An evil, stubborn legacy

Dear President Trump,

After having read her autobiography about getting both a BFA and an MFA in painting while in her 60’s, I decided to read Nell Irvin Painter’s tome “The History of White People.” I’ll admit that the other book was way more my speed. Her observations on age, gender, and race (since I doubt you know, I’ll tell you that she’s African American) in the art world were compelling and sobering. It was a hard act to follow, but the HoWP is an incredibly rich and well-sourced historical treatise about how the concepts of race, of whiteness and blackness, were manufactured and why they were manufactured.

I’m only about a quarter of the way through the 400-page book. Much of what I’ve read so far has been about how slavery has been part of the human story from the beginning of recorded history. I’ve known for a long time that slavery was common in Africa with conquering tribes laying claim to captives and enslaving them (or selling them). Apparently the Vikings did a lot of that and before them the Greeks and Romans had extensive class-based systems of slavery. None of these were based on race – the same color people were enslaving or being enslaved by one another – and there does not appear to have been a systematic effort to downgrade the enslaved people’s humanity. This is not to romanticize these versions of slavery. Painter certainly doesn’t and I don’t mean to either; it was brutal, and importantly, it was part of the sticky, deadly poisonous through line of humans’ longstanding proclivities towards degrading other humans.

The class-based system was, however, different from that which arose in what was to become the US. The latter quickly came to rely on a combination of vicious physical cruelty, systematic family separations, withholding of education, and unsubtle messaging to both the black enslaved and the white un-enslaved that this was the natural order because one race was patently inferior to the other race intellectually, physically, morally, and spiritually (or superior; just the other side of same messed up coinage).

Painter is dispassionate about it, but she describes Thomas Jefferson, who owned 135 slaves, myopically having discounted the corrosive, crushing effects of slavery in claiming slavery was more harmful to white slaveholders and their offspring than to enslaved blacks and theirs. From this it’s clear he presaged the long legacy of American racism right up to our current state of affairs. Even as he was such a parent, he was concerned that children of slave owners were watching their parents abuse other people and “thus nursed and educated, and daily exercised in tyranny” (HoWP; pg. 110). Whatever contradictions are entangled in this stance of Jefferson’s, I do think he foresaw the pernicious staying power of ‘othering’ and dehumanizing one another and was not expecting many slave owners to set noble examples for their children like his contemporary, John Newton presumably did when he was inspired to write “Amazing Grace” in 1779.

May we be safe from desperately insecure people.
May we all be willing to do the work of dismantling systemic racism and white privilege.
May we think way, way outside the box to arrive at ways of being together that allow
each to shine.
May we be kind to one another and may we each know peace.

Tracy Simpson

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