Root Response

Letter from New Orleans
Reproduction of ‘Sugar Shack’ by Ernie Barnes (Merliniman/Wikimedia Commons)

In May my wife and I left New York—our home of many years, where we had weathered the pandemic from which the city had just begun to emerge—to spend a week in New Orleans. Like most of our vacations, this one was my wife’s idea, and as with many of her good ideas, I hadn’t realized how badly I needed this trip. We stayed in a place on Dauphine Street, near the French Quarter and a two-block walk from the Royal Frenchmen Hotel and Bar, which became our hangout. We took our five-dollar happy hour cocktails to the hotel’s courtyard, where, every evening, in the pleasant springtime air, a different band played jazz, soul, or both. I rarely dance these days if I can avoid it, but I danced with my wife in New Orleans—that was how much the joyful atmosphere, the buoyant music, the break from work, the emergence from lockdown, and, yes, those happy hour drinks lightened my spirit. At one point, between tunes, shouting to be heard over the applause, I said to my wife that I’d just had an idea for an essay (the one you’re reading), which would be about forgiveness. Right there in the courtyard, I wrote the idea in my hip-pocket notebook.

Often, ideas jotted down under such circumstances seem considerably less compelling the next morning. But I held onto this one, perhaps because, even before we went to New Orleans, it had already been brewing in a corner of my mind. It had begun to surface back in New York, during a conversation with a graduate student. I teach creative nonfiction; like me, my student is Black, and we were discussing an essay of hers in which she revealed that for a long time she had hated her dark skin and kinky hair. That led us to talk about a Zadie Smith essay our class had read, one that mentions Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father—specifically, the passage in which Obama criticizes a composite character, Joyce, who always emphasized her multi-racial identity but never seemed to care particularly for other Black people. My student, too, expressed annoyance over the way some Blacks she had met never let anyone forget they were biracial, the implication being that they were proud not to be just Black. Coming to those people’s defense, and expressing sympathy for my student’s past hatred of her looks, I said something like, “Racism is a system designed to mess with your head”—I may not have used the word “mess”—“and I think Black people need to forgive ourselves and one another for the different ways we respond to it.”

It was one of those moments when your own words get you thinking. I began to think that one of the Black people for whom I urged forgiveness was myself, though “forgiveness” is not the right word. “Understanding,” maybe. I never hated the way I look, unless you count my lament over the thinning of my hair during the past four years or so; like most Black Americans, I have whites here and there in my family tree, but I am not most people’s idea of biracial. But I’ve got some other things going on.

In late 2019 my book What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues was published. In the book I describe my efforts to square my lifelong belief in treating everyone as an individual, and therefore in not being prejudiced against whites, with the results of the 2016 election, in which the majority of white Americans chose as their president a man who had run an all but openly racist campaign. I was interviewed on National Public Radio about the book, and as a result I received an invitation to be a guest on another radio program, this one a Black-themed call-in show. I happily accepted, after which one of two things occurred (and I go back and forth about which possibility is worse). One is that the program’s host did not understand the book; the other is that he understood it, but chose to misrepresent it to excite his listeners. Either way, I soon regretted my decision to be a guest on this show. This was not to be the intellectual exchange I had looked forward to. The host, either failing to understand or ignoring the conflict at the center of my book, talked as if I were unequivocally condemning any negative feelings toward whites on the part of Blacks; he also made a point of mentioning, twice, that my wife is white—which I didn’t understand until I realized, much later than I should have, that I was in a fight. Well, not a fight, exactly. That would suggest fairness. The first mention of my wife’s skin color was meant to signal to listeners what kind of person (i.e. what a sorry excuse for a Black man) they were listening to; the second mention was to announce to any latecomers what our talk was really about. As I paced back and forth in my kitchen, phone to my ear, the host sniped at my book, and me, in every way he could think of. I should say here that I am particularly bad at sparring verbally on the spot—my greatest contribution to society may be that I didn’t become a defense attorney—and my attempts to explain what I was actually trying to say in my book were feeble and came much too late. Soon there were questions from listeners, of which this was representative: “If there was a race war, would you fight on the side of Black people or your wife?” (My answer was something along the lines of, “I would fight alongside people who opposed racism.” I am under no illusion that this impressed anyone.) At one point the host called my ideas “nonsense.” When the “interview” came to its merciful end, after roughly eighty minutes that seemed like five years, I felt as if I had been publicly flogged. Because I had.

These are all human responses that deserve understanding, acceptance, and, when need be, forgiveness.

