My friend, bless his heart, feels like he has a touch of what he openly describes as “white guilt.”
White guilt is a type of guilt felt by some for harm resulting from racist treatment of people of color by whites both historically and currently. Even though his family tree has been traced back far enough that he knows his lineage immigrated here post the official slavery era, as a young white man in America today, its like, “but still…”
Let me begin by saying that he is a good man.
He is from a conservative, Midwestern home that lacked much diversity, and not unlike my own upbringing. We met and both experienced the culture shock of relocating to Los Angeles. He wants to be sensitive, cautious, and aware. He’s not perfect and sometimes he says things that sound culturally insensitive, but I know it’s not his intention to do so. That said, sometimes his comments can take me aback. Like when we unexpectedly launched into a historical based conversation on the topic of racism and slavery via Gchat and he said,
“I feel bad for anyone with black/African heritage because they have something that I just take for granted: a proud tradition to assert their personal identity with.
If I’m black and living here…what do I have besides the right now? I have…slavery and kidnapping. I have Africa, a giant ambiguous continent. Africa is generally in ruins and full of strife, exploitation by powers within it and without. I can wear a button up shirt and know that “my group” invented these.”
As I think about this conversation it breaks my heart slightly, because as a black person I have plenty to be proud of in regards to those that share my complexion, in its various hues, both past and present. As a proud American I look at the accomplishments of all that have come to call this land home, regardless if it did not start by choice. I am an American and there is no country with a perfect history. As I set out today to honor Martin Luther King, and write this from my now home as a resident of our nation’s capital in Washington D.C., I don’t feel hurt by what my friend may not realize we have to look back on, but instead inspired to share with him, because from the earliest days of the African presence in the United States, blacks have contributed to the fiber of American culture.
Our identity and history isn’t weakened because in 1619 Dutch traders brought over the first 19 or so Africans, seized from a captured Spanish slave trade ship, to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia.
An action that set in motion the legal sanctioning of slavery in the English colonies in 1640. This still became our land. Blacks have served and died in defense of this land and offered up their talents to forward the cause of peace and prosperity in America. My history does not overlook the strife that my ancestors endured, but is every day motivated by what they did in the midst and aftermath of it.
Mary Gregory, the first black nurse to graduate from the former school at St. Vincent Hospital, one of many to experience racism in their pursuit of education but pressed on, has smartly said,
“When you are born black, you aren’t born stupid. There were issues, as there were everywhere.”
It speaks to the fact that the path to success isn’t always a straight line, but it’s achievable.
Benjamin Banneker, a largely self-educated African American mathematician, astronomer, compiler of almanacs, inventor and writer. Banneker’s talents caught the attention of the Ellicott brothers whom he teamed up with to map out the new national capital in the 1770’s, and his intelligence was evident in his successful almanacs, between 1792 and 1797; almanacs that included his own astronomical calculations, literature, medical and tidal information.
Norbert Rillieux, an African American inventor and engineer, created an energy-efficient multiple-effect water evaporator that played an important part in the development of the growth of the sugar industry.
Charles Drew, a pioneering African-American surgeon who’s discovered methods of processing and storing blood plasma for transfusion led to the organization of the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. The American Red Cross blood program as we know it today is a direct result of his medical work in 1940 and throughout World War II.
Dr. George Washington Carver, African American innovator, who earned global recognition in the early 20th century for his research in the fields of agriculture and nutrition, and provided education to poor farmers on ways to cultivate alternative crops to yield more abundant and nutritious harvests.
“Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.”
I don’t take this for granted. I have much that I’ve inherited following the aftermath of the initial African arrival up to the present day (because our stamp is literally everywhere in one way or another), and I have more to learn about the African continent that I’ve never been to. (see here and here for examples!)
Saturday’s SNL intro poked fun at the reality that if Martin Luther King were here today he may say that we have more climbing to do (and who knows what he’d think of the hashtag activism we’ve stepped into). The point is, my friend and I are both Americans, he and I are a part of a “shared group” adding to the culture of future generations. I hope he’ll appreciate the present and that this climb is ours together. I don’t want him to feel guilty, I want him to feel proud to be with us, every color and creed. This is America, and yes, while we’ve still got some bad apples who’s behavior makes us all cringe, this is our home.