How a white girl learned white supremacy in a liberal suburb of Rochester, NY: A love letter to white Rochesterians
Update: I was interviewed on WXXI about this post. Check out the radio segment here.
My love for Rochester runs deep. I endured 18 long gray winters there in the 1980s and 90s (BHS class of ‘98!), delighted in many magical snow falls, and slept in sleeping bags lined up with my younger brothers and parents by our fireplace during the ice storm of 1991. I cherished the sounds of cicadas on warm summer days, buzzing in the grand old trees off of East Avenue. I spent every Christmas Eve singing carols at the end of Nunda Blvd, I enjoyed getting dressed up for bat mitzvahs, I smoked cigarettes as a young teenager on Cobbs Hill (though I probably wished I was doing that much more often than I actually was), I laughed and barfed on the rides at Seabreeze, and I bought my first tapes (Pearl Jam) and CDs at Fantastic Records.
When I learned of Daniel “Rell” Prude’s murder by Rochester Police District officers, the news hit me in the gut. As I’ve watched the news unfold about Daniel, and the RPD’s cowardly and violent response to peaceful protests day after day, I’ve been reflecting from my home in Atlanta, and talking with my family and Rochester friends about what’s happening. I haven’t lived in Rochester for more than 20 years, but it will always be my first home. I’ve cycled between rage and sadness and numbness as I’ve followed the stories of unjust Black death since Michael Brown’s murder in 2014. This time it is my hometown on display for the world to see, as another place where cops and mayors are unwilling to account, and another place where Black life is treated as disposable.
I left Rochester at age 18, with no self awareness about my whiteness, no education about the system of white supremacy, and no skills to name dynamics of race and racism that were happening all around me and inside my own body. Now, at age 40, I am a white antiracist facilitator and consultant to nonprofit and other organizations across the U.S. Getting here has been a very slow and intentional process of unlearning what I was taught during those first 18 years of my life about race.
My parents moved us from the city of Rochester to the adjacent suburb of Brighton when I was five, so that my younger brothers and I could go to “good schools.” I didn’t question this choice as a young person. Brighton sent scores of kids to Ivy League colleges every year, and the way I see it now after knowing more about other peoples’ public and private school experiences across the U.S., is that going to Brighton Public Schools was kind of like going to private school for free. As a curious kid, I was consistently challenged and stimulated by my schooling there. But looking back, it’s very clear to me that “good schools” was code language for whiter schools. Most of what children learn about how we are expected to behave is from what we observe the adults around us doing or not doing, far more than the words they say. The message I took in as a child was that as a white kid, I deserved to go to highly rated schools with more kids who looked like me. And conversely, that the city schools where most of the Black kids went were inferior schools not meant for kids who look like me. No one said it so plainly. But I got the sense that this arrangement was unfortunate, but somewhat to be expected, maybe even normal, and certainly not unjust or something we could or should do something about. I was not educated about what led our neighborhoods to be so segregated, by race and class. I was not educated about the laws and unjust structures that kept wealth concentrated in the area’s white suburbs like Brighton and Pittsford. It was known as a fundamental truth--Brighton schools were the best around. In fact, our schools were “so wonderful” that there was a program that bussed Black students from the city to our schools. This is how I learned to associate good with white, and bad with Black. This is how I learned antiBlackness.
The message got reinforced as I got tracked into advanced and then AP classes and saw that only one or two of my Black classmates got tracked along with me. And that is how I was not taught to see my Black classmates as brilliant; and how I was taught to associate smart with white (and sometimes Asian too). Is this making you uncomfortable to read? Are you breathing a sigh of relief to hear someone admit the truth? It’s embarrassing and also freeing for me to write; I aim to name these subconscious beliefs explicitly because I know it is impossible to uproot poisonous beliefs if we can’t admit they exist. While there are many things I loved about my experiences in Brighton, I would not now say that I received an excellent education. An excellent education would have been one in which, even if demographics stayed the same, the adults had taught us to question why our schools and neighborhoods were so segregated by race, and had taught us to break our allegiance to white supremacy.
Despite the racial diversity of my classes in Brighton (yes, there were Black kids, Jewish kids, Russian kids, Chinese kids, Indian kids, and more) I do not recall any talk of race or of systemic racial injustice by my teachers at Brighton Public Schools. If I am truly honest about it, I know that us white kids whose families were not recent immigrants were meant to feel, and most often felt, that these schools were ours, that we belonged there, and that the kids we saw as other (because of skin color or accent or class status) were somehow lucky to be there. These differences were often tolerated, but being tolerated can be insulting. Sometimes they weren't even tolerated.
Consider your own experiences at home, at school, at church or synagogue as a child. What did you observe the adults around you saying or not saying, doing or not doing, related to race? What messages did you take in about your own race and the races of other people as a result? What conclusions did you draw from these experiences?
I know that if I hadn’t been doing the work and unlearning I’ve been doing over the last 20 years, I could be watching this news of Daniel Prude’s murder and the ensuing protest and think “what does this have to do with me?” It has everything to do with white middle and upper class folks like me who were raised in Rochester and who live in the Rochester area who avoid taking responsibility for the racist systems we (materially, at least) benefit from, and who adhere to the system of white supremacy which exists for the purpose of “preserving white peoples’ comfort, wealth, wellbeing, and embodied sense that [we] are the supreme standard of what it means to be human.”
