Ep. 61: Letters in Black & White | W.F. Twyman, Jr. & Jennifer Richmond
The following is a chapter excerpt from the forthcoming book of letters - Letters in Black & White - discussing race in America.
My ancestral connection to slavery is through my grandma’s grandfather Daniel Brown (1833–1885). The status of past enslavement for Daniel had no bearing on his drive for success. One might even surmise that a slave past motored a lifelong drive to prove oneself.
Daniel was a founding father for me and my sister and first cousins, second cousins and third cousins. What Daniel did was to start from nothing and, over a lifetime, acquire over 500 acres of land in Chesterfield and Charlotte Counties. Not only did he lift his children and grandchildren above the tumult for survival, but his foresight and vision ensured grandchildren would not be starting from scratch as Daniel did. My grandma and her cousins would take property holdings for granted and, like many Old Money families, this gave the descendants a head start in life.
When I read a book like Old Money: The Mythology of American’s Upper Class by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., I recognize stories of past ancestors and the elevating influence of the Dead Hand over generations.
What I find disaffecting are those who seem so marinated in “systemic” and “structural” analysis that they seem incapable of hearing my truth, that Daniel was a founding father in the best sense of the word and that his life story undercuts the force of institutional racism. There has always been a place for black foresight and vision. Why wouldn’t the woke be absolutely thrilled that a former slave — a man who could not read nor write — bent the world according to his will for the benefit of generations into the distant future. The man died in 1885 and we still live in his wake 135 years later.
When I share the Norse tales of Daniel’s triumphs, the woke say Daniel was an outlier, an anomaly. They say his triumph against adversity is of no value to oppressed black people today in 2019!
Diminishing and discounting my ancestor doesn’t sit well with me. He’s not just my ancestor. For a couple of hundred close and distant cousins, Daniel informs how we perceive and understand the world. How prejudiced must someone be to tell me my ancestor must be discounted and dismissed in the name of social justice.
Slave Owners never saw the humanity in the descendants of slaves. When the woke turn a blind eye to an achieving black ancestor, it causes me to wonder whether the woke are incapable of seeing the humanity in black Americans.
Before one can be an ally of black Americans, one must see the humanity in the descendants of American slaves.
Stuck in a snowstorm in Mammoth, California,
I remember when I was very young, my mother had a rattan swinging chair. The kind that suspends from the ceiling. It was in my parent’s bedroom, next to the bathroom where she would spend time getting ready. I spent hours there as a child swinging back and forth and twirling around and around in much the same way as she twirled her blond hair around old metal curlers.
My mother, born into an era that applauded housewives as pinnacles of American morality, played her role dutifully, but you could tell there was an underlying tension in her narrative. I believe she resolved it in the narratives she created for me. On a rather normal day that held no particular significance, I sat bouncing in the chair as my childlike mind explored my future. Maybe I’d be a nurse. After all, that was a profession many of my pre-school playmates envisioned. Not one to buck the trend, it seemed good enough for me.
It wasn’t that my mother had any problem with my pre-school nursing ambition, but she stopped her grooming to look at me. To pause and really see me, bouncing there in my underoos. She quietly, but with much determination told me, “you can be anything you want to be. You can be president.” I think that is the first time that I realized my own agency. Really? President? I really had no idea.
Of course, being president was going to take some work on my end. My mother’s high expectations of my endless possibilities generated a determination on my part, not necessarily to be president, but to find my potential.
Soon after the idyllic days of the rattan chair, my dad decided to take a post as the Air Force Attaché in Rangoon, Burma. This was perhaps the second biggest development in my personal narrative. My little world expanded as I attended school with Koreans, Filipinos, British and a cornucopia of other nationalities. My first two “boyfriends” were Thai and Filipino. I had the hots for the son of a Burmese Air Force liaison. I got in the most trouble with the Koreans.
At the age when stereotypes may usually develop and solidify, I was exposed to the humanity across cultures. And ultimately, this exposure determined my trajectory, not to become a nurse or president, but to connect across disparate cultures in search of our common humanity.
Like you, the narratives of oppression, systemic racism and white supremacy, were just not a part of my experience. Granted, my experience was not your average American experience. However, having witnessed the brutality of the totalitarian Burmese junta, coupled with the common humanity I found in the dreams and aspirations of my multicultural posse, I returned to America forever changed.
And perhaps, it is why I find so much unease with our current discourse, or at least the ones that our media likes to highlight.
For example, in the past week, I’ve been reading a lot on a new trend to declare that even math is racist: 1+1 may equal 2, but if a child reaches a different conclusion and you correct them, you may be a racist. I read these stories in disbelief. I can’t help but wonder if the media is only picking up on fringe movements, or if this is really something that has wider appeal.
