Pay Attention When They Tell You to Forget

Remember that anti-Black violence has been the central dynamic of US history—and how Black women have struggled with this violence for centuries.

When Natasha Trethewey’s maternal grandmother housed visiting white missionaries—in a region of North Gulfport, Mississippi, originally founded by former slaves—white residents threatened to bomb the local church and Bible camp in retaliation. Some burned a cross in the driveway of the home in which young Trethewey was sleeping. “In my grandmother’s house,” Trethewey explains, “the act of remembering … was meant to ensure my future safety, protection gained through knowledge and the vigilance it brings.”

Martha S. Jones’s great-great-grandmother Susan Davis was born in 1840, knew enslavement, and became politically active upon her freedom. Davis’s daughter, Fannie Miller Williams, was an educator and voting-rights activist. In 1889 she was physically assaulted by a local marshal when she sat in the white section of a Kentucky theater.

Claudia Rankine tracks how she herself navigates the fallout of white supremacy in contemporary encounters. She connects subtle and overt impulses toward “conscious and unconscious dismissal, erasure, disrespect, and abuse,” like being stepped in front of in line or cut off in a discussion. She analyses how her white peers’ reactions to these encounters illustrate a form of whiteness that relies on inattention, “defending itself from my knowledge of our shared history to the point of becoming ahistorical.”

What binds these authors and their three most recent works together? Perhaps the answer is best summed up by something Trethewey recently urged during a talk: “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget.”1

Each of these books illuminates ways in which amnesia, whether it be personal or national, is debilitating; the act of remembering, as Trethewey put it, is essential. As such, these three authors and their many protagonists make visible the omnipresent but often disremembered means by which anti-Black violence—how it is perpetrated, navigated, and resisted—has been the central, relentless dynamic of United States history.

In Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, Trethewey offers a personal narrative of loss that enjoins readers to remember larger-scale traumas of American history. In Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, Jones’s kaleidoscopic study of Black women’s politics, she recovers many of the unsung leaders central to our national story who have been obscured in the historical record: figures like Hallie Quinn Brown, whose own 1926 book, on Black women’s leadership, was meant to help us “cleave more tenaciously to the truth.” Finally, in Just Us: An American Conversation, Rankine interrogates contemporary discourse, from social-media dialogue to sociology research, to reflect on whiteness as a form of institutionalized forgetting that impacts how we recollect ourselves and others.

While their genres are distinct, the books are in conversation, parsing a collective American history too often obfuscated by nostalgia and amnesia. As these authors illuminate how the past continues to bear on the present, they encourage us to think about how a clear-eyed reckoning with history could shape the future. In so doing, these three books indirectly address an existential question that Jones has posed when discussing her work: What kind of ancestors do we want to be?2

Memorial Drive is an account of Trethewey’s life with her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough Grimette, and her mother’s brutal death, in 1985. Trethewey, whose poetry has garnered many accolades, including her two appointments as US Poet Laureate, has written a graceful memoir in which her family history is indivisible from insights into and manifestations of the painful history of the United States. As such, Trethewey’s story is inextricably personal and political:

In the spring of 1966 when I was born … the twenty-sixth of April … marked the hundredth anniversary of Mississippi’s celebration of Confederate Memorial Day—a holiday glorifying the Old South, the Lost Cause, and white supremacy—and much of the fervor was a display, too, in opposition to recent advancements in the civil rights movement. [My mother] could not have missed the paradox of my birth on that particular day: a child of miscegenation, an interracial marriage still illegal in Mississippi and in as many as twenty other states.

While her parents’ bond was a love match that was legally dissolved when Trethewey was a child, we learn that her mother’s ancestors trace their roots back to enslaved Americans and that several “high yellow” relatives may have been the children of less consensual unions—unrecognized, forgotten unions in any case. The “separation of the races was still the way of things” when Trethewey was growing up with her parents. This “way of things” included her own birth, in the “colored” section of the hospital.

