Sunday, August 17, 2008

What other people are saying

If you have never visited reader NOLA Radfem's blog, you really should. Start by checking out this recent post that mixes both political discussion and family history. (How could I not love it, huh?)

They aren't supposed to live in the White House, right?

When I was a child, a teacher of mine, learning that I aspired to be a doctor, warned me that because I was a girl, I could only hope to become a nurse. Soon after that, I was with several family members at a reception for Democratic party volunteers when my mother, outraged by my teacher's comment, introduced herself to Congresswoman Lindy Boggs and told her the story. The congresswoman did exactly what my mother hoped she would do - encouraged me to think that girls could aspire to do and be anything. As my mother tells it, "Lindy Boggs, in a navy skirt and navy stockings, knelt down, getting white chalky floor dust on her stockings. She took your little face in her hands and told you that she was a girl AND a member of Congress and that YOU could be anything too - not just a nurse, but even a doctor." And so, over the years, I have paid attention to the Boggs family, including the life and work of Lindy's daughter, Cokie Roberts.

Unfortunately, Roberts seems to become more of a flake every year. Check out this latest.Roberts, asked about Obama vacationing in Hawaii, says that although she understands Obama went to high school there and has a grandmother there, it still is an "odd" choice for his vacation because it will make him seen too "exotic" to voters.

And she had said this twice in the last two days. Does she not know Hawaii is just part of the United States?

Hey, Cokie, why are you spouting Republican talking points about Obama being "exotic" (which is code for "black")? Are you yet another fair-skinned daughter of the old South (and it's not just fair-skinned daughters of the South, actually) who just can not, will not vote for a black man? I know maman was born at Brunswick Plantation in Pointe Coupee and that papa, Congressman Hale Boggs, was a signer of the Southern Manifesto (which, in response to Brown v Board of Education, condemned
desegregation), opposed the 1964 Voting Rights Act, and that decades before that, he had led the movement to break the power of populist Huey Long and Long's political machine. Is it still that kind of thing, Cokie?

I come from slaveholding people too, Cokie. And for several months now, I've been
thinking of posting my photos of the old plantation on my blog, and I'm not exactly sure why. I just know I am furious about the racism I am still hearing from Democratic members of my own family who just will not vote for Obama. Maybe I want to hold a mirror up here - to ask those of us who descend from slaveholding people to really think about race and oppression, to demand that we be honest and look fearlessly and relentlessly at what dwells deep in our hearts, to challenge us to join the fucking twenty first century here. Are we going to do it? Are lifelong Democrats going to actually vote for McCain now? Mother? Little sister? How 'bout you, Cokie? "Exotic" indeed, Madam Roberts. Our people have been on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of humanity for far too long.

Read the entire post...
This post was a great history lesson for me. I only vaguely knew about Cokie Roberts' family before this. And I have visited the plantations on River Road near New Orleans, but I have never heard from a descendant of a real plantation family. I think we too often forget our complicated history--not just in the South, but in America. (We like to make the South responsible for all our racial sins, but that simply isn't true.) We seem loathe to realize that the country's past still impacts our beliefs and actions today, including in the 2008 presidential election.

NOLA Radfem should be commended not only for publicly speaking about what must be a touchy subject within her family, but also for doing research and wading through brush and dampness to snap photos of what remains of the plantation South.

I really appreciate this as a family historian--a black family historian. As I said to NOLA Radfem:

As a family researcher, let me tell you how important it is that you are so forthcoming with your family's history. As I know you know, black and white families with Southern heritage are inextricably linked. Because of slavery and the fact that vital records were not always kept for black people as they were for whites, amateur genealogists like me are challenged, particularly once we try to dig past 1870. I am always so grateful when some of my white family members (related through slavery or blood) are willing to offer the details of our shared history. Without help from descendants of slave owners, my family's history will be lost.
Head over to NOLA Radfem. While you're there, share a belated happy birthday.


Somebodies Friend said...

Great post Tami, BTW, funny you should bring up people sorting through their past and not finding much after 1870. I was at the used bookstore the other day, I found a book on Bloodlines that relates to my family, it goes back much much farther then that, Holy cow! I just started reading through it, it also has interesting things in it like the Tarot and a lot of history behind all of the facts, it is very interesting. I will definately read through this one.

