A White Quaker’s Path
I have been telling the Scottish folktale “Tam Lin” for years. In it a young woman, Janet, supports her lover’s freedom from enchantment by holding him fast and fearing him not as he transmutes into many nonhuman and startling forms. He becomes a hawk that tries to fly away; a lion that tries to bite her; a bear that growls at her; a snake that constricts her; a cold block of ice; and, finally, a burning branch, which she throws into the nearby stream. Her lover, Tam Lin, becomes a naked man at this point: human again. She has held him without fear; believed that the human was inside; and helped him to come back to earth so as to transform back into his human form.
I think about this story often in the racial justice work I do: feeling called to hold myself and others—particularly other White people—to allow for the release of enchantment, disconnection, and distortions of White supremacy that we may find our way back to our human selves. In the past few years, I have found that reparations as a frame and alchemical agent are a powerful tool in this work of releasing the contortions of White supremacy and reclaiming our spiritual selves, our humanity.
With nearly 30 others, I attended a workshop titled Beyond Diversity 101 this past fall. This is a five-day intensive workshop intended to help participants better understand how they individually and corporately contribute to a racist system within society. We spent a lot of time in affinity groups, and I found myself with a different energy than is typical for me: I was able to hold myself and other White people with no disjuncture between truth and love. In the past, I would lean away as White people said White supremacist things, wanting to feel separate from the harms they caused. But this time, I felt compassion and saw myself in their words. I was able to interrupt and name the way their words caused harm while inviting them to shed their misperceptions and root themselves more deeply in their naked human selves. It was new for me to agilely “call in” other White people without having done a complex, internal dance. I was clear where the energy came from: love of them and those they harmed, and a longing for wholeness and healing.
Clement Reade estate inventory, including a record of the people he enslaved.
During the weekend, I thought about my grandmother, my mother’s mother, and how to offer healing and accountability for the harms she caused, and also healing for the deep disjuncture from herself that she lived with and passed on. She changed my mother’s name from Susan to Nancy when she was four because she was disappointed that my mother wasn’t more like her best friend Susan. When my mother was a teenager, my grandmother had a portrait of her painted to look like Princess Margaret. My mom hated it and put her foot through it after my grandmother died. In the summers, my parents would send my brothers and me to visit her big, white house on Peachtree Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia, and she would ignore us, drink beer, and watch television in the den while we roamed through the plush, blue living room and other places in her mansion. My grandmother told us not to go into the kitchen where her Black cook and housekeeper worked, so she would not connect with us. It was lonely, deeply disconnected, and disorienting. She had an enormous penny collection, and when she died of a heart attack, I imagined her falling into her piles and piles of pennies. She taught me a lot about how to live a life of luxury without warmth and affection, an all-too-common White experience.
My mom grew away from her mother and began a process of healing and breaking the cycle: she resisted the teachings of her White family, even as she lived in its paradigms. I am deeply grateful for the ways she started a new path for me, even as she lived with the loneliness and sadness of the legacy of her family. She invited me to a deeper journey of healing. Without her determination to be all the way alive before she died, I am not sure who or how I would be.
I started doing reparative genealogy a few years ago, and I wish I had been surprised to find that my grandmother’s great-grandfather Reverend Clement Reade, a Presbyterian minister, had listed among the record of his estate 22 people whom he enslaved, including Ephraim, Lucy, Africa, Juda, Ben, and Sophia. I am still processing the reality and holding the weight of this knowledge: what it means for me and how it animates me toward repair and healing. The shadow of its truth has been passed down through my ancestors’ tissues and cells in their efforts to obfuscate the truth: holding it in their clenched jaws and holding themselves apart from themselves, each other, and those they abstracted as inferior to themselves. The disconnection of Whiteness begins in the self. It is a disconnection from grief, from longing, from unhealed trauma, and from so many generations of displacement and disconnection from our own indigenous selves. It includes the violence of cutting oneself off from one’s own humanity in order to enact great violence on others. Though I would never assert that these harms are greater than the harms my ancestors enacted, I would say, as American writer Wendell Berry does, that the violence we cause renders a hidden wound deep in the souls of White folks that mirrors the hurt enacted. Leaving that wound buried and unconscious renders us White folks delusional and sociopathic: perpetuating harms that threaten life on earth and can result in genocide and, ultimately, suicide.
Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” What’s at stake is deep. It’s my sense that we are currently in a mass White supremacist spiral of shame and self-loathing: that the truth is being revealed through the murder of George Floyd and the years of Black Lives Matter; through decades of activism and truth-telling; and through Black and Indigenous and People of Color struggling to hold us White folks and society fast. For many, witnessing this reality has resulted in clinging fast to the delusions of our White selves. Sometimes we double down on deeper delusions in order to maintain a false sense of ourselves, identifying with White supremacy as necessary for White survival, causing deeper violence. Metabolizing this shame and facing ourselves while committing to healing and repair is essential for White people and can be a portal for liberation and rebalancing the world.
These stories of my family animate me to repair and heal: for myself, for my son, for my ancestors, and for all they harmed. They animate me to love more fully my Black partner and my White kin, and to live elementally from connection, which is my birthright as a human: capable of cultivating humanity in myself and recognizing it in others, regardless of race. These stories invite me to hold myself fast and without fear, as Janet held Tam Lin, during the release of the delusions and distortions of White supremacy. As they are, my embodied sense of myself has changed: in the way I walk down the street and greet my neighbors; in my expanded capacity for grief and joy; and in my agility at seeing my deep connections to other people and to all my relations to people, plants and animals, and the earth. My felt sense of self has been altered. When I look at the record of the estate of Reverend Clement Reade, I see that my work is to make this deep harm right, in individual reparations but also in seeking for reparative justice in the communities in which I am a member.