Yet if I am calling for understanding and forgiveness among Black people for our various ways of responding to racism, then I must extend it to my floggers (with the possible exception of the host) and their separatism. And, again, “forgiveness” may seem like an odd word here, since Black people are victims rather than perpetrators; and yet our different responses have often hardened into positions that resemble fortresses, with all that image suggests about inflicting and absorbing punishment. I write in What It Is about a Black woman on the subway who literally, visibly shook with anger upon seeing my interracial family and me enter the car. To my mind I did exactly nothing to offend her, but try saying that to the woman, who looked as aggrieved by what she saw as I felt after my experience on the call-in show. What I am suggesting is that we Blacks need to get beyond our initial impressions of one another to foster understanding of our differences and forgiveness for offenses, real or perceived, intentional or not.

Part of our New Orleans trip underscored the reason why. My wife’s job title includes the word “historian”; the working part of our vacation was her research at the Whitney Plantation, an hour away from New Orleans by bus, and I accompanied her. Equipped with headsets and a recorded audio tour, we were free to walk at our own pace around the plantation, where enslaved people processed sugar cane and built the cabins where they lived. Near the end of the tour, we came to the Wall of Honor, which showcases engraved quotes from formerly enslaved people who were interviewed in the twentieth century as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. I do not have space here to do justice to the horror captured in the many recollections. I will mention one. A woman recalled being a young girl when slavery ended; had slavery continued for a few more years, her mother told her, the girl would have been taken to an enslaved man whose job was to breed slaves. That reminded me of the extensive research my sister has done on Ancestry, searching through census records to uncover our family history. It seems we are the descendants of a white man who owned humans and a Black woman named Suki, who is listed as a “breeder.”

As many are quick to point out, slavery in the United States ended more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Other things did not. For the dozen years of Reconstruction, thanks to federal intervention, it looked as if freed Blacks would be able to make a go of life in America, and they worked hard to make that happen. Then came the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877. Federal troops were withdrawn from the South, Black people’s rights were taken away, and life, for them, became nearly as unlivable as it had been under slavery. Convict leasing, the practice of jailing Blacks on the flimsiest of pretenses and selling their labor to mining companies, extended slavery in all but name well into the twentieth century. Perhaps worst of all was the anti-Black propaganda campaign, as unrelenting as it was ubiquitous. In order to justify the treatment of Blacks, those living symbols of the South’s defeat, those potential sources of guilt in a supposedly Christian nation, it was necessary to portray us as subhuman; the most famous example of that is D. W. Griffith’s technically groundbreaking 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, which set off a wave of lynchings of Blacks. But the campaign was carried out everywhere, in newspaper editorials, cartoons, and political speeches. It did its work. Blacks became a despised people merely for having the nerve to exist. That attitude has not died, and neither have policies aimed at keeping us in our “place.” Some call our current system of mass incarceration modern-day slavery. And those cabins at Whitney Plantation, built and inhabited by enslaved people? Subsequent generations of Blacks lived in them, working as sharecroppers—as part of a system designed to keep them in debt—until 1975.

None of this is news. I cite some of the history and continued practice of racism to suggest that its psychological baggage is what every Black American must deal with in some fashion. Because every person is different, we respond in different ways. What the history of prejudice in America means to me is that I need to be better than that, that I should in no way replicate it—that I should not prejudge people based on how they look. Period. Other Blacks understandably (some would say more than understandably) do not want to deal with whites any more than they have to, and they are suspicious of Blacks who do, as my experience on the call-in show amply demonstrates. Just as I want those people to understand me, it is necessary for me to understand them. Most Black American voters (including me) are Democrats; others feel that the Black community would benefit from the emphasis on self-reliance that the Republican Party ostensibly stands for, and so they embrace conservatism. Many, many Blacks find solace in their Christian or Muslim faith. Others find strength and identity in their African roots. Some have become activists or made careers of helping others through teaching or social work. Some with light skin have “passed,” or opted out of Blackness altogether. Myself, I listen, every single day, in one form or another, to jazz, which is my way of celebrating what Black people have created and achieved in America in spite of everything. My point is that these are all human responses that deserve understanding, acceptance, and, when need be, forgiveness. We should not attack one another; if the Trump years revealed anything, it is that we have enemies enough.

Jazz, of course, is part of what I love about New Orleans. Listening to great jazz in the courtyard of the Royal Frenchmen (usually played by racially integrated bands), drink in hand and friendliness in the springtime air, it was easy to embrace forgiveness. But forgiveness still feels necessary, to me, in the cold light of the morning after.

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Clifford Thompson is the author, most recently, of What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues.

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