The Wheat Money
My great-grandfather’s name was Ai . He was born in 1865, the same year victory was declared in the American Civil War. Eighteen years later, in 1883, Ai got a gift from the US government: he was given a free plot of land to farm. Though he had been born into a poor family, he died a rich man, with hundreds of acres of land, several houses, lots of cars, and a handful of businesses and investments.
The same year Ai was born, my husband’s great-great grandparents had their natural-born rights to live freely, restored. Tolliver was ten years old and Jemima was five when they were most likely to have heard the news.
The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery and granted them a sort of rebirth. As Freedpeople, my husband’s ancestors would finally have a chance to pursue their destinies—or so they may have thought at the time. They did not get a gift of land from the US government and they died penniless. When I met my husband in 2005, I had a master’s degree; a high-paying job; no dependent children; a modern, reliable vehicle; and had just purchased a home.
He, on the other hand, was a homeless crack addict with a long felony record. I knew about the homelessness, and that he’d come out of prison about a year before, but I didn’t suspect the crack addiction, and I didn’t fully understand the weight of his rap sheet.
Could the homestead land our ancestors did or did not receive have anything to tell us about our own lives? American mythology admonishes us to take full credit for our failings. This admonishment is summarized in two words: personal responsibility. It also tells us that we should loudly and proudly claim our successes. One word symbolizes this philosophy: bootstraps.
"Personal responsibility" and "bootstraps" are sacrosanct concepts in America. You’re not supposed to question them, but I wanted to do it anyway. I wanted to question my own bootstraps. Could I really take credit for all I’d achieved and become? Furthermore, I wanted to examine personal responsibility in light of my husband’s life. Was it all really his fault? And in the end, if I was willing to give up some credit, could he be allowed to escape some blame?
I started my exploration with pretty specific questions I wanted to answer for myself. For example, what might have happened if Tolliver and Jemima had made their way to Washington State and settled near Ai? Would they have been allowed the opportunity to develop land, and therefore wealth, just as Ai’s family had? What had happened to those black families that did manage to acquire land in the US? Were there any parts of the country that allowed blacks to thrive as landowners?
Given that my husband’s people stayed in the South until 1971, I also looked at how decades of Jim Crow culture affected black families’ ability to benefit from their hard work.
When I started the project, I thought I understood the history of racism in our country. As my research progressed, I was both disgusted and heartbroken by what I learned. Most of us know black families were subjected to more than a few injustices over the decades, but what I found was that things were so much worse than I had believed.
What I now know, and what I hope this narrative manages to show is that those injustices have had a cumulative effect on the black community, such that when we take the whole story of the past 150 years we’ll have no choice but to admit that current day black poverty and incarceration levels are not an accident, they are not a side-effect, and they are not an unintended consequence.
There’ve been more injustices than I could possibly cover, but I’ve tried to include summaries of some of the more institutionalized and wide-ranging oppressions.
For instance, way back in the late 1800s, right after the slaves’ rights were restored, many Freedpeople were jailed on false charges so that they could be put on chain gangs and worked, literally, to death. I include details of this system in my chapter covering the period from 1910 to 1919.
Later, when social safety net programs were first created, my husband’s ancestors were systematically and legally denied aid. This denial continued even during the Great Depression, when just about everyone, of all colors and backgrounds desperately needed help. You can read more about this discrimination in my chapters on the 1920s and 1930s.
I learned that while the GI Bill was revolutionizing US society and creating the vast middle class that made the US such a great country, blacks were being denied those same GI Bill benefits even though they’d been servicemen and servicewomen, too. You can read about this in the chapters on the 1940s and 50s.
I was shocked to learn how racist the Northern cities became as blacks arrived over the years. I hadn’t been aware of the forced housing segregation in those cities. During elementary school I had been told that blacks lived in “black neighborhoods” because they preferred to be “with their own.” I write about housing segregation starting in my chapter on the 1920s. Then, I write about the many ways housing segregation continued to be a method for oppressing blacks in every decade, even as recently as the 1990s.
Both my husband and I were born during the Civil Rights Movement. My husband was born in Louisiana the same year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed. I was born in Texas in 1968, two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Starting in the chapter on the 1960s, I begin to write our own personal stories – my life and my choices, my husband’s life and his.
I’d been taught about the Brown school desegregation case in high school, and I’d believed that schools across the country had been desegregated around 1955, when my mom was in high school. Instead, I learned that most schools didn’t desegregate until after 1971. The Supreme Court had to rule on about four more cases before recalcitrant white officials finally complied.
In the early 1970s, when my husband’s family moved from a small Louisiana town to Denver, Colorado, they were channeled directly into a ghetto Denver’s whites had built expressly for them.
