The Personal Is Political, Example # 5,634,987

Thurmond Kin Acknowledge Black Daughter. When Strom Thurmond was 22 years old, he took advantage of his 16-year-old maid, Carrie Butler, and they had a daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, whom the Thurmond family is finally publicly acknowledging. It seems that Washington-Williams and Thurmond had a close relationship, but he would not admit that she was his daughter, and she kept the secret "out of respect" for him and his political career. I'm with Jesse Jackson on this one:

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a native of South Carolina, said he was struck by the similarities between Mr. Thurmond's situation and that of [Thomas] Jefferson, asserting that they reflected "a deep and ugly Southern tradition" of white men taking advantage of young black women in their employ.

"By day, they are bullies," Mr. Jackson said. "By night, they manipulate race to their advantage."

Referring to Mr. Thurmond and Ms. Washington-Williams, he added: "The point that strikes me the most is that he lived 100 years and never acknowledged his daughter. He never let her eat at his table. He fought for laws that kept his daughter segregated and in an inferior position. He never fought to give her first-class status. Thomas Jefferson did pretty much the same."


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Hold on...

Although I am definitely no fan of Strom Thurmond, I don't think it is fair to paint this relationship in such broad strokes of, for lack of a better phrase, black and white. To do so is to do a great injustice to the great struggle (on both sides) for civil rights and to the personal faces of that struggle. Race relations in the South have always been much more complex than that (as any reader of Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor will realize automatically and anyone from the South knows intuitively), and I am sure that this relationship (and the relationship that produced Washington-Williams in the first place) is not so simple. Relationships never are. Why do we forget this now? Because we hate Strom Thurmond?

Always remember that Jackson has an agenda, and while his agenda may be more palpable than that of Thurmond or other right-wingers, it is still an agenda and should be viewed as such. He has no right to put words into the mouth of Washington-Williams or Strom Thurmond, or to boil down what seems to be a complex and layered relationship into sarcasm or his own bitterness.

Washington-Williams could have blown the whistle on Thurmond at any time. She received financial support from him since 1941, was privately acknowledged as his daughter, and although not publicly acknowledged, she was by no means a victim here, and to paint her that way for our own motives is being both sexist and racist (especially since her words do not seem to back up claims of victimization). She does not seem to have any malice for him whatsoever. The "out of respect" comment is misleading. Washington-Williams actually said that she and Thurmond had a mutual "deep respect" for each other, and she didn't say anything because she didn't want herself to "endure the public embarrassment or harm his career". I have not seen anywhere in her comments that her mother was "taken advantage of".

Sure she was! Even if force w

Sure she was! Even if force wasn't involved, she was sixteen years old and in his employ. What other career opportunities would she have had in South Carolina? Not many. Of course there was a power differential there, even if they had feelings for each other, and Thurmond took advantage of it. I agree that Washington-Williams could have blown the whistle on him at any time, but the point is that he didn't acknowledge her in public, and Jackson is right that he supported laws that enabled women of color, including his daughter, to be discriminated against. It's complicated too, of course, that senators and congressional representatives with daughters, wives, sisters, etc. voted not to pass the ERA, but I'm not about to excuse it just because it's complicated.

And sure, Jackson has an agenda. So do I. Don't you?

Hold on, part. 2....

I don't think I asked you to excuse it. I asked you not to paint it in such broad strokes without any examination of the complexity of it. And without any examination of the dialectical nature of their relationship. Why aren't you just as angry at Washington-Williams for not blowing the whistle, for being complacent in this whole thing? Is it because she is a woman? An African-American? Or are you painting her as a victim as well, without what seems to be her consent? Washington-Williams says that she did not want Thurmond to acknowledge her publicly because of the embarrassment that it would have caused her. It may disgust me (and you) to hear that, but what about her wishes? Don't they count? Aren't they important? Should her human emotions be sacrificed because we don't agree with them? That's the danger of meta-narratives and agendas. They allow no room for anything outside of them.

