What Kind of Person?

Warning: graphic content in this post.

I scan the books on the shelf of my 7 month old’s library, all gifts from family and friends. Most are about animals, but the two below feature people—specifically, people of colour. I am reading them a lot more to my daughter these days when Black Lives Matter has moved to the front of white people’s minds.

Like many white people, I am asking myself what can I do? Now that I am a mom, I feel a heavier responsibility to do something because I am raising a child in this world and the question of what kind of person I want her to be is no small thing. I think the answer is hidden in the question: A kind person. An empathetic person. An authentic, courageous, compassionate, and self-aware person. I can read my daughter stories and give her dolls/toys of people with different types of bodies: Black bodies, Asian bodies, Indigenous bodies, disabled bodies, etc. Apparently as young as three months old, babies start showing a preference for the race that matches their caregivers. My husband and I took a trip to Kidsbooks the other day to address the gap in our daughter’s library. I am thankful we live in a diverse neighbourhood of Vancouver where we interact with different races. I am teaching her to wave to people we walk by. Babies are great at breaking down barriers.

While my husband and I need to educate our daughter about racism, I also need to educate myself and reflect on my own covert racism. To be honest, I haven’t known where to begin the past several days. And not because there isn’t ample information out there. There is. I’ve bookmarked webpages with resources by Black authors such as this one and have felt overwhelmed in choosing a starting point. And then I felt immediately guilty, because what a privilege: that I have the luxury of deciding whether or not to educate myself on racialized experiences when it’s a daily lived reality for people of colour. I read Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race after hearing her speak at the 2018 National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Seattle, and that was the first time I really thought about my privilege: white, middle class, educated, stable family, etc. and how this plays a huge role in how society treats me over someone who doesn’t have these privileges. After the protests broke out in the US following George Floyd’s death, I wondered what to do now.

My starting point happened last night, and rather unintentionally, I will confess. My husband gave me a book for my first Mother’s Day. It only arrived the other day and has been sitting on our coffee table. It’s called Motherhood: A Confession by Natalie Carnes who’s a professor at Baylor University. This book converses with Augustine’s Confessions. Carnes wonders how that seminal piece of writing for Western Christianity would have been different if it was a mother writing it instead of a man. I picked up her version last night and began reading.

She addresses her daughter in the first part. I am in the midst of writing a poem to my daughter and easily slipped into Carnes’s hopes, fears, and concerns that the birth of a child elicits in a mother, particularly the desire to protect your child from the suffering of the world.

I see that there is domination, at least, in my own dissipation, that my attempt to suffer for you is also an attempt to control your life by limiting its exposure. The temptation to save you from suffering can express a lust for domination and yearning for control over what is ultimately uncontrollable. The domination of diffusion derives from the illusion that I can absorb the world for you and so by my love create for you a painless world. ‘What madness,’ as Augustine writes, ‘not to understand how to love a human being with awareness of the human condition!'”

Natalie Carnes, Motherhood: A Confession, p.65

What kind of person does Carnes want her daughter to be? The kind that resists racism, patriarchy, and injustice. And so she talks about exposing her to an ugly piece of local history where they live in Waco, Texas. She tells the story of a young Black man named Jesse Washington who was lynched in front of the courthouse in 1916. Wait a minute. I’ve been to that courthouse. At this point, I put the book down, get on my computer. Yes, here it is. You may even remember that I shared this picture on a previous post about Waco.

McLellan County Courthouse in downtown Waco. Photo by author.

I stood near the spot where a 17-year-old Black teenager accused of murdering a white woman whom he worked for was beaten, chained, stabbed, dismembered, dragged, and finally hung and burned alive on a tree while a mob of 10 000 white people watched and cheered.

Lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, 1916. Photo by Fred Gildersleeve from the Texas Collection at Baylor University.

This Guardian article shows more pictures and the text of the original story that ran in a monthly magazine put out by the country’s oldest civil rights organization called NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

I felt sick to my stomach. Not just for what happened, but for my ignorance. I remember walking up to the courthouse to read about it because I was interested in its architecture.

What irony, eh? “Seat of justice…” Photo by author.

Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any sign in the area that addressed Jesse Washington’s lynching. And why would the City want to remember this death at their hands? It’s an act of erasure—white people wiping out Black bodies and memories. And I feel guilty because I visited the city as a tourist, consuming this site like any other. What would my posture have been if I had gone to remember, to pay respect? I wish I had known this story prior. I like to think it would have changed the way I moved through the city. And how was I to know if our cities don’t tell the (whole) truth, even if it’s unpleasant and inconvenient? This article describes efforts to have the lynching remembered; Waco has made strides to do so in recent years, though I am still uncertain if there is a marker at the site. A Black man who shares Jesse Washington’s name has been advocating for it and documents his story here.

Also on my previous post about Waco, I shared this postcard image from 1911, a piece of City marketing to attract residents to move to Waco after it had earned a bad reputation for crime in the 19th century.

Found on Wikipedia, sourced from the University of Houston Digital Library.

The figures imitate George Seurat’s 1884 painting La Grande Jatte. How do you reconcile this image with Washington’s charred body hanging from a tree six years later?

As Andrew Belonsky writes in the above Guardian article, the NAACP used racists’ images of Washington’s lynching—which were bought and shared like trading cards—to awaken their country to the horror. Not unlike Emmett Till’s mother in 1955. Her 14-year-old son was abducted, tortured, shot, and drowned in a Mississippi river after a white woman in a grocery store claimed he grabbed and propositioned her (which she later admitted was a lie). Carnes tells this story and I am back on the internet, researching another Black life that was brutally ripped away. The body was so mutilated, Emmett’s mother only recognized her son by a ring he wore.

Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother, beside her son’s casket in Chicago in 1955. Chicago-Sun Times via AP

Let the people see what I’ve seen.

Mamie Till-Mobley

She insisted on an open casket. The image of her dead son (graphic image warning) was pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks said when she was asked to give her seat up for a white person on the bus, she remembered Emmett and that gave her the strength to resist. Who else had an open casket recently? George Floyd.

By the way, Emmett’s family is still waiting for justice. After 65 years. His two killers were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. They’re dead now, but the grocery store woman, Carolyn Bryant, is still alive. Read the story in The Guardian, published this spring.

In the nature of Carnes’s honesty, I too want to confess. I didn’t know the names of Jesse Washington and Emmett Till before. I didn’t even know about lynching had it not been for my husband reading Black theologian James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which I’m going to read next. Approximately 3000 Black men were lynched between 1885 and 1915. That’s a staggering number.

My evening of reading didn’t turn out at all like I expected. Upon going to bed, I said to my husband with a weary voice, “I hate your country.” And the guilt came back, because of course my country, Canada, is no better, as this Huffington Post article reminds me. Racism and erasure happen here too. Slavery happened here. A vibrant Black community in Vancouver once lived and worked in Hogan’s Alley, before urban planning displaced it. I was talking with a friend the other day and we were trying to recall if we even learned about residential schools in our public education. How many places in Canada have I visited without knowing or remembering the atrocities that took place on their soil? What pictures have I seen in history books that don’t tell the truth? This one comes to mind:

The Last Spike, 1885. Photo courtesy Alexander Ross, Library and Archives Canada

An elderly white man hammers the last nail into the Canadian Pacific Railway in Craigellachie, BC, surrounded by other white men, when it was mostly Chinese men (about 15 000) who built this trans-continental railway in the 19th century and received half of what their white co-workers earned. And though they were invited to come from China, they then had to pay the Chinese Head Tax to immigrate here with their families. And then there’s the Japanese Canadian internment camps, Komagata Maru, the missing and murdered Indigenous women, the recent deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Chantel Moore involving police, the violent beating of Indigenous chief Allan Adam by RCMP, and the list goes on. Sigh.

A last confession before ending this: I was scared to publish this post. Scared of saying the wrong thing. Scared of repeating things that have already been said and by much smarter voices. But worse, scared of saying nothing. And so even though I don’t have a big platform by any means, I want to use what I do have to share my journey of self-reflection and education to be a better anti-racist. We all have a journey to go on to help dismantle systemic racism, to inform ourselves, to be people of kind character. It starts with you and me. It starts now if it hasn’t already. And writing makes it more real, helps keep me accountable to committing and continuing to learn. Thanks for reading, friends.

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