I am deep into the topic of Reconstruction. The events, personalities, and issues speak loudly to us today. In 1871 the U.S. Congress took testimony to document the KKK’s violent response to Reconstruction. I want to share the words of those who suffered that violence. Black legislators made some inspiring speeches at the state and national level and I want to share their words. It will be next Monday before I post again, but I share these words from Eric Foner from his definitive work on Reconstruction. These are from his first edition of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution in 1988.
“Over a century ago, prodded by the demands of four million men and women just emerging from slavery, American made their first attempt to live up to the noble professions of their political creed—something few societies had ever done. The effort produced a sweeping redefinition of the nation’s pubic life and a violent reaction that ultimately destroyed much, by by no means all, of what had been accomplished. From the enforcement of the rights of citizens to the stubborn problems of economic and racial justice, the issues central to Reconstruction are as old as the American republic, and as contemporary as the inequalities that still inflict our society.”
The South is my home even if I don’t always feel at home in it. The voices and experiences that stamped me were within a lopsided geometric shape connecting Memphis /Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. All of these states were members of the Confederacy and slavery was deeply embedded in the economy and culture of the region. The ladder was sturdy and clear with white people firmly in charge and Black people banned from the ladder. They were possessions of the people on the ladder. After the Civil War and the south’s defeat, the ladder was briefly dismantled but not destroyed. After reconstruction and a period of Black participation in government and public life, White southerners were able to reassemble the ladder with laws, policies, and rules that kept Blacks on the bottom rungs.
Blacks were enslaved 246 years before the South surrendered and the 13th amendment was ratified in 1865. By May of 1865 Andrew Johnson was president after Lincoln’s assassination in April. His plans for the Reconstruction of the South reflected his belief in states’ rights. Therefore all the land confiscated by the Union army and distributed to freed slaves were given back to their prewar owners. The South was given free reign to reconstruct itself. Kendi called it “reconstruction of slavery.”In South Carolina, my paternal grandmother’s birthplace, Edmund Rhett was an editor of the Charleston Mercury. He wrote a letter to a politician and outlined a plan to manage the “negro problem” that later would be enacted as Black codes across the former Confederacy. In Mississippi, my current home, the legislature hurried to enact these codes. By November, 1865 a collection of laws began to pass. Blacks would be fined and could be arrested if they were found to be without employment or a home. Blacks were paid only at the end of a term of employment and if they quit before the term ended, they would not be paid. They could not own land except within incorporated towns so farming was not an option for them. If they could not pay a fine they could be hired out to a White person who agreed to pay their fine. Blacks could be arrested for a long list of very vague actions that amounted to free reign of Whites to rule. During this time before Radical Reconstruction, Whites frequently acted out against programs for Blacks funded by the Freedman’s Bureau.
Today it is difficult to remember that the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and the Democratic Party dominated the South. Andrew Johnson was a Democrat before the Civil War and ran with Lincoln on a Union Party ticket in 1864. The ticket was supported by the Republican Party and War Democrats. Although he believed in preserving the Union and waging war to be sure it was preserved, his states’ right sympathies were with the South. This set up an inevitable conflict with Republicans that led to his eventual impeachment. In the meantime the Republicans responded to his reconstruction program with a much more stringent set of policies that came to be called Radical Reconstruction. The South was temporarily divided into 5 military districts and required new constitutions to organize universal male suffrage. The states had to ratify the 14th amendment that required due process and a broader definition of citizenship. Later in 1869 the 15th amendment was enacted that protected the right to vote from any interference “based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The most severe Black Codes in Mississippi and South Carolina were never implemented. The South entered a short period of progressive legislation and the participation of Blacks in public life. It was over by 1877.
What I have learned from Ibram Kendi, helped me view these historical events as reflective of the driving force of self interest. It was in the interest of White southerners to create laws, rules, and customs to be sure that even though they must allow Blacks on the ladder, Blacks were confined to the bottom rungs. It was in the self-interest of the North to pass the 14th and 15th amendments so that Blacks would stay in the South, not for moral reasons. This force of self -interest continues today. On Thursday I want to delve more deeply into Reconstruction because I think it teaches us something about today.
