My ancestral connection to slavery is through my grandma’s grandfather Daniel Brown (1833 – 1885).
Daniel was a founding father for me and my sister and first cousins, second cousins and third cousins. He started from nothing and, over a lifetime, acquired over 500 acres of land in Chesterfield and Charlotte Counties, Virginia. Not only did he lift his children and grandchildren above the tumultuous fight for survival, his foresight and vision also ensured his grandchildren would not have to start from scratch as he did. My grandma and her cousins would take property holdings for granted and, like many Old Money families, this gave their descendants a head start in life.
When I read a book like Old Money: The Mythology of American’s Upper Class by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., I recognize stories of past ancestors and the elevating influence of the “Dead Hand” over generations.
I am disaffected by those who look at issues of race and racism through a purely “systemic” and “structural” lens since they are incapable of seeing my truth. Daniel was a founding father in the best sense of the term and his life story undercuts the force of institutional racism. There has always been a place for black foresight and vision. Why wouldn’t the woke be absolutely thrilled that a former slave – a man who could not read or write – bent the world according to his will for the benefit of generations into the distant future? The man died in 1885 and we still live in his wake over 135 years later.
When I share the tales of Daniel’s triumphs, the woke say Daniel was an outlier, an anomaly. They say his triumph against adversity is of no value to oppressed black people today in 2021!
Diminishing and discounting my ancestor doesn’t sit well with me. He’s not just my ancestor. For myself and a couple of hundred close and distant cousins, Daniel informs us on how to perceive and understand the world. How prejudiced must someone be to tell me my ancestor must be discounted and dismissed in the name of “social justice”?
Slave owners never saw the humanity in the descendants of slaves. When the woke turn a blind eye to a high-achieving black ancestor, it causes me to wonder if the woke are as incapable of seeing the humanity in black Americans as the old slavers were.
Before one can be an ally of black Americans, one must see the humanity in the descendants of American slaves.
Stuck in a snowstorm in Mammoth, California,
I remember when I was very young, my mother had a rattan swinging chair. The kind that suspends from the ceiling. It was in my parent’s bedroom, next to the bathroom where she would spend time getting ready. I spent hours there as a child swinging back and forth and twirling around and around in much the same way as she twirled her blond hair around old metal curlers.
My mother, born into an era that applauded housewives as pinnacles of American morality, played her role dutifully, but you could tell there was an underlying tension. I believe she resolved it in the narrative she created for me. On a rather normal day that held no particular significance, I sat bouncing in the chair as my childlike mind explored my future. Maybe I’d be a nurse. After all, that was a profession many of my preschool playmates envisioned. Not one to buck the trend, it seemed good enough for me.
My mother did not have any problem with my pre-school nursing ambition. Still, she stopped her grooming to look at me. To pause and really see me, bouncing there in my underoos. She quietly, but with much determination, told me, “you can be anything you want to be. You can be president”.
I think that is the first time that I realized my own agency. Really? President? I had no idea.
Of course, being president was going to take some work on my end. My mother’s high expectations of my endless possibilities generated a determination on my part, not necessarily to be president, but to reach my full potential.
Soon after the idyllic days of the rattan chair, my dad decided to take a post as the Air Force Attaché in Rangoon, Burma. This was perhaps the second biggest development in my personal narrative. My little world expanded as I attended school with Koreans, Filipinos, the British and a cornucopia of other nationalities. My first two “boyfriends” were Thai and Filipino. I had the hots for the son of a Burmese Air Force liaison. I got in the most trouble with the Koreans.
At the age when stereotypes may usually develop and solidify, I was exposed to humanity across cultures. And ultimately, this exposure determined my trajectory, not to become a nurse or president, but to connect across disparate cultures in search of our common humanity.
Like you, the stories of oppression, systemic racism, and white supremacy, were just not a part of my experience. Granted, my experience was not your average American experience. However, having witnessed the brutality of the totalitarian Burmese junta, coupled with the commonality I found in the dreams and aspirations of my multicultural posse, I returned to America forever changed.
And perhaps this is why I am so uneasy with our current racial commentaries and discourse, or at least those that our media likes to highlight.
For example, in the past week, I’ve been reading a lot on a new trend that declares math is racist: one plus one may equal two, but if a child reaches a different conclusion and you correct them, you may be a racist. I read these stories in disbelief. I can’t help but wonder if the media is only picking up on fringe movements, or if this is really something that has wider appeal.
When I read such stories there is something that does ring true. We create narratives for ourselves from our experiences. If over time, some teachers teach down to students of color, assuming that math is not their strength, or if children were born into families that do not support educational pursuits, then this can have an impact on the story that starts to play into the minds of our children. They start to believe that they aren’t able to compete educationally, and this saying rings true – “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
What I’ve found in all my travels is that the principles of liberty and freedom are universal human values that transcend culture. I witnessed it in the yearnings of liberation that surfaced shortly after we left Burma, resulting in a massive crackdown in 1988. A year later, we saw it again in China in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Then again in the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe.
What I found so remarkable was that our country in particular, and other Western countries in general, birthed these ideas. It is due to these western values that the only foreigners we didn’t engage with during our time in Burma were the North Koreans. A despotic nation so fearful of value contamination, they were not allowed to co-mingle in the ex-pat community where Westerners were present. Heck, we even hung out with the Russians, and this was the height of the Cold War. In fact, it was a true Russian bear hug from the Russian military attaché that perhaps did the most to solidify our common humanity in my young mind.
Although these values did not extend to everyone at our founding, it is because of them that we have evolved to expand rights to women, people of color, those of different sexual orientations, and so on. It is because of these values and the agency of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass that we fought a civil war and ended slavery. And these values spurred Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the Civil Rights Movement. While not always timely, and often marred with bloody struggle, we continue to expand these values.
The challenge to these values is the institutionalization of a narrative of oppression. This emerging discourse locks us into patterns that are hard to unravel. Indeed, unraveling the institutions that upheld racism has been a historic challenge. Instilling the ethos of oppression and “learned helplessness” is akin to the dumbing down of students of color, and ultimately the most egregious of racisms. Oppression and helplessness instill a lack of agency.
Liberation, freedom and equality – which I assume are the goals of our new activists – are suffocated without agency. But we can change the narrative.
The stories of your ancestors are a start. The stories of daughters who were told they could be president are a start. The story of a black man who did become president is a start.
As we engage in a more honest review of our history, we must wrangle with oppression, but let us not forget the stories of uplift and strength, the stories of Daniel Brown and many others who blazed their own trails despite the truly gigantic obstacles they faced.
In transit from Hyderabad to Dubai,
J.D. Richmond is the founder of Truth in Between and the host of the Hold my Drink Podcast: navigating the news and politics with a chaser of civility. She is constantly searching for context through correspondence and conversation.
W.F. Twyman, Jr. is a former law professor in search of truth in the public square.