When asked once how he went from his dysfunctional, impoverished household with an abusive, alcoholic father to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning author able to purchase a home for his mother outright with the cash from his writing awards, Rick Bragg answered, “I walked up my Mama’s backbone.”
I spent a good bit of yesterday searching for ancestors, prompted by a reminiscence my Mama shared yesterday morning. What emerged was a fuller picture of the enormity of my mother’s most important gift to me.
My mother’s parents named around half of their 10 children for Confederate “heroes,” including one of their daughters named for Robert E. Lee; at least one of both of their parents was a Confederate soldier. They named her father Ernest Jefferson, after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. He had not one but two brothers named for Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—one named Thomas and one named Stonewall Jackson and called Jack. Stories got passed down to my mother of a relative who was so close to Robert E. Lee that he heard Lee’s surrender negotiations with Ulysses S. Grant.
My father’s father, as a member of the Augusta Police Band in my native Georgia, played at a Confederate reunion in 1928 in Little Rock, Ark., an event celebrated in the newspapers across the country, including the local paper. His mother had one brother named for the infamous defender of white supremacy and slavery, the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun, credited with the creation of the concepts of “interposition” and “nullification” as tools to prevent the federal government from outlawing slavery in slave states. David Calhoun McCaslan Jr. carried his father’s Confederate themed name and his mother’s grandfather, my third great-great grandfather, Thomas Yeargan, died for the Confederacy at Richmond, two months shy of the end of the Civil War.
Passing down those stories was not harmless. Whether conscious or not, they were part of a process to educate children to develop and succeed in the existing culture. The stories they chose to tell and how they lived lives that reflected those stores taught their children what to value and who mattered. They taught my family for generations how to be “white.”
You know where those stories stopped? With my mother. There was no valorization of the Confederacy or white supremacy in my house, not to my brothers and me, or to their children and now grandchildren. I knew bits and pieces, because as a budding young historian, I liked to ask about family trees and where people’s names come from. But the stories you see above—I found most of them out yesterday, because I searched for them.
My parents interrupted the socialization process of whiteness, my mother more so for me because my father is but a distant memory.
Let me be clear, there was still plenty of white-supremacist socialization in my life—by which I mean the process that teaches a child, born without culture as we all are, the norms and customs, the animating ideas that shape and define the society in which they will live, so that they can be proficient in it. In refusing to raise me and my brothers in a household in the South that didn’t celebrate or honor the Confederacy, she gave my brothers and me the space to hear other stories, to learn the norms and customs of at least an aspirational culture of human dignity and freedom.
My mother gifted me with the breathing room to question whiteness and its power over this nation.
This is where we start, but it is only a beginning. It is not enough to question and to try to choose not to be a part of a white-supremacist culture. (I say “try” because whiteness is insidious, and supremacy is an addiction. It takes work to overcome an addiction.) My skinfolk and I must also learn how to dismantle the norms and customs and institutions and systems that underpin and sustain white supremacy. We have to work with all who have been targeted and injured by those customs and systems to create a culture and society free from inequality, free from harm and free from despair as Ibram Kendi wrote this week.
It’s on me and everyone who looks like me to step up, to question, to listen and learn, and then to act as swiftly as is possible to repair and to not to cause more damage. It’s on us to teach our children a new story, with values animated and suffused with love and respect for the dignity of all human beings and the planet they live on, with deliberation and intention and care. You don’t ask the folks who weren’t invited to your party to come in and clean up your mess.
My mother gave me the greatest gift of all: the freedom to question an unhealthy and dangerous culture and to choose to live another way. Her gift took a spine as strong as steel. This day, and every day is hers.
I choose to live and work for a world where a young man can run free through neighborhood streets without being gunned down because of what he looks like and having his murderers protected until there was an outcry. A world where it’s not a daily hazard to exist.
Whiteness was an invention to control who gets the most benefit from capitalism. We can create something new. We must.
Let’s all get free.
For solutions for how white Americans can work to reverse white supremacy and its effects, see “65 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.”
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 1,000 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.