameron Steele is a writer, teacher, and doctoral student in Creative Writing with a focus on Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her nonfiction and poems are forthcoming or have appeared in Entropy, The Fix, Bluestem Magazine, Red Paint Hill Poetry Journal, Wherewithal, and Ivy Hall Review. She has won several state journalism awards for her former work as investigative crime reporter at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina and The Anniston Star in Alabama.