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writing for godot

Can whites be true Americans without owning their legacy of racism?

Written by Robert Douglas   
Wednesday, 01 July 2020 08:37


Cable news was covering the death of George Floyd and its aftermath non-stop. I couldn’t stop watching. But I was getting exhausted trying to understand the implications of it all for our country, and for me.

In search of a mental break, I rummaged through the cache of books I’d bought over the years and never got around to reading, looking for something that was not too long and not too taxing. I settled on Voyager, a collection of travel writings by one of my favorite authors, Russell Banks

It contained some insightful reflections on destinations from the Caribbean to the Himalayas, and on himself, including:
— The trial of taking an island-hopping adventure with the woman who would become his fourth wife, whose prime concern seemed to be why his first three marriages failed; and 
— The challenges of climbing tall mountains at an age when he was already past his physical peak.  

But what struck a timely chord with me was the story he told of his trip to Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, the veritable cradle of the slave trade. The Portuguese shipped their first cargo of enslaved Africans to Brazil in 1526. They were joined by British, French, Dutch and Danish traders. And over the next 400 years, the group moved more than 12 million enslaved Africans to the New World — many to the United States. The estimated number of victims of the slave trade is more than 100 million.

Epiphany at the cradle of the slave trade.
Goree Island was as an important collection and departure point during the years of the slave trade. It has been preserved as a symbol of the “suffering, tears and death” this shameful practice of human trafficking engendered. The island has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978 and has become “a pilgrimage destination for the African diaspora.”

​Banks was on the island to do research for a book. While there, he visited The House of Slaves. The museum preserves artifacts and structures used during the island’s inglorious past, including The Door of No Return, where slaves boarded ships to the Americas. While waiting in line to enter the museum, Banks was chatting with an African American pilgrim seeking his roots. The man noted that not many white Americans were there. “Why you?” he asked. Banks responded: “I guess my history starts here, too.”

Banks understood why African Americans came here to stand where their ancestors had stood in chains, to “meditate and reflect” upon their connected fates and histories. And he was beginning to see why a white American should be here, too — to contemplate how racism is such a driving force in our country.

Banks quotes African American writer James Baldwin, who said he could not claim the birthright to his people’s rich tradition “without accepting the inheritance.” On Goree Island, Banks found not only the ghosts of the enslaved, but the ghosts of those who enslaved them. “That was my inheritance,” he  writes. “And I had to accept it before I could claim my birthright” as an American.

Privilege has its price.
Which brought me back to upheaval sparked by the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop — the very furor I was trying to escape by reading the travel stories of a novelist. 

Whether white Americans are born to privilege or use whiteness to gain privilege, whether we were born here or came — voluntarily — from abroad, we must accept that aspect of our inheritance that was built on the exploitation of people of color. 

As demographics change to the inevitable point where non-whites will become the majority here, whites will find it increasingly hard to keep the N-words down, to borrow a phase from Randy Newman's Rednecks.

But the silver lining in protests surrounding the death of Floyd and other black victims of police brutality in recent months is that so many whites — both young and older — have stood up to show they believe Black Lives Matter

While I may be putting too rosy a spin on the racial integration of protests and be too hopeful that this development may signal a turning point in our struggle for a more perfect union rooted in a quaint notion of inclusion, I can at least imagine it. 
I can imagine, in the spirit of John Lennon, that enough of us privileged white Americans are prepared to accept the dark side of our inheritance in order to claim the bright side of a future where all people can pursue happiness together.
Robert Douglas is a former business editor for the Palm Beach Post and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. You can contact him at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , like him on on Facebook, or follow him at RBDMediaDotCom on Twitter. your social media marketing partner
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