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Duke University Press Books
Beyond The Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons

Beyond The Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons

by Jane Lazarre


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ISBN-13: 9780822320449
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/13/1997
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.47(d)

About the Author

Jane Lazarre is on the Faculty of Eugene Lang College at the New School for Social Research. She is the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including The Mother Knot and The Mother Knot, both published by Duke University Press.

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Beyond The Whiteness Of Whiteness

Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons

By Jane Lazarre

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Jane Lazarre
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7816-7



To liberate themselves from the curse of racism and the damage it inflicts upon white souls as well as black souls and black bodies, whites must in a sense "become black" must become involved in a process of liberation of the blacks ... in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. — James Baldwin (from an interview in Time, May 17,1963)

[W]e talk about the way white people who shift locations ...begin to see the world differently. Understanding how racism works, [they can see] the way in which whiteness acts to terrorize without seeing [themselves] as bad, or all white people as bad, and all black people as good. Repudiating us-and-them dichotomies does not mean we should never speak of the ways observing the world from the standpoint of "whiteness" may indeed distort perception, impede understanding of the way racism works both in the larger world as well as in the world of our intimate interactions.bell hooks, Black Looks

In 1991 a special traveling exhibit was installed in the Richmond Museum of the Confederacy, a small collection of Civil War memorabilia and records in Richmond, Virginia. The exhibit, entitled "Before Freedom Came," contained photographs, artifacts, paintings, tapes of music and interviews, all pertaining to American slavery. I had come to see this exhibit along with more than a hundred other college teachers from universities across the country, all of us participating in a Ford Foundation grant to "explore multicultural perspectives in higher education," a nationwide effort to diversify college curricula.

I passed by the entrance to the permanent exhibitions on the first floor and headed up the wide staircase to the wing which, for the next several months, would house an addition to Virginia's traditional testimony to the Civil War.

Even after twenty years of living in a Black family, and at least ten years of teaching African American fiction and autobiography, I was not completely prepared for this face-to-face encounter with life-sized portraits of human beings who had been enslaved in the United States of America.

In an autobiographical essay about writing, Virginia Woolf talks about "moments of being" — transforming and often suddenly conscious experiences when what she describes as the cotton wool of daily life is unexpectedly parted, and behind habits of ordinary consciousness one senses a truth, a pattern, as Woolf puts it, a perception of "what belongs to what." As I understand such moments, one does not experience a sudden conversion out of nowhere, proverbial veils falling from the eyes. Rather, changes long in the making coalesce. They slowly take shape in semiconscious alterations of perspective, inchoate shifts one may be aware of only as vague discomfort, accumulations of small pieces of knowledge instantly "forgotten" or buried again, each time less fully, so that they surface with increasing frequency. And these changes of consciousness are often accompanied by the perception of a broader social context to one's own particular experience. Understanding where in the world your experience belongs enables you to know, or acknowledge, that it exists.

I had such an experience in the Richmond Museum that October day several years ago. More than twenty years before, in 1969, soon after I married Douglas and became a member of a Black American family, I became pregnant and, in the innocent, exultant power of the first day of a first and wanted pregnancy, I realized that I — my body and self — was no longer exactly white. Yet, I was still maintaining a determined color blindness common to whites and in those days certainly necessary for me. Race does not matter, will not matter for my child, I told myself, adhering by habit to the principle I had been raised with by the Jewish American radicals who were my family and early teachers.

But during the next twenty years I would undergo a transformation of consciousness as defining as any I have ever known. So, it was not that I came to understand the facts and implications of American slavery for the first time that day in the Richmond Museum. This would not have been possible for me, living in a Black family for so many years as I raised my sons from infancy to young manhood, all the while studying works by African American writers. Nevertheless, confronted with a sequence of rooms which recorded in stark, powerful visual images the story of American slavery, the pattern of my experience came into sharp and explicit focus. I saw my country, its history, and therefore myself differently, a difference that in key ways would change the way I saw everything and therefore the way I lived.

The first room contains large photographs of African Americans who worked as slave labor on southern plantations and farms. I stare into the faces of men, women, and children, their brows deeply knitted, dark eyes communicating grief and rage, a knowledge of human evil so unmitigated, all capacity for innocence seems instantly swept away. The only other place I've seen this expression is in photographs of concentration camp victims or, more recently, in television images of displaced refugees of starvation and war. Their eyes seem to warn me that I am about to see what they have seen, sights I cannot possibly anticipate in my imagination.

In a portrait off to the left, a young man is dressed in a suit and tie; he plays an accordian, an instrument usually associated with the pleasurable mood of parties and folk dancing. But his eyes are thick with sorrow, a deep misery which must be grotesquely contradicted by the lilting tones of his accordian. Had he grown up with no parent to care for him? Had he watched his wife beaten and raped, his children sold? Suddenly, I am seeing the ridges of scarred flesh from repeated whippings across his back, beneath the formal black jacket he wears. He is identified only as the slave of the southern general Robert E. Lee.

