By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
As someone who grew up in Jim Crow South Carolina, my father likes to call himself a survivor. He looked White supremacy and racial hatred in the eye, and though he has not won, he wants to note that he has not lost, not yet. When I was in college, I asked him why he was convinced that he had not won. He said that winning, for Black folks, would only come when we could walk anywhere in this country and not be concerned that the color of our skin could mean the end of our life.
My father remembers the days when they called him “boy” even though he was a man, of being dismissed and overlooked even when he followed the rules, and of hearing his mother cry when she realized that he had decided to fight back and not give way. Those types of decisions, he would say, are best made once you realize that you are willing to die to be free rather than live in fear under the thumb of whiteness. My father’s family carried pistols and shotguns whenever they rode into town. My grandfather used to sit on a pillow, and his pistol would be underneath, on the right side, in case he needed to grab it in a hurry. His sons, my father’s brothers, would have shotguns on the floor near their feet. Nobody ever said it, but everybody knew that if the Klan confronted them, they were prepared to meet their Maker, standing up and fighting back.
Such was the reality of living in a southern county where performative Whiteness manifested itself through the law and daily acts of random domestic terror against Black people. It was not unusual for Black women to have a kaffeeklatsch, sharing horrific tales of lynchings and cross burnings over sweet potato pie and integrated coffee. It was not uncommon for Black households to keep an open Bible on the coffee table and a loaded shotgun at the door. My grandmother knew how to shoot. She knew how to steady her shoulder and set her arm so that her hands never wavered. She grew up on a farm, way down South, so she knew how to pick cotton, twist off a chicken’s head, grab her shotgun, look white terror in the eye, and not look away. My father once told me that the best time to plant a tree was 50 years ago, and the best time to decide to fight against Whiteness was five minutes before the Klan showed up. Such decisions, he would say, must be made before you see the White sheets out your front window.
My father was 12 years old when they murdered Emmett Till in Money, Miss. He remembers how his mother and all of the women at the church were weeping and wailing during Sunday church service. What kind of men, the pastor intoned, could look a boy in the eye and then torture him to death? How much effort would it take for us to love the hell out of White people’s hearts and minds? My dad said the murder of Emmett Till changed everything. After that, Black boys were taught by their parents, who wanted to keep them alive, not to look White women in the eye, not to speak first, and not to be too excited once you spoke. It was the act of bearing witness to his friends learning how to give way that strengthened my father’s resolve to fight. If I was going to die at the hands of Whiteness, he told me, I was prepared to do it standing up, with my shotgun in my hand and a steely resolve in my eye. The summer before they heard about Emmett Till, my father said my grandmother used to sing a song around the house when she was cleaning up. He said she kept her voice real low, but sometimes when she thought she was alone, she would sing loud enough to catch the words: Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. He said those were the days when she would ask his father to check the shotgun, and she would then tell the kids not to leave the front yard. Black boys, my father would say, should be able to roam free, explore and see the world, walk along with their friends and dream aloud. We can never say that we have defeated Whiteness until this happens.
A few weeks ago, amid the worldwide protests for justice for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, I called my father. We sat in silence, for a long time, on the phone. I told him that I did not know how to move forward and let my sons, his grandsons, fight for Black Lives and against Whiteness during a global pandemic. I felt stuck. The best time to decide to fight Whiteness, he reminded me, is five minutes before the Klan arrives. I have been thinking a lot about my father, his life, his words of wisdom and his decision to fight. He raised me to be a fighter. He taught me to speak first, look folks in the eye and be myself when I do it. I am the tree that he planted all those years ago. Before he hung up the phone, he said that the second-best time to fight Whiteness is right before you see the White sheets out your front window. You must fight and let them fight until we win or until we meet our Maker. In either case, we will do it standing up and fighting back.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #Blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. Recently selected for the Essence Woke 100 List, she is the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons. She launched #BlackCovidStories as a way to archive our stories about Covid-19. She is sheltering in Baltimore with her husband and their two sons.