Black History's Family Tree
B A PARKER, HOST:
An important note to our listeners - later in this episode, we discuss rape in the context of slavery.
Hey, y'all. I'm B.A. Parker, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR. Now, we're celebrating Black History Month, which - I know - why is it in a month with only 28 days? I get it. But it was intentional because of Carter G. Woodson. He bargained for a week - Negro History Week - in 1926. And he chose February because of the births of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. And then it grew into what we know as Black History Month in the 1970s. I naively didn't know Carter G. Woodson was such a big deal until I went to college at an HBCU - go, Morgan State - where there was literally a building named after him. And that's where you can dive into his legacy as a scholar and an educator.
Education for Carter G. Woodson was paramount. He was the second Black person to get a doctorate from Harvard. He taught at Howard. He helped pioneer the idea that there was such a thing as Black history and that it should be taught. And today, we've got a story about the literal legacy of Carter G. Woodson. Now, I want to welcome someone to the CODE SWITCH mic with me. She's a correspondent on NPR's race and identity desk and an awesome new friend to the show, Sandhya Dirks. Hi, Sandhya.
SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Hi, Parker. So I want to introduce you to the literal legacy of Carter G. Woodson.
BRETT WOODSON BAILEY: I do more or less remember, like, learning about Carter G. Woodson 'cause my mom made a big deal about it. Like, when she told me, she was like, you are the descendant of a very famous, like, historical figure. You have to remember this and tell all your friends and brag about it.
DIRKS: Brett Woodson Bailey is Carter G. Woodson's great-great-grandnephew.
B WOODSON BAILEY: I started to understand the importance of Carter G. Woodson more as I grew up - not so much, like, his relation to me 'cause, at the end of the day, like, I'm still, you know, me. I wasn't - I'm not exactly, like, carrying down his legacy too much. Well, I guess I kind of am by still being here because, you know, he was a fighter fighting for civil rights.
DIRKS: I met up with Brett at his college campus. He's a sophomore at University of California, Santa Cruz. And talking with him, I got to hear him really thinking through what it means to carry on a legacy.
B WOODSON BAILEY: I took a Black studies class, and they literally mentioned him in class. And I was like, wow. Like, I was really his descendant.
DIRKS: In that class, they read Carter G. Woodson's most famous work - his probably defining work - "The Mis-Education Of The Negro." And as the title suggests, it gets at how even when Black people began to have some access to schooling after slavery, it was still limited - often designed to keep folks oppressed.
B WOODSON BAILEY: And it was not good education. Very few people in the community were actually getting education. And by the time they, like, left, like, high school, or if they made it to college - which was very rare - like, they usually came out with, like, a pretty pessimistic mindset 'cause they were always being told that, like, the white way, I guess, is the right way.
DIRKS: A lot has changed in the century since then. When Carter G. Woodson was 20, he was only just getting to begin high school. That's the age Brett is now, and he's in college, learning about his ancestor. But some things haven't changed. Carter G. Woodson wrote that Black people were overlooked, ignored and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who used them. Sound familiar?
PARKER: I mean, that definitely sounds familiar - like, if you look at what is happening in Florida with the AP African American studies course being rejected.
DIRKS: And, like, there are multiple states where teachers are banned from talking about so-called divisive topics - aka, you aren't allowed to talk about systemic racism.
PARKER: Schools banning books about Black experiences - "The Bluest Eye," "How To Be An Antiracist."
DIRKS: The things Carter G. Woodson was writing about - it's still happening, injuring people today, because the past isn't past. I asked Brett about that. It's a question that's big, philosophical, maybe impossible to answer.
What does it mean to heal the past?
B WOODSON BAILEY: To heal the past? Wow. That's like a - how do you start with a question like that? To heal the past...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DIRKS: We might never be able to heal the past. But at the very least, we can be honest about it. Part of Carter G. Woodson's whole thing was that we can't segregate history. Like, you can't have white history over here and then Black history over here because they are intertwined. Every piece of American history - every American origin story is inextricably linked with Black history. And really, Brett's family - the Woodson family - they are living proof of that.
B WOODSON BAILEY: Maybe, in the back of my head, I thought it was kind of weird that he was white. I'm like, hmm, I don't have any other white cousins.
