White Supremacy’s Handshake

I like to start with story because in many ways, it is where we all live – in the stories we tell each other about who we are and where we come from. Story is also how we make sense of the things that happen to us on the daily; they are always already fodder for theorizing. This one that I’m about to tell is no different and it is, I assure you, a very ordinary story.

During these twin pandemics of dis-ease and anti-black feeling, I found myself with a broken stove – the hearth of my home had diminished already in the pandemic to be sure – no more large gatherings of queer family around the hum of the range working its magic. In my quest to replace this small center of my world, I was lucky enough to have some advocates in the everyday and stressful ritual of receiving services in pandemic times. During this endeavor, I opened an email from someone who was helping me; they had the heroic fervor of those who think they’ve found a way forward in what looks like an really is a veritable hot mess.

I redact the first part of that email here: “Sharon, do you remember the famous scene in Gone with the Wind when Scarlett, resplendent in her green gown, shoots her fist in the air and exclaims, ‘As God is my witness…’? I do not own a plantation, nor a green gown, but, as God is my witness, we are going to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat for you . . . . !” If we were live in the same room, I might hear a gasp or two; in my mind I can hear my favorite Uncle working this tale like a squirrel on an acorn hull. He would send this tale up as high comedy and spin it in every direction each of us around the mahogany dining table in my late grandmother’s home on Otis street would add to it, the kids too, though our additions until we learned how to work with pain were often epic fails followed by a “that’s okay baby, you’ll get better at it, your Uncle’s just too good.” I learned to turn pain into an artform from an abundance of masterful free indirect discourse purveyors. In our family, this story would stay with us for years to come until it became someone else’s or was bested by another, and thus diminished, put in its proper historical place – a meaningless trifle from the mouths of the truly unaware.

This small tale does a lot of work that points to this moment for blackness in our nation’s history – this moment is not the story of reconciliation and redemption – and neither were the events on our Nation’s capital, my hometown, the place I shared my girlhood with when I wasn’t in the pine groves and creeks of North Carolina. The person who wrote this email hailed me, they wanted me to come out and play a part in a story so ubiquitous in this nation, that the proffered invitation is assured the ritual of a heathy and enthusiastic acquiescence.

I will tell you this: I saw that first line and immediately closed my computer and took my dogs for a long walk. Wherever this person was going with that opening salvo, it wasn’t going to be good and I cursed again the nice Irish name I had inherited from two sides of my family tree. I wanted to ask them: what does it mean to say you don’t own a plantation? What is a plantation to you? What I am trying to offer here in this story and its attendant literary analysis is that we still have yet to ferret out where a kind of common white supremacy lives and breathes and how it thrives so very quietly at times among us. Be assured that a story is being told here, but it is one in which I get to play “a slave,” to use a familiar phrase from black pessimism’s theoretical apparatus.

The story that hails me has several functions: to draw together everyday southern-loving people into a collective story; to convey shared intimacy of both purpose and culture, and perhaps most importantly, to continue the subtle handshake between southern persons, in particular, like that casual handshake between a police officer and an armed Heirs to the Confederacy protesters on our campus. A handshake, a gentle (man’s) agreement between like-minded individuals. But what does this handshake require from Black people? It requires that we endure in the everyday; that we join the pernicious social contract that sees grievous error and bodily harm as harmless gaff. Four hundred years of looking away has conditioned us to accept the green dress in Gone with the Wind and not the plantation and the window on which those curtains hang. In the pages of so many “southern” magazines I see what are called “former” plantations resplendent with the gardens Black persons tended and the irrigation systems they constructed to make rice, sugar, tobacco and cotton thrive. It is time for us to call the plantation not what it should be to us today, but what it has always been: theft of Indigenous land, the making of human being into machine, the space from which our “democracy” was thwarted and born, all at once; an awful simultaneity.

I have been called upon to account for so much of what happens in this deeply historic place – my South – where over five generations of black cis-gendered women in my immediate line have called home. In this multi-generational relationship, there is what I would call a psychic life – a thread of connection that has no material or even sometimes affective life – I never met my maternal great grandmother, for example. Yet, I feel her to be part of me. This connectivity is the stuff of Black cultural life and it creates, to use historian Tiya Miles’s language, “a tie that binds,” through generations of separation and violence and yes, loss and despair. This is a system of ethical action, of calling things as they are and of deliberate appreciation that stands in direct contradiction to white supremacy, where passing off one thing for another is easy and what is southern emerges as nothing more than a competent grifter, the confidence man at the center of our democratic ideals. In many ways white supremacy is American culture, and its form of governance, if you look at the historical conditions under which “America” came to be and take these conditions for what they are, rather than claim to be. Let us live in the perpetual arc of that moment, which is really every moment of our very being as a nation.

We must once and for all trade-in the madness of a practiced looking away, of a trained not-seeing of the body of the enslaved enduring a public beating while we go about our everyday; this scene is not a break in life, but its condition. We have sustained sedition among us and called it heritage, we have made the goals of democracy subservient to a sugar-coated ideal that is fast losing its currency. A confederacy, after all is what Webster’s intended it to be: “an alliance of people or groups formed for an illicit purpose.” How could we possibly be confused about its intent on January 6th, 2021 or any other day?

What do I want? I want you to join us in telling a much more vibrant, truthful and meaningful story of who we are and how we came to be. That story is the figurative hand I might like to grasp in friendship and in difference.

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