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.
I have a confession to make, and it’s one I wish I didn’t need to share, one I could tuck away and hide, one that reveals me as the hypocrite I am, one that will show my students, once and for all, that I am not “better” than they are.
I stereotype people.
Now, of course, that’s not revelatory in any significant way for most of you, but for me, it has been. For years, I have taught about the fallacy of the stereotype in my composition classes, and I have challenged students and friends who use stereotypes to make decisions about relationships or clothing or even where to buy groceries. So to come to this realization about myself, and to own it, well, there’s not just a tiny bit of shame there.
My stereotypes are as often positive as they are negative. For example, I tend to elevate people who are poor as being more authentic, more true than, say, people who are wealthy. Or I can slip into thinking people of color are more wise than white people. (By the way, I hate those language categories – “people of color” and “white.” They fail so utterly, and yet, here, they say what I mean.) On the negative side, I often classify wealthy people as shallow or selfish, or white people as ignorant, sometimes willfully so.
The thing is that none of these stereotypes is fair or good; whether they let me think better of people or worse of them, they ignore the central part of life – the people. I am trying to do better.
Writing this book has challenged me to think beyond my rosy view of enslaved people. When I read that George, an enslaved man, routinely whipped his fellow slaves for reasons, it seems, that often derived from both his need for power and his own alcoholism, I cannot think of all enslaved men as benevolent characters who stood strong and honest through the hundred years of slavery.
Or when I read about Moses being “turned out” , I cannot simply say that his owner was entirely at fault here. Perhaps Moses was guilty of some horror – beating his wife, abusing his daughter. I don’t know; the record doesn’t say. But it’s not fair for me to assume the worst of the master simply because he was the master.
To assume these stereotypes, even when they try to see the best in people, is to overlook the fact these these were people, and in so many ways, this way of seeing is no better than assuming that black people were enslaved because they were inferior in intellect and superior in physical strength. Anytime we label a person based on our thoughts about a group of people we dehumanize them.
So right now, I am actively thinking through how I can take a stand against systems and ideologies that oppress people without ignoring the imperfection and the beauty of every person involved. I’m trying to find my way to words that condemn slavery, racism, and misogyny without making saying that every enslaved person, every person of color, every woman is perfect or ideal and that every person who participates in this system is corrupt and selfish. We are all broken, and we are all loved. It’s hard for me to remember that sometimes.
I’m trying to walk the path where we can all see the redemption of grace. No one needs that more than I do.
How do you stand up against systems that harm and scar and kill while still showing grace and honoring the broken, beautiful humanity of every person involved? I do not ask this question rhetorically. I’d very much love to hear your thoughts on how you journey on this path, where you’ve found success and even failure. Your stories are important to me, so please so share.