As I yearned to find my voice and a different path in my life, I was constantly influenced by the family and community around me. When I found my own voice, I paid a price. When I did not find my voice, others paid a worse price. Today I wonder what makes that counter cultural behavior so difficult, particularly around race in America. Race has been a significant factor in the institutions I have encountered. I have seen blatant racism and subtle racism in both the arenas where I have operated over these years: the school and the church. These institutions are pillars of our society. I have had status in both and, sadly, know very well they have not fundamentally changed because of whatever efforts I have made. Ibram Kendi provides insight into the construct of race that is important to understand in combating racism. It has opened my mind to a new understanding.
Kendi describes race as a power construct. An image of a ladder has developed in my mind as I read. Race has been used to construct a ladder in the psyche of our country. At birth we take our place on that ladder according to our race. White people occupy the upper rungs and set the angle of the ladder. Whiteness is considered normal, standard, the way things should be. Nonwhite or people of color assume their rungs at birth as well. They occupy the lower ones. As we navigate our lives we go up and down on the rungs and frequently our race intersects with other constructs such as gender, sexuality, and income, but race determined where we started.
The origin of the ladder lies in the self-interest of those in power across Europe in the 1400s. According to Kendi’s extensive research, Prince Henry of Portugal was fascinated by stories of riches to be had in Africa. Eventually he saw a market for African slaves and Portugal began their slave trade by way of the sea. Because the slave trade for the Slavs of Eastern Europe dried up, the market for African Slaves began to boom. “Slavs” became slaves and slaves became Black. Ultimately 12.5 million Africans would be brought to the Americas. 596,000 of them would arrive in the United States between 1451 and 1870. From 1805-1860 the number of slaves grew to 4 million and 23% of the United States’ population.
Kendi maintains that this enslavement of Africans produced racist ideas. The ideas did not come first. Therefore, slavery was not started by racist people or racist ideas. It began because of the self-interest of Europeans. Racist ideas grew up around a justification for slavery. Racist ideas like “lost souls”, “beasts”, “ignorant”, “evil”, and “lazy” were propagated by men who wanted to convince others to buy their slaves and enrich the sellers. This backwards design of racism developed by Kendi is much different that I had ever considered. I have always believed that racist people created racist policies, laws, and customs. Kendi has shown me a different way to think of it.
The ladder I envision is constructed by policies, laws, and rules that have been created over the years. The ladder itself has set in motion the social-emotional factors, the attitudes and values that have kept the ladder in place. These factors are the forces that make it very difficult for individuals to abandon the ladder. Those on the bottom rungs face significant fears and losses if they climb toward the top rungs. Kendi described his awareness of the ladder this way:
On the day when his parents took him to visit a parochial school for upwardly mobile black students, this seven-year-old challenged the teacher “Why are you the only black teacher?” Kendi describes what had happened to him. “In that classroom, on the April day in 1980, my parents discovered that I had entered racial puberty. At seven years old, I began to feel the encroaching fog of racism overtaking my body. It felt big, bigger than me, bigger than my parents or anything in my world, and threatening. What a powerful construction race is-powerful enough to consume us. And it comes for us early.”
Therefore, letting go of the ladder sends one out in a space that seems without support, but trying to climb toward whiteness means turning your back on your own culture. On the other hand, those on the top rungs know they will sacrifice their connection to normality, to the standard, and even people they love. The ladder, as James Baldwin says with eloquence, damages everyone on it.
Artists of all kinds have used self-examination for a long time to express how they became who they are and to challenge those who participate in their art. James Baldwin used his self-examination to better understand why America could not come to terms with the race problem. Eddie Glaude, Jr., summarized Baldwin’s effort to “plunge beneath the surface of the race problem and examine our interior agreement with ways of thinking that trapped us….”. We are not born with ways of thinking but these interior agreements start with the voices of our parents and their parents and their parents. That process is replicated many times over throughout the families of our communities and our country. Therefore, the voices of the community hold substantial power over the individual voice.
