Over the last few years it has become increasingly difficult for me, or any other white person, to deny how white culture has shaped the American way of life just as other races and ethnicities have. The problem is that many white people do not recognize how being a member of a majority blinds them to the plight of minorities. This is demonstrated by people who believe there is any justification for the continued shootings of unarmed black citizens, gerrymandered voting districts along racial lines, or racist dog whistles by a President who refuses to denounce white nationalism. As a white man I cannot in good conscience sit on the sideline without speaking up, but first it helps to understand where I came from.
My father’s maternal line -- the Colvards – can be traced back to the Calverts of Maryland and first Lord of Baltimore, George Calvert. The name “Colvard” changed from “Calvert” after the birth of William Colvard to Temperance Easeley and William Calvert in 1737.
To explain the spelling differences in surnames HouseofNames.com describes how genealogical investigators must have a flexible attitude toward spelling because of recording errors across different records. For example, in two centuries of census reports there were 400 variations of “Cushion” and 137 variations of “Cheshire” exist.
Of the more notorious Calverts, my great uncle (x12 generations) Charles, while serving as deputy governor of Maryland, pushed the General Assembly to “clarify” the legal position of slaves. Up until 1663 slaves in Maryland could work for freedom like indentured servants, buying their “value” as property from their owners. This cost slaveholders a lot of money so the Assembly ruled that slaves and their children would remain slaves for life. The Calverts, who owned a 10,000 acre tobacco plantation, benefitted the most and the law became a growing trend. Race-based slavery was a cost-effective means of building and maintaining the colonies and their economies (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Calvert_3rd_Baron_Baltimore).
Eventually the demand for slaves decreased and finally ended with the Civil War. Slaveholders like the Calverts sought to apprentice skilled blacks or, with the help of the Maryland Colonization Society, repatriate unskilled and older blacks to Liberia, West Africa. It did not seem to matter that abducted Africans were taken from all over the continent. If manumitted slaves refused to go to Africa they were expelled from Maryland at the end of the Civil War (“Slavery in Maryland,” Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum).
Even as the 13th Amendment was ratified, and the US entered Reconstruction, a period in which many newly freed black Americans were guaranteed citizenship, the right to hold public office and equal protection (14th Amendment); and the right to vote (15th Amendment), former Confederate states of the south attempted to preserve slavery. First, South Carolina, soon followed by other southern states, enacted Black Codes that prohibited black Americans from enlisting in the militia, owning non-hunting firearms, marrying interracially and more. Second, throughout the South Jim Crow laws further segregated and degraded black Americans until the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Third, the Ku Klux Klan formed to terrorize and murder blacks in their thousands.
The Civil War may have “officially” ended slavery, but the impact of the Atlantic slave trade also resulted in the diaspora and near extinction of African culture. Slaves were forced to speak English, practice Christianity, take English names, and otherwise assimilate white culture. Jim Crow laws were used to further the schema of beliefs that black people are inferior to white people.
The consequences of slavery did not disappear, they grew more nuanced. As it turns out, the 13th Amendment merely narrowed the definition under which “involuntary servitude” can be applied: “ . . except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted . . .” When laws are then designed to impact African American communities at a higher rate -- think of the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine – than white communities the forgone conclusion is the mass incarceration of black people. Even those who get out of prison cannot escape the disenfranchisement, ostracism, and segregation that comes with a felony conviction.
It surprised me to learn I come from a line of slaveholders who, after enslaving thousands of human beings over several generations, ultimately lost their wealth through war, land purchases, and bad weather. Like others orchestrated American slavery and pursued Manifest Destiny despite the cost in human life, the Calvert legacy, my ancestors, contributed to the racism and classicism that has since been institutionalized in the criminal justice system.
There was no information available about my father’s biological father, who disappeared shortly after dad’s birth. When his mother Ellen Colvard remarried, John May adopted dad so he would have the same surname. Thus, “May” became my surname.
My mother’s ancestry is not as extensively researched. Where dad’s people emigrated from England and settled in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, mom’s paternal line—the Booths—emigrated from Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine to settle in Canada, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
John Booth, his wife Elizabeth and son Alexander, escaped Ireland and the oppression of British rule by gaining passage as chattel to Portland, Maine in 1851. They initially settled in Walshingham, Canada, where John and Elizabeth purchased their freedom through work in a shipyard (Canada Public Archives, 1851, Walshingham, Canada).
When he came of age John and Elizabeth’s son Alexander became a naturalized US citizen in Woonsocket, Massachusetts and married Christiana Lyle, who died shortly thereafter. Alexander remarried in 1868 to Grisilla (surname unknown), who bore my great grandfather Alexander Lyle Booth in 1887.The Booths were primarily mill workers and struggling working class families who practiced Catholicism. Though my maternal grandmother’s line can be traced to Germany, at some point the “Kerr” name was adopted so the actual bloodline is unknown.
Knowing more about my ancestry has provided greater perspective on the influence of my culture. I had previously assumed I understood the breadth and depth of inequality, that one’s race, religion, gender, and status as a felon of free citizen can mean the difference between opportunity or oppression. Cultural bias goes much deeper than I could have imagined.
A few years ago I participated in a creative writing group on death row. I was the only white prisoner in the group. After we read excerpts from books by black authors it surprised me we would continue to focus exclusively on Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ta Nehisi Coates. The study of creative writing, I thought, should be culturally neutral. I knew that today’s racism is yesterday’s desire for segregation, but relating to these authors or my classmates’ experiences as black men was not something I could grasp.
Concentrating on the subject of black experience in America, without any explanation from white volunteers, frustrated me and seemed unnecessary. Besides, I treated people as individuals, not by group or category. Was I racist for wanting to study George Orwell’s 1984 or Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations?
As it turns out, no, I am not racist. While it would have been nice to study a variety of authors, this was also the subtlety of my cultural bias. The “white man’s burden” is the supposed or presumed responsibility of white people to govern and import their culture to nonwhite people, often advanced as a justification for European colonialism (“white man’s burden”, p. 1976, American Heritage Dictionary, 2016, 5th ed). My disinterest in the creative writing class reading selection, and the intensity of my frustration, is likely how minorities feel learning in schools face-to-face with an unconscious preference for my own racial heritage and the ingrained sense of privilege that comes with being a member of a majority. Except, in this creative writing class I was the minority.
I grew up in a naïve, white-washed world free of crime-riddled headlines, inner city violence, and the “war on drugs”. The prejudices minority children are subjected to as they learned history were unknown to me. White culture had always been prevalent so I was blind to it. Only after years of incarceration with as many black men as white men and studying the criminal justice system have I begun to recognize the progress made after the Reconstruction has eroded.
In learning about my ancestry, I have gleaned an important awareness of my biases, the ubiquity of white culture and how it often supplants minority cultures, and the fact that some ancestries virtually guarantee relegation to society’s underclass. This is true throughout history and in the 21st century xenophobia of America. Without a concentrated effort to make cultural diversity the rallying cry everywhere, hegemony will win, once again trumping the people who helped to make America great.