THE FURIES OF WHITENESS HIT ME with full force when racists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, to defend the statues of the same slaver generals my parents had taught me to revere as a child.
I arrived in town early that morning with my friend and colleague Brandon. We'd been covering the far right for a couple of years at that point, and we were expecting a sad but still potentially dangerous little rally of cosplay Confederates, neo-Nazi numbskulls, Facebook fascists, and a smattering of seriously scary militia dudes. But when we saw the torchlit march, where dozens of khaki-klad office bros chanted, "Jews will not replace us" the night before, we had begun to expect that this march would be different.
The moment we arrived at the perimeter around Emancipation Park, where thousands of racists were rallying, we saw a phalanx of white guys in white shirts with black shields and black helmets charge a group of antifascist counterprotesters. One of the white guys swung a club that smashed into the face of one of the antifascist women a few feet from me, landing with a horrible crack, which I could hear amid the grunts and cries and the sounds of the wooden shields knocking together.
For the next several hours, we were swept up in this sea of violence. A moment of calm would be disrupted by another Nazi group marching in formation toward the statues, attacking counterprotesters on the way. A white man fired a gun toward a Black man in the park. Others beat people down with flagpoles and baseball bats.
Brandon and I split up, but we checked on each other via text every five minutes or so because the situation seemed so dangerous. It felt as if it could erupt into a mass shooting at any moment. Finally, late that afternoon, after hours of skirmishes, the various factions of racists fled. There was a celebration in a nearby park, where antifascists burned Confederate flags.
A rumor swept through the group that some cadre of racists were planning an attack on a mostly Black apartment complex nearby. After a quick discussion, this group, mostly white antifascists clad in black, mobilized and began marching in that direction, probably one hundred strong. Brandon and I were running along opposite sides of the group, tweeting and taking notes as we moved through the city.
I was thinking that this is the way to be white: the Black people in the apartment complexes didn't need the white antifascists to come and "save" them from the white Nazis—but they also shouldn't have to deal with shit that is our problem, as white people, shit that is a problem in white people. If there's one thing white people are good at, it is being defensive. If we change the angle of that defense, to be white offers the possibility of putting yourself in the way of white violence, of positioning yourself to shield others from white harm.
There were no Nazis at the apartment complex, and the crowd of anti-fascists marched triumphantly toward Fourth Street, where it met up with another large group of mostly white counterprotesters in black, chanting an antifascist song and waving antifascist banners in black and red.
The two marches converged with a jubilant cheer. Then a thunderous sound ripped through the marching crowd. I thought it was a bomb and I started running away, down a small path beside the road, toward a bridge where I thought I could take cover. I couldn't tell if the sound in my ears was my heart pounding against my rib cage or my feet slapping the pavement until I finally stopped and turned around to look. It was my heart.
From my new vantage point twenty yards away, I couldn't tell what had happened, and I started walking back toward the mass of people. Everyone was standing around stunned, like extras on a movie set waiting for directions. As I got closer, I noticed more concerted activity in small clusters.
I realized that street medics—people at protests trained to give emergency aid—were racing to tend to severely wounded people. What the hell had hit us?
One medic, a white guy with brown hair, bent frantically over a woman. I saw blood. Two other people ran up with a flag and held it in front of the injury.
"What happened?" I asked.
"A car came driving down that street and just slammed into us," a woman said.
"I thought it was a bomb or something," I said.
"Me too," said another guy. "I couldn't see anything because of the crowd. But I could feel the concussion go through the air."
More than a dozen people were injured. It felt like an eternity before sirens finally announced the arrival of an ambulance. By the time Brandon and I left the scene, it seemed certain that at least one person would die, but I knew that had it not been for the street medics, there would have been more deaths.
We wandered around in a daze for a while before finding the rental car where we'd parked it eight hours earlier. It had been the longest eight hours of my life, and I was not the same person I had been when we arrived that morning. We drove mostly in silence, pulling off at the same Dunkin' Donuts we'd stopped at that morning, for coffee. But everything seemed sinister, tainted now.
I realized that was why the people in Charlottesville felt so passionate about the images of these Confederate generals. When we said Lee or Jackson was bad, they heard us calling their mamas liars, and that is always a fighting offense in the South.