Jefferson Davis stood to make a speech in the US Senate in April, 1860. He was the senator from Mississippi and would become the president of the Confederacy. Davis was speaking against a bill to fund Black education. Ibram Kendi described it in his first book. The senator maintained that “the bill was based on the false notion of racial equality. The United States was built by white men for white men, he said. The inequality of the black and white races “was stamped from the beginning.” When my ancestor, Stephen D. Johnston signed the Mississippi Secession Decrees the next January, Davis’ voice was likely echoing in the convention hall. That phrase became the title of Kendi’s first book on the history of racism in America. Eddie Glaude, Jr. would call that notion of inherent inequality “the big lie” that continues to trap our country. To read Kendi’s book, Stamped from the Beginning, is to hear all the voices of the past reverberate down the centuries. Aren’t we all, then, stamped from the beginning? What voices stamped me?
Agnes Margaruite Johnston, Stephen D. Johnston’s great-granddaughter, was a force of unmatched magnitude in our family of four. Her voice still penetrates my thoughts long after her death. Even the word “voice” implies power. The vibration of our vocal cords produces our speaking voices. Writers strive to find their voices. People protest to have their voices heard. Voices are powerful. Our parent’s voices are particularly powerful.
She was called Peggy by her family and friends. She pronounced my name with a lilt at the end as if asking a question. She stood five feet. Her skin was flawless, and her hair was red from the time I could remember.Petite with expressive eyes, she loved clothes, parties, and having fun.
Animated and busy unless she was asleep, my mother cleaned the house to such high standards that my sister and I felt like we were visitors in a hotel. “Never, never, never sit on your bed. You will ruin the mattress”. No posters were hung in our rooms, we never chose a piece of furniture. If you messed up the room, she would mysteriously appear to clean it. I think it was more like living on a cruise ship.
Her voice ruled us all and painted a vivid picture of how women should lead their lives. She never left her bedroom without her make up ready for the day. It was not unusual to find her vacuuming replete in her peignoir. Mother had an outfit for even the most mundane activity like grocery shopping, exercising, or playing bridge. She maintained that she did not perspire! In the south my mother would be described as a steel magnolia. Woe to anyone who went “lacking” in manners, dress, use of the “English language”, and, without a doubt, discretion! If anyone in her sight failed to adhere, regret would surely follow. Her voice, often behind a mask of Southern gentility, would reveal itself and , “she could make a grown man cry.”.
“Mama, look, there is a lady that looks like Fanny!” “She is not a lady, honey. She is a woman.” With those ten words about our African American maid, my mother introduced me to racism. In second and third grade Mrs. Elyea was my teacher and she taught Georgia history with a flair. There were no Black children in my school. In the 1950s. In the third grade, I narrated our class play which had two parts. Part one consisted of the Uncle Remus stories and Part Two was the Civil War battle of Atlanta. We took a field trip to Joel Chandler Harris’s home to see where Uncle Remus lived in the back yard. Supposedly he told his stories in that shack. At some point Mrs. Elyea told us that there was nothing civil about the Civil War and we were to call it the War Between the States. Clearly white people had been treated wrongly in the War Between the States and Black people told wonderful stories and lived in shacks and were happy about it. By the end of elementary school, I had a thorough understanding of a white woman’s place in the South. If I were to exhibit behaviors counter to what I had learned, I would have to find my own voice.
Cora Givhan heard voices, too. I was born in Memphis, Tenn. in 1950 and Cora was born in Pontotoc, MS in 1947. That was a distance of 100 miles, but two different worlds. Cora Givhan (Ingram) grew up in Pontotoc, MS and her father was a sharecropper. She went to a segregated school system and would until she entered University of Mississippi. In her memoir, Sharecroppers Daughter: Wit Country Ham and Red Eye Gravy, Buttered Sugar Biscuits, Cheese and Eggs, Cow Milk, Homemade Ice Cream and Sweet Tea, she shares memories, too. While my mama was telling me that black women were “not ladies” a white man called Cora’s mama, “auntie”. Later an angry Mrs. Givhan told her daughters she wanted to ask the man, “Now which one of your momma’s sisters am I?”
