Daughter of the Segregated South Speaks at Harvard’s Du Bois Colloquium
@ The Radcliffe Institute, September 27, 2012
In 1968, Diane McWhorter RI ’12 was on her way to a Birmingham department store to have her high school sorority picture taken when she learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Hearing the news, she told a colloquium audience at Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute on September 26, she thought, “Oh, now everything in the South will go back to normal.”
Not until she was in her late 20s did McWhorter understand that the civil rights revolution in her own hometown had anything to do with her. She learned that a cousin of hers, a prominent businessman, had negotiated with King to end the mass nonviolent demonstrations that shook Birmingham in 1963. “I may be a segregationist,” he said at the time, “but I’m not a damn fool.” McWhorter decided then to write about the civil rights movement and its intersection with her own life. For 19 years she worked on her first book, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, and now she’s writing a second book that deals with race and is also set in her home state.
Continuing the work she began last year at the Radcliffe Institute as the Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow, on “Moon of Alabama: From Nazi Germany to Tranquility Base, via the Segregated American South,” McWhorter is a Caperton Fellow at the Du Bois Institute this year. She spoke about both books at the colloquium.
Jane Rhodes, the Joy Foundation Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute this year, introduced McWhorter at the event. Rhodes said that as a former journalist she appreciates the structure of Carry Me Home—the way McWhorter weaves her family story into the civil rights narrative. “I’m acutely aware and very appreciative of the skill and courage it takes to produce such as noteworthy and readable study,” said Rhodes, a professor of American studies at Macalester College. She’s writing a biography of Marie Battle Singer, a black American expatriate and distant relative who studied psychoanalysis with Anna Freud.
During her presentation, McWhorter showed photographs of the Buchenwald concentration camp after the Americans liberated it and reflected on one picture in particular, in which a local German woman turns away from the sight of corpses, not wanting to know the truth, McWhorter conjectured. “The great trick of human nature is the cunning lengths to which we go to make sure that we know as little as possible and remember even less,” McWhorter said. “The urge not to know is not just a German phenomenon,” she said. “It’s universal.”
Although she cautioned her audience that she would probably sound “somewhat sermonizing” in her remarks, it’s the lack of sermonizing that makes McWhorter’s writing and discussion of racism and anti-Semitism so powerful. She explores her own attitudes during her segregated childhood while working to understand the South and Nazi Germany.
McWhorter’s publisher is bringing out a new edition of Carry Me Home in early 2013, with a new afterword by her. Not wanting to scoop this edition, she told the colloquium audience that the information she has uncovered since the book first came out in 2001 was off the record for reporters. Suffice it to say that her new stories are even more disturbing than those she previously reported.