The following is a personal look into my own unpacking of the white narrative I grew up with as well as a book review on one of the most life-changing books on black history that truly opened my eyes: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
Black lives matter.
Words cannot fix the pain that is occurring in our country right now. As a white person, I know that words are often overused and trite when it comes to issues like racism, anti-racism, and white supremacy. And yet, I am a writer. It is how I process the world in many ways. So my attempt in writing this piece is to share words — heartfelt words that may help fellow white people understand where we have ended up as a nation, because I know my audience is mainly white.
(Also, I want to acknowledge that the first half of this article is about my own journey, which may be considered to some to be centering myself in a dialogue that should be about black people. But again, I know that much of my audience is white, and I feel it’s important to share a little of my own journey to deconstruct from my upbringing here. And to anyone who wonders, please know that behind my words are heartfelt actions as well. I am putting true actions into those words through local advocacy, meaningful relationships, donations and political action.)
An introduction to my own white ignorance about topics like black history and white supremacy
Full disclosure: I grew up in a fundamentalist white evangelical household. I was homeschooled, which is about as fundamentalist white evangelical Christian as you could get. It was legit white brainwashing. I actively read books that painted America as a holy Christian nation founded through God’s Christian generosity, and I read stories glorifying the Founding Fathers as almost otherworldly saints with a special mission to bring God to savage peoples and indoctrinate the world for Jesus. There was no true nuanced conversations around how many of the Founding Fathers and Presidents had owned slaves or actively participated in atrocious acts toward other human beings in their conquest of America.
I didn’t know many black people at all. But I knew I wasn’t racist, because racists were those awful Southern people from back in time that said “nigger” in the 60s and made black people drink at different water fountains and eat at different restaurants. Racism was not talked about — or at least, if it was mentioned, it was mentioned in past terms like slavery, the Civil War, and a little bit about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement.
Fast-forward many years. I had already begun wrestling with my highly fundamentalist past, but I hadn’t completely rejected it yet.
It was during the 2014 Ferguson Unrest, in Missouri that I remember thinking, “There’s something here I’m not understanding.” While that protest and the newly formed Black Lives Matter movement was, in general, painted negatively by the press and in my white evangelical social circles at the time, I remember thinking that a community rising up in so much pain and anger wasn’t something that just happens for no reason.
It was the first rustling of discomfort in my own consciousness that something wasn’t right. I began paying a little more attention — just a little, admittedly, but it was the smallest step in the beginning of my own deconstruction of my white-centered narrative of history.
At the end of 2014, Selma the movie by Ava DuVernay came out, and I felt compelled to see it. (I think I went alone, because I can’t remember going with anyone, and who really would’ve wanted to in my circles?). The movie truly gripped me with its powerful story of facing outright hatred and violence with resolve and courage. Yes, I get it — I’m white and I had been living in my white evangelical Christian bubble, but the reality of what the Civil Rights movement in the 60s had endured really hit me for the first time. Compelling storytelling will do that in ways history books and facts never can.
“How could white people behave this way? How could it have been okay?” I wondered as I wept in the theater.
In 2015, the shooting in a black Charleston church happened when a young white man killed nine black church goers. I remember then that something really broke inside me. I was upset in ways I hadn’t ever been before. I wept. I did artwork and wrote a poem about it, because the darkness that existed in American began to scrape at my insides. This wasn’t just in the past. This was our current history…
Because I didn’t have any close black friends at the time, I tried to talk about the shooting with one of my white evangelical friends to help me process the grief I felt. Her response? “Ugh! I don’t need that negativity in my life.”
For the first time, I realized that a lot of white Christians just didn’t care. And while I knew a small handful of individuals that deeply cared about justice in my circles for things like overseas poverty and slavery, human trafficking (which sometimes included the US), etc., there was just a pervasive apathy that seemed to define the circles I was in for anything that was tied to racial justice in our own country. It was always easily dismissed as “a liberal agenda,” a crushing discussion-ender to any real Christian.
But my intuition couldn’t put down the topic, and I began earnestly studying how so many white Christians could’ve been completely fine with slavery and segregation during our country’s history. This is a documented fact. It truly broke my heart how a lot of white Christianity had been used in America in many ways to keep black people (and many others) in oppressive systems over the centuries. It was very, very troubling to me.
These studies began to open my eyes to other troubling ideas like white nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, racial genocide and violence, etc., and how the Christian religion in American (and around the world) had been used to prop many of these ideas up. These were things I had been wrestling with outside of the context of black history, but which made a lot of sense as I also delved into black history.
If so many white Christians could’ve beed so wrong about something as hideous as slavery and segregation, I thought, what could many white Christians be wrong about now?
Oh, how little did I know what was coming!
Tensions began to pile up around the 2016 election, and I was appalled when Trump was elected as President. How could anyone in their right mind vote for someone who had said so many awful things about minorities, who was outrightly sexist, who had a history of corruption, etc.? (Especially people who said they loved God and thought they were morally superior to others?)
