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NO GENERATION REMOVED
. . . NO PEOPLE A GENERATION REMOVED FROM SLAVERY CAN ESCAPE A CERTAIN UNPLEASANT RAWNESS AND GAUCHERIE, DESPITE THE BEST OF TRAINING.
--"Of the Training of Black Men"
On a brisk autumn day in 1978, my best friend and I ran around the playground during recess, joyfully winded, pushing and pulling, giggling out loud. The fifth-grade class in our small-town elementary school was split into two sections, taught by two different teachers: Mrs. Emerson, known as "the nice one," and Mrs. James, known as "the mean one." My best friend almost since birth, Leah, had Mrs. Emerson, and I had Mrs. James. Recess was the one time that Leah and I were able to play together, and we waited for the twenty-minute break each day for that reason alone.
On this particular day, Mrs. James was the teacher on recess duty. I never thought she was all that bad. I was a good student, engaged and outgoing. As far as I could tell, I was in decent standing with Mrs. James. She could lose her temper, but she'd never lost it at me. After a straight, plain, satisfying game of tag, Leah and I dashed up to the dirt mound that served as a watch point overlooking the playground, where Mrs. James stood. Maybe we wanted to say hello, or to win brownie points. I don't remember. Mrs. James, with her thick hands crammed inside a fur muff and a weighty wool coat buttoned up to her chin as small puffs of visible breath drifted from her broad frame, studied us fixedly.
"You're a very pretty girl, Leah," she said. Indeed a pretty girl, Leah grinned, pleased, her cheeks rosy and taut, her teeth chattering slightly. "And you're very pretty, too, Becky," she said, imparting a clear, frank glance, "for a black girl."
It wasn't the content of what Mrs. James said, as I had no earthly idea what being "pretty, for a black girl" meant. It was her tone, the implication of which very abruptly set out clear and present boundaries as to what was okay to be and what was not okay to be. I was fully aware of having brown skin, but I had never felt inferior because of it. This was the first time in my life that I realized it would close doors to me. Not only close doors but slam them. It felt horrible, and so completely, instinctively wrong. Sure, it was wrong to talk during class, but this, this strange, loaded, and seemingly uniform remark, felt wrong.
In the opening essay of The Souls of Black Folk, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," Du Bois writes of an experience similar in its swift and utter decimation of youthful spirit. In the "wee wooden schoolhouse" that he attended as a child, one who, coincidentally, also grew up in New England, the schoolchildren decide to buy and exchange greeting cards as a way of getting to know one another. "The exchange was merry," Du Bois recalls, until one of the girls refused to accept his card--"refused it peremptorily." It was then that Du Bois realized "with a certain suddenness" that he was different from the other children, and would then forever be "shut out from their world by a vast veil."
In the statement that opens this essay--"no people a generation removed from slavery can escape a certain unpleasantness and gaucherie, despite the best of training"--Du Bois is making specific reference to the odds of lasting success and mainstream assimilation for "Negro college-bred men" in the early 1900s, indicating a kind of self-awareness among them that allowed for an understanding of their limitations, given the context in which they were trying to achieve any success at all. But I thought of the quote more in terms of how slavery has produced this inescapable strain that courses through the veins of every subsequent generation of people--black, white, and other--in varying degrees.
Du Bois's experience and mine demonstrate the remarkable and unsettling ease with which people sometimes express a prejudice that they perhaps did not even cultivate on their own--one that came with them as part of the package they were born with, like a random blood cell or a useless calcium deposit. That said, however, the prejudice Du Bois experienced circa 1875 is less than he would have experienced in 1865, and the prejudice I experienced in 1978 is less than I would have experienced in 1968.
The novel Cane River by Lalita Tademy, based in part on the author's own family history, follows the lives of four black women on the Louisiana River during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The saga begins with Suzette, a thirteen-year-old light-skinned house slave, who is raped by the relative of her master, which then leads to her becoming his mistress and having two children by him. One of her children, a daughter named Philomene, even more light-skinned than her mother, also becomes the mistress of a white man, and so on. Both during and after the abolishment of slavery, each woman continues the pattern of having children with white men, thereby diluting the brownness of their skin, although never the strength of their identities as black American women.
As the plot of Lalita Tademy's novel speaks to the enduring impact of slavery, so too, conversely, does the fact that the novel was chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection in 2001. Oprah Winfrey, both the person and the entity, is arguably as far removed from the vestiges of slavery as anyone in America can get. While her endorsement of Cane River brought attention to the cultural history that bore her and many others, because of her great crossover success and fortune--save her brilliant turn as Sofia in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple and, later, her notable efforts in making the movie version of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, the story of an ex-slave who cannot escape the demons of her past--it is a cultural history with which Winfrey is seldom immediately associated.
My playground, Du Bois's rejected greeting card, and the novel Cane River, while disparate examples in many ways, come together to create a narrative that conveys the shared pain, humiliation, shame, and peculiar evolution of suffering experienced by successive generations removed from slavery.