I also know that I was taught at home and at school to trust the police, to see police as people who would protect me and people like me. There was an implied message underneath that, since I grew up in the 80s during the War on Drugs, that the media and government put a lot of money into brainwashing us into seeing our young Black peers as dangerous and criminal. How do these false beliefs live in the RPD today, unconscious or conscious? Why is it so much easier for us white folks to presume the best intentions of the cops and to assume it was Daniel who made a misstep, than to see the full humanity and dignity of Daniel Prude? Why is it such a big leap for us to support efforts to substantially reduce the budgets of our police departments? I know from my work consulting with nonprofit and government agencies across the U.S. over the last decade, that the origins of each institution sets their culture. Culture is the hardest part of an organization to change--it’s the way people do things, what people value, what gets rewarded, what gets punished. American police forces were founded to protect white wealthy people and their “property”, to criminalize poor folks, and to trap Black folks who escaped enslavement and return them to their white enslavers to be brutalized further. Our current system of policing will continue to impact Indigenous and Black communities with the highest rates of police murders as long as the current system stays in place.
White Rochesterians, I love you. I love us. I believe in us. The legacy of white supremacy can end with us if we choose to make it so.
White folks tend to teach each other that being good people means not talking about race, not seeing race. I was taught a version of history and current events that made it easy to draw the conclusion that people had what they had because of what they deserved. These falsehoods set up white children to grow up to be white adults who patronize Black people, disrespect Black peoples’ leadership, and run companies and institutions that preserve and increase white wealth while exploiting Black labor and Black communities. These falsehoods set up white children to stay silent in the face of racial injustice, to not be willing to question the validity of policing, and to defend racist policies.
Rochester is a place with memorable seasons. This September 2020 will go down in the history of Rochester for 12+ days of consecutive action in the streets and occupation of City Hall, spurred by the news of Daniel Prude’s murder going public and amidst a national era of proBlack uprisings during COVID-19. In 20 years, what stories will be told about this time in Rochester? What will you tell your grandchildren when they ask you how you showed up during this time? In particular, what risks and actions are you taking to support and amplify the racial justice work of the Black organizers on the ground in Rochester? One thing I have learned from Alicia Garza and other Black leaders is that ending white supremacy is white peoples' work to do. I’ll say that again: ending white supremacy is white peoples' work to do. White people created the structures and institutions that keep the system of white supremacy in place. We can play a role in interrupting and ending racism and white supremacy in our homes and families, in our workplaces, in our own minds, and in the city of Rochester. We need to play this role en masse. We’re late. The time is now.
If you love Rochester, as I do, please consider:
2020 is a choice point. Each of us has more opportunities to show up than we realize. How am I showing up? How are you showing up?
Jen Willsea is an Atlanta-based queer mama, sewist and dreamer living on unceded Muscogee territory and on a Civil War battle site, with settler colonial ancestors who left Holland and England in the 1600s to claim Haudenosaunee and Wampanoag land. Her personal antiracism journey began almost 20 years ago as a young activist. For more than a decade, Jen has guided groups across the U.S. to strengthen their social and racial justice work--as a facilitator, coach, consultant, and organizer. She is recognized in Atlanta and across the U.S. as one of the most highly skilled white anti-racist facilitators of our time. People know Jen as open, warm, strategic, reliable, and unwavering in her commitment to living with integrity and in community to build a future beyond white supremacy. In partnership with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color colleagues, Jen supports leaders and multiracial organizations across the U.S. to deepen their antiracism commitments and skill by leading racial affinity groups, multiracial antiracism sessions, and long-term antiracist organizational culture change. Jen also supports white leaders and groups to break allegiance to whiteness, unravel white conditioning, and co-create white anti-racist culture and practices. Find out more: www.jenwillsea.com.
862 people showed up for the event I hosted today along with my dear friends on Zoom Webinar: Internalized Whiteness in the U.S. Southeast. I will be sitting with and processing what it felt like and what happened for quite some time. Some folks asked for my opening remarks / the moment of silence I led. Here is what I opened the call with (please do not use this text without attribution):
Please join me in a moment of silence. I honor all of the Black people whose deaths are the unjust result of white supremacy this week, last week, and over the last 400 years. Because we, the hosts of this call, are in a place we now call Atlanta, Georgia; I honor all of the people of African descent who were enslaved, brutalized, forced into convict leasing and sharecropping on this land which was looted from the Muscogee/Creek people to make space for white land ownership and wealth hoarding. I honor all Black life because Black lives are dehumanized every single day here in Atlanta, Georgia, across the continent and the globe. I honor Ahmaud Arbery, one of the most recent Black people to be murdered here in Georgia. I honor Santiago Baten-Oxlaj (BAH-ten Oak-LAHJ), who died in Georgia’s Stuart Detention Center unnecessarily due to COVID-19. I acknowledge the harms perpetuated daily here in Atlanta, known as “the South’s Black mecca”--these include viral videos of white high school students with guns in Decatur, failure of local philanthropic institutions to move financial resources to Black-led and Black liberation work, and white folks trying to control or censure the way that Black folks are choosing to show their rage right now. I ask you to say to yourself the names of other Black, indigenous or people of color whose lives you honor right now.
I honor Black women of the U.S. Southeast who have led antiracism work and fought for freedom over the last 400 years. I know that none of us would be here, on this call today, with anything valuable to share with you if we had not been called into this work by and learned at the feet of Southern Black women.
This week has been deemed A Week of Action In Defense of Black Lives by the Movement for Black Lives. And two black music executives, Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, have deemed today as Blackout Tuesday.
Please spend at least an hour later today, listening to Black leaders (it’s not enough to come here and listen to white folks).
A quote from Mattice Haynes (read the whole statement at www.theblackmeccaproject.com): "Dear Beloved Black Atlantans, The system isn't broken, it is operating precisely as it was designed to. It's designed to demonize us, dehumanize us, exploit us, and kill us to preserve white peoples' comfort, wealth, wellbeing, and embodied sense that they are the supreme standard of what it means to be human."
