Friday, November 28, 2014

A Southern White Boy Looks at Ferguson – Again

Atticus–” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight
and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only children weep.”

― Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Back in August I wrote a piece on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In that post, I simply asked readers to listen to the voices of two African Americans, culinary historian Michael Twitty, and novelist Ralph Ellison. I stated that “I cannot pretend to offer any solutions. I cannot even pretend to claim understanding. I have been trying, however, to listen. The only recommendation I can offer is that we stop and listen.”  As you can see, I begin this post by quoting two Southern white people and I offer another brief comment from my own Southern white perspective.

Why Ferguson Is Significant

It is difficult for us white folks to conceive of the world that African American's have grown up in. Furthermore, "white privilege" is a term that is difficult for some of us to stomach in the South because so many of us grew up either poor or struggling working class – we don't see ourselves as "privileged," but in terms of how we benefited from a social system set in our favor, we have been privileged. It is only relatively recently that I have begun to grasp the fact that the nice tidy world I grew up in, filled with caring and generous people at school, church, and on the town square, was paralleled by a dystopian terrorist state that my African American counterparts existed in. Nothing was safe or sure for them, and even their most agreeable times were dominated by fear of what could happen to them or their loved ones at any time and without hope for legal recourse. 

So while my upbringing in the South was full of idyllic moments, I had no understanding at the time of the world that black people lived in. They cooked and cleaned for whites – even raised white folk's children, but they were kept under control by tactics of terror. There were enough beatings and lynchings that were ignored by the legal system, and enough incidents of black people being "accidentally hit" by cars as they walked down the road to act as a warning to anyone who dared to challenge the system. My state even had its constitution re-written in 1901 to keep whites in power and to keep blacks suppressed in poverty and even slave-like conditions. Birmingham, Alabama is, after all, the place that South African officials visited to study and learn from prior to enforcing its apartheid system of government. It is difficult to fathom that my world with such joy and kindness existed side by side with systemic terror and evil. That is why Ferguson is significant. It points out the two worlds that continue to exist side by side in this beloved country.

Photo: Peaceful protest in Durham, N.C. on Nov. 25
Credit: Robert Willett Time News Service


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