Memorial Drive reminds us of the ways in which familial amnesias are central to American history. Trethewey’s painstaking account of her mother’s death, which includes transcripts of her mother’s last words, is embedded in the larger context of the afterlife of slavery and thus offers an accounting of the intimacy of violence consistent with Zadie’s Smith reflection that “when you make history truly visible, there exists a challenge to show all of it … the unprocessed and the unprocessable.”3

Trethewey and her mother moved to Atlanta in 1972, the year that the Confederate Monument on Stone Mountain was completed. Gwen, Natasha, and her brother lived in an apartment on Memorial Drive, in the shadow of this shrine to white supremacy, the largest Confederate memorial in the nation; Gwen would die there, in her home, after being stalked by Natasha’s ex-stepfather, a mentally ill Vietnam veteran. Trethewey’s mother was a clinically trained social worker and had taken multiple measures, such as acquiring a police order of protection, to shield her family. She was killed during the fateful moments when the officer who was assigned to guard her apartment abandoned his post.

While his psychological deterioration was extreme, Trethewey’s stepfather was part of a long history of African American servicemen who risked their lives for a nation that did not love them back. (During the Civil War, Jones’s great-great-grandfather fought to preserve the Union and abolish slavery as a private in the US Colored Infantry.) And while it is unclear why the police officer assigned to protect Trethewey’s mother withdrew from his watch, the methodical failure of the local and federal state to protect and serve Black Americans is a long-standing American tradition.

Trethewey’s memoir is, as she put it during a recent discussion of public statuary and historical memory, intended to serve as a lyrical monument. Her testimony of personal violence inextricable from the public violence of our shared past asks readers to confront the most excruciating failures of US democracy. What shines through is the light of Trethewey’s mother in the world and the efforts she made to help her daughter to navigate it.

Trethewey describes her mother as driven by a dynamic of “hope and … pragmatism.” Many of the women in Martha Jones’s rich political history displayed hope and pragmatism as they challenged the nation to confront the deficiencies of American democracy. In Jones’s voluminous chronicle, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Fannie Lou Hamer, along with scores of women whose names may be less familiar, insisted on being truthful about racial terrorism and gendered violence, in public and on the record, and were required to navigate and survive the very violence they critiqued.

Jones is a legal and cultural historian, as well as a prolific public scholar. Her lucid prose in Vanguard makes a complicated history involving a vast number of individuals accessible and a pleasure to read. Her account begins in the 1820s, with figures like Reverend Jarena Lee, because “the rights of women preachers were women’s rights,” and presciently closes with Representative Stacey Abrams, whose “understanding of how to make a life in politics over the long haul derives from the Black women who came before her.” Today, in the wake of Georgia’s recent watershed elections, Abrams is recognized as among the most effective political organizers and guardians of democracy in US history. Vanguard chronicles a panoply of women over the two hundred years prior who publicly recognized and fought to close the chasm between our civic ideals and our political realities.

Jones traces how African American women intrepidly enacted their political visions in formal and informal arenas, despite considerable barriers. Elsa Barkley Brown’s 1997 essay “To Catch the Vision of Freedom: Reconstructing Southern Black Women’s Political History, 1865–1880” revealed the hope and pragmatism of formerly enslaved women who attended to political matters—and attended political events—in order to make their voices heard during Reconstruction. Jones’s account begins earlier, at the dawn of the radical abolitionist movement, even though “Black people across the diaspora had been living their own antislavery politics of resistance for at least three hundred years.” Her subjects hail from the North and South and made their political claims through written and oral arguments that recognized racism and sexism as failures of democracy, universal rights as paramount, and direct political participation as essential. She explains that “Black women witnessed the adoption of two constitutional amendments—the Fifteenth in 1870 and the Nineteenth in 1920—that promised them the vote. But lawmakers did not keep these promises, leaving many women to make their way in the face of rampant voter suppression: poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation. The long road to the 1965 Voting Rights Act was paved with Black women’s organizing and courage.”

Amnesia, whether it be personal or national, is debilitating; the act of remembering, as Trethewey put it, is essential.

The rancor summoned by white authorities to defend the explicitly racist, patriarchal mores of antebellum and post-Reconstruction America is ever present in Vanguard. The prerogatives of whiteness were continuously imposed by the physical removal of Black women from public venues and transit, the open derision toward them in print and social settings, and, after 1870, reckless chicanery and violence at the polls. Toward the end of Vanguard, we see an image of Joe Ella Moore being sworn in as a first-time voter in Mississippi, in 1965. Moore had witnessed members of her community being lynched by policemen in 1947 and purged from voter rolls in 1956, and had experienced seven of her own rejections by voter-registration authorities.