PARKER: Wait - hold on. So Brett has a white cousin? OK. I think I see where this is going. Sandhya, tell us about the white cousin.
DIRKS: Meet Craig Woodson. He's at the center of this because he's spent the last 40 years learning to tell a very different family story than the one he grew up with. When Brett was little, he got sat down by his mom and told he was related to Carter G. Woodson. Cousin Craig, on the other hand, was told by his parents that their family could trace their roots all the way back to 1619 - to America's first colony. Craig grew up in the '40s and '50s in segregated Kentucky, and he remembers, in their house, there was this old genealogy book that told the whole tale.
CRAIG WOODSON: There's the book. It's on the shelf, you know? We grew up. There's the book. We never read it. We never looked at it. It was just there. And we knew the story. And they would say, yeah, ancestors came from Jamestown, and da, da-da, da-da (ph).
DIRKS: The story goes, the first Woodsons, John and Sarah (ph), came to America to make a new life for themselves in the new world.
C WOODSON: There were two sons - who was it? - Robert and John (ph)? I can't remember now - but two sons.
DIRKS: One day, when the father was out...
C WOODSON: There was an Indian attack.
DIRKS: So Sarah Woodson leaps into action, grabs boiling water off the stove.
C WOODSON: The story is that she scalded some of the Indians coming down - the Native Americans coming down the chimney.
DIRKS: And she quickly hides her children - her two boys - to keep them safe.
C WOODSON: One under a potato bin and one under a tub.
DIRKS: And they were safe. They grow up, have kids. And from those two genealogical lines of Woodsons come all the American Woodsons.
C WOODSON: There were two lineages then of Woodsons, and those were the tubs and the potato bins. And I'm a tub Woodson.
DIRKS: It's this kind of apocryphal family lore that many have and pass down. But this is, of course, a white American origin story.
PARKER: I mean, there's tubs. There's potato bins. There's incredibly problematic depictions of Indigenous people.
DIRKS: Yep - and, in the way white American origin stories tend to be, erasing anything but the heroic white point of view, casting Native people as violent savages, conveniently forgetting the colonization and violence that began the American experiment, ignoring that the new world was not new. But also, because it turns out there weren't just potato-bin Woodsons and tub Woodsons, Craig would find out that there was another line of Woodsons - the one that would eventually lead him to Carter G. Woodson. But he didn't find that out until 1984, when Craig was already 41 years old.
PARKER: Wait. What happened in 1984?
DIRKS: So the U.S. government releases a postage stamp of...
PARKER: Carter G. Woodson?
C WOODSON: I bought a stamp. And I looked at it, and I thought, you know, this is interesting. I'm going to ask my dad. And so I went to him, and I said, what's the deal with the Black Woodsons? Who are they? And he said - right there, he said, well, it's in our genealogy.
DIRKS: So Craig went, and he got the family book. In 1619, a ship called the White Lion brought about 20 kidnapped Angolans to Point Comfort, in what is now Virginia. The Woodsons bought and then enslaved six of them. They may have been some of the first Americans. They were also some of the first enslavers.
PARKER: And this was in their family book?
DIRKS: In the first six pages. Craig has this whole book that he hadn't looked at too closely, and finding out the truth was hidden in plain sight. It was painful for him. He was angry at his ancestors, at his family, at his father.
C WOODSON: I was devastated. I could not believe this piece of our family's story that had never been passed on. And I'm not sure, but - I don't know if I harassed him, but I said, why didn't you ever tell us that? And he said, well, you never asked.
DIRKS: To understand how this all affected Craig so profoundly, I think it helps to know a little bit about him. So Craig is a musicologist. He has this whole past life as a drummer. He played with Linda Ronstadt. And in the late '60s, he was part of this famous, experimental, avant garde, psychedelic rock band called the United States of America. But his field of study - his real passion - is African drumming. He had actually just gotten back from doing fieldwork in Ghana when he found that stamp.
PARKER: Oh, Sandhya. You're describing a very specific kind of white man that sounds like he's come out of an "Atlanta" episode.
DIRKS: I mean, Craig is a character for sure.
