This is Where You Start: Letter to a White Child on Choices, Ancestors, and the Future

By Rev. Margaret Anne Ernst

PC: Kelly Sikkema

October 2020 

I started writing this letter to you four years ago on the kitchen table, the winter after a man had been elected to the highest office in our land who represents such meanness, such smallness of imagination, and such hostility towards humanity that I had to start writing to someone. Best, I thought, to someone not fully grown, or even here yet. If I write to you, I must believe in you.  I must believe in something past this moment, this nightmare, as many people behind me have imagined past the terrifying circumstances of their times. 

Your world is, to me, barely glimpsed, like the moon showing itself from behind the clouds. And yet I will hang on to that moonbeam like I would clutch a breadcrumb after having not eaten for days. I choose to believe in the future.

The time I write to you from is one of everyday tyrants.  Everyday tyrants who flaunt their threats and bravado-veiled cowardice like as if our lives were their daytime soap opera, the planet a mere flimsy set. Perhaps tyranny is something the human spirit will always be tempted with.  But the story I want to tell you is of a particular tyranny that aims to wrap around the hearts of people who look like you and me, and that tries to eat the bodies of people who are darker-skinned than you me and this tyranny is killing us all, in different ways, and for some people faster than others.  Our awareness of the sickness and death in which we live varies, if we are even aware of it, as does the diagnosis and treatment plan.  But what is clear is that we are dying. And this is why I must whisper into the heart of things to come.  I will believe in a future beyond these pale times. [1]  

The belief that people with white skin are better than people who have darker skin is called white supremacy.  Perhaps there will be a day when such a concept will seem as bizarre as when I learn about how in Byzantium that fought in the streets over whether the Son is co-equal with the Spirit. But now, there is no lying that together with desperate grip of an impoverishing economic system trying to cling on, the fixation of whiteness is the strongest demon in my generation and many generations before mine.  That is what it is: a demon.  Not a demon that has horns and shows itself as such but a demon that learns to become so mundane it becomes indiscernible to she whom it inhabits, a demon that makes a home in small genuflections of the body, in raised voices or hushed voices, in silences and in the corners of mouths.  A demon of fear, enclosure, and narrow, horrid prophecies.

Whiteness is called the “unmarked marker,” [2]  because it works so that if you’re white, you’re meant to not see it.  Last year, when this man was elected president, many nice white people could not believe it could be so.  All over the news his assaults and love-for-self rained down like a callous joke, and people said, “but this is not who we are.” After it happened, I woke up with a weight holding me down in the bed, wanting to return to sleep. Everything was a gray headache-haze. The next morning, my love and I put together a go-pack. For months we had been talking about how bad things may happen and that we may someday need to flee or that our presence may be needed in uncertain circumstances with others.  It seemed like we should finally get around to getting ready.  Mournfully, we brought out cans and granola bars to the kitchen table. We looked at each other across it with hollow faces.  

In just a few hours, this response felt quite silly.  I dragged myself to class and saw the eyes of my Black and brown friends. The descendents of people brought here in blood by boat and manacle and unspeakable acts of human-on-human pillage.  Friends who had ancestors in slave revolts.  Friends whose parents had marched through deserts to let them be born here in the country that had arranged a coup in their own, not because we are glorious, but because we stole what’s theirs. Friends who descend from Taíno people in Puerto Rico nearly wiped out by conquistadors yet never disappeared. Leaning against the divinity school building with books and cigarettes glowing the wet gray air, my friends’ faces were not shell-shocked like mine, but knowing. They knew this man represented exactly what our country had meant to their ancestors, knew that they could never be safe here, that this country was not built for them. And yet.  Their grandfathers and abuelas and aunties and mothers upon mothers upon mothers had bent the universe such that they could live.  

A year later I had eaten through the granola bars in the go-pack.  Occasionally we refill it, when we hang on to the idea that there will be one day when everything might change, for the better or for the terribly worse.  Yet this anticipated catastrophe is so often never as it appears.  No: it is the regular unfolding of daily life.  In the past four years I learned to secure my communications from government surveillance. I began use the word “Nazi” in everyday sentences.  In the past four years, the trust funds of children of those who run private detention centers have gotten fat while migrant children cough and starve under Mylar blankets. In the past four years a pandemic spread that has killed over 1 million and changed all our lives, and which would have registered on the radars of U.S. prevention programs had those programs not been cut.  In the past four years, our president paid less taxes than my friend in his late seventies working for $10 an hour at Kroger because he couldn’t afford to retire. The west coast burned from sparks lit over four hundred years of colonial relationship to land. And, in the past four years, my church’s pianist went to see her mother in Japan and then couldn’t return because the rules had changed about who can enter the country, and whether she deserved to be here.  The piano bench is still empty, the memory of her fingers expanding on “Great is Thy Faithfulness” embedded in the ivory. 

