“Whiteness demands silence,” Baltimore-based journalist Baynard Woods writes in his new book. “Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness” breaks this silence by closely examining Woods’s own experiences and investigating his family’s roots to find the truth about how they contributed to perpetuating whiteness in America.
As a child growing up in South Carolina, Woods is almost imperceptibly initiated into the ideological world of his white southerner parents and grandparents. But in moving away, he begins to slowly develop an awareness of whiteness as a dominant—and dangerous—concept in our society, even while naively thinking himself exempt from it. The realization of his white privilege comes later, after teaching Black high school students in Washington D.C., seeing the segregation in his Greenbelt neighborhood, and ultimately moving to Baltimore, where he bears witness to and reports on the uprising over the killing of Freddie Gray in 2015.
The book traces this revelation from chapter to chapter, with Woods carefully reflecting on specific events in his youth and adulthood with the perspective he’s gained over the years. Woods is honest; his writing moves between the lyrical and the political while employing the astute observations of a seasoned reporter.
We spoke via Zoom; the following has been edited for length and clarity.
Baltimore Fishbowl: The first and the last chapter and many others in your book begin with your dad. He is central to the book; he bequeaths you the cultural inheritance at the core of your examination. While you end up working to uncover your family’s obscured history, your dad doubles down in his complicity. Were you able to find any absolution for your father?
Baynard Woods: He was dying of ALS as I was finishing the rewrite, which went very fast. The emotion of dealing with my dad’s dying helped me see more clearly the cultural inheritance I got from him. We came to a head after the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. It was exactly what his grandfather and my great-grandfather did in 1876 in South Carolina, storming the capitol, and they succeeded in destroying the Reconstruction by doing that. I was furious at him and called him a coward that day, right after his ALS diagnosis.
The most I could do was find not absolution but grace. I think it’s one of the things that’s important for white people to recognize in reading the book: If we’re going to do anything about these problems that we’re causing, we’re going to have to find the ability to figure out how to deal with the people we love who have inherited all of these f***ed up ideologies that form the core of their being in such a way that they can’t shake them…. I learned how to love him better, but I gave up eventually on trying to convince him or win him over. I focused those energies on trying to do good in the world.
BFB: Rebellion is a recurring concept in your book. Your journey away from South Carolina seems to have roots in that universal concept of teenage rebellion against parents as figures of authority—and against the life your parents intended for you. Is your book a rebellion against or an acceptance of your inheritance?
BW: What I came to see while writing the book is how much the rebellion of young white men in particular was always part of the system of white supremacy and intended to enlarge and amplify white privilege and white freedom. Head west and take these territories from other people, head from Europe to North America; all these things were rebellious in different communities and other periods. They ultimately served those communities, including, most horrifically, the sexual rebellion of young men raping enslaved women, which would increase the value of the overall property if there were offspring.
Looking at all those forms of rebellion in my life, I saw then that they were the same form as the “don’t tread on me” flags waved by people storming the capital, the same infantile form of rebellion I had engaged in for so much of my life. I realized that the only true rebellion among white people I had seen was in multiracial moments of solidarity, like at the Baltimore uprising when so much of the city came out into the streets to protest the death of Freddie Gray. And again, in Charlottesville, where a large number of white anti-fascists showed up to put themselves in the way of the Nazis, to keep them from harming the community there. Those are the two kinds of rebellion I would like to hope this book is a part of.
BFB: How did moving to Baltimore—and later, covering the Baltimore uprising as a reporter—force you to seek confrontation with your whiteness?
