In South Carolina, when the subject of favorite son Strom Thurmond and his illegitimate, biracial daughter comes up, the first thing you invariably hear is, “At least he took care of her.” The comment pithily conceals as much as it backhandedly reveals. It has the same breezy effect as the knowing wink and the throaty chuckle. Like its brethren, it superimposes cordiality. It hints at a vague, unacknowledged understanding, but above all it maintains silence.
“At least” reveals that the speaker isn’t blithely unaware of the carnality of the days of legalized segregation. The speaker has a not too indelicately explicit understanding that–as in most relations between conquerors and the conquered–white men leveraged their position to obtain sexual favors from black women. Some would say that all such relationships carry a stigma and should be characterized as rape. Others might hold out the possibility for deeper intimacies, despite the overwhelmingly lopsided pressures on black women. But the stories and their particulars aren’t lingered upon. Like much else having to do with racism, lynching, civil rights-era violence and, yes, even slavery, it’s a taboo subject, a vale of tears that many people feel is best left alone. That is why, when Strom Thurmond’s secret daughter is spoken of, it’s with the immediate interpolation that “at least” Thurmond was better than generations of white men who treated their illegitimate, biracial children with comparative ungenerosity.
The modern South is often admired for its courtesy, but the courtesy between the races that so often surprises Northerners reflects, in reality, a prickly truce, a bargain made in the aftermath of the painful civil rights battles of the not-too-distant past. These days segregationists are rarely held to task, so long as they never overtly promoted lynching. On tours of many of the historic plantation estates of Charleston, South Carolina, the word “slave” is carefully avoided; instead black slaves are described as “servants.” History is evaded–sometimes overtly distorted–so as to avoid any confrontation over integration, white flight and the unfinished civil rights revolution. This brittle truce, unhealthy but functional, is at the heart of the social adjustment of the modern South.
A culture of silence exacts a heavy toll. It allows the strange coexistence of Confederate Memorial Day celebrations and Martin Luther King Day parades, of public buildings and bridges named after former segregationists and streets named after civil rights leaders. But it also entrenches attitudes, leaving vast segments of the population disillusioned, their anguish internalized, their expectations diminished. It may not influence day-to-day interaction between the races, but in the sphere of politics, a culture of silence siphons the energy for progressivism; it curtails discourse and emboldens reactionary conservatism.
There is little in Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s memoir, Dear Senator, that will challenge this culture of silence. On the contrary, Dear Senator is primarily an unapologetic account of keeping silence and the curious psychological manipulations this requires. Now 78, Washington-Williams has lived in California for the past thirty years or so, but substantial stretches of her formative years were spent in South Carolina and Georgia, where she absorbed the Southern tradition of “shutting up” in the face of racial unpleasantness. Late in 2003, following the revelation that she was Strom Thurmond’s secret daughter–a revelation that startled many white but few black people–Washington-Williams was briefly at the center of a media blitz. Dear Senator tries to make her story resonate with the power of the truth revealed, even though “the truth” was conveniently revealed only after her biological father’s death, and dismayingly late in Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s long life.