Secrets On The Surface

Essie Mae Washington-Williams

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the child Strom Thurmond had with a black maid, passed away on Monday. Jelani Cobb reflects on the racial realities her life presented:

James Baldwin once remarked that segregationists weren’t truly driven by the cliché concern of preventing black men from marrying their daughters. Rather, he said, “You don’t want us to marry your wives’ daughters—we’ve been marrying your daughters since the days of slavery.” This is a truth that is forgotten among whites and rarely spoken among blacks. Revelations of the type Washington-Williams made in 2003 were shocking only to those privileged enough to not have this knowledge inflicted upon them personally or etched into their lineage and shaded—literally—into their family history.

In 2003, when the hazy borders between current events and reality TV were still intact, we processed Washington-Williams story as a political scandal, albeit a posthumous one. But in truth this was an affair of an altogether different genus than the family-values pol caught in a brothel or the homophobic pastor found to be conducting a same-sex affair. Hypocrisy may be the price we pay for having our biases catered to in public, but Thurmond’s actions weren’t so much hypocritical as they were surreptitious: not uncommon, just unspoken.

(Photo: Essie Mae Washington-Williams (2nd R), during a news conference Wednesday December 17, 2003 in Columbia, South Carolina, says that Senator Strom Thurmond acknowledged her privately as his daughter and provided financial support for her starting in 1941. Flanking Williams are her daughter, Wanda Terry, son Jason Terry and her attorney Frank Wheaton (R). By Stephen Morton/Getty Images)