(Some of) What I Learned about the white man’s burden about slavery and the culture of racism from my Southern father in the 1960’s.
From 2016 — still timely. Thanks, Pop.
I worked in my first political campaign by stuffing and licking envelopes. It was 1962, and I was 6 years old.
My family is not a famous political family, nor has anyone ever been a professional politician.
We have always held the office of a more important role — citizen.
My mother was the brains and engine of our political involvement. She was from the mid-west and abhorred the Jim Crow South. She had 6 kids under 8 and had to work in her profession as a librarian to help support the family, and she had to hire a maid, as was the custom and the economy of the times, to sustain the home and family while she worked.
Her non-southern relatives may have looked down on her for that, as if she was contributing to the problem. I know she worried over that. But the truth was that she was providing honorable, decent work for some of the most amazing women of the South, for whom this was the only work allowed them at the time.
Mom was the engine but Pop got all the glory for his political involvement and work — the work mostly done by her. She may have been “of that generation,” but it sure pissed me off enough to know I was never going to buy into that system, i.e., get married.
I will say she was the engine, but Pop was very keen on civic duty too.
He was a Southerner, born in Louisiana in an era closer to the lifestyle of Huck Finn than FDR.
It was Pop who first told me about the Southern Man’s Burden, also known as the White Man’s Burden.
The way he talked about it, is was a cultural thing that everyone knew about.
Some took up the mantle, some denied the need.
Pop felt the weight keenly.
He explained that it is the burden of all Southerners — the burden of slavery.
The heritage of slavery, how it had been so fundamental to the southern culture, how there would not have been any southern life style or culture of wealth without slavery.
How the Civil War was fought over not only slavery but the economy?
When the slaves were freed, there was no economic infrastructure in the south.
So many things were knotted up together.
It wasn’t like you could free the slaves and keep on going.
There was no diversification of labor, or income.
The south was agrarian. The south grew things. The south had always grown things.
The entire economy, lifestyle, riches, art, everything in the south rested on the backs and shoulders of every man, woman and child slave.
And even though the plantation owners had their own worries and responsibilities, they honestly believed the lie that there was more than one race, and in fact that they were all part of the most evolved race.
This fiction is the only thing that kept them going, and the fact that this fiction was so strongly held by so many, helped them believe it.
But they were not stupid people.
They knew full well that their success rested on the backs of these people that they bought and sold.
That’s one reason why they wanted to make sure the slave population had not reading or education.
Partly like the song says, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, once they’ve seen Paris?”
Keeping them ignorant made them easier to handle and scare.
And there is the obvious reason — the belief in the lie of races, and that the slaves were an inferior race.
This was another example of what Pop meant when he talked about the Southern Man’s Burden. For instance, he, my father, had siblings and relatives who, until their dying day, believed that the Negro’s were a race that was less than the whites.
Towards the end of her life, my father’s sister, my favorite aunt, admitted, “I know it’s wrong of me, I know I shouldn’t believe this way but all my growing up they taught us that the Negro’s were a different race, and a lesser race, and I’m sorry but I still believe that. I know I shouldn’t but I do.”
All this came out in dribs and drabs as I was growing up, with the Viet Nam war and Watergate and Walter Cronkite, and that new kid, that Texas boy, Dan Rather, and Huntley and Brinkley — serious men talking seriously about the events of the day.
Not framing it for everyone, but actually describing, in as neutral a way as possible, the events of the day.
Without have to editorialize, just pointing the camera at what was happening at the time, informed more deeply than a thousand shouting people.
The only other time I heard about the White Man’s Burden was in All the King’s Men, which I read somewhere around the Watergate years.
If you were a White Southern man and you lied, cheated and stole to get your way, including running water and electricity out to the poorest of the poor, people might hold you in distain as a racketeer.
But if you were a white guy who lied, cheated and stole to win an election, to keep a war in a foreign land going, while your pals made millions off the machines and tools of war, well, you’re not so bad.
A lot of people said that Nixon didn’t do anything unusual, he just got caught is all.
Nixon himself said — and clearly believed with all his heart — that since he did these things as president, he wasn’t breaking the law. A twisted logic for sure, but one many people have, like some orange candidates for instance, who truly believe that they are above the law. Slippery slope.
I don’t ever hear anyone talking about the White Man’s Burden anymore. And the fact that so many white people believe simply that they didn’t have a hand in it, because of where they lived or which side of the Civil War their relatives fought on, just keeps things going.
Pop was an economist, so he knew how the economy shapes society.
He was cautionary and mad that Nixon would not shift to a peace time economy, and kept the war economy going, among other things.
He warned that whenever you create a new industry it is like adding a new engine. Seems fine on the surface, but what fuels the new engine? The new engine is going to consume something — you need to be conscious of what it will take to feed that new engine.
Like privatizing jails. It takes inmates and a constant supply of inmates to make the private jail business viable.
Consuming citizens is not what a civilized nation wants to do with its people.
Rewrite and rework the economy from feeding suppliers of war to feeding families, as well as suppliers of new industries, technology, education, conceive of new organizations like the Peace Corp or AmeriCorps to address and attend to the issues of racism and economic racism, all forms of institutionalized racism and segregation — all still necessary, undone and the only reparations that really matter.
And benefiting from my liberal father’s White Man’s Burden even further, let’s straighten out the language of our culture to reflect the value of people for their essence, not skin color, nationality, or sex.
Rearrange and actually balance the tax code, food stamps and WIC disbursal to give a break to black families where all members are present, to undo the cultural damages of the past 30–150 years where there were institutional requirements that the family must be broken, no father present, to qualify for aid.
Let’s teach kids in school how every step of the development and growth of the United States was in fact due to the skill, intelligence, soul, talents, and literal blood, sweat and tears of all the people who were enslaved, including the myriad forms of economic slavery that are still in practice today.
Let’s stop teaching the lie that slavery ended at the end of the Civil War. Let’s top teaching the lie that the war ended in the last century when really, it just seeped into the law and culture in bastardized, abusive, devious ways.
Let’s not hide from these truths but address them.
Let us not, as white people, be as ashamed of the existence of slavery as we are grateful and determined to celebrate the ingenuity, grace, dignity and humanity of the enslaved people, and honor their progeny standing in front of us today.
Let us collectively celebrate the phenomenal contributions to our cultural wealth by this honorable and distinguished section of great Americans instead of play some “colorblind” games that no person of color can afford to play.
Let’s find more and more ways for all Black people to share their stories, their experience, strength and that can give us all hope.
I can’t keep saying, “Sorry for your loss. Sorry no one believes you or listens to you.”
I can’t keep saying that to Black people any more than I can say it to other rape victims, like me.
We’ve all taken the rap for the Colonial and Empire thinking Manifest Destiny believing conquering faction of society too long.
This Manifest Destiny, petulant “must be my way” white way has got to stop.
And that’s why the old white world is so viciously frightened.
Ironically they are just getting a taste of what it is like to be on the other end of white privilege and they don’t like it any better than anyone else.