Just as Trethewey gives us a genealogy, so too does Jones, continually circling back to how the political work of each generation of women lifted up the next, both publicly and privately. “Women like Maria Stewart, Susan Paul, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Hallie Quinn Brown, Mary Church Terrell, and Fannie Williams,” Jones observes, “invested in their daughters and granddaughters as agents of change.” Vanguard begins with those who broke barriers as they stood at the pulpit and podium to “insist upon having a voice in churches, antislavery societies, and mutual aid associations.” Jones vividly brings to life the accomplishments and setbacks of the religious leaders, antislavery organizers, literary activists, vigilance-committee members, and Colored Conventioneers of the antebellum period, ranging from Harriet Tubman and Mary Ann Shadd Cary to less well-known figures like Hester Lane and Sarah Mapps Douglass. These Black women formed a robust intellectual and political vanguard that worked to make the United States live up to the promise of its core principles.

After the US abolished the practice of holding Americans in perpetual, hereditary bondage, in 1865, Black women sought political equality in explicit terms. Jones’s account illustrates how these women who championed individual dignity and universal legal protections routinely confronted vicious indignities that ranged from public abasement to bodily harm. In the latter part of the 19th century, Black women’s clubs spread across the country, as did the violence of Jim Crow. Writing in the 1870s, Eliza Ann Gardner recognized that “Black women had been among the nation’s founders.” Gardner was among women including Josephine Ruffin and her daughter, Florida Ridley, when they convened the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, in 1896. By 1924, the confederation of roughly two hundred local organizations had some 100,000 members. Jones details how politically astute leaders like Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McLeod Bethune resisted threats, ranging from newspaper insults to the presence of armed vigilantes, as they built alliances, redefined human rights, and created opportunities to get their message on the national agenda.


Citizens: 150 Years of the 14th Amendment

By Martha S. Jones

The political message of this late-19th- and 20th-century vanguard was one that contemporary Americans will recognize: stop lynching Black people, stop suppressing voting, stop allowing sexism and racism to rationalize the civic exclusion of countless Americans. Jones connects the dots of a transgenerational movement for universal rights whose progression was not linear. Recovering painful currents from her childhood and the devastating erasure of her mother, Trethewey’s memoir, too, underscores how the issues of safety, mobility, and institutional complicity remain unresolved to this day. This is where Rankine’s work enters the conversation. This failure of resolution—the brutally repressed contradiction between slavery and democracy on which the nation was founded—stretches across generations, pushing the past right into the present.

Claudia Rankine, a decorated poet and 2016 MacArthur Fellow, offers a multivalent, introspective collage of the recent past in Just Us. Weaving multidisciplinary research and multimedia documentation together with everyday exchanges, she answers the white gaze with a Black one, in so doing offering a veritable ethnography of 21st-century whiteness.

Just Us opens a window into the quotidian impulses toward hostility and erasure that linger in the present-day United States. These are often made manifest in Rankine’s encounters during travel, in theaters, at schools, and amid political discussions at dinner parties—the “publics I inhabit,” as she puts it. As she engages in conversations about commonplace topics, from education (e.g., college admissions) to popular culture (e.g., hair fashion), mundane exchanges continually reveal hidden racialized logics. The 19th-century women of Jones’s study traversed a distinctly racialized bourgeois feminine politics of “respectability” when they entered the public sphere; Rankine grapples with a modern variant of respectability politics, now couched in terms of “neutrality” and “politeness.”

Writing in an era when “white privilege,” a term popularized in the 1980s, is widely named and deliberated and flagrant racism and misogyny have fallen out of fashion, Rankine’s dialogues reveal just how extensively the dividends of whiteness continue to shape the lives of all US residents. She excavates the “archives of conversations,” everyday exchanges with friends and associates, to reflect on the social and political capital of whiteness as “assimilated and metabolized [by] the repetitions in our culture.” Rankine touches on forgotten genealogies when she asks “what it means to have been brought up by white people who were brought up by white people … who were brought up by slave owners.”

African American women intrepidly enacted their political visions in formal and informal arenas, despite considerable barriers.

Rankine’s focus on “institutionalized whiteness” frames whiteness as a form of consciousness—intractable and totalizing at times—which needs to be interrogated. Her anonymized white co-conversationalists largely inhabit the rarified ranks of the arts and academe in the northeastern US; they also include strangers, such as first-class business travelers, that she encounters periodically. Many of these interlocutors seem willing to think beyond the inevitabilities of being openly invested in the unearned privileges of whiteness or in active denial of them—but they are ultimately caught in these privileges’ web. Rankine deconstructs conversations with strangers and acquaintances with whom she attempts to cultivate a greater shared understanding and invites written feedback from friends. Whiteness becomes a dialectic made visible through transactions. While these dynamic exchanges offer space for complexities—Rankine cites a friend who suggests “many Latinx don’t see themselves in either American whiteness or American blackness”—the polarities of whiteness as anti-Blackness remain fixed. “We are the history within us,” Rankine observes. But can our history only become legible in Black and white?