And also in the past four years, babies were also born, and new parents rocked them to sleep singing that a new world is coming. Millions of people marched in the streets. In different sequences, I became a wife, an aunt, a pastor, a writer, and a comrade.  People wrote stories of dreams for how we could live together, and tried new things, and deepened analysis, and told the truth, and acted towards it. 

This world-on-hospice is the world you will inherit, whose contours I can only imagine.  The world I imagine some days with terror and some days with abiding hope about how people will use their creativity to discover new paradigms, new, breathtaking ways of being, about how they may find shalom

May your generation be the ones to finally throw off the lie of whiteness which my ancestors thought would save them from pain.  

May you know it as demon and exorcise it at every go.  

For your children, may white supremacy be a thing of museums like a shard of an ancient knife: razor sharp with dry blood but encased safely at a distance. 

I fear that it will not be so easy– that danger will always lurk around the corner, that new formations of the demon will come, poisoning people in new proportions and designs, sneaky as ever.  And because of this, you need to know where you came from, who you came from, and the truth about it all.  You must know what crimes they did, and you also must know what dreams they dreamed: the malevolent, scared dreams, and also their decent ones.  Because if you do not know this history you only will get stuck in its despairing grooves like ankles in sand holes, again, and again, and again…

Your ancestors did not come from this place.  But there are places that your ancestors really came from.  We came from somewhere where our languages and dialects now forgotten were tied to every nook and corner of the land our peoples had lived in for millennia, where the words for things might be different twenty miles away and even more different twenty miles from that.  Many of our ancestors never wanted to leave the corner of the world where they knew all the stories and where they could tell you just how the birds fly and what plants you can eat by the side of the path.  

You come from people who, as generations went on and on, left the places they knew.  Mostly they left because of pain. Some left for hope.  Some left with hope and pain mixed in the same paintcan, their hands and hearts covered in the images of the past which would not long after brushed over with the new.  Some left as free people, some left as servants.  Some with money, some with none.  Some left because they wanted to worship God the way they felt was right, and were desperate for heaven. 

Their children and their children’s children became farmers. Carpenters. They owned the general store in Lexington, Illinois. They were band leaders in the Civil War, and sheriffs who jailed abolitionists, and abolitionists who fled from sheriffs. 

They wrote letters on desks that will be passed down to you about how they wished they were back east instead of this muddy place in Ohio or whatever territory, while governments drew borders and kicked people off land. 

The ones who became rich collected art and developed neighborhoods, changing whole schemes of cities. The ones who stayed poor or who became poor felt ashamed but tried to live the best they could. Some were institutionalized, some killed themselves. Some drank, some didn’t. Some started churches, some left religion for good the sake of their souls and God. 

They dropped bombs on Germany and were gassed in France and their planes with engines shot out landed by luck in Belgium. 

They are some who grew wise and some who grew foolish.  Some who tried to make a difference in the world and some who couldn’t care less. From people who made ends meet, or tried. 

You come from people who grew tomatoes and green beans in a patch behind the house, who brought the kids to church and school plays. You come from people who prayed give us this day our daily bread. 

You come from printers and amateur painters and piano players and jingle writers. From people who ran rattlesnakes out from under the house and hunted wild blackberries by the side of the road. From people who did needlepoint to keep their hands busy and to put their worries in about the things they could not change. From people who told stories while cooking corn on a baking sheet over the campfire. From people who told jokes to keep away the void inside, but the jokes were mostly good, at least. 

Now, you must take everything that is life-giving from who you came from: their creativity, their humor, their love for beauty and for freedom, as they saw it, their longing for communion with the divine whether that be Jesus or a misty lake or a row of seeds in that tomato patch.  And yet there is more at work in this tree and its branches than meets the eye. There is something you must promise me to leave behind. As the astrologists says, take what is helpful, leave what is not. 

