Saturday, January 31, 2015

Owning My Heritage: Sins of the Father Part 2

In the last post, I spoke on my Mother's side of the family mostly, dating back to the 1600's and particularly the family in the following centuries. We were by no means innocent bystanders in those years where racism found the early beginnings to where we are today. For cheap labor and as a means to separate poor white and black people from each other, the stain of racism has been remarkably effective, then and now.

So let me turn to my father's side of the family. We know we were in Virginia before, but the earliest we can prove so far is James A Wicks (Weeks). He moved from Virginia with his wife to northern Alabama, then across the border into Fayetteville, Tennessee where he became a farmer, and we know he owned people as well. The old property is marked today by the Wicks Cemetery Road. He was well known apparently and in Alabama he had been a church leader we know. Then as now, we know that people and religion too often twist the bad and call it good. It's in my heart what I feel was happening here. Here's what I found in the Fayetteville Observer dated June 6, 1861, just two days before Tennessee would vote to secede from the union:

Just below that was this in the same paper:

I could not help but gasp at the audacity of that second part. They call on the people of Tennessee to choose freedom over slavery! Seriously? Freedom to you is fighting to protect your right to own human beings? What sort of moral, or perhaps immoral leap of faith can enable someone to speak these words and actually believe them? Aren't they the same sort of beliefs that allow white people today to say this was all in the past and we hold no special privilege as white people despite abundant evidence to the contrary? How are we less guilty today for our obstinate insistence upon living a lie as we were then?

In the same paper, my ancestor, James A. Wicks was named one of the representatives for the House Guards of Minute Men, appointed to help in common defense against the Yankees. Ready to stand strong in defense of his freedom to own human beings. Over time the family would spread, and my grandfather and grandmother lived in North East Texas. I remember Grandpa telling stories of the Night Riders. Not only black people were afraid of them. If they caught you out after dark and one of the members had a beef with you, you could easily disappear and never be heard from again. Still, there was clear privilege in being white. There's a story I like to tell that brings home that point.

My grandfather lost out on any inheritance, and was relegated to working as a sharecropper. White and black, they worked along side with long hours, back breaking work picking cotton, and always in debt to the boss man. One day the boss arbitrarily wanted the shack they were staying in so he could tear it down and grow on that land. So grandpa had to go look for other arrangements. Well about a week later, a wrecking crew shows up. They were supposed to have two weeks to get out, but they changed their mind. My Grandma, bless her soul, went into the house and came out with a shotgun in hand. She quietly aimed it at the crew chief and said they'd be out in another week, but if he made another move, he was a dead man. They left. So where's the privilege. They would be the first to tell you that if a black man or woman had done that, the night riders would show up soon after and the entire family would disappear. That was their reality.

My parents were a bit more progressive. Still they didn't really get the whole civil rights thing, and my Daddy talked about being a sharecropper and working as hard as they did, and after all, didn't he pull himself up by the bootstrap and become a civil engineer. Don't get me wrong. What he did was good. But in the real world, he had opportunities that others did not. I remember from my own childhood growing up in the Jim Crow East Texas, the poor shape of the schools, the lack of funding or support we took for granted. I remember sundown towns where a black person needed to be out of town by sunset. Or the separate entrances into one movie theater where black people could attend though separated from the rest of us. I have to look inside my own self. Why did it take me so long to see something was terribly wrong?

I do not think mine is a solitary journey. I am telling my own story of race, but there are others. Let the healing begin.

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