My ancestors were slave holders in northern Maryland at Hance Point where the North East River joins the Chesapeake Bay. I know this because when I visited the family graveyard there with my grandmother in the early 70s, one headstone read “Jake – A Slave.” Some of my family members have commented that the slave’s grave in the family plot was a proof that our ancestors treated their slaves pretty well. I was just dead inside.
So for all these years, I have tried to figure out my connection to slavery. My husband is a through and through Yankee of completely Irish decent. His family didn’t live anywhere near the Mason-Dixon line much less south of it– ever. So ten years ago when he suggested that we stay in an historic plantation turned bed and breakfast not far from New Orleans, he had no idea why I was getting a little crazy uncomfortable. “You are not them,” he said. “We need to know our history,” he said. And he really wanted to be there to learn and experience the plantation.
So we stayed at the former plantation for a night, and we discovered that Bill Clinton had been a Rhodes Scholar with a member of the current owner’s family and had visited there in his twenties. Weird but comforting. Our room in a cabin was very nice, and the Creole dinner served family style was pretty good. In the light of the morning as I looked around the plantation and its environs, I cringed to see an African American man working on the plantation. Later that day, we visited another plantation that was restored to its historical heyday. The ledger that lay open on the desk recorded the value of the horses, equipment, and each slave. I grew leaden. No, I didn’t want a mint julep to complete my visit.
I have suffered a classic case of white guilt. Awkward to the point of incoherent, I couldn’t own out loud that I am a pacifist liberal who is connected to slavery in ways that confused the heck out of me. I hadn’t brought it to my heart that my place in the world is the result, in part, of my ancestors’ accomplishments. And some of those accomplishments were made off the sweat and blood of slaves. It is called white privilege, and I finally owned it.
Many of my Quaker friends had been talking about white privilege, and until I could understand it in my own life as a fact, I just didn’t get it. I didn’t do those things, I didn’t own slaves, I struggle to rid myself of racism, I am a clear-eyed liberal. But now I get it. I am also a third generation, female, college graduate. My family owned property, and all of my siblings and I went to college. We all own our own homes, and we have sent most of our children to college. While it is true that we have worked hard and that we certainly had opportunities to mess this all up, we started from a position of privilege.
In my everyday life, I practice the common testimonies of Friends: equality, simplicity, peace, integrity and community, and that practice makes me somehow more mindful of the plight of others and prone to want to do good in the world. But I practice these testimonies from a position of privilege. And now that I get my privilege, I can use it to do more good than I ever have. I am seeing much more clearly that I must call out the injustices I see because I am a little old white lady, and I can. I must reach out to the homeless and disabled in my community with one hand and the landed gentry and shop owners with the other because I am a little old white lady, and I can. And if not me, who?
So when the sins of my ancestors come visiting as they do, I no longer fall numb. I get a fire in my eyes, and I look for a new way to practice my deeply held Quaker values. I am finding my way.