Beyond the individual characters and choices of your people, the workings of the demon of whiteness was at times subtle and at times blatantly obvious. In leaving behind what we were running from in Europe or in lust of what we were running towards, we became bonded with others from the same continent against a new enemy: Native peoples. Africans. Anything and anyone dark.  They – the dark ones – became the problem.  We became white.  And became, in our eyes, right. I do not want to pretend that they were powerless against it, mere victims in a soulless conspiracy.  More often than not, they were complacent in the violent compromise, preferring advantage over community. Or they pretended not to see, too consumed with their own lives which they did not rightly see to be intertwined with people who led lives different from their own. At other times, they were arbiters of the evil themselves.  They became the volunteers who checked the genealogy of prospective sorority sisters for Black or Jewish blood.  Who joined a club to keep Catholics out of business, which they swore was just a civic group. 

“But no community can be based on such a principle.  No community can be based on so genocidal a lie.” [3] And so, as we gained our false safety, we lost what it means to be community.  This memory was erased so fast that we hardly knew it was gone…and the taste of the power for subjection of others, too good. 

You come from people who wittingly or unwittingly passed this all down like an ugly family heirloom that no one really understands but which we came to believe we couldn’t live without.

And this is how many of the people you came forgot how to have courage, and didn’t know how to model, fully and completely, the love and kindness they extended to other white people or taught in Sunday School and admonished to their children.  Sometimes they didn’t want to stir the pot.  Sometimes it’s because there were many other things to do, or because it was getting on Christmas and there were presents to be bought.  

This is the hardest thing you’ll ever contend with: not the police, not the tyrants, but the slow ways in which you can learn to just go about life while living with demons unnamed, while living with the the devil at your bedside as cozy as hot chocolate and a nighttime prayer.   

Every so often, your ancestors were courageous in small or large ways in the face of racist customs and systems of separation they lived in.  These are the stories that are passed down the most, because they are the ones we like to talk about.  Eleazer, the doctor who may have used his country wagon to harbor slaves coming up through the Underground Railroad. When your great-grandma helped integrate the Girl Scouts’ troop.  Find these stories, listen, and hold them fast. This shows you that your ancestors had a choice, and so do you. 

But the other stories that are not told, the stories kept in suitcases in people’s minds that we don’t want to open – these stories too, you must know.  

People may tell you the racists and white supremacists and Indian-killers were other people: that it was Mrs. Iverson from the bridge club who said vile things about “the help.” That it was Mr. Roberts who wouldn’t hire a black man, or the police chief who had so little taste. 

But you must know that this is a deflection that the mind does to run away from itself.  It was not other people.  It was your ancestors.  And at times, it too, was me.  You must accept us for our full selves, for otherwise you cannot accept yourself.  

You will know this complicity and its signs, too: a shrug and a quick move of an eye.  Thick silence and fast breathing. The choice to not read the bad news, to preserve your inner peace.  If you open it up: wells of shame, loathing of self, fear of other. 

Slowly, the stories will come out between conversations or pages of memory books you linger your finger over: the stories that defined the lands we occupied, and the landscapes of well-suppressed memory inscribed on your bones. They are stories you will not be able to reconcile with the people who are so kind and loving, and who did so much to be proud of, who worked so hard so you could live. 

You will learn that the settlers who came to Massachusetts Bay Colony were not innocents but harbored hatred of their own just like the hatred they had fled: against any religion not their own, and most of all, of Pequots and Wampanoags and inconvenient brownness. 

You will learn that 90% of the Protestant men in the farmtown your great-great-grandparents lived in were a part of the Klan. 

You will learn that great-grandpa was able to go to college because of the GI bill because he was white; about how there was a time when your people used racial slurs as jokes, and years later got red when people talked about it, and shook their heads and said “I don’t know why I did that.

And people will say: “That’s the way things were then.  Boy, things have changed.  Let’s talk about something nice.” 

But you must not change the subject.  

Because sound travels slowly, and the screams of Africans on the Middle Passage are still in the ocean waves. [4] You too must live with these waves still crashing against and shaping the shores, because energy is never destroyed, it just changes state. These screams, and the accompanying cheers or muffled gasps of our own ancestors are here in the matter of the universe and there is no use looking away.  The ones who ate the sugar picked by slaves that they once picked themselves as prisoners of Cromwell, who wore the cotton from Mississippi with as little care as I wear new pants made by unfree hands in Bangladesh.  Obscuring the truth about the crimes we, your people, did will not protect you from reaping what we sowed. 