PARKER: It's really giving that TikTok meme - you are freaking African Americans - plus Mark.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LAST CHANCE U")
JOHN MOSELEY: Plus Mark.
MOSELEY: You know what I'm saying? Which - I'm rocking with Mark because Mark is rocking with us.
DIRKS: He is kind of that guy. He's kind of the guy who's invited to the cookout, and he'll come, bring five side dishes and talk your ear off. So when Craig found out about his family's real past, it hit him hard. A lot of his friends and colleagues were Black. His first impulse was to hide the truth, just like his family had for so many years.
C WOODSON: I didn't want to be the person where everybody turns around and say, oh, really? - kind of thing. Like, is that who you really are? Is that who your family really is? You're one of them kind of thing. And I just didn't want to be associated with slavery. I didn't want to have that name a part of me, and there was no way I could get around it. And I didn't want to face that. And that's what ultimately brought me to say, I've got to face it.
DIRKS: After months, he finally worked up the courage to tell this horrible part of his family story.
C WOODSON: Not just horrible - like, the most horrible thing that you could ever tell someone in the Black community - that your family not only were slave owners, but huge slave owners and the first slave owners - the first enslavers in this country.
PARKER: OK. I've got to say, it seems like he's giving himself a little too much credit. It's new information for Craig, sure. But if I'm looking at Craig, like, I already know.
DIRKS: Maybe that's why, when he finally told one of his closest friends, a Black woman, also a musicologist, named Betty Cox, she was really not surprised.
C WOODSON: And I said, Betty, I got to tell you something. I'm getting emotional just thinking about it. I told her the story. And without batting an eye, in her beautiful way, she said, wow, that's interesting. My best friend is Aileen Woodson. And I thought, wow, that was easy. And then she said, you want to talk to him? And her husband's Edgar. He's related to Carter G. You want to meet him? Just, like, boom, boom, boom. So that was it.
DIRKS: It's a crazy chain of coincidences and connections. Craig's good friend was Betty. Betty's best friend was Aileen Woodson, who was married to Edgar Woodson, who was the grandnephew of Carter G. Woodson.
C WOODSON: Within 15 minutes or so of me telling her, I'm standing there talking to Edgar. And - yeah.
DIRKS: Why do you think it makes you so emotional to remember that?
C WOODSON: It's powerful. It's one of the most powerful things that ever happened in my life - when you realize something is so easy once you confront it.
DIRKS: They sat. They had tea. They talked for hours, and it led to this long-term friendship. At a certain point, Craig became cousin Craig, not just to Aileen and Edgar, who have now both passed, but to their daughter, Adele Woodson Bailey and then, when he was born, to Brett, who is Adele's kid, Aileen and Edgar's grandchild. I talked to Adele on the phone, and she told me the bond that grew between their family - it wasn't some overnight, magic-fairy-dust kind of thing. At first, she was skeptical. Here's this white guy coming in and talking about this deep historical connection. And Adele is like, you can't just show up and say we're cousins.
PARKER: That sounds fairly reasonable, but what changed?
DIRKS: I think what changed was time and effort. Craig kept showing up. The family introduced him to more cousins. They started going to funerals and weddings. Now, for Adele and Brett, Craig is real family, like blood.
(SOUNDBITE OF RINGBACK TONE)
B WOODSON BAILEY: Calling him - he's pretty good at picking up, so let's see.
DIRKS: He's cousin Craig.
B WOODSON BAILEY: He's a pretty busy guy.
C WOODSON: Hey, hey, Brett.
B WOODSON BAILEY: Oh, dang. Right there. Hey, I'm with...
C WOODSON: Are you with Sandhya?
B WOODSON BAILEY: I'm doing the interview right now...
C WOODSON: Cool.
B WOODSON BAILEY: ...With...
DIRKS: Craig was there for Brett when he got childhood cancer. He watched Brett grow up. He taught Brett how to drive. And they still talk all the time.
C WOODSON: OK, Brett, take care, man. We'll talk later.
B WOODSON BAILEY: All right. Yeah. Talk to you later. All right. Bye.
C WOODSON: All right. Be well. Take care. Bye. Bye-bye.