My mind is crowded with the voices of writing students over the course of many years talking about the crucial importance of personal voice, and of the connections between voice and naming one's own experience, naming the self; the importance of naming; of names. Here is the slave of Robert E. Lee, I believe I whispered out loud. And he has no name.

I am magnetized by his eyes. I feel something familiar and dark open inside me — a state of heightened awareness which always seems to involve the entwining of my own life with something outside of myself. I cannot know this "slave of Robert E. Lee" nor certainly claim his experience which is so different from my own. And yet in some way long known to me as a reader and writer of fiction, I am beginning to imagine his story, even to feel, perhaps, a sense of his suffering. I am aware of the dangers of presuming too much, yet I do not want to relinquish the burden of this connection, this "imaginative identification." This phrase, used by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, means, I believe, our capacity to understand and feel the suffering of another even though we have never experienced that particular suffering ourselves. Imaginative identification is intensified — it matures, so to speak — as one comes to know oneself more and more fully. For me, this has always been the task of autobiographical writing, the pursuit of an ever-stronger link between what Achebe calls "self-discovery and humane conscience."

Now I recall a recent evening when I was listening to a background of radio news as I cooked dinner. I heard a short special report on the life of Robert E. Lee, marking some historical occasion related to the Civil War. Hearing the valorizations and respectful descriptions of his character, I vaguely remembered elementary and high school lessons in American history in which the leader of the Confederate army was depicted as a great American and a great general, a depiction which always posited as secondary, even parenthetical at times, his relation to slavery. And I thought, we — white Americans — neither see the reality of slavery in our history, nor acknowledge the meaning of Black Americans living for centuries in "our" country. (My original family has been in this country for two generations. I am first generation American. Yet the phrase "our country" comes more easily to me, less packed down with potentially explosive contradictions, than it would to my husband and children.) If we focused on the fact that Lee owned slaves and fought for slavery, would we find ourselves in a historical mudslide, a confusion of collective identity too paradoxical to endure? Almost all of our founding fathers owned slaves, after all. What would making that reality a central one to the study of American history do to our sense of ourselves as a democracy? The stakes are high; we would have to engage in historical revision of the most pervasive kind, at the very least to recognize the stunning moral ambivalences we can apparently deny, the moral paradoxes we can abide. How might our children feel about great men who accomplished much for democracy and military history, yet owned human beings, if the emphasis of that sentence were turned around in their lessons. He enslaved other people and fought for the system of slavery to continue, although he was also a great general.

What do I, a Jewish woman, feel if Germany valorizes Nazi generals, no matter how brave and dedicated they may have been? I do not admire them as inspiring heroes who, on the side, devised elaborate plans and techniques for destroying human beings in numbers of torturous and efficient ways. Hearing such portraits of German military genius, or stories of fatherly devotion, I am disgusted, outraged: I know which is the more important truth. Listening to the profile on the news, for a moment I became my sons, Black Americans listening to the story of an American hero, Robert E. Lee.

As I make my way through the museum gallery, passing before the large photographs which cover nearly an entire wall, I hear my footsteps on the marble floor, the sound bringing back other, beloved museums: walls and walls of Van Goghs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, where I suddenly realized, as if never before knowing what I must have known, that a painting about death can also be a painting about yellow and blue. That moment of exhilaration serves now as a harsh contrast to the series of portraits of field and house slaves, adults and children standing in front of the slave quarters or sitting cross-legged in the grass, staring full-faced into the camera. These are the faces of my children's ancestors, the generation of my husband's great-grandparents. One "house slave," a fair-skinned woman, has straight, dark hair pulled back into a neat braid or bun. Her high-necked, tight-bodiced dress suggests the English fashions of the times, but her eyes convey the immobilized shock one sees in the eyes of a recent mourner who can not yet take in what she knows to be true. Intentionally, I do not check the dates or place but rather imagine she is Sophie, grandmother of Lois Meadows-White, my mother-in-law and friend.

By the time Lois was five, her own parents were dead, and she frequently stayed with her grandmother in a one-room shack in Trenton, North Carolina. From the newspapers which lined the walls for insulation during the often cold North Carolina winters, the grandmother practiced reading with the young child. "How come you can read, Gran-mammie?" Lois asked, old enough to understand that reading by one so old was completely unusual, a fact that merited amazement even to a six-year-old. The answer, which Lois has told me she would not comprehend for some years, was: "Because I lived in the house."

It seems relatively easy to distinguish the house slave in the photograph by her dress and carefully arranged hair. The "field slaves" are dressed in looser, shabbier clothes, the women's hair wrapped in turbans and scarves, or cut short, tiny curls shaped to the head in a style we might today call an Afro or a natural. The women "in the house" tend to have braided or rolled hair; straighter, pulled tightly away from neat parts, more like "white hair," and they have fairer skin, obviously the result of white paternity.

Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, elected vice president in 1836, had two daughters, Adaline and Imogene, whom he failed to claim because their mother was a Black woman, a slave. In a political cartoon done at the time, someone presents the two girls to him at an official gathering. He recognizes his children, but is horrified at the public unmasking. As he turns from them, holding his head in his hand, the two girls, dressed in the flowing gowns worn by the upper classes of the time, present him with a portrait of their mother.

South Carolina's "leading man of letters," William Gilmore Simms, in his Morals of Slavery, defended the accepted practice of rape of Black women as a "beneficial institution because it protected the purity of white women by allowing slaveholders to vent their lust harmlessly upon slave women."

"Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women," wrote Harriet Jacobs in the classic slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. "Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own." She is speaking of rape and the selling away of children.

A young white boy leans comfortably against the shoulder of his "Louisiana Nursemaid," her eyes conveying that by-now-familiar grief which can easily be mistaken for emptiness. Was her own child sold away, perhaps, replaced by her "young charge" because her child's features too closely resembled the master's? Or was her child's father a field slave whom she loved, child and husband separated from her because their color was dark brown, their place on a lower rung of the ladder of relative humanness?

How can I escape the weight of this so recent history when a Black woman who does not know me encounters me on the street, at a meeting, or party, obviously attached to a Black man? I feel neither guilt nor regret nor any sense of personal defensiveness for my choice of a husband. An obsessively self-conscious person, I am very clear about the deeply rooted origins which tied me for life to this person, and these roots are unquestionably more defining than racial or cultural differences. And of course, I know many Black women who are not bothered by white women coupled with Black men in particular cases, friends of mine, members of our family, who accept me fully as an individual. But there is also a social context and history to any personal decision or act.

I go to a party honoring a good friend who has recently been promoted to an important position. He is Black. His wife is white. I know these two people well and, as with my own marital history, I know they fell in love with each other as individuals. I even know them well enough to think I can begin to imagine the specifics of spirit and personal history that drew them to one another. I do not doubt the complete authenticity, the humanity beyond race, of their attachment as I never doubted that same authenticity in my nearly thirty-year attachment to Douglas. Yet, as I wind my way through the crowded party, held in a splendid apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, full of progressive leaders in government, social agencies, the arts, I see numerous "interracial" couples, all Black men and white women. There are Black women there too, of course, and they seem to be with Black men or on their own. My personal experience, however unique, is also part of a historical process, a broader narrative framing my individual story, not completely defining it nor even, perhaps, substantially changing it, but touching it, affecting it. We do not exist outside of history, our lives uncomplicated by what came before.

I return my attention to the center of the large gallery, where I turn slowly as the portraits begin to ebb and flow like some rhythmic sea, swaying toward me, then back against the walls, and I feel engulfed by faces which seem alive for a moment, reflections of spirits no longer confined to two-dimensional space. I walk past large paintings, then black and white photographs of people occasionally named: Omar ibn Said, a Muslim brought to South Carolina as a young man; he fled, was apprehended and attracted attention by writing in Arabic on his prison walls. More often the identification is simply: "unknown Africans," and for a moment's relief from these faces whose names and histories have been lost, I begin to look around at the other visitors standing beside me.

Except for our mixed group of teachers and professors, nearly everyone is Black. Like me, many carry small journals in which they jot down quick notes, shaking their heads in disbelief or despair at this record of human depravity and degradation. Overheard conversations invoke contemporary works of fiction, especially Beloved by Toni Morrison, that great novel about the dark heart of American history. "Even Frederick Douglass' narrative of his life in slavery and his escape does not prepare you for the visual shock," I hear someone say. Many other people write nothing, simply look, people who seem to be from various walks of life — teachers, I imagine, or nurses, civil service workers, housecleaners, parents. Young people on an assignment from school gather in small groups as all of us participate in this double witnessing: we, the late-twentieth-century witnesses to the faces of the original witnesses. We do not see what they see, but in their eyes we see the evidence of what they see.

A heavy-set, muscular Black man wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, several books tucked under his arm, his hands folded tightly across his stomach, stares for a long moment at one group portrait and asks, "Incredible, isn't it?" I answer, yes, feeling deeply relieved by this tiny moment of connection. Tears fill my eyes, until the faces around me, visitors and photographs, blur slightly, as though a fine rain has suddenly begun to fall, and I am terribly, visibly, shamefully white. It is a familiar feeling, one I often experience in the company of Black people when questions involving race and racism arise. How to speak? Anything said by a white person, still living the legacy of it all so intensely, seems gratuitous and presumptuous.


Excerpted from Beyond The Whiteness Of Whiteness by Jane Lazarre. Copyright © 1996 Jane Lazarre. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue xiii

1. The Richmond Museum of the Confederacy 1

2. Color Blind: The Whiteness of Whiteness 21

3. Passing Over 53

4. Reunions, Retellings, Refrains 99

5. A Color with No Precise Name 125

Notes 137

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Beyond The Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
the book was excellent. white people don't realize that they are almost 'invisble' and are not usually aware of their color but black people (at least in the us) are constantly being reminded that they're 'different.' that was the most eye-opening part in the book for me.