I would say that no people removed from slavery are able to escape. Not just one generation removed. All people who have slavery in their conscious background cannot escape, which is exactly what I saw happening with the women in Cane River, the women in my own personal history.
One of the things that I did not want to do with Cane River was to write it in such a way that the brutality of slavery could be attributed to physical pain. The heartbreak for the women in this story, which also happens to be true, is not due to beating; it's due to separation--the things that happen to their family, the invasion of their personal selves, and the threat to their children. It's due to not being allowed to form relationships. I didn't want to get lost in the story of coming over from Africa in the hulls of boats, or in what is very well documented everywhere--the physical whippings and beatings and subjugation of slavery. I wanted to show subjugation of the soul.
I have had people challenge me on the characters in the book, and the fact that they are slaves and yet did not get beaten. But far more people have said that they were drawn in by these women and felt a need to understand what happened to them, how they evolved and made a life for themselves. Many people say they had no idea that this sort of constant threat existed at that time--that members of slave families were always a moment away from being separated from one another.
One of the reasons that I wrote Cane River, and why I wrote it the way I did, was because I knew my grandfather, who appears as Emily's son T.O. in the book. And although T.O. looked very white, so much so that he could easily have passed, he never, ever, would have been able to pass in his own mind. Toward the end of the book, after he's gone through such psychological trauma, he decides that the best thing he could do to honor his family's legacy is to marry a darker-skinned black woman. Here was a man who was, by physical appearance, no longer constrained, but mentally the boundaries were still there. He couldn't have escaped the constraint if he'd wanted to. It was not in his being.
I think the inability or ability to escape slave history for black Americans has certainly evolved since the time that I was writing about--the story in Cane River begins in 1834 and ends in 1936--and that, as our options expand, there is more room to explore and struggle in different ways. Traveling around to promote the book and deliver lectures, I've had a considerable number of mixed-race people flock to me to tell me about their individual choices; they talk about their ability to choose who they want to be, which is so very different from being as rigidly defined as black people were a hundred or so years ago, when some felt the need to slip out of their skin in order to have choices. You might have been able to do it by how you looked, but you also had to do it emotionally. And today, that just isn't the case. We're talking about a bell curve, where there are two different tails and people can gravitate to one tail or the other. What I'm saying is that the bell curve is broader than it used to be, and able to accommodate many more diverse behaviors and reactions.
When I was growing up, I knew I had white blood in me, but I actually didn't give it much thought, because my personal upbringing was definitively black. There was no wavering on that, even though my mother looked white, which only meant that when we moved in somewhere, she went to sign the rental papers. Or, if we were driving through the South, she would be the one to do the driving, and the rest of us would duck down in our seats. That was just logistics. It was for practical purposes. She never went to bed white, even if sometimes she didn't volunteer that she wasn't white in order to provide us with what we needed.
It wasn't until we moved into the suburbs, where we were the only black folks, that it came into really sharp relief that we were hated. White folks tried to burn crosses, burn our house down, and there were death threats almost every day. We would go back to our old community on Sundays for church, where we were embraced, but the rest of the week we were hated.
I approached the research of my genealogy as a black woman--I am a black woman--so, yes, it was curious to me when I discovered how much white blood runs through my ancestry. It's interesting, too, because when I first started doing the genealogy work, I was met with incredible resistance by white folks in Louisiana, where I went to try to dig up various records. And now, it is a totally different reaction, in that everyone wants to help me find every branch, and when I give readings in Louisiana, people will stand in a very long line to tell me that we're part of the same family. Certainly the endorsement from Oprah Winfrey makes a difference, but also, I think, it demonstrates a willingness to see beyond what one might have first seen.
In Cane River, strength for these women--the women who bore me--began with one another. These women were not talking about whether to get a Lexus or a Mercedes. They were talking about prioritizing with respect to the real fundamentals of life, and I wanted to give them voice for that reason. Not only did they survive a time that I'm not sure I could have survived myself but they did it with different strategies, and they prioritized in terms of what was truly important. They didn't have twelve priorities, and the priorities they had were not frivolous. And all these priorities centered on the desire to make life better for their family. Today, when I think about where strength begins for me, I know that it began with these women. More specifically, it began with my mother. Her approach was always one of such survival, of making the best of what there was, of controlling the parts of the situation that she could.
When I thought about these women, I thought about myself, and how as a young girl I was walking to school and having people spit on me. To understand these women, I went back to that feeling of isolation and loneliness and tried to remember what it was that allowed me to get up and walk to school one more day. I learned to rely on myself, and I became very self-possessed, because outside the front door of my house was a consistently hostile place.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
|1||No generation removed||11|
|3||A future with promise||33|
|4||To be a problem||42|
|6||Playing with mighty fires||60|
|7||A place in the world||70|
|9||Strive and strive mightily||89|
|10||The question of the future||101|
|11||Frank and fair||111|
|12||The rule of inequality||124|
|15||The most beautiful expression||157|
|16||The preacher man||166|
|17||What soul I will||177|