The City is a Monument

washington dc is a great city

Washington DC is a great city because it’s 61 square miles of roots & routes. I was there last week, losing myself in the roots and tangling myself in the routes. We all know what happened last week– the 2nd inauguration of the 1st black president on the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Poetic. Justice.

Since that’s the one you probably guessed first, I’ll start with it. Martin Luther King Jr. is obviously part of the root system that allowed Barack Obama to be President of the United States of America. But here’s the thing about roots & routes, and why I’m fascinated by the concept: One person’s route is someone else’s root.

We celebrate the legacy of MLK, and consider his work to be foundational. But for his contemporaries, MLK represented the future. He literally put folks in route to make this country better. The same will be true for BO. Now he’s leading the nation on our current path, hopefully a new path, but someday he will be history the way DC is history.

Washington DC wears the nation’s past like medals on an officer’s coat. The city is a monument. Even restaurants are museums, like Busboys and Poets or Eatonville, where waiters take the time to give you a history lesson on Zora Neale Hurston. Eatonville! What a perfect name for a restaurant, period. But when it’s also the name of ZNH’s hometown in Florida, that’s just the universe cracking a smile. When I saw the restaurant, I teared up and put my hand over my heart like actors do in those melodramatic movie scenes. Roots & Routes is the racially eclectic clientele of a minority owned business built to honor Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy.

And then, there’s the METRO. Operating since March 1976, the DC metro currently has 106.3 miles of track on which trains travel a max speed of 59 mph. It has 86 subway and surface stations and a rainbow of five lines: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. The people, of course, are just as colorful.

For a rail fan like myself, the Metro is transcendent. What can I say? I’m transported. Where I’m going isn’t as important as the act of going. I slice through the seem of time and space. The sheer motion is entrancing. The one tragedy is that it doesn’t go on forever. It always eventually comes to a full stop.

Colorism’s Roots & Routes

The simple answer you’ll get from most people about where colorism comes from is that during slavery in the Americas, blacks and whites bore children of mixed ancestry, but according to the law, any trace of black ancestry meant you were black (one drop rule), and children took the status of their mother, which was slave in most cases.

As a result, the spectrum of skin tones among slaves and others who were legally black, grew wider. Slave owners often granted more privileges to the lighter skinned slaves, saw them as smarter and more capable because of their white ancestry, allowed them some form of education or training, and occasionally granted them their freedom.

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Even after slavery ended, similar advantages were given to blacks whose appearance was closer to white, such as first consideration for certain schools and jobs.

The preferential treatment served to create division among blacks. Simultaneously there was resentment for this preferential treatment and the desire to acquire and take advantage of it.

Some might think that explaining the origins of colorism in America is as simple as pointing to American slavery. But it’s deeper than that. Colorism is the result of white supremacist ideology, which is ancient compared to slavery in America.

Social hierarchies based on nationality, religion, class, gender, education, race, and color have existed for millenniums. 

Roots in Biblical & Religious Texts

One story that’s historically been used to justify racism, colorism, and slavery is the so called “curse of Ham.” That’s the story of Noah’s youngest son, Ham, who saw his father naked, then told his brothers. Noah was angry and cursed his son Ham, who the scriptures say is the father of Canaan. Noah’s curse said that Canaan would be the slaves of Ham’s brothers (Gen 9:20-27).

So where would color come in to play for those who use this story as the basis for practicing racism?

It’s a stretch, but here’s the “logic”:

Since Ham is the father of Cush  (Gen 10:6), and Cush is sometimes used synonymously with the regions of Nubia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan; then Ham and his decedents must be associated with dark skin. If Ham is associated with dark skin, and he’s the one who committed the disgraceful (some say sinful) act against his father, then dark skin must also be associated with disgrace and sin. Even though it was Canaan, not Cush, that Noah said would be enslaved, slavery was still somehow associated with black skin.

Then there’s a later reference in the bible to skin color that further connects Cush to skin color: “Can the Ethiopian  (Hebrew Cushite) change his skin or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23).

