Racial relations have played a central factor in the emergence of the United States, a relative youth, among many other nations around the world with much older cultures. Racial relations have historically been defined within a north-south framework, as well as a black-white frame. This is common knowledge and doesn’t take too much figuring out, right? It should be noted that the context of slavery, Jim Crow laws, in the north and the south, the abuse and discrimination towards African Americans has been an in integral part of our nation for about ninety percent of our existence. Consider that mind-blowing fact, and clearly it will most likely bring you to the conclusion that, historically speaking, mostly what we’ve known in the United States is a culture of hostility and hate.
I mentioned that Jim Crow laws were being played out in the north as well. A man who grew up in Buffalo, New York told me once he could remember, as a youth, riding on the bus or the trolley car, when blacks were made to sit in the back of the vehicle. There were signs that repeated this custom. The same kind of ignorant bias was happening in the north as well as the south. Another fact to be witnessed to, is that the largest slave-trading company in the country, the DeWolf family-owned business, began out of Providence, Rhode Island, the DeWolf family’s home city (go to www.tracesofthetrade.org to learn more background about the De- Wolf family and their slave-trading business). The differences between north and south when it came to the ramifications of slavery, show us paradoxical views that fall outside of clean, black-and-white conceptions of the northern and the southern regions of the U.S.
My family had its feet both in the north and south. I suppose I was a sibling of the south, and a nephew of the north. My mother’s family came from Louisville, Kentucky, and my father’s from a farming community in downstate Illinois. My entire life I was traversing between the north and the south, visiting back-and-forth, and involved in social interaction with people from both cultures.
It’s really quite amazing how being from one of these two regions affects our thinking, our emotions, our attitudes, and there are also a plethora of stereotypes that each region has about the other one. My personal bias and social learning conditioning, even though I saw a more country club side of the south, was that southerners were less advanced, less civilized, less intelligent, and more savage in the sense that their life style was developed around hunting, feuding and the eternal "King Cotton." Damn, it was even hard to understand them with their southern drawls and regionalisms.
Visiting the south, however, I also observed the poverty of many African Americans, and their work in subservient positions, jobs, or no jobs. The legacy of slavery in the south is that the largest percentage of wealth, resources, land and property, was the capital of the European Americans of the south. This is still true today, even viewing the possession of capital, wealth and resources, African Americans control wealth at the ratio of 1:8 in comparison with whites.
My understanding of this was experiential. I saw where the maids who worked for my grandfather and grandmother lived—old, run-down, sharecropper houses, small and battered, most living at or below the Federal Poverty Line. As a child, this hurt a lot, because Mary Ann and Katherine loved me, and to see how they actually lived was confusing and had no meaning or apprehension for me at all. How was this just or fair? Why did the white neighborhood I lived in, thirty miles north of Chicago, have so many resources and easily accessible privileges?
For a white boy it made no sense and served up ambiguous incongruity in understanding myself and the world.
When I’d return to Chicago, I saw the same kinds of prejudice, racism, and bias towards African Americans, only dressed up in somewhat different clothing, northern-style. I saw the virulent looks on the faces of whites when Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago to protest the high rents and poor services that were meted out by white slum lords. The white anti-protesters verbally abused and physically attacked the protesters. I remember, as if it were yesterday, the venomous looks of hostility on many whites’ faces that reminded me of the looks on the white faces attending lynchings in the south.
Throughout most of my life, my primary identification with culture was segmented and wrapped up with the one of the north. Perhaps it was a rejection or denial of the dark shadows of the south’s hatred towards African Americans of which I and my family was a colluding part. I blanked it out of my mind for many years, like a blackout gone badly, awaking with no understanding of what happened when I was unconscious. Later as I entered my saging period (in my Fifties), I began reading some of Flannery O’Connor’s works, some say the epitome of the southern author. I also heard about white southern heroes and sheroes who stood up to the poisonous power of racism. They spoke their truths to people who generally didn’t want to hear them, but instead grew more angry, defensive and hostile to their words and actions.
I first began to live and work in the south in 1990, and have lived in the south since that time. People everywhere are very much alike—there are good and bad ones and compassionate and bigoted ones. There are race-driven extremists who will stop at nothing to light their seditious fires enflaming hate and racism whenever and wherever they can. If a vacuum of darkness and ignorance exists, the darkness will seek to fill it. Silence is no way to dismantle racism.
Slowly my southern sentiments and roots grew to the point where my own biases toward southerners began to dissipate and heal. I had a lot of internal bias and bigotry towards the whites in the south that I could blame for our nation's racial afflictions. I will always be a work in progress—this I know. My empathy and compassion for southerners grew up to the point where I wanted to be one of the rescuers (not saviors) and wounded healers gently and with accurate information assisting them to see the flaws in logic racism exhibits; those who see their profoundest wounds are healers, by any definition. Those who see the reasons for past injustices won't be fated to repeat the same mistakes.
© Christopher Bear-Beam October 17, 2013