More white people now than ever, perhaps, are talking about and interested in racial justice in the U.S. We are visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama; we are reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility; we are “woke.” And yet, in my work as a racial justice educator, I see white leaders of nonprofits, businesses, health and education departments struggling the most to look inward when it comes to race. Perhaps it’s easier to own the privileges we experience as white people because those are about how we are treated by systems and by other people. But to be open to seeing the ways in which the way I lead, the programs I have developed, and the relationships I have with people of color may be tinted by my own racial biases; this is where I see a lot of resistance from white people. And I empathize. I feel icky every time I use the phrase “internalized white superiority.” It’s shameful and embarrassing. And I use this phrase purposefully in my work. While none of us were born with racist ideas or beliefs, we begin to internalize them as toddlers by observing what is happening all around us.
Ok, so what is internalized white superiority? I think a lot of people are more familiar with internalized inferiority for people of color as one of the many ways racism works. I’d like to challenge white folks who are wondering, “What?! How could I possibly have that?! I love the people of color in my life--my friends, family members. I absolutely do not believe that white people are better in any way than people of color.” In a racist society, everyone internalizes racist beliefs to some degree.
A simple way to define internalized white superiority is as the beliefs, thoughts, and assumptions (of white people and cultures as better than other racial groups) that live inside of my white body and my white brain, which influence my actions.
You might think of this like a spectrum. Internalized white superiority is everything from people on the one extreme, “I believe white people are superior to people of all other races” to people on the other extreme, “Of course I do not believe that white people are superior; I am not racist!!” although in reality I do believe this on a subconscious or unconscious level and I act according to those beliefs daily. These dangerous and false racist ideas were invented approximately five centuries ago by Europeans.(2) They need not go unchecked any longer.
This is a list of ways that internalized white superiority often shows up. I compiled this list from multiple sources including dRworks and Robin DiAngelo, and from my own experience:
Ok, so that’s a lot to digest. For some personal stories about how this shows up, listen to this interview with me. All of these are learned beliefs and behaviors; all of them can be unlearned and replaced. It is on us, as white people, to undo internalized white superiority in ourselves, our institutions, homes, and communities. We must not wait for or rely on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to explain it to us or to see it for us. Learning to see the ways in which I have internalized beliefs in the superiority of white people and white ways of being/doing further equips me to show up as a white accomplice to Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Why? Because as I learn how I “caught” these messages, I can get better at spotting them when they show up in me and I can get better at uprooting them. This level of antiracism(3) work keeps me humble; it requires building my own stamina internally, for seeing things within myself that I don’t like or want and moving through them to learn and teach myself another way of being.
Take on your internalized white superiority, like you take on anything else in your life that you want to change, by:
Recommended resources for everyone:
1. According to The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, Internalized Racial Oppression manifests itself in two forms: Internalized Racial Inferiority (The acceptance of and acting out of an inferior definition of self, given by the oppressor, is rooted in the historical designation of one's race. Over many generations, this process of disempowerment and disenfranchisement expresses itself in self-defeating behaviors) and Internalized Racial Superiority (The acceptance of and acting out of a superior definition is rooted in the historical designation of one's race. Over many generations, this process of empowerment and access expresses itself as unearned privileges, access to institutional power and invisible advantages based upon race).
2. See Stamped from the Beginning: A History of Racist Ideas by Ibram X. Kendi, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah
3. I draw on Ibram X. Kendi’s work here (How to Be an Antiracist), using the term “antiracism” because antiracism requires proactive daily practice. I agree with Kendi that there is no such thing as “not racist” because in every moment and with every action, we are either colluding with racism or proactively promoting antiracism. He defines an antiracist as “someone who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing.”
“Our grandparents called themselves Christians and sometimes believed they were. Believing it, they were compelled to believe it was morally right for them to hold slaves. They could not say, ‘We shall keep our slaves because they are profitable, regardless of right and wrong.’ A few tough old realists who didn’t claim to be in the Fold probably did say it. But to most, such words would have seemed as fantastic as a confession of their mixed reasons for opposing slavery would have seemed to the Yankees. Our grandfathers’ conscience compelled them to justify slavery and they did: by making the black man ‘different,’ setting him outside God’s law, reducing him to less than human. In a way that would have seemed blasphemous, had they stopped to think, they took God’s place and ‘decided’ which of His creatures have souls and which do not. And once doing it, they continued doing it, and their sons continued doing it, and their grandsons, telling themselves and their children more and more and more lies about white superiority until they no longer knew the truth and were lost in a maze of fantasy and falsehood that had little resemblance to the actual world they lived in.”
--From Killers of the Dream, by Lillian Smith (1949)
Jen Willsea is an Atlanta-based queer mama, sewist and dreamer living on unceded Muscogee/Creek territory and on a Civil War battle site, with settler colonial ancestors who left Holland and England in the 1600s to claim Haudenosaunee and Wampanoag land. Jen is recognized in Atlanta and across the U.S. as one of the most highly skilled white anti-racist facilitators of our time. People know Jen as open, warm, bold, and unwavering in her commitment to living with integrity and in community to build a future beyond white supremacy. Her personal antiracism journey began almost 20 years ago as a young activist. For more than a decade, Jen has guided groups across the U.S. to strengthen their social and racial justice work--as a facilitator, coach, consultant, and organizer. Jen was Senior Associate at the Interaction Institute for Social Change 2008-2018 (IISC is a nonprofit consulting firm that builds collaborative capacity for people and groups working for social justice and racial equity), and Member of the Board of Directors at Resource Generation 2009-2017 (RG is a group that organizes young people with wealth and class privilege toward equitable redistribution of land, wealth and power). After the murder of Michael Brown by a white police officer in 2014, Jen worked with other folks in the RG community to launch and lead the It Starts Today campaign, organizing $1.4 million in funding to more than 100 Black-led groups "organizing for Black liberation" across the U.S. In 2019, Jen worked in a white accomplice role to help launch The Black Mecca Project, which cultivates the conditions for Black liberation and self-determination in Atlanta, Georgia, a city known across the globe as a “Black mecca” that has yet to fully live up to that promise. Jen’s work is motivated by a love for humanity and the earth, and a belief that white people can and must transform ourselves if we are to end white supremacy and participate in a future in which people of all races can thrive.
