Into ‘My Body is a Monument’
Trymaine Lee: A warning to listeners that this episode contains discussion of sexual violence.
Caroline Randall Williams: I have rape-colored skin. My light brown blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, causes of the old South. If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.
Lee: Caroline Randall Williams is a poet and writer in residence at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. This weekend, she published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, "You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument."
The debate over monuments, and street names, and other relics of the Confederacy has intensified in recent weeks. A statue of Jefferson Davis was pulled down in Richmond, Virginia. In Louisville, Kentucky, a monument depicting a Confederate officer was removed from the city square. And on Tuesday, Mississippi decided to remove the Confederate symbol from the state's flag. What is lost and what is gained by tearing them down? Or was it always about more than the metal and stone in the first place?
Williams: I am a Black Southern woman. And of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, Caroline Randall Williams on why her body is a monument. Listening to you read those words, it's at once raw, but there is something liberating, I think, about owning a piece of ourselves that has been shadowed for a long time. But I also don't think a lot of people have fully considered the sexual violence, the white sexual violence heaped upon black women during enslavement. And those first lines, "I have rape-colored skin," how did you get there?
Williams: You know, it's a long time coming. One of the things that's always been in the back of my mind as a Black woman who strongly and solely identifies with my Blackness is that people experience light skin as a privilege, which it is. It's a profound privilege. But when I think about how I came by it, it's a privilege that aches me because of how it came to be that I am light skinned.
I think it was a long time of private examination because I didn't want to make the emotional burden of that privilege, like, anybody else's burden because the privilege has allowed me access and resources that I just want to use to, like, further the collective cause of being Black, and being free, and being safe and well in America but thinking privately to myself about the physical nature of this particular privilege, sort of examining my family trees.
And I have another privilege of knowing a lot of my family history. I've known the stories. I am the daughter of two Black people. I am the granddaughter of four Black people. I am the great-granddaughter of eight Black people. I have the privilege of knowing my great-grandmother.
But she knew her white father. She knew her white father who had raped her Black mother and in such a violent way that her mother lost her mind. And so my great-grandmother was raised by her grandmother, who'd been born a slave to the family of the son who raped her daughter and made her raise her own grandchild, right?
And my great-grandmother lived till I was 17 years old, and she was a really important part of my life. And so looking at her light skin, knowing her story, what she'd seen and lived through, I thought, "This skin is the color of that. This skin is the color of those rapes." This privilege of light skin has come at the cost of the Black women in my family who were raped by the white men who "gave us" (I'm using that in air quotes), "gave us" this strange privilege of this light skin.
Lee: The one line you have that, "My skin is a monument." And when you think about the knowledge of that history, with that history being etched in flesh and bone, how do you actually reconcile it? It's one thing to recognize it, see it for what it is, understand the history. But in your living body, how do you reconcile that history?
Williams: I think one of the strange things for me, again, because even though the light skin has afforded me a great deal of privilege, I never privileged it. I'm grateful for the one-drop rule 'cause it means that my 48% or whatever it is from Africa in my blood makes me Black.
I reconcile it by knowing that one drop covers anything that they thought was valuable about themselves. Whoever these white men thought they were, however important they thought they were, like, my one drop of Black blood makes me not theirs, not their race, not their color.
But because I have that white blood, I get to use my brownness as a weapon against white supremacy because, as I wrote in the piece, I am proof. I am proof of what they did. I am proof that they are not who they think they are, who they say they are, who they are remembered to be.
Lee: When you think about, and I used the word "shadowed" earlier, and you think about the sexual torture and sexual violence that was baked into enslavement, right, you know, we don't talk about it much. I mean, Black folks, we talk about it a little bit 'cause we understand the rape history. But mainstream society, white folks don't really talk about this. Is that silence added violence in itself, of just pretending, or just ignoring, or just pushing it into the corner and being intentional about forgetting about it? Is that a form of violence itself?
Williams: Yeah. Psychological violence is the most profound violence there is, right? I mean, it's the whole idea of a bloody but unbowed head. You can decide how to stand what they do to your body. But if they silence your story and your history and your ability to express your trauma, that writes itself on generations.
But I was raised by a survivor of sexual violence. And so I believe in naming and shaming. And I was raised to name and shame. And I have seen the power of it, the healing power of it. A lot of people who are traumatized repeat their trauma. And my mother, who had just some of the craziest things happen to her, has raised me with so much love, and fortitude, and a sense of wanting to do right and continue to feel loved and supported.
And so to me, I want to empower people to adopt that model where they haven't. We have to be so vigilant about knowing what our rights can be. It's funny to me 'cause I get mad at the Constitution. I get so mad at it because it's a gentlemen's agreement. It wasn't written for us. It wasn't even written for all white men, right?
It was written for a certain group of white men with so many loopholes. It's very elegant, and it's subjective. But I love the Constitution because America as a collective identity right now, like, you know, we were raised to believe that, you know, the Constitution is for all Americans. And I am excited to find ways to make America do what its documents say instead of what its founders meant.
