“I Wanted to Tell the Story of How I Had Become a Racist”: An Interview with Historian Charles B. DewHistorians/History
tags: racism, interview, The Making of a Racist, Charles B Dew
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Huffington Post, AlterNet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The embrace of Jim Crow as a way of life and a system of beliefs for white southerners was powerful and seductive. White supremacy is a noxious weed that plants deep roots. I know this first hand. But I also know that racism can be overcome. – Charles B. Dew, The Making of a Racist
Professor Charles Dew, one of the most renowned historians of the South and slavery, now recounts his childhood in the Jim Crow South in a candid and moving memoir, The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade (University of Virginia Press). In this powerful work, Professor Dew brings to life a society committed to white supremacy and the vile consequences of rigidly enforced segregation and brutal intolerance.
Professor Dew illustrates how he and generations of white southerners were poisoned by racism as if by osmosis, a word he uses advisedly to describe his own experience growing up with demeaning images of African Americans and rules that penalized and dehumanized them at every turn. He explores the vexing issue of how otherwise seemingly admirable people, including members of his own family, could embrace the odious tenets of white supremacy and the oppression of others.
But Professor Dew also describes his evolution from a “young Confederate” to an outspoken critic of racism, thanks in large part to his education at Williams College, and particularly his study of history. He details how he became a scholar of the South and its deeply conflicted past, and how that study revealed the noxious, insidious influence of white supremacist ideas that has poisoned whites there since the dawn of slavery.
Professor Charles B. Dew
And he also writes of the friendships he developed with African Americans after a childhood and youth with virtually no contact with black people other than workers. He expresses particular gratitude for his college-era discussions with his family’s housekeeper, Illinois Browning Culver, to whom his book is dedicated. Ms. Culver posed a pivotal question, asking why grownups put so much hate in their children. That question prompted Professor Dew’s decades-long consideration of how to stop the generational chain of the transmission of pernicious racist ideas.
In addition to the reflections on his life and work, Professor Dew’s Making of a Racist also includes essays on the cruelty and brutality of the antebellum slave trade with stark evidence of the commodification of human beings who were routinely bought and sold and treated as property, as livestock.
Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History at Williams College. His other books include the Fletcher Pratt Award–winning Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War and Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge, selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. A native of St. Petersburg, Florida, he attended Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and Williams College before completing his Ph.D. degree at Johns Hopkins University under the direction of legendary historian of the South C. Vann Woodward.
Professor Dew graciously discussed his work and his new book by telephone from his home in northwestern Massachusetts.
Robin Lindley: You’re an acclaimed scholar of the history of the American South and slavery, Professor Dew. How did you come to write your candid new memoir at this stage in your career? How did the book evolve from your original conception?
Professor Charles Dew: I think what prompted me to write the autobiographical section of the book were the two experiences I talk about in the chapter on what motivated me.
One was the experience of teaching Southern history and finding that I was using my own stories to illustrate points about the South and the culture. For example, I talked about the issue of whether white Southerners felt guilt in the antebellum period over the institution of slavery and the slave trade. My answer to that question, as I describe at the end of the book, is an emphatic no. I arrived at that conclusion from my own experience growing up in the Jim Crow South, looking at the evil of racism and the humiliation that was visited on people daily and looking at that every day and just staying blind to it, just not seeing it.
One of the things that prompted me to write the book was to explain how white Southerners had become so complicit in something so monstrous as slavery and then in racial segregation. But the impact of that slave trade circular, that price list that I talk about in the book—when I was first handed that and looked at it, I felt like someone had slugged me in the stomach. It was almost a visceral reaction. I think it was prompted by the fact that there, on a single page, was the essence of the slave system, human beings as property. A list of men, women and children for sale, very much like livestock. That one page knocked me for a loop. I asked myself how my antebellum Southern ancestors could participate in this, and it wasn’t a leap at all to realize I had been doing the same thing with the Jim Crow system.
