When I say publicly that I’m descended from slave owners, I almost always hear a gasp. I let the tension hang a moment and then I break it: “Well, someone has to be, right?”
This usually gets a laugh, or at least a humph of recognition. Because many of us white Americans are desperate to disassociate ourselves from one of the founding horrors of our nation’s history: slavery.
“My family didn’t arrive until after the Civil War,” some say. Or, “We were dirt poor.” Or Northerners. And who can blame them? It’s a profoundly shameful history.
But if we don’t face that history squarely — and acknowledge the ways it still distorts the structure of our society today — we’ll be incapable of undoing its legacy. White people will continue to believe that the extreme race-based wealth gap in this country has other causes — that they somehow deserve advantages denied to others based on their skin color.
So let me say it plainly: The unpaid labor of black people sent me to Harvard.
My great-grandfather was born into a slave-owning family in Virginia’s Rappahannock County during the Civil War. Like most Americans who enslaved people, his family held onto their land and barely compensated the freed black workers who stayed on after the war ended.
By the time my grandfather turned 25 or so, around 1915, his father was able to buy him a farm in Culpeper, in central Virginia’s fertile Piedmont region.
In the 1940s, my granddaddy started a real estate business. He bought up land surrounding Culpeper and put it into a trust for his grandchildren’s education. When it was my turn to go to college, my land was sold for a bowling alley and a Baptist church, covering most of my tuition.
My grandfather worked incredibly hard all his life, but he had an enormous leg up compared to his black neighbors and employees — land he’d been given by his father. And I inherited that advantage when I got a top-notch education at private schools and then attended an Ivy League university.
My story illustrates how the concentration of wealth in the hands of some folks and not others is perpetuated.
Of course, all white Americans benefit from the privileges accorded to us solely by dint of our skin color.
Even if your family came long after the Civil War, you can walk into a store and not be followed on suspicion of shoplifting. People won’t choose to move away if you buy a house in their neighborhood. You don’t worry every day that your son could be gunned down by the police.
It’s grown harder to ignore how our black sisters and brothers are denied basic rights we whites take for granted every day. We witnessed the murders of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. We saw a white police officer violently subdue black teenagers at a McKinney, Texas pool party.
And, motivated by an ideology of hate, a white man in Charleston, South Carolina murdered nine black churchgoers in a horrific terrorist attack — in a state that still flies the flag of slavery in its capital.
How do we begin to dismantle this oppressive system? Part of this process must be a reckoning, a truth-telling about how we arrived at this state of radical inequality. During this 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end, let’s examine our history since that time. Let’s set ourselves on a new path, one that begins to make amends.
At the very least, let’s be honest with one another: My great-great grandparents may have taken your ancestors and held them as their property. It was a crime against humanity.