The story of the strawberry birthmark – and behind that the story of the poisoned berry – intrigued me when Aunt Dorothy told it and has fascinated people I’ve told it to since. But is there more? Is there something darker, something needing to reach awareness, something striving toward justice?
I posted the story on the urging of a friend. That day she had asked me two interwoven questions: Did my family talk openly about histories of racial injustice? Did my family hide secrets?
My friend is a person of color. She said that she hadn’t before asked a white person this.
She elaborated: “I have learned from many white friends that they they were in college before they learned about atrocities that happened, and are still happening, to indigenous and African-American populations in the US and in Minnesota. Rarely does a white person say that their families talked regularly about racial injustice at home.
She went on, “When we learn hard realities as an everyday thing in childhood, we learn words to describe painful historical and current occurrences. But if we don’t hear those topics discussed, we learn as children that our culture expects us to stay silent about them. Through this silence we keep secrets about society without even knowing we are keeping them.
“As a kid growing up in a country at war, I heard my parents speaking openly everyday about injustices, riots, and the unfairness of receiving a privilege just because of ethnicity. When I came to the US, I noticed people of color having conversation about race quite normally.
“But I myself have kept quiet and never talked about race with white people.”
I found myself telling her the strawberry birthmark tale as an example of a family secret. She urged me to post it.
The next day I did. And I did more. Though I had often looked for a historical account of the event and never found it, I tried once again.
To my surprise, the record appeared. The Poison Strawberry: Murder of Lelia Long 1896 had been published just five years earlier. Nancy Bowers presented the murder record, clearly the one from my family’s past, on a website called “Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases.”
Since finding that history–a more harrowing telling than Aunt Dorothy’s presentation–I have begun to think more deeply. In future posts I will explore what I am uncovering about secret keeping, and about learned blindness, in my own inherited culture.