This interpretation of Ham’s story shows how human pathology causes people to defy logic in order to believe in their own superiority and to justify their oppression of other peoples.

An additional trope from the bible that people point to as one source of how people view skin color is the distinction between darkness being bad or evil, and light or white being good, pure, clean, and holy. (I trust that you can do your own search on this if you’re curious.) While the majority of these references don’t specifically refer to skin color, the distinctions between black/dark and white/light is a symbol in many cultures that has been generally applied to many subjects.

But it’s not just the Judeo-Christian bible that carries such symbolism.

Roots in Indian, Greek, and Roman Texts

In this amazing documentary titled “Shadeism,” by a young woman who’s family is from Sri Lanka, she explains how colorism existed in regions like India even before colonialism . . . long before.

In the ancient Indian scripture of the Ramayana, there’s a scene that depicts a fight between a noble, fair-skinned king from the north, and an evil dark-skinned king from the south. According to an explanation of the Ramayana published through UCLA, this tale may date back as far as 1500 BCE.

A blurb about Benjamin Isaac’s book, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquitystates:

[Isaac] considers the literature from classical Greece to late antiquity in a quest for the various forms of the discriminatory stereotypes and social hatred that have played such an important role in recent history and continue to do so in modern society.

Isaac’s book is said to disprove the belief that ancient Greeks and Romans only held ethnic/cultural prejudice but not racial prejudice.

Routes Around the Globe: Colonialism & Pigmentocracy

Whether or not colorism was present in cultures before colonialism, there’s little argument against the fact that it became ubiquitous as a result of colonialism.

Pigmentocracy describes a social structure in which status, class, education, occupation, etc is determined by skin color. It’s existed in various forms all over the globe, and  some pigmentocracies throughout history have been more operational and institutionalized than others.  Pigmentocracy involves all races, unlike the common notion of colorism, which is that it functions among the people of one race.

America is an example of one of the pigmentocracies that have existed around the globe. While not precisely broken down by exact skin tone, it’s generally true that this country has granted the highest status and opportunity to those of the lightest skin, and denied that status and opportunity to those with the darkest skin, with varying degrees in between.

To trace the routes of Europeans around the globe during colonialism, is to literally trace the roots of colorism. The spread of colorism is a direct result of the spread of white supremacist ideology.

I still wonder what’s the initial source of white supremacy.

In thinking about those ancient texts like the Ramayana and the Bible, I wonder how humans began to equate light with good and dark with bad.

Was it as quotidian as one random person who had a strange thought and then went and shared his ideas with friends and neighbors? Or was it as strategic as some ancient government plotting to brainwash the masses so that they could gain power through some arbitrary characteristic?

Why didn’t the tides of history end up spreading black, brown, yellow, or red supremacy? Not that any of those would be right.

Do we have to rehash every detail about the roots of colorism every time we have a conversation about it?

Maybe we should explain the historical roots to those who claim to have never heard of colorism.

But for the converted, for those of us who already understand the who, what, why, when, why, and how of colorism’s roots and routes, can we finally begin to have productive conversations about the present and future?

I guess my biggest question is: Where do we go from here?


Roots & Routes: New Renaissance in New York

I’d visited Manhattan, New York in 2004. I was an architecture major, attending a NOMAS conference with four other students. On that trip I strolled through a sliver of Central Park, saw original Romare Bearden pieces in the Guggenheim, hailed a yellow taxi in Time Square, and even window shopped at Saks Fifth Avenueon 5th Ave. Trees dawned amber and ruby foliage in the cold autumn weather.

This time I traveled in July. Trees were green. The air was hot.

Still in Manhattan, in Harlem. Across the park from Columbia. Blocks away from the Apollo.

I’d longed to visit Harlem ever since I recorded a walking historical tour on C-Span when I was in high school. A Harlem tour is synonymous with a black history tour. You see, in high school I had my own sort of renaissance. I discovered, studied, and immersed myself in black writers, political leaders, artists, and other historical figures. [No surprise that I also went natural (stopped straightening my hair) in high school too.] Harlem, therefore, was like a mecca to me.