On Juneteenth 2019: Will the U.S. seriously reckon with anti-black racism and commit to reparations for enslavement?
I started my day by listening to the House Judiciary subcommittee's congressional hearing on the topic of reparations for slavery. This is the first hearing in over a decade on the topic of #reparations for HR-40, which has been introduced for over 30 years in Congress and dismissed every time. You can watch today's hearing in its entirety here: https://cs.pn/2Rog2nI. It should be noted that some reparations were made to Japanese-Americans to account for the internment camps during WWII, but no reparations have been made to the indigenous people of Turtle Island or to African Americans.
Since moving to Atlanta from Boston in 2014, I've been in an ongoing practice of learning more about enslavement, and the legacies of violence as well as movements for liberation that permeate the soil and the air here and across the Southeast. The more I learn, the more I realize I was purposely not taught. The more I learn, the more viscerally I am able to absorb the truth.
Ta'Nehisi Coates and Katrina Brown were two of the witnesses at today's hearing; I think their comments are worth reading in entirety along with the opening statement of Rep. Steve Cohen:
YESTERDAY WHEN I ASKED ABOUT REPARATIONS, MITCH McCONNELL OFFERED A FAMILIAR REPLY: "AMERICA SHOULD NOT BE HELD LIABLE FOR SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED 150 YEARS AGO SINCE NONE OF US CURRENTLY ALIVE ARE RESPONSIBLE." THIS REBUTTAL PROFFERS A STRANGE THEORY OF GOVERNANCE THAT AMERICAN ARE COUNT TO THE LIFETIME OF ITS GENERATION. WELL INTO THE CENTURY THE UNITED STATES WAS STILL PAYING OUT PENSIONS TO THE HEIRS OF CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS. WE HONOR TREATIES THAT DATE BACK SOME 200 YEARS DESPITE NO ONE BEING ALIVE WHO SIGNED THOSE TREATIES. MANY OF US WOULD LOVE TO BE TAXED FOR THE THINGS WE ARE SOLELY AND INDIVIDUALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR. BUT WE ARE AMERICAN CITIZENS AND THUS BOUND TO A COLLECTIVE ENTERPRISE THAT EXTENDS BEYOND OUR INDIVIDUAL AND PERSONAL REACH. IT WOULD SEEM RIDICULOUS TO DISPUTE INVOCATIONS OF THE FOUNDERS OF THE GREATEST GENERATION ON THE BASIS OF LACK OF MEMBERSHIP IN EITHER GROUP. WE RECOGNIZE OUR LINEAGE AS A GENERATIONAL TRUST, AS INHERITANCE AND THE REAL DILEMMA POSED BY REPARATIONS IS JUST THAT, A DILEMMA OF INHERITANCE. IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO IMAGINE AMERICA WITHOUT THE INHERITANCE OF SLAVERY. AS HISTORIAN ED BAPTIST HAS WRITTEN, ENSLAVEMENT SHAPED EVERY ASPECT OF THE ECONOMY AND POLITICS OF AMERICA SO THAT BY 1836 MORE THAN 600 MILLION, ALMOST HALF OF THE THE ECONOMIC ACTIVITY IN THE UNITED STATES DERIVED DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY FROM THE COTTON PRODUCED BY THE MILLION ODD SLAVES. BY THE TIME THE ENSLAVED WERE EMANCIPATED. THEY COMPRISED THE LARGEST SINGLE ASSET IN AMERICA. $3 BILLION, MORE THAN ALL THE OTHER ASSETS OF THE COUNTRY COMBINED. THE METHOD OF CULTIVATING THIS ASSET WAS NEITHER GENTLE CAJOLING NOR PERSUASION, BUT TORTURE, RAPE AND CHILD TRAFFICKING. ENSLAVEMENT REIGNED FOR 250 YEARS ON THESE SHORES. WHEN IT ENDED THIS COUNTRY COULD HAVE EXTENDED ITS HOLLOW PRINCIPLES, LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS TO ALL REGARDLESS OF COLOR. BUT AMERICA HAD OTHER PRINCIPLES IN MIND. AND SO FOR A CENTURY AFTER THE CIVIL WAR, BLACK PEOPLE WERE SUBJECT TO A RELENTLESS CAMPAIGN OF TERROR. TERROR. A CAMPAIGN THAT EXTENDED WELL INTO THE LIFETIME OF MAJORITY LEADER McCONNELL. IT'S TEMPTING TO DIVORCE THIS MODERN CAMPAIGN OF TERROR, OF PLUNDER, FROM ENSLAVEMENT WITH THE LOGIC OF ENSLAVEMENT OF WHITE SUPREMACY RESPECTS NO SUCH BORDERS AND THE GUARD OF BONDAGE WAS LUSTFUL AND BEGAT MANY HEIRS. VA PROGRAM VA VAGRAN VAGRANCY LAWS. McCONNELL WASN'T ALIVE FOR THE APPOTAMOX. HE WAS ALIVE TO WITNESS THINGS IN ALABAMA AND ELECTORAL THEFT. MAJORITY LEADER McCONNELL CITEDCIVIL RIGHTS LEGISLATION YESTERDAY AS WELL HE SHOULD BECAUSE HE WAS ALIVE TO WITNESS THE HARASSMENT, JAILING AND BETRAYAL OF THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT LEGISLATION BY GOVERNMENT SWORN TO PROTECT THEM. HE WAS ALIVE FOR THE RED LINING OF CHICAGO AND THE LOOTING OF BLACK HOMEOWNERS OF SOME $4 BILLION. VICTIMS OF THEIR PLUNDER, ARE VERY MUCH ALIVE TODAY. I AM SURE THEY WOULD LOVE A WORD WITH THE MAJORITY LEADER. WHAT THEY KNOW THAT THIS COMMITTEE MUST KNOW IS THAT WHILE EMANCIPATION DEAD BOLTED THE DOOR AGAINST THE BANDITS OF AMERICA, JIM CROW WEDGED THE WINDOWS WIDE-OPEN. THAT'S THE THING ABOUT SENATOR McCONNELL'S SOMETHING. IT WAS 150 YEARS AGO. IT WAS RIGHT NOW. TYPICAL BLACK FAMILY IN THIS COUNTRY HAS ONE TENTH THE WEALTH OF A TYPICAL WHITE WOMEN. BLACK WOMEN DIE IN CHILD BIRTH AT FOUR TIMES THE RIGHT OF WHITE WOMEN. THE DESCENDANTS OF THE ENSLAVED MAKE UP THE LARGEST SHARE OF IMPRISONMENT. THE MATTER OF REPARATIONS IS ONE OF MAKING AMENDS AND DIRECT REDRESS BUT ALSO A QUESTION OF CITIZENSHIP. HR-40 THIS BODY HAS A CHANCE TO MAKE GOOD ON ITS 2009 APOLOGY FOR ENSLAVEMENT AND REJECT FAIR WEATHER PATRIOTISM SO SAY THAT NATION IS BOTH ITS CREDITS AND DEBITS. THAT IF THOMAS JEFFERSON MATTERS SO DOES SALLY HEMMINGS. IF D-DAY MATTERS SO DOES BLACK WALL STREET. IF VALLEY FORGE MATTERS SO DOES FORT PILLOW. THE QUESTION REALLY IS NOT WHETHER WE'LL BE TIED TO THE SOMETHINGS OF OUR PAST BUT WHETHER WE'RE COURAGEOUS ENOUGH TO BE TIED TO THE WHOLE OF THEM. THANK YOU.
Katrina Brown, producer and director of "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North"
I GREW UP IN PHILADELPHIA SIX BLOCKS FROM INDEPENDENCE HALL AND THE LIBERTY BELL. I'M A DEEP SEATED PATRIOT. SO IT WAS DEVASTATING TO LEARN FROM MY GRANDMOTHER AT AGE 28 THAT OUR ANCESTORS HAD BEEN SLAVE TRADERS. AND TO DISCOVER THAT THEY WERE IN FACT THE LARGEST SLAVE TRADING FAMILY IN UNITED STATES HISTORY BRINGING OVER 12,000 AFRICANS TO THE AMERICAS IN CHAINS. THAT THESE WERE MY RHODE ISLAND ANCESTORS. AND THAT RHODE ISLAND TURNS OUT TO BE THE STATE THAT SENT MORE SHIPS TO AFRICA THAN ANY OTHER, REQUIRED ME TO RE-ORGANIZE MY BRAIN. THE AMNESIA IN MY FAMILY MATCHED THE LARGER AMNESIA OF THE NORTH. THE SELF-SERVING MYTHS OF ALWAYS BEING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY. I COULD NO LONGER CARRY A SENSE OF MORAL SUPERIORITY RELATIVE TO WHITE SOUTHERNERS NOR A SENSE OF INNOCENCE VIAS-A-VIS THE HISTORY. WHAT WE LEARNED, HOW WE STUMBLED, HOW WE GREW DURING THAT JOURNEY LED ME TO BECOME A PASSIONATE BELIEVER IN THE IMPORTANCE EVER RECKONING WITH THE HISTORY AND LEGACY OF SLAVERY. A BELIEVER IN PERSONAL AND FAMILY RECKONINGS, INSTITUTIONAL ONES AND LARGER NATIONAL RECKONING. AND WITH THAT, IN THE NEED FOR REPAIR OR REPARATIVE ACTION. I EXPRESS WHOLE HEARTED SUPPORT FOR HR-40 AND I MET COUNTLESS PEOPLE OF ALL BACKGROUND WHO BELIEVE IN THIS NATIONAL EFFORT AS WELL. I KNOW THERE ARE MANY WHO STRENUOUSLY OBJECT TO THE PREMISE THAT WE NEED THIS RECKONING. THE PUSH BACK I HEAR MOST OFTEN IS THAT'S YOUR PROBLEM GIVEN YOUR ANCESTORS, BUT IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. IT'S UNDERSTANDABLE THAT PEOPLE DISTANCE THEMSELVES. I'LL FOCUS ON TWO REASONS. ONE, MOST OF US LEARNED A DISTORTED HISTORY OF SLAVERY IN SCHOOL. SO AS WHITE AMERICANS MOST OF US DON'T REALIZE OUR CONNECTION TO IT. SECOND, THERE'S A NATURAL INSTINCT TO AVOID THAT WHICH CAN BRING FEELINGS OF SHAME ABOUT OUR PEOPLE, ABOUT THE COUNTRY THAT WE LOVE. TO ADDRESS THE FIRST ISSUE HERE'S A QUICK RUNDOWN OF HISTORICAL FACTS I HAD NOT BEEN TAUGHT. THAT THE NORTH WAS DEEPLY IMPLICATED. THAT SLAVERY WAS LEGAL IN NORTHERN STATES FOR OVER 200 YEARS. THAT NORTHERNERS UP AND DOWN THE ECONOMIC SPECTRUM MADE THEIR LIFE'S LIVINGS AND BUSINESSES TO THE SLAVE TRADE. THE MIDWEST AND THE WEST WERE IMPLICATED. THEY GREW FOOD TO FEED THE SOUTH WHERE LAND WAS DEVOTED TO CASH CROPS LIKE COTTON, HARVESTED BY THE ENSLAVED. CONSUMERS THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY WERE IMPLICATED IN THEIR EVERY DAY PURCHASES OF CLOTHING, COFFEE, SUGAR, RICE, TOBACCO. PEOPLE WHO IMMIGRATED FROM EUROPE AFTER SLAVERY WERE IMPLICATED. I HAVE IRISH, FRENCH AND GERMAN IMMIGRANT ANCESTORS WHO CAME TO THE UNITED STATES IN THE 