That prompted me to write it. The book is an odd combination of autobiography and history. I wanted to tell the story of how I had become a racist, which is the only way to put it. And I also wanted to use my training as a historian and look at that document and what it tells us about the slave trade and then to read the correspondence of the slave traders and their customers, which is the second half of the book. The conclusion tries to weave those two trains of thought together. I don’t know how well that works, but I gave it my best shot.
The book came about as I reached that point where historians always get to when they finish one project: What am I going to do next? This book is what I came back to. It has a very personal quality, which I wasn’t trained to do in grad school,
but I guess I’ve reached a stage where I’m old enough to write what I want to write and not worry about it.
Robin Lindley: Your book is candid and timely, and I’m sure readers appreciate your frankness about your own racism and what contributed to the “blindness” you describe. It seems you were a fair-minded and sensitive boy, yet you learned racism through what you call “osmosis.” What do you mean?
Professor Charles Dew: That word was chosen carefully because I think I did absorb the Jim Crow culture with simply the observations of my family and how they behaved in the presence of African Americans.
I talk about that etiquette of race relations that governed the way black and white interacted in the South. The limited range of topics you could talk about. The no shaking of hands across the color line. The fact that in our kitchen cupboards there was jelly glasses and some orange china that wasn’t in good shape and they were exclusively for the use of the two African Americans who worked in our home: Illinois, the woman who the book is dedicated to, and Ed who mowed the grass.
You realize that if they can’t eat off the same plates that you do and if you can’t eat off the plates that they do, then something is very powerful here, and your parents are there to reinforce all of this. It mattered not that Illinois cooked the meals for us because that was what domestic employees did and yet, at the same time, she couldn’t eat at the same table with us. She couldn’t eat from the same plates we used or drink from the same glasses.
Robin Lindley: I was struck that you dedicated the book to Illinois and the story of you eventually getting to know her once you were in college and learning the history of the South is very moving.
Professor Charles Dew: Yes. I really began to get out from under the Jim Crow culture I had been raised in when I arrived at college, although it was an evolutionary, slow process, as I describe. It didn’t happen overnight. Anything but. I was slow, and in retrospect, I find on the one hand it’s disappointing. On the other hand, I think that culture I grew up with was very deeply embedded and it took a combination of experiences and being in a different part of the country to get out from under that culture.
I did make that point that my conversations with Illinois, which were so important to me, sort of smacked of a Hollywood cliché of well-meaning white folks being educated by the black folks that worked for them. I was very careful to say that this sort of smacked of that, but that happened. It was incredibly important to me to have the experience of speaking with her and getting to know who she was as a person and getting to know what her life was like. That really brought home the whole injustice of the system for me.
I think one of the things that has happened in recent times—my wife and I have two boys, and our older son Steve is gay—and the transformation that has occurred over the last 15 or 20 years because people who are gay had the guts to come out. It’s much more difficult to be prejudiced and bigoted toward someone you know as opposed to someone in the abstract. I think I had a similar experience in that regard with Illinois because I got to know her as a person, and that was critically important to me.
Robin Lindley: To go back, how did your parents and others teach you prejudice? What was your relationship like with black people when you were a child and as a youth before college?
Professor Charles Dew: We were taught that we should be kind to everyone, but we were also taught that there were limits that governed how close that that human contact should be: that standoffishness, the lack of a handshake. The fact that we didn’t use Mister or Mrs. or Miss when we spoke to someone who was African American.
This was about Bill who ran the shoeshine parlor and used the wrong door of our house and my father totally and absolutely blew up at him and using the language he did and the shouting. That was seared in my memory. I was eight years old when that happened and I remember it vividly.
Those sorts of outbursts and demonstrations of prejudice are what I absorbed. To be honest with you, I think most of my instruction was nonverbal; watching the way my immediate family and my extended family behaved around “colored people,” as the phrase was then.