Whether or not anyone tells you like it is, you will inherit a false moral geography, a map of “good” and “bad” from this history.  You will learn from images and hushed words around you about “good” neighborhoods and “bad” neighborhoods. People will show you with their words or with their actions that there are “good” people who look like you and there are “bad people” who do not. There are people who always, seemingly coincidentally, show up as the heroes with lighter skin, and the darker ones as criminals and terrorists.

You will learn from taking in these world-stories that beg for your sanction, that evil does not work in a way where there is one clear choice.  Evil is just telling and believing a bad story: a bad story with lethal consequences. You will learn that in the face of this bad story, of this mean imagining, [5] there are not people who do right and people who do wrong but largely people who become well-practiced at looking aside or who think that goodness looks like not causing trouble. But that is how things get worse.  You’ll begin to think about every time this same feeling has sunk upon you – every silence at joke, every time you shut down because you are overwhelmed and choose safe privilege instead.  Suddenly you will not feel so far from your ancestors at all.  Indeed, you are an ancestor to the future.

You will become confused because you always thought that you would have been someone to hide a Jewish family or sit-in at the Woolworths. But the more you learn about these times the more you realize that the people who let the Holocaust happen and let lynchings happen and let children be bombed in churches were the nice people. [6]  They were the people who wouldn’t tell Mrs. Iverson otherwise when she whispered segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever while playing cards. You always thought it would be a clear choice.  That one day, there would be a train of people shipped off to a camp and you could help stop it.  But no: it happens in a daily trickle of executive orders and proclamations and detentions and disappearances that don’t make the news.  Until before you know it, a wall is going up around your country, your neighborhood, your mind, and people are being shipped out of the country in record numbers and activists for peace shipped off to jail because that is the Way Things Are now, that is the Way Things Are tomorrow, that is the Way Things Are forever.

This awareness will be paralyzing: this recognition that you are a German accountant in the 1930s, that you are a settler waking up the next morning after people were massacred in the night in your name, that you are walking by Black students getting spit on at cafeteria counters, or that you are spitting at them yourself. You will find out that history, like the future, is only a succession of presents, [7] and this is terrifying. 

But you must keep peeling back the layers. Every muddy, reeking layer.  You must not let people tell you it is just a phase or that wanting the truth is just the zeal of the young.  You must not stop feeling, must not ever say, “It will get better if we just wait,” or “this is the Way Things Are.” You can live the ways people say is not reasonable.  You can be unreasonable because you are not alone. 

There are other people who feel grief and rage and who long to breathe beyond the pale.  People of all backgrounds and genders and class and reality.  You must find them, and on your best days you must believe this person is in everyone, if you listen well enough and pay attention.  You must hang on to each other.  You must not believe in your powerlessness.  You must realize that together, you will not recover truth and justice in one go, nor is that your job. But “neither are you free to abandon” it. [8]

Even working together, you will lose.  Much of the time, if not most.  And you will make mistakes and be wrong.  No matter your intentions and vision, you will hurt these people you love.  All this losing and all this being wrong and all this magnitude of Things You Do Not Know will be exhausting.  But remember, you are just learning to walk. [9]  Every time you wake up to the ways you are complicit, every time you imagine something different, every time you are called to accountability, every time you bear witness to a person of color’s reality, the demon is being called out from you, and you must keep going.  You must keep letting your grief awaken you.  And you must keep learning about other people’s grief and rage and also their dreams, especially of the people who have been taught to not believe and not listen to. 

If you are lucky enough to join and to follow Black people and indigenous people and people of color out of Pharoah’s Egypt – not the empires of history books but this global empire, this legacy of white supremacy right here right now in our patios and backyards – you must know that you will get tired.  The system is not built for you to leave, and there are merely bread crumbs to follow.  Remember, the people you are following have been tired for much, much longer.  Since the first slave ship landed in Virginia.  Since the first broken promise and burning of an Algonquin village in Connecticut.  People are tired of being invisible, tired of being told, in ever so many daily ways, that their lives don’t matter.  Tired of histories and languages being stolen and bodies and souls sacrificed at the unrelenting temple of whiteness.  Tired of having to justify their own experience. Tired of people dying who look like them, tired of hashtags, they are tired…and yet

You and me, we are not used to what to do when we are tired, what to do when we have to get back up again after loss.  At the same time that they were severing people of color from the lifeblood of their cultures’ deepest wisdoms, our ancestors did the double, strange work of severing us from our own.  Besides some aphorisms and a bottle of vodka and juice, your white ancestors did not pass down to us what to do when we are tired, or in pain, or afraid, because that is what whiteness pretends to give us a pass out of through easy violence and unearned prize. [10]  That is why now, we give up so easily when things do not go as we plan, when struggles for change do not yield fast reward.