Waiting for my coffee, the crash still swirling in my mind on replay, I looked at Twitter to see that my old friend Chuck, the kid I used to skateboard with, the guy who'd lived with me and Blake and then on the farm in West Virginia, was tweeting about how Antifa was responsible for the death of Heather Heyer that afternoon in Charlottesville.
I tweeted at him that he was wrong, that I had been there, that he was defending Nazis who were intent on causing harm to my Black neighbors and friends. A fascist had killed Heather Heyer and could have just as well killed me or anyone else in the march that day.
We'd been arguing on Twitter ever since Trump announced his run. Chuck tweeted obsessively about Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory that alleged a massive child trafficking ring in the basement of a Ping-Pong and pizza joint I'd often eaten at in D.C. He endlessly shared stories about antifascists instigating violence.
One day, shortly before Charlottesville, he'd tweeted, "conservatism is the new counter culture," parroting an InfoWars acolyte, and it struck me how most of the countercultures I'd experienced now seemed conservative. All of my rebellion—as skater, punk, Deadhead—amounted to a demand for more freedom for a white dude, namely me, to be an irresponsible dick.
When Chuck and I used to skateboard and we got chased by security guards, we'd turn back and yell, "Fuck you, man, I'm having fun," as we rode away, and his online shitposting for Trump partook of that same aesthetic. "Fuck you, man, I'm having fun" is the ultimate form of the white man's protest. It isn't just "Don't tread on me," but "I can tread on you if I want to."
I'd thought of myself as a rebel all my life, and I saw suddenly, in an online encounter with my old friend, that none of my rebellion acted against the system at all—it was a part of it. The rebellion of young white men was built into the system of white supremacy. During slavery, rebellious white men had expanded the range of their own sexual freedom by raping enslaved girls. Though they were violating the stated social norms, they were aiding, rather than damaging, the white, patriarchal slavocracy. If the enslaved women became pregnant, the offspring would become the property of the white slavers. The rebellion of young white men was built into the system.
After the Wo-ah, a group of young white men got drunk on whiskey in Tennessee and started dressing like the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers to terrorize Black people, under the banner of the Ku Klux Klan. Though white newspapers occasionally condemned violence, they almost all supported the aim of white supremacy, ensuring the safety of the terrorists. And even the white hippies were simply carving out more space for whiteness, forgoing the Civil Rights struggle for their own chemical enlightenment. All rebellion can be forgiven as long as it is intended to expand the freedom of the white man.
Chuck had not changed—it was I. When we had become blood brothers two decades earlier, we were camping at Stone Mountain, a giant monument to the Lost Cause, and drinking Rebel Yell whiskey. That now seemed preposterous to me. I wanted to blow those monuments up, and Chuck wanted to save them.
Now I had begun to see that the only rebellion that whiteness cannot forgive is working to end the oppression of Black people, rebellion that seeks to limit the power of whiteness. That was the only rebellion worth its name. And by that token, the antifascists in Charlottesville were among the only white rebels I'd ever seen.
"You have called me a Nazi for the last time," Chuck DMed me. "Goodbye."
"You ready?" Brandon asked, walking up to me and shaking me from my screen.
"Yeah, let's go," I said as I took my coffee from the counter.
I cranked up Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night," and we drove for a long time back toward Baltimore without saying much.
I thought about Chuck and our different trajectories and how we'd each gotten to where we were from our little suburb outside of Columbia. The differences between the communities we lived in now as adults seemed to play a big role in our divide. He had spent the last decades in a poor, rural, almost-all-white county, while I lived in a poor, majority-Black city. We also consumed different news sources, followed different people on Twitter, and really saw the world through different eyes even though we were both white.
I'd also finished college while Chuck had not. I thought about Dad and how he was the only one and the only one who had voted for Trump. That was part of Trump's appeal. Both Dad and Chuck were smart but felt their intelligence belittled because they didn't have academic degrees, and Trump spoke to that chip on their shoulders. Resentment against the so-called elites was the other side of his racism. It was parallel to southerners like my family blaming the Yankees for turning the once-loyal Black people against their "masters."
I recalled a message Chuck had sent me on Twitter. "I'm dead serious about this Civil War thing," he wrote. "A lot of people are. I've been prepping Bay. If things do break down in this country you're going to want to be with your tribe man. Get out of the city and come here bro. I'm not trying to preach doom, but, well I've seen things, I can feel them happening, and it's been this way for many years now."
That message was from back in February. And now I had seen the civil war he'd predicted breaking out that day in Charlottesville. Chuck and I had ended up on opposite sides. Brother against brother, as they said of the Wo-ah, eliminating the role of the enslaved altogether, making the conflict into a family spat among whites.
Two years earlier, Dylann Roof had seemed to embody everything I had repressed about my own whiteness. Since then, the monster had multiplied into a swarm of furies, come out of hiding. The white subconscious had been pried open and the horrors in our hearts were emerging in a fearsome storm of terror.
When I got home, I fell into Nicole's arms and wept. The army of racists in Charlottesville had told us all what the statues of Confederate generals meant to them. We could look around the country and see what they wanted to do to vulnerable communities, to people who were not white. But what was it to a suburban white mom if hate crimes against people of color were skyrocketing along with all the white nationalist rhetoric, as long as her life was good?
The next day, Nicole and I met a friend for brunch at an Irish bar near the house. I was still feeling shaky, but I thought I would be fine. But as we sat at one of the tall marbleized tables across from the long wooden bar, I gripped Nicole's leg harder and harder under the table as our friend talked.
"I've got to go," I said, and jumped up and ran out the door.
I didn't know why I was affected so deeply, why this was making me feel crazy, but I felt as if I was falling apart. I staggered down the sidewalk, past the Catholic church and then the Unitarian one, people streaming from each as the services ended, white people mostly wearing their dresses and their suits and on each and every one of them I looked with a suspicion that amounted to hatred.
I hated the way so many white people would express a vague sense of moral outrage, or share thoughts and prayers on Facebook, while simultaneously condemning the tactics of the antifascists who had saved lives. Charlottesville made it obvious: it's not enough to be an ally standing on the sidelines, a good white person praying at church. White people need to learn to play defense, the way the antifascists in Charlottesville courageously did. We need to be abolitionists. But I knew, for myself at least, that I had to abolish the racist systems of violence that had infiltrated the barely conscious mind of childhood at the same time that I tried to challenge the racist systems outside me.
The buildings looming over me seemed to lean in, blocking my sight in the bright sky. I needed to get home, where I did not have to see anyone, where I could breathe. It felt as if everything were closing in a static that filled the space behind my eyes, and I gasped and hurried through the littered, sweaty streets.
My phone rang. I looked at the screen, standing, holding on to a lamppost at a red light.
dad woods, the caller ID read. No fucking way. I had texted Mom and Dad to tell them I was safe, but I dreaded talking to them. I did not want to hear what they might say—what they might reveal about themselves. I didn't answer. When I got into the house, I fell down on the couch and buried my head.
That night, just as I was falling to sleep, I got a text from a source telling me that a truck was about to carry away the monument to Confederate sailors on Mt. Royal Avenue. It was 1:00 a.m. I jumped out of bed and ran ten blocks to the intersection where the monument sat and got there just in time to see the truck driving away with metal mermaids on its bed.
All the Confederate monuments in the city were coming down "under the cover of night," a phrase usually reserved, in Baltimore, for discussions of the Colts' move to Indianapolis. Just before dawn, about a dozen of us stood out on a leafy street by the art museum as the equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson swung from ropes, casting wild, galloping shadows across the ground in the industrial spotlights used by the removal crew.
I remembered standing in front of the state capitol in Columbia when I was little and looking at the statue of George Washington gripping a broken cane, and how Mom had told me that the Yankees hated democracy so much that they stoned the father of the country and broke his cane when they were burning Columbia. It was one of my earliest memories, but it was a myth, a complete falsehood, and standing there in the morning dew as municipal trucks drove old Dixie down decades later, I realized that was why the people in Charlottesville felt so passionate about the images of these Confederate generals. When we said Lee or Jackson was bad, they heard us calling their mamas liars, and that is always a fighting offense in the South. Whiteness, as Chuck put it in his DM, was about "your tribe," extending the myths your mama spun when you were in your crib into an identity.
The sun was high in the sky before I got to bed. I had a busy day and barely slept. I recorded a podcast in a hot, closed-in closet at the City Paper office, and I felt woozy as I walked out the door and up Centre Street toward my apartment. I was sweating the whole way back to the house. When I walked in, I fell on the floor, clutching at my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack. I thought I was having a stroke.