Rankine’s attention to intimacy and boundaries resonates with the work of June Jordan, another magisterial poet with Jamaican roots. Whereas Jordan made visible how we are interconnected by the processes of history and colonization, Rankine posits that we are trapped in them. On a single page, she juxtaposes an infamous passage from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia wherein he asserts the incompatibility of “blacks” and “whites,” whose “difference,” he speculates, “is fixed in nature,” alongside the internet-famous transcript of the 911 call made by a white Starbucks employee in Philadelphia that led to the arrest of Black patrons in 2018. Rankine’s pairing of Jefferson’s 18th-century text and contemporary 911 calls suggests a persistent strain of whiteness that is invested in Black erasure.

When the anti-lynching, pro-suffrage campaigns that Jones documents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have resurfaced as the Movement for Black Lives and Fair Fight—and the Lost Cause disinformation campaign has been rebranded as Stop the Steal—it can feel like we are indeed trapped in our history. Despite or perhaps because of the reality that Jefferson’s words were belied by the existence of his own mixed-race kin, we may be condemned to the irreconcilable contradictions of a promiscuous nation founded on simultaneous ideals of freedom and realities of enslavement.

Rankine’s care and attention to the rituals of American conversations, however, suggest an intervention. As one of her friends in conversation observes, Just Us does not offer a “strategy,” nor does it provide “the gravitational force of an origin story.” Like Trethewey and Jones, Rankine is making a historical record and simultaneously correcting it. Her work continually mines if not mends the spaces between self and other. The title, Just Us, refers to Richard Pryor’s 1970s observation that when Black people go looking for justice, “that’s what you find: just us.” The continuing burden and necessity of retelling these truths signal the persistence of both the gulf and attempts to cross it.


When Black Humanity Is Denied

By Edna Bonhomme

Vanguard and Memorial Drive offer narratives of redemptive transformation, while Just Us questions the very notion of redemption that its disruptions seek. Yet all three accounts make visible our inescapable interdependence amid our intersectional fissures and nodes. These texts are embedded in a grand tradition of Black women writers, scholars, artists, thinkers, and leaders whose work resists the institutionalized denial of racism and recognizes the deepest truths of our shared history. As the 19th-century poet, abolitionist, and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper put it at the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.” Astronaut Mae Jemison recently observed, in addressing our current global political, economic, and environmental crises, that “we have so much knowledge, but we don’t use [technologies] effectively, because I don’t think that we really see ourselves as connected.”

While Just Us, Memorial Drive, and Vanguard do not resolve the unresolvable aspects of America’s past and present, they very effectively bear witness to them. They grapple with the legacy, familiarity, brutality, and grief of epistemological and state violence, structural inequality, entrenched patriarchy, and white hegemony. These books offer a kind of clarity and momentum that help to confront the central American paradox and to uphold a faithful US history.

Taken together, the works reflect manifold ways in which Black women cultivate and safeguard the truest promise of democracy and “the broad interests of all humanity.” These are stories that are “still being written,” stories with abundant roots, for, as Nikki Giovanni affirms, “Black women are rain [and] have watered this ground.”4


This article was commissioned by Marlene Daut and sponsored by the UVA Institute of the Humanities and Global Culturesicon

  1. Natasha Trethewey, quoting Muriel Rukeyser’s 1976 poem “Double Ode,” during an online reading hosted by Columbia University, September 11, 2020.
  2. Martha Jones, quoting Dr. Noelle Trent (Director of Interpretations, Collections, and Education at the National Civil Rights Museum), during a talk hosted by Virginia Humanities, October 2, 2020.
  3. Zadie Smith, “What Do We Want History to Do to Us?,” New York Review of Books, February 27, 2020.
  4. Christina M. Tapper, “Nikki Giovanni: ‘There’s Nothing Greater on Earth than Black Women,’” Zora, October 20, 2020.
Featured image: Mary McLeod Bethune with girls from the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida (ca. 1911). State Archives of Florida / Florida Memory