Family Hero Stories

If you are white and committed to racial justice, be prepared to give up what you are most proud of. I’m talking about your family hero stories. Your proud family—or personal—accomplishments. Look underneath those stories, and you might find harm done.

What’s the Rest of your Family Story?

Let me go first. Long as I remember, I’ve been proud that my great-grandfather in the Mississippi Senate led the charge to end convict leasing. Convict leasing was a terrible practice. The state rounded up Black Mississippians who were minding their own business, convicted them of made-up crimes, and leased them to for-profit enterprises. Railroads, timber companies, and wealthy planters took advantage of convict leasing. My great-grandfather was a wealthy planter. Thus I never understood why he ushered in its demise. Perhaps because he wasn’t one of the planters who benefited from the convict leasing gravy-train? I don’t know. But he did, and I was proud of that.

But you know what replaced convict leasing? Parchman Farm. I’ve written about the new state prison: modeled on deadly plantations, site of the Freedom Riders’ imprisonment. Destination in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. You can read its history in Worse than Slavery.

If You’re the Hero in the Story, Watch Out

Another example. I used to brag on how well the city of Charlotte reacted to busing for integration. I was in the first class of Charlotte school children who might be bused. My sisters and I stayed in public schools, waiting each semester to see if we would be bused to a new school. Most of Charlotte schoolchildren did the same. They did not scatter like buckshot into private academies the way my friends back in Jackson did. I was proud of that.

Back then, I didn’t know the harm “integration” was doing. Integration favored white institutions. If two existed before, and only one could survive after, the winner was white. The process harmed historically Black schools, sacrificed Black administrators, and took away Black teaching jobs. Now, when I start to brag on Charlotte and busing, I have to interrupt myself.

Why Do We Tell Hero Stories?

Of course, we’re the hero of our own stories. That’s the way we work. We want to be on the right side of whatever. Fashion, trends, history. So we look around, identify the right side, and polish whatever lands us there. In The Church Cracked Open, Stephanie Spellers uses the term “self-centrism,” which I really love. This definition holds that we place ourselves, our groups, our country, our religion at the center, where God should be. Here’s the kicker: as long as we are standing there, we can’t see the full, actual picture. We can only see our hero stories.

What to Do about Our Family Hero Stories?

This may sound perverse, and I know you don’t want to do it, but revisit in your brain what your family returns to as praise-worthy in its history. Write those family hero stories down. Then research the time periods. Ask: what was happening in the greater society? What were the controversial issues of the day? Flesh out the full picture. See what the true impact of your family’s actions might have been.

Why do this? The way I see it, addressing racism means my making change. Specifically, today I heard about a book called How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice. In it, author Jemar Tisby talks about the commitment phase of racial justice work. One of the actions in this phase is to give up your power and privilege. I haven’t read the book yet, so I apologize if I get this wrong. But it seems to me that a fine family history gives you power. And one white people privilege is continuing to believe in that fine family history regardless of its truth.

the two that created the family of my hero stories
The two that came together to create the family which defines my hero stories.

Charlotte NC busing, Commitment to racial justice, convict leasing, Family hero stories, Jemar Tisby and commitment, Sing Unburied Sing, The Church Cracked Open, Worse than Slavery

Comments (12)

  • Gogi you need to read Charles Marsh’s book The Last Days. His grandmother and grandpa lived across the street from me on Fairview. He will really give you the full meal deal of racism in Jackson and Laurel Mississippi, home of the KKK. He was a friend of mine although I only saw him on holidays. It is a great read and mind blowing. When I read Sing Unburied Sing I cried like a baby. Thank you for your stories, as that is what I feel them to be. But true. I have taken to non fiction these older days. Weird but true. Sometime the real world is stranger than fiction as you well know. Love j

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I have put it on the list to get from Octavia Books–I kind of collect books I want to read because they so often have to order them. I looked it up on Amazon, though–he’s at UVa! A fellow Wahoo. I really look forward to reading it. You are such a prolific reader, which I much admire. I really appreciate my words being part of what you read–thank you. <3 (Yes, Sing, Unburied Sing undid me too. But at least I could finish it. I quit Salvage the Bones simply because I felt I couldn't take the way it was going to turn out.)

  • Well sometimes we have to eat our eggplant parmesan and read on. I do miss the south but in a vague sort of way. Mom is non compis and I have no wish to deal with that as she does not know me. Sad. Love ya friend.

  • Marsha Van Hecke

    Ellen, I really appreciate your stories. And prompting us to remember and tell our own. I have some hero stories, and the way you suggest looking at them gives me a whole new path. Thanks, E & Julia, for the book titles too. And the photo of Bayard & Virginia…. wow! love, marsha

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I love that we are all talking amongst ourselves in these comments–I need the support of other people on this path. It so helps. My experience with family hero stories is that they are true, and only a shard of the big picture.
      Ha! That’s Daddy Joe, not Daddy (Bayard). Joe Henry Morris, whose family supplied so very many of the hero stories. \
      Love to you, Marsha.

  • Marsha Van Hecke

    Oh my goodness. I should have known that wasn’t Bayard!! 🤦🏻‍♀️
    Yes, I think it’s important to talk with people you trust —it has certainly opened my eyes wider to my own white privilege and the wider and different perspectives on the changes we thought so progressive. And I’ve only touched the surface.

  • Perhaps because my family’s US roots are much more recent, the family stories I know are much more hardscrabble than heroic. Still, I know that my being white has brought me privilege and access in a way that being BIPOC would not.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      In America, hardscrabble is admired, a type of hero story. Which isn’t to say that you have the terrible history that I do, not at all. Just that hero stories are fluid, taking many shapes and forms.

      • That’s interesting that you say that, Ellen, and perhaps a regional difference. Growing up in rural New England, hardscrabble was not seen in a heroic or admirable way. Perhaps it is our tradition of stoicism and matter-of-fact-ness that resists romanticizing our families’ and neighbors’ lives.

        • Ellen Morris Prewitt

          This is one reason I blog: I often assume my perspective is universal, when most of the time it’s either personal or, as you say, regional. Good to know about rural New England–the South, unfortunately, does NOT resist romanticizing itself!

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