Where the Past + Future Meet

I wish people would stop saying, ‘We don’t see color,’ and teaching those lessons. Yes, you do. And so, what do you do with that information? How do you move through those interactions without bringing a load of assumptions about what those colors might mean?”

Blair LM Kelley

Blair LM Kelley

Blair LM Kelley is a historian of the African American experience. She currently serves as the Assistant Dean for Interdisciplinary Studies and International Programs for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at North Carolina State University. Her book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press, 2010) won the 2010 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Prize from the Association of Black Women Historians. She is currently at work on a new book project, Black Folk: The Promise of the Black Working Class, which is under contract with Liveright-WW Norton & Co.

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"Where the Past + Future Meet"

Malinda: It’s tremendously hard work to continue to tell that lie that you or I, or Melody, are fundamentally inferior.

Blair: One thing I always have to repeat and teach is that I like being black. I do not feel bad about it. I don't wake up sad. I'm not struggling. I'm not a tragedy. I am joyful about who I am and my existence with the communities in which I live. I am joyful about the people I get to write about. This joy does not discount the sorrows that we suffer, right. So, joy is not about happiness—they're not the same word, but the sense that I come from something that is bigger than where I am, that imbibes me with something that keeps me going.

Melody: Welcome to Southern Futures, a podcast for a distinctive storytelling and humble listening. I'm your host, Melody Hunter-Pillion. So, you just heard the voices of our two guests for this episode. They're both professors of history and parents of school-aged children. Dr. Malinda Manor Lowery, Director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC, and Dr. Blair Kelly, Assistant Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies and International Programs at North Carolina State University. Blair and Melinda, thank you both for being here. Part of what I love about being a student, again, is interacting with young people, with my classmates and also with my nieces. We do have debates about protest and people blocking the highways. So, I'm operating—I'm thinking from this PR minded framework of how to get folks to agree with my goals. And I'm thinking of the civil rights movement, but my young classmates say “uh, it's not really about that. It's more about you know, getting people's attention.” Well, so let's discuss this generational gap.

Blair: So I think there's two layers to this: I think you're forgetting the disturbance that civil rights in the classical sense caused, right? So, if black students go sit at the counter at the white restaurant, they disturb the hell out of that restaurant, that whole wars, that crisis, whatever. They weren't doing—yeah, that wasn't passing, they ruined that day. So that whole group of people, we're just going to try and get a little sandwich or, you know, buy something in the five a dime part of the store. And so, that's still a disturbance, right? They are causing a problem. Now, it seems ridiculous because why in the world would you know some black students to sitting at a counter mean the whole store needs to shut down and that waitresses start spontaneously dropping everything because they're so freaked out. That's illogical, and yet it is a disturbance, right? So, the movement, cause disturbances. They cause an up ending of everyday life in order to show the power, in order to show that segregation was not a placid system, that it was governed by violence, and the knowledge of violence is what kept black people in their, quote unquote, places. And so, by bringing that violence to the surface, they showed the world what was really happening in those circumstances. And so, as much as I, you know, I'd love to drive where I want to go and get there on time, it is powerful to see young people braving standing on a highway to disturb the status quo today, because where can we disturb it? You know, there's no place in which the problems that they are confronting is necessarily co-located. Right. So, the lunch counter was a segregated space that one could attack. Where does one attack the consciousness of a country that allows people to see a black man as not human? Where is that? Where could you go to protest it? And so, I think by pouring onto the highways that I saw last night on the news in—I believe it was an Oregon, yeah, I think it was in Portland, Oregon—they almost filled this massive suspension version went over a river. And I was saying to my daughter, I was like, “these aren't black people because there aren't that many black people in Portland. I'm sure that first section is that would be all the black people.” And my son, who is seven, was like, “well, let me count them.” And so, they are drone-shooting the bridge and he starts counting, “there’s one, mama! There’s another one! Oh, look brown arms!” And so, they're all laying there, you know, to symbolize the time in which George Floyd was under the knees of the police. And my son is counting the black participants, I think we got to about 15. And there were thousands. And so, there is something really visually compelling and stirring about people who are willing to move away from their everyday lives, to put their lives down to make a point, to make a collective point, and the massiveness of that is still powerful and it's still meaningful. So yeah, it looks different, but it's got to. How could it possibly look the same?

Malinda: You have a group of young people that have identified the locus of protest differently than my parents who were protesting and grandparents who were protesting school segregation. What our young people have understood and pointed out to an older generation is capitalist systems that value goods and services above human life are what need to be dismantled. And so, it's not widely, I don't see it, as widely divorced from the strategies that were used in the 1960s. And I think what we have 1950s—30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, and 70s—but, you know, what we also have is a kind of misremembering or a flattening out of these narratives of why those protest strategies work.