Many years later, Cora’s brother Sam would describe their mother to me as an “intellectual without books.” In a speech he gave at Cora’s retirement from Grenada School District, he held up their mother, Katie Mae Mallory Givhan, as a force in their lives. “an 8th grade scholar, mother of twelve, farm-wife, who came to Grenada awed, humbled, and amazed, the trip-of-a lifetime in 1958 or 59, the delegate from her rural church congregation attending ‘the conference’. She made her scrapped up wardrobe, stayed in the home of host-family, took notes, and held her own, speaking about it at home before reporting on it to her home congregation.” Cora would become a fighter on many fronts, as a Methodist minister, a special education teacher, a divorced, single parent, and non-profit director. Sam would integrate Pontotoc High school and earn a PHD. The “8th grade scholar” stamped them as much as my mother stamped me. But all three of us would have to find our voices to manage the real world.
Thirty years later Ibram Kendi ‘s parents had left behind their roots in the urban projects of the North and the rural poverty of the South. They had embraced the idea that Black culture was the real enemy not racist policies. Kendi grew up hearing voices, too. “Education and hard work will lift you up and the rest of the Black people with you.” They adopted a philosophy of Black self-reliance. His parents wanted to enroll him in a Black parochial school that would separate him from the very Black kids the white parents tried to avoid. He visited a third-grade classroom with his parents. The teacher they visited was Black, but the pictures on the doors of the classroom revealed that most of the teachers were white and all the children were black. He had been reading a long list of biographies of Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells, and Frederick Douglass. In that moment in that classroom it all came together, and he recognized racism. Kendi blurts out “Why are you the only Black teacher?”
The voices of our parents shape us. Their voices continue to provide a backdrop, a context, a depository of attitudes, values, and prescriptions that weave their way into all facets of our lives. Even when we desire to listen to other voices, find our own voice, and live a different kind of life, the force of those first voices are difficult to ignore. Unless your voice mirrors the culture at large, success will come at a great price. I will discuss the price we pay on Thursday.
Books referenced ( these are not in scholarly format!)
Sharecroppers Daughter: Wit Country Ham and Red Eye Gravy, Buttered Sugar Biscuits, Cheese and Eggs, Cow Milk, Homemade Ice Cream and Sweet Tea Cora Givhan Ford (Ingram)
My great, great grandfather Johnston signed Mississippi’s Declaration to Secede the Union. In January 1861, Stephen Darden Johnston represented DeSoto County as a delegate to the Mississippi Secession Convention. He lived no more than 50 miles from where I now reside. I was always told that my mother’s father, grew up on a plantation in Nesbitt, Mississippi, but I never thought much about it. The document his grandfather signed sums up the “holy and just cause” that is memorialized in the Confederate monuments still displayed all over the South. “Our position is thoroughly identified with slavery, the greatest material interest of the world.” My great, great grandfather owned 55 slaves. I now know that my family enslaved 55 human beings and fought a war to protect that right.
I discovered this historical fact on my back porch this summer, 2020, and I don’t think I will ever see the world quite the same way. Inspired by the words of James Loewen, my time on the porch this summer has been spent researching the past, the country’s and my own.
I started with Jill Leflore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. LeFlore described how often slavery was an issue between the colonies and states from the Revolutionary War through the Constitutional Convention and eventually the Civil War. The struggles of today are not new and the seeds were planted long before there was a United States.
The first documented Africans arrived in the American colonies in 1619. They came as slaves, bound in shackles and traveling across the Atlantic Ocean in the holds of ships. Later this journey would be called the Middle Passage. It all began long before their arrival here. According to the Harvard Business School chronicle of African Americans, the Transatlantic Slave Trade began in the 1500s connecting Europe, Africa, and the continents of North and South America. The slave trade became integral to the economies of all these countries. Before slavery was finally abolished, 12.5 million Africans would be forcibly transported to the Americas. These are the ancestors of the Black people who are now called American, just as I am.