So I will you tell what I have learned. When you are tired, when you are scared, when you are full of anger: take these things in your hands. 

They are blessed sacrament.  

You are alive. 
You have not been anesthetized.  
Do not bury them under a rock of false peace.  Plant them in the topsoil of your longing. 
Water them with evidence of things not seen.

This is what it means to have faith.  It is not glamorous and is not packing a go pack to one morning go join the right side of history.  To have faith is not that moment.  It is to get up every morning when you feel the weight of all things that are wrong upon your chest, and to refuse to let despair win, or to let doubt or cynicism freeze you into un-being. It is not to buy into the seduction that what it means to live is to simply be comfortable and unbothered.  To live in such a way is hard work, and that is why it is what Jesus talks about it when he talks about salvation being about losing your life and taking up the cross.  In becoming white, your and my ancestors tried to gain the whole world.  But what does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? [11]  It was a path led to death, not life: death for people who we called not-white, death for the planet, death to our spirits, death to our ability to think straight and see what is for our own good, for the world’s good, to even know what good is.  You must ask yourself, “what will happen with all that beauty,” [12] that we lost, that we derided and ate for dinner. But more importantly, what can happen with the beauty that can be found? 

The strangest mystery of all, future one, is that it is through losing what we thought our life would be that we save them, and find the joy that our ancestors wished for us all along.  This is utterly different than suicide.  No, it is “revolutionary suicide,” the one thing Jesus taught that the churches didn’t want to believe, and the only thing that mattered. Rev. Lynice Pinkard says:

“By this I mean not the killing of our bodies but the destruction of our attachments to security, status, wealth, and power. These attachments prevent us from becoming spiritually and politically alive. They prevent us from changing the violent structure of the society in which we live. Revolutionary suicide means living out our commitments, even when that means risking death…This is resistance with meaning: creation and action emerging out of the struggle for life.” [13]

Our ancestors believed in and passed down the fiction of whiteness because it seemed like it could help us avoid what we could not face – our body’s brokenness and sickness, the fact that we were not all we hoped to be.  Capitalism and whiteness offered us a way out of anxiety, we thought: each of us becoming our own pathetic god with the earth and other people’s bodies to rule and to be enriched by.  We were told this kingdom would last forever and ever amen [14] and that even after our physical deaths we’d live forever next to a white Jesus who blessed the whole thing. Death is the problem whiteness tried to offer us a cure for. [15] 

By exporting our own death and suffering upon others, we became unwilling and unable to accept or understand our own. We became fragile, dangerous people, convinced of our own powerlessness and yet armed with nuclear bombs and fleets of police at our beck and call. [16] We became fragile, dangerous people without our long-ago cultural memories of how to survive without abusing power. [17] Fragile, fearful people with fences around our homes and police who we believe protect our precious lives from darkness and dark bodies and yet if we were to throw a rock through a bank window would turn around and immolate us. Mama Ruby Sales told me a secret one day, that the presidents and Wall Street bankers and corporation heads don’t want you to know, and it is that under white supremacy, no life matters, but Black lives matter the least.

The price that our ancestors paid for their whiteness was their “full capacity for aliveness and humanity.” [18] That is why in order to fully come alive, you must become a friend to your death.  The death of your certainty, the death of your self-righteousness, and even the possibility of the death of your body in the struggle for life, not because you seek death but because as you become alive, this will be a threat to the death cults that reign. This is the Saving Word.  That you don’t have to be locked down in the fictions your ancestors grasped onto, and this is why you must throw off white supremacy in the battle for a new economic structure and new ways of being with the earth.  You must stake your life on “the promise that more aliveness is possible.” [19] You must keep watch. You must know that you are a beloved creation, loved by your Creator who loved you as She knit you into being, that you have the Wisdom of the universe in your blood and that you are sacred and loved not because you are white but because you are here.   

