I’m trying to remember when I lost my innocence. By this I do not mean the first time I engaged in sexual intercourse; the association of innocence with a lack of knowledge about this one particular aspect of human experience has a long, tangled history in the West, but it is not written in stone.
The innocence I mean has to do with a lack of knowledge about the world beyond one’s immediate borders, fences of tribe and belief and self. This kind of innocence rests in a deep incuriosity, in the belief that one’s limited knowledge about the world is sufficient, and that any necessary further knowledge will be served up warm and nicely plated, with a little parsley sprig.
This kind of innocence is self-centering and dangerous.
By this definition, I lost my innocence around the age of 9 or 10, when the understanding dawned that we were black and poor and that both of these things were somehow shameful. (The issue of internalized anti-blackness I have long since interrogated, but the question of how impoverished people are made to carry shame is one that still interests me. Toni Morrison once said the poverty of her childhood was free from stigma but the poverty of mine was coated in the stuff.)
Shame is a damaging instructor, one I would not recommend. But in fighting my way through that particular class I learned to look at both myself and the world the way we really are. The shedding of this kind of innocence is not a loss but a necessity for any person who wants to think of herself as moral and any nation which wants to think of itself as good.
I have been thinking about innocence since I spoke recently at a local retirement community. These were kind and well-meaning people, educated and curious and well into their 70s and 80s. All of them were also white, as far as I could tell.
Only a few, for example, were familiar with the famous doll test conducted in the 1940s by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to study the psychological effects of segregation; the test was used as part of Kenneth Clark’s expert testimony in Brown v. Board of Education. Many were surprised when I said the first place I was called the n-word was not my hometown of Memphis but New Hampshire, and that of all the places I have lived, North and South, Boston is the most segregated. One woman asked if I knew why no black couples had moved into the community since the “two we had” died. Another asked if the fact that we are now, in her words, “inundated” with commercials featuring interracial couples and biracial children did not signal major progress in the dismantling of white supremacy. This same woman said she had been going to the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda for 30 years and had formed a loving relationship with people there, people she considered family. If they could figure it out in Antigua, she asked, why can’t we?
Where to even begin?
(One place was to say that of course I could not speak to this woman’s particular experience, but that even if the relationship between herself and her Antiguan family was as she said, it meant nothing about existing power structures in Antigua, let alone the United States. When I asked if she knew the history of Antigua, she said: “No. Well, a little. They weren’t slaves.” I said I had never been to Antiqua and knew nothing of its history but I was pretty sure “they” had, in fact, been enslaved. How in the world did she think they got there? Seven-day cruise?)
It’s not even, really, to express surprise. Any person who writes and speaks about American white supremacy is well-acquainted with this kind of see-no-evil positioning. See the pouting insistence by people visiting plantations that they should not have to hear about slavery. Remember the poo-pooing of “liberal” white pundits (and neighbors and colleagues) when black people said America had elected a racist president. See even the well-intentioned woman at the retirement community who, holding up a copy of Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” could not keep from telling me how bad it made her feel.
Look even at the words we use — the words I’m using — to describe this phenomenon of whiteness: innocence, white fragility. Even the words cushion.
My intent here is simply to wonder if this willful innocence will ever be relinquished? A whole new generation of brilliant black scholars and writers has risen to instruct America on its own history, on structural inequalities and white supremacist violence and foundational black contributions to these United States, and all of this is vital but none of it is new. James Baldwin already told us. So did Audre Lorde and W.E.B. Du Bois and Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass and on and on.
And yet the innocence remains. At another event this past weekend, a white woman said to me and my fellow (black) panelists: “Give us a chance.” She was sincere and very sweet, but what in the world does she think black people have been doing all these centuries? What does she think white people have?
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster,” wrote James Baldwin.
At the retirement community, a woman asked whether I believed things would improve in America once we “get rid of all these racists.”
I said I believe this nation has the capacity to face its history, reckon with the present and become, in the future, the country it so desperately pretends to be, but that I do not believe it ever will. It is neither the current occupant of the White House nor all of the people propping him up who lead me to this sad conclusion.
It’s not the malevolence that makes me unhopeful. It’s the innocence.