Great post as always Tami!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes seeing is believing! How can Cokie be so idiotic! Hawaii is heaven for anyone who has ever needed a relaxing gettaway. Sure a better place to rest that upstate Maine with the Bush family geez.

I hate the use of the word "exotic' to describe Obama, when he is so obviously a conventional liberal democrat! They must get distracted by the black face, because the words are the same old same old to radical feminist me.

Lady C said...

I have been listening to NPR via KPR (Kansas Public Radio) for sometime. So, it has really been disheartening to have someone like Cokie Roberts say what she did about Hawaii in reference to Obama's vacation. Cannot a person go home for rest and recuperation? "Home is where the heart is." You know when you go home your family is going to rally around you and allow you to hold the rest of the world at bay until you can regroup.

Everyone knows exotic equals black. Does Cokie really think we (AA) don't listen to NPR? It is an outrageous thing for anyone to perpetuate, but yet the Rethugs are doing just that. I wonder how the people of Hawaii feel about all of this nonsense being banded about.

heartsandflowers said...

It just shows how willfully disconnected some people are. Hawaii is known for its tourism, but it is a very expensive state to live in and has it's own ghetto-ish areas just like every other city. If people really want to take on something worthwhile they should give up their private clubs and land set aside for golf. Then every person without housing could have a place to go and build or live on. They don't even have to own it.

NOLA radfem said...

Whose words are "the same old radical feminist" to you, anonymous?

Cokie Roberts said those things about Hawaii, and she has never, ever identified herself as ANY kind of feminist.

I - who was taking Roberts to task over her comments - have "radical feminist" in my blog title, and I blog about a whole range of things. The current front page includes posts on turning forty, a bunch of stuff on the election (pro-Obama), an anti-rape counselor with whom I'd worked getting arrested for rape, women's sexuality, McCain's wealth, child molestation, a new Katrina-related film, cheating husbands a-la John Edwards, boycotting the Olympics, increasing grocery prices, how difficult working on an oil rig is and how difficult the Republican plan to drill for new oil domestically would be, swiftboat politics, public school teachers who use bad grammar, videos of giggling kids, gay bashing, native American issues, an underage girl getting charged with prostitution instead of getting social services, modern day slavery (trafficking), and "to white women for Hillary threatening to vote McCain."

My list of links to my own favorite older posts cover a fiction piece for Memorial Day about a mother whose son dies in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, street harassment, why working & middle class whites should see their interests tied not to rich whites but to people of color, how my grandma is beautiful at age 90, gender in advertising, am I a traitor to feminism for voting Obama (call me a drum major for peace), men who use prostitutes, Yale sex week, single gender public education that relies on gross stereotyping of boys and girls, and "making Obama 'black'" (Jeremiah Wright).

So, I don't know what you think radical feminism is, especially since you are "anonymous" and you leave no tracks to your own writing, where we might learn what we have in common. You make dismissive, sweeping statements about an entire school of thought and an entire group of people. It's very sad.

NOLA radfem said...

Dear Tami,

Thank you for the link and for the kind words.

Some feminists I know will sometimes see or hear commentary from a man who sounds like he really "gets it," and then caution her peers about being sure not to "give him a cookie" for it. This refers to the tendency we women have to get happy over a man finally seeming to understand women's basic humanity, our inherent equality, and our unique lived experiences, and then rushing to congratulate him and praise him for, you know, basically figuring out that women are people, which is what men should be doing anyway! For most of us, the policy is that such men are welcomed, but they should never be "given cookies" (praise) because what they've done is simply what they SHOULD do, the very LEAST that we should expect. Plus, praising such a man would too easily let him convince himself he is officially "one of the good guys," which would then let him off the hook when it comes to examining ongoing oppression and his male privilege within that system of oppression. Therefore, no cookie!

Do you know if this terminology about "giving cookies" is used among people of color (hate that phrase, as it seems to still leave white as the norm and "people of color" as something else) when referring to whites who aspire to be allies?

You mention that I should be "commended" for the post to which you linked, and I know you offer that with characteristic kindness. I certainly don't want to appear ungracious.

I think it's important, however, for me to say that I do not deserve a cookie for being a white person addressing racism within my own family or for being upfront about it on my blog. Given that this entire nation is underpinned by racism past and present, given that I am - as all can PLAINLY see from the plantation photos - the beneficiary of hundreds of years of white privilege right through this very moment on this very day, privilege I personally never had to do anything to earn or deserve other than being born "white," I think being honest about this stuff, confronting it on my blog and with my family, is the very least that should be expected of me.

