Slavery Isn’t Just Black People’s Burden

Margaret Wrinkle, author of the acclaimed historical novel Wash, says it’s time to bring an end to “white innocence.”

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I don’t have much of a poker face.

This became obvious this spring when I toured Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home in Charlottesville, Va., for the first time. I watched a 60ish white tour guide stumble over a question about Jefferson’s black descendants, then awkwardly change the subject.

I cocked my head to the left. WTF! Creased my brow.

After the tour was over, I asked him where Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s black half-sister-in-law and mother of his children, slept. He blithely tossed a finger in the direction of a small structure off the main wing of the iconic building featured on U.S. nickels.

Novelist Margaret Wrinkle recalls reading my face. “You stood out because you and your daughter were the only black people on the tour,” she told me later. “I looked over and you were like, ‘Hmmmph.’ Oh, my goodness. I didn’t know you, but I had this solidarity bond with you. ”

It wasn’t until later that evening, when Wrinkle and I met at a reception, that we realized we were both writers presenting at the Virginia Festival of the Book. We’d both ditched the festival to see Monticello. Wrinkle is white. I am black. We both wanted to see the full story.

Monticello is “a microcosm of what people are ready to see,” Wrinkle said. “How complicated a story are people ready for? Some people have been dealing with complexity their whole lives.”

In the months since meeting in Charlottesville, Wrinkle and I also bonded over Wash, her penetrating and lyrical novel that explores the multilayered interior lives of a master and his stud, or “traveling Negro.” On Tuesday, Nov. 12, in Washington, D.C.’s Busboys and Poets restaurant, Wrinkle and I will discuss (pdf) the book, which was just released in paperback. We will also talk about Solomon Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, which she used in part for research, and the larger topic of racial reconciliation.

It is a conversation I am eager to have with white people. As anyone who has seen Steve McQueen’s life-changing film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave can tell you, it’s heavy. But I just wish black people would stop carrying so much of the weight. It’s white people’s story, too.

To Wrinkle—also the filmmaker behind Broken\ground, an award-winning film about race in her native Birmingham, Ala.—it is about bringing an end to what she calls “white innocence”: “It’s the relationship between the myth and the truth. Whiteness and white privilege keep those two things separate for a longer time.”