By Dr. Kaye Whitehead

As a Black woman, no matter how fast I run, I cannot outrun my past or our collective history. My life has never been a blank canvas where I could paint the picture of who I want to be and how I want the world to see me. I was born Black in a White world, and I have been fighting to be free, to be equal and to be unbothered in a country that is hellbent on stopping me. “America,” my great grandfather, would often say, “is a racist wicked place. A hellhole where, if you are Black, there is no beginning and no end. It just is.” As a little girl in Olar, S.C., my great grandfather would take me on long walks through the woods, where we always ended up at the family cemetery no matter what direction we started in. He would walk up and down the rows, stopping to tell me about the person who was buried there. He would weave stories of tragedy and hope, resistance, defiance, incredible will and deep-rooted sadness and remind that these were the voices that whispered in his ear. These were the roots that kept him tethered to the ground. “Boot,” he would say using my family nickname, “this is why I can’t fly and why I can’t leave this place.” 

It takes a lot of courage to be born Black in this country. 

Once, when I was in college and visited him, he had bruises all over his face and hands. He did not remember who I was and would often sit and stare out for hours at a time. My Nana said that he was slowly losing his mind. I think that he was trying to fly and leave this place, if only for a moment. Once a week, my great grandfather would go into town to buy a bag of pecans, and on his last trip, the young White men had jumped him and stolen his money and his bag. The bruises on his face were from where they hit him. The ones on his hands were from where he hit back. I asked him to come with me for a walk. I thought the cemetery would help ground him and bring him back to me, even if it was just for a moment. It was a depressing trip as he walked around in circles, talking so low that I could barely him. At one point, he sat down and started pointing at each headstone: White man killed him because he talked too much. They killed him because he was walking too slow. That one there is empty since he never came home, they figured that the White man took him. She died because they hung her son. He was talking and crying. “Last week,” he said, “I came by here, and old Mr. Charlie wanted to know what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m visiting my family.’ He said, ‘Boy ain’t nothing in that there grave but niggers and ghosts.’” He stopped talking for so long that I thought he was gone again. “Boot,” he finally said, “we are more than that. Don’t let them make you small. Don’t let them break you.”

I thought about my great grandfather this week as I have been wrestling with the racist and painful history of this country and trying hard not to let it break me or make me small. It has been one year since the brutal murder of George Floyd, and since then, this country has been engaged in a battle to change a racist White supremacist system. It has been ugly and challenging and complicated because Mr. Floyd was not the first person, nor has he been the last person to die at the foot of the altar of Whiteness. The hatred of Black people and the desire not to see us win is rooted in the foundation of this country, and therefore it is in the hearts and minds of White people. This is where the battle is and why the terrain is so rough because what does it take to convince white people that Black lives do matter? James Baldwin reminds us that history is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. 

I thought about Mr. Floyd, and then I thought about Mary Turner, a 21-year-old pregnant Black woman who, after publicly denouncing her husband’s lynching, was strung up by her feet, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. Her baby was cut out of her stomach and stomped to death. This happened in 1918, and the same hatred that drove those White men to lynch, burn and shoot her is the same hatred that led Derek Chauvin to keep his knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

I thought about Mrs. Turner, and then I thought about the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was known as Black Wall Street, and it was one of the most prominent concentrations of Black businesses in the country. In 1921, White men, in the span of two days, stalked, tortured and murdered hundreds of Black people, tossed their bodies into unmarked graves, and then burned a large portion of the town to the ground. It is a deep-rooted hatred that we are trying to uproot, not outrun. We cannot outrun this nation’s past, but we can confront it. We can speak up about it. We can fight against the narrative that our cemeteries are full of niggers and ghosts and not warriors and revolutionaries. We are in a fight to change hearts and minds, to convince this world that Black Lives Matter and that for us to move forward, we must reckon with the past to make sense of the present, and then (and only then) can we prepare for our future.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice and the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons. 

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