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HEALING A NATION: Lettie Shumate talks history, anti-racism and progressing forward

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Lettie Shumate often speaks across the community on Black history and anti-racism. Courtesy photo

 

Local historian and anti-racist educator Lettie Shumate remembers seventh-grade social studies well. Specifically, she was learning about continents worldwide, and each time Africa was discussed, overtones of poverty, mistreatment and heartache seemed to be prevalent. When it came time to choose a country for her class project, she landed on Botswana. Independent research taught her that Botswana was a flourishing country—a Mecca of resources for other African countries, even.

“It was far more than what the white-washed history books had described,” she says.

It was Shumate’s first encounter with history in a way that piqued her interest. She couldn’t predict at the time she would have a career as an historian; back then the subject matter bored her. The very abridged information coming out of the McGraw-Hill textbooks in primary school felt like a hoodwink — perpetuating false narratives, like soft-shoeing slavery by indicating Africans “migrated” to America.

“Aside from the fact those textbooks are just wrong a lot, they also teach timelines and sub-timelines with only a few talking points,” Shumate says. “They never go deep into the context of an event, person or place. Black history during the Civil War was just Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. We don’t learn that after enslavement, slaves are in fact not free. Black people couldn’t move about how they wanted; black men were seen as rapists and women as jezebels and prostitutes, which were perpetuated by laws like vagrancy, Black codes and Jim Crow — all made to protect white society.”

When Shumate got to Brunswick Community College, where she received her associate’s degree, her passion for history gained footing. A professor who didn’t use textbooks or PowerPoint approached it as storytelling instead. “He brought it to life for me and I just soaked in everything,” she says. Shumate transferred to UNCW in 2008, and an inspiring department of history professors helped her thrive: Dr. Harris, Dr. Pollard, Dr. Fonvielle and Dr. Townend, among others. She minored in political science and, with Dr. Harris as her mentor in history, landed on a concentration that excited her: Black American history.

“Dr. Harris taught all-things Black history,” Shumate praises. “He taught the bigger picture — not just dates and times because history’s not in a vacuum; it’s not linear. Historians don’t just study or write about one event without looking at everything before and after it. Take the Black Panther party, for instance: It requires primary research, which means research from the actual time, but it doesn’t just start with the party in 1966. It would also point back to Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in the mid-1800s and Marcus Garvey in the 1930s. . . . My professors would teach us to learn everything between the lines, not just in the books but reading the footnotes and all the research the writers did, and everything else that connected, to always go deeper. It’s a neverending hole, really.”

Shumate eventually graduated with her masters in history from UNCW in 2015. She intended to teach in a school setting; however, the lack of jobs in Wilmington didn’t help her pursuits, so she ended up working at an eye doctor’s office and then at PPD as a project assistant. While at PPD, she took her lunch breaks at Cape Fear Community College to teach world history as an adjunct professor. It was a rigorous schedule she kept up with for over a year.

Then UNCW began a new program in conflict management and resolution, which delves into therapeutic ways to help people talk about grievances and trauma. Shumate decided learning how to unload the aftereffects left on American systems and its citizens from racism would complement her knowledge as an historian. She decided to return to school for her second masters, quit PPD and took a part-time position at Wilmington Center for Innovation, Recreation and Education (WIRE) afterschool program.

“It was a lot of hard work that almost broke me,” she admits. Yet, in May 2020 Shumate graduated with her fourth degree.

FINDING HER OWN PATH

Two weeks after Shumate’s graduation, the George Floyd murder took place, pushing the trajectory of everything she studied for the last decade, and experienced firsthand as a Black woman her whole life, to the forefront of international discussion. There was nowhere to turn without conversations arising about race relations, how to deal with injustices and most importantly how to make significant changes.

“It’s been a rough two months for Black people in America,” the 32-year-old says forthrightly. “It feels different, though. Everything we are seeing right now, we’ve seen before; only now it’s recorded on iPhones so the whole world is seeing it, too. Emotionally, it’s heavy lifting.”

Shumate wants to help people on their anti-racist journeys. A year ago she began a podcast, “Sincerely, Lettie,” which initially was a blog featuring various topics concerning racism and the white supremacy that controls America’s functioning. “Then I realized people aren’t going to read a 20-page blog about history, but they’ll listen to a 15-minute podcast. It’s easier to talk things through than write it.” At first, Shumate had a few hundred people tuning into “Sincerely, Lettie” every Wednesday. She covered topics ranging from “Wow, You Speak So Well: Tone-Policing and Microaggressions” to “The March on Washington: Dr. King’s Truths and the Urgency Now.”

“People like to freeze Dr. King in time with his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Shumate says. “They don’t talk about 1967 King, protesting the Vietnam War or his ‘Letters from Birmingham Jail.’ People forget his disapproval rating.”

It’s all evident on how racism has never been an easy topic for America to digest, and it’s the reason Shumate was drawn to her subsequent studies in conflict management. She knew if she was going to speak to people about tough topics, she had to be armed with the right tools to allow honesty and openness to prevail. “My second [masters] degree taught me more about myself because a lot of my professors are therapists, so the work sounds a lot like psychology,” Shumate explains. “This style of communication, dealing with conflicts, is often pursued when working with families and mediation in the community.”

Though she isn’t interested in being a court-appointed mediator or social worker, she does want to address proper ways to deal with trauma as a Black woman — more so, to help people unpack and work through issues that plague our nation, as to reach the greater good of society. In her case, it comes as being an anti-racist educator. “But America hasn’t caught on to that title, yet,” Shumate clarifies. “People think trauma is sexual assault and violence; we don’t think of it as starting a new job, or you getting ignored as a child, or being body shamed, or being followed in a store merely because you’re black. We think of these things as hardships, maybe, not trauma. But if you don’t deal with all levels of trauma seen throughout history, then how can you possibly empathize with people and what they’re going through?”

