A wooden box of family papers holds the receipt for the property taxes my great-great-grandfather, John Early, paid to Fleming County, Kentucky, in 1852: $12.30 for 210 acres of land, four horses or mules, and four slaves. So the family farm on which I grew up, where my grandfather, Lucien Lundy Early, lived as a gentleman farmer, was inherited wealth built in part on the unpaid labor of enslaved persons.
The elementary school I attended was segregated until I was in the fifth grade.
My parents never made disparaging remarks about Black people, but the one time they visited Baltimore, my mother told me that my father had been troubled by the behavior of Black people on the train. She did not specify, and I did not press for details, because race is something that white people are not comfortable talking about.
The church I attend, Memorial Episcopal in Bolton Hill, was founded by slaveholders just as the Civil War was about to break out, and it was a segregated congregation until 1969. 1969! (We have been trying to do better.)
My own history was much on my mind this week as I read Baynard Woods's Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness (Legacy Lit, 2022, 338 pages). It is an unflinching, unsparing account.
Growing up in South Carolina, a descendant of families who owned scores of enslaved people, he rebelled against the middle-class values of his parents and their unspoken, unacknowledged racism.
His account is a series of discoveries, about himself and about his family. He looks back on his youthful rebellion, recognizing in retrospect that young white men, in their egotism and entitlement, get to misbehave. Their misbehavior is expected and tolerated; penalties, if any are light. They are protected in a way that young Black men cannot expect.
He confronts his parents on their genteel racism--they are nice people; they don't hate Black people; they just can't acknowledge that they have benefited from their whiteness. He looks into his family's past, probing for details of his great-grandfather's participation in the assassination of a Black county commissioner in 1871.
He lives in Baltimore, a daily witness to the residue of racism in housing, education, and employment.
And though after a tumultuous youth he earned college degrees and became a writer--recently as co-author of I Got a Monster, an excellent book on the Gun Trace Task Force scandal--he cannot live comfortably in the entitlements of whiteness. He will stand up to white supremacy, identifying and opposing its manifestations. He will try to find ways to make reparations.
And because he cannot and will not deny his family, his inheritance, his history, and his whiteness, he styles himself
Baynard Woods. He is who he is and was, but he will mark his heritage and his privilege on his name.
Now, mind you, this is not wallowing in liberal white guilt, though some will dismiss this book to avoid confronting the truths in it. This is a clear-eyed attempt to understand the dominance of white culture and one's place in it, and I think that few will have the courage to match Baynard's self-examination.
I'll leave you with a passage I copied out, and you can decide whether it describes the world you know: "This was the way white men rolled, I was learning--at war with the world, until you start to lose. Then at war with women. ..."