That was the final break for me. Trump’s election tore away any lingering doubts I had that something was deeply wrong with the current white evangelical worldview — a worldview which had so quickly embraced Trump and acted like he was some great hero that would defend the Christian faith.
In fact, the 2016 election was the moment I walked away from white evangelicalism for good — along with all the things it had been embracing for years but which came to a head in the Trump campaign: fear-mongering, Christian nationalist rhetoric that was anti-democracy, racism, sexism, denial of modern science and a true moral hypocrisy.
Trump was odious, Trump was wrong, and I was done.
Ties cut, I was adrift in a world that no longer made sense. While I was deeply spiritual and deeply loved God, I had lost my grounding in a white evangelical God because of the hate I witnessed arise through Trumpism, and I had a hard time envisioning what a God or life could be outside of white evangelicalism. I was a spiritual orphan, and it took me several years to find solid ground again. A home for my weary feet.
At the beginning of 2017, I read The Warmth of Other Suns, and this book was the first one that truly tethered me to a comprehensive historical reality that I had hitherto known nothing about. It is one of the most definitive and life-changing books I’ve ever read. In it, I began to understand the true story of America outside of the fundamentalist white evangelical Christian bubble I’d grown up in.
I share about my story in hopes that it may bring insight into the slow deconstruction that white people usually undergo. I share about The Warmth of Other Suns to point to a black author who has done such incredible work around the historical struggle in America for black people. It was the first of many books I would read on the subject, but it still is one of the most important books I’ve ever read in my adult lifetime.
Understanding the Black Struggle in America through The Warmth of Other Suns
Developing empathy, studying black history, and listening to the stories of people who are different than us is vital for a flourishing country. And books like The Warmth of Other Suns by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isobel Wilkerson have helped me, as a white person, begin to understand history and develop essential empathy for those who are black in America.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a captivating, gorgeously written book of black history. It’s not about the horrors of slavery or the Civil War. It’s not primarily about famous black Americans that white people know like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks (although they do make their appearances).
The Warmth of Other Suns is about the period from 1915-1970 when African Americans began what historians now call the “Great Migration” from Southern states to Northern ones. Does this ring a bell from your history classes in high school? Probably not. Most likely it’s a piece of history you may not have heard about.
“Over the course of six decades, some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America,” writes Wilkerson about the migration. “The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s.”
Did you catch that? Six million black Americans would migrate from the South to the North over the course of a few decades. That’s a staggering number—and the numbers themselves speak of something that should be delved into by inquirers.
Why? Why did six million black people flee the only homes they knew in vast numbers that match the death-toll of Holocaust victims? It’s an important question, and the stories about this Great Migration are important to our nation’s current dialogue.
Wilkerson aptly describes the reasons of the Great Migration throughout her book, but she doesn’t just give facts. She tells stories. This is why The Warmth of Other Suns book stands out to me more than any other book might on this topic. Wilkerson interviewed over 1,000 people for this book to find the heart behind statistics and facts. In engaging prose, she highlights three real black Americans who survived the Great Migration:
George Swanson Sterling – A smart young man who picked oranges in Florida, but then fled to New York City to avoid possible lynching when he began speaking out about the unfair wages and corruption he witnessed.
Robert Joseph Pershing Foster – An ambitious young man from Louisiana who ended up in Los Angeles, California, because he wanted to become a true doctor and knew he would never be recognized as such in the South.
Ida Mae Gladney – A wife and mother who fled with her husband from Mississippi to Chicago to escape a poverty-stricken life of sharecropping and outright violence at the hands of Southern landowners.
With vivid storytelling, Wilkerson lays out the lives of these three very different individuals — from their impoverished childhoods all the way to their deaths almost a whole century later in newfound homes. Through her interviews, she paints the stark background of corruption, violence, and poverty that many black people endured in the South.
On lynchings, a common occurrence in Southern states (and across the nation), Wilkerson relates the realities of growing up a black man. In describing horrors like the lynching case of Claude Neal in Florida — a black man who suffered torture, lynching, and dismemberment after being accused of raping a white woman whom, it was later to be discovered, was possibly murdered by her own relatives — Wilkerson helps readers understand the historical context of the fear that plays into the lives of black people to this day.
“The grown people’s whispers of unspeakable things seeped into George’s subconscious like a nursery rhyme, even though he was too young to understand the meaning of it all,” Wilkerson describes of George Sterling’s childhood. “Surrounded as he was by the arbitrary violence of a ruling caste, it would be nearly impossible for George or any other colored boy in that era to grow up without the fear of being lynched.”
In fact, many historians have argued that the Great Migration has more similarities to a mass immigration (i.e., immigration: when people flee their own country because of war, famine, etc.; as opposed to migration—when people simply move to another place for varying reasons).
