A Southern White Girl’s Upbringin’

Karen Bryant Shipp at age 14, Wake Forest, NC (Photo: Shirley Bryant Shipp)

Sometimes Love looks like turning tables over in the Temple.

But that’s not how I was brought up.

Eris.  The Greek Goddess of Discord; Discordia, in Latin.  The etymology of the name is uncertain, some scholars connecting it with a Greek verb whose English translation is “to raise, stir, excite.”

None of which was of any importance or interest to me when I was 14.  All I knew was that I had been assigned to come to the Latin Banquet as Eris, the Goddess of Discord.

The black and white photo my mother took of me shows a young girl approaching her mid-teens, barefoot, slender, smiling shyly at the camera.  I am standing on the short stoop of our duplex apartment in seminary housing on Rice Circle in Wake Forest, NC. My mother had pulled out of her closet a black lace-bodiced negligee to serve as my costume, with an opaque black slip underneath for modesty.  She spent an hour or more pinning my mid-length hair into tight pincurls all over my head.   In the photo my hair is pulled slightly back off my face and cascades into a mass of ringlets; my pale arms drape long and graceful against the diaphanous black of my costume.

Mom took the photo as I was leaving for the banquet.  It is a photo of the sweetest, most polite Eris you’re ever likely to meet.

The irony, of course, is that, as a properly-brought-up young Southern white girl, I had been raised never to be disruptive or discordant.  And the woman who dressed and coiffed me had been raised the same way.  Mom taught me to be polite; not to inconvenience others or make them uncomfortable.  She taught me to be restrained in the face of insult, and not to express anger.  In fact, never even to be angry.  However, my mother was also a woman of firm moral principles who would not back down on those principles, no matter how fiercely she was challenged—which, unfortunately for her, all but guaranteed that eventually she would be labeled an “agitator.”  Or perhaps, a “goddess of discord.”

To be honest, temperamentally I am more like my father, which was unfortunate for a Southern white girl:  explosive when angry, although the storm passes almost as quickly as it blows up.  Which is not to say that I did not study hard and learn well all the lessons my mother had to teach me.  Including the contradiction inherent in her integrity. 

Why did my Latin teacher, Mrs. Barnes, assign Eris to me? Did she see something no one else could see when she tapped me for the trouble-making goddess?  Could she see into my future, like the priestesses in ancient Rome?  Or was she deliberately casting against type?  Maybe she was reaching past my sweet Southern veneer to invoke something she felt a future “I” might need for balance?

More likely, it was simply that somebody had to be Eris at the end-of-year banquet for the Latin Club, and in 1967 I was it.  Anyway, I wasn’t being asked to incarnate Eris, I was simply being asked to come dressed as her.  

Which I did.  And, by the way, won first prize for best costume.

…Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves…. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of thieves.

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him….

Mark 11:15-18, NRSV

Two years after my triumph as Eris, my family found ourselves at the center of violent controversy in Wake Forest:  Black and white teenagers had gathered in our home for a party.  My father had refused to cancel the party in response to the deacons’ objections.  Someone had blasted our home with buckshot, and my father was fired from his pastorate.  

On WRAL-TV, Jesse Helms devoted one of his Viewpoint editorials to the incident, labeling my father a “militant minister” and an “outside agitator.”  We were accused of coming to Wake Forest deliberately to stir up trouble.  There were persistent rumors that my father had staged the whole thing.  One man went so far as to be quoted in the Raleigh News and Observer, saying, “I think he done it himself.”  

Some people argued that, if we had just canceled the party, nothing bad would have happened.  How could we have been so naive, they wondered aloud, as to think that an integrated party out there in the ‘Harrican’ district wouldn’t cause trouble?  

(Many years later, in 2005, my mother and father would say that, if they had had any idea that the lives of teenage children would be put in jeopardy, they would never have allowed the party to take place.  They thought that, at most, someone might come and puncture the tires on our car, or maybe even shoot at the cars in the carport.  My dad said over and over that night, as he stared at the floor, still in shock, “I thought they would come for me.  I thought they would come for me–I never thought they would try to kill children.”)

Meanwhile, everything I had been taught as a good Southern Christian white girl was in shreds, but I did my best to piece it together again.  I had been taught to be compassionate and forgiving, to bless those who cursed me.  I wrote an editorial for the school newspaper, entitled “Peace On Earth.”  “Peace—true peace, that is—,” I wrote, “comes from a knowledge that what one has done is right.  That one has stood for his beliefs….  I know this peace—it is mine.” 

At a distance of half a century, I can smell the bitterness and fury in these brave words, while behind them everything I had been brought up to believe about the goodness of people lay smoldering, burned to the ground.  For the first time, at age 16, I had personally witnessed what people driven by racism and hatred could, and would, do to you if you broke the unwritten contract with whiteness.  But with only the inadequate tools of Southern white girlhood, how could I admit to myself, let alone anyone else, how enraged and terrified I was?

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

Matthew 23:27, NRSV

Did any of those white Christians, the ones who accused us of stirring up trouble and causing the violence, ever pay attention to the life of Jesus?  Four of the four Gospels—that is to say, all of them—tell the story of Jesus going into the Temple, driving out the money changers and turning over tables, scattering their stolen profits. (The Gospel of John says he used a whip that he made himself.) Clearly not the actions of a man who is afraid to offend people or be judged to be impolite.

And what do those “good Christians” who believe in keeping the peace at any price think about Jesus when he calls out the religious and sanctimonious of his day?  I can hear him now: “Woe to you, preachers and Sunday School teachers, you hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, full of the bones of the dead and filth!” These words do not tiptoe around delicate feelings. I don’t know about you, but he sounds pretty angry to me.

When the people in power heard what Jesus was saying and saw what he was doing, it isn’t surprising that they “kept looking for a way to kill him.”

The thing about Jesus is, when he got angry and started turning over tables—in contrast to Eris, who apparently liked to stir up trouble just to stir up trouble—it was because he loved people too much to let them go on doing what they were doing. He loved not only the people who were being cheated by the money changers, but the money changers themselves. He could not bear to see what they were doing to each other, what they were doing to themselves, what they were doing to the Temple.

Sometimes Love looks like turning tables over in the Temple.

But that’s not how I was brought up. Everything I was taught to think or believe was meant to guarantee that I would never question white supremacy. All the tools provided to me were meant to ensure that I would never challenge racism, and ideally never even notice the central role whiteness played in my life.

I look at the girl I was then, and the person I am now, and am becoming. I look at the country where I was born, the South where I was brought up–and the North, too, where I lived for many years. And it seems to me that we are at a time of reckoning.

For me, that reckoning means coming to terms with my own story, both the parts I’m proud of and the parts that fill me with shame. I can no longer tiptoe around the wounds, mine or others’. I cannot roll up into a ball of pain inside my whiteness and deny what is happening in the world. I cannot avoid confrontation because it makes me and others uncomfortable.

The Love Jesus demonstrated does not avoid confrontation.

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?

Matthew 23:33

In Matthew 23, Jesus calls down damnation on the hypocrisy he sees in front of him. “You snakes, you brood of vipers!” he snarls. “How can you escape damnation!” But almost immediately his tone turns to lament: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he cries. He sees what is happening to this “city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” He has not forgotten that these are the people he loves, the very people he has come to save from their own failure to love. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” He sees through his grief the consequences they face for the choices they have made: “See, your house is left to you desolate….” (Matthew 23:37-38)

Whiteness is a desolation that is grinding all of us into the dust; not only Black people, not only Brown and Indigenous people, but white people as well. If we fail to meet this moment with the kind of Love that Jesus showed us, whiteness will kill us all.

It’s time to turn over some tables.

Published by kbryantlucas

Preacher woman, musician, lover of justice

6 thoughts on “A Southern White Girl’s Upbringin’

  1. This is beautiful, profound and powerful. Happy Birthday dear one, on such a tender and bittersweet day.🎂🌻🎉🎈


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