Your New England ancestors were obsessed with being baptized because they believed fervently in the promises of being born again in Christ, but this promise may not have been what they thought it meant.  It’s true meaning – this promise of life as you shed empire’s false immortality – is always within your reach, waiting to be touched.  This baptism is not once but always: always dying, always being reborn.  We must not settle for whatever meat pots of supremacy we are leaving behind which may be offered us, we, the Egyptians, on this stumbling way out of Egypt. [20] We must realize that in the wilderness, things will be very hard and we’ll continue to die little deaths, and still, it is worth it. Because you now know this, you can walk into such a future without fear: “Once a revolutionary has reckoned with the fact that she is a dead person, she can get on with the business of asking who she is going to be now and how she will live out her new life.” [21] A whole life is deeply worth living for. And it is what really gives us “victory o’er’ the grave.” [22] 

“Go preach my gospel,” saith the Lord. “Bid the whole earth my grace receive. Explain to them my sacred word. Bid them believe, obey, and live.” [23]

* * *

…What then, you ask, to do with all these ancestors?

You will want to throw them away, because the ghosts are too much to carry.  They are shameful and embarrassing. You will want to be a Nobody who came from No-One. 

But resisting this temptation, you must invite us in.  Our contradictions are gifts for you, because they will teach you about your own. You must let the past in, expand outward from it, and only in this way will you know what you, and those who come after you, can grow into. 

I believe many of our peoples’ hearts had developed such thorniness around race that as white supremacy grew they truly found their desires met there; they found an easy road out of their own pain by enjoying the myth of their superiority, and that they would defend it till the day they died.  

But I also believe many of them may have had a glimmer of belief in something different that they didn’t know what to do about it or find the words for.  The languages of whiteness and individualism and patriotism that became their daily bread were not built to express such hopes without taking out the danger to the systems which those longings represented.  I believe that along with baggage of guilt and fear and denial of atrocities or of hapless defense of them, our ancestors carried around with them thoughts that things could be Otherwise.

Sometimes they may have had these thoughts as a child, when anything seemed possible.  Sometimes they may have said such things out loud late at night as the fire was going out, and a couple whiskeys had been had, or as they rocked their children to sleep.  Sometimes they may have only know them in unexplainable dreams, or midnight panics that someday they may have to meet their God, and what God’s children were doing was not what God wanted.  Maybe for some, these thoughts caused them to fight back, to be brave, and even if we do not know about it, each of those times mattered.  

You must believe your ancestors knew this, somewhere.  That they knew what it could be to truly live and love.  You must remember that every highest thought your ancestors’ had for the siblinghood of all people, every sorrow felt after an act of violence, every terror at injustice that may or not have been expressed – these are a part of you.  And yes, so too are the moments of inaction, the moments of cruelty and greed, the violence, the confusion thinly veiled as innocence.  Your ancestors live in you, the nope parts and the ugly parts, and and because you are now the one with young toes in the soil of this earth, the people who can before now feel that earth through you – they walk here too because of you.  It is not too late to let their feet feel the soils of true freedom, not in property and ownership, but in love, in mutual dependence, and reparation of the past. 

As you carry us here and now, you must let us witness with sighs of relief and weeping, of confession, of repentance.  You must show us what is possible.  You must show us real joy, and your joy must not be a crumb, [24] but the joy of death into life. You must believe this is what we wanted for you all along, even if within the confines of limited dreams.  This, at least, I hope is what you can do for me. 

Remember: you are not alone.  Remember: I will never leave you, because I too, wonder whether love and right and good will win, because I too am scared, I too, am sad, I too, imagine things unseen, and I too, want to keep on the journey to become human [25], which is yours to continue.  It is far too boring, and the stakes are too high, to give up.  It is this story, of becoming human(e), that can be yours to pass on: not the supremacist heirloom, but the story of where we came from and what happened and the demons that got inside of us and how we threw them off and turned around, and the story of how to keep turning, turning turning… [26] 

Till by turning, turning, we come round right
. [27]  

There are no maps for this Way.  There are only signposts. [28] But I will say to you: you are born to a deeper belonging than whiteness ever offered us.  There is a deeper well than fear. Go: Find it. 

Where you find it, these are the first signposts.   This is where you start.

[1]  In a blog posted from November 9, 2016, adrienne maree brown pushed back on describing the time after Donald Trump’s election as a “dark time.” She writes, “[I] remembered that Steven Barnes, in the alternate history classic Lion’s Blood, flipped the script of who had power. in a world where Africans held power, everything was ‘a pale, pale time’. it occurs to me that this is not a dark time at all, not a dark age. it is a pale, pale time.” From “A range of reflections on resilience,” November 9, 2016, <;

[2]  See Ruth Frankenberg, Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism (Durham (N.C.): Duke University Press, 1999).

