Last month I mentioned that I was listening to the audiobook Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino. This horrific, racist history was the primary focus of the Cedar Hill Study Group’s recent gathering, from which I’ve just returned home. In advance of the gathering we were to read the book and write a reflection paper about how the story affected our self-concept, worldview, and understanding, and answer the question, What does this insight mean for you moving forward?
What follows is my essay, which I titled “We are the epilogue.” I share it with you as a glimpse into some of the work we clergy do when we’re together, and because this work is our work as people of faith—you and me, together.
CN: violent words and imagery; racist words and imagery
Repeatedly as I listened to the book, I noticed myself feeling gobsmacked by details of this story—how white people burned the pubic hair of black people to torture them; the examples of sexism and infantilization about white women and about all black people, such as in the anti-black speeches and letters to the editor from Mrs. Felton, the white Georgia woman (ch. 11); the description of how “White ministers carried their guns to kill Negro Christians and sinners” (211).
And every time I felt gobsmacked, I also remembered that there is nothing surprising here.
Ten years ago, I’d have been surprised. And I would have focused on my own horror, shame, embarrassment about this history.
But now, one of my primary spiritual disciplines is to intentionally check those reactions—to recognize the feeling and then move on to a more constructive, critical place.
“With the killings completed and their enemies banished,” Zucchino writes, “Wilmington’s white began crafting a lasting narrative of a heroic victory over dark and malevolent forces.” (262)
I am a product of that crafted narrative—the white kid, raised in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood, child of white parents who didn’t question authority and just wanted everything to be pleasant, who accepted at face value what was taught in public school classes.
So, one of my other spiritual disciplines is to seek out true stories—not to rely only on what is handed to me by those with the biggest microphones or the most money or the affection of the publishing industry and the television producers.
And every time I learn another True Story, with every reminder of the insidiousness of white body supremacy (as Resmaa Menakem calls it), I am less complicit in the perpetuation of that racism and less vulnerable to the seduction of the horrified hand-wringing of my fellow white people about current atrocities.
When I read about the blatant fabrications in the press about what was happening in Wilmington in 1898 (ch. 10)—not only by the local press, but by the national press—I remember that Tucker Carlson’s tactics are not new.
When I read about white supremacists knowing “the value of timing white rage for maximum political impact” (ch. 12), I’m reminded to think critically about our current political leaders’ machinations.
When I read the passage from Alex Manley’s speech in January 1899, in which he said about his visit to elected officials in Washington, DC, “I said I was sorry that the nation had such a wide spirit of humanity that it could fight for the Cubans, but let the negroes be massacred at home” (299-300), I am reminded of how strong is our passion for supporting Ukrainians but not for investing energy in dismantling systemic racism in our own communities or addressing the violent atrocities here on American soil.
When I read that, “The Democrats intend that the Negro shall know his place. Today, as always, the Democrat is his best friend. We will do all we can to promote his best interest but by the eternal gods he shall not rule over white men!” (272), I am reminded that “replacement theory” is not new—it is not new with the Buffalo, NY, attacker, nor with the Fox News commentators, nor with the dissenters in Unitarian Universalism who are relentlessly undermining efforts for us to become truly progressive religious communities.
Chapter 30 is titled “Not the Sort of Man We Want Here.” In this chapter, we learn about how William Henderson, a black lawyer, was determined to remain in Wilmington after the coup and to reason with the white men. On the night of November 10th, more than 40 white men came to his home and insisted, “You must leave.”
“Will you tell me what I have done and why I must leave?” Henderson asked.
The reply was, “You are not the sort of man we want here.”
We may not be so overt, but I suspect that we—including me—still convey that message with awful frequency in our UU congregations: “You are not the sort of person we want here.” In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, we project the message that you are not sophisticated enough, you communicate in ways that make me uncomfortable, you don’t fit in well, you aren’t smart enough to understand our tradition.
Like so many other books that I could choose comfortably to avoid in my safe white bubble, this one exposed me to more of the world’s truth, and more of my own. In reading it, I know myself—and my responsibilities—better.
What does this insight mean for me moving forward?
It means that I must remember we are the epilogue, and it’s still being written.
UUCC: For years, you have been my partners in the work of understanding White Supremacy Culture; in the work of wrestling with what it means to dismantle racism; in the work of vigilance, even when it’s messy and uncomfortable. And that work continues. We are the epilogue, and we’re writing it, together.