dancing in the belly of the beast — “Memoir of a Race Traitor” by Mab Segrest


[CN: White supremacy, homophobia, brutal race/gay bashing murders, illness, colonialism, genocide, worker exploitation]

I had begun to feel irregularly white. Klan folks had a word for it: race traitor. Driving in and out of counties with heavy Klan activity, I kept my eyes on the rear-view mirror, and any time a truck with a Confederate flag license plate passed me, the hair on the back of my neck would rise…I found myself hating white people, including myself.

…Maybe whiteness was more about consciousness than color? That scared me too, the possibility of being caught between the worlds of race, white people kicking me out, people of color not letting me in.

I was blown away by Mab Segrest’s memoir of activism with radical lesbians and with whites and people of color in the south against the Klan. It moves across three decades, from the 60s to the early 90s, but not in a linear or procedural fashion.

Instead, we are treated to a winding (but not maundering) course through memories, images, relationships, and political concepts. These elements aren’t landmarks in some thoroughly realized memory landscape, but a web of connecting threads that mounts an incredible intersectional analysis rooted in one white antiracist woman’s embodied experience. Segrest watches the civil rights movement of the 60s unfold as a teenager on the television news. She watches firsthand the morning in which black students enter Tuskegee highschool, and seeing their “loneliness” amongst angry whites and national guard troops makes an impact that loops back into her narrative multiple times. She leaves her home in Alabama, studies at Duke and bases most of her activism in North Carolina.

In the 70s, she establishes an identity as a radical lesbian and a humanities student interested in tapping the creative power of women long repressed by patriarchal history. She gets involved in antiwar actions, and makes connections with folks in the Weather Underground as well as the militant environmentalists who were popping shit up in Oregon. (Part of what’s so enjoyable about this text is the sheer amount of history it weaves into itself, on both a nitty-gritty level of covering justice movements as well as a bigger-picture of economic/political regimes and the lingering ties to the violence of the deeper past.)

But identity politics leads to a cul-de-sac for Segrest. The 80s sees a transition to working against the Klan, the White Patriot Party, and other fascist groups under North Carolinans Against Racist and Religious Violence (NCARRV). In the process she forges for herself an analysis of how homophobia functions in our system of oppression.

The racism of the former slave system, the capitalism that generated it and the misogyny and homophobia that also held it in place.

This “potent mixture” requires a resistance from people of all locations; coalition-building, not identity-based separatism. Segrest’s memoir is filled with memorable people and relationships: the patient and erudite Reverend Wilson Lee; Christina Davis-McCoy, a black organizer who as been burned by the abuses of white women in the past, and with whom Segrest has a difficult working relationship that makes up a lot of the themes of trust; Carl, a gay cultural snob and student anarchist who strikes an uneasy but worthy friendship with Segrest and is taken down in a painful section about his sickness with AIDS; Segrest’s mother, whose sympathy for people of color and her silence towards her own family’s racism suggests the complicated (and compromised) position of women in Dixie.

Segrest treats these people with careful generosity, and her treatment reflects larger concerns of finding her own location as an individual within collective struggle, as well as questioning her own motivations and racial privileges while not letting narcissism get in the way of taking action against the fascist Right.

Us folks who fall under the lie that is the White Community have good reason to check ourselves. Yet the exigencies of combating the white power movement, which in the mid 80s had reached a fevered pitch while the FBI and local law enforcement did next to nothing if not lend a helping hand to lynch black people and Communists keep Segrest moving. She invests a great deal of time with the black community, and she ends up seeing white people “through their eyes.”

And that’s a gaze you can never really shake off once you’ve looked. The cop is not your pleasant public servant but an unending source of harassment and fear. The sun-shiny public park with bike lanes and artisanal  cupcake shops with lily-white customers and staff is at best a phoney astroturf over the horrors of capitalism and at heart a celebration of gentrification. The knowledge that slavery persisted after the Civil War: “Jim Crow, sharecropping, subsistence wage jobs.” And the reality that at any moment your life or those of your friends and loved ones can be robbed by a single angry white man with a gun, who will be taken by White America as a hero.

