The Greyhound bus was quiet. The day was dreary. And I was madly uncomfortable. “What time is it?” I asked a guy sitting across the aisle.
“It’s 2 p.m.,” he said. After nearly four years, I had finally been released from Mississippi State Prison at Parchman. The Greyhound bounced over bumps, wrapped its body around slick curves, and slid past flatlands of the Mississippi Delta. I wondered how many times Oprah Winfrey and Morgan Freeman had traveled these roads before rising to stardom. When I wasn’t daydreaming, I was holding back tears and rolling over the uncertainty of my physical freedom.
It’s two o’clock. Right now, I would be on the rec yard jogging, I thought to myself. I didn’t wish to be back in prison. But meeting freedom wasn’t as gleeful a reunion as I expected it to be. I did my bid alone. Today, I’m still wrestling with the hardening of my emotions. It’s one of the many cons that come with serving prison time. I didn’t understand the seriousness of my penitentiary experience. I felt it, but I didn’t have the language to match my barren feelings.
I had a little over $100. No place to live. No clothes. Jumping back into the dope game wasn’t an option. But I didn’t have a vehicle to go search for a job. No vehicle in a city with no public transportation could be problematic. I was embarrassed. Mentally unstable. And lonely. Being free was overwhelming. For the past three and half years I envisioned myself enrolling into college, becoming a writer and a historian. In prison one can be anything he wants to be. But the sting of reality isn’t nearly as fun as the dream. My n***a, you don’t have a car, clothes, money, or a place to live. How the f**k are you going to go to college? I asked myself.
Still dressed in my Mississippi Department of Corrections-issued navy blue khaki pants, faux Chuck Taylor kicks, white button-up shirt, and a small laundry bag filled with my belongings from Parchman, I hopped off the Greyhound in Laurel, Mississippi. Before visiting my grandma, I stopped by the local newspaper. I somehow convinced them to let me write for them. Within a couple of months, I was covering city council meetings, house fires, car wrecks, local events and writing columns.
But something else happened during my budding career as a writer. For the first time in my life I had to interact with white people. I’d never really been around white people before. Because of my ignorance, I believed that all white people were godly intellectuals. This is not to say that now I believe that white people aren’t intelligent. Many white white people are. It’s just that before I knew any, I assumed that all white people had to be experts in the study of life.
My ideas about whiteness were shaped by society. On television, most people were white. My teachers were white. Politicians were white. And white people lived in big houses in safe neighborhoods, which looked very expensive. My mind associated all of this with intelligence. But my stereotypical notions of whiteness waned as I began to spend time around all kinds of white people, from public officials and police officers to working-class whites in my community.
“Bob Dylan’s ‘Idiot Wind’ and John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’ are made from the best stuff on Earth,” I explained to the woman sitting next to me at the counter in a diner in Laurel. We had started a conversation about race and music after she, a white woman, applauded my burgeoning success as a writer.
The conversation shifted to books. Because she was white, I assumed that she wasn’t into literature written by and about Blacks. But she’s white, so she has to be into classical literature, I thought, so I explained why “The Count of Monte Cristo” was one of my favorite novels. I went into a monologue about the many layers of the book. Her lack of response told me that she wasn’t into classical literature, either.
She responded by asking, “Are you the exception to the rule?”
The rule: This was her way of saying that most Black people aren’t capable of reform.
“You do know that you’re Black, right?” she added.
Conversations like that, as awkward as they are, helped me understand that everyone is searching for answers, even white people I assumed were all well-educated and -informed. As clichéd as it may sound, racism really is rooted in ignorance and misinformation.
I wanted to run down the history of the Other White to this lady. I wanted to tell her that most early New World settlers consisted of European outcasts, people who were considered to be a stain on European culture. I wanted to explain how derogatory terms such as “clay-eaters,” “crackers,” and “squatters” were identities forced upon Other Whites, and the term “white trash” became popular in 1845 after a newspaper article reported that it was “poor white trash” eager to see Andrew Jackson’s dead body at his funeral.
I also wanted to explain to her how “squatters” were paid slave wages to care for the homes of the planter class, and how squatters disliked planters, because slaveowners locked them out of the plantation economy. And how Harriet Beecher Stowe, in her sophomore novel, “Dried: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp,” described poor whites as degenerates, ignorant, and prone to crime. Or, how sociologist and writer Richard Dugdale laid the foundation for connecting the Other White to crime, pauperism and prostitution. And upholding Dugdale’s theory was his widely read book, “The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity, also Further Studies of Criminals,” where he presents “white trash” as an hereditary trait.
It wasn’t until Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign that the “white trash,” or the other White, identity was embraced. Nixon claimed to represent the “silent majority.” Now, poor and working class whites had something to identify with. Self-identifying as “white trash” became enmeshed into popular culture, and by the 1980s “white trash” was rebranded as “redneck.” Now, the other White could choose an identity, whereas decades prior, the other White’s identity was chosen for them. This cultural inclusion — as opposed to a physical space in which the other White will never be included — has been a deadly political tactic for generations now.
I wanted to teach this lady about her history, but I didn’t. It wouldn’t have solved anything.
* * *
My writing career was taking off. I was a local celebrity, and a star student at Jones County Junior College, especially in Mr. Mould’s American History class. In the back of Mr. Mould’s class sat another star student. A tall white guy from Mossell, Mississippi. We weren’t friends or associates, but we recognized each other’s talent for regurgitating the historical events that Mr. Moulds told us to remember.
One day the kid saw me at the campus student union. He sparked a conversation about an upcoming test. After small talk, he invited me to a John Birch Society meeting. I chuckled at his innocence. He invited me as if he believed that everyone was a fan of Birch. As if far-right ideas were the only ideals in the world. This n***a is crazy, I thought to myself. I informed him that I don’t f**k with Birch, and the conversation shifted to a debate about slavery. Coyly, he mentioned the “unfairness” of former slave owners receiving only $300 in compensation for each slave freed by emancipation. His lack of confidence — a contrast to his assurance when answering questions in our history class — confirmed that his knowledge about this topic was limited to the classroom. His understanding of racial issues stopped at what he was taught at home and at school. He wasn’t self-educated. And that’s a huge problem.
* * *
The recent riots on Capitol Hill should serve as a reminder that as long as statistics can be used to show differences between Blacks and whites, whiteness in American will continue to evolve. Interacting with white people, finally, exposed my ignorance and helped me shed the unfair stereotypes I believed about them. One of the problems with racism, outside of faulty statistics, is that everyone believes that they possess the right answers. Well, being convinced we have the answers sometimes only widens our ignorance.
I’m convinced that America will never cure its racial sickness because no one wants to begin with what they do not understand. Beginning with what you do not understand is to expose your ignorance. And America, academia, liberalism, capitalism, and extremism frowns on ignorance. But in actuality, all of us are ignorant. But we’ll never understand our ignorance, because America has made ignorance a taboo.
What I learned from my early interactions with white people in downtown Laurel, along with my former college classmate, is that everyone — whether consciously or unconsciously — is on the hunt for answers. I think it would benefit everyone if we understood that people’s experiences and educations, however flawed, shape their thoughts and ideas. What we know, or think we know, is minuscule compared to what we don’t understand.
Darryl Robertson is a former staff writer at VIBE, and graduate student at Columbia University studying African American history. He is especially interested in understanding how the Black Panther Party serviced Black communities during the late-1960s. His writing has appeared in Ebony, Billboard, XXL, Don Diva and Black Perspectives. Follow him on Twitter @dvrobertson88.