On the passing of Mississippi Winn, 113, a child of parents born as enslaved people
Undoubtedly, like many others, I was surprised to read in the corner of my news feed that [wikipop]Mississippi Winn[/wikipop], who died on January 14, 2011, in Shreveport, Louisiana, was a child of parents who were born as enslaved people. Documentary evidence showed that her parents were both born before 1865, and while their individual status as free or enslaved is not certain, it is clear that they were born in the American South before war and conscience overcame economics and legalized racism. Could it really be that there are people living today whose parents suffered under an institution our national conscience works so hard to forget? Quick math and an internet search revealed that indeed children of parents whose humanity was denied in our country live and breathe today.
In our national debate on racism and the plight of the poor, especially the poor who are Black, many detractors are quick to suggest that slavery is “ancient history.” Conditions today cannot be a result of that institution since too much time has passed, many argue, and far too much has been done to bring about legal equality not only for Blacks but also for women and for other non-White minorities. By “far too much,” they mean such legal actions as the elimination of [wikipop]Jim Crow[/wikipop] laws, the integration of the military, the passing of [wikipop]Brown v. Board of Education[/wikipop], the [wikipop]Voting Rights Act of 1965[/wikipop], and [wikipop]affirmative action[/wikipop] programs of the past 35 years. Enough is enough, they suggest. What more can be done in the name of what happened so long ago?
From 1865 to 2011 does seem like a long time if we only consider our lifetimes, our personal space in history. While it may be rare in the human family that a parent-child link can span parts of three centuries, we cannot deny that we inherit from our parents the results of their experiences. Psychologists understand that parents who were abused are more likely to abuse their own children in a cycle that can only be interrupted when someone in the family chain accepts intervention. In support groups such as [wikipop]Adult Children of Alcoholics[/wikipop], members find that they need assistance of others—even as adults—in overcoming the legacy of their parents’ burden of addictions. In her 2005 book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, explains how many of the “self-destructive” behaviors that external observers place on Black youth have a direct link to the on-going legacy of family trauma that, as Ms. Winn’s passing reminds us, is not so far away as our personal timelines would like us to imagine.
Because Dr. Leary’s book is written to a Black audience, it seems at times invasive to read it as a White man. However, as an educator who has observed those very same behaviors, I developed a greater understanding for how my parents’ generation—along with my own—shares responsibility in some measure for the experiences of Leary’s audience. Furthermore, I know that unless I do my part to break the cycle that reproduces the causes of those behaviors, I bear my own personal responsibility for the perpetuation of the causes of unequal achievement. Even with that statement, I distance myself from the responsibility of the active and negative causes of Black underachievement. I, like many other “progressive White educators,” have a hard time saying it: I have hurt Black kids in choosing to be ignorant of history.
The transmission of White supremacy—not merely racism, but an active reproduction of White power structures—is a relay race that relies on the front runner to keep the team ahead. By the age of six, I had picked up the baton from those who had run before me. This is how it worked for me: I began school in first grade in 1969 in rural Georgia. As was common when families started younger, some of the other teachers in the elementary school had taught my parents and knew my family (which was not necessarily a benefit for me but would have been for my peers). This was not true of my first grade teacher, Miss Mamie Smith, who, though she was a veteran teacher at the time, would only have been in an integrated public school for fewer than five years. Although my first teacher was an African American woman, she was the last person of color I would ever see in the front of my classroom. For many of my formative years, I was taught by teachers who had only recently been forced together by federal law.
School worked for me from the beginning because I was bright, White, and male (and because nobody told me we were poor). I cannot say that I saw anything negative toward Black or White students during my school years. That was the problem: Because I could not see any difference, I believed that school as I experienced it was the same for everyone. That illusion of equal opportunity would follow me into my career.
As the first of my family to attend college (at 17), I chose a career that matched the only profession I had ever seen—education. Just as many of my teachers had done, I believed that I would attend the local university and return home to teach, a common cycle among rural residents. When I did move away after college (to the southern part of the state), I began my teaching career as a teacher who taught in the same way that I was taught. While the College of Education taught some theory, like most teachers I see even now, I did for my students what twelve years of public education had taught me to do. I lectured like my old teachers, made tests that looked like theirs, and generally followed their lead. Although I did not return to my own high school, it was the teachers of my own high school teachers’ age who indoctrinated me into the traditions of my first teaching jobs.