“I had a become a woman haunted by the dead.” This opening line of Race Traitor becomes a motif that evokes Segrest’s despair against not only the weight of US white supremacy at its ugliest, as well as the political cover given to it by mainstream society’s complicity in violence. It’s also the weight of a negative presence: of the past centuries of genocide and slavery — ties that lead to a void, yet we feel them binding us all.

The central image for this theme is the head of Osceola, the Muskogee “Creek” and insurgent leader against Andrew Jackson, whose head was cut off by Dr. Frederick Weedon and used as a trophy and punitive scare tactic for his children. The fetishizing of non white bodies, the savagery of the white man which they had to “project” onto the targets of the capitalist-imperialist death drive.

Segrest takes a page to discuss how white scientists studied untreated syphilis on black people in the 30s, connecting it to CDC’s apathy regarding AIDS, and their complicity in letting the public blame race and sexuality, rather than a virus.

In the background lurks Dr. Frederick Wilson, Osceola’s attending physician, in the moment his surgeon’s saw cuts through the Creek man’s flesh and bites into the vertebrae of his neck: scientific curiosity conflated with, and justifying, the rawest dehumanization.

The book begins with the Greensboro massacre of 79, in which Klansmen with FBI agents gunned down open Communists, and ends with the Bookstore murders of the late 80s, in which three young men were shot point blank for being perceived to be homosexual. Segrest explores these events, the investigations and trials, with careful thoroughness. (I also neglect to mention the “bloody” Robeson county affair, in which police corruption and involvement in the east coast drug trade leads to a hostage crisis as well as an inspiring coalition between black and Indian voters.)

The structure and pace of the memoir makes for a complex experience that doesn’t line things up neatly but holds these ideas and memories (tuskegee, Osceola’s head, the AIDS epidemic, lesbian separatists etc.) in proximity, letting them resonate like a bridge in a hot wind (her final image). The blood and hatred is marbled into the redeeming empathy and care of human beings. This was the right kind of book for me to read at this time — it realizes the inspiring potential for justice movements based on consensus, if not agreement, as well as for language to communicate these intellectual/emotional journeys in a way that does justice to their multifaceted natures.

There are two “footnotes” to the memoir section. The first is a history of racism in the united states, taking up a longue duree approach towards the economic development of the US and how the capitalist system “writes in” different peoples into separate cultural and psychological roles. It’s a triptych of capitalism — commerce and labor production, the industrial revolution, and the postwar rise of finance. We see how the capitalist system organizes marginal groups into economic roles (Jewish people into positions of usury, for example), rationalizing their own demonization/dehumanization. For the initiated this is a useful 40-page review. For a young white USan it could be a useful deprogramming.

The second coda is a keynote speech called “A Bridge, Not a Wedge,” which concretely states Segres’s vision for coalition building across feminists, lesbians and queers, and people of color against the “wedge” issues drawn up by the Right. It also offers a “fourth” phase of capitalism: the neoliberal transformations that have entrenched global finance, as well as shifted labor to those “Free Economic Zones” with defenseless laborers and ecosystems.

Memoir of a Race Traitor has given me an unreal amount to chew on: I am challenged to think and re-think what it means to be a traitor — of my gender, my sexuality, and my racialized upbringing. I’m in my own process of developing a queer/anarchist politics, one that despises uniformity or some prized objective position. The price is that I fling myself from one school of thought to another like the bizarre square dancing rituals in public school. It is a profound sense of being constantly adrift. And so this passage on Carl’s country dancing classes struck me:

And there was often the moment for me, which I meditated on the weeks of Carl’s death, as the pattern shifted and flung me into an outer loop, when I knew I was lost out there and would never return and there was no sense of meaning to any of the motions of my heart or feet; then I would remember the step…

Elite planters, frightened of uprisings by slaves and poor sharecropping whites, forged the bargain that undergirds the lie of whiteness. These diverse European immigrants were given white privilege as the capitalists reaped the bounty. Segrest offers a substantial historical analysis crafted in such a way that validates the “queer” creative power that exists outside the flat and mediocre worldview that gave birth to these horrors in the first place.


 EDIT Jan 22 2015: i neglected to mention in this post that Segrest extensively writes on the ideas of Alice Walker and James Baldwin, with proper attribution given to both of them. her main sources are “Use” and “On Being White and Other Lies,” respectively.


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