By Wendy Bryce
Synopsis of Part I In Part I of my two-part essay, I explored the history of racism in the western world. I theorized that the white man’s drive for economic dominance and white cultural supremacy in the New World was used to enact genocide on aboriginal peoples, and then used to justify subjugating people of black African descent, and using them for forced labor to build an empire.
In part II, I will delve into the lasting effects of white supremacy, the great divide of people groups that still exist, and how we as societies can dig ourselves out of the deep dark hole of racism that we are still in..
Three years after Hurricane Katrina my husband and I visited Louisiana. New Orleans is a very old city in the state, and I am sure in its heydey it possessed many charms. As we toured the city it was still very difficult to get around because of water damage, but we walked along St. Charles Street which is full of history, and heritage homes. We walked past a beautifully situated house set back on a lot and raised above street level. It was charming. I stood in front of it trying to imagine what life must have been like on this street two or three hundred years earlier. Unexpectedly the front door opened and a black man dressed in what looked like a tuxedo, and wearing white gloves, opened the door and began polishing the beautiful brass doorknob. I was quite stunned. I felt like I was looking at a scene right out of Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind.’
I had no idea if it was real. It is possible that he was the owner of the home, and that he was enacting a little drama for the people staring at the home who were probably tourists. I don’t know, but it was on that trip that I saw an entirely different view of black and white culture.
We visited a plantation that conducted tours for visitors. This was the first experience that I’d had with what life had been like for slaves.
In Louisiana, sugar plantations were laid out in horizontal strips along the Mississippi River. Carriages would leave the main road and drive down a colonnade of majestic trees to the main house which had tall white pillars. The home we visited was magnificent. It was two stories high with a full basement.
At the back of the main house were the slave cabins. Each one had a lovely vegetable garden. Inside were the everyday tools of life hand-carved out of wood. The entire plantation was built by slave labour, from the beautiful main home to the slave cabins, to the majestic gardens. The slaves were the indentured workforce. They were slaves not only to the master, but they were also slaves to the property, and they could not leave without a special permission letter from the master.
When the Civil War took place in the middle 19th century, these plantations were destroyed by the Union soldiers. A few were spared for the sake of history, but the majority were burned to the ground. It seems quite ironic that the very people who subjugated the slaves were the ones now being humbled and subjugated. But if you think that anti-black sentiment ceased to exist in the southern states because of the defeat of the confederate soldiers, you are wrong. An inbred attitude of racism is not that easily eradicated, and it doesn’t help when bronze statues glorifying the slave era are erected to keep it alive.
Did Nazism die at the end of WWII? It would be very naive to believe so. There are 26 active and growing Nazi organizations in North America. I recently saw an online photo of an SUV driving around in San Diego with a Nazi flag bearing a swastika draped across the back of it. The people in the vehicle were wearing face masks with swastikas on them.
When we were in Louisiana touring the plantation, there was a small restaurant for visitors. The waiter came by our table with a tray of delicious and sugary desserts. I told him that I couldn’t eat sugar. There was a black couple sitting within earshot of us. I got up to use the restaurant’s [restroom] and I tripped on something. I went down right behind the gentleman’s chair, and yet he did not get up to help me. He went on eating as if nothing had happened. A waitress rushed from across the room and helped me, and apologized, and asked if I was hurt.
I have often thought about that incident. Was the black man uncaring and insensitive, or was he perhaps smarting from my refusal to eat the sugary dessert? Louisiana’s main crop was sugarcane, and I wondered if he was thinking of his forebears who gave their very lives for their masters in the sugarcane fields; perhaps under the whip of a harsh overseer.
But not all masters were cruel. Many provided their workers with basics in education and on-the-job training. At the plantation we visited, I was more interested in the basement of the house than any of the grand and well-furnished rooms above it. It was in the basement where a different kind of work from fieldwork took place.
The basement was the workroom of the carpenters. Here they designed, and hand-carved, tools and work implements. One thing that intrigued me was the Roman numerals carved into the joists and cross-beams and load-bearing 4 x 4 beams of the house. Each of the pieces fit together perfectly and it attested to the great skill of these workers. After all, the house has been standing for 400 years and is still in amazing condition. There were no cranes, loaders or heavy-duty machines to load the wood. That was the work of the slaves. They were amazing craftsmen and planners, and the skills they learned would be the life-skills with which they would use to survive when the Civil War was over and their freedom was won.
The American Civil War was a turning point for American society. But it was a turning point more in the south than in the north. The era of white privilege in the south which had lasted for over 200 years came to an end. For the Negro slaves life took on a new meaning. They took the skills they had learned from years of slavery and they forged new lives for themselves. For the white plantation owners and those who profit from their products, life became much harsher, and it was a bitter pill to swallow. Many could not accept the black man as equal and vestiges of that mindset still linger in today’s society.
Attitudes passed on to a child can determine the man that he will become. In that sense, we are bred to be racist. But it is not inevitable. I am living proof of that. As a child, I heard racial slurs continuously. But today in my country, Canada, they are seldom heard.. Why? Because we have enacted hate speech laws. We have also enacted human rights laws. People are equal, no matter the colour, culture or religion. Education is mandatory for all.
Does racism still exist in Canada? Yes, it does. Systems are still flawed and faulty. People are flawed and faulty, but the next generation is demanding change.
In 2020 bronze statues depicting the slave era that have been in existence in the southern U.S. states, and other countries, for a very long time are being pulled down. Police forces that have been unchallenged in their approach to policing are facing drastic changes. The world is noticing that racial-profiling is endemic and they want it abolished.
But racial concerns are concerns of humanity. There is scarcely a people group on the earth who have not, at some point in time, faced persecution. But few in modern history have experienced it as harshly as Africans. It is fine and noble to say that black lives matter. But it is difficult and confusing to try to pinpoint the cause of the continuing bias and how to eradicate it.
Simplistically we can say, “We must do more.” But that begs the question, “Who is ‘we?’”
Are politicians and community leaders and police forces solely responsible for eradicating hate crimes, especially against people of colour?
I conclude that society as a whole is the main culprit in the ongoing tensions not only between cultural groups but religious groups as well. If indeed society is the main culprit, then we must find positive ways to build healthier, safer societies for all people.
We must devise ways to come together.
In my opinion, isolation is one of the major causes of racial tension. In most communities, cultural and religious groups tend to gravitate towards each other, to the exclusion of others. Although it is understandable it is not always healthy, because our view of society begins and ends in our own neighborhood.
I would like to see a new holiday declared; an international cultural festival day where we can come together in communities to share food, and dance and song, and conversation. Artisans can display and even sell their wares. It can be a time of discovering more about each other.
A few years ago, someone from a local Mosque sent me an invitation to their cultural centre to experience their food and to find out more about the Muslim religion. I did not go. I felt it would be stepping out of my comfort zone to do so. I realize now I was wrong. I missed an opportunity to be a friendly neighbour.
If we as human beings, don’t find creative ways to come together, we will remain forever fragmented. We will never learn to understand each other, and George Floyd will continue to happen over and over again.
If we know better, we must do better.
Wendy Bryce is a mother, grandmother and great-mother who lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She has a passion for humanity, and a determined goal to see racism eradicated for the next generation. 07/18/20