Denver’s inner city had poorer schools, fewer jobs, higher prices, less stability, less clean soil, less clean air, and many other detriments. Learning that his neighborhood was all those things because whites purposely kept those neighborhoods poor, overcrowded, and dirty, was shocking. It had never occurred to me that banks would deny home loans to fully qualified black families just because they lived in a certain area of town; an area they’d been forced to live in because they were black.
Likewise, it had never occurred to me that banks would make sure the only businesses that would be able to operate there would have to be small, self-funded enterprises offering almost no jobs to the residents. If that weren’t enough, I learned that the US government, in the early 1980s, sent in both the crack cocaine, and the amped and eager police officers that would turn his neighborhood into a war zone.
I include details from the investigative work of journalist Gary Webb. His discoveries about the governments’ role in cocaine trafficking are detailed in my chapter on the 1990s. I talk about those eager police officers when I share details of the work of Michelle Alexander in that same chapter.
As I recounted the history that I was learning, my husband poked fun at his side of the family for being so poor, while noting that my family had been “rich” for generations. He joked that my life of luxury had been waylaid when I married him. Not so, I assured him. In every generation of my so-called rich family, the rich heir had married someone poor.
While many well-to-do families pressure heirs to marry only those of comparable wealth, that had never been the case in our family.
My great grandfather, Ai, had been born poor and married a poor woman, Eliza. Together they increased their wealth year after year.
Their rich son, Otto, married Leah, a woman who grew up in a train depot with her railroad-employee father. Her entire life she joked about not being of the same class as my grandfather. Likewise, my grandfather often joked that she’d married him because “she got tired of livin’ in the depot.”
My rich mother, Kay Joy, married GC, an earnest, but poor, college professor. And now I had married my homeless felon, William. Yes, we could have doubled our wealth with each generation by marrying according to our station, but instead, we had all married, I guess, for love.
I also assured my husband that his family had not been poor because they were lazy; from what I’d been reading, they’d been poor because society had been designed to keep them poor.
He balked whenever I said things like this. He was quick to assert that he’d made his own choices, and reminded me that he takes full responsibility for his life’s path. He doesn’t consider himself a victim, and he won’t let me paint him as one.
I told him that his attitude is commendable. I’ve met many, many blacks who have the same noble credo. I told him that my research was important because it would enable me to show Leah, our daughter, how the white side of our family had been lifted up, while the black side had been held down, even into the year 2005, setting each of us up in the life circumstances under which we found one another that day in the inner city.
As I learned details of the terrible treatment of blacks over the decades, I would try to share them with my husband, but he implored me not to. He gently (and sometimes not so gently) reminded me that knowledge of past injustices didn’t help him live a better life; it only served to make him angry.
“I’ll leave the outrage to you,” he said. “You seem to enjoy it more than I do.”
I planned my research and reading so that I learned the history in the order it took place. Since I was going one decade at a time, it took a while before I began learning about racism in our own lifetimes. Once I got to the research on the 70s, 80s, and 90s, I begged my husband to let me tell him how the War on Drugs, forced housing segregation, and educational channeling had directly affected his life.
“I promise this stuff won’t make you feel worse. I’m almost certain you’ll find it empowering,” I said.
Little by little, he relented and allowed me to bend his ear. As he accepted my claim that he had a right to set down some of the guilt and shame he’d been carrying, I saw him open up and I heard his view of himself change. Maybe, he wondered aloud on several occasions, he wasn’t such a bad person after all.
He’d once said to me, in the first few weeks we knew one another, I ain’t shit, I ain’t got shit, and I ain’t never gonna be or have shit.
He’d come a long way since uttering that phrase to me, but learning the history and accepting my claim that “personal responsibility” only held so much sway in his life, helped him come even further forward.
Obviously, the facts of systemic, institutional racism in the United States are not something I personally discovered. Anyone who has studied the dark side of Black American History is aware that these things happened. The seminal works that provided me with these details are known to many. Unfortunately, those who know the history tend to be black and brown people and a few progressive whites. That’s why this book is not for black and brown people. It is aimed squarely at whites.
Sometimes whites and blacks need to learn about the history of the United States differently. Generally speaking, when blacks look at Black History it makes sense that they might want to celebrate those who achieved things and overcame obstacles during the bleakest of times. Conversely, it is my conviction that white people need to look unflinchingly at the worst things whites did, and accept that whites benefited—and continue to benefit— from denying blacks opportunities, fair wages, respect and dignity.
Recently, our family went to see the movie "42." It’s the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League baseball. It was an uplifting story. My husband left the movie theater in a great mood. I was happy to explain a bit of history to our daughter. But I hold some reservations about the movie we all enjoyed together. The movie was carefully crafted to tell the story without reopening old wounds for older blacks or slashing fresh cuts into the psyches of younger ones. Unfortunately, these presentations of history, by protecting blacks from the assaultive truth, often coddle and salve the psyches of whites.