DIRKS: By the time Brett was born, Craig had already been part of the family for almost two decades. They had already become this blended family. Somewhere along the way, before Brett was born, Craig got to a point where he wanted to do something more than just show up - a grand gesture to try and own what his family had done.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
C WOODSON: I apologize on behalf of my ancestors.
AMY WOODSON-BOULTON: I'm not going to pretend that it wasn't awkward.
MICHELLE EVANS-OLIVER: Craig - it's easier for him to get over it, more so than for us, who've - we live it.
PARKER: That's coming up.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PARKER: CODE SWITCH. Now, Sandhya, when we left off, Craig Woodson, a white descendant of enslavers, became close family with the Black Woodsons - the descendants of the people his family enslaved - starting with Edgar and Aileen Woodson.
DIRKS: So after a decade of becoming this family, Craig had this idea.
C WOODSON: I got to the point, and I said, I would really like to make an apology on behalf of my ancestors to, you know, your family.
DIRKS: Craig had independently apologized to Edgar and Aileen and other cousins, but he felt like something more was needed.
C WOODSON: I felt so horrible that this has been a part of my upbringing and I never knew it, but I wanted to make it a more public, familywide - with all my relatives around and everybody around, so that we all acknowledged it.
DIRKS: He wanted to do something ceremonial. He wanted to take responsibility for the sins of his forefathers.
PARKER: Sandhya, I don't know about this. Like, it sounds OK in theory, but it makes me itchy.
DIRKS: It definitely feels like it has the potential to be capital-P Problematic. I think it's important to note that Craig approached Edgar about this, and he and Edgar really planned it out together. And the Black Woodsons were really receptive to the idea. Some of the white Woodsons, on the other hand - here's Craig's sister-in-law, Joan Woodson.
JOAN WOODSON: I remember a great deal of awkwardness. I don't think we - you know, our family said this, but we maybe thought it or felt it - OK, are we going to be going there, and then everybody's going to be yelling and screaming us as white people? And they said, we don't know whether we want to do that. And they - you know, Craig said, I don't think it's going to be like that.
C WOODSON: I said, it's not going to happen. And they didn't quite believe me, but they showed up. Everybody showed up.
PARKER: So where did they show up? Like, how'd this play out?
DIRKS: This all happened on an October day in Los Angeles. They were at Edgar and Aileen's church after Sunday service, everyone dressed in their church best. There's actually video of the ceremony. People came up to the pulpit and said the things they wanted to say. White Woodsons got up and spoke. Black Woodsons got up and spoke. Some folks brought gifts to exchange. Craig's sister brought a clock made of light and dark wood, you know, intricately fit together. And she said, it's about time.
PARKER: It's a little cheesy, but I can pick up what they're throwing down. I hear you.
DIRKS: It's cheesy, but also kind of sincere? Here's Craig.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
C WOODSON: I am now going to say again to Edgar that I apologize on behalf of my ancestors for the Holocaust it has caused to your family and your ancestors, and I ask for your forgiveness.
DIRKS: Craig steps down off the dais and he walks down the aisle towards Edgar, who rises to meet him. And then they hug.
DIRKS: I want you to have a chance to hear Edgar, too, because he's not with us anymore. I couldn't talk to him for the story. But he's also at the center of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
EDGAR WOODSON: I believe - those things that have happened in the past - we must recognize them and not put them aside. But we must recognize that they have influenced us and that, if there's going to be a change in our behavior, we have to know why we are changing or why we should change.
PARKER: Oh, Edgar. It's nice to hear his voice.
DIRKS: It really is. I mean, everyone I talked to told me about Edgar and how he was a man of few words. But when he spoke, everybody listened. Edgar's daughter, Adele - Adele is Brett's mom. But Brett wasn't born yet when this all happened, just to keep it clear. Anyways (ph), Adele also spoke. And she was pretty honest that she didn't have high hopes for the whole thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ADELE WOODSON BAILEY: Actually, I thought it was going to be kind of, oh, you know, we'll meet the white Woodsons. We'll shake hands. I was really thinking it was going to be a fairly superficial kind of meeting, to get right down to it. And your apology was so heartfelt and so moving that, you know, it lifted a little of my cynicism and skepticism.
