Recently, my essay, “I Have a Secret,” appeared in Down Yonder ‘Zine, and Adam Jordan asked me some questions about the essay on Twitter. I wrote this essay back in the summer of 2020 following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery and the accosting of Christian Copper in Central Park as he was birdwatching. It is one of the most personal essays I have written, and it is one that, when I reread it, my emotions get the better of me and I start to tear up, partly because I think about my kids and the future. Today, I want to take a moment and discuss this essay, expanding some on the questions that Adam asked me during our Twitter chat.

Adam asked me, “What are your hopes for the reader?” When thinking about this question, I also thought about who is the “reader.” Here, I think back to Charles Chesnutt, Frank Yerby, and others who wrote for white readers. In his journal, Chesnutt wrote, “The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites.” I think about Lillian Smith who wrote for whites, hoping to get them to see that the same frame they put on others is the frame that they put around themselves. For me, these are who I think about when I think about the “readers” of my essay.

I also think about myself as a “reader.” Whenever we write, we write to discover more about ourselves just as much as we write to connect and illuminate the world for others. This is what Lillian Smith did. Throughout her works, Smith delved into her own psyche and the ways that her thoughts about race, segregation, oppression, and others issues arose from the influences that shaped her, both through her family and the culture she grew up within. In this manner, she wrote for herself, to learn about herself and to constantly remind herself about the work needed to overcome the deeply ingrained feelings of racism that nourished her from the cradle.

When I read “I Have a Secret,” I think about myself. I think about the journey I have been on for over 20 years. I think about the work that I still need to do to disentangle myself from the unconscious biases that still plague my thoughts. I think about the fact that this process doesn’t stop. It’s ongoing, and it’s not always easy, as I say in the essay. It takes work and dedication. It’s a reminder to myself where I’ve been and where I need to go.

As for what I “hope” readers take away, I hope that they take my essay for what it is, a self-examination. In my response to Adam on Twitter, I wrote, “My hope is that people will read it and really start to look at the ways that racism and white supremacy affects them. I hope individuals see it as a moment to say, ‘It’s ok to question. It’s ok to examine myself. It’ll be hard, but I can do it. I’ll mess up, but I can do it.'” Until we start to look at ourselves, we will not overcome these issues, and I hope that my essay helps readers acknowledge that it is ok, and important, for us to examine ourselves and to feel free to question what we’ve grown up learning and experiencing.

I hope, as Lillian Smith does as well, that the essay plays a role in fostering dialogue for our kids. Smith notes again and again that children know what racism and segregation and white supremacy are, even if they don’t have the words for it. They know these things are wrong, but as they grow, if they don’t have language and knowledge to directly question them, then those initial feelings diminish and get supplanted by racism and segregation and white supremacy. Children need knowledge to combat these things, but many states and legislatures have bills working to stifle the teaching of facts that could help us move forward.

I thought about all of this when Adam asked me, “In your piece you discuss the reality that the South’s history is filled with atrocities. Can you unpack how that reality impacts your work with Southerners who are reckoning with the history of the region while also working toward a Better South?” When I think about this, the fact that we need to learn about the atrocities alongside the triumphs, I think about the harm that denying this information to children, let alone adults, causes. In my response to Adam, I wrote, “If we deny kids learning the good and the bad of our history, we’ll continue the cycle. I started educating myself. What if others educated me? I think that’s happening, and has happened before, but the climate now really causes fear in educators.”

I constantly think about what I didn’t learn as a kid in my P-12 education and what I wish I learned. I didn’t learn about Lillian Smith. I didn’t learn about the Civil Rights Movement in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, specifically the violent backlash to it. I didn’t learn about the sheriff riding into the middle of a church service memorial for the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on horseback, riding up the aisle threatening everyone. I didn’t learn about the history of racial violence in the region during and following Reconstruction, a legacy that still reverberates today in the incarceration rates and wealth gap and more. I didn’t learn about any of this.

What if I did? How would that change my trajectory? How would the region be different if students and the community knew about this history and more? It’s not an easy answer, but it’s one worth pondering. Would the community change? Would the knowledge lead to the building of bridges and to the support of everyone in the community? Would it lead to individuals looking at themselves and the ways they benefit from such histories? What impact would it make?

We see what impact masked white supremacy in the form of unfettered patriotism does. We see that the glorifying of the past without a full accounting of the atrocities does. It recycles the same problems in different forms. It hinders progress. It benefits the few while leaving the majority behind.

These were some of things I thought about when writing “I Have a Secret,” and these are some of the things I continue to think about when I reread it. I think about our narcissism and our desire to only look out for ourselves as we ignore those around us. I think about the fact that we must get past ourselves and put aside our narcissism, reach out to others and build bridges. I hope that “I Have a Secret” lets others know that we must do this in order to move forward towards a more perfect world for all.

What are your thoughts?  Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter: @silaslapham.

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