Even though I began teaching in 1981, I was reproducing the methods, attitudes, and outcomes of my former teachers–some of whom began their careers as early as 1939, thirty years before I first walked into school in 1969. Because school had always worked for me, I naturally did what I had seen in class for most of my life, and given the fact that my early teachers began their careers in Jim Crow schools, I myself became a Jim Crow teacher through imitation. Without the overt malice of an earlier age, I reproduced for a new generation of students what had put me at the front of the race. I certainly had assistance in this task. The work of sorting out the runners was already started before I received my class list. In a school of nearly 1000 students, there were three levels of the 9th grade science class I taught. The 9-3 level was the advanced class, and although the school was more than 75% Black, this section of my class load was almost all White, and most of the their parents were professionals. The 9-1 level was essentially all Black with the few White students more likely than not to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). My instruction and grading further sub-divided students within each section. There was very little movement between sections. Students progressed within the tracks to which they were assigned from 9th grade until they left school. As a new teacher, I observed the differences, but I was quickly acclimated to the way things worked through my induction into the system by my peers/mentors. Although I only stayed in that position for two years before returning to graduate school, I am certain that the five years of “fitting in” required to attain tenured status would have helped me become one with the system as it had always been.
Graduate school did not address issues of race or achievement (the “[wikipop]achievement gap[/wikipop]” as a marker had not been invented yet in my grad school). However, moving from the rural South to the suburban Midwest provided me an unanticipated taste of “otherness” and started for me a new understanding of social distinction that had eluded me in my Southern upbringing. In this new culture, in which “Where did you go to high school?” defined you, I found myself marked with a drawl that suggested I was too ignorant to teach science in such an academically rigorous suburban institution. Having come from a place where there were, for all practical purposes, two colors of people, I found that I was only White in Missouri until I opened my mouth. To be White in Missouri was more valuable than to be White in Georgia since better spoken Midwesterners “out-ranked” not only people of color but also their “slower” Southern cousins.
Being the first in my family to finish college would confer a privilege to my yet unborn children that I had not had. Yet, moving to a more competitive division of competition had the potential to set me (and them) back. Having stepped out of my lane, I had stumbled in the race. However, as I picked myself up, I realized that I had learned something significant in moving. I could, with time and practice, become “Whiter” by working on my diction and elocution, by wearing starched white shirts and conservative ties, and by learning the local White customs. My students of color—who always understood that when I was “fixing to” do something, it was “fitna” get done—had hurdles in their lane I would never have to surmount. To be successful in St. Louis, we would all be expected to “act Whiter”, but only I had the chance to actually pass the first inspection.
It was through the contrast of time, place, and culture that I first was able to see the tracks that social structures, both in and out of school, created and maintained. I had run in the rut as the most natural course. The winners—in society and in my classroom—“won” because they appeared to get to the finish line first. What I could not see is how the runners further behind started out both later and burdened with chains they could feel if not see, and they could not always muster the energy to participate in a rigged outcome.
[wikipop]William Faulkner[/wikipop], who chronicled a South that wrestled with a history that would not die yet could not live, observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This assertion, recently paraphrased by then-Senator Obama in his 2008 speech on race, cautions against marking history through our own life spans. The long life of Ms. Winn reminds that it is entirely possible for humans to walk in three centuries. If our physical bodies are occasionally so enduring, we can expect no less of our hidden biases. Until we see how we pass on privilege, prejudice, and the hurts they inflict anew in successive generations, we will continue to be enslaved by a White supremacist ideology that requires a human host to move forward. Just as scientists have cultured and shared the cancer cells of [wikipop]Henrietta Lacks[/wikipop] (the HeLa cells chronicled in Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) since 1951, so too does the cancer of racism pass from one generation to another until it is identified, aggressively treated, and monitored so that full healing can occur.
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