Lee: There's a line that you write where you say, "I've got rebel-gray blue blood coursing through my veins." You bring up this idea of redress, it's one thing. Acknowledging the past, the past act, naming and shaming. But either way, you arrive with that lineage. And part of what it sounds like you're doing is owning a piece of that history. Regardless of how it got there, you descend from these people. How does that change the way you view yourself, the way you view America?
Williams: I mean, I think there were times in American history and certainly in my own personal history where I've resisted comparing the Black American experience to the Holocaust in part because it was such an immediate and acute trauma that is still in the living memory. I mean, even now I get chills trying to contemplate that. But I also feel like, you know, there were news cameras that came and showed the video reels of the liberation of those camps. And if there had been news cameras in the bellies of the boats of the middle passage--
Lee: Imagine that.
Williams: --we would not be having this conversation. You just would not because we'd be safe and free if America meant what it says it means. And so when I think about, you know, the comparison, you know, you can't meet a group of, like, German teenagers that are traveling in America who don't, like, apologize about Hitler, like, almost on the second breath, you know?
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Williams: They have found a model of decency that includes claiming and shaming their ancestors. And I thought, you know, growing up in Nashville, Tennessee around all these white friends who, like, the best version of wokeness when I was growing up as just, like, saying, "I don't care moving forward. Like, I love Black people."
They didn't ever look back and reexamine or name or shame their own relatives. And I thought, "Well, hey. I got one of those in my closet, too. I got a dead Confederate in my closet." Like, allow me to model what it looks like to shame your ancestor 'cause apparently none of my white friends will do it. And I think it doesn't matter if you're the white or Black descendant of dead Confederates. It's time to acknowledge the sins of our ancestors.
Lee: That part right there though, I think it did strike me. And that's something that was new. I mean, not necessarily new to me. But, like, the idea of, you know, we too have inherited a piece of this. We too have this blood in our veins. We too are descendants of those, you know, vile men. So we should also have a say in what happens in the way we memorialize them, right? If you want to, as you say, memorialize something, memorialize this body. I think that was just really profound.
Williams: Oh, well, thank you so much. And it's so funny to me. Like, when I realized it, I was like, "Why are we not talking about this?" But I think that part of it is that, I mean, erasure is just real. You know, people go, "Well, where's the proof? You know, like, you can't prove he did that."
But then, you know, the strange blessing of ancestry DNA, like, I just spit into a tube and now I'm like, "Tell me y'all ain't my cousins when we matched on the website." (LAUGH) So the science has made it easier to not exonerate but claim and reframe.
Lee: Do you think that white women are ready to have that conversation about how complicit they've been in white supremacy and also certainly just violence period? We see the old letters from Martha Washington. Like, it's been pretty bad, but we never talk about that aspect of it.
Williams: Golly. You're gonna get me in trouble. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: We're about to get everybody in trouble in here.
Williams: I know. You know what? You're right. But I think the question of whether or note white women are ready, I don't know. My answer is I sure hope so. What I will say is I've had some really valuable and transformative conversations lately with a lot of my white female friends.
And I think there are transformations on their side that might not have happened if I hadn't been so dogged in my approach to demanding certain things. I mean, the question of white women will do, I don't know, because, you know, the Ku Klux Klan would not have gotten its traction in Jim Crow without all those nice ladies holding picnics and saying it was a community gathering, that this is a family organization.
I mean, white women were the backbone of the Ku Klux Klan of establishing the cultural norms of Jim Crow, Daughters of the Confederacy erecting all those statues, like, in the nineteen-teens, and '20s, and aughts, right. (SIGH) I don't know. I'm a little scared about it. I mean, if I'm very honest, I hope that it'll be better. I hope that it will. I don't know.
What is a monument but a standing memory, an artifact to make tangible the truth of the past? My body and blood are a tangible truth of the South and its past. The Black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for their lost cause. And I ask you now: Who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares to ask me to accept their mounted pedestals?
Lee: We'll be right back.
Lee: You know, your piece, not much unlike the debate over monuments itself, I always thought it was always about more than monuments. Right? It's just that this is an edifice and a reminder of the danger that Black bodies especially have been through.
Williams: That's right.
Lee: But when it comes to actual monuments, growing up were you walking in the shadow of these monuments? What role did they play in your life as you moved through your Southern world?
Williams: You know, I think that there was a sort of ubiquity to white men monuments, full stop, that sheltered me from understanding what specific ones were for when I was younger. I mentioned in the article cartoonish private statues. Now, what I will say is in the early or mid-early '90s on highway I-65 here in Nashville, some man whose name I do not know and don't care to, you know, he owned a patch of land on the highway and he, like, commissioned this (I mean, it was probably, like, 30 or 40 feet high) statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Lee: Among the worst.
