When did my bookshelf get so white?

“I remember that I’m invisible and walk softly so as not awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

When did my bookshelf get so white?

It wasn’t always that way. In high school and college, I devoured classic works on race by American authors: James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, among others. I burned my way through the writings of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and then Alice Walker, who led me to Zora Neale Hurston.

When I was young, I ate that stuff up. Now my shelves are blindingly white. I’m still a voracious reader. What happened? When did my head come to rest upon this soft white pillow?

Well, Margaret, you got old, and you sank into the comfort of seeing the world through eyes much like your own.

“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

So, having awakened to this truth, here I am reading black writers again, and finding there the lift to fly and see my world from another perspective. It’s exciting, challenging, uncomfortable at times, and good.

As recorded in an earlier post, our newly-formed family anti-racist book group picked up Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America for our first read. It’s a heavy tome, so heavy that at first I wondered if it would have been better to start with something lighter and quicker. But no, as my sister Rose commented, this was the right read for a solid grounding to prepare us for future explorations. It inspired good discussion, both in our virtual meetings and in follow-up emails.

Here are a few items that stood out to me:

  • I got bummed by the Christian church’s central role in racist thought in early America, especially through powerful voices of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. I’d read excerpts from their fiery sermons in college, but somehow their equally influential racist writings didn’t make it into the curriculum. White supremacy permeated the Christianity of the time, throughout the nation, and it came straight from the pulpit. Kinda depressing for someone who aspires to at least make a stab at practicing Christianity today. The good news is, words about race and justice from the pulpit of my little home parish tell a very different story today, and I’m glad of it. Just hope they still sound as good four hundred years from now.
  • So when the book moved on to the Enlightenment, I thought, well maybe “reason” will set things right. But no. Waving the flag of pure science, enlightened humanists managed to support and broaden racist thought as much as religion, if not more, by “scientifically proving” the hierarchy of the races, using reasoning and methods that have been thoroughly debunked in the centuries since.
  • So there you go, my two favorite sources of wisdom and knowledge – religion and science – nailed to the tree. Just goes to show that we humans are capable of convincing ourselves of practically anything, so long as we see it as benefiting ourselves personally. Our deeply-held beliefs and priorities can skew faith and science alike to match what we want to be true. Just something to keep in mind, especially when some new theology or scientific discovery pleases me to no end.
    (Or for that matter, a conspiracy theory that feeds my every doubt and suspicion about how “they” operate. Time to remind myself that there is no “them.” There’s only us.)
  • And yet … glimmers of light … I was heartened by examples of people who were able to grow and change the way they thought about race. W.E.B. Du Bois is a great example of someone who had complex ideas about it from the beginning, and over a lifetime of grappling with the issue, discarded some and developed others, ending up a visionary. As my nephew Kern said in email exchanges, “Could we not all become visionaries? No reason not to try, right?” And I say, “Let’s go for it!”

Will return at a later date to continue the subject, after more reading, viewing, and forays into action. In the meantime, let’s all keep exercising our visionary muscles.

Margaret D. McGee

Speaking of action, let me commend the work of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 1963 whose principal mission is “to secure equal justice for all through the rule of law, targeting in particular the inequities confronting African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities.” Yesterday I watched a presentation by one of their staff members that focused on voting rights, and was impressed enough to send them some money today.

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