I believe we, as whites, owe ourselves a little more exposure to the truth than to see movies like "The Help" and "42". We walk out of the theater, (perhaps dabbing our cheeks with a tissue) and we say or think things like, “It’s just so terrible how those people were treated. Thank goodness all that is in the past,” and then, “I am so glad that Good White People took a stand and put an end to that nonsense.”
These movies have happy endings, and that’s fine, unless we allow them to blind us to the fact that whites continue to benefit from unearned advantages that are not enjoyed by black and brown people.
If you are a white person who truly wants to end racism (and there are lots of us), it is vitally important to learn what has happened over these last one-hundred-and-fifty years. That way, when we see a movie like 42, we will be able to enjoy the uplifting message, but we won’t indulge in the belief that the movie scratches the surface of what it was really like to be Jackie or Rachel Robinson.
There were, and are, very real consequences to racism. It was not, and is not, just about hurt feelings. High school history books try to boil down the hundred years of Jim Crow to a picture of a sign about separate drinking fountains. As the proverbial Good White People in charge of moving white people forward today, we (you and me) can’t let other whites lose sight of the fact that those signs represented a system wherein drinking from the wrong fountain could get you murdered.
At certain points in this book I depart from the historical narrative and delve into research from the fields of economics, sociology, and social psychology. I present information from these fields because it’s important to understand not only what has happened, but also how, why, and when we humans are most susceptible to manipulation by others.
Some whites might say, "You had a rich great grandfather but I did not, so your story is worthless as an example for me." In fact, the descendants of poor whites have plenty to regret and take responsibility for. In a section called “The Racial Bribe” I note the role poor whites played in keeping blacks down and the benefits they gained from doing so.
In several sections of the book, I share the work of a well-known social psychologist who has spent over thirty years studying good people who did horrible things as they participated in systematic atrocities like the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and Abu Ghraib. Social psychology research can help us understand the past and avoid future atrocities.
When you read my section called, “Last Place Aversion” you’ll learn about recent research by economists that can help us understand how people respond when they fear they might be falling into last place. In ancient times “last place” might have involved being eaten by a predator but in modern times it might involve being a poor immigrant who doesn’t like being at the bottom of a social hierarchy.
Finally, as my last area of inquiry, (this one a much more inward-facing exploration) I asked myself why, starting very early in life, I’d chosen to buck Southern taboos against race mixing.
Am I just a really great person who was willing to sacrifice myself by doing the right thing in the face of entrenched racism? Of course not. I gained something (or lots of things) for dating across color lines. What exactly did I gain? In other words, what were my short-term and longer-term rewards for pissing off so many white people?
I learned a lot about myself during the writing of this book. For example, when I started writing, I truly couldn’t explain how and why my husband and I had come together. By the time the book was finished, our courtship and marriage made perfect sense.
The exercise of writing has also helped me understand how our race and class differences have led to our most consistent area of disagreement. My husband and I have struggled most mightily over the question of which child-rearing and disciplinary techniques we would use. He’s always been raising her so she’d be able to make it in his world. I’ve always been teaching her the lessons she needs in order to get by in mine. Our disagreements have repeatedly required serious negotiation because we both believe that raising our child to meet life’s challenges is our most important job.
I enjoyed capturing several key arguments about childrearing we’ve had in the past. While we took them very seriously at the time, we’ve learned to laugh at ourselves in retrospect. I hope you will enjoy reading about those arguments. In the end, you’ll see that we learned to respect each other’s lessons as valid, functional, and vital and we vowed to exercise patience and stand respectfully aside, each for the other, when teachable moments arise, even if we don’t understand what’s being taught.
I am not a trained historian, genealogist, social psychologist, or economist so I’m certain I’ve made errors. I continue to worry that some errors may exist in this writing due to my lack of expertise, my willful oversimplification, or my need to filter information in ways that serve my ego.
I’ve tried to acknowledge those possibilities when they might be applicable. I hope that even where I’ve made errors, I will pique an interest that will encourage you, my reader, to explore some of these topics further.
The sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation took place on January 1, 2013. Many other events relative to the Civil War and the Freedpeople will be discussed and celebrated between 2013 and 2015.
Some will say, "Look how far blacks have come over these 150 years! Isn't it great?"
Others will say, "It's been over a hundred years, what's wrong with them?"
I hope that by reading this book, you'll be prepared to acknowledge, as I am, that the real questions should be:
"Look how long ago whites pretended to stop oppressing blacks!" and "How are we going to fix this mess we've made?"
Perhaps you'll even agree that the most pressing questions of all are:
"Who is still benefiting from driving a wedge between poor whites and poor blacks?"
and, "How can we expose them and put a stop to it once and for all?"