Yes, it has, as you suggest in your post, been terrible confronting this stuff with my family. They don't like talking about it (and especially the mixed race relatives conceived over the centuries by our men; the one time my mother mentioned her grandfather's French Quarter mistress was the one time her mother slapped her across the face). It has been difficult for years. Mostly when I'm around, people just censor whatever racist things I suspect they normally say; I can see them kind of "catching" themselves. This past year, however, since I decided to canvass for and support Obama, the differences that were always underneath the surface have become raging fights. Obama's candidacy has brought their racism to the surface, and I find I am unable and unwilling to just walk away from the fight these days, even at the risk of being disrespectful to my mother, whom I love dearly. Two weeks ago, my mother visited from 2400 miles away (she is a Katrina-fugee), and after Obama happened to be on my aunt's television, we had a horrible fight about all of this. She told me I HAVE A PROBEM WITH RACE. Ah, yes, because as long as white people don't see it or talk about it, we're all one big postracial family, because white people's reality is, by definition, reality. Right!

Yes, I am confronting family. It hurts.

But let's put that hurt into perspective. We can talk about how my family's holding of human being as slaves hurt so many people. We can talk about lynchings hurting people. We can talk about Jim Crow hurting. We can talk about inequality that persists in every area of life today - inferior public schools in majority black neighborhoods, ongoing discrimination in hiring, which people were most likely to be unable to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Katrina, the wage gap and the fact that black families STILL generally have about 20% less wealth for their children to inherit than do whites (especially no land and home to pass on, since banks discriminated in home lending for so long) - and how that stuff REALLY hurts people.

Put into that context, the fights I'm fighting are small indeed.

Ball's book "Slaves in the Family" and Tim Wise's book "White Like Me" have really helped me with these concepts. I'm not perfect, and I won't always get it right, but I try to accept the challenge from Ball and Wise to deal with my white privilege not through pity-me guilt, which accomplishes nothing, but through action. And I know from Ball that help with genealogy and sharing any historical documents we may have is one thing we descendants of the southern planters can and should offer.

What I am trying to say is that I feel that the work I'm doing when it comes to being a white person who reports history honestly and who tries to get family members to see white privilege should not be viewed as praiseworthy. It is simply the very least I am called - by history and by any reasonable system of ethics - to do.

And so, I am a little uncomfortable that "commending" me is maybe like giving me a cookie. I most respectfully reject any cookies (although, as I said above, I know the comment was offered only with characteristic kindness).

Take care, Tami.


Tami said...


I hear you and agree about the "cookie" thing and, yes, the concept does get thrown around in regards to white anti-racist allies. The stuff you said about white privilege is dead on...BUT, race aside, I think your post deserves recognition because it is so much easier for human beings to do the thing that is...well...easy. It is in most of our natures, I think, to go along to get not rock the not discuss the ugly thing that needs to be discussed.

I could totally be projecting, because my nature is to be a mediator, persuader and diplomat, rather than a rabble-rouser. I WANT to be the radical, but I'm more like a politican. I hate it, but I'm almost 40 and this is probably me. I'm too much the oldest, "good" child.

So, I think you should be commended for doing the right and radical thing. Anybody who does what's right, even though that thing is very hard, deserves kudos cause it just doesn't happen enough these days. It takes having the courage of your convictions.

NOLA radfem said...

Thanks, Tami. I definitely understand what you mean about most of us not wanting to rock the boat. As you point out, that is kind of the default position. It's really NOT fun pissing people off. It hurts my stomach, as I suspect it does to others as well.

As for "radical," a term near and dear to my heart: about a year ago, I was in Barnes and Noble and asked the clerk to help me order a copy of John Gatto's "Dumbing us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Public Education." A fellow customer chuckled and then asked me, "Are you a radical?"

My answer was, "Well, I certainly try to be. I'm a radical on a good day."


MacDaddy said...

It's easy to see why she's on ABC: She has nothing substantial to say. Except for Keith Olberman, Jack Cafferty and Rachel Maddow, these news shows consist of well-to-do,older white men and white women who exist in a safe bubble away from the stress of real working people.


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