Illustration by Katharine Pyle for “Tamlane: A Story from an Old Scotch Ballad” in Wonder Tales from Many Lands, 1920.
And that, dear White Friends, leads me to work for reparations and reparative justice among Quakers. Reparations is offering repair for the direct harm you or your community has caused, and reparative justice is broader: offering repair for a community that your group has harmed, though there may not be direct evidence. We White Quakers have a legacy of harm to make right, and an ongoing cultivation of harm to stanch.
We as Quakers were the original English colonizers of the land of Lenni Lenape in the Delaware watershed (previous area colonies had been established by Dutch and Swedes). Many came to the Western Hemisphere to escape persecution in England and to establish a colony in the process: a land built from the trauma of having suffered persecution, a state built from the trauma of Quaker persecution to perpetuate trauma on many.
William Penn was “gifted” land from King Charles II to pay a debt of his father’s. While slavery already existed in the New Sweden colony, Penn was one of the first of English enslavers in the area to import enslaved Africans from Quaker colonists in Barbados. Penn enslaved 12 people and manumitted only some of them upon his death. He did not treat them well. How can you treat people well whom you enslave?
These stories of my family animate me to repair and heal: for myself, for my son, for my ancestors, and for all they harmed. . . . These stories invite me to hold myself fast and without fear, as Janet held Tam Lin, during the release of the delusions and distortions of White supremacy.
In 1969, the National Black Economic Conference (made up of members associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panthers) demanded faith communities offer reparations. They started with Quakers because they believed Quakers could offer an easy win to them. Muhammad Kenyatta called on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to pay $5 million in reparations, starting with $500,000 as a first payment, and began a hunger strike. The yearly meeting provided only $5,000 from one monthly meeting and minuted its commitment to pay $100,000, which the yearly meeting never paid. Kenyatta condemned the city’s Quakers saying that we were “dishonest about our history of racism.” This demand invites response today.
There are Quaker experiments in reparations today, from renaming rooms and buildings named for enslavers (the William Penn Room in Friends House in London was recently renamed for Benjamin Lay) to Green Street Meeting having budgeted $500,000 for reparations in Germantown, a neighborhood in Philadelphia. Last year, Britain Yearly Meeting “committed to making practical reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and economic exploitation,” as stated on their website.
Such commitments to direct compensation are powerful, but merely moving money does not animate the full potential of reparations. I would assert that reparations in its full potential for healing and repair must be enacted through the domains of spirit and relationships as well as resources. Spirit involves emotions: addressing embodied trauma, cultivating mindful awareness, and connecting meaningfully to elements beyond the self. Relationships include interpersonal, intersubjective, organizational, and community spheres. Resources include money, land, time, and anything of value that can be shared or hoarded. It is when all of these domains are practically and energetically activated that the full healing potential for reparations is released. Reparations are a tool for releasing bound energy to make a thriving future. They are also the finest tool I know to abolish capitalism, which cannibalizes the earth and her peoples.
Reparations offer transgenerational healing and release our White ancestors from the myths we have trapped them in. Perhaps we can reverse the harm perpetrated across our lineages. I long to invite our Quaker ancestors’ ghosts to become teaching spirits, not spirits of harm that haunt our present. I long to turn the ghosts of those within my lineage into teaching spirits, as well, and hope others will join me on that journey. It is time.
Two signs at the Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee Monument in Baltimore, Md., August 17, 2017. The statue was removed a day prior; the base still remains. Photo by Vera de Kok via Wikimedia Commons.
I want to close with an image of how reparations can propel transformation. In 2017, the city council of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted to take down the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues in the city. This vote was met by enormous backlash, including the deadly White supremacist Unite the Right rally. After much activism and pressure, the city removed the statues in July 2021. Later that year, the city council voted to donate its Robert E. Lee statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (JSAAHC), which plans to melt it down into ingots and make a new work of public art. Andrea Douglas, executive director of JSAAHC, said the following:
Our aim is not to destroy an object, it’s to transform it. It’s to use the very raw material of its original making and create something that is more representative of the alleged democratic values of this community, more inclusive of those voices that in 1920 had no ability to engage in the artistic process at all.
My friend and fellow Quaker Elizabeth Shillue lives in Charlottesville where she does quite a bit of community work. Elizabeth has been part of community-wide conversations hosted by JSAAHC, where community members participate in imagining and deciding the future shape of the ingots. The seemingly indelible structures of historical oppression that live with us today can and are being rendered fluid and cultivated into something newly beautiful. With this powerful reparative action, Charlottesville’s tangible act of reworlding community serves as crucible and chrysalis for an as yet unknown possibility—to shift the built landscape toward justice.
I have seen that this work is accessible. Yes, governmental accountability and action are needed, but small groups of folks can begin to do this work of righting historical harm: identify where accountability lies and what reparations are needed. Small groups can envision how to address broader and systemic harm where it’s harder to find the fingerprints of those who have done harm to those in need of reparative justice.
There is an energy of reparations. When power is freed and shifts, it releases energy that fuels motivation, bravery, and love. This quality of being and being-with invites the vision and the aspiration for a beloved community to manifest itself. When folks have a tangible, embodied experience of acting in deeply co-created and mutually held space, oppressive power dynamics can be upended. This energy can propel and permeate action toward material reparations. As when Janet held Tam Lin, the naked human emerges, and we shift into operating from our birthright of connection.
Correction: The byline has been changed to “Lucy Duncan with editorial support from Robert Peagler” by Duncan to more accurately reflect the writing process.