America is facing difficult times right now amidst several black men’s deaths involving white police officers. Protests are currently taking place all across the country in response to these killings and the lack of indictments of the officers involved. Kathryn (Kaypri) Marcus offers her mother’s story as a remedy.
I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know: A Southern White Woman’s Story About Race is an autobiography written by Dorothy Hampton Marcus and co-authored by her daughter Kaypri. As a multiracial child raised by older Southern parents, Kaypri grew up as a “Yankee” with a deeper understanding of the racial divide in this country than most in her generation. Learning valuable lessons from her mother’s fights against racial injustice, Kaypri believes her mother’s story is proof that even the most deeply rooted prejudices can be eradicated with a lot of talking, listening, and learning.
Kaypri explains how, as a young adult in North Carolina from the 1930s to the 1950s, her mother frequently found herself in situations where she was slowly exposed to the struggles that black people faced on a daily basis. After working in social justice, she realized that her experiences in her first race relations job (which paired her with an older black woman) taught her a valuable lesson. “Decades after [that incident] she would say, ‘Now I know why this woman and I were never able to see eye to eye; because I couldn’t begin to see where she was coming from,’ ” says Kaypri, about her mother.
“I think that’s a lot of what we have going on today. People don’t know where [the other person] is coming from and they don’t try to find out. They just tune it out and go about living their lives and consciously decide not to concern themselves with what they think are other peoples’ problems. They don’t realize that this decision to not be concerned is part of the problem.”
Through all these recent tragic deaths, people are looking for answers, but what they really need is a better understanding. This is what the journey shared in I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know can provide: a window into the life of a white woman who found her life’s mission by looking beyond her own situation (white privilege) and coming to a place of truly understanding the experience of not only blacks, but all oppressed peoples.
“This book is for everybody, but particularly the people who don’t quite understand what is going on right now, what has been going on…the history of what is behind these nationwide protests,” says Kaypri. It provides the necessary history “and it tells it through the eyes of somebody who initially didn’t know what it was about, but who found out what it was about… my mom didn’t have the answer, she didn’t have the solution, but she kept trying to find it and she shared it with other people. And she enlightened a lot of people along the way.”
Author and Professor Hettie Jones said this about the book, “… readers will be touched not only by her story, but by her daughter’s dedication in bringing it to light… A vote of thanks to Dorothy for helping to create our new, more open, and inclusive American future.” Likewise, author, activist, and Professor Nikki Giovanni likened I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know to a spring revival. “What life teaches us is that we have the ability to continue to grow. Spring is a season, but also a possibility, as there is renewal. I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know shows us renewal at its finest; a wonderful insight.”
Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White had this to say about the book, “Thank you Kaypri and Dorothy for sharing this story. For all of us waking up to what it means to be white today, it’s inspirational to learn that Dorothy’s waking up process had continued to be the cornerstone of her life, and what she seems to hold dear as her legacy. She was ahead of her time for sure!”
Kaypri describes her mother’s biggest accomplishment as, “Recognizing white privilege and doing something about it.” Kaypri mentions how in 1990, a young teen named Phillip Pannell was shot by cops in her hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey. “[My mother] had the opportunity to organize weekly racial dialogues that took place after that; she jumped right in and I think that’s what we need to do today,” she says. “We all need to sit in a room, all races, all ages, and talk about things…especially the things concerning race that bother and hurt us.”
Because of her upbringing, the things she witnessed in her diverse New Jersey community, the lessons her mother taught her, and as a self-titled “recovering Southern Baptist,” Kaypri feels that the recent tragedies of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless others are far from isolated incidents.
“When the LA riots happened in 1991, I was like, “Oh my God, this is what happened in Teaneck,” and I realized then that it wasn’t just Teaneck, it was everywhere,” Kaypri says. “When Ferguson happened, I already knew Ferguson is everywhere; it’s not just Ferguson. But so many, in my mother’s words, still “don’t know.”
Kaypri says her mother’s message is one of hope and she has to remind herself to not get discouraged as she hears about new incidents daily. “My nom was always an optimistic person,” Kaypri says.
Marcus, who is now eighty-two and suffering from Alzheimer’s, has had her legacy preserved by her daughter who is happy to have checked off one of the top items on her mother’s bucket list with the completion of her book. It was a big job and a true honor. “I wish I could talk to her right now in light of everything going on; I’m really curious about what she would say.”
In spite of the hardships her mother faced, being one of the first to do the work she did, she writes in the book that, “Race Relations weren’t exactly listed in the classifieds…” Dorothy forged a very different path than most women in her generation, mainly by not marrying right out of college in order to do this work and not having any idea how long it would last. “She never gave up… I think her message would be, ‘Don’t give up on it because you have this work to do; I started it for you and I’m not the only one…but you and those left have to pick up the baton.’ ”
To learn more about Dorothy’s Story, visit http://www.dorothystory.com and the I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know Facebook page. You can also find I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know: A Southern White Woman’s Story About Race on Amazon.
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