Anne McCarty Braden: An Influential Female, White, Anti-Racist Woman

Anne Braden, one of the most powerful white allies in the south, was born on July 25, 1924, and died March 6, 2006. Her life saw so many of the important changes that happened in the U.S. during this important century. Braden was one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most forceful activists, who lived into the new day of Civil Rights in our nation. Together, with her husband, Carl Braden, they fought Civil Right’s injustices in the social arena for sixty years.

She spent her youth growing up in Anniston, Alabama; later, after she graduated from college, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and was a journalist covering the “court house” beat in that area.

She’d grown up in a traditional, white, southern home, and breathed in all the racist conventions & Jim Crow laws-like most of us, as we’re growing up, we’ve been so brainwashed by stereotypical images & metaphors in our heads, of non-white people, it’s as if we have a thin covering of gray glue over our eyes.

Braden’s understanding of racism intersected many other injustices and “isms” prevalent in society at the time. A couple of such intersections were class, sexism, etc.
But Anne saw things differently and wanted to live her life in a different world than the one she was raised in; she struggled in the “struggle” in the Social Justice field, facing many challenges, upsets, reverses as well as open doors for more change to exert itself on the psyches of white people in America.

Early in her activist life, she realized the integral connection between race & class. She wrote, “I was in a prison and life builds prisons around people and I had the prison that I was born white in a racist society. I was born privileged in a classist society. The hardest thing was class. I didn’t think that I could ever have broken out of what I call the race prison, if I hadn’t dealt with class” (p. 2, Notes on the Documentary called Anne Braden:Southern Patriot [2012]).

She was a radical subversive, in many white’s eyes, for the cause of dismantling racism; her life was spent in writing, professorship at colleges, communicating fiercely her feelings within the framework of advocacy, activism, and on occasion was arrested and jailed, as a result of her engagement in social actions for equality & egalitarianism.
She alludes to the consequences of race in the lives of white, southern women-when she wrote in 1972:

I believe that no white woman reared in the south-or perhaps anywhere in this racist country can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little white girls-absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmeet to a man or men. But we also grow up white-absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there’s no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other (Ibid.).

Most of us who are white, anti-racists have wrestled with our feelings of guilt over colluding with the White-Supremacist-Structural-System, ‘going along to get along,’ making sure we don’t rock someone’s boat, keeping up the playing nice & conventional in relation to society surrounding us. If systems can keep us silent or indifferent, they’ve already won; however, expressing our opinions, dissenting towards values & policies that are abusive & unjust, speaking our truths to power, and our engagement in the anti-racism struggle, as well as continuing to maintain our advocacy & activism-even in the onslaught of opposition-especially with blatant & openly oppressive measures used against our brothers & sisters, to keep them down, in so many ways, as a means to keep us up, as was obviously extant during the Civil Rights Era.

Anne Braden felt guilt was overrated, and she felt it was of no particular value. “She didn’t feel guilt. She felt motivated to change the world” (Ibid., p. 2). Concerning “white guilt” she wrote in another place,

I had to really cope with the conclusion that everything about society I’d grown up in had been wrong, and I went through I guess a lot of guilt things, like you do if you’re white and if you come from a privileged sort of background. I’m glad I didn’t get hung up in that for too long, because I don’t think guilt is very useful, but I felt I had to get away from everything in my background, and start life over….(p. 87, Cynthia Stokes Brown. (2002). Refusing Racism: White Allies and the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Teachers College Press).

One historical classicly intersecting the Civil Rights Movement, was the anti-communist sentiments of many segregationalists in the south, in addition to elected officials from the south. For instance, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, had on its committee, many segregationalist politicians. The African-American resistance during this period was stereotypically linked in these folk’s minds with communist agitation of the Anti-Racism Movement, especially based on fires stoked in the south.

Another reflection, of course, of the anti-communist zealotry was found in McCarthyism, that spread across the nation in its grip of fear, isolationism and push-back from communist sympathizers; this “witch hunt” fanaticism destroyed many lives & careers as it ripped through society, leaving in its wake, more hate, fear, stigma, and bias in its place.

