(Originally published for Marginalia Review of Books on December 8, 2014)
The human relations I valued most were held cheap by the world I lived in.
White lesbian Southern novelist and woman of letters Lillian Smith wrote these words(and those that follow in italics) in 1949, the same year my parents were born — one to white Catholic carpenters in Iowa, the other to white Protestant farmers and share croppers in central Louisiana. Growing up in north Louisiana in the 80s and 90s, I would never have imagined that Smith’s words from so long ago would resonate as powerfully today. Written in response to her growing awareness that, in America, to be loved by “white” meant she could not love “black,” they tell a tale of the two-ness of white life in America, its unreconciled bondage to a moral binary of guilt and shame reinforcing the way we saw the world then and continue to see the world, ourselves, and those around us now. If the notion that #blacklivesmatter teaches white Americans anything, it is that our white relationships — those based on denial, silence, privilege, and blood — have not allowed us to see black bodies as fully human, as mattering at all.
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