“What is my emotional inheritance?”

Illustration by Khara Scott-Bey

Illustration by Khara Scott-Bey

That question jumped off the page in Colette Winlock’s book Undoing Crazy.* Earlier in the novel, when “Mama” spoke about her childhood in Love, Texas in the 1930s, I was thrown back into my memories growing up in West Texas in the 1950s and 1960s.

What was the emotional inheritance passed down to me from generations of my white-skinned family living in North Carolina, Tennessee then Texas?

I can still hear Mom’s voice telling me that emotions aren’t trustworthy. “Don’t let emotions detract you from the work to be done.” “Emotions have no place in the Church.” “Responsibility is more important than how you feel.”

I was taught to think critically.  To be curious. To study. And yet, we were discouraged from thinking, or noticing, the Big Topics like racism, sexism or classism.

My grandfather O.R. Tipps, an attorney, was direct in a letter he wrote to his daughter, my mother, in 1945—“Social reformers all try to make people equal. They can’t do it, and by trying, they impede the best ones and don’t help the weak ones. However, they usually get worked up into a lather in trying to get some law, or some tradition, or some precedent changed to make each and every person exactly equal.”

What laws, traditions or precedents did he mean? Redlining? Segregation? Black codes? Jim Crow? Lynching?

How much was my family’s emotional inheritance stunted in the clash between our valuing of intellectual analysis of every topic except the big public ones?

Part of us had to go to sleep to live in the face of such a stark contradiction. We were trained not to notice anything that didn’t fit into the official, white-skinned, USA self-image of rock-solid values of democracy and justice for all.

My family was politically moderate, Christian and thoughtful. I never heard my parents make a racist statement or treat individuals disrespectfully based on the color of their skin.

Yet, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called my family to task: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice…Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

My family’s silence spoke volumes, and perpetuated injustice.

The cost of our sleep was profound.

Believing so deeply in law-and-order yet averting our eyes to injustice (or feeling bad, but doing nothing) stunted our emotional inheritance. It is impossible to be profoundly asleep in one area of our lives and be vibrantly alive in the rest of life.

For me personally, I still struggle to notice, then pay attention, to my own emotions. But the cost to my nation is far more serious. How else can we explain our deep sleep to the reality of inequity, injustice and environmental destruction all around us?

I want to leave a different emotional legacy to generations yet to come.

* Colette Winlock. Undoing Crazy (Oakland: Oaktown Press, 2013), 293.

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