As I continue to work on You Will Not Be Forgotten, each Wednesday I am going to post about something I’ve learned in the process of writing this book. Maybe it will be something about myself or about slavery or about history in general; I’m not sure. One thing I do know is this – writing this book has changed me in more ways than I will probably ever know. I hope you’ll check in each week to see what I’ve discovered in the process. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too.
This morning, the pups and I walked up the main drive, through the lines of cedars, to the gates that mark the yard at the biggest plantation house here. I don’t know what the dogs thought about – Deer! Fox! Oh, Bear!, I expect – but I thought about Primus, about how he walked these lanes two hundred years ago. I looked at the stone walls and remembered the Jesse and Gruff and Dilcey, saw their backs bent low in the bright cold of winter as they placed stone after stone all beside where my feet so casually travel. I can almost hear the clop of horse hooves and the rasp of wheels as Ned brings the General’s carriage up behind me, Billy and Phil riding on the front two horses, the General in a hurry to reach somewhere, Monticello, Fork Union Baptist, New Orleans.
When I walk these lanes, I remember people I know but have never met. They are the history of this place for me now. They are who is most important in this place to me.
In a few hours, I will stand in the city of Charlottesville, where Thomas Jefferson’s home sits, where the General from this place traveled, and I will hear President Barack Obama speak. I am a big supporter of the President (have been for many, many years), and so I am eager to see him, to hear the cadence of his words, to feel the energy of a crowd gathered for a time when we are fired up and excited.
But today, I will also take joy in the fact that just shy of 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation became law, we finally have a black president. It has taken us too long.
When I read over slave history, when I hear about people forced to remain uneducated because of fear and racism, when I call to mind that just 150 years ago, black people could be jailed, beaten, or killed simply for traveling without the right paperwork, I am appalled at our history.
Yet, when I see President Obama, I know we have come a long, long way.
And, as Dr. King said, we have a long, long way to go.
Writing this book has taught me that the tendrils of racism and prejudice and unearned privilege wind deep into our psyches, our institutions, our history, and our future. Getting to know Anaky and James, Minerva and Nelson means, I am as wont to defend them as I would any of my friends against the ignorance – sometimes willful, sometimes real – that still pervades our conversations about race and privilege.
When I hear the undercurrents of racism in the statements about President Obama’s citizenship or when people make jokes about how fitting it is that he plays basketball, I get angry, so so angry. These statements are built on fear and ignorance, and often on greed and selfishness – the very same sentiments that kept people enslaved in this country for hundreds of years. President Obama doesn’t need me to defend him, but the people in our country that live under the oppression and persecution that this kind of speech perpetuates, they need me to speak out. So I do. Every time.
I speak out for Berthier and Lucy, for Letty and Moses, for Cato and Peyton and Harriet and Godfrey. I speak out not because I believe I can change the person who harbors this fear and hatred in her heart, but because maybe somewhere across the lanes of time where he is laying a stone into a wall, Squire can hear me. Maybe he can hear me and smile, just a little.
What do you do when prejudice comes into conversation?