DIRKS: Adele told me she was surprised by how meaningful it all was, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a little strange. Craig's niece, Amy Woodson-Boulton - she was in her 20s when the ceremony took place.
WOODSON-BOULTON: I'm not going to pretend that it wasn't awkward.
DIRKS: She says it was kind of weird, especially for the younger folks.
PARKER: I bet.
WOODSON-BOULTON: Those of us, Black and white, who were in our 20s kind of got together and were like, this is weird.
WOODSON-BOULTON: There was a kind of, like - you know, like, I think there was a kind of collective, like, this kind of awkward and strange. I mean, one of the things that was kind of extraordinary was, of course, that they were hosting us. And Aileen Woodson, Edgar's wife - she and the other ladies of the church put on just this lunch, you know, that was unbelievable. I mean, the amount of food and the kind of - and yet, again, here we were not giving back. They were giving to us. So I think that was almost another layer of strangeness - that we weren't hosting them.
PARKER: I don't love that the Black Woodsons were cooking for the white Woodsons. But, begrudgingly, I have to admit, the apology ceremony seems to have had this lasting impact.
DIRKS: I'm not sure that there's a way for something like this to not be awkward. It's just awkward. But you're right. Take Amy and Adele. They bonded at the ceremony and actually stayed in touch - on Facebook, mostly. They ended up connecting later in life as the mothers of sons with health issues. There was all this talk of the Woodsons continuing to meet up - you know, two families having become one. It didn't totally pan out, except for Craig. Craig kept showing up.
C WOODSON: Those two words - show up - have a lot of meaning to me right now. That's what white people have to do at this conversation. You got to show up.
DIRKS: Amy says, of everything her uncle did, one of the big lasting impacts for the white Woodsons was changing the family story - the story they told about the past. Craig changed how they remembered.
WOODSON-BOULTON: When I think about how it was - even for me growing up with that lore, like, he really did help reframe that heroic tale of, like, pioneer survival spirit - you know, intrepid people going out to the new world. And I think he really - he turned that around.
DIRKS: In many ways, he broke the myth.
PARKER: Respectfully, that's all fine and good. But what about the Black Woodsons? They are more than just the first few pages of a white family's genealogy book.
DIRKS: For the Black Woodsons, there was no myth to break. For the Black Woodsons, as for many Black folks, slavery is not some mystery hidden in their past, buried beneath the self-aggrandizing story of brave white ancestors. Slavery is reality. They know their ancestors were enslaved. They know that if they share a last name with some white person, they know what that means. That white person's ancestors probably enslaved their ancestors.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DIRKS: Another thing Craig has done as part of his ongoing work to be honest about the past is to join this group, ASALH.
EVANS-OLIVER: The Association for the Study of African American Life in History, which was founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1915.
DIRKS: So that's Michelle Evans-Oliver, and she started a branch of ASALH in Richmond, Va., where she lives. She met Craig at the National ASALH Conference in 2016.
PARKER: Of course Craig is a member of a ASALH.
DIRKS: Craig definitely goes all-in. Michelle's family story is that they, too, are descended from Carter G. Woodson. Now, she's a pretty serious amateur genealogist, so she's quick to tell me she doesn't have the full paper trail to back that up. But what she has found out is she's related to Craig.
EVANS-OLIVER: I was shocked initially.
C WOODSON: I had done my DNA, and she had done her DNA. And she said, well, let's do a Zoom and connect them and see what it is.
DIRKS: They hopped on a Zoom - this was in 2020. And they put all their genetic info into the computer. And then the computer did its thing and...
C WOODSON: She goes, oh, my God, there it is.
EVANS-OLIVER: He and I - we had the same kind of glasses on. We kind of looked alike to me. And I'm like, yeah, yep - this might be a possibility here.
PARKER: So they're not related because two people fell in love. This genetic connection obviously has some traumatic origins. Do they ever address that?
DIRKS: It's something I wanted to know, too. So I asked Craig.
How did you guys talk about the fact that the way that you are related is quite probably through rape?
