In My Words: Forgetting lynching at our peril
Professor Rebecca Todd Peters recently published a column on the Huffington Post and in regional newspapers about the complexity of teaching her young daughters about the history of racism in the United States and the concept of privilege.
The following column appeared recently in the Huffington Post, the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Fayetteville Observer and the (Greenville, N.C.) Daily Reflector via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.
Forgetting lynching at our peril
By Rebecca Todd Peters - email@example.com
My third grader is a white child in a Title I school in our town. She's writing a report on Harriet Tubman for her Black History Month project, devouring information and proudly sharing stories from Tubman’s life with our family.
"Mom, did you know Harriet Tubman was a spy during the Civil War!"
We talk together about Tubman, slavery and the history of racism in the South. As a white mother of two white daughters, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to educate my children on the racism that exists today in our communities and lives and how it is connected to the history of our country.
It is imperative that I teach them that their white skin is a privilege in a country where brown people are discriminated against in both conscious and unconscious ways.
But talking about privilege is hard, and not just for parents. For most people with privilege, talking about it makes us uncomfortable. Admitting that we have privilege seems unseemly at best, but worse than that, for many of us, it feels arrogant.
The fact that people have difficulty even recognizing their own privilege is well documented and one of the reasons that privilege is so hard to address as a cultural phenomenon. For starters, how do I teach my children about social privilege without reinforcing social privilege? It’s not easy, but it certainly won't happen if we ignore it or pretend like we don't have it.
One of the most pernicious forms of privilege is the social control of history and what gets remembered – and often honored or memorialized – and what doesn't.
The Equal Justice Initiative has just published an important report documenting their investigations into lynchings in several Southern states between Reconstruction and World War II. Their research documents almost 4,000 people who were brutally tortured and murdered during that time by fellow citizens.
I remember the first time I heard Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit" and felt the depth of horror appropriately associated with the reality of lynching. The pictures I have seen over the years since have amplified that horror, as much due to the incongruous smiling faces of white men, women, and children standing around as due to the "strange fruit" hanging from the trees.
Why did these people, presumably people like me in many ways, participate in this form of vigilantism? Too many whites, today, want to dismiss these experiences of racism in our history as tragic and regrettable but not something that we are accountable for in any way. I'm not so sure.
The history of lynching in the South is just one of the pieces of our past that has largely been erased from our physical landscape and thus, for too many, from our consciousness. It is much easier for whites to remove ourselves from the reality of lynching when it appears as a list of horrors in a textbook than it is if there was a memorial marker down the street from our house or in the middle of our town.
As white people, we cannot forget the history of lynching and the role that it played, along with KKK rallies and cross burnings, in systematically terrorizing black communities. We should not forget those smiling white faces nor dismiss them as merely ignorant, backwards and prejudiced.
How much of our own white privilege is built on the history of their actions? What might accountability look like in a discussion of lynching in the South?
We must learn how to distinguish between guilt for our privilege (implying some wrong behavior on our part) and accountability for our privilege (implying action that challenges the unjust reality of white privilege).
Accountability in the case of lynching might include memorial markers, increased attention to the motivations and effects of lynching in our collective past, as well as careful consideration of how the history of racial prejudice, violence and terrorism continues to shape race relations in the United States in the 21st century.
Accountability for people of privilege must include breaking out of the safety of our cocoons of privilege and building relationships with people across lines of difference. It must begin with acknowledging and examining our privilege and then figuring out how to use our privilege to address the ongoing forms of injustice that we see in our neighborhoods, our communities, our country, and the world.
For our family, it also includes supporting our public schools, talking about Harriet Tubman at home, and encouraging our children to make the connections between the history of slavery and the conditions of poverty and injustice in our community and in their schools.
Rebecca Todd Peters is a professor of religious studies and founding director of the poverty & social justice program at Elon University.
Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.