White people and ‘our blacks’
The New York Times ran a story the other day about race in Rick Perry’s small Texas hometown, in which the following quote appeared:
“We weren’t integrated nearly as rapidly as the North,” she said. “But we’ve always had a different relationship with our blacks than the North has, too. It’s often been said, and I think it’s true, we love them individually and kind of distrust them as a group, whereas in the North, they don’t want to get too close to them individually but they embrace them as a group.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, with amusing understatement:
I guess. I tend to think that in a town where “our blacks” is an actual phrase, integration will tend to go slow.
Well, yes, he’s right about that. TNC goes on to say that the Texas woman’s statement shows “that white and black Southerners generally come from the same seed, and are entwined in a way, the black and white Northerners are not.” TNC says his wife is taking a class on racism and intellectual thought, and is “amazed” to discover that early scientists argued that black people were a separate species, while slave owners (!) argued for the slaves’ humanity. Says TNC: “It makes a strange kind of sense. The slave-owners were surrounded by blacks. They weren’t just sitting around examining skulls.”
I like reading TNC because he really works hard to go deeper in exploring issues of race and history in America, versus simply emoting and attitudinizing, which is the attitude of so many commentators across the racial spectrum. As a native Southerner, I can tell you that the complicated relationship — emotional, spiritual, psychological, and so forth — between Southern blacks and Southern whites (and, with the Creoles of New Orleans, among Southern blacks) is almost beyond the ability of the rationalist Northern mind to comprehend. It is dark and mysterious, terrible and sometimes beautiful, more the sort of thing for a novel than a scientific abstract.
TNC’s remark about “our blacks” brought to mind a story from my own past, in which I committed a journalistic sin in covering up unintentional racism for the sake of the common good. More after the jump.
The year was 1994, and I’d been living in my hometown in the Deep South for the winter. I heard about a tiny black Baptist church in town that had been ordered to destroy its building and get off the Rosedown Plantation property — this at the command of the plantation’s new owner, an out-of-town businessman. As news spread of the threat to the church, the community united, white and black, to save it; the building was a modest, modern red-brick building, but the congregation it served had been continuously on that property since their slave ancestors were first converted to Christianity in the early 19th century. The New York Times wrote a story about the controversy. Excerpts:
On the surface, the majestic Rosedown plantation house, perhaps the most famous antebellum home in Louisiana, and the tiny Rosedown Baptist Church, most of whose 90 members are descended from the slaves who built the house, don’t share much more than a name and some common soil.
But often the surface does not tell very much about life in a place like St. Francisville, which is about as Old South as it gets. Just ask the out-of-town businessman who bought the plantation and is now trying to evict the church, bringing down the wrath of an unlikely alliance whose most visible members are black parishioners and white dowagers.
“This is heinous, it’s dastardly, it’s so unkind and reprehensible I don’t know what else to say,” fumed Elisabeth Dart, president of the West Feliciana Historical Society. “It’s morally indefensible to attack a church, and a small church at that. White, black, green, purple, it doesn’t matter.”
Since Rosedown was built, the plantation had belonged to only two families until last month, when it was sold to Gene Slivka, a businessman from Townsend, Ga. He made an immediate impact, telling members of Rosedown Baptist, which sits on a tiny slice of the 2,000-acre plantation well away from the main house, that they would have to move. They had six months to demolish the church building and put a black fence around its adjacent cemetery, which they would no longer use.
“He came and told us the church is the people, not the building, and we would do just as well elsewhere,” said the Rev. Lafayette Veal Jr., pastor of Rosedown Baptist and son of its previous pastor. “But for us, this is like when Moses walked up to that burning bush, and the Lord told him to pull off thy shoes for the ground you stand on is holy ground. This ground here is a sanctuary. It’s holy ground.”
Now, I should say that the Times came down because I phoned their Atlanta bureau and got them interested in it by faxing them a copy of a story I did about the controversy. It was my story that got the publicity ball rolling, and that ultimately caused enough public pressure that Slivka relented. I say that not to praise myself, but to put what I’m about to tell you in context.
As I was reporting the initial story, I interviewed a local white woman who had taken an active role in defending the church. She could have sat on the sidelines, but she didn’t. She had, and has, a good heart, and couldn’t stand to sit by and let her poor black neighbors suffer. When she spoke to me, she used the phrase “our blacks,” or “our Negroes,” can’t remember which. That little phrase disclosed a paternalism that I perfectly well knew was common in her generation of white people — she was older than I, of course. It was so common that you wouldn’t think a thing of it, and you certainly wouldn’t be aware how objectionable others would find it in this day and age.
If I had been Peter Applebome of the New York Times and gotten that quote from a white woman active in the fight to save the black church, I would have used it. The phrase tells so much about the complexity of this story, and of life in the South. It was by no means a “gotcha” quote; in fact, it was a quote that told a more complete truth about this situation. He would have been absolutely justified in using it. But I wasn’t a disinterested outside observer; I was a temporary resident of this town, and someone who was anxious that this little church not be bulldozed by the outsider. I knew that this white woman had a good heart, and meant well, and had no idea how her words would sound to outsiders, or even to her black neighbors. So I didn’t use that quote, because I didn’t want to embarrass a good woman who meant no harm by it, and I didn’t want it to become a point of division in the struggle to save the church.
I guess that was a journalistic sin, but I’m not really sorry for it.
It is interesting, though, to think about how alien that phrase sounds to white people of my generation, raised in the same town. We went to integrated schools; the older white lady had been educated and acculturated by segregation. The basic social fact of our encounter with blacks was egalitarianism. I don’t mean that things were in fact equal, but that the baseline for whites like me was that we were all going to the same school, and had the same opportunities. However misguided and unrealistic this may have been, the point is that even though my generation didn’t have the same degree of racial suspicion and animosity as our forebears did, we also didn’t feel the same sense of obligation to the local black community. If you had told us that only 10, 20 years earlier, black kids and white kids went by law to separate schools, I doubt we could have really understood what that meant.
Not so with this older white lady from my story. She had been formed by the legacy of paternalism left over from the days when black people really were “ours” — meaning, owned by white people (though I doubt very much that that woman’s ancestors had owned slaves). What the lady meant by “our blacks” was the sense of responsibility the white community felt towards their black neighbors. Yes, it was partly, and maybe mostly, the result of condescending paternalism. But I am sure it was also part of a decent and humane sense of moral debt owed to people who were so poor and uneducated today because of how whites in the past treated their ancestors. It is very hard, maybe impossible, to disentangle these strands of moral sentiment. The point is, whatever that lady’s real motivations, when her powerless black neighbors needed help, she moved to help them, because she felt morally obliged to do so. To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, this woman wasn’t just sitting around thinking idealistically about black people, and trying to come up with the “correct” way of thinking about race; black folks were the people she lived with. They were not abstractions; they were concrete.
It would be a mistake, I think, to attribute her actions on behalf of the black church as motivated by guilt over racism. It was something else. It came, I am certain, from a sense of duty — not reparation, but noblesse oblige. Big difference. But to have exposed this dear woman to the withering judgments of outsiders who had no idea about how she had been formed by her culture, and who would reduce her act of charity, whatever its obscure motivations, to racist paternalism, would have been cruel, and would have done a disservice to the complicated truth of the matter.
We like our history like we like our morals: written straight. But everything authentically human is crooked.