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.