And how they spoke about them. Clearly they spoke about them in ways that were indicative of the fact that they were considered inferior. They were not considered our equals. The use of stereotypes, the race-based humor, the dialect jokes. All of those things you heard were not exactly instruction, but it was the equivalent of that. It was certainly an education in bigotry. I think that’s how most of that came to be and how I absorbed it. That’s why I use the word osmosis.
Robin Lindley: That instruction is vivid in your book. You grew up with those racist Ezekiel stories and stereotypes of black people in the media that you were exposed to and those sorts of influences.
Professor Charles Dew: Yes, they were very powerful. I still have that children’s book Ezekiel. When I give talks, I bring that book with me. I use the fact that, among the first things I remember about my life, is my mother reading those Ezekiel stories to me.
The picture on the dust jacket of my book [Professor Dew as an infant in his mother’s arms] is appropriate. When I got the PDF from the publisher of the cover, I said that’s “dead on.”
I learned beginning with those stories. I learned all those things about race I talk about: they talk funny, they look funny, they act funny. Their names are funny. They are profoundly different from us in ways that we white people are up here and they are down there.
Robin Lindley: It’s striking that you don’t mention having any relationships with any black children. That may speak volumes about the power of segregation in the Jim Crow South. Did you know any black children?
Professor Charles Dew: I did not. Illinois’s son was older than my brother and I. He never came to work with her. Her husband would come by sometimes and pick her up. I drove her home most of the time. I never met their son. And because of racial segregation, I didn’t grow up with any black children in the neighborhood, so my contact was really with people who came to our house as employees
That says a lot about the rigidity of segregation. And you attended
segregated elementary and high schools?
Professor Charles Dew: Yes, I did. The public schools in St. Petersburg were totally segregated. My primary school was segregated and my junior high school was segregated. After ninth grade, I went to Woodberry Forest School for tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades. So every educational experience I had [before college] was segregated, including at Woodberry.
Robin Lindley: I think some people may look at your book and ask didn’t Professor Dew grow up with a sense of the Declaration of Independence and the American ideals of freedom and equality even though he grew up in the Jim Crow South?
Professor Charles Dew: It was amazing how quarantined and insulated we were from that kind of either public discussion or media presentation.
I grew up before the civil rights movement really got started. I was a senior in high school when the Brown decision was handed down. We listened to programs like Amos and Andy on the radio, a comedy with white actors but the whole show was in [black] dialects. We watched Charlie Chan movies with the Stepin Fetchit character.
You would think that the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence would strike home, but what’s surprising in retrospect was that, by and large, Southern children accepted their parents’ assurances that the separation of the races was the best for both and was desired by both. As my mother said, “Black folks are happy on their side of town. We’re happy on our side of town. That’s the way things were meant to be.” And if there’s any trouble “it’s being stirred up from the outside. It’s coming from the NAACP.” And that transcends the language of the Declaration quite frankly because that’s the world you’re inhabiting and you’re told that this is the natural order of things.
Robin Lindley: That’s a powerful expression of your situation as a child. You discuss your parents and also your Southern ancestors. For example, your distant ancestor Thomas Roderick Dew was a powerful advocate for slavery.
Professor Charles Dew: He was. He was president of the College of William and Mary when the Nat Turner insurrection  took place in Virginia and the Virginia Legislature had an extended discussion of the history of slavery in Virginia in the 1832 Legislative session. The governor of Virginia asked Thomas Roderick Dew to write a review of that legislative debate as a way to present to the white population of Virginia the rationale for the legislature deciding that slavery would remain permanent in the Commonwealth. In the course of reviewing the debates in the legislature in the wake of Nat Turner, he laid out an elaborate defense of slavery. In fact, he anticipated every facet of that argument that emerged over the next 30 years.
