As we reel from a weekend with two mass shootings linked to white supremacy and toxic masculinity, we hear about the passing of literary genius Toni Morrison. After the massacres in El Paso and Dayton, many are quick to jump to mental illness as the problem, but to equate mental illness and violence is not only offensive but also simply inaccurate. And to focus on the explanations of a “lone wolf” or even “hatred” misses the systemic nature of domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy. Now, in 2019, it is the 400th anniversary of the first arrival on colonial Virginia’s shores of people who were kidnapped from Africa. As the 1600s progressed, colonists built a system of racialized slavery. In 1705, Virginia colonial legislators passed the slave codes, which clearly established racial categories and positioned them on a hierarchy in order to protect the power and profit of the elite (as I describe in my book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox).
While systemic racism has evolved over time and adapted, we are still living with the same core system of racial oppression that we’ve had for centuries, yet white Americans in particular usually refuse to acknowledge–much less seek to dismantle–this system of white supremacy. When, in response to recent shootings, “well meaning” white people say on social media, “This is not America” or “Why is there so much hate?” or “Why does this keep happening?,” the denial of our history is clear. This is America. These recent horrific massacres are a manifestation of the ideology of white supremacy at the heart of America, from our colonial history to the present. Professor Eddie Glaude, speaking on MSNBC after the shootings, said, “This is us.” White Americans, he said, want to see themselves as innocent, and that desire is dangerous because it’s grounded in a denial of systemic racism, past and present. Either we confront the truth of our white supremacy, or this will keep happening, he said.
I was thinking about his statement when I saw the heartbreaking news of Morrison’s death. As someone who has a PhD in English, who wrote about Toni Morrison’s Beloved in my dissertation, as someone who has taught Morrison’s work for years, this loss is profound. However, as a white person, I’ve also been thinking about how important it was for Morrison to center black characters, black experiences, and black readers. In thinking about what Professor Glaude said, I started to wonder, in horror admittedly: how am I connected to Morrison’s white characters? Since Beloved is the novel I’ve read, re-read, and re-read again more than any other novel of Morrison’s (and actually more than any other novel at all), my mind went immediately to the horrific character of schoolteacher. Perhaps Glaude is urging white people to think about not how different we are from schoolteacher (which is what we are so inclined to do) but what we have in common with him. That’s where we get at our complicity. That’s how we can start to confront systemic racism. schoolteacher is the unnamed everyman who represents white supremacy. In an interview, Morrison once described slavery as a “national amnesia.” We deny it so much that we try to forget it, and in Beloved, that history cannot be forgotten and becomes a haunting force. Glaude insists that if we want change, we can’t remain in denial. White Americans need to resist this amnesia, confront how white supremacy is at the core of American history and identity, and work to help build a new anti-racist future, something we can learn more about from Ibram Kendi next week when his book How to Be an Antiracist is released. Until then, Toni Morrison, RIP.
by Karen Gaffney