Catapult Extra TinyLetter of the Month: Maud Newton, “Notes from the Child of a White Supremacist”
“My father is the first thing I think about when I consider the importance of not being silent.”
Each month, Catapult Community features a new TinyLetter writer and republishes one of their recent issues. This month we’re featuring Maud Newton , whose TinyLetter is titled Ideas & Intimacies .
(Previously in this series: Jamila Osman , Rohin Guha , Laura Goode , Teri Vlassopoulos , Brandon Taylor , Sarah Mirk , Alvin Park .)
“Notes from the Child of a White Supremacist”
My father was an upper-middle-class white supremacist from the Mississippi Delta who argued that slavery was a benevolent system that worked for everyone until bleeding-heart liberals from the North intervened. When I was a kid, he spent weekends lecturing me about Civil War battles, drawing diagrams and pointing to maps, asserting that the South nearly won the Civil War and should have. He was vehemently opposed to integration; he thought we should restore poll taxes. He wasn’t the kind of person who went around shouting racist epithets. He was worse than that: highly educated, highly intelligent, and as far as I could tell utterly devoid of compassion. Luckily I grew up in Miami, which wasn’t at all on his wavelength.
In private, more than a century after the end of the Confederacy, he complained endlessly about the way the South was treated following the Civil War. And yet he told me that he thought my Jewish friends needed to stop focusing on the Holocaust, because it “happened so long ago.” This was in the 1980s.
I wrote in Harper’s Magazine several years ago about some of his racist behavior, including never allowing my sister and me to have books with characters of color depicted in them, confiscating any toys he deemed insufficiently lily-white, and forbidding us to watch Sesame Street and other shows that featured non-white people. After my mother talked with the fact-checker, she reminded me of an episode I’d forgotten. Once he led us all onto the side porch to watch as he bashed a brown-faced toy with a hammer until its head came off. Then he threw it in the garbage, where he said it belonged.
I have always been intimately aware of what people like Jeff Sessions really think and really want, and I’ve always been afraid these people are more numerous and more widely respected than we knew. But I never expected them to gain the visible foothold they’ve gotten in such a short time. I never thought I’d see my father’s views going mainstream in this way.
The thing about this kind of hatred and intolerance is that it contaminates and hurts everyone around it. My father had contempt for everyone who wasn’t white, everyone who wasn’t Christian, everyone who wasn’t educated, everyone who was poor. Eventually my father also had contempt for me. I never knew him to have a friend. He was alone on his island of hatred and disapproval.
We’ve been estranged for more than fifteen years, now. He has a new family, so I can’t speak to his life today, but I’m sure whatever he says publicly he’s gratified to see these men with their burning torches and assemblies of hate.
I’m not sure what this adds to our situation, if anything, and it’s not as if I haven’t spoken about this before. But my father is the first thing I think about when I consider the importance of not being silent.
Many of my ancestors enslaved people. Several are from a part of Mississippi where some of the most violent and most recent lynchings occurred. I believe one of the most important things I can do with my own life is to reckon with my own responsibility for that history.
Until next time,
Nicole Chung: Why did you write this most recent letter, and what has the response been?
Maud Newton: Believe it or not, one impetus for this particular TinyLetter was your tweet about how hurt you’ve been by the silence of your white family after Charlottesville. Sometimes when I write about having a white supremacist for a father, I feel like a record that keeps skipping into the same screechy groove, and I worry that harping on it seems like some opportunistic desire to draw attention to myself around other people’s pain. But your tweet and others like it underscored for me that no, it is important to tell these stories. Not just important, but essential. Those of us who know these attitudes exist need to drag them into the daylight. I’ve believed this all my adult life, and I’ve never believed it more than I do now.