In teaching Southern history, I tell my students that the best minds of the South were devoting themselves to crafting this pro-slavery orthodoxy, and Thomas Roderick Dew was present at the creation of that. His 1833 book was enormously important and you can see his ideas reflected in the people who came after him like John Henry Hammond, Chancellor Harper, and George Fitzhugh.
These pro-slavery thinkers were such a part of antebellum intellectual life and they essentially took their text from what Dew laid down.
Robin Lindley; This is a side track, but your book Apostles of Disunion surprised me and I was impressed by your original research. You describe pro-slavery Southerners who traveled the South to promote the idea of secession before the war by creating great fear about the end of slavery.
Professor Charles Dew: Over the course of my research on various projects, I ran across a couple of speeches and letters written by these secession commissioners. I ran into them almost by accident. I made copies of them and set them aside because the language they used to describe race and white supremacy was very similar to the language that I heard growing up in the Jim Crow South, and I was struck with the parallel between that language and what I had grown up with.
I decided after I finished the project before Apostles of Disunion that I wanted next to go to those secession commissioners to see what I could learn about them—to see how many there were and see how many of their speeches and public letters I could find. That was the core of that book. My point was that they were convinced that Lincoln and the Republicans were abolitionists and they were hell-bent on emancipating the slaves. With that would come the South’s worst nightmare. White supremacy would be destroyed. You’d have race war. And you’d have a massive sexual breach of the color line—that black former slaves would rape white women. And this nightmarish scenario would play out with violence and sexual assault. That’s the nightmarish world they created in these speeches and letters.
I saw what was driving the secession movement in the Deep South, and again, I heard a lot of that same language growing up with that whole notion of a black male predator coming after white women. We grew up with that fear in the Jim Crow South. That aspect of it was very much a part of how I grew up.
Robin Lindley: As you also discuss in your book, sex and fear of race mixing are at the heart of segregation and white supremacist thought.
Professor Charles Dew: It is. It’s absolutely at the heart. That’s why you couldn’t allow the slightest breach in the wall of segregation because, if you pulled on one thread—if you integrate the public library—it wouldn’t stop. The tapestry would unravel. The pulled thread will bring the whole thing crashing down. And that ends up with that sexual dimension.
Robin Lindley: I was also struck by the power of the “Lost Cause” idea and the myths of the Confederacy as you grew up. You were given a book called A Primer on the Confederacy. One of the ideas, as I recall, was that the North caused slavery and left the South with it.
Professor Charles Dew: Yes. That was a little primer on the Confederacy that I was given when I was 14. Slavery was the result of Yankee ship captains bringing slaves from Africa to North America and selling them to Southerners. It wasn’t our fault. It was their fault. And, as I mention in the book, there’s this argument that we weren’t going to abuse slaves because they cost so much and they were valuable as workers and also they were docile and never gave any trouble anyway—that whole Sambo stereotype.
That was a view of history that was very much a part of my cultural baggage growing up. The South was victimized by the Civil War. All we wanted was to go our way and be left alone.
Robin Lindley: I was surprised that your father, with his Jim Crow ideas, encouraged you to go to college at Williams in the far North.
Professor Charles Dew: Looking back on it, it does seem strange, but on the other hand I think he thought, as I say in the book, that the armor in which we were clad as Southerners was impenetrable and we could come to a New England college and, as he would say, we’d learn to speak well and write well and get a good liberal arts education. Then we would come back south with our cultural norms intact. It didn’t work that way. I think he anticipated that what he called “our Southern roots” were so firmly implanted that they weren’t going to be uprooted by four years of college in New England.
Robin Lindley: But your racist beliefs were uprooted, and your evolution—the unmaking of your racism--is a marvelous part of your story. What were a couple of incidents or moments that were particularly eye opening for you?
Professor Charles Dew: The experience of having an African American classmate and having someone I went to the dining halls with. We were in the same freshman vertical entry in the dormitory. You did a lot of things together with the kids in your entry. There were two senior advisors who lived in the entry with us and they planned activities for us together.
