In August 2017, I stood with about a dozen other people in the predawn streets of Baltimore, watching equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson swing from a crane as they were removed from their plinths. A few days earlier, I was covering the racist rally in Charlottesville when James Alex Fields slammed his car into an anti-fascist march, killing Heather Heyer, seriously wounding a dozen more and shocking Americans into addressing the history behind the thousands of Confederate monuments in the United States.
I grew up in South Carolina, where I had been raised to revere Lee, Jackson and other white-supremacist enslavers. Among their number, I counted members of my own family. Standing out there, sleepless and shattered, I realized that my own name had stood as a Confederate monument over every story I had ever written.
I’d been looking into my family’s history since the Mother Emmanuel church massacre in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, but after Charlottesville, I again began to contemplate what it meant that in 1860, to take a single year, various Baynards believed that they owned 781 people, while the Woodses — from whom I’m directly descended — claimed possession of 23 more. But enslavers tended to marry enslavers, so I have no idea how many thousands of people were held in bondage by those associated with my family.
The question of what to do with Confederate monuments became, in my mind, mixed up with the question of what to do with my name. For me, the answer was easy with monuments to enslavers. Pull them all down. But the situation with my name and byline seemed more complicated.
Since before Reconstruction, Black Americans have thrown off “slave names,” but I had never read or heard about White people addressing our enslaver names. But I knew I could no longer carry mine innocently, so I decided to try to grapple with what it represents.
I quickly realized that, though I could no longer bear my name — which I share with my Trump-supporting father, who died last year — I could not change it either. To change it would only continue the coverup that kept me from recognizing its reality. And any name I chose would probably be just as fraught as my own.
I avidly sought out stories of other people engaged in undoing their names. In her book “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route,” the African American studies scholar Saidiya Hartman writes that she chose a Swahili name in an attempt to “undo the past and reinvent myself,” without taking into account that “Swahili was a language steeped in mercantilism and slave trading and disseminated through commercial relations among Arab, African, and Portuguese merchants.” In what seems almost like a warning against my best intentions, she writes, “The ugly history of elites and commoners and masters and slaves I had tried to expunge with the adoption of an authentic name was thus unwittingly enshrined.”
In his autobiography, Malcolm X explains his name. “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my maternal forebears,” he writes. The X served as a variable, standing in for the name that was stolen. And when White reporters asked about the X or what his “real name” was, he had the opportunity to remind the reporters of that theft.
As an inheritor of that racist history, that was not an option for me. Seeking some way to acknowledge the past embedded in my name without continuing to honor it, I recalled the philosophical strategy of putting a word “under erasure.” It was a technique popularized by the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who argued that certain words contain their own negation, which he signified by crossing them out. Such words, he suggested, are unavoidable tools for speaking and thinking, but they are also inadequate. As such, they had to be eliminated while also remaining legible.
My own version of that would be: “Since the legacy of slavers cannot be borne, their names are crossed out. Since the legacy of slavers cannot be covered up, their names remain legible.”
But it is not a neutral action. I am trying to unbind the knots of power that still have effects in the present. As Derrida writes, when a name is “cancelled by a work of erasure,” it is “obliterated rather than forgotten, toned down, devalued.” And so I leave my name, but I cross it out, allowing the slash to act as crime scene tape, both marking off that history and acknowledging it. The strike through my name serves as a reminder of my civil, psychological and ethical obligation.
I’m aware that such a gesture could be empty and even harmful, especially if followed too fervently. It could serve to make me feel better while adding extra work for someone else trying to figure out how to deal with the practical issues surrounding this idiosyncratic byline.
This technique is not something I want to impose on others, nor could in every circumstance even if I wanted to. This publication, for instance, doesn’t allow a strike-through command in the byline field. But when I am in control and when it is my choice, as on the cover of my new book, I choose to cross it out as a reminder of the white supremacy we still need to undo.
The backlash to anti-racist education shows that there is power simply in naming Whiteness. But drawing attention to the workings of Whiteness is, of course, inadequate to address the horrors hidden in our names — and of other names erased.
In 1871, my great-grandfather I.M. Woods was involved in the assassination of Peter J. Lemon, a Black county commissioner in South Carolina, as part of a wave of Klan terrorism attempting to topple the Reconstruction regime, which happened in 1876 when a vicious campaign of murder, fraud and repression ended in the storming and occupation of the state Capitol.
Lemon was a remarkable man, born into bondage in Clarendon County in 1842. When the Civil War began, he managed to escape and went to fight with the 5th Massachusetts cavalry, for the Union side. He returned to Clarendon County and was elected as a county commissioner in 1868, despite an election fraught with racist violence and voter fraud. He helped lead a Black militia, formed to fight back against the brutal attacks of the Ku Klux Klan. Hundreds if not thousands of people, Black and White, who supported the multiracial democracy of Reconstruction were tortured and killed.
On April 19, 1871, Congress passed the Third Enforcement Act, also called the Ku Klux Klan Act, which was intended to protect the newly established rights of the formerly enslaved and end the campaign of terror in South Carolina and other states. On that same day, according to congressional testimony and a coroner’s report, Lemon was lured to the Clarendon County town of Manning on county business and ambushed and shot by a party of six to eight White men, one of whom I believe was my great-grandfather.
The coverup was effective enough that no one was ever held accountable. The name of Peter Lemon was largely erased, rarely mentioned in print again, other than in threat: In 1887, 16 years after Lemon’s assassination, the Manning Times printed a letter to the superintendent of the town, which had hired a Black man as a police officer. “You are spotted,” the letter read. “And it would be to my surprise if you don’t reconsider this matter you will be done like Peter Lemon the Radical you can guess what became of him.”
My great-grandfather, on the other hand, was praised by other White people as a man who could be counted on when times got tough. He was a stalwart of the Democratic Party, which at that time was the party of “white man’s supremacy,” and was elected to the South Carolina State Legislature, which passed the apartheid Jim Crow laws that governed the state for another 70 years. Having learned all of this, I figured that crossing out my own name would be meaningful only if I could restore the name of Peter Lemon to the public record. I began sharing my research with a local activist and historian named George Frierson. Last April, on the 150th anniversary of the crime, we discovered the place where Lemon had been shot. Last month, we made a joint presentation to the Clarendon County Council, putting Lemon’s name back into the public record, urging them to name their administrative building after Lemon and denouncing my family’s role in his murder.
Next, I hope to fund the installation of a new gravestone in the cemetery where the historical records show that Lemon was buried.
These actions, too, are insufficient. But I need to acknowledge the harm those previously bearing my names have caused. Every such action will always be flawed, but nevertheless necessary, just as my name can neither be changed nor borne.
Only when we are aware of the cost of our history can we begin to reckon with what is owed. For me, this is a first, small step toward reparations.