Melody: When we see, yet again, another African American killed by police, followed by protest, yet again, we can't help but ask, “why can't our society just break out of the cycle?” I know this may sound oversimplified for our question, but why are so many issues in American society about race?

Malinda: Race is a construct that depends on a power hierarchy. So, when someone asks me in an ordinary conversation, where maybe I'm bringing up some aspect of my identity as a member of the Lumbee tribe, you know, well, “why is this about race?” And I need to sort of say to them, I'm struggling honestly, sometimes to find a simple way of explaining to them that this is about race because European settlers came to this country and created a hierarchy that made it about race, that divided, that restricted access to equality, based on race and restricted access to our democratic methods of government, based on race. So, I'm not making it about race. I'm talking about race because that is one of the fundamental organizing principles that European colonialism brought to this land.

Melody: Why does there seem to be a push against even having the conversation about that? Why are people so uncomfortable with it?

Blair: Well, we're taught implicitly that blackness is stigma, right? So, if black people are really at the base of any understanding or misunderstanding of identity in this country, black people are stigmatized people. Not because there's something wrong with us, not because there is any failing or lack or some fundamental central truth about us that come short, but rather that we are the people who were brought here to labor. And in order to make that system work, a stigma had to be placed on that population, to isolate them, to disempower them. And that was a constant work because African peoples who were brought here, were constantly resistant. And so that back and forth that work of making blackness into something that it was not, is as it's ever going, and it's still happening now, right? And so, in part, we are taught to think of race as some set of neutral descriptors, rather than, you know, just your color or your hair texture or your eye color or something like that. But, implicit in that thinking is the stigma. So much so that the logic of the one-drop-rule is a great example of this. This notion that was built over time, not the first notion of who was black, who was white, who was native, but rather, building up a smaller and smaller space for anyone in between. So, by the time we get to the turn of the 20th century, there is this notion that a single African ancestor anywhere in your line made you black, so that you could be 99% of European descent, and still be black. Homer Plessy, a man who had blue eyes and fair and straight hair could be arrested after delineating himself as the person sent there, person of color sent there, and that he would undergird segregation for several generations. Is this illogic of race so that to be black is this terrible thing? It is that fly in the buttermilk. It is that impossibility of escape. And it doesn't work in reverse that to be slightly white does not make you white, that if I said I was white to anybody, they would find that hilarious. But if a person who is fair-skinned and has straight hair and blue eyes says they're black, we can work on that logic because of course, something has happened here. I enjoy when I teach about this history of race with my students, making them work through the logic of race, because there is none. And they think there is one when they start. And by the time the exercise is done, they realize that there isn't one and that we're all dealing and stereotype and misunderstanding and this long history that has us bound in a profound misunderstanding. So, of course everything we're doing is about this history of race and of course, the black men who move about this country are stigmatized, implicitly at every turn. The black women who move about this country, the trans men and trans women who are black are stigmatized. Gay folk who are black are stigmatized. Straight folk who are black are stigmatized—in every portion of this country at every turn. And so, this movement is really about trying to shove that consciousness to the surface of our country.

Malinda: And it's phenomenal what you what you said, Blair, about the lie, that has to be perpetuated, in order for this system to exist. I feel like that's another thread to pull out of this obstacle that people have and seeing racial inequality and the fundamental illogic of it and basis of it, is that as our friend, Tim Tyson, says, “maintaining white supremacy is hard work.” It's tremendously hard work to continue to tell that lie that you or I or Melody are fundamentally inferior, biologically inferior. So, when you have to maintain that lie and be at people have bought into it as a core belief, maybe not always the inferiority part, but just the difference, the stigma part, the difference in embodied in us, if we're not classified as European or of European descent. Then you get defensive about upholding what maybe you didn't know was a lie and even perhaps after you know it was a lie you realize you have to defend that stance simply because you don't know another explanation. You know, or you can't marshal another kind of counterargument to it. So, I think the very nature of the lie that's had to be told, keeps people in a stance of having to defend the lie. And so, when we get this knee jerk reaction of “why does everything have to be about race with you?,” people I know, I think, are primarily working to defend something that they're learning is a lie, but they've always been told is the truth.

Blair And I think the other flip side of this for me, is something you alluded to earlier, Malinda, is the community that has arisen in spite of the object of categorization and hierarchy, right? So, one thing I always have to repeat and teach is that I like being black. I do not feel bad about it. I don't wake up sad. I'm not struggling. I'm not a tragedy. I am joyful about who I am and my existence of the communities in which I live. I am joyful about the people I get to write about. This joy does not discount the sorrows that we suffer, right? So, joy is not about happiness. They're not the same word. But the sense that I come from something that is bigger than where I am, that it imbibes me with something that keeps me going. And so, that, I think, is always important to recall at those moments, too.