I was reacting as a social equal for the first time in my life with a person of color. I mention telling that dialect joke as my classmate walked down the stairs outside the dorm room in which I was telling this. I was so humiliated; I stopped and never told another joke like that in my life. I made a point of introducing myself to him a day or two later. I had to find out if he heard me. I was so upset. As I said, my mother had taught us not to humiliate anybody, and never to humiliate ourselves, and I thought I had done both. He didn’t let on that he had heard. We shook hands. That was the first time I’d shaken hands across the color line. I was 17 years old.
That was a profound experience for me. I started seeing things I hadn’t noticed before about Jim Crow customs in the South. I mention the curtain being pulled across the dining car on the train as it was going south. I had never noticed that before.
Just being in an educational institution in the North where I had classmates who were African American was life altering. I didn’t come out of that culture all that fast. It was a step or two forward, a step or two back. I still am puzzled by how blind I was to a lot.
I evolved with some tardiness, but I did evolve, and by my senior year, I was fully out from under. And that’s where those conversations with Illinois were so important. That’s the final thing that led me to break free from the racism that I had been raised under.
Robin Lindley: How did you come to study history and then to specialize in the history of the South and slavery?
Professor Charles Dew: I was fascinated by the South. Most boys who grew up in the South dream of Civil War battles, but I had some great teachers at Williams—historians who got me hooked on history, first as a major and then as something to study to understand Southern history.
I was fascinated by the region and I also began to ask questions about the South that I had never asked before. How did we come to embrace slavery? What caused the Civil War? How did the Jim Crow South evolve in the period after Reconstruction? I read a lot of C. Vann Woodward as an undergraduate and that made me want to go to Johns Hopkins and study with him, which I did.
So I think it was being fascinated with the South and its culture and history and absorbing that Confederate mythology and having that pretty well smashed to bits when I was studying it in college. So, instead of going to law school like everyone else in the family, I decided I wanted to go to grad school. It was a question of my growing up there and being fascinated by the South and then being educated about it in college in ways that were brand new to me. And just wanting to understand the region, which I still find fascinating and still find challenging.
Robin Lindley: And Professor Woodward was a Southerner who also questioned the Confederate mythology and slavery.
Professor Charles Dew: Yes. He was the premier historian of that generation. I went to grad school to study with him. I finished my dissertation just as he left Hopkins to go to Yale, so I was fortunate in that regard.
Robin Lindley: And in your dissertation, you focused on slave labor in an industrial setting—an iron foundry in Virginia.
Professor Charles Dew: Yes. This was the Tredegar Irons Works in Richmond, which was the largest rolling mill and foundry in the South. It was a major source of Confederate ordnance and munitions in the Civil War.
I discovered as I got into the Tredegar records that they had used skilled slave labor particularly in their rolling mills. I found that fascinating—that you could take people who were held in bondage and use them in highly skilled professions. Most of ironworking required a very high level of skill and that intrigued me. I wasn’t able to learn nearly as much from the Tredegar records as I wanted about that phase of their history.
So when I finished that project and started in on what’s next, I decided to study slave ironworkers and that led to my second book, Bond of Iron.
Robin Lindley: That’s another book that was eye-opening to me. I didn’t think of slaves as industrial workers.
Professor Charles Dew: Yes. Highly-skilled slave labor was used throughout Southern industry and in practically every phase of industrial activity in the South: building and operating railroads; coal mining; turpentine extraction in North Carolina; canal building. You name it, if it was industrial work being done in the South, slaves were doing it. Most of the tobacco factories in Virginia, for example, used slave labor.
The thing that made industrial slavery different was that it operated almost entirely on a cash basis. The workers had a daily or a weekly task to perform and, once they met that task, they were paid for what they called their “overwork.” Once you met your task, you began earning either cash or goods for the extra work that you did. That the generated income and, when you have income and can buy things, you then have records on that, which I found, and I learned an awful lot. You learn how slaves earned money for themselves and, more important, how they spent those hard-earned dollars. You can begin to see some fascinating history beginning to unfold.
