Walking Up Mama’s Backbone: She Allowed Me to Question Whiteness
When asked once how he went from his dysfunctional, impoverished household with an abusive, alcoholic father to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning author able to purchase a home for his mother outright with the cash from his writing awards, Rick Bragg answered, “I walked up my Mama’s backbone.”
I spent a good bit of yesterday searching for ancestors, prompted by a reminiscence my Mama shared yesterday morning. What emerged was a fuller picture of the enormity of my mother’s most important gift to me.
My mother’s parents named around half of their 10 children for Confederate “heroes,” including one of their daughters named for Robert E. Lee; at least one of both of their parents was a Confederate soldier. They named her father Ernest Jefferson, after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. He had not one but two brothers named for Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—one named Thomas and one named Stonewall Jackson and called Jack. Stories got passed down to my mother of a relative who was so close to Robert E. Lee that he heard Lee’s surrender negotiations with Ulysses S. Grant.
My father’s father, as a member of the Augusta Police Band in my native Georgia, played at a Confederate reunion in 1928 in Little Rock, Ark., an event celebrated in the newspapers across the country, including the local paper. His mother had one brother named for the infamous defender of white supremacy and slavery, the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun, credited with the creation of the concepts of “interposition” and “nullification” as tools to prevent the federal government from outlawing slavery in slave states. David Calhoun McCaslan Jr. carried his father’s Confederate themed name and his mother’s grandfather, my third great-great grandfather, Thomas Yeargan, died for the Confederacy at Richmond, two months shy of the end of the Civil War.
Passing down those stories was not harmless. Whether conscious or not, they were part of a process to educate children to develop and succeed in the existing culture. The stories they chose to tell and how they lived lives that reflected those stores taught their children what to value and who mattered. They taught my family for generations how to be “white.”
You know where those stories stopped? With my mother. There was no valorization of the Confederacy or white supremacy in my house, not to my brothers and me, or to their children and now grandchildren. I knew bits and pieces, because as a budding young historian, I liked to ask about family trees and where people’s names come from. But the stories you see above—I found most of them out yesterday, because I searched for them.
My parents interrupted the socialization process of whiteness, my mother more so for me because my father is but a distant memory.
Let me be clear, there was still plenty of white-supremacist socialization in my life—by which I mean the process that teaches a child, born without culture as we all are, the norms and customs, the animating ideas that shape and define the society in which they will live, so that they can be proficient in it. In refusing to raise me and my brothers in a household in the South that didn’t celebrate or honor the Confederacy, she gave my brothers and me the space to hear other stories, to learn the norms and customs of at least an aspirational culture of human dignity and freedom.
My mother gifted me with the breathing room to question whiteness and its power over this nation.
This is where we start, but it is only a beginning. It is not enough to question and to try to choose not to be a part of a white-supremacist culture. (I say “try” because whiteness is insidious, and supremacy is an addiction. It takes work to overcome an addiction.) My skinfolk and I must also learn how to dismantle the norms and customs and institutions and systems that underpin and sustain white supremacy. We have to work with all who have been targeted and injured by those customs and systems to create a culture and society free from inequality, free from harm and free from despair as Ibram Kendi wrote this week.
It’s on me and everyone who looks like me to step up, to question, to listen and learn, and then to act as swiftly as is possible to repair and to not to cause more damage. It’s on us to teach our children a new story, with values animated and suffused with love and respect for the dignity of all human beings and the planet they live on, with deliberation and intention and care. You don’t ask the folks who weren’t invited to your party to come in and clean up your mess.
My mother gave me the greatest gift of all: the freedom to question an unhealthy and dangerous culture and to choose to live another way. Her gift took a spine as strong as steel. This day, and every day is hers.
I choose to live and work for a world where a young man can run free through neighborhood streets without being gunned down because of what he looks like and having his murderers protected until there was an outcry. A world where it’s not a daily hazard to exist.
Whiteness was an invention to control who gets the most benefit from capitalism. We can create something new. We must.
Let’s all get free.
For solutions for how white Americans can work to reverse white supremacy and its effects, see “65 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.”
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,000 words and factcheck information to email@example.com. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.
Co-founder and partner of Sustainable Equity, LLC
Dr. Susan M. Glisson is co-founder and partner of Sustainable Equity, LLC. Susan, a native of Evans, GA, earned bachelor’s degrees in religion and in history from Mercer University, a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary. Her focus is social justice and she has been working to change conditions that have created a legacy of inequities for more than 20 years.
Offering years of practice-based evidence in community building, advocacy and public policy, Susan works with organizations seeking to make the greatest collective impact in creating inclusive and humane work and social environments and to develop the capacity to form sustainable community trust. This work includes workshops, retreats, research as a basis for building networks and communities of practice to increase individual learning and collective action for social justice. Her motivation is simple: “My mother taught me to leave places better than I found them.”
As founding director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, Susan cultivated lasting partnerships with organizations promoting reconciliation and improved community relations both across the United States and in Belfast, Northern Ireland (with YouthLink) and in South Africa (with the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism & Democracy, and The Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice). At the Winter Institute, an internationally recognized civil rights and social justice center located at the University of Mississippi, Susan engaged in years of community-based trust-building and advocacy. She supported impoverished communities in the Mississippi Delta in securing basic services. She co-founded a faith-based social justice organization devoted to affordable housing and local empowerment. In 2006, she co-created the Steps Coalition, a broad-based, multiracial group on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to secure affordable housing, equitable economic recovery, and environmental sustainability.