Also, an existant power differential does not necessarily mean that she was taken advantage of. If so, any person who is in an unequally powered relationship is being taken advantage of just because there is a power differential, which sounds good theoretically but does not play out very well on the ground. And part of the reason for that is that it is a gross oversimplification. No relationship is equally powered. Not even same-sex ones. If we use that as our standard of villification, we have to villify EVERY relationship. And, for all we know, she could have seduced him. Or he could have had genuine feelings for her. The fact is, we don't know the whole situation, and it is wrong for us to let our agendas fill in details that are not necessarily there, whether those agendas are mine, yours, or Jesse Jackson's.

Who is looking for a victim?

This is my first post here, so first I want to say that I've enjoyed your site, Clancy, and I came her specifically tonight to see what you might post on this subject.

Scott, I don't see Jackson or Clancy painting Washington-Williams as a victim of Thurmond *personally*. Jackson said that the segregationist laws Thurmond fought for kept her and other blacks in an inferior position. That is undeniable.

However, the way Scott frames his argument is something that has fascinated me. There have long been "identity" movements with slogans such as "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" or "We're Here, We're Queer; Get Over It!" that have been very beneficial on a personal and political level for blacks and queers.

But I've noticed a similar attitude form around southern segregationists. It implies that we Yankees are disrespectful because we don't understand the nuances of Southern attitudes toward race. We need to support their identity and avoid being prejudiced against them.

I don't want to put words in your mouth, Scott, because I may be totally misreading you. It certainly is true that not everyone understands all the subtleties of anyone else's attitudes toward race.

But so what? Requiring that we thoroughly understand someone who perpetrates an injustice against another person before speaking out against that injustice is a ridiculous delaying tactic, imho.

I also don't see Thurmond has being a hypocrite on this issue. He was racist in both his public and personal life. His maid was his property to use as he chose and he followed racist tradition in denying the product of that transaction. I see that has consistent racist behavior on his part.

Again, I enjoy your site, Clancy!


Agency and such

Everyone has some agency here--including Thurmond, Butler, and Washington-Williams. All I'm saying is that, taken in its sociohistorical context, the relationship between Butler and Thurmond is highly problematic. To go without critiquing it in the interest of sensitivity toward Washington-Williams' emotions seems to foster a relativistic attitude with regard to systemic, institutionalized racism, classism, and sexism that I'm just not comfortable with. I don't think I'm being racist, classist, or sexist if I say that these relationships (between Thurmond and Butler and Thurmond and W-W) are fraught with injustice, or that I'm robbing Butler and W-W of their agency by making a claim about the oppression inherent in the sociohistorical context of these relationships. Maybe I'm all wrong about this at the microlevel and that among Thurmond, Butler, and W-W as individuals there existed strong bonds and mutual respect and love. I hope I am wrong. But I'd rather have this conversation than not say anything at all.

I'm not arguing that...

... the relationship is not fraught with injustice, nor am I arguing that we should not speak out against the injustice of it. However, if this were something similar, and my father didn't acknowledge his gay son in public (which he doesn't), and I accepted that within the bounds of that relationship and chose to set aside difference and love him for who he was, etc (which I do), I would be very angry if somebody spoke "out" against that relationship, or cast judgment on it, or in anyway criticized it without trying to understand the complex interactions that are present in it.

My relationship with my father could be cast as injustice in a thousand different ways, yet none of these would even come close to describing what is really going on there, and ignores significant parts of it. I think by doing so is being essentialist, and allows the critic to neatly categorize the relationship as BAD and never strive to understand it in any different, deeper way. I have the same problems with political correctness, because it allows for the most racist people to feel like they're not simply because they've memorized the right words to say, which allows for racism to continue in much more damaging formats than "hate words" (for example, ghettoization, structural racism, etc.). I've NOT been called a faggot by the most homophobic people I know.

By categorically dismissing this relationship as injust, racist, etc. (although the relationship may indeed be both) is, I believe, not doing it justice. Maybe I see things this way because I am a geographer concerned with the microgeographies of very complex relationships (Christian gays who choose to stay in homophobic churches for one thing) which are often much more than they appear at first, and I'm definitely seeing this relationship through those lenses. My argument in these geographies is that there is a danger in concentrating specifically on macrogeographies, and it is the same argument that I am using here. The big sometimes snuffs out the smaller (and to me, much more interesting) relationships and stories that are present in almost every human interaction.

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