Melody: Between the COVID-19 crisis and unrest in our streets, it's made for an anxious start to the summer season and I want to know when you seek solace or understanding through reading, what's resonating with you? It could be something very recent that you've read, it could be something that's a standard that you go back to, year after year. Just share a passage with me and tell us why you pick that particular piece of literature.

Blair: So, I picked, “Beloved.” Toni Morrison is and was really just sort of a touchstone for me thinking about being a historian. I read “Beloved” as a 16-year-old when my grandmother was dying and died. And so, the sense of place in ancestry really spoke to me in a profound way and sort of set me on my journey. And I'm still I'm working on a book called Black Folk and really thinking about the culture of a black working class and its power over time. And I was going back to sort of where my ancestors are from—some of my ancestors are from in Elbert County, Georgia—and thinking about recreating their favorite experiences. And I thought of Baby Suggs Holy when I was doing that work so I want to share that, it always resonates in every direction for me and particularly in this moment when we are experiencing the fragility of our bodies and mourning the ways the world does not love us.

“Here she said in this place we flesh, flesh that weeps laughs, flesh that dances on bare feet and grass, love it, love it hard. Yonder, they do not love your flesh. they despise it. They don't love your eyes. They just assumed pick them out. No more do they love the skin on your back, yonder they flay it. Oh, my people, they do not love your hands. Those they only use tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands, love them, raise them up and kiss them, touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face, because they don't love that either. You got to love it. You and no vain in love with your mouth, yonder out there they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it, they will not heed. What you scream from it, they do not hear. What you put in it to nourish your body, they will snatch away and give you leavings instead. No, they do not love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here, flesh that needs to be love. Feet that need rest and to dance, backs that need support, shoulders that need arms, strong arms, I’m telling you. Oh, my people out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck, a noose and straight. So, love your neck, put a hand on it, grease it, stroke it, hold it up, and all your inside parts that they just assume slop for hauls. You've got to love them. The dark, dark liver, love it, love it. And the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than the eyes or feet more than the lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life holding warm and your life-giving private hearts, hear me now. Love your heart, for this, is the prize.”


Melody: This is why I love Tony Morrison, Blair. Beautiful writing and I think what you picked was perfect to go with the times that we were in. So, thank you for that. Malinda, talk to me about what you've picked or selected for your reading and why.

Malinda: Amen and amen, to Tony Morrison. I've picked a passage from Benito Cereno Novella written by Herman Melville. It was published in 1855. And of course, Melville is best known for Moby Dick and just general fictional commentaries on American life and the particularly tortured aspects of race and class that, before the Civil War, were coming to fruition. And this particular story takes place in 1799. It's about a rebellion on a slave ship. And it opens in Massachusetts, on the coast of Massachusetts, and one morning in 1779.

“The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm. Everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roots of swells, seemed fixed and was sleek at the surface like waved lead, that has cooled and set in the smelters mold. The sky seemed to gray suture. Flights of trouble gray fowl kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors, among which they were mixed. Skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, a swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.”


And that passage, his description of the gray fowl kith and kin with the gray vapors, the ways in which the swells of the sea are compared to waved lead that has cooled and set, the contrasts all speak to the contrast that we see in our society, the contrast that we see visually in photographs, for example, the light in the dark, paired together, never separate, like never independently examined. He's telling us that just as in the south, everywhere in the country, we must look at light and dark together. And that there are shadows that foreshadow deeper shadows if we don't reckon with them, if we don't look at them and see them as part of us, just as we would like to see the light as part of us.

Melody: Any final thoughts?

Blair: So, I really do think these times are extraordinary for the coupling of so many sorrowful things and difficult things and frightening things and hopeful things. I think this is a time that we will end up remembering in our history. I think this may be a turning point. And so, I hope that is a turning point that creates a greater reckoning of our all our collective humanity.

Malinda: If we act like history doesn't inform our actions, then, for one thing, we're overworking ourselves, we're maintaining the lie at great expense to our time and energy and souls. But we're also not actively working to build a more constructive future and we need to use every present moment to do that. So, if we're denying history, or not talking about the role of history, in our own lives and in our communities and in our larger nation, then we're really removing a critical piece of the toolkit to build a future, the future we want to have.

Melody: Malinda and Blair, I want to thank you both for sharing your insights as historians but also as parents, and a bonus episode of our conversation with Dr. Blair Kelly and Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, they confront the topic of discussing racism with children, a struggle for all parents, including these historians. They also tell us how they reimagine the south and its future. For executive producer Malinda Maynor Lowry, Associate Producer Ellie Little and sound editor Mark Meyer, I’m Melody Hunter- Pillion. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the Southern Futures initiative, a new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC Libraries, the Center for the Study of the American South and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Futures, reimagine the American South.