Robin Lindley: That’s a fascinating insight on the life of slaves. To go back to your new book, I wanted to thank you for sharing that bill of sale for slaves and how it struck you. We know something of the brutalization of slaves but I think the bill of sale adds a new dimension to this cruel history with this stark evidence of the dehumanization and commodification of human beings, of placing monetary values on people and selling them.
Professor Charles Dew: Yes. In fact, I just wrote a new afterword for the fifteenth anniversary of Apostles of Disunion, and I talk about the economic dimension of the slave system. Although I reaffirm the basic thrust of the book, I add that there was an economic undercurrent to the [secession] argument that I should have paid more attention to. That came out of the work I did on the slave trade.
“Price circular issued by Betts & Gregory, Richmond auctioneers, containing market guidance and showing a range of prices for multiple categories of slave men, women, and children, dated August 2, 1860. (Chapin Library, Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.; Class of 1940 Americana Fund)"
Robin Lindley: As I recall, you found that bill of sale in 1994. You had been studying slavery for quite a while by then. Why was that document so striking to you?
Professor Charles Dew: I had never seen one of those price slips before and the fact that it was a printed form, that those categories were laid out such as “extra,” “number one,” “second-rate or ordinary,” and then children by height. To me, on that one page was the essence of the slave system—the chattel principle as historians refer to it. Human beings as property.
That one document grabs the inner core of the slave system and it was very upsetting just to hold it in my hands and look at it and see what it represented. It brought the reality of slavery home to me.
Robin Lindley: And in discussing this monetary value, you also note that slaves were extremely expensive.
Professor Charles Dew: Absolutely. Economists at the University of Illinois, Chicago, maintain a website on measuring worth. They will take a historic dollar, say an 1860 dollar, and tell you what the multiplier of that dollar should be to get it into contemporary purchasing power. The multiplier for the 1860 dollar was I think 29.4, so you begin to see that the “Extra,” “Number One” man is $1,625. That comes out to some $47,000 [today], and you realize how much productivity and wealth slave labor could generate, particularly in the Deep South. Those Richmond traders were funneling field hands—men and women—to the Cotton Kingdom in the Deep South. That’s where the money was to be made, and that just ratcheted up the price of slaves. Slave prices basically doubled in the 1850’s, and that was a direct result of the booming market and high prices for cotton.
Robin Lindley: That bill of sale speaks volumes. And now, your book has so much resonance with the Black Lives Matter movement and the statements of a president who seems to coddle and offer support to white supremacists. And the Justice Department recently announced a plan to investigate discrimination against white males at universities. It seems we’re going back in time.
Professor Charles Dew: I think the Trump campaign and the racist undercurrent that’s been generated since the presidential election has hit home to a lot of people. But the places where I’ve been speaking are trying to promote racial reconciliation and that’s why I accept these invitations if I possibly can. I’ve been speaking at community dinners and at places where hate graffiti has been written on high school stonework.
I think well-meaning people are concerned about the racism that was injected into the political campaign. I don’t know about you Robin, but I was a little naïve. I thought the election of Obama indicated a sort of watershed moment that we had turned a corner on racism with the election of our first black president. But I think what happened was the Obama presidency and the fact that he was African American gave “permissions to hate,” as C. Vann Woodward used to say about the period when Jim Crow segregation laws were being drafted. And I think “permissions to hate” went up during the Obama years because of his race, starting with the birther controversy, which Trump was so much a part of. And then I think Trump’s appeal to “Make America Great Again” was really an appeal to white racism in many ways.
So I’ve been asked to talk about my book and about racism in ways that can stimulate discussion and maybe promote some reconciliation and healing.
