RBG, Donald Trump. and me

You’ll be excused for thinking that Donald Trump, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I had little in common. But last week’s news of RBG’s death and Trump’s announcement that he’ll form a 1776 Commission tasked with promoting patriotic education left me thinking about how all three of us grew up studying the same version of American history. 

I’ve long been interested in history. During third-grade trips to the library, I gravitated toward books with bright orange covers: biographies of famous Americans. Maybe because so few women were in the series, I specifically recall reading about Julia Ward Howe and Dolly Madison. Black Americans? There was George Washington Carver. 

In eighth grade I learned that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but over whether states could leave the Union. 

In college I took enough history classes (including student teaching) to become certified to teach high school history in the state of Virginia. My history teachers were all men, and the material we studied was mainly about war and conquest. Good American men (all of them white) led other men into battle and through their courage and superior abilities overcame the enemy. Then men (all of them white) helped the country recover from whichever war they’d fought so that they’d be ready to fight the next one. 

My current writing project has taken me to North Carolina newspapers from the 1890s. Editors supported an amendment to the state constitution imposing a poll tax and a literacy test for voters. No one was subtle about the amendment’s purpose. It was to “deprive the Negro from suffrage” and “restore to white men the rightful superiority which God gave them.” The amendment passed.

In Begin Again Eddie Gaude, refers to the lies about American history. “According to these lies, America is fundamentally good and innocent….[But] the United States has always been shadowed by practices that contradict our most cherished principles.” 

Trump says that in contrast to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project his 1776 Commission will teach a more patriotic history. I fear he wants to return to stories of white men and their wars. After all, there’s nothing like conquest to make a man feel virile. The commission will probably add a sprinkle of well-behaved women and Blacks who knew their place. Omit lynchings, Black disenfranchisement, immigrants kept in detention camps, race riots, labor riots, women arrested for distributing literature on contraception. Oh, and slavery of course, except masters who were kind to their slaves.

In her youth RBG, too, studied the “old-fashioned” approach to American history. Instead of limiting her education, though, to white men’s glorious achievements, she paid attention to the history of racial and gender inequality. To the history of Black disenfranchisement and job discrimination against Blacks and women. Instead of thinking about battles won, she focused on those yet needing to be fought—not on a battlefield but in a courtroom. And in the process she made history.

Since Charlottesville, #2

As you may recall from my previous post, I’ve come out of the closet.

I have publicly come out as an angry old white lady. Our culture mocks old people: our hearing losses, our driving habits. A woman publicly expressing anger? It’s social suicide. Combine “angry,” “old,” and “lady.” What is more worthy of parody? Let me thrash my cane about and grumble about the younger generation. I’m supposed to be either the nurturing grandmother or a boomer who likes sailing and golfing and searches dating sites for a fun-loving mate.

Since events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of August 13 and 14, I’ve seen pictures of people wearing t-shirts with the slogan, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Ever since Donald Trump appeared on the scene, I’ve been outraged. Outraged by his mocking primary opponents, by his obvious narcissism, by his lack of basic knowledge about the Constitution. I was especially outraged by the sexually abusive recording on the bus with Billy Bush.

Why weren’t others outraged? Either they weren’t paying attention, or they had no moral compass.

Yet after the election I decided to lay low. Not expose my anger. It would only widen the gulf between Trump supporters and those of us who opposed him. And, more important to me, it would sap my emotional energy.

Oh, the inconvenience of anger.

I want to write, and my age has added an urgency. I want to market my most recent book. I want to hike with my husband, visit my grandchildren. Most of all, I have dreaded the emotional drain of anger.

The violence in Charlottesville forced me to rethink disengagement. Who were the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists marching against? Individuals I care about: African-American friends in whose homes I have experienced warmth and hospitality; gay friends in whose homes I have experienced warmth and hospitality; Jewish friends in whose homes I have experienced warmth and hospitality; immigrants in whose homes I have experienced warmth and hospitality. I, in turn, have welcomed them into my home.

Those the protesters marched against are people of compassion and intellect, who add depth and richness of character to our society. They are teachers, pastors, business people, students, volunteers.

Anger an inconvenience for me? How ashamed I am.

 

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

Since Charlottesville

As a white girl growing up in the 1950’s South, I was socialized to suppress my anger. “Smile though your heart is aching,” Nat King Cole (a frequent target of racists) sang. “If you can’t say something positive, don’t say anything at all,” my mother taught.

When Trump was elected, I was devastated. I recognized the evil his new status as president had unleashed. Since then my heart has been aching. I am terrified. I am furious.

Not wanting to dump my anger and all the negatively I’ve been feeling on social media, I’ve taken a break from blogging. On Facebook I’ve mostly “Liked” and “Shared” what others post about the political and social climate under the Trump administration. Besides, plenty of excellent writers have been expressing my feelings much more eloquently than I can. Let them speak for me. I even set a new goal: find positive stories to post on my website (which I never got around to).

I thought I was doing the right thing, being silent these past seven months. Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville challenged that notion.

I may not have profound insight. I may not have profound words. That doesn’t mean my voice is worthless. I plan to express my anger and fears on my site in coming days.

For now, let me just say—not with eloquence—that as a white woman, I abhor the racism displayed this past weekend in Charlottesville.

 

Nancy Werking Poling’s most recent book is Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). It is available in paperback and on Kindle.

I didn’t know: racial violence out Route 50

“Florida doesn’t count,” my North Carolina friends say when I tell them I consider myself a Southerner. After all, I attended Robert E. Lee Junior High, my classmates weren’t Yankee retirees, and I like grits.

I’m sad to say that my southern identity has been confirmed by the non-fiction book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (2012, Gilbert King, author). I have no memory of ever hearing about events in Groveland, located out Route 50, less than forty miles from my home in Orlando.

In 1949 seventeen-year-old Norma Padgett, white, falsely accused four young black men of raping her. The NAACP defended the three young men, the fourth having been hunted down and killed when he fled capture. In one horrific chapter after another we read about a brutal sheriff, a judge with no regard for fairness, and a unabashed racist community determined to administer “southern justice.” By story’s end, three of the four defendants have been murdered. The home of the head of Florida’s NAACP has been bombed, he and his wife killed. Homes of other black citizens have been burned to the ground.

Events in the book are not from some vague, distant past; this virulent racism occurred during my lifetime.

Court rulings don’t extinguish attitudes that go to our community’s core. The increased visibility of African Americans in professions and a former black President can be daily reminders that white people no longer hold all the power. No, racism like that in Florida of the 1940s and 50s doesn’t simply disappear in one generation. The children of Norma Padgett, of Sheriff Willis McCall, of Klan members intent on lynching the Groveland Boys—many are likely still alive. Their grandchildren too. “Political correctness,” they’ve come to call expectations of civility, of respect for people of another race or ethnic group.

Under a Trump presidency racism need not be concealed any longer. In fact, according to Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, “2016 was an unprecedented year for hate. The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we’ve made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists” (http://abcnews.go.com/US/trump-cited-report-finding-increase-domestic-hate-groups/story?id=45529218).

Devil in the Grove and the resurgence of blatant racism leave me with a disturbing truth: If growing up a white girl in a segregated society enforced by violence is a credential of being a Southerner, then I’m a Southerner. As an adult in the era of Trump, though, I will not remain unaware of violent racism that has been unleashed.

Nancy Werking Poling is author of a new book: BEFORE IT WAS LEGAL: A BLACK-WHITE MARRIAGE (1945-1987)