My ancestors, Baileys, Johnstons, Gregorys, Costigans, Clyburns, Mounts, and Poors, immigrated voluntarily from Ireland and Scotland. They settled in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Only the Costigans stopped in Illinois before settling in the Mississippi Delta. By the time I was born in 1950, 330 years had passed since the first Black people entered bondage in this country, and probably 250 since my ancestors began new lives in a land they saw as opportunity
I was born and reared, an expression my mother used, in the South. I have lived all of my 70 years in the cities and towns of this region; I have grown up enmeshed in its culture. One definition of culture is “how things are done around here.”. Psychologists and sociologists maintain that the way we relate cooperate, and treat others is highly influenced by the culture handed down to us from our families and ancestors.
It would be dishonest for me to even attempt to view the world from the same lens that my Black countrymen see it. The best I can do is read and listen to how they describe what they see. I can, though, examine more closely how I see the world and how I have become the person I am. A comparison of these two voices may show me a new way, a new path, toward reconciliation and reformation. That is my hope.
James Loewen The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader
Jill LeFlore These Truths: A History of the United States
Walt Whitman used the phrase “after times” to describe America after the Civil War. Eddie Glaude, Jr. , professor of African American studies at Princeton, defines the phrase as what has come before and what is beginning to appear, and compares it to James Baldwin’s deep anguish and disappointment after the Civil Rights movement. After times follow periods of great eruption, social volcanoes, and are filled with anticipation of a change that never happens.
Are we facing a new after time? A pandemic is upon us and the health effects are much worse for Black Americans than White ones. Vivid glimpses of how some police officers use their power to control Black Americans have resulted in an increase in social turmoil around government policy and practice. One of the cornerstones of a democracy is public education. Since it was closed in March countless vulnerable Black children and poor children have had no quality instruction. If Americans do not find a better way to respond to this upheaval and the underlying causes, then the same thing will happen in this after time as has happened in the previous ones. More cynicism, more apathy, more restrictions, more violence.
My personal approach to these issues has always been to act now, communicate urgency, to plow ahead to close these gaps in outcomes, to widen the tent of prosperity, and to push hard for equity for children of color and poverty. At 70 years old with 34 years of working in the trenches, that path has proven to be a dead end. All that action and urgency and pushing has only resulted in some incremental changes but we still live in a country where Black Americans experience dramatic inequities in education, health, and wealth.
Ibram Kendi’s books have challenged me to consider my approach in a new light. If the approach does not result in progress, it is likely the fault of the approach. There is no reason to blame the recipients of the effort. I must find a new path and a new focus. I have been asking myself, how do I find a better approach and how do I advocate for it? I don’t think I’m alone.
James Lowen’s words hit me hard. “Telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present. Achieving justice in the present helps us tell the truth about the past.” I want to use this time of “waiting” that the scriptures describe*, to find the truth in the past so that I can be an instrument for justice in the present. I am going back in time and begin again.
On Thursday I will share what I have learned about myself, my family, and the history of Black Americans.
I am including some books and authors below. Not scholarly footnotes!
*Eddie Glaude, Jr. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lesson for Our Own
*James Baldwin Notes of a Native Son
*James Loewen The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (documents)
*Ibram Kendi How to Be an Anti-Racist
*The Bible “Those that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength and mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31
This has been the summer of pandemic and protest. Our fairly small college town nestled in the land of Mississippi Burning is a microcosm of our country. Racial inequality is once again so vivid and so stark it cannot be ignored. After 34 years in public education I never lost my idealism, my faith that education could change these terrible conditions. But now I see the same inequities and the same outcomes. I finally have admitted to myself that what liberal leaning, white progressives like me have been doing, at least since the Civil Rights efforts in the 50s and 60s, has not worked. I have been doing what I should have been doing more, listening to Black people and looking at the country through their lenses, through their history. Over the next few months I will be sharing in this blog what I am learning from them. It is what James Baldwin and Eddie Glaude, Jr. called the “after time”. I’ll tell you more about that later.