Can I Divest Myself of My White Privilege?

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In the next few posts, I would like to build on some things that Elizabeth Cannon and I wrote about here and here. Elizabeth wrote about two women—Anna Parkes and Susan Castle—who were owned by Joseph Henry Lumpkin and Thomas R. R. Cobb respectively.

Lumpkin (1799-1867) is my great-great-great-great grandfather. He was the first Chief Justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court. Cobb (1823-1862), my great-great-great grandfather, was a legal scholar who ended up serving in James Longstreet’s Corps as a brigadier general in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He led his regiment, Cobb’s Legion, at the fighting in the Seven Days’ Battles, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg (he was killed at Fredericksburg in December 1862). Cobb was also Lumpkin’s son-in-law.

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Joseph Henry Lumpkin

Together, Lumpkin and Cobb founded the law school at the University of Georgia. Cobb authored the Inquiry into the Laws of Negro Slavery in the USA, in which he provided one of the most comprehensive pro-slavery arguments of the late antebellum period.

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Thomas R. R. Cobb

Lumpkin and Cobb were well known men in their day. They were wealthy and influential; they were respected, honored, and were deferred to as authorities in the South. Their names are immortalized in two Georgia counties.

But I can’t help thinking about Anna Parkes and Susan Castle. They were small children at slavery’s death, but my grandparents owned them and their families as property. They were barely literate, while my grandparents were scholars. They were dependent on their masters, while my grandparents amassed much wealth. They lived in slave quarters, while my grandparents lived in the “big house.” Theirs was a life of toil, degradation, and bondage, while my grandparents fared sumptuously every day.

These grandparents of whom I speak—they were not my mother’s or father’s parents. They are distant grandparents. They died a century before I was born. I never knew them, except in stories and as a part of family mythology. As Elizabeth said, we are neither complicit in Anna and Susan’s servitude, nor are we complicit in the servitude of any of the other scores of men and women that my ancestors owned.

But I am, at least indirectly, an inheritor of their labors and the system that discriminated against them after emancipation. Some people don’t like the term “white privilege”—but like it or not, I cannot deny that I was born into it. Indeed, how could I?

What can I do? This is not some false dilemma, where the only options are to either 1) fully and satisfactorily atone for the sins of my people who owned slaves, or 2) nothing. I can at least admit that I am a beneficiary of white privilege. I can face my family’s history and role in the peculiar institution honestly and openly. I do not have to repudiate my ancestors, or turn my back on them. I can honor my ancestors’ memory by affirming that they were sinners. What they did was wrong. The consequences of their choices and actions were not limited to their own generation. Those consequences did not cease at the end of the war, they were not wiped out at their own deaths. What they did had consequences that have cascaded down to my generation.

As a Christian, I can live out and share the gospel of Christ, who died on the cross to atone for human sin. I can share His expansive love with every person I meet, knowing that every human being is created in the image of God, and every human being is a valuable person for whom Christ died.

One other thing I can do: I can remember Anna and Susan in particular. They left the world a record of their experiences as the slaves of my ancestors. They talked openly about what it was like to be a slave in the homes of the Lumpkins and the Cobbs.

They were interviewed as part of the Federal Writer’s Project between 1936 and 1938, and their words were recorded and archived in the Library of Congress. In the next several posts, I’d like to hear Anna and Susan’s words once again. Because they blessed us with a record of their lives, perhaps they are something like Abel, who suffered at the hands of his own brother, but “though dead, [they] still speak.”

Is it possible for someone to divest himself of his white privilege? The only way to find out is to first admit that one has benefitted from it.

Speak, Anna Parkes and Susan Castle. I want to hear what you have to tell me.

3 responses to “Can I Divest Myself of My White Privilege?