Labeling the Civil Rights Movement as subversive had more of a chilling effect on whites than blacks, in Braden’s mind. She wrote, “Perhaps this is because their families and friends are likely to believe the communist charges, whereas it’s pretty hard to convince Negroes that the freedom movement is a communist plot. So the net result has been to keep whites out of action, leave Negroes alone on the front lines, and sometimes to encourage them to suspect the motives of the few whites who are active. Thus the gap has been widened between black & white (Ibid., p. 100 citing Braden, 1964, p. 2).

In her younger years, Anne attended the Episcopal Church where she lived. “In Anne’s world, people thought they were in their privileged position because they actually were better than others, and that God had willed it so” (Ibid., p. 82).

Braden had heard about the Scottsboro case, where some African-Americans were illegally being tried for raping a white teenager; she heard people talking about how outside agitators had caused and stirred up trouble in that area. There was also a rumor that Eleanor Roosevelt was agitating people, due perhaps (just a hunch) due to her supreme passion for Human Rights; perhaps, too, she may have thought that communists knew they had to “smoke screen” their real motives, in order to come up clean on Human Rights. But who really knows?

In terms of the direction and the “how to’s” for a white, southern, female activist, she got some special advice from William L. Patterson who wrote a letter to Braden, counseling her that her role was to talk with whites\he went on to say that she could choose not to be a part of the lynchers, but to join the world of ‘the Civil Rights America,’ or’the ‘Just America,’ or any other kind of healthy America.

She wrote, “….I’ve got this sense that I’m part of this long movement that’s like a chain back into the past and will go on after I’m gone” (Ibid., p. 89).

What is there in Anne Braden’s life that we can use as a model of Social Justice Activism for us as white allies who’re also anti-racists?

Braden often cited insights she had about southern white supremacy; in short, she kept raising her own consciousness on the issues and the topic.

When I use the term “raising her own consciousness” I mean that she educated and elevated her mind to new ways of living and new ways of thinking, other than her past social conditioning.

Experientially, she saw that by dismantling racism, it would provide a way of life that would benefit all the people-black or white-as they understood the more human practice of respect & equality for all people; when we experience anything, it often effects all dimensions of our common humanity and ourselves-all the diverse genetic, environmental, physiological, psychological and spiritual dimensions are in the process of transformation, by an act of elevation of thought & action. It’s been said that ‘happiness is an inside job,’ and changing into a different kind of person-an egalitarian one-is also an ‘inside job.’ Once this change has been made, we may enter into the outgoing conversation with society at large.

As she matured, and as we mature, too, past habitual ways of ‘acting racist’ are seen in stark comparison to this new consciousness, this new brain, this new body-mind, of ingrained, practiced and internalized elements of genuine and transparent justice.
Anne would think about how segregation & white supremacy were a part of her southern conditioning, perhaps why this was so, or why these two values seemed conflictive, or the age-old, mysterious question of why people do what they do.

When we’re children, we see people & events around us filtered through emotive feelings we have about how others around us are mistreated or treated with respect & love; we don’t yet have the ability to edit what we hear, or the capability of conceptualizing or digesting abstract concepts, that flow from cognitive & critical-thinking-reasoning. Our brain’s frontal lobes haven’t developed to the point of being able to articulate meanings and to produce language, and so we see life from more of an emotional reaction vantage point to society’s stimuli of injustice, discrimination, bias, and racism. Without this editing function, these feelings may be stored away as the benchmarks of a developing consciousness, or in the unconscious caverns of our human-ness, and as pieces of memory on our tabla rosa minds.

With comprehension, understanding, receiving accurate information, apprehension and cognitive-shifting, the gaps become lucid and we gain more clarity in our minds; we come to see how we’ve been brainwashed and included ourselves in the collusion with the racist culture we live in.

I suppose that what I’m saying is that this new consciousness is not about some academic exercise\to deal with racism is life. But it’s by “lived experience,” rubbing shoulders with people & groups who may be very different from us, and who look different than we do-African-Americans and other peoples of color, the ongoing processing of the dynamics of racism with its direct relation to us, and with its specific examples, and our own mental, social, adaptive and internalized responses to what’s happened in our lives.

This is what adds meaning to our new consciousness as well as our unconscious lives. Meaning, then, triggers motivation to act and engage with the Social Justice issues that come before us. We also have the chance to live by these new values of justice, equality & freedom. We can now live in the environment of Anti-Racism full time.

Copy: CBB November 26, 2017

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