[3] James Baldwin, “On Being White…and Other Lies,” in David R. Roediger, Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to Be White (New York: Schocken Books, 1999), 178-179.

[4] Alexis Pauline Gumbs speaks to the scientific reality of sound moving much slower than light, which means voices of Africans enslaved and who traveled in the Middle Passage are literally still present. See Alexis Pauline Gumbs, M Archive: After the End of the World,(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 11. In reference to M. Jacqui Alexander, “Pedagogies of the Sacred,” Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 314. Also, “Let the Ancestors Speak,” Episode 2, How to Survive the End of the World Podcast, The Brown Sisters (Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown), Nov. 28, 2017. <;

[5]  Thomas Glave, Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 21. 

[6]  Jin S. Kim, “Overcome Evil With Good,” Church of All Nations, Sermon, September 3, 2017 <;

[7] “The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” Howard Zinn, from A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, (San Francisco: City Lights, 2006), p. 270.

[8]  Talmud, Pirkei Avot 2:21.

[9]  When whites undergo the true experience of conversion wherein they die to whiteness and are reborn anew in order to struggle against white oppression and for the liberation of the oppressed, there is a place for them in the black struggle of freedom.  Here reconciliation becomes God’s gift of blackness through the oppressed of the land…But white converts, if there are any to be found, must be made to realized that they are like babies who have barely learned how to walk and talk.” James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 222. 

[10]  Tada Hozumi argues that white people have “low emotional resilience in relationship, especially around conversations about race, even though they experience vast amounts of White privilege,” partly because of  “disconnection or unhealthy connection to parental cultures” (ancestral and ethnic cultures which whiteness superceded).  See Tada Hozumi, “Whiteness as Cultural Complex Trauma,” November 11, 2017. <

[11]  Luke 9:25 (NRSV). 

[12]  James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin: Collected Essays, Edited by Toni Morrison, (The Library of America: New York, NY, 1998). 

[13]  Lynice Pinkard, “Revolutionary Suicide,” Tikkun Magazine, San Francisco Vol. 28, Iss. 4,  (Fall 2013): 31-35,64-69.

[14]  “Whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York, NY: Verso Books, 2016), 18.

[15]  Allyn Steele, “We Are All Going to Die,” Podcast, The Word is Resistance, September 3, 2017, <;

[16]  “For centuries, Americans have lived with a strange, contradictory myth: Black bodies are incredibly strong and frightening and can handle anything short of total destruction, while white bodies are weak and vulnerable, especially to Black bodies.  So it’s the job of Black bodies to care for white bodies, soothe them, and protect them — particularly from other Black bodies.” From Resmaa Menakem, “The False Fragility of the White Body,” My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, (Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press, 2017), 108. 

[17]  See Tada Hozumi, “Whiteness as Cultural Complex Trauma.”

[18]  Lynice Pinkard, “Revolutionary Suicide.”

[19]  Lynice Pinkard, “Revolutionary Suicide.”

[20]  Nichola Torbett, “The Meat Pots of White Supremacy,” The Word is Resistance, Podcast, September 24, 2017. <> See also Laurel Dykstra, Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002).

[21]  Lynice Pinkard, “Revolutionary Suicide.” 

[22]  “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” Latin hymn, 12th century; trans. John M. Neale, 1851. 

[23]  “The Commission,” hymn, Words by Isaac Watts, Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal, #161.

[24]  “Don’t Hesitate,” Mary Oliver, Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (Beacon Press, 2012), 42. 

Rev. Margaret Anne Ernst is a minister, community organizer, and writer living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has worked alongside her colleagues at Faith Matters Network, a womanist-led organization focused on personal and social transformation, to help shape the vocation of movement chaplaincy, the spiritual accompaniment of social justice movements and their leaders. She is also Associate Pastor for Community Engagement at Chestnut Hill United Church in Philadelphia, a founding congregation of the Faith in Action-affiliated organization POWER Interfaith. Rev. Margaret is ordained in the United Church of Christ.

2 thoughts on “This is Where You Start: Letter to a White Child on Choices, Ancestors, and the Future

  1. Pingback: White Folks: We Love Racists. When We Accept This, We Can Fight White Supremacy. – plantedmoredeeply

  2. Pingback: White Folks: We Love Racists. When We Accept This, We Can Fight White Supremacy. – Radical Discipleship

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