As an advocate for social justice, Susan served as special liaison to the Philadelphia Coalition, which issued a call for justice in the 1964 Neshoba civil rights murders in a commemorative event on the fortieth anniversary of the murders. The event and subsequent work helped lead to the first state conviction in the case in 2005. During this time, Susan served the local community as a media liaison during the two-week trial. She helped create and served the Tallahatchie County Emmett Till Memorial Commission in 2007, which offered an apology in the miscarriage of justice in the Emmett Till case in 1955. She has dedicated years of service working with educators to increase civil rights education in schools and in fact, spearheaded the passage of SB2718, which mandates teaching civil and human rights history in all Mississippi classrooms.
Susan participated in the first Square One Roundtable convening “Examining the History of Racial and Economic Inequality: Implications for Justice Policy and Practice.”
Birmingham Mayor Orders Removal of Confederate Monument in Public Park
The statue, at the center of a legal fight, was defaced and damaged during a protest on Sunday night.
One day after dozens of protesters targeted the statue, the 115-year-old Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument in Linn Park, defacing and chipping away at its base, the mayor said it would be removed. A large crane arrived shortly before 8 p.m., in the final hours of Jefferson Davis Day, the state holiday in Alabama honoring the Confederate leader.
The statue has been at the center of a legal fight between the city and the state’s attorney general’s office, with the city wanting it removed but ultimately losing the battle. Still, Randall Woodfin, the mayor of the majority black city, approved the removal on Monday in defiance of the Alabama Monuments Preservation Act, setting the stage for another showdown.
On Sunday night, demonstrators gathered at the park, in downtown Birmingham, to protest the death last week of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed his left knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Protests have since spread across the country, and the officer, Derek Chauvin, has since been fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
In Linn Park on Sunday, the demonstration turned violent. Some of the protesters targeted the statue’s 52-foot-tall sandstone obelisk, spray-painting and chipping at its base. They also tried to topple it using a rope and a truck, according to news media reports.
On Monday, Mr. Woodfin vowed to take it down. He said its very presence would cause more unrest and division and would pose continued threats to public safety, outweighing any legal implications.
“In order to prevent more civil unrest, it is very imperative that we remove this statue,” Mr. Woodfin told AL.com, the website for The Birmingham News. “I understand the A.G.’s office can bring a civil suit against the city, and if there’s a judgment rendered from a judge then we should be held accountable, and I am willing to accept that because that is a lower cost than civil unrest in our city.”
By about 8 p.m. Monday, heavy equipment arrived at the park, including a crane, a forklift and a flatbed trailer. Once the statue is removed, it will be taken to an undisclosed location.
The monument had been covered with a tarp while the lawsuit between the state attorney general and the city played out. Last year, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the city had to pay a $25,000 fine for its obstruction of the monument, according to Mike Lewis, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office.
The attorney general, Steve Marshall, vowed to file a new civil complaint against the city if the monument was removed.
Across the country, in at least six states, anger over Mr. Floyd’s death has given way to the damaging or defacing of more than a dozen symbols of the Confederacy.
“In the same way people may view the police as the front face of the state, Confederate symbols are seen as the front face of a white supremacist ideology,” said Susan Glisson, who owns a Mississippi consulting firm specializing in racial dialogue and healing. “So it’s no surprise they were targeted.”
Last year, Mr. Woodfin offered to give the statue away free. The pitch was just another chapter in a long heritage-versus-hate discussion about what to do with Confederate symbols.
“Any Confederate museum that wants this thing can have it,” Mr. Woodfin said in a 2019 interview. “I’ll give it to them right now. Hell, I’m even willing to give them whatever they need to get it to them.”
We are re-organizing our website to better serve our partners and friends! The resources we have gathered for local organizing are now in one spot: https://sustainableequityorgresources.wordpress.com/
Check there for tools and models of community building!
Happy to have a great conversation with Ame Sanders at the State of Inclusion: In our podcast, we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion and community. We learn ways that communities are facing (or not) their realities of inequity and injustice. We will meet people who are changing their communities for the better and discover actions that we can each take to improve our own communities.
Check it out!!
In a compelling and interactive article/video, the New York Times looks at Emmett Till’s murder and how America remembers its painful racist past. Susan is quoted in the article, which notes her work as founding director of the Winter Institute in supporting over half a dozen Mississippi communities as they grappled with and addressed their own dark histories. You may find the article here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/02/20/us/emmett-till-murder-legacy.html
Discover the compelling stories of thirteen pioneers for social justice who engaged in peaceful protest and gave voice to the marginalized, working courageously out of their religious convictions to transform American culture. Their prophetic witness still speaks today.
Comprising a spectrum of voices—Catholic and Protestant, gay and straight, men and women of many different racial backgrounds—these activist witnesses represent the best of the church’s peacemakers, community-builders, and inside agitators. Written by select authors, Can I Get a Witness? showcases vibrant storytelling and research-enriched narrative to bring these significant “peculiar people” to life.
Susan and Charles write about Lucy Randolph Mason, an organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), an integrated labor union, in the nineteen thirties.
Find more here: https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/7573/can-i-get-a-witness.aspx