In fourth grade, I studied the scientific kingdoms: Animal, Plant, Protozoa, etc. Our teacher must have explained that humans fall into the Animal Kingdom for scientific classification purposes. But I somehow mixed that up and came home incredulously explaining to my family that my teacher told us we were part of the Plant Kingdom.
I was incensed–plants? How could we be considered plants? The response I got at home: Sure, you’re a plant. You’re a blooming idiot. As I would have said in fourth grade, “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh.”
Later, I figured out my misunderstanding. But I’ve been reminded of this story based on some books I’ve read recently–nonfiction books that have helped inform my knowledge of racism and how it played out in our nation’s past. Which books?
These: At the Dark End of the Street, by Danielle McGuire. I read this book after finishing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Ms. Skloot referenced “Mississippi appendectomies” in her book, and I wanted to get educated about that. (In case you’re wondering, a “Mississippi appendectomy” was a forced sterilization of a woman without her consent, often without her knowledge. Performed on Black women and on poor White women, these procedures were done in various states including Mississippi but not limited to the South.)
Also: Devil in the Grove, by Gilbert King. This story plays out in central Florida–right in the area where I live–and I recognized every town and city mentioned in the book.
At the Dark End of the Street looks at the Civil Rights movement and White supremacy through the lenses of sexual violence against Black women. In many places in our country at that time, Black women had no recourse and could depend on no justice in our legal system when attacked and raped, particularly by White men. Rape of these women kept them–and their families–in fear. White supremacists used this kind of violence as a tactic for exerting and maintaining their power. The story of Mrs. Recy Taylor is a prime example. You can read it HERE. But don’t take my word for it–you can probably locate this book at your local library.
So while White men intending to perpetuate White supremacy targeted Black women–sometimes in front of these women’s husbands and fathers, knowing that they would likely never be prosecuted for the crimes–White supremacists were simultaneously inciting fear of Black men in the White community. They worked at convincing others of the inherent threat Black men posed to the–wait for it–flower of White Southern womanhood.
This phrase, this concept, permeated the culture in many parts of our country even 50 years ago. Over and over and over, I read this phrase referenced in these books and in other places, too. The idea that nothing was more pure than the flower of White Southern womanhood was the rhetoric of White supremacists–stirring up White men to rise up and protect their women against the dangers of the evil Black man.
The story of “the Groveland boys” (in the book Devil in the Grove) centers around the arrest, torture, beatings, and killings of young Black men accused of raping a White woman. When a rape DIDN’T EVEN OCCUR. A young White woman pointed a finger at some Black men, and both local law enforcement and the community at large called for their death.
But again, don’t take my word for it. These books I’ve mentioned are all in print and easily available.
So while White women’s womanhood was upheld as a “flower,” a Black woman’s womanhood was considered (in the prevailing racism of that time) as–what? Trash? There for the taking, to be used and exploited? It makes my heart pound hard to read that sentence I just wrote.
And when I think of that phrase–the flower of White Southern womanhood–I’m incensed, even more so than when I wrongly assumed my teacher informed me I was a plant. Back then, I fumed, “I am no plant!”
Today, I declare, “I am no flower!” To be sure, a woman’s femininity is a thing of glory and beauty, to be celebrated–in whichever ways her femininity displays itself. Tea parties, manicures, knitting–sure. Deer hunting, tractor driving, race cars–sure. But a flower? No; not the way the White supremacists of last century would mean it, not the way they would use my womanhood to justify their evil.
But if I AM a flower? Then so is every woman of every ethnicity and every color in all the wide world. Either I am not a flower–or else every woman is.
But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.–James 2:9.
Other books you might consider: Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. And The Murder of Emmett Till, by David Robson. Full disclosure: I read part but did not finish The Murder of Emmett Till. I did, though, read all of Black Like Me.