Posted by Theryn
February 24, 2011
This post is a hybrid between a recent journal entry for my capstone on lynching and a textual analysis of a piece by Stephen A. Berrey. As my new auto-ethnographer voice is morphing into a particular style weaving personal story, theory, and the subjectivies of Black women, this particular submission is reflective of the way I am positioning my research and storytelling style against a historical moment when family and community demonstrates a centrality to teaching children about racial rules of engagement with Jim Crow South. This piece should be considered as a growing work in progress.
When I was 5 years old, the teacher at Ft. Carson Elementary wanted to hold me back for another year of Kindergarten. My parents fought hard against this suggestion and I was allowed to continue onto 1st grade. Though I do not remember the details of why the suggestion was made, I do remember a moment of resistance I demonstrated, one my mother often allude to while retelling me about the multiple arguments she and my father had with school officials about my “insolent” behavior. I came to know this significant moment of resistance as the Greg Bernard incident. It was the first memory that I have of my father supporting my willfulness and refusal to be mistreated in a public school setting. It would not be the last either.
My parents had just moved to Fort Carson, Colorado in Colorado Springs. I was enrolled in Ft Carson Elementary School at 5 and Greg Bernard became my bully. He was a fairer skinned Black boy with light brown eyes and a sandy brown Afro. One day he decided to continually insult me all morning long. Calling me “fat,” “a dumb girl,” and I am sure a slue of other 5 year old type insults. I had asked my teacher to make him stop but she told me to “just get back to work.” I tried but was harassed even more so once Greg realized that he could get away with being cruel to me because our teacher refused to stop him or acknowledge that he was even doing anything wrong. I then began to hurl my own insults. “Shut up Greg SAINT Bernard!” Suddenly my teacher got involved by telling me to be quiet or I that would have to go to the Principles office. I felt terribly hurt and egregiously wronged. I wondered how it was that our teacher could ask me to ignore Greg but that when I began to fight back just a little, I was the one threatened with a visit to the Principle’s office?
This became the first indication that there was an unspoken solidarity between white women and Black men. More specifically and at the very least, that a white woman and a black male could be complicit in the act of one perpetuating cruelty and the other turning their back. Further, that a black woman could be punished for resisting this kind of treatment. That is when I decided to lay down in the threshold of the doorway that lead to the outside and block my entire class until my teacher made Greg apologize to me. I am not sure how long we stayed there but I remember repeating over and over again, “make him apologize and then I’ll get up!” I said this in the way that children have a habit of resisting auditory commands by covering their ears and singing “la-la la la-la, la-la la la-la, la-la la la-la.” Eventually, the school called my father and he was none to pleased when he arrived.
I then remember looking down and seeing shiny black combat boots as I looked away from my pleading classmates, irate teacher, and shocked Greg toward the ground outside. They were as I looked away from my pleading classmates, irate teacher, and shocked Greg toward the ground outside. They were my dad’s boots. I knew them from their gentle appearance underneath my eyes. As I slide my eyes upward the meet my father stern Army Sergeant glare his left brow slightly raised. With a crisp but careful and loving restrain, my dad said, “get up!” And I did. As we walked away from the school he asked me why did I do that? In tears, I told him about the whole situation. He put his arm around me and we just went home. When we arrived, my mother said, “Heywood?” “What are you doing home and WHY are you here?” She then looked at me and said, “what took YOU so long?” My dad explained what had happened and when my mother asked why he did not “whup” me on the spot (thank god my father that kind of thing-whew) he replied, “Evelyn, she’s 5.” He continued, “if she is showing this level of resistance, then I am not going to punish her for it.” “Why would we punish her for standing up for what she believed was a just cause?” My mother was stunned. The anger in her face crept away as she asked me if I wanted a snack.
This pattern of my resisting the affronts of boys and instructors I felt were being either racist or sexist or both was accompanied by the pattern of my parents always getting my back within institutional settings…well mostly bricks and mortar schools both public and private. They loved my siblings and I hard. They guarded our safety fiercely. This was our family’s way and being the first Black family to integrate our working class neighborhood with children, my parents had their work was cut out for them.
Mom and dad carried lessons from the violent south of what could happen to children left unprotected. Evelyn and Heywood protected their children fiercely through stories, strategies of code switching survival tactics when in the company of white folks, and they trained us to advocate for our selves and each other regardless of who stepped to us. They demonstrated bravery in a world of racist cowards.
In Resistance Begins at Home: The Black Family and Lessons in Survival and Subversion in Jim Crow Mississippi, Stephen A. Berrey speaks of similar racial lessons taught to children by parents and communities in an effort to arm them with strategies for survival in American south apartheid. Not that I have read it prior to taking this course but that I have lived a similar experience with learning to survive from family all to familiar with Jim Crow South.
Black family as the site of racial pride and alternative narratives of Blackness rooted in racial pride but also a site of gender strength. In Resistance, Berry points to the work of Jennifer Rittenhour in the set of “racial rules” that guide a strategy of surviving relationships between dominant white and subordinate that were adjusted according to varying day to day engagement. This process of racial rules behavior indicates the movement of performative stances folks enacted for the purposes of survival in Jim Crow South (Berry, p. 66; Rittenhour, 2006).
In Resistance, Berrey selects themes and discourses from 25 years of oral historical artifacts from a multitude of collections and initiatives of oral accounts about life during Jim Crow (Berry, p 66). I do not. That is, I do not draw on the oral accounts that stem from an archived record of experiences offered by a multitude if different voices. My work differs very much from Berrey at this point. My artifacts come from my own family members and my own recollection of stories my parents used to tell about growing up in Louisiana and West Virginia. Also, the stories that I pull together for my capstone project are less about building an argument on the ways Jim Crow apartheid affected the Black Family and more specifically on how the lynching of my Great, Great grandfather, Miles Taylor, influenced the racial lessons thought to my siblings and I by my parents through the retelling of the Mile’s murder. My research also examines how this and other stories provided racial learnings that reveal the way lynching events effect African American family development (Beauchamp, 2005).
Further, my work argues that the practice of lynching erased the subjectivies of lynching victims and their families and that this erasure was replaced with a production of a sub-human and non-human subject that could be acted upon violently. The way this sits in terms of the African American family can be seen through attacks against Black women as mother figures. “Degrading mythology about Black mothers is one aspect of a complex set of stereotypes that deny Black humanity in order to rationalize white supremacy and it is this moment that products the multitude of radicalized sexist imagery that is constantly reproduced in popular culture. (Hills-Collins, 1990, 2000; Roberts, 1997; Frederickson, 1987) My research looks to the criminalization Black women through two recent cases in Seattle that involve police acting violently toward Black women and through the Black mothering is demonized through reproduction.