C WOODSON: We didn't talk about it. We know what happened. It probably is another level that I haven't probably attached myself to, you know, in any depth, in front of. But, you know, I got to think about it because I don't think it's really come up in a conversation with Adele. It hasn't come - it didn't come up in a conversation with Edgar or Aileen. You know, I just don't think it was there.
DIRKS: Even for Craig, who wants to bring everything to the surface, this part is hard. It's not that it's not hard for Michelle. It's just - it's not something she has the choice to ignore.
EVANS-OLIVER: Is it real? Is it true? You know, it has to be. You know, especially when you look at Craig, and you're like, he's a Woodson. I'm a Woodson. How did we get to be Woodsons?
DIRKS: Especially when she's trying to do her genealogy.
EVANS-OLIVER: You have to really find out who enslaved your family in order to find out - you can find out who your father was at that point, if - you know, who your grandfather was, if he was white.
DIRKS: Michelle wasn't at the apology ceremony. You know, they hadn't met yet. But on the Zoom call where they found out they were related, Craig made a personal apology to her. And Michelle appreciates it. But she says saying I'm sorry can't really heal the past.
EVANS-OLIVER: Craig - it's easier for him to get over it more so than, you know, for us, who've - we kind of still - well, not kind of - we live it. So yeah, he could come to terms with it. And we're going to apologize, and then we're going to move forward. But it's more to it than that.
DIRKS: Part of that, Michelle says, is that we need more than one man - one family - to own up to our past.
EVANS-OLIVER: Why haven't we been able to do this more publicly in the United States? He did what he felt like he needed to do at that time. And if that is what he could do, great. Thank you. But what about the other Craig Woodsons of the world?
DIRKS: Maybe an apology can help heal a family, but the wounds are just so much deeper than that. And the problems - they aren't just family problems. They are systemic problems - inequality, ongoing racism, all the legacies of slavery. Those things need to be addressed with more than an I'm sorry.
C WOODSON: You can't apologize for something like this. It's not something that you can say I'm sorry for because it's too enormous. It's too profound. It's more for the white side than I feel the - go through the feeling it is for the Black side almost because you want to you want to relieve yourself. And it's not about your relief. It's about moving forward.
DIRKS: It's not enough to say you're sorry, Craig says. Nothing will ever really be enough. But Craig is doing what he can, which is, really, trying to live his philosophy of showing up. And he credits the Black Woodsons - starting with Edgar and going all the way down to his grandson, Brett - for being open to him, for graciously hearing his apology, for letting him show up. Showing up is what brought him into Brett's life - not as a stranger, but as family. And for Brett, he kind of doesn't think Craig really has to apologize.
B WOODSON BAILEY: Like, I don't think he's responsible for what his ancestors did. But the fact that he's, like, going out of his way just because, like, the effects and, like, damages and, like - how do you say it? - like, heartache, I guess, a little bit is still there.
DIRKS: When you're 20 years old, I think sometimes the past feels like a long time ago.
B WOODSON BAILEY: I feel like it's almost impossible to try and, like, equate, like - oh, so these damages happened from this time period. How do we, like, convert it to, like, repairing things now? 'Cause, like, people alive today were not alive during slavery.
DIRKS: Part of it is because, you know, like - I'll use the example of Craig and your family, right? Like, one of the reasons Craig's family acquired the wealth that he has - right? - is off of the forced labor of your ancestors.
B WOODSON BAILEY: Yeah.
DIRKS: Like, that's - I mean, again, it's not on him, but that's...
B WOODSON BAILEY: He's still technically benefiting off of it.
PARKER: That's right - break it down for him.
DIRKS: I mean, Brett is trying to work through these things. But the entire country can barely even talk about reparations, so it's no wonder that this 20-year-old can't really wrap his head around what repair and repayment might mean. He's also grappling with the way the past lives on in the present. Like, when we talked about the Black studies class he took where he read Carter G. Woodson, I asked him what his favorite part was. And his answer kind of made me sad.
B WOODSON BAILEY: Hmm. Probably going - just getting to talk with other Black people, to be honest, 'cause we're kind of scarce on this campus. That's actually the biggest reason I joined that class to begin with.