Williams: Yeah. The founder of the Ku Klux Klan, right? So this statue was on the highway. And now it kills me 'cause it's on private land, which is why it can't be taken down. But the Tennessee government paid to clear the trees. And I will say I remember seeing that statue and I remember I was with my dad, who was a Black conservative Republican.
I remember even though my dad was, like, misguided in some ways I was in the car with him and I said to him. I think I must have been like 10 years old. I was like, "Daddy, don't you think that that statue is bad? Don't you think they should take it down? Doesn't it make you feel bad to see it?"
And he said, "Caroline, now, it's a terrible statue." It looks like a cartoon. His face is, like, contorted. It's a poorly rendered image. And my father said, "If they want to make themselves look ridiculous in public, I don't have a problem with it." And I think that that was a real balm. It gave me some real armor moving forward 'cause it was such a young exchange for me. It sort of freed me from feeling oppressed by them myself, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't come down.
'Cause I'm not worried about what they do to Black people 'cause we're strong and resilient. We know that those people don't matter. What I worry about is the people who come there to worship. And the statues, the false idols need to come down because they are brewing a fundamentalism that is anathema to what this country says it is meant to be.
Lee: So the one thing, and I don't think I've heard that thought, is that, you know, if we take these things down, those that worship at the feet of these idols, what's their response gonna be? Because it's gonna signal to them that these are the last days. The republic is crumbling, (LAUGH) right?
Williams: I'm scared. I'm scared. I'm scared because the Constitution is just a gentlemen's agreement at the moment. But that's what a revolution looks like. It looks like finally coming to a head and then there is inevitable, like, intensity of conflict. I don't know what they'll do when their monuments come down.
I imagine that it's gonna be scary and scarier for a minute. But I also think that once they come down, you know, you look at ancient Rome, like, they torn down all those statues of those gods. Like, Zeus is just a distant idea in a book now, you know? So, like, you tear down the statues and the worshipers dissolve eventually. So I still think it's the right way. But I am scared. I don't know what they'll do.
Lee: You know, I want to get back to your piece for a second. And I want to read a portion of a letter that was sent to the editors of the New York Times.
Lee: It says, "Miss Williams has written about the most powerful and most personal reason to tear down statues of Confederate generals and to rename U.S. military bases currently bearing Confederate military names. People can see many reasons to eliminate the glorifying of people who were traitors fighting to retain the ugliness of slavery, but Miss Williams has written her truth." Did you imagine that your essay would resonate in this way?
Williams: No. I'm so grateful that it has. I had no idea that the response would be this profound. You know, I think it kinda ties back to this question of what they'll do when their statues come down. My piece, how do I say this? People can argue about whether all lives matter, Black lives matter. They can argue about the causes of the Confederacy or whether or not you're valid in celebrating your ancestors even when they did wrong.
No decent people really argue about whether or not rape is wrong. And so I took the other questions off the table. And then it feels good to believe in the right thing. And I think that that's part of maybe why it's been resonant. And I also think, again, there's catharsis in naming and shaming, which isn't done enough.
And I say all of that 'cause I've been trying to understand why it worked and to respond to people who are responding to me. And it's really humbling, and I'm really grateful that some of this inherited trauma can do good, which is what I'd always hoped it would do, but you still get a little scared to try and say something at all.
Lee: So do you think this debate and your pieces chiming on this debate over tearing monuments down, not necessarily rewriting history but reclaiming and recentering the narrative around this history, do you think that actually gets us closer to a more fair, just, equable society, tearing those things down?
Williams: Yes. I think it does because I think actions mean something even if you don't, it's like, you know, if you smile it can actually elevate your dopamine. Even if you don't mean it, if you're not happy, if you're feeling depressed, like, you might not want to smile. But if you make yourself do it, it will actually change something of your brain chemistry.
I think that whether or not they want to do it, I think that it will change some of the brain chemistry of the collective American mind to have done it. 'Cause it certainly will mean a great deal to a lot of people, Black and white, who want to be on the right side of history and who want to stop celebrating these evildoers in public.
And I think the people who don't want it down seeing the good that it does having it down, if they are good people (and I think that in an ether, in a void the state of the human condition is probably inclined towards goodness), that being true, I think that it will have to change.
Lee: Caroline Randall Williams, you've given us all the words. Thank you very much. And, you know, sharing trauma is really tough, but you've done it in such an eloquent, powerful way that I think we truly have a better understanding of who we are. So thank you very much. Really appreciate it.
Williams: Oh, thank you. That's high praise indeed. Thank y'all. Either you have been blind to a truth that my body's story forces you to see, or you really do mean to honor the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed and you must at last acknowledge your emotional investment in a legacy of hate.
Either way, I say the monuments of stone and metal, the monuments of cloth and wood, all the man-made monuments must come down. I defy any sentimental Southerner to defend our ancestors to me. I am quite literally made of the reasons to strip them of their laurels.
Lee: You can find a link to Caroline Randall Williams' full piece that was in the New York Times in our show notes and on our website at NBCNews.com/IntoAmerica. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow.