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Portrait of a college professor as a young racist

South Boston News
Dr. Charles Dew / July 31, 2017
Dr. Charles Dew, author of “The Making of a Racist,” an acclaimed personal history of growing up in the South, asked a crowd of about 150 people at The Prizery Thursday night to pull a copied sheet from the evening’s program.

It was a ledger filled with numbers and handwritten notes from a far different era. Dew, a professor of history at Williams College in western Massachusetts, explained to guests that they were looking at the inspiration for his 2016 book: a document from an antebellum slave auction.

When Dew came across the transaction in a Williams College rare document collection, “it felt like a kick in the gut.”

It was also a reminder of the casual racism that he imbibed as a youth, and left behind only when he traveled north as a young man to obtain his college education.

Dew agreed to come to South Boston Thursday to talk about his coming-of-age story as the first speaker in the “One Community: Unity Through the Arts and Conversation” initiative sponsored by the Community Arts Center Foundation. He regaled a near-capacity audience with tales of family history over a light dinner of baked potatoes and a salad.

The crowd was a mix of whites and blacks, in roughly equal numbers and seated at random, separated from the family members and friends they walked in with. Afterwards, each table engaged in a brief group discussion on racial perspectives and diversity.

Dew set a bracing tone by carefully explaining the inhumane details of the slave auction ledger. What hit him the hardest, he said, was the high price accorded to a young enslaved woman and her child — reflecting the mother’s ability to bear more children, an essential part of spreading the South’s slave system west across an expanding America, perpetuating its evils for generation to come.

If the South had won the Civil War, slavery in the United States would have endured into the 20th century, Dew said, drawing murmurs from the crowd.

A native of St. Petersburg, Fla. (Dew rejects the notion that his Jim Crow town was not part of the proper South) he described his earliest memories as corrupted by racism. He freely admitted that he grew up as a white supremacist who espoused racist ideology.

“My earliest memories as a human being were sitting on my mother’s lap reading these [racist] books,” he said.

After heading off as a young man to Williams College, where he teaches today, Dew became friends with a fellow student who was black. One day he told a joke in the stereotypical dialect of African-Americans — an affectation that Dew would come to recognize for its racist content — and he knew once the words left his mouth that they would be hurtful to black people. Dew said the joke violated a family admonition that had been handed down to him: don’t humiliate others, and don’t humiliate yourself.

Dew came back home from college and attempted to bridge the color divide by speaking with his family’s maid, a black woman named Illinois Browning Culver. These discussions educated Dew on the struggles faced by blacks, subtleties that he had been blissfully blind to.

In one example, Illinois told him how she was unable to try on clothes in stores. If she went home and the clothes didn’t fit, she couldn’t return them. These quick, secretive talks led to Culver asking Dew, “Charles, why do the grown-ups put so much hate in the children?”

His memoir is dedicated to her.

Many years later, when Dew and his brother began to sort through his mother’s house after her passing, he rediscovered his old childhood books and opened to a random page. Some books were written in dialect and reflecting a stereotype of the child-like, comedic black. Others included the myth of the kindly slaveowner — a man whose enslavement of others was done for their own good. Faced with the obvious denigrating material, he said out loud, “Oh my God.”

Dew has become a leading historian of the American South, attempting to understand how otherwise decent white people could enslave black people. He said he honored his Confederate soldier ancestors as proud and good men, but recognized that the cause they fought for was wholly wrong.

After Dew ended his talk to a standing ovation, each circular table was asked to discuss how they responded to his message: why they should care about the history of race and if they had any personal history that they wanted to share. After 15 minutes, groups were asked to describe their evening in a single word.

Among the responses were “unity,” “discussion” and “hope.”

Anonymous evaluations from the event expressed overwhelmingly positive reviews and the hope for more discussion on the subject of racism. For future topics, attendees suggested working on LGBT+ and feminist issues, and religious differences.

Dew also spoke about his writing process at the South Boston Public Library on Thursday afternoon before a crowd of about a dozen people.

“Everybody’s got a story, and you’d be surprised how interesting it is,” said Dew.

In a statement, Carol Gravitt, chair of the One Community initiative, said, “The response was very gratifying, exceeded expectations, and energizes us to continue the conversation.”

One Community’s next event is Thursday, Sept. 7 from 7-8 p.m. at The Prizery for the screening of the documentary “An Outrage,” about race-related lynchings in six states, including in Virginia in Charlotte County. The event is free, but reservations are required: (434) 572-8339.

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