Nicole bent over me. I could see her face, so beautiful, but so panicked, a mask of urgency, hovering above me. It looked as if she was talking, but I could not hear. I wanted to say something but I could not respond. I 28 was shaking. I crawled to the bathroom and puked and shit for an hour, 29 alternating from end to end. I could hear her on the phone with a nurse 30 friend. When I made it to bed, I slept for nearly twenty-four hours.
When I woke up, I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with PTSD. I felt silly, aware of all the things other people go through, whether reporters covering real war zones or Black people attacked by police in West Baltimore or women terrorized by the sexual violence of men. I knew my trauma was nothing in comparison, and I didn't want to think of myself as the kind of wussy white guy reporter who sees the violence of racism and gets all weak at the knees. But I was. Something was wrong with me.
The furies of whiteness were haunting me. I had to expiate the sins of my family, I felt, even while recognizing the absurdity of this quest. At the least, I had to know more precisely what atrocities my family had committed so I could make an accounting of what they had bequeathed to me.
In this reflection, I realized that my own name was like a Confederate monument perched above every story I wrote, and I had to, at the very least, know what miasma the names bore.
Online, I started looking through the so-called slave schedules, census and tax documents for slavers and the people they held in bondage. In 1860, I quickly learned, the Baynards had held 781 people in bondage.
The Woodses, at that time, held only about twenty-three people in bondage. Then the absurdity of my own formulation struck me: in comparison to the eight hundred people that Grandmother's family, the Baileys, had enslaved, I found myself using the word only to limit the twenty-three people the Woodses felt entitled to control in every respect.
When we think about the horrors of slavery, we almost always neglect the psychological state of the slaver. We act as if the slave system were a natural phenomenon, a storm or something, when instead, it was a series of decisions and business ventures made by people who moved about the world as we do. What kind of moral monstrosity could make them feel entitled to own other people? Such actions could be undertaken only with the help of a powerful ideology. That ideology is race. We have never exorcised it.
We did this. We bought and sold. We raped and tortured. We put heads upon pikes at the mile markers. We gouged and burned and cut flesh. We engaged in every form of indignity. I needed to go back only three generations to find an ancestor who'd fought a war for the right to treat people as property.
When I finally talked to Dad again, he sounded like Trump. It wasn't so much that he mimicked Trump's talking points as that Trump was tapping into a deep well of white aggrievement from which Dad also drank.
"Where is it going to stop?" Dad asked. "Are they going to take down statues of Thomas Jefferson?"
"They should," I said.
"You can't erase history," he said.
"What do you think the statues did? These heroic images of Lee and Jackson—they lost the Wo-ah. The statues were trying to erase that fact. And that they lost in a traitorous war. But the statues tried to hide all of that and cast them as noble American heroes."
"They were acting by the standards of their time," Dad said.
"Sure, but there were a lot of people who lived in the same time that pointed out the monstrosity of the system," I said. "John Brown for instance."
"John Brown was a terrorist," Dad said. "When I was growing up, his name was a curse."
"He may have been a terrorist," I said. "But he wasn't a monster like our ancestors. He killed some people and caused some others to die. But it was in the service of liberation. Ours systematically tortured hundreds of people for hundreds of years and only fought to maintain that absurd sense of privilege."
"I don't think it was as bad as all that," he said. "The Yankees weren't any better. They wanted the labor, they just used us to do the dirty work."
"At least the Union, which is the United States of America, by the way, finally fought to end the practice, while our family fought on the other, wrong side," I said, my voice echoing through my apartment, causing the dog to quiver on the bed where he sat.
Dad was silent a minute.
"What?" I said.
"Clearly we just disagree," he said.
"Disagree about what?" I said. "That the South was wrong in the Civil War?"
"It's just more complicated than that," he said.
"Whatever," I said. "I gotta go then."
Baynard Woods, I thought, shaking my head. He had passed on his name to me in ignorance and pride. I felt as if I could no longer carry that name, but I had no idea knew what to do with it.
I knew I could no longer look away. Whiteness is a moral pollution that demands expiation. I had to unravel the details of the murder my great-grandfather had committed. n