Specifically, Shumate is talking about white people joining the fight against systemic racism that encumbers brown and Black people. For real change, a commitment must come to work together to dismantle policies and laws, and structures and values that uphold white supremacy culture. She says white people must become true advocates, not silent allies.

“Whenever you choose to do that, it’s a lifelong pursuit of internal work,” Shumate tells. “It doesn’t matter if you have good intentions, or if you have one black friend, or if you grew up with a black neighbor. You can’t be out here, listening to things happening that are racist, laughing at racist jokes from your racist aunt and not say anything, but still expect to be seen as a good person. If you do, then you just don’t want to be uncomfortable, you don’t want to sacrifice anything, and you don’t want change. You don’t want to see and understand. But we have to confront it; it’s not going away. Racism isn’t just the Klan and neo-Nazis; it is systemic and in our laws. It’s as simple as ‘John’ versus ‘Jamarkus’ on a job application.”

Shumate says advocacy first starts by others listening and believing Black people when they articulate experiences and feelings from their world paradigm. She also suggests a lot of reading; Joy DeGruy’s book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” and Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score” are good starting points to understand the wounds that cut through America’s veins. “It’s no wonder black people have more issues with health — yes, because of poverty, but our bodies hold onto stress and trauma and the reaction of it,” Shumate says. “It’s passed down, just like you have curly hair that your grandma passed down to you. The same is done with trauma, but people don’t register it like that. We don’t realize how much we go through that we don’t deal with.”

GAINING TRACTION

In the last month, Shumate has seen an increase in followers of “Sincerely, Lettie,” which now garners listeners in the thousands. She’s also been a guest on numerous podcasts, including “Her Story Speaks” and “Speaking of Racism.” She launched a Patreon account — a subscription-based platform that allows people to support independent work from creatives. In this case, subscribers learn from Shumate about anti-racism and Black history in America. She has four tiers, ranging from $5 to $25 a month, all named after some of her idols: Stokely Carmichael, Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis and James Baldwin. Each tier offers resource lists on articles, books, films, podcasts, whatever media she has researched recently. Upper tiers even come with Q&A sessions with Shumate.

At the end of May, when she started Patreon, Shumate had only a few subscribers, but by July 1 over 500 were logged. Her Instagram, @Sincerely.Lettie, also shot up to over 31k followers in the last month. On both platforms, folks will find one-on-one talks and webinars on various race topics, plus anti-racism reading lists. “It’s no different than someone paying to attend a conference,” she compares. In her own right, Shumate is a modern-day civil rights crusader, spreading knowledge and truth, much like her heroes: James Baldwin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker.

“Dr. King would not be possible without Baker,” she informs. “The civil rights movement would not be possible without Black women, period. History shows us pictures of marches, but you don’t see the strategies behind it, or the hours and hours of training that happen beforehand.”

It’s the same with Shumate as an educator. Much like an eighth-grade teacher would spend nights doing lesson plans and classroom management, the historian stays up reading, researching and planning her own lessons for her followers. She often juggles three or four books at a time, most recently rereading “The New Jim Crow,” while also tackling “Far More Terrible For Women: Personal Accounts of Women in Slavery” and “Slavery By Another Name.”

“I share all research with my subscribers — like a 1933 article I came across on lynching, or a James Baldwin article from 1965, which could’ve been written today. In fact, there’s no difference in what happened in World War II Germany in 1945 then things happening right now; they just look different. I make those connections for people because that’s what history is: connecting the past to the present.”

The fact Shumate is a Black, female historian in 2020 in itself is a rarity. A professor at UNCW even forewarned her about being challenged more, simply because of those distinguishing factors. Locally, however, her voice has become revered. She has given lectures at museums, including Bellamy Mansion, where she serves on the board. Last year, she spoke about the “Negro Motorist Green-Book” stops in Wilmington—a fundamental list of places where Black people could “safely” stay and visit during the Jim Crow era of America. In the past month, she has spoken at local protests, including last week’s ILM Sit-In at Hugh MacRae, where she broke down the foundation of the park’s namesake and Hugh MacRae’s white supremacist leadership in the 1898 Massacre.

Shumate serves on a committee for DREAMS Center for Arts Education to create an educational platform on racism that instills positive values in children. She also co-chairs the New Hanover County Community Remembrance Project through the Equal Justice Initiative. Their goal is to collect soil from different locations in Wilmington where black people were killed during the 1898 Massacre to display at the official Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and at the Cape Fear Museum locally. “COVID put it on hold for a bit, but we are back and doing more stuff, with a ceremony planned in November,” she assures.

In the next few weeks, Shumate will be launching her official website, filing paperwork for her LLC and starting a new season of podcasts, to launch on July 15. It will include an episode of lesser-known people in Black history — “unsung heroes, if you will, like Fred Shuttlesworth and Dorothy Heights.” Her new season also will include interviews with other professionals in anti-racist education and Black history.

“I knew I always wanted to help people,” Shumate reflects. “I just didn’t realize it would translate into me helping people learn about the depth of inhumanity that racism causes. I want to help people be changed by what they don’t know, by what they need to know. . . . In American history, everything connects to racism and white supremacy. I don’t mean to sound negative; it’s just honest. I think that’s why people don’t want to listen because they say, ‘Oh, you’re bringing up race.’ Yeah, because I don’t have the option not to. It requires us all to truly face what’s happening. If you’re sick in the hospital, you’re going to want to know what caused it. You’re going to want to know how to heal. It’s the same for our nation. Why would we not want to dissect the real problems racism has caused in America so we can actually progress?”

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