PARKER: Oh, gosh. We need to get this kid to TSU or something. Like, I assume a school in Santa Cruz wouldn't be known for its diversity.
DIRKS: You assume correctly. Less than 5% of the students there are Black, and that's actually an improvement. Even though his mom wanted him to go to Howard, her alma mater, Brett chose this school. And in many ways, he loves it. He loves the track team, where he's a star runner. And he's majoring in environmental science, and he loves basically living in a redwood forest. But being one of the few Black kids on campus is still hard for him. Like, he says, people will cross the street when they see him.
B WOODSON BAILEY: I feel, like, just, like, minor, like, stereotypes are hard to, like, erase in your head. I feel like I get looked at, like, in weird ways sometimes. Maybe it's just in my head, but that's, like, how it feels sometimes.
DIRKS: Brett was just getting ready to go to college when the racial reckoning that wasn't went down in 2020. I asked him how it impacted him, and he told me it felt sort of empty. Even at the time, his white schoolmates sort of postured and posted a lot.
B WOODSON BAILEY: Like, I'm not hearing any of them talk about it now. Like, I'm not hearing them talk about, like, the scarcity of Black people on college campuses or people who - or, like, Black people who are still struggling in neighborhoods and can't, like - and, like, have very little hope because their families have never gone to college and stuff like that.
PARKER: I love that, so often, when Brett talks about racism and inequity, he talks about education, just like Carter Woodson.
DIRKS: Yeah. Sometimes I think it's hard for Brett to understand what Carter G. Woodson has to do with, like, him personally. But the way he talks about education - I mean, it makes sense. He's a college student right now. But it also feels like there's this resonance, even if he doesn't totally see it himself.
PARKER: Yeah. And it kind of seems like Brett and Craig are getting these parallel educations. Both are grappling with their legacy in different ways. I mean, Craig has been on this 40-year journey of learning what it means to step up, right? And then Brett is literally starting from scratch. Like, what are reparations? What does it mean to carry the Woodson name? What does it mean to carry the dreams of your most famous relative by just existing? Like, it's a lot, but it's a beautiful a lot.
DIRKS: It is a beautiful a lot.
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PARKER: Did Craig and the Black Woodsons ever talk about monetary reparations?
DIRKS: I asked Craig that question, and he said it never came up with Aileen and Edgar, so he hadn't ever really done anything about it. Later, he sent me a message saying that he'd added Brett to his will. He says it was something he should have done a long time ago. But for Brett, that's not the point of this.
B WOODSON BAILEY: Yeah. I don't think I'd want any sort of, like, monetary, like, compensation from him.
DIRKS: Craig's reparations are sort of just being there for you.
B WOODSON BAILEY: Yeah. I mean, I guess. Like, to me, it's always just sort of been like he's my cousin in a way.
DIRKS: It's not even reparations at all. It's just family.
B WOODSON BAILEY: Yeah. It's just kind of family. Like, at the end of the day, he's just a good person. If - you could view it as him making up for his ancestors, or you could just view it as him being, like, good - like, a good cousin. I guess it depends on the way you frame it.
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DIRKS: For Brett, seeing their relationship solely through a transactional lens or being just about repairing the past, it ignores this real connection they've established in the present - the one that holds Brett and Craig and Adele and all the other Woodsons together. What's kind of amazing, though, is that, in facing the truth about their past, in intertwining their family stories, they intertwined their families, and they wrote a more honest history. It didn't end racism or heal the past, but it created something very real for Brett and for Craig.
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PARKER: Sandhya, thank you so much for bringing us this story.
DIRKS: Thanks, Parker. It was a real pleasure to be on the show.
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PARKER: And that's our show.
I just wanted to give a quick shout-out to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate you and thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH+ means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch. You can follow us on Instagram @NPRCodeSwitch. I'm @aparkusfarce.
This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan, with help from James Sneed. It was edited by Dalia Mortada and fact-checked by our intern, Olivia Chilkoti. Shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Christina Cala, Jess Kung, Diba Mohtasham, Courtney Stein, Veralyn Williams, Karen Grigsby Bates, Lori Lizarraga, Gene Demby, Steve Drummond and LA Johnson. I'm B.A. Parker. Hydrate.
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