By Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead
In 1642, 312 years before the beginning of the modern Civil Rights era, the first documented Black protest happened in this country. Eleven enslaved men and women petitioned for and won their freedom and land from the Council of New Netherland (later renamed New York). Since then, as laws began to be enacted designed to restrict our rights, we have continued to organize, petition, fight and die for our freedom. We know what it is like to have to face the full power of Whiteness and not be moved or cowered into defeat. It is important to note that the desire to be free—to be equal and to be unrestricted in movement and opportunity—has always been present in this country, in the hearts and minds of Black people. Struggle is as much a part of our American experience as racism and Whiteness, the twin cousins of White supremacy that flow from and into one another. White supremacy is exhausting. It is dangerous, and it is frightening. It as a thread that is woven into the fabric of our country and even if we pull on it, unless we are willing to pull the entire fabric apart, we will never be free from it.
In the past week alone, we have had multiple reminders of how tightly stitched the fabric is and has always been: from mourning the Charleston Nine (it was four years ago this week, they were murdered in their church by a White supremacist) to watching videos of police officers pulling their weapons on unarmed Black men, women and children. It is painful, but it is a part of the lived experience of what it means to be Black in America during a time when Whiteness is being coddled and protected. As a researcher and a Black woman, I am often struck by the unique ways that Whiteness is used as both a shield and a battering ram. It happened during my father’s generation as they fought to integrate this country, and it is happening now during my son’s generation as they are fighting to make Black lives matter to everyone.
In the past month, I conducted an unofficial poll asking nonpersons of color whether they were aware of or familiar with any racial oppression in the United States within the last 100 years. I found that, across the board, the only racial moment that felt comfortable talking about was the March on Washington. Many of them mentioned Black Lives Matter, and when I asked them to elaborate, they were unable to do so. They went through a litany of names and slogans (from “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” to “I Can’t Breathe”) but they could not talk about where the movement was now, what it had accomplished, or why it was still relevant. What is interesting that if we just do the math, 100 hundred years ago, we were living in a country where there was legal segregation. Throughout the South, Black and White folks were separated and were reminded daily that one race was superior, and the other was inferior. It was as simple as a porcelain water fountain vs. a stone one; eating on the inside of a restaurant vs. ordering your food from a backdoor in the alley; and, paying your money and getting on the front of the bus vs. paying your money at the front door and then getting off and getting back on at the back door. At the same time, when you look at today’s landscape, from Charlottesville to Ferguson, so much remains unchanged.
White supremacy is at the heart of all that remains unchanged and, in some ways, unchallenged. It is the thread that for so long has been used to hold this country together. It is what we are fighting against even if we cannot name it. It is that sinking feeling that black and brown folks get when something happens where they are denigrated or overlooked or ignored, and they cannot verbalize what happened, but they can feel it, in every cell of their body. In the last 100 years, we have seen people leaning in and forcing this country to live up to the creed laid out in our foundational documents. We have seen people willing to die or go to jail or be ostracized or blackballed because they are drawing a line in the sand and saying not anymore, not on my watch.
We have seen changes over the last 100 years, changes that have worked to either completely end oppression or push it back. We need to understand that these changes happened because folks were willing to lean it; they were willing to bend their privilege; they were willing, to be honest, and admit that oppression and racism exists – even if it is not happening to them. Dr. King in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” said it best: I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klan, but the White moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
When someone says that there has not been any racial oppression in this country or that White supremacy has ended, everyone with a pen and a voice must speak out because as James Baldwin reminds us, history is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead ([email protected]; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #Blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the organizer of the “In Defense of Ourselves” curriculum. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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