Moving to Baltimore was the first time I’d lived in a majority-Black space. That made me realize many things about myself that I’d never even thought of or noticed before. It’s like turning of the screw. Similarly, that was ramped up by the uprising, where I realized how much of my life, both as a reporter and as a resident of the city, was in the white L, despite being in a Black majority city, and how often I was still in white-majority spaces within that Black city. That helped me see how the city was hyper-segregated to what felt like an apartheid level. Policing specifically functioned so differently in some parts of the city than in others. That influenced the writing of my last book, “I Got a Monster,” co-authored with Brandon Soderberg, and just a lot of my thinking over the years. But also, by looking at police and the way that policing enforced apartheid, I didn’t have to look quite as closely at the ways that I enforced apartheid. How am I implicated in this? How do my own thoughts have the same structure as the structure of policing in this city?
The massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston brought on that rare moment of clarity for you. You write, “I felt personally responsible for Roof’s actions in a way I had never felt responsible for the actions of a stranger before.” Why do you think this attack felt more personal for you?
He was a generation younger than me but grew up about 10 miles from where I’d grown up. I’d been proud of the part of my family that had come from near Charleston, from Edisto Island. The stories I’d been told about the Confederacy growing up… Roof used those same things as inspiration for the world he wanted to bring back, the world my ancestors had created and fought for…. And it struck me so strongly that I should have done something. This story I’d heard about my great-grandfather killing a Black man sometime after the Civil War wasn’t in sepia tone anymore. It was dressed up with the bowl cut I had as a kid instead of the old Civil War-era mustaches and Deadwood-looking clothing.
I still feel like the purpose of this book is that when some confused kid goes online to look up something about whiteness, they don’t only find racists or academics. A f***ed up, troubled, disturbed kid isn’t going to pay attention to an academic treatise or a human resources manual like “White Fragility.” They’re going to go to some conservative citizens’ council in the same way my old friend reached out to David Duke’s National Association for the Advancement of White People in the ‘80s. And that was maybe part of it; I thought if I had somehow developed the tools to deal with my friend who was going down a white supremacist path, maybe it could have helped other kids who don’t understand their identity and the history behind it, and so they’re susceptible to myths, which can be very dangerous.
You eventually reach some understanding of a way forward, for yourself at least. Are you hopeful that this conspiracy of whiteness is finally beginning to show cracks?
Not at all, unfortunately. I think it’s getting so much worse. Just two years ago, in the summer of 2020, protests were going on all around the country nightly, the largest demonstrations against racism that the country had seen. It may have been possible to say then that there was something like hope, but the backlash to that has been so sudden and so swift and so effective with the average white American. Where you may have heard things like worry about racism before, now you hear worry about teaching critical race theory to kids in school.
And the prideful, entitled anger that in many ways defines whiteness is on such strong display right now, legislatively and judicially, where we see countless arguments against Trump and the higher-ups being charged with conspiracy in the storming of the Capitol. Many people seem very okay with that. At the same time, they’re okay seeing these ridiculous conspiracy charges against the rapper Young Thug… The same person and law enforcement agencies can simultaneously say, oh yeah, because these people are white, this isn’t a gang, and this isn’t a conspiracy; because these people are Black, it is. [White people expect to be protected but not bound by the law, and they expect Black people to be bound by the law and not protected by it.
The one thing I do have hope for right now is that the very backlash against critical race theory, the 1619 Project, or any discussion of whiteness whatsoever, shows how valuable it is, how powerful it is to discuss the history of whiteness, and how dangerous that is to the white supremacists. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be spending so much time and effort trying to make it impossible for that history to get to people.
We’re not going to just incrementally get better, since the Civil Rights Act was essentially the last major intervention that we’ve had in terms of trying to address whiteness in some serious way in this country. But I do think that we have to try to abolish whiteness. I think of it much like prison abolition or police abolition; they may seem impossible, and they may very well be impossible, but one of our great failures right now is the failure to be able to imagine a better world. I think we’re all trapped in despair in various ways.
And while I don’t have a lot of hope, I feel hope has to be one of the weapons we use, and imagination has to be one of the weapons we use if we’re going to figure out how to dismantle this.
Baynard Woods’s book release celebration for Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness is on Thursday, June 30, at 7:00 p.m., at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, 3128 Greenmount Ave.