The first time I ever crossed the Mason-Dixon line was in the fall of 1954 when I headed north to begin my college career at Williams. I was, at this point, a Confederate youth, a born and bred Southern white boy, carrying assumptions about white superiority and black inferiority that I had absorbed during my first 17 years growing up in the South. In other words, I was a racist. The city I grew up in, St. Petersburg, Fla., might not seem like a hotbed of racism, but it was a Jim Crow town to the core.
The racial prejudice I acquired came more through a process of osmosis than anything else. I learned from watching how others around me behaved, starting with my own family. There were separate cups, saucers, plates, and glasses in our kitchen cupboard to be used by the African-American help — Ed, who mowed our lawn, and a wonderful woman named Illinois, who cleaned for us, did our laundry, and occasionally cooked our meals. I learned early on that I should never shake hands with a black man or woman. I was not to use Mr. or Mrs. or Miss when I spoke to an African-American adult. We had separate bathrooms — a poorly appointed half bath off the back porch for the help, a nice, fully tiled bathroom on the second floor of our house for us. I was 8 years old when I watched my father explode in almost uncontrollable anger at a black man who came to the wrong door of our home.
My time at Williams College helped me break free of this bigotry. I had African-American classmates with whom I did shake hands. For the first time in my life, I held normal, natural conversations across the color line, conversations that were not rigidly controlled by the elaborate racial etiquette that governed contact between the races in my native South. I took classes in Southern history that blew my assumptions about Confederate glory out of the water. I recall the day my professor told us what it would have meant if the South had won the Civil War. "Slavery would have continued in the Confederacy for years, probably decades, maybe into the 20th century," he said. That sobering thought had never figured into my boyhood dreams of Lee and his victorious army sweeping the Yankees off Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg.
And I started to notice things when I left campus, things I had been blind to before — a heavy green curtain drawn across the dining car on the train as I was riding home for Christmas my freshman year, whites seated on one side of that curtain, African-Americans on the other. My black classmates, including a friend who lived in my dorm, could not join me at my table.
When I went home during my junior and senior years at Williams, I asked to drive Illinois home on a regular basis. I wanted to ask her about how she and her husband, Joe, managed things in the South. I wanted to learn about the difficulties of life on her side of the color line. I also wanted her to know that my ideas had changed and that I was coming out from under the toxic culture in which I had been raised. She said something so profound and so meaningful on one of these drives that I have never forgotten her words. "Charles," she asked me, "why do the grown-ups put so much hate in the children?"
Illinois cut to the heart of the matter. Racism was passed from one generation of white Southerners to the next with the certainty of a genetic trait. Most of our jokes were based on crude racial stereotypes and told in dialect. My family was fascinated by the way Illinois pronounced some words, and we incorporated several into our family vocabulary.
My tall, strong older brother was "big limbded." When our lumbering basset hound wandered into the kitchen in the late afternoon, Illinois would say, "Rascal, he be’s hongry." She regularly inverted some words, and we did, too. "Grasshoppers" became "hoppergrasses" and "boxcars" became "carboxes" whenever we used these words. We smiled when we used this language, and when we did, we knew we were patronizing her; we never spoke this way when she was around.
In my junior year at Williams I decided I wanted to be a historian, and to study the history of the South. Over the years, the driving force behind my scholarly work has been our collective white blindness, our "not seeing" — not seeing the horror of human bondage, not seeing the horror of the slave trade, not seeing the horror of lynching, not seeing the horror of Jim Crow. How did we Southerners — my people, multiple generations of us — manage to look evil in the face every day and not see what was right there in front of us? How could I have turned a blind eye to Jim Crow?
I have been attempting to answer these questions for most of my adult life, and recently I have been studying the correspondence of Richmond, Va., slave traders — the men behind the darkest corner of the Old South’s slave system. After more than five decades studying this history, I am not sure I have an adequate explanation for our "not seeing." But I do have an idea.
Everything turns on race. If you accept the notion that black men, women, and children are inferior human "stock" — an idea as old as the Atlantic slave trade itself — then slavery itself becomes an outlet for this supposedly primitive and brutish race of people. It is this conviction of white superiority and black inferiority that drives everything else. The generational transmission of this pernicious belief has taken place for centuries in the South, one race superior, the other inferior. It was what my ancestors were raised on. It was what I was raised on.
How do we break that chain of racist transmission?
An honest confrontation with our history seems to me to be the best place to start. Both scholars and students have a responsibility here. We need to peel away multiple layers of myth and look at the results of our embrace of racism squarely in the face — from our earlier acceptance of slavery and Jim Crow down to the ready acceptance of crude racial stereotypes in our own day. All of these need to be swept to their well-deserved place in the dustbin of history.
History can teach. And all of us must be willing to learn.
Charles B. Dew is a professor of American history at Williams College. He is the author of the new memoir, The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade (University of Virginia Press).