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.
Paige – who are the dissenters in Unitarian Universalism who espouse “replacement theory”?
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.
Rich, I thought the same thing, poked around the internet and did not get any immediate insights.
When I see comments like this, I ask myself in what sense could they be true – in other words, instead of focusing on my objections, I focus on what’s useful. I joined UUCC in 2003 at age 50, and it was literally the first community of people that ever made me feel welcomed, included, and comfortable – a community of like-minded and like-hearted individuals with values and rituals that made sense to me. When, later, we began to consider creating Beloved Community in our congregation, I was fearful that the changes we’d need to make to become fully multiracial/multiethnic/multicultural would undermine my own sense of safety and belonging.
If my fears helped to put barriers in the way of making others welcomed and safe, then, in that broad sense, I’m guilty, or at least complicit.
Ultimately, change built on love is a good thing, and eventually I embraced the need to take the risk and work for Beloved Community. But it’s instructive to see that some of the neediness of Replacement Theory believers is also at work in my own psyche – it allows me to rein in what could otherwise be very destructive.
Laurie. Thanks. I agree with your excellent insight that you, and perhaps all of us, are not perfect in making others welcomed and safe. But I don’t think Paige was referring to you or any others who try very hard to make others welcome and safe, but, of course, don’t do it perfectly. She is be referring to people in three categories who espouse a horrifical doctrine of hatred: the Buffalo attacker, Fox News Commentators, and dissenters in Unitarian Universalism who are relentlessly undermining efforts for us to become truly progressive religious communities. I don’t know any UU dissenters who espouse this hateful doctrine, so I asked Paige to whom she was referring.
Whenever I read a post by Paige on race, racism, and white supremacy culture, I always brace myself for the comments beneath it, where I am sure to find someone reacting, in carefully couched terms, to a perceived insult to our congregation. I am tired of always finding it and usually don’t have the courage to say anything in reply.
To parse her statement, it sounds as though she is describing how white supremacy works–on a sliding scale, from murderers, to murder inciting demagogues, to people who intend to do well but are very uncomfortable at being associated with the “bad guys” in any way but are complicit in the culture as a whole. There are many degrees between the murderer and the UUs (note that she didn’t say UUCC members) who aren’t willing to fight white supremacy culture.
Paige Getty (Author)
Replacement Theory is fueled by a sense of feeling threatened when people who are not white (not men, not cisgender) gain power. And even we who do not overtly ‘espouse a horrifical doctrine of hatred’ are sometimes motivated by a fear (even if we don’t recognize it as fear) of our power — our ideas, our presence, our tactics, etc. — being overshadowed or sidelined… or replaced… by new ideas, new people, and new strategies.
Laurie’s and Sue’s responses get at the heart of what I was suggesting more generally, especially Laurie’s last line — ‘But it’s instructive to see that some of the neediness of Replacement Theory believers is also at work in my own psyche — it allows me to rein in what could otherwise be very destructive.’
Have I seen any UUs overtly espouse the doctrine of Replacement Theory the way that the Buffalo attacker did, or the way some TV personalities do? No. But throughout our Unitarian Universalist Association, there are efforts — some more organized than others — to keep white, cisgender people in power at the expense of people who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color, or otherwise marginalized.
Broadly across the UUA, I see these efforts as reflecting a fear that the ideas and voices of younger generations and marginalized people are being centered at the expense of the ideas and views of those who have historically shaped, and been the center of power of, our UUA. A person needn’t espouse a doctrine to be motivated by similar underlying themes.
Thank you, Rich and Laurie and Sue, for reading and for engaging. I hope this note answers your question, Rich, and clarifies what I left unsaid in the short paragraph that points to the universal, human reaction at the core of Replacement Theory.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Paige.
I also thank you for your thoughtful response, Paige.
I would add that I believe it would be helpful for you to consider (and perhaps acknowledge) that some “dissenters” from aspects of the UU approach to achieving the shared goal of racial and social justice may do so based on good faith, thoughtful disagreements that are not based on feeling threatened or fear of being overshadowed or replaced.
For instance, I am concerned that some of the specific strategies and rhetoric employed in UU and other progressive circles may be counterproductive. While they may be popular within insular progressive “silos”, they may be off-putting to many in the wider population and may have worked to the advantage of Trump and his acolytes in previous elections and may continue to do so in 2022 and 2024.
Paige Getty (Author)
You’re welcome, Jim and Rich. I’m glad the response was clarifying.
“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.”
This is so much like something I heard today on the “10% Happier” podcast. Not replacing the negative with a (false) positivity but in the meditative practice of recognizing, acknowledging, and moving on…” There was something in there about Stoicism and about forgiving ourselves too but I got distracted and will have to listen again.
Thank you, Paige, for sharing this.