Dr. Kaye Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)

By Dr. Kaye Whitehead

This is our American story: built on disillusion and disappointment, survival and sacrifice. It is not a new story, nor is it for the faint of heart. America is a beast that prides itself on feeding off of our pain. It is a red, white and blue nightmare of a tale where Black and Brown people exist at the story’s bleeding edge. 

This is not new information for me, having grown up spending every summer in the backwoods of South Carolina. I came of age in the heart of the Confederacy, the first state to secede from the Union and the first territory to have African enslaved labor. Whenever we drove to Bamberg County to visit my great-grandmother, my Nana would always mention Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón’s colony because she wanted me to understand that the Black man’s struggle to be free from White rule is as much of a part of the American story as the struggle of the White man to be free from British rule. 

During the school year, I lived in Washington, D.C., Chocolate City, where I learned to say it loud that I am Black, and I am proud. As soon as school ended, my parents would pack us up and take us to South Carolina, where the malodorous aroma of racism hung in the air and choked us as soon as we crossed the state line. I used to dread going to the market with my Nana, listening as the White store owners, voices heavy with that cotton-stuffed Southern accent, were patronizingly polite with her. 

I staged my first protest in South Carolina against that same store owner when he refused to remove his framed “Whites Only” sign from the front counter. I was seven years old when I was called the N-word, for the first time, by the father of my best friend, a young White boy who lived down the street. His father hated those “Yankee N-words” and used to boast about what he was going to do to them when the South rose again. 

When my friend told me that he hated them, I quickly said I hated them too. When I told my Nana, that was the last time I played with him, and it was at least four years before I found out why. She used to say that nobody is born a racist; they are raised on moonshine and White supremacy and molded and shaped on tales of Whiteness, hog maw, and fatback. It is the accent that gets me every time and brings back memories of seeing pick-up trucks full of White boys driving near our home, calling us the N-word while spitting in our direction. South Carolina sits at the root of my anger and resentment. 

Last week, at the Republican National Convention, when the former governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, said that America was not a racist country, my skin started to crawl. She said that she had been a Brown girl in a White world, but it is clear that she has no idea of what it means to have been a Black girl in that same world. We probably passed one another on the street when we were growing up. When she spoke, I said then what I have said for as long as I can remember: South Carolina is a racist state, and America is a racist country. 

I now say this with an increased sense of urgency because we are in the midst of a crisis where our country is burning from within. It is a moment where a global pandemic that has so far infected six million Americans and killed approximately 188,000 people is moving across this country, disproportionately impacting Black and Brown people, and revealing the deep cracks of racism, hypocrisy, and anger. We are seven months into trying to deal with and live through this novel coronavirus and 401 years into trying to end this war against the Black body (and against Black joy and Black agency and Black freedom and…). We are at a moment where Black Lives Matter has met COVID-19 and has laid bare to the world that the faux post-racial moment that many believed happened with the election of Barack Obama was merely a lie wrapped in a façade masquerading as the truth. My Nana tried to tell them back then that “one election does not equality make.” 

America, she would often say, is racist to the core. This system oppresses us. It is the knee on our neck, holding us back, pinning us down, and making it so damn hard for us to breathe. Coretta Scott King said that freedom is never really won: you earn it and win it in every generation. And Ella Baker said that we who believe in freedom cannot rest. Angela Davis said you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world, and you have to do it all the time. My Nana, one of the first Black nurses in South Carolina, said that Black people are born fighting to breathe and they must live fighting to survive. America is a racist country, but we will change it. It is a hellfire but we will extinguish it. It is an ouroboros but we will cut it off at the head. We will transform this country. We will transmogrify this country because, at this critical moment, as Assata Shakur once said, we have nothing (else) to lose but our chains.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (todaywithdrkaye@gmail.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #Blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. Recently selected for the Essence Woke 100 List, she is 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. She launched #BlackCovidStories as a way to archive our stories about COVID-19. She is sheltering in Baltimore with her husband and their two sons.

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