When I read such stories there is something that does ring true. We create narratives for ourselves from our experiences. If over time, some teachers teach down to students of color, assuming that math is not their strength, or if children were born into families that do not support educational pursuits, then this can have an impact on the stories that start to play into the minds of our children. They start to believe that they aren’t able to compete educationally, and this saying rings true — “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
What I’ve found in all my travels is that the values of liberty and freedom are universal and transcend culture. I witnessed it in the yearnings of liberation that eventually surfaced shortly after we left Burma, resulting in a massive crackdown in 1988. A year later, we saw it again in China in the 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests. Then again in the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe.
And what I found so remarkable, was that our country in particular, and other Western countries in general, was where these ideas originated. It is due to these ideas and values that the only foreigners that we didn’t engage in our time in Burma were the North Koreans. A despotic nation so fearful of value contamination, they were not allowed to co-mingle in the expat community where Westerners were present. Heck, we even hung out with the Russians, and this was the height of the Cold War. In fact, it was in a true Russian bear hug from the Russian military attaché, that perhaps did the most to solidify our common humanity in my young mind.
Despite the fact that these values did not extend to everyone at our founding, it is because of them that we have constantly evolved to expand their reach to women, people of color, those of different sexual orientation, and so on. It is because of these values and the agency of abolitionists like Frederick Douglas, that we fought a civil war. And these values spurred Martin Luther King Jr in the Civil Rights movement. While not always timely, and often marred with bloody struggle, we continue to expand these values.
The challenge to these values is the institutionalization of a narrative of oppression. This emerging narrative locks us into patterns that are hard to unravel. Indeed, unraveling the institutions that upheld racism has been a historic challenge. Instilling the idea of oppression and “learned helplessness” is akin to the dumbing down of students of color, and ultimately the most egregious of racisms. Oppression and helplessness lack agency.
Liberation, freedom and equality — which I assume are the goals of our new activists — are suffocated without agency. But we can change the narrative.
The stories of your ancestors are a start. The stories of daughters who were told they could be president, are a start. The story of a black man who did become president, is a start.
As we engage in a more honest review of our history, we must wrangle with oppression, but not forget the stories of uplift and strength, the stories of Daniel Brown.
In transit from Hyderabad to Dubai,
In the Hold my Drink — navigating culture with a chaser of civility, and Counterweight podcast, Episode 61, David Bernstein interviews W.F. Twyman, Jr. (aka Wink) & Jennifer Richmond (Jen) on their forthcoming book of letters - Letters in Black & White: A New Correspondence on Race in America. Wink & Jen share how they met and started an extraordinary correspondence that developed into a friendship across the color line, devoid of the slogans that segregate us into avatars for race. All discussed with a chaser of civility, of course, a ginger beer, hard kombucha and Diet Coke.
Hold my Drink welcomes all people with all kinds of beverages to join us as we explore the truths of a chaotic and beautiful world, together.
The American Soviet Mentality, Tablet Magazine, Izabella Tabarovsky
The American Soviet Mentality, Hold my Drink Podcast with Izabella Tabarovsky
Diversity Drop-Out, Areo Magazine, Jennifer Richmond
Nothing to Talk About: Affinity in the Age of Diversity, Areo Magazine, W.F. Twyman, Jr. & Jennifer Richmond
The Golden Age of Slogans, Areo Magazine, W.F. Twyman, Jr. & Jennifer Richmond
The Alternative Reading Guide for the 1619 Project Essays, W.F. Twyman, Jr. & Jennifer Richmond
The Alternative 21-Day Racial Reading Challenge, W.F. Twyman, Jr. & Jennifer Richmond
Black People Who Oppose Critical Race Theory Are Being Erased, Newsweek, Erec Smith
W.F. Twyman, Jr (aka Wink) promotes black resiliency and individualism, and believes the United States is at its best when we focus on our common humanity. He is a former law professor and descendant of George Twyman I (1661–1703).
Twyman is the author of essays and articles in many magazines including the National Black Law Journal, the Pennsylvania Lawyer, the Intellectual Conservative. His self-published works are On the Road to Oak Lawn: Truth, Reconciliation and the Twymans (December 1, 2018) and Gotterdammerung (July 3, 2019). He and Jen co-authored Letters in Black & White, to be released by Pitchstone Publishing in October 2022.
J.D. Richmond (aka Jen) supports Liberalism and universal values and believes that the United States is at its best when protecting individual rights and freedoms. She has worked in international relations for over 20 years focusing namely on Global Geopolitics, Intelligence and East Asian Policy.
Learning to communicate on difficult and polarizing issues, in good faith, develops citizens who build a strong and diverse community necessary for our democracy to thrive. To this end she founded Truth in Between, is the host of the Hold my Drink Podcast, and is the Community Coordinator for the Moral Courage Project.