Reparations Warnings

Before we get into reparations warnings, I want to thank y’all who’ve contacted me to let me know you’re reading or were intrigued to read The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. I truly loved this collection of stories (as you can tell from my review), and I’m glad to have successfully shared my joy.

Next we continue my reparations journey with some reparations warnings.

In this post I’m gonna share some things I’ve learned in the VERY early stages of my journey. Some are pitfalls to avoid. Some are actual warnings. You can read the first post with ” me facts” here and the “real me facts” here. Be sure to read to the end of this post. You’ll see how badly I’ve messed up in the past.

Don’t turn your racist past into a badge of honor

As you research, you will learn new facts about your family. Some may be horrible facts. As you process those facts, you’ll struggle with what to do with them. One temptation is to take those facts—by which I mean the actions of people you are descended from—and turn them into bragging points. “My ancestor was so racist that she…”

Here’s the problem: telling on your racist ancestors doesn’t actually prove how non-racist you are. I mean, just because they’re jerks doesn’t mean you aren’t one too—trust me, I know. Think of it this way: remember that old ’70s thing where you tried to make yourself okay by making someone else not okay? It never works.

Don’t center the pain of the oppressed

Don’t go on and on about the awful things your racist ancestor did. We know. No, really—we’ve seen the movies, we’ve read the books. We don’t need more of that. If you want to describe for us what your ancestor did, focus on your ancestor. For example, I suspect one of my ancestors stole a business idea from one of those he enslaved. What did he do? How did he do it? Was it considered theft even in those times? What was the ingenuity that was robbed? Think: thieving ancestor, genius enslaved entrepreneur. Keep the camera on that. (I give you more on this ancestor as we journey along, I promise.)

Don’t chicken out

At some point (maybe as you continue to read these reparations warnings!), you’re going to start arguing with yourself. Or at least negotiating. If you’re like me, you’ll start positing: aren’t you just centering your white self again? Isn’t that the wrong thing to do? Wouldn’t it be best to tip-toe back behind the curtain and let it be?

I know about de-centering myself. When the Door of Hope Writing Group began to get famous in Memphis, reporters called. They wanted to talk to me about the group. I said, you can talk to the group. I gave them names and numbers. They said, we can talk to you. I said, no you can’t. It was a constant tug of war. I had to fight to get them to interview members of the group.

This isn’t that.

Don’t check the box

This isn’t a Calipari game of “one and done.” You can’t make the confession, write the check, and move on.

I remember my dean at St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral preaching on forgiveness. He said forgiveness means being open to God moving you back into relationship with the forgiven one (not if it’s unsafe, of course–God wouldn’t do that). I thought, well, crap. Truly, I preferred, “I forgive you; I just don’t want to ever cross paths with you again.” Distant. Unemotional. Protected.

Latasha Morrison’s book Be the Bridge (which you’ll hear me quoting all the time), says, if you’re going to embark on this journey, you have to ask yourself: if I don’t want to walk back toward those my ancestors oppressed, why am I doing this? If the answer is to make myself feel better, it isn’t going to turn out well. Instead, study your life. See how reparations fits into your values. If you’re religious, ask yourself, is this the work God has for me in the world? Because it will be work.

Be ready for pushback

Another reparations warning: people will tell you that you’re seeing racism where it doesn’t exist. Neophyte that I am, I’ve already experienced this. It puts you in the incredibly weird position of assuring the person, oh, yes, I was acting on racist thoughts. It’s easy to see why people make this pushback. They think, hey, I do that; it’s not racist. But maybe it is

You will offend people you care about

When you confess your racism or the racism of your ancestors, you risk insulting those who like you perfectly well as you are. I’ve had this happen. As I confess my faults, people look at me differently. The side-eye. The momentary hesitation. Maybe because my faults aren’t their faults. Or because they belong to the group I’ve treated unfairly. How do they trust me after that? Or what if, having heard it, they don’t even want to be in relationship, so trust isn’t actually an issue?

These circumstances need to be handled individually, too much for this post on reparations warnings. Just don’t let them scare you off the journey.

It won’t stay put

Maybe it’s me, but it takes a lot to look with clarity at my ancestors. If we give up the myths about those we came from, who are we? (As I type this, it sounds very Faulknerian, so maybe it’s peculiarly Southern, but so be it.) We need a shift in perspective to undertake this work. And perspectives are slippery things. Once you shift them, it’s hard to keep them from oozing into areas you didn’t intend. Your new perspective will assert itself when you look at other aspects of your life and ask to be recognized.

Be ready for your steely gaze to cut from your reparations inquiries into the fullness of your life to show you things that might make you pause, reflect, and change the way you see that too.

Am I scaring you?

Am I scaring you off this journey? I don’t mean to do that. But surely every hero scavenging her grandmother’s sword from the back of the closet, smoothing the map with her palm, wrapping the peanut butter sandwich in a napkin, and closing the door behind her deserves to know the risks. Because if you don’t knowingly accept the risks, it isn’t a heroic journey.

I promised I’d tell you…

I just told you how determined I was to get reporters to interview Door of Hope Group members rather than me. But I also set up an all-white panel to address the group.

Yep, the first Community Writers Retreat. I put together the day-long retreat for the housed and unhoused to attend writing workshops together. In asking authors to do us the favor of leading the workshops, I made a list of folks I knew to hit up. I looked at the list. They were all white. And straight. I looked at the Door of Hope writers. That panel would not do. So I started over and cold-called famous (and soon-to-be-famous) people I didn’t know and asked them to please offer their talents. They did. All of them.

Yes, it was embarrassing to make an ask I had no business doing (I’m easily embarrassed, easily filled with fear.) But, as was often the case with the Door of Hope Writing Group, I had to examine my behavior, and, to do the best for the group, correct it.

Evangeline giving me the side-eye after reparations warnings
Evangeline giving me the side-eye

Enough with the reparations warnings.

Let me say it again: we are all in this together. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

making reparations, my reparations journey, Reparations, reparations warnings, southern reparations

Comments (4)

  • I asked for more and you delivered, so please don’t stop now. I think this chapter is wise, lucid and helpful. I might have some disagreements along the way, but I will waituntil you complete this project. I applaud yourvwillingness to undertake this effort. The rest of us are already in your debt.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I’m always open to another way of looking at things, so speak up whenever you feel the Spirit move you. 🙂 TY for following along-I enjoy the company.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      TY, Joanne. I had to correct myself on a weekly basis when I was facilitating writing group. It was an ongoing lesson in humility.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay in Touch with Ellen's Very Southern Voice Newsletter

Follow Ellen Morris Prewitt

Subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,111 other subscribers