19th CENTURY. WORKED IN FACTORIES. STRUGGLED. THEY WERE GIVEN ACCESS TO THE AMERICAN DREAM. WHY WERE WAVES OF IMMIGRANTS FLOCKING HERE? BECAUSE IT WAS THE LAND OF OPPORTUNITY. WHY WAS THE ECONOMY BOOMING? WHY WERE THERE JOBS? BECAUSE IT HAD BEEN BUILT LARGELY ON UNPAID LABOR. ONCE HERE EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS GOT TO SYSTEMATICALLY LEAPFROG OVER BLACK FAMILIES WITH DEVASTATING CONSEQUENCES UP TO THE PRESENT DAY. SO SLAVERY BUILT THE NATION. IT TURNED US INTO AN ECONOMIC POWERHOUSE DUE MOSTLY TO GOOD FOLK WHO PARTICIPATED IN MUNDANE WAYS AND LOOKED THE OTHER WAY. NOW FOR THE SECOND BIG REASON FOR PUSH BACK AGAINST THIS BILL. THE EMOTIONS THAT IT STIRS UP. AND I WOULD SPEAK DIRECTLY TO MY FELLOW WHITE AMERICANS ON THIS. FIRST, FEAR NOT, THOUGH IT'S COUNTER INTUITIVE I'VE SEEN OVER AND OVER AGAIN THE LIBERATING POWER FACING THIS PAINFUL PAST. SECONDLY WHITE PEOPLE IMAGINE BLACK PEOPLE ARE ANGRY AT US BUT IN MY EXPERIENCE BLACK AMERICANS DON'T BLAME US FOR THE DEEDS OF BY GONE ANCESTORS, BUT ARE RIGHTFULLY ANGRY THAT WE DON'T JUST DROP THE DEFENSIVE OR THE SELF-ABSORBED GUILT AND SIGN UP TO WORK WITH THEM SHOULDER TO SHOULDER TO TACKLE THE LEGACIES THAT ARE STILL WITH US. THIRD, WHEN WE LET GO OF DEFENSIVENESS OR GUILT WE CAN GET TO A HEALTHY AND SHARED GRIEF WHICH OPENS THE DOOR TO ASSOCIATE, SACRED, RESPECTFUL, CREATIVE CONVERSATION ABOUT HOW TO MAKE THINGS RIGHT. THERE ARE SCORES OF ORGANIZATIONS THAT ARE ALREADY ABLE TO ATTEST TO THIS, THE POWER OF THIS WORK. THEY KNOW, I KNOW, THAT THE PROCESS THAT A COMMISSION WOULD HELP THE COUNTRY EMBARK UPON CAN BE A TRANSFORMATIVE THING FOR THE COUNTRY AS A WHOLE, A BEAUTIFUL THING. IT IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL OF A PERSON, A PEOPLE AND OF A NATION TO SET THINGS RIGHT. THANK YOU.
Rep. Steve Cohen, co-sponsor of HR-40
TODAY IS JUNE 19, A DAY THAT COMMEMORATES THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY IN TEXAS AND MORE GENERALLY THROUGHOUT THE CONFEDERACY. THE NEWS WITH THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION DID NOT REACH TEXAS FOR TWO YEARS SO ALL ENSLAVED PEOPLE KNEW THEY WERE FREE DESPITE LINCOLN'S EMANCIPATION. SLAVERY WAS A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY, ONE WHOSE IMPACTS WE AS A SOCIETY CONTINUE TO GRAPPLE WITH TODAY. THIS YEAR MARKS THE 400th ANNIVERSARY OF THE FIRST AFRICAN SLAVES BEING BROUGHT TO AMERICA. SLAVERIES OF OUR NATION'S FIRST ORIGINAL SIN. OUR CONSTITUTION PROTECTED IT AND VARIOUS COMPROMISES THAT GAVE POWER TO SLAVE STATES. FOR EXAMPLE, THE CLAUSE COUNTED AS THREE FIFTHS OF A PERSON FOR POPULATION COUNTS. THEY WEREN'T CONCERNED PERSONS BUT PROPERTY. THAT IN TURN GAVE DISPROPORTIONATE REPRESENTATION TO HOUSE SLAVES. THE CONSTITUTION ALSO CREATED THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE, SYSTEM OF ELECTING THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES AND GAVE SLAVE STATES ANOTHER AVENUE TO EXERCISE DISPROPORTIONATE INFLUENCE OVER NATIONAL AFFAIRS. IT IS ONLY FITTING, THEN, THAT WE SHOULD HOLD A HEARING ON THE COMMISSION TO STUDY AND DEVELOP REPARATION PROPOSALS FOR AFRICAN-AMERICANS ACT. MY COLLEAGUE WO IS IN ANOTHER HEARING, SHE'S HERE WITH US. MEMBER OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE IS THE CURRENT LEAD SPONSOR OF THIS LEGISLATION AND I'M PROUD TORT A CO-SPONSOR WITH HER ALONG WITH THE FULL COMMITTEE CHAIR JERRY NADLER. BUT THE GREATEST CREDIT FOR HR 40 BELONGS TO TWO INDIVIDUALS. FIRST AND FOREMOST, MR. JOHN CONYERS. MR. CONYERS IS A FORMER COLLEAGUE AND CHAIRMAN OF THE HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE, A GREAT AMERICAN AND A GREAT LEADER. ONE OF MY MENTORS. ONE OF THE REASONS THAT I HAVE INTRODUCED THIS RESOLUTION WITH HIM SINCE 2007. HE INTRODUCED IT FIRST 30 YEARS AGO. HE REINTRODUCED IT EVERY CONGRESS THEREAFTER UNTIL HIS RETIREMENT. THE SECOND INDIVIDUAL MOST RESPONSIBLE FOR HR-40 IS SADLY BUT IN REALITY JOHN WILKES BOOTH. HIS ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT LINCOLN LED TO ANDREW JOHNSON BECOMING PRESIDENT AND PRESIDENT JOHNSON EFFECTIVELY RESCINDED THE PROMISE