Katie Barnes ’09 remembers the impact racism can have on a person even while doing a sixth grade research project.
Barnes was the featured speaker at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance Monday. A writer for ESPNW and featured in several other publications, Barnes is the daughter of Culver Academies instructors Mitch and Cory Barnes.
While doing a Google search of family names, Katie found that Cory’s maiden name – Henneman – was German and Mitch’s name – Barnes – was Welsh. Welsh?
“I don’t know if you know this, but my dad is black. And his father is black. And his father is black. And so on. So here I am at 12 years old staring at this information, and I’m like everything that I’ve been told is that black people are from Africa, so how do I have this Welsh last name?
“Barnes is the name of the family that owned my father’s family. This was the first time that I stared slavery in the face and understood, as much as a 12-year-old could, the depth of impact racism has on my family’s life.”
While at St. Olaf College, Katie had a class that was doing “dense facting.” It is where a person looks at something, like an inventory list, and analyzes what that information provides about the time and the people.
“Listed among the possessions after pottery and just before furniture were people. My people.”
“I will never forget clicking on an inventory belonging to a Barnes from North Carolina. Listed among the possessions after pottery and just before furniture were people. My people. They could have been my great-great-great-great-grandparents or cousins or aunts or uncles. Nothing prepared me for what I felt in that moment. It was like a 40-pound dumbbell pressed on my stomach.
“I had understood that my family was enslaved at some point. I understood it theoretically, but there is something all-together different about staring at the historical record of your own subjugation.”
Barnes said those personal moments have everything to do with honoring Dr. King, especially during the 50th anniversary of his death on April 4.
What Dr. King, the women’s right movements, gay liberation, and the Chicano rights movements demanded was for the privileged majority to confront both a historical and present reality that equal protection under the law was not equally applied. “They held mirrors up to the rest of society to fight not just for a better present, but a better future.”
It is uncomfortable to think about, Barnes said, but the “only way to grow is to be challenged and uncomfortable.” And while someone may say something that makes us angry, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard. Setting aside the anger and hearing what is being said is hard work, “but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
“Constructive dialogue demands that we set aside competitive notions of winning and losing and engage in good faith,” Barnes continued. “Dr. King said ‘darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.’ If we can find the strength within ourselves to reach for love, especially when it is hard, then perhaps we can end the narrative of racial violence in this country.”
And, while individuals cannot control what happened in the past, “We can, however, control what we read and what we watch. We can decide to seek out information that challenges our beliefs. We can critically examine why we believe what we do. We can read authors who come from a different perspective. We can relentlessly pursue truth while understanding that it is largely in the eye of the beholder.”
Barnes then quoted a passage from a speech by former President Barack Obama: “We are a people of improbable hope. With an eye toward the future, with resolve in our hearts, let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.”
Would Dr. King be proud of us today? Barnes asked. “That question cannot be answered. He is not here. You are. And we have a decision to make. I’m willing to listen, sit in my own discomfort, and remake the world. Wanna come along?”