It took me a long time to get angry about the way “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness” is used by politicians to censor teachers who teach real history and who alert children to the systemic racism that warps white minds and targets Black and Brown lives.
First, I trusted librarians and teachers to keep doing what they do, even under intense pressure. Second, I was just so glad somebody finally opened the book.
But now, I’m mad they even needed to—the cover of ”Not My Idea” is more alarming than anything you will find on the pages within.
‘Air That We Breathe in America’
Let’s take a tour of the cover that politicians, such as Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, love to hold up as they read out loud the fabulous name my mother gave me and then lie about my work to their colleagues and constituents:
A white child of unspecified gender, dressed in a red hoodie, blue tee shirt and jeans, kneels in a boat that glides on choppy water. Atlantic Ocean? Down-river? Sh*t’s creek? All three, yes. The child is closed in from behind by a barbed wire-covered fence like the ones that keep prisoners and public-school students, and their wardens and teachers, locked in.
A tattered American flag with 13 stars waves above the child’s head; it, too, is encircled in barbed wire. A wooden cross burns in the sky and almost touches the bent boughs of the tree, whose soul has been befouled by lynchings and whose roots stretch down and out into blood-soaked and stolen, sacred ground.
The child sails along inside the legacy of “whiteness” (a structure of supremacy, the air that we breathe in America) and is horrified. This was not their idea.
How could we claim to love our white children and leave them inside of that?
‘Haunted By Our People’s Legacy’
I put images of the boat on the water, bough of the tree, flaming cross and barbed wire on the cover of a children’s book about whiteness because my intuition tells me that, like me, plenty of white people who reject racism from the depths of our souls remain haunted by our people’s legacy of racial terror. A churning and roiling of sensation and emotion, buried in us for generations, centuries, sends up chills and waves of nausea, panic, paranoia. We feel it long before we learn we are being “held” by something evil. Our children are feeling it now.
When you’re born white, racial justice education and practices are a salvation and a way to love yourself—and that is what “Not My Idea” is about. It offers a path into another legacy of bold and care-full action—one we haven’t taught kids nearly enough about—in which people of all colors who love each other and love justice have always come together within Black-led movements to resist racism and plant justice instead.
Mr. White isn’t the first politician to wave my book around and say it teaches white children to hate themselves. He’s also not the first to flip immediately from the cover to the end of the book, bypassing 57 pages of compassionate witnessing, and, yes, civil rights history—including drawings of the Grimké sisters, Julian Bond and members of the SNCC, white nuns who marched in Selma, a young John Lewis kneeling in prayer, and a young Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest. What he wants to get to, fast as he can, is the devil on page 59 and the “Contract Binding You to Whiteness.”
So, about that devil—yesterday, I learned a phrase common to many for the first time when @theconsciouslee said it in an Instagram post: “While you live, tell the truth and shame the devil.” Shakespeare put it in a play once, but it’s not his line. It’s older than that.
What you’ll see on page 59 is a pale, gentleman’s hand—disconnected from any living person—offering conditional belonging, safety, and acceptance for the price of a soul. The figure behind “the deal” hides its core made of money, fire-hair and cloven hooves; it is not human, and when its tail pokes out around the side, the white child sees it, and says so.
“While you live, tell the truth and shame the devil.”
Here I’ve been trying to come up with the exact right words to explain why I put this image in a children’s book when this phrase existed all the while.
The next page in the book assures children, “You can be white without signing on to whiteness” and tells a story of a white librarian named Juliette Hampton Morgan, who defied racism in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1950s, but they never read that one out loud.
I wrote and submitted this column to correct Mr. White’s distorted summation of my book with my own words:
There’s another way, kids. Come—let’s get you out of that boat and into alignment with the truth and yourself. The liberation you are fighting for is your own.
Writer Anastasia Higginbotham submitted this MFP Voices piece this week in response to our story about State Auditor Shad White’s criticism of it. We have also invited the auditor to write an MFP Voices piece about his views of the book.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.