Robin Lindley: Deadly violence sparked by Nazis and other white supremacists erupted in Charlottesville in August ostensibly over the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. These Confederate monuments and other reminders of the Confederacy serve as rallying points for hate groups. The president’s ambivalence about the events in Charlottesville and his words of comfort to the racists in his political base have led to further division rather than unity. How should we deal with these Confederate memorials and related detritus, reminders of a war about race and hate and dehumanization of human beings?
Professor Dew: These have to be community decisions, and all of the stakeholders need to participate in these discussions.
I think there are three possible remedies. They can be interpreted more fully where they stand—when they were erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were basically monuments to white power as the Jim Crow system was being hammered into place. This needs to be said.
A second approach would be to move them to a museum setting, again, with full and appropriate interpretation added.
Finally, they could be balanced with monuments to the other side of the southern story, the African American side. Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, for example. The numerous Confederate statues currently there are complemented by a single statue, Arthur Ashe, the great African American tennis player. How about a monument to Harriet Tubman? Why not a statue honoring former Virginia slaves who served on the Union side as United States Colored Troops?
As I said at the outset, every element in the community needs to be involved in these discussions. Maybe there is even a chance for some mutual understanding and reconciliation and healing as this process plays out.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those suggestions on this contentious issue. I think your book can be a tool to promote understanding. I can see it as a text in secondary schools and colleges and I hope it’s read widely.
Professor Charles Dew: I hope it will be too, and that would please me enormously, especially if it could reach a younger audience and do some good there. That would be ideal from my perspective and that would begin the reconciliation process early, and the earlier the better as far as I’m concerned.
Robin Lindley: Have you received any comments from white supremacists on your book?
Professor Charles Dew: I have gotten surprising little hate mail, always anonymous and no return address. I got one or two hate voice mail messages on my phone at school. But I would say that’s miniscule and much, much more gratifying has been the positive feedback, which I’ve gotten almost universally. Maybe living up here in western Massachusetts in the Berkshires where life is rural and not very complicated, maybe I’m flying under the radar. Overall, I’ve been enormously pleased by the response to the book.
Robin Lindley: Would you like to add anything about the book or what you’ve learned in your speaking since the book came out?
Professor Charles Dew: One thing I’ve found gratifying is that, when I’ve spoken, I’ve always spoken to thoroughly integrated audiences. The numbers of older African American men and women who lived through the Jim Crow era have come up and thanked me for explaining to them where racism came from. Since they were small children they wondered how did this happen and where this came from. What did I do to deserve this? The answer to that is nothing. It was all coming from the other side of the color line.
I’ve had some people say this is the first time I’ve ever really understood how that happened and where that [racism] came from. And I didn’t anticipate that as I wrote the book. I was just trying to tell my story. But apparently telling my story was helpful to people trying to understand what was visited upon them and how that happened.
Robin Lindley: That gets back to Illinois asking you why children had such hate in their hearts?
Professor Charles Dew: Yes. “Why do the grown ups put such hate in the children?” That’s what Illinois asked me. I use that phrase when I’m speaking. And I repeat it. That’s the story. It was passed on from one generation to the next almost like a genetic trait. The grown ups put the hate in the children. My plea is let’s break that chain. Let’s stop it. Let’s see if we can’t consign those dialect jokes and those racist stereotypes to the dustbin of history where they should be.
Robin Lindley: That’s a powerful statement. And you stress how knowledge of history can help in the effort to unmake racism.
Professor Charles Dew: Yes. I believe that. I have a wonderful ally in Bryan Stevenson, the African American lawyer from the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and author of Just Mercy. His point is that history matters, that history tells, and we have got to get it out there and we’ve got to come to grips with it, and I couldn’t agree more.
Robin Lindley: So how do you deal with the current president and his administration and the seeming erasure of progress in race relations?
Professor Charles Dew: I think that’s exactly what’s happening and we need to push back against that and we may have to undo what they try to do. We have to keep up the fight and history is part of that fight.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your powerful words Charles. Congratulations on your candid and thought-provoking book.