I’ve written about this aspect of my childhood for many years, first in (mostly unpublished) fiction, and then on my blog and in essays. For the past decade—almost exactly a decade—I’ve been delving more deeply into my family’s connection to slavery. On my Instagram feed you can see a handful of examples: an image of a census document listing humans who were enslaved by my ancestor, Jesse Newton; another ancestor’s will ; some of my mother’s reminiscences of life with my father; a glimpse of another relative’s brief recollections . Reckoning with this history was central to my ’ Harper s essay on our country’s fascination with genealogy, and it’s all circulating in the book I’m writing about ancestry, too.
When I used to write fiction about characters like my father, people often found them cartoonish and implausible. This was mostly my fault—as one of my teachers, Harry Crews , taught me, the fact that something actually happens in life, someone actually exists in life, doesn’t mean it or they make good fiction. The writer has to make the reader invest in the fictional world, and even if characters aren’t “relatable,” they have to be in some way accessible, believable, and psychologically interesting. But until recently there’s also been a pretty deep and wide-ranging denial in our culture that people like Jeff Sessions and Richard Spencer exist. I remember a teacher I liked a lot, a teacher who was born somewhere else and then immigrated here, joking after reading one story of mine that Americans always want to exaggerate racism. I didn’t offer any rebuttal, because I knew the failure in that particular story was mine, but I also thought that this teacher must not have spent much time outside of certain circles in New York City.
I’m very interested in projects like Coming to the Table , which brings together descendants of people who were enslaved and their enslavers and tries to find some way forward together from that history. I’d like to see a truly comprehensive database that aggregates genealogical research and helps descendants of enslaved people figure out who their ancestors were. (There are a few efforts along those lines, such as Our Black Ancestry .) And I’m willing to help anyone who wants to try to find documentation of their own family’s involvement in slavery, as long as they’re willing to be transparent about it .
So, short answer: I wrote this TinyLetter installment because of terrible recent events, but it’s an outgrowth of a longstanding preoccupation. The response I’ve heard and seen has been positive, but I think this is the sort of writing, the sort of revelation, that people often process privately.
When and why did you begin writing and sending your TinyLetter? How did you choose the name?
I started it in October 2015. It’s been very erratic: only 18 newsletters since then, on no particular schedule.
I didn’t think about the name for long. I wanted to write the kinds of musings and personal things I’d once written on my blog, for a self-selecting audience. And I wanted people who followed me for literary criticism to understand that I wouldn’t be focusing on that. “Ideas and Intimacies” seemed true and straightforward, so I typed it out and went with it.
About how long do you spend on each issue? How much do you edit?
I don’t tend to spend long on them. They usually bubble up unexpectedly in an outpouring that feels only partly voluntary. That’s how blogging used to feel to me at times, like the result of a blister formed from obsession. There were things I kept mulling over and needed to get out, things I wanted to say to people who might want to hear them, and only after I put them into the world could I focus on other things. I have a few newsletters stuck in draft, but I usually abandon those or find that they actually belong in the book I’m writing or some future project.
What do you appreciate most about the TinyLetter format?
Like many old-school bloggers who’ve gravitated to the form, I like that it captures some of the intimate feeling of early personal blogs. I also like that I can send them out and they’re not archived online (though of course the people who receive them can do what they want with them).
Please recommend some of your favorite TinyLetters!
I started to say I don’t read that many, and then my answer kept growing. My two favorites are Black Cardigan Edit , dispatches about writing and writers by my smart, funny, encouraging writing partner, Carrie Frye , and Queen , by my dear brilliant pal Alexander Chee . I also like: Meraki , by the young, passionate writer ; Morgan Jerkins Everything Changes , a wide-ranging miscellany, which is written for the Awl by Laura Olin and has been a particular comfort since the election; Ruth Franklin’s Updates From the Shirley Jackson Files , some real treasures there; Jillian Steinhauer’s new A Kind of Indulgence ; and TEV 2.0 , which is written by my old friend Mark Sarvas and has a nostalgic quality for me because it reminds me of his long-ago blogging.
I have a make-a-newsletter wishlist for writer-cartoonists, and Mira Jacob , Alison Bechdel , and Emily Flake are at the top of it.
Know of a TinyLetter author we should feature? Please let us know in the comments.