MADE BY GENERAL SHERMAN TO FORMER SLAVES THEY WOULD EACH GBE GUARANTEED 40 ACRES OF LAND TO MAKE A LIVING AS A FREE PERSON. BUT BECAUSE OF THAT DAY OF APRIL 12 OF 1865, IT DIDN'T OCCUR. IT WOULD CREATE A COMMISSION TO STUDY THE HISTORY OF SLAVERY IN AMERICA IN THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS TO SUPPORT SLAVERY. OTHER FORMS OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST THE DESCENDENTS OF SLAVES AND SLAVERY AND JIM CROWE ON AFRICAN-AMERICANS. IT WOULD MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS AS TO APPROPRIATE WAYS TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC ABOUT FINDINGS AND APPROPRIATE REMEDIES. AN HONEST RECKONING WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT'S ROLE IN PROTECTING THE INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY HAS BEEN A LEADING PRIORITY IN MY CONGRESSIONAL CAREER. IN TO 2007 MY FRESHMAN YEAR, LESS THAN TWO MONTHS INTO THAT TERM, INTRODUCED HR-194, A APOLOGY FOR ITS ROLE IN PERPETUATING SLAVERY AND OFFSPRING OF JIM CROW. THE HOUSE ULTIMATELY PASSED THIS RESOLUTION BY VOICE VOTE AND ONCE AGAIN THANK CHAIRMAN CONYERS FOR GETTING IN A VOTE AND GETTING IT TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. AS I NOTED IN MY RESIDENT LOUGS THEN, IT WAS NOT JUST SLAVERY THAT WAS WRONG, BUT ALSO THE VISCERAL RACISM AGAINST PERSONS OF AFRICAN DISSENT. THAT WENT ON TO BECOME ENTRANCED IN THE SOCIAL FABRIC AND AN EVIL WE MUST CONFRONT TODAY. CAN WE GET THAT DOOR CLOSED? THANK YOU, SIR. MY RESOLUTION EMPHASIZED WHILE SLAVERY WAS THE ORIGINAL SIN OF ANTIBLACK RACISM WITH THE CIVIL WAR AND 13th AMENDMENT AND CONGRESS'S INACT ACTION IN THE FACE WAS A BIG REASON WHY. RACISM BECAME ONLY FURTHER ENTRINCH EDED AS REFLECTED IN SOCIETAL ATTITUDES, A SYSTEM OF RACIAL SEGREGATION LAWS AND CREATED SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL SOCIETIES FOR WHITES AND AFRICAN-AMERICANS, ONE THAT WAS ENFORCED THROUGH OFFICIAL MEANS AND THROUGH LYNCHINGS, VIOLENCE, INTIMIDATION AND DISENFRANCHISEMENT. NOT UNTIL 10 YEARS AFTER0 YEARS DID CONGRESS UNDER PRESSURE FROM DR. KING AND OTHER CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS FINALLY CARRY OUT ITS DUTY BYPASSING A CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964. THAT ARE FULFILLING THE GUARANTEES OF EQUAL PROTECTION FOR ALL. TODAY OUR NATION CONTINUES TO STRUGGLE WITH THE LEGACY OF THE ANTIBLACK RACISM AND SLAVERY IN JIM CROWE. WE SEE THIS IN STATISTICS THAT PAINT A BLEAK PICTURE. 21.2% OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS LIVED IN POVERTY. THAT'S OVER TWO TIMES AS MANY. THE CENSUS BUREAU REPORTED IN 2015 THE NET WORTH OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HOUSEHOLDS WAS $13,000. WHICH WAS LESS THAN 10% OF THE NEARLY $140,000 NET WORTH OF WHITE HOUSEHOLDS. LIMITED ACCESS TO WEALTH BUILDING RESOURCES AND OPPORTUNITIES HAVE LED TO THIS DARK DISPARITY. AFRICAN-AMERICANS CONTINUE TO FACE DISCRIMINATION OF THE WORKPLACE, THEY HAVE LIMITED ACCESS TO EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES ACCORDING TO THE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, THE HIGH SCHOOL EDUCATION RATE, GRADUATION RATE FOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN WAS 67% COMPARED TO THE NATIONWIDE AVERAGE OF 81%. AFRICAN-AMERICANS ALSO CONTINUE TO FACE RACIAL SEGREGATION IN HOUSING AND DISCRIMINATION AND THE AVAILABILITY OF HEALTH CARE SERVICE AND MOST OTHER MAJOR FATSCETS OF LIFE. AN ACTING HR-40 WOULD BE AN IMPORTANT STEP IN FINDING LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEMS ONCE THEY CAN TRACE THEIR ORIGIN TO OUR SHAMEFUL HISTORY OF SLAVERY AND ANTI-BLACK RACISM. AS THE DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR CHARLES OGLETREE ONCE NOTED, THE CONCEPT OF REPARATIONS IS NOT MADE PAYMENTS TO INDIVIDUALS BUT A FOCUS ON THE R POOREST OF THE POOR, INCLUDING EFFORTS TO ADDRESS COMPREHENSIVELY THE PROBLEM OF THOSE WHO HAVE NOT BENEFITTED FROM INTEGRATION OR AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. I HOPE OUR HEARING TODAY CAN LEAD TO FRUITFUL CONVERSATIONS WITH THE AIM OF ACHIEVING THAT GOAL.
