Listening to and reading the Sunday morning pundits has renewed my frustration with our national reaction to the vilification and wrongful termination of Shirley Sherrod. It seems we are insisting on focusing exclusively on the profoundly negative aspects of this racial story.
Yes, it is predictable, but frustrating to watch conservatives get away with race-baiting… again. Yes, it is discouraging that the right wing has captured the discourse on racism with such ferocity that everyone, including the NAACP, is convinced that "reverse racism" is a national scourge. Yes, it is ridiculously pathetic that the current administration did not bother to do so much as a basic Google search for the name "Shirley Sherrod" before drawing the conclusion that this woman with an impeccable civil rights history was, in fact, a racist. And yes, it is mind-numbing to realize that white anxiety about black empowerment remains so deeply ingrained despite the fact that fifty years of black political power has had no discernible negative impact on white earnings, white wealth or near-total white control of the public sphere through media.
In all these ways, this story is racially depressing, but it is also an uplifting lesson of racial cooperation. Do not miss this: when Shirley Sherrod’s video clip was first released to the mainstream press, the NAACP denounced her; the USDA, with complicity of the White House, fired her; the white farm family against whom she had supposedly discriminated jumped to her immediate and vigorous defense. These white farmers were the first to speak on her behalf. While others were saying she should be ashamed of herself, they loudly declared her an ally and a friend for life. The defense of Mrs. Sherrod came most effectively and fully from the white farming community. She had been their ally for years. They did not hesitate to return the favor. Even Willie Nelson blogged on her behalf. I am moved by the action of these white Americans.
I have just finished re-reading Toni Morrison’s exquisite novel Beloved. One of the most powerful episodes in this text is the interaction between Sethe, the runaway slave who is the novel’s protagonist, and Amy Denver, a poor, white indentured servant. Amy, like Sethe, escaped the brutality of forced labor and sexual abuse. When they meet, Sethe has been badly beaten. She is pregnant and attempting to escape on feet so swollen, bloody and painful that she cannot go any further. She realizes that is unlikely to survive. Just as she begins to give up she meets Amy. Amy is also hungry, frightened, and abused. They are together in the woods, fugitives from a system that will claim both their lives if either is discovered. But even in this position of vulnerability, Amy’s whiteness leads her to a certain superior attitude toward Sethe. For example, despite being younger than the married, pregnant Sethe, young Amy calls her "gal." But this attitude dissolves within moments as Amy recognizes the injuries the pregnant Sethe has suffered. Amy becomes a healer for Sethe. Invoking the act of Christ’s washing his disciples feet, Amy rubs life back into Sethe’s swollen feet. Amy dresses the vicious lacerations on Sethe’s back. Amy attends to Sethe’s labor and delivery. Sethe names her baby daughter "Denver" to honor Amy Denver’s willingness to risk being discovered in the course of her own escape so that she can stop and assist Sethe. As Amy cares for Sethe, race means everything and nothing. Race is the basis of intergenerational, chattel slavery from which Sethe is trying to escape. Race is the reason they find themselves in the woods. But race does not keep the white Amy from caring for the black Sethe or keep Sethe from accepting the care she must have to survive.
This is the story we could have told this week if we had wanted to do so. Shirley Sherrod’s father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. No one has ever been brought to justice for his murder. But her testimony before the NAACP was not the angry tirade against whites that the right-wing blogosphere presented; it was deeply moving story of personal transformation occasioned by interracial cooperation. And the story did not end there. When Sherrod was being publicly abused, her own Amy Denver stepped forth to shield her from undeserved suffering.
I am not a racial romantic who believes that if we just give it time, racism will simply disappear through sheer force of the good will of individuals. Morrison’s novel indicates why such a position is untenable. Amy Denver’s healing ministrations toward Sethe do not end the realities of American slavery. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, Sethe’s enslavers follow her onto the free soil of Ohio and attempt to capture her and her children, including the baby that Amy Denver delivered in the woods. Amy Denver’s goodness does not dismantle the evil of structural racism backed by the state, but Amy Denver’s goodness reminds us that that evil is not the only force in the world. There is something more.
The story repeats itself in the Sherrod case. The white farmers who came to her defense cannot, by themselves, undo the realities of racial inequality that still mark the American experience. But they do forcefully remind us that we have the power to build bridges across our differences. Their courageous support of Sherrod completes the circle that Sherrod began with her forceful advocacy on their behalf decades earlier. Let us not lose this lesson in the din of self-righteous pronouncements about the need for a "national conversation on race." This case teaches us that we do not need a national conversation on race, we need more opportunities for interracial political work on behalf of shared economic and national interests. We do not so much need to talk together as we need to work together.