  1. After reading your piece/peace on White Privilege, initially my mind only went to how well thought out your message was, and how much I could appreciate the disclosure of what was obviously born out of real life issues that aren’t addressed on a day-to-day basis except for maybe a few good expose’ pieces in February placed between two other “Black History” recognition compositions. As I continued to read, so many other attitudes assaulted my cogitations:
    If John wasn’t my friend, would I have even taken the time to read this? To my own discredit, probably not.
    Since John IS my friend, doesn’t that already lend itself to a graceful acceptance and understanding of what he’s expressing? Unashamedly, yes. Furthermore, in light of those two facts/facets, how do I respond? Or more to the point, how do I balance responding honestly as to a friend that I’m encouraged by and respectful of? And then also letting my heart speak on a deeper level?
    So then, if, for whatever reason, I’d stumbled across this anonymously and I’d chosen to read it, and had no real reason to show solidarity and even felt at liberty to be ‘brutally’ honest with my own feelings – how would I respond?
    Well, I don’t do brutally honest much, if at all. Scripture exhorts us as followers of Christ to speak the truth in love and I believe that a heart of sincere honesty and good intent can frame a conversation dealing with even the most discomforting subjects.
    Having laid such a tone in this prologue, I also must plead that perceptions about the tone not be allowed to derail the conversation. This is not an “Uh Oh! Angry black man alert!” I’m overjoyed that in our busy lives, we would take the time to begin an honest exchange on an issue that really is a fundamental, though often shaded aspect in the history of America.
    So here goes my first thought/question; What is “White Privilege”? I mean I understand the words and I get that it signifies that very real, systemic, societal benefit that white people have simply because they’re white. But I can’t say that I fully agree with the terms usage. It sounds like one of those words conjured up to soften a less desirable, less offensive idea in the way that the media now opts to use words like ‘misrepresentation’, or ‘untruth’ instead of saying “Lie”. Taken on its own, “white privilege” sounds like a “luck of the draw” kind of thing and it’s really nobody’s fault.
    Does this mean that I think the piece should be re-written to exclude the words white privilege? Not at all.
    Even more so, I agree with what you’ve said you, in particular, along with most of the white people today are not ‘complicit’ in establishing or promoting those benefits afforded to white people directly and indirectly from the abhorrent reality of what was slavery in America.
    My second thought; THANK YOU! Thank you for simply feeling that this is not something that you could continue to NOT deal with. I think that’s a big issue with some of us ‘black folk’ – we know that the deep wounds and putrefying sores caused by slavery cannot be fixed – at least not with reparations, entitlement programs, community outreach centers or job fairs but it seems to us that all too often, no one wants to talk about it. This really boils down to we probably just wish that white people seemed more sorry about it – it’s a slippery slope but I believe the conversation, like the one you’ve started having with this piece will begin to draw clear lines whereby people can appreciate their heritage as well as denounce the evils of slavery.
    Thirdly, its going to take people like you. To simply be ready to give a coherent, insightful, yet non-inciteful communication about the issues when you can. Some black people have slave narratives and in our digital age, many of these narratives are published online and stored in archives, but I imagine a plethora of slave-related memorabilia is also in the hands of white people, some of which probably have reservations about what to do with them. It’s not that it takes boldness and bravery to stare this thing in the face, but it takes a fundamental compassion and value for people, former slaves, that will prompt bold and brave actions to promote their voices. Thanks John, my friend.

  2. Pingback: Anna Parkes on “Negroes,” Food, and Being a Child in Slavery | To Breathe Your Free Air

  3. Well, I’ll be interested to read what you glean from their writings. However, as Solomon observed some millennia ago, there is nothing new under the sun. In all of human history, there have always been various groups of people who have benefited from some advantage in society, whether racial, ethnic, geographical, economic or cultural. I suppose one might argue that this topic is different because it involved holding someone in bondage versus being at least being largely free in other situations to make one’s own decisions on the path to overcoming those obstacles, so I grant that point.

    Have I benefited from being born white in America? Yep. I’ve also benefited from being born IN America, from not being born in Appalachia, Eastern Europe or Afghanistan and from being born to college-educated parents. Contrarily, I can come up with a list of folks who are more “privileged” than I based on where they were born and to whom.

    Based on my internet wanderings, there is even some who claim there is “Christian privilege” and “male privilege”. Sigh.

    Can I get rid of my white, male, Christian, American “privileges”? I’m not sure it’s even possible to divest of such things.

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