I didn’t go with the  rosy expectations that New York was a cultural Utopia where all races mixed evenly and existed in absolute equality and harmony. My short time near Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn proved the naiveté in that.

That said, I appreciated Harlem for keeping the dream visible, deferred or not. Harlem has mortared its history in every brownstone, store front, and public sign. I’ve been other places where, with the exception of the requisite MLK thoroughfare, the city and its residents seem to distance themselves from history and especially downplay any black American presence. In those places any celebration of blackness gets you sideways looks, like “Didn’t you get the memo that race is a social construct?”

In Harlem I didn’t feel pressured to suppress the joy I get from being immersed in black history.

I’ve noticed that people are prematurely clinging to the notion of a post-racial society. Well for groups of people, like those labeled African American, whom society has taught to hate themselves, skipping the whole self-love thing could be a huge mistake. For many blacks it seems most imperative to let other races know how much we love them, yet we can’t love or express love for ourselves without feeling guilty, feeling like we’re the neo-racists. Why is that?

We need a follow through on the 60’s revolution where it seemed we had finally arrived at self-acceptance. A dream of genuine and common self-love has been deferred. I’m still waiting to see what happens.


Here on the edge of hell

Stands Harlem–

Remembering the old lies,

The old kicks in the back,

The old “Be patient”

They told us before.

Sure, we remember.

Now when the man at the corner store

Says sugar’s gone up another two cents,

And bread one,

And there’s a new tax on cigarettes–

We remember the job we never had,

Never could get,

And can’t have now

Because we’re colored.

So we stand here

On the edge of hell

In Harlem

And look out on the world

And wonder

What we’re gonna do

In the face of what

We remember.



With love, from Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

Roots & Routes: Vicksburg, Mississippi and Simple Solace

Solace, according to, means relief or comfort in sorrow, trouble, or distress. We all live under relative levels of stress which fluctuate depending on the circumstance. There’s good stress and bad stress. Good stress is starting your new dream job. Bad stress is being fired. Any stress, if sustained and compounded will have adverse effects.

It’s quick and easy to find suggestions for relieving stress. We might even find relief in unexpected places.

Returning from a visit with a college friend in Mississippi, I traveled Highway 27 to Interstate 55 to Interstate 12. This route drove home a point I’d felt for years. I silently accepted open highway as my personal therapy. Of all the ways I relax or relieve stress, only driving along a beautiful highway transports me beyond the rest of the world.

I drank in the winding contour of the road, the dense vegetation and open fields, the amber light of sunrise and the shadows it made on the ground. I soaked up the placid sky.

It’s been this way since I attended Mississippi State and drove the many roads connecting Starkville to other points on the map. I distinctly remember an afternoon when the sunset on Highway 80 compelled me to tears.

I think the key to solace and peace is simplicity. I also think it’s easy to focus on what small towns like Vicksburg and Starkville lack, and miss the stillness they offer, the potential for peace and space. I say potential because it’s still up to the person to be still.

In Vicksburg I found other simple joys: watching the river, studying the historic artifacts and architecture, and discovering the original, local art. The artwork in the various shops or galleries represent, for me, the ability to find beauty and inspiration in ordinary objects, events, places, and creatures. A bright wall full of watercolor birds. Quilted books. Coincidentally, this artwork might be the artist’s solace.

Good or bad, if unchecked, stress kills. People talk about what saved their lives. Example: “Hip-Hop saved my life.”

In the present, I believe the practice of being still and having a low threshold for joy and beauty saves my life every day. I let go of stress more readily without the self destructive behaviors associated with seeking a “higher high.” I put those words in quotes because I don’t think detrimental or superficial highs are actually high. I believe there’s nothing higher than being centered and grounded.

I’ve never lived in Vicksburg, so I don’t speak from long term experience, but I found simple solace in my trip.

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

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