“The Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refuges from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world,” writes Wilkerson. “Where oppressed people … go great distances, journey across rivers, deserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.”
However, many black people suffered the same kinds of injustices that refugees tend to face when they tried to resettle in the North. Wilkerson relates the exploitation from Northern companies, the violence and poverty that greeted many African Americans in big cities, and the fear of white neighborhoods that reacted strongly to black people purchasing homes in their areas.
In other words, finding their way to the North was not necessarily a Happily Ever After for many black Americans. And in other words, some of this black history may sound very familiar to stories we’re hearing today, doesn’t it?
If history is not dealt with, then history has a way of repeating itself. If you don’t (or won’t) understand where a whole people group has come from, what they dealt with — both in the South and the North — then you cannot understand the context of the conversations unfolding today as protests break out over the land and as worries about Trump and his disturbing rhetoric and mentalities loom ahead of this 2020 election season.
- For example: The cries of black people who see their own brutally murdered by officers and the concept of police brutality are often mocked and questioned by many who could not understand such pain, but the historical context of lynchings and brutal violence (which was completely legal) toward black people can bring empathy and cause us to start asking questions and delving deeper into complex modern issues. Is violence something that is okay when it has to do with black people in particular, and why does is seem that we still (even if subconsciously) view them as more disposable?
- Another example: Fleeing injustice and being vulnerable places people in hard financial situations that businesses can capitalize on. Once they came to the North, black people suffered lower wages and higher rent simply for being black. They were paid lower than any other immigrant coming into America. Because of this exploitation, poverty set in quickly—and the “inner cities” of places like Chicago became a hotbed of more injustice, violence, and exploitation. The “inner cities” we love to critique became this way do to businesses’ exploitation of the most vulnerable in society. Blaming black people for poverty and the historical injustices and exploitation they couldn’t control as businesses took advantage of them doesn’t quite seem right, now does it? And what does that say in our current landscape as businesses continue to exploit the vulnerable during a pandemic, and that black people (as well as immigrants and other minorities) are bearing the brunt of this current crisis?
- Last example: Because of poverty, it was hard for black people to afford houses. They were faced with unfair landlords and real estate agents who many times refused to give them decent prices. When a black family did succeed in owning and finding a home in a decent neighborhood, then white neighbors would panic — sometimes violently, with riots akin to anything black Americans had experienced in the South. In fact, white people began fleeing to new suburbs to avoid having to associate with black people, which they felt made neighborhoods depreciate in value, and rules were made in realty to deny black families homes in white neighborhoods. Thus segregation continued in an unseen form in many major cities. Is this right? And maybe it’s worth checking one’s heart and wondering why, as a white person, we would ever think that minorities are somehow a threat to our neighborhoods and throw tantrums when they finally seem to succeed at the “American Dream”? Why is there still so little actual diversity in many schools, neighborhoods, and work places?
Some reading this may object and say, “Well, all immigrants have it hard! It’s just that way when you’re settling in somewhere new. And white people have lots of struggles, too.” Yes and no. Being partly Irish, I’ve done my own studies on Irish immigration — a people who suffered intense discrimination as they made their way to America fleeing gross tyranny, starvation and violence at the hands of the English.
No, being white is not a free pass on hardships. Yes, it can be rough for many immigrants who try to settle in America. However, because many Irish immigrants (and others) were white-skinned, as long as they assimilated quickly, they were eventually able to melt into the systems that were made for white people and by white people to get ahead in this country. An Irish immigrant’s family could eventually become just another white family with enough hard work.
This is not the case for black people.
There isn’t a melting pot for black people where they can suddenly blend in and feel right at home with everyone else after a few generations of hard work. Black people (and other minorities) forever stick out in a majority white world no matter how hard they work to make better lives for their children. I think it’s something to we all need to acknowledge, pondering the implications.
The cycles of injustice are there — even today — simply because of someone’s ethnicity. And as a white person, it is my duty to understand black history, to ask hard questions of myself, and to fight systemic injustice wherever I may find it. For only when all are treated fairly will dysfunctional cycles stop within our society.
And because Trump has continuously fanned the flames of white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-black rhetoric, is it any wonder that we are where we’re currently at as a nation again?
Right now, I personally have been doing soul searching more deeply than ever before. I have recognized my own white privilege in deeper levels, and I have been repenting of how I’ve often stereotyped black people in my lifetime. In realty, my own unconscious and subtle racism is often more dangerous than blatant wrongs like slavery and segregation for the longterm health of our country, and my own fear of making other white people mad at me or uncomfortable for speaking out is part of the problem.
White Americans, we must face our past. We must face ourselves.
We must fight systemic injustice in America that keeps black people (and other minorities) down. We must work for a better world and do our best to unpack our parts in past and current injustice, although it may be a slow, slow journey. But I’m committed to learning, even though I will make many mistakes along the way.
We all will make mistakes. And that’s okay, because in order for our nation to truly heal, we must try.