My Racist History


In 1990, my mom used several VHS tapes to record Ken Burns’ The Civil War. She thought it was a big deal, and I had never seen us use that many tapes to record a single show. Still today, even though she could watch it on Netflix, those VHS tapes with 20 year old masking tape labels are probably still in the drawer in the media room; they were the last time I looked. Most of our old VHS tapes have been gone a long time, but The Civil War remained. I may have watched some of it growing up; it was fascinating in snippets but long for a kid. When I rewatched it fully as an adult (thanks, Netflix), I was enraptured. I absolutely gained a greater understanding of myself as an American, as a Southerner, and as a human. Seriously. It is wonderfully informative and thought-provoking, although certainly not perfect. I highly recommend it if you care about your history as an American.

It set me upon a journey of self-discovery through ancestry research. I chose to start by tracing a single line back as far as I could. I wanted it it be easy, so I traced it back by male ancestors. By far, the most fascinating time in my family history is Reconstruction. Everything changed dramatically for practically everyone. The line I traced lived in Jackson County, Florida (on the Alabama border) during Reconstruction. My family were poor subsistence farmers as far as I can tell, and they–along with everyone else–lost basically everything after the war: homes, crops, children. But, as a result of the traumatic circumstances, Jackson County erupted in violence. You can read on Wikipedia that “From 1869-71, Jackson County was the center of a low-level guerrilla war known as the Jackson County War. Members of the Ku Klux Klan consisting of Confederate Army veterans assassinated over 150 Republican Party officials and prominent African-Americans as part of a successful campaign to retain white Democratic power.”

It struck me so deeply that, without the possibility of actual proof, my ancestors were probably at least complicit with this violence. Why wouldn’t they have been? They were poor, uneducated, and probably blamed their current situation on the loss of the Civil War. In Jackson County, this led many to a deep hate for those who “won.” I have little faith that my ancestors were ideologically rebellious enough to risk their lives during the Jackson County War for what is right and have survived.

As I continued to research more deeply into Jackson County, where my ancestors lived until the mid 20th century, I read about the lynching of Claude Neal, which took place in Jackson County in 1934. I won’t detail it, but Neal was kidnapped from an Alabama jail by men who took him back to Jackson County, and tortured, mutilated, and lynched him in front of a local crowd of several hundreds (some say thousands).

My family, people I don’t even know, but my bloodline lived through and very well may have supported some serious and violent racism. I don’t know when it changed because I wasn’t taught to be a horrible racist by my parents, and that’s why this history seemed so shocking. I knew nothing of my ancestors. No one told me anything, and my parents didn’t know about these historical events either. We say, as a nation, we will never forget certain tragedies, but we have already forgotten tragedies in our own recent pasts.

How quickly we have forgotten what, historically speaking,  just happened and what is still happening. How quickly we ignore what we are still recovering from or still need to address. #BlackLivesMatter because we do not currently nor have we ever treated them like they matter. Peaceful protests matter and are necessary for there to be change. I can’t change my history. I can’t verify which of my ancestors were villains or heroes, but I want to be on the right side of history. #BlackLivesMatter

Don’t Give Up

Last night I listened to a new song by Sia called “The Greatest,” and I immediately knew I wanted to share it with you. Jim and I watched the video, and it was really interesting and moving, and the lyrics are simple but empowering. Kendrick Lamar, who I have mentioned several times in other posts, does a guest verse on the song but wasn’t featured in the video. So I looked up the version of the song with his verse, and liked the song even more. It has a message of self-acceptance and endurance. It encourages me to keep fighting, and I hope that you, too, will feel encouraged by the message that you are, as Sia says,”free to be the greatest”.

But what does it mean to be the greatest? And what does it mean to be free to be the greatest? In one sense the answers to these questions are easy; Sia sings, “I’m free to be the greatest; I’m alive.” Simply surviving your struggles makes you great. Everyone has struggles that they must face, but severe depression is an especially tough one. Your job is to survive, but it is the one thing your depressed brain doesn’t want you to do. Know that your daily survival is an accomplishment. No matter how hard your day is, no matter how you feel you failed, if you are still alive, you have done something great. You have survived.

But how do you go from being great to the greatest? First, I think that being the greatest is about loving yourself enough to believe in your potential. Likewise, I believe that being “free to be the greatest” is about being liberated from self-hate. It is more simply about believing in yourself. Depression makes this seem impossible, and some days it may be too hard, but you must keep trying. Recognize your strength in relation to your struggle. Your journey is unique, and if you love yourself then you will be able to freely see that by surviving, you are the greatest at traveling your unique journey.

There is one catch though; surviving is not stagnant work. Depression will not let you maintain. You are in a fight for your life, and you must give whatever effort you can when you can. You will have bad days. You may have bad weeks, but keep trying, and take advantage of every moment of light. Cling to those reminders that joy exists. Keep feeding yourself positivity. It takes endurance. I’m in this fight for the long haul, and a little bit of work everyday makes a difference.

Believe it or not, it is hard for me to continually tell you to work hard fighting your depression, but, as far as I can tell, depression will not go away without a fight. I know how hard it is; that’s why it’s hard to tell you to keep pushing. I know you don’t want to. Your brain is screaming at you to give up. There have been days that my mother has physically helped me out of bed and there are days that I cry because I have to get up on my own. But, I promise, healing is worth the effort.

In “The Greatest” Kendrick Lamar says, “Hey, I am the greatest; hey, this is the proof/ Hey, I work hard, pray hard, pay dues, hey/ I transform with pressure; I’m hands-on with effort.” Your greatness is as unique as you are, but putting in effort, recognizing your place in the universe, and showing kindness will help you along the way. Know that you have the opportunity to become stronger through your survival of your struggles. Fighting today will make you stronger tomorrow.

I am a fan of the Rocky film series–I have been for many years–and one of Rocky’s best lines is in the 6th film Rocky Balboa: “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.” I regularly tell you that everyone has their own struggles, so it is useless to compare yourself to someone else, but what we have in common is that we can work to get up from being knocked down. It’s about intentionally moving forward–no matter how small the increments–despite all of the things trying to hold you back. You will get knocked down; I guarantee it, but with effort you can get back up. And you should be proud of each single moment of effort no matter how small. Your struggle is real and it may be overwhelming, but keep fighting.

Throughout “The Greatest,” Sia repeats, “Don’t give up; I won’t give up/ Don’t give up, no no no.” This has been a tough week at my house with my daughter emotionally struggling because she has to return to school. She desperately wants to stay home with me and tells me she “can’t let go.” So I have been singing this riff to her in the mornings. I know she can do this, but she doesn’t believe it. When I tell her not to give up, I mean for her to keep going to school, but I want her also to believe that she can do it. I daily tell myself in hard moments, “don’t give up; keep moving forward.” You don’t have to be the greatest, but if you love and believe in yourself you will be free enough to recognize that you are great because you are a fighter and a survivor. No one else walks your journey, but you are not alone. Tell yourself daily, “I won’t give up,” and find help to learn how to fight your illness and how to love and accept yourself. Keep fighting and don’t give up.