The stories that are so hard to hear, yet that we desperately need to hear.
Sometimes, I think I’ve heard enough stories. (Which is itself a function of my privilege.) Then I hear another story and know that I must never stop listening to the stories.
Here’s the latest one for me.
I serve on the board of a Housing Trust. We are working to bring to the market home ownership opportunities for the working people in a tourist economy with inflated housing prices. I found that one of the multiple seeds of this movement was in the south in the 1950s. Georgia, if I recall correctly. It was in response to African-American sharecroppers who were fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes in response to their registering to vote.
Did you hear that? Did you let that sink in? Lost their livelihood and the roof over their heads simply because they registered to vote.
There is no end to the stories of injustice, violence, trauma, brutality that white America has wreaked on our African American siblings. Every time I start to tell some of those stories with the white people of my white church and white community, I get predictable responses. “That can’t be true.” “Where did you hear that?” “I never learned that.” “They didn’t teach us that in history class.” Precisely. That’s what happens when the majority tells the stories and doesn’t make space for the stories of anyone else.
As a leader in the church, a white man, in an overwhelmingly white denomination, I plead with you to learn the stories. Here are a few places I’d encourage you to start, a beginning to listen to the stories that we never learned in history class. These books represent four of the most powerful, moving, and mind-changing books that I have read in the past few years.
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson is a journalist who spent 15 years writing and researching this book. While it tells the story of the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north after Jim Crow, it does so in a wonderfully readable style. She tells the stories of three families, each migrating at a different time, from a different area of the country, and ending up in different place. She draws us into the stories of these families and particular individuals, people we soon learn soon to care about. At the same time, she fills in the background of the larger history of the migration, the effects it had on families, the collective obstacles and challenges they faced. And she describes not only the racist culture they left in the south, but the structures of racism they found when they arrived in the north.
The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein. As soon as I open up conversations with white people about the racist structures that have resulted in dramatic economic inequalities between white and black Americans, someone is bound to say, “Well, I worked hard for what I have.” And the implication, of course, is that if everyone worked as hard as they did, the economic divide would disappear. Yet, the truth is that the racist structures of our economic system have favored whites over blacks. Former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer captured it with this quip, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” For many white Americans, the accumulation of wealth has come through the great American dream, home ownership. Richard Roth tells the story of how persistently and consistently entities of American government have denied this mechanism of upward mobility to African Americans. In the process, the government has institutionalized with policy the racial segregation of America. With examples from a broad spectrum of time, from places throughout the country, and government entities from the federal government to county and municipal government, Rothstein paints a compelling picture of this persistent structural racism that has denied economic prosperity to African Americans.
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. This is one of the most difficult books I have ever read, and for that very reason, one that I think every white church member should read. Baptist argues that the rise of the American economy to become the largest and most prosperous economy in the world would never have happened without the exploitation of enslaved persons to drive that economic engine. Cotton is not by nature an easy crop to grow, and is not by nature even intended to be cultivated. It’s a bush. In pre-combustion engine days, the labor required grow and harvest cotton would make profit impossible– unless there was no cost to the labor. Both the clearing of the land and bringing cotton to harvest required slave labor. It also required the theft of land from indigenous peoples. Northern manufacturers and banks were complicit because they largely relied on the bounty from slave labor to drive their profits. And the proliferation the textile industry in England and New England would never have happened without slave labor. This is the large arc of story that Baptist tells. Closer to the ground he tells the story of the gut-wrenching brutality of slavery, both physical and psychological. The beatings, the separation of families, the sexual exploitation of women, and the list goes on. Though hard to read, I would argue that it’s necessary to understand the evil that fueled the rise of American capitalism.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Race is a made up category. Yet though it is made up, it has been a powerful influence in the lives of both white people and people of color. Xendi takes us through the progression of racist ideologies in American history, using biographical sketches of influential Americans as touchpoints for the iterations of racist ideas. It not only traces the history, but puts flesh and bones on the progression of racist ideologies. If you don’t know the difference between uplift, segregation, assimilation, and anti-racism, this book gives you the historical progression. I would argue it’s an essential progression for any white leader in the church to understand.
Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you think.