This is the first year I haven’t joined family or friends for a giant meal of turkey and more. It gave me an opportunity to be quiet, to move slowly, and to prepare a simple meal for my little family. A few friends stopped by for a bit, and that was lovely. I wanted to host a gathering that included food, friends, time, and a ritual to honor the stolen land we are on. It didn’t work out that way. This year this day has me wondering…
What is Enough? How might I honor the abundance present in my life and in our imperfect struggling world, and root in an even deeper knowing that I am enough, that there is enough, that we are enough? Nourishing a culture of abundance* rather than of scarcity is what I wish for, is one thing I know challenges oppression and cultivates liberation. A culture of abundance is not a culture of gluttony or of greed. And yet, there’s nothing wrong with eating lots of turkey and pie and mashed potatoes if that brings joy. That usually brings me joy. I just like noticing abundance in the less obvious places.
In yoga class this morning, Shonali asked us to notice and appreciate what is tender within each of us, and to move into our warrior pose from there. My power is more powerful if it comes from my place of tenderness. She also reminded us that when we open to let our energy of groundedness (when we have it) spread to others around us, we are also open to receive that energy from others when we need it. We are interconnected and I am learning more about what that really means. We are porous, we are strong together. We have the abundant ingredients we need to build a beautiful future together.
What does it look like to honor the land I live on? The first step is learning about whose land it is and how it was stolen. I live on Muscogee/Creek land. Most of the Muscogee/Creek people who were living here in the 1700s and early 1800s were forced out to make room for the expansion of enslavement westward from the Georgia coast. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Trail of Tears a few years later were government programs of forced indigenous removal for this purpose. I have a lot more to learn, but this is a start. As a descendent of colonists of Haudenosaunee and Wampanoag land, I want to live in a way that is honest about violence and loss, and that accounts for this history and present-day injustices of land use, property “values” and houselessness alongside extreme wealth hoarding.
I do know that honoring the land and its history has something to do with practicing Enough, Abundance, Interconnectedness with all beings from the microscopic creatures in the dirt in my backyard to my human neighbors. And I know that honoring the land and its history has something to do with uprooting Greed, Extraction, Ego, and Self-Centeredness.
And here’s a short video, The Invention of Thanksgiving, which I saw earlier this year when I visited the National Museum of the American Indian:
*I do not mean material abundance here. Racial capitalism and the culture of white supremacy are built on and depend on the violent extraction of resources from people and from the earth, as well as exploitative material consumerism. So what does nurturing a culture of abundance mean that is not complicit with material consumerism and white supremacy? I don’t have the answer, but this quote speaks to me:
“Modern materialism doesn’t honor the material world — it demeans it. We’re buying things we’ll throw in the garbage in two years. My mother’s washing machine worked for forty-five years. Mine was broken beyond repair after eight. The more avidly we consume, the more we turn material objects into worthless waste. Consumerism comes out of a craving, at the root of which is our dissociation from being. There’s a restless emptiness at our core, an emptiness that has obliterated our sense of “enough.”” -Philip Shepherd in “Out of Our Heads: On the Brain in Our Body”
Originally published at: https://medium.com/@jenwillsea/thanksgiving-prayer-2018-df3789c687fb
The winter solstice is the longest night and shortest day of the year.
It’s an opportunity for me to notice ways I’ve internalized messages that dark is bad and light is good.
It’s an opportunity to celebrate darkness, to sit in darkness, to feel the comforts and discomforts of being enveloped in darkness.
What does darkness mean to me?
The literally darkest experience I have had was sitting in a room-like space in a cave in the forests of Belize. The room had markings and objects from centuries ago, the meanings of which aren’t entirely known. We sat down, turned off our flashlights, and observed a few moments of absolute absence of light. I could see nothing. It was quiet. I knew this place in this cave was important. Being there in complete darkness even for a short while, time didn’t feel the same. It was a little scary. It was magical.
I’ve spent most of my life living in urban places. Looking up at a truly dark night sky peppered by stars as plentiful as grains of sand is something I’ve only seen a couple of times. Seeing the universe lit up by the night was magnificent. It made me feel small in the best way. The night sky I see out of my bedroom window in Atlanta is gray-blue, brightened by city lights. It’s harder to see stars and thus to remember this universe I am part of.
I love sleeping in a very dark room. It feels delicious to be enveloped in the sweet darkness of a cozy warm room, wrapped in blankets, with no distractions including the red and green dots of a TV or some other plugged in thing. To feel the heaviness of my eyelids and body, especially when my overactive mind slows and moves into the rhythm of sound sleep and dreams, is a great gift.
My skin is pale. Where and when did my ancestors start associating dark skin with savageness, beastliness, not belonging, not deserving, less than? They did not do this alone or all at once. It was the exploitative project of whiteness, built over centuries, spanning the Atlantic ocean and growing into a uniquely ugly system on this continent. Believing pale is good and dark is not helps us to feel (superficially) good about ourselves and remain un-implicated in the racial injustices of now and then. I don’t love having pale skin, but I’m trying not to hate my skin or myself. I know many of the ways having pale skin affects my day-to-day life in the U.S.A., though new aspects of this are constantly revealing themselves to me. I know I can simultaneously hate what whiteness means in our society and love myself. I know that I have to love myself in order to be part of the project of racial justice and liberation.
On this day of the year, we make the shift from nights getting longer to nights getting shorter and days getting longer. Each day from now until June 21, we have a few more minutes of sunlight and a few less minutes of night.
Getting less literal and more metaphorical, what are the parts of me that have stayed safely in the shadows so far, but need to come into the light in 2018? Sometimes dark is protection, and light is exposure. Which parts of me are ready to be seen now that weren’t before? What am I ready to see that I was not ready to see before?
Dark is beautiful. Light is beautiful. They both have their time and place in our year, in each day, on this earth. What can we learn from our planet about this that will help us all get free?
Essay originally published at: https://medium.com/@jenwillsea/mediations-about-darkness-on-the-shortest-day-of-the-year-1b6d44a5aedb