Thursday night I was on a local panel with the objective to start a conversation regarding solutions for “ending racism.” I was so very nervous the days leading up to it. Not feeling confident. Not thinking I knew enough to say anything impactful. Not feeling like I belonged among people who were smart enough to have solutions for racism. The night before the event, my niece asked me “What are you going to do? Blow up the world?” She is eight. I hate that she even knows what the word means. Racism is such an ugly word. It brings to mind anger, bitterness and sadly, ignorance. Race, itself, is such a complex yet simple word. It all at once delineates difference between people as well as shared traits. Then we have racism, the ugly word. Discriminating because we are different. Failing to see and appreciate that beauty is found in difference.
Our country has a difficult history of not recognizing the beauty in differences. The standard of physical beauty in the United States was defined very early as being White. This was especially evident during Josie’s lifetime. Reading through the newspapers that Josie read fill me with sadness for all Black women of her day. It was consistently reinforced that kinky hair, their hair, was ugly. Straight, soft, silky hair was the objective. These were products being produced by Black entrepreneurs, like Madame C.J. Walker. This White standard of beauty was accepted by the Black public. What choice did they have? It was reinforced by the newspapers. It was reinforced by society. It was reinforced, even if unconsciously, by the leaders of the Black communities.
A majority of photographs in periodicals like The Nashville Globe, a Black owned newspaper, were of light skinned successful Black citizens. Opportunity was more accessible for Black people who had lighter skin and silkier hair. Social mobility was more attainable. Even Black colleges like Fisk had a skin standard. Only a small percent of students were admitted whose skin was darker than a brown paper bag. Josie’s complexion was very light skinned. Was this the reason she had so many successes? Absolutely not. I would emphatically deny that till my last breath. Josie was a force of nature. She worked hard. She accomplished much. She didn’t see defeat. She saw progress. She saw forward movement. Did her light skin ease her path? It was the early 20th Century. I know her light complexion would have benefited her, but it wouldn’t have protected her from her Blackness. I was recently reading a 1922 obituary for a well respected light skinned Black woman. Her obituary was on the front page of a White owned newspaper. Within the obituary the text read “…she had very little Negro blood flowing through her veins..” Even for a woman who was well liked, it was necessary to justify her Blackness. She was Black, but she was White enough they could put her on the front of the newspaper. Light skin helped, but Blackness was always noticed.
What do these advertisements matter? Why does the justification of race in a newspaper 100 years ago matter? They were published so long ago. They matter to me because I see them daily in my work. They are in my peripheral vision constantly. Because of that, I clearly see the progress we have made. Obits that say “…although he was a Negro, he was a good man” would not be in print today. They were commonplace in Josie’s day. I see modern day discrimination. I look to the future and see how far we have to go as a society. But I also see how far we have come and I appreciate the people, like Josie, who with a strength unimaginable to me, did their part to move us forward.
We are a society recovering from 300+ years of the enslavement of an entire group of people based on race. A country who fought a war because that enslavement was threatened. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy criticized our founding fathers for thinking that Negro enslavement was morally wrong and scoffed at the idea of racial equality. He boasted of “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” It has only been 160 years since Alexander Stephens gave that speech. And it has only been 156 years since that enslavement ended. The racial progress we have experienced in this country since, has been brutally painful, but continuous. However, it is not complete. It will not be complete during our lifetime. To think that is a possibility is naive. Our objective should always be to do our generation proud and to continue to move forward.
As to the panel on “ending racism.” It did not go well. Most of the other panelist were on the panel to prove that racism only existed because we acknowledge it. As if we were looking for a problem that didn’t exist. One panelist said racial discrimination isn’t unique to the United States, it exists all over the world. That is a statement meant to minimize the experience of racial discrimination in the United States. If it happens everywhere, its normal right? One panelist, a Black man, said his parents and grandparents experienced racism, but he hasn’t. Only one in four women experience miscarriage. Just because I haven’t experienced it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Another panelist, kept reiterating “the Constitution protects us all equally.” YES, it does. But it didn’t initially. The Constitution was a gift from our founding fathers. A gift. But I hate when people use it incorrectly. We are still recovering from the years the Constitution did not protect us all equally. Acknowledging that fact, does not mean that it is any less of a gift. The “solution” being presented was accepting that racism no longer exists. I call bullshit. You know what the solution is? Continuous education and continuous forward movement. The glimpses I see of Josie’s life experiences are a beautiful illustration for me of where we were and of what is possible for the future. Progress is beautiful. Differences are beautiful. Truth is beautiful. We must learn more and do better.