Survivor’s Guilt: Essays on Race and American Identity by Artress Bethany White (New Rivers Press, 2022).
Early in Survivor’s Guilt: Essays on Race and American Identity, Artress Bethany White writes that in 2016, as she was planning a class she would teach in the upcoming semester, she opted to include a book by a queer Chicano writer, so she could share with students the author’s effort to reconcile his sexual identity with his Catholic faith. “Then,” she writes, “I heard about the Pulse shooting, and suddenly my plan to thwart homophobia through intellectual growth seemed like a drop in the bucket in the face of hatred behind an automatic weapon.”
This, in brief, is the predicament White finds herself in throughout Survivor’s Guilt. A wide-ranging collection of essays that combines autobiography, family history, literary criticism, and more, it returns and returns again to the difficult position one finds oneself in as a teacher, writer, or conscientious human being in a nation that is as full of guns and blinding, murderous hatred as ours is.
White insists throughout the book that education is the answer to this widespread enmity and ill-will; that it is the most effective weapon we wield against the destructive power that threatens the vulnerable and persecuted among us. As she writes of herself and the likeminded people she lived among in Tennessee, “We understood collectively that bigotry is catching; like a flu, it would get to you eventually, no matter how frequently you washed your hands among the contagious.” The remedy for this, White tells us, is a competently administered education—which can, to extend the metaphor, inoculate us all against the fiercely contagious hatred that is always, apparently, going around.
And so, when white people commit racist acts, White sees in their crimes a failure of education. In “Hard-Headed Ike: A Paean to Black Boyhood,” she writes about white students at the University of Mississippi who appeared in 2019 in a photograph where they stood armed and posed triumphantly beside a bullet-riddled sign that marked the site of the murder of Emmett Till. “For me,” she tells us, “the photograph is just more evidence of what happens when history is not contextualized by secondary school or university educators with social justice training.”
It can be tempting to eye with skepticism White’s insistence, there and throughout Survivor’s Guilt, that education leads to a cure to such horrific behavior. Indeed, how do we know for sure that anyone, no matter how good they are at teaching, could get through to a student who is as far gone as those depicted in that photograph appear to be? When we look upon the white supremacists who stormed through Charlottesville carrying torches, singing “Dixie,” and shouting about Jews at the feet of a Confederate general in statue form, we see people who have problems that go beyond having had the wrong teachers.
But throughout Survivor’s Guilt, White answers that skepticism, and makes it clear that in prescribing education as she does, she is not giving us a miracle cure. Rather, she is pointing the way down a path that requires endurance, and patience, and which sees a great many people stumble on their way to the enlightenment they can achieve there.