A Battle for the Souls of White People

His hands were trembling, his face flush, his body language a barrier to reason. My friend was sitting in my living room, in Jackson, Miss., uttering words like "legal barriers," "shakedown," "better off here" and "the Indians were treated worse." I merely said I was undecided, and suddenly I was on the other side of an ugly divide. I was biased. I was a knee-jerk liberal, a relativist, and whatever other conservative insults one can conjure.

"Slave reparations." Many folks, especially white ones, just don't want to hear those words. Worse than even "affirmative action," they extract anger, shame, fury, defensiveness, demagoguery. For the first time in my memory, I believe a true dialogue about race is coming, and it'll get ugly. It did in my living room, and I didn't even say that the descendants of slaves are owed reparations.

I can live with ugly, as long as it's bouncing off an honest debate. Where I'm from, you just don't talk much about race problems, at least white to white. My African-American friends are quick to talk about race once they realize it doesn't put me on edge. I believe strongly that silence compounds racism: I'm unabashedly ashamed of what my ancestors did to their ancestors, and I can look them straight in the face and tell them, and then ask what I can do to make it better. I believe I don't "have a problem with black people," as Soul Train's long-time host Don Cornelius explained recently about Bill Clinton and his appeal to the black community. Not "having a problem" means much more than saying hello in the grocery line, although that doesn't hurt, either. It means more than being nice to "them"; it means trying to understand, to feel, the legacy of slavery, and then reaching out and saying we were and we are in this haul together. It doesn't cost me one dime to try to understand, to study their history alongside mine, to understand that trust has to be rebuilt. The fancy word for it is "reconciliation"; I just call it doing unto others.

Don't misunderstand: I grew up in a culture that taught that blacks (and Native Americans) are lazy, dirty, greedy and violent. I work every day of my life to rid myself of those dehumanizing stereotypes, to drive through black neighborhoods with the top down without fear, to hang out in their communities instead of expecting them to always come to mine. And I can't express the sense of freedom that comes every time I clear another hurdle.

Every American &endash; whether from Jackson, Denver or Amherst, Mass. &endash; needs to jump those race hurdles. To understand the Black Codes, poll taxes, White Citizens Councils, slave insurance policies, slave trading, "forty acres and a mule." To study up on Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Ayers v. Fordice. To get acquainted with Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, James Chaney, John T. Lynch, Fannie Lou Hamer. To realize who Brown University, the Ross Barnett Reservoir and Forrest County, Miss., are named for. To trace the sources of riches in this country and figure out on whose backs, and whose land, they were built. Then, as they preach about so often in the Bible Belt, to ask forgiveness and make amends.

Slavery apologists tell us it was legal back then; why should we consider paybacks? But Southern slavery did not end until the first black kid walked through the doors of Neshoba Central Elementary School over Christmas break my third-grade year in 1969. And its legacy didn't end then. An amazing documentary, Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, coming to HBO this year, shows how the "lost cause" stripped African Americans in the Delta of their dignity, their potential, their resources, and they've never recovered. Those societies must be rebuilt one way or the other. Soon.

It will take a whole bunch of you and me to level the old cotton fields and the urban refuges of Southern emigrants. The harsh reality is that we've ignored the whole truth for so long that it will take a forced accounting of the horrors of slavery to effect deep change. Here in Jackson I'm surrounded by white academies and gated suburbs where white people fled immediately after we lost the court battles. Many US whites haven't given affirmative action a chance to truly make a difference before battling to dismantle it. Jim Crow is hiding in the prisons and schools in the form of discriminatory drug laws and zero-tolerance policies. These days, police officers don't lynch; they racially profile. This field, folks, is filled with bumps.

Since I've come home, it's more apparent than ever that the wound is just festering away, until we clean it out and close it up for good. On the surface, much is different here than during my childhood. In 1979, my senior class couldn't have a prom because the school board feared the races would dance together. Whites went to the country club; blacks somewhere unknown. A decade later, we whooped it up together at our 10-year reunion at the country club, though. The races mingle at work, but go home to separate neighborhoods. They dine at some of the same restaurants, but usually not at the same table. And, way too often, race is used as an adjective for no discernable reason: I heard a white Jackson businessman say he had hired a "black girl" to do accounting. And I can't tell you how many times I watch a nice-dressed white man or woman avoid eye contact with someone helping them in a store. "Thank you. Come back to see us," the black clerk says. Silence from the receiver. It doesn't happen every time, but once is too many.

It's the stories we don't hear that kill us, and that means you, too, Yankees. Many of my educated northern and western friends, especially the younger ones, are woefully ignorant when it comes to the country's civil-rights history, believing it was a Southern problem. This is where the slave-reparations debate can fill a void. It goes beyond shameful tidbits such as Brown University's slave-trader namesake, revealed in a recent reparations lawsuit, that remind Yanks that our ancestors were all in this slavery hell together, so we are, too. It's about facing the cracks in our humanity. And then filling them.

It means looking at the courageous crevices of the face of Emmett Till's mother, who in May came to Jackson to speak out for slave reparations. The 80-year-old Mamie Till Mobley memorialized her 14-year-old son in the state that killed him for whistling at a white woman. The same woman had opened her son's casket 47 years ago so the world could see her son's mutilated body and, maybe, start to see how wrong it was that a white jury let his killers go after an hour and seven minutes. And that this child was another victim of lynching in a post-slave culture that purposely terrorized black residents to keep them from voting, advancing economically or ogling white women.

Emmett Till's loss can't be repaired. But if enough of our neighbors can learn the true lesson Till's martyrdom teaches, African Americans won't need to fight for damages. They &endash;- we --will have all the human help needed to kick the legacy of slavery in the ass and start over. I truly believe blacks cannot outlast this legacy alone; the slave-reparations debate is really a battle to repair the souls of white people.

Donna Ladd ( is a writer in Jackson, Miss.

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