“Ever’thing there is but lovin’ leaves a rust on yo’ soul.
An’ to love sho ‘nough, you got to have a spot in yo’ heart fo’ ever’body –
great an’ small, white an’ black,
an’ them what’s good an’ them what’s evil –
‘cause love ain’t got no crowded-out places where de good ones stay
an’ de bad ones can’t come in.
When it gets that way, then it ain’t love.”
– Langston Hughes, Not Without Laughter, 1930
I have been greatly affected by the awareness of the disproportionate violence, murder, oppression and incarceration of the Black population of our country. I am embarrassed and feel a sense of shame that I have been in a bubble and lacked awareness and understanding of this.
I was raised in a family that stood with the demands of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s. My father’s best friend was a man named after the African National Congress governmental party opposing Apartheid. My son was baptized by a man who lived with Martin Luther King Jr’s. family and held his father when he grieved the murder of his son. My mother worked with those living in one of the most researched areas of poverty in NYS. She was often called to homes to defuse acts of domestic violence against women and children. When she knocked on the doors she was usually greeted by a man holding a shotgun. I designed Christmas cards to be sent to Daniel Berrigan and sent them to the Danbury Prison where he was held for non-violent protest against war. How could I be anything but enlightened on the struggles of the Black community, violence against women, those who are homeless, living in poverty, the protesters of war, violence and oppression?
“The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.”
Well, let me tell you. I am not enlightened. In fact I feel almost ignorant. I don’t even remember which murder of which Black person ignited this awareness…there have been too many recently. But something happened and inside I felt a deep, deep sadness. A pain. And I stopped and listened and read, and listened some more.
I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son, Between the World and Me and I cried. I cried for Ta-Nehisi has a human being, a friend, a son, a husband, a father. I cried for his son and his wife. And I felt so ashamed for my own ignorance. I cried because if I were to write a letter to Caitlin or Evan it would be so, so different. And I am embarrassed.
I have received the message loud and clear from some friends that they find these discussions on racism, Black Lives Matter unnecessary, tiresome, irrelevant, unimportant, over-blown, exaggerated. They are wrapped up in their lives…lives that are full and rich, where bills get paid, vacations are had, food is on the table, where fear revolves around ISIS and Mexican immigrants, rather than a traffic stop. They have no time to just look around and see what is happening to the “Others”. I am going to speak my mind. Listen or don’t. Reflect, pause, look around, or don’t. I want to be a person who learns, and grows, who cares, who stands up for every single person who experiences any thing that prevents them from experiencing the same life with the same rights, privileges, security, possibilities as I have. I do not expect my child to be gunned down on a playground. I do not expect my son to be killed for a traffic violation. I do not expect my daughter, for any reason, to be dragged out of her home, violently restrained, shot or anything else, by police. I do not expect it. BUT, we have a whole group of people who DO expect this, and raise their children to live in fear even as members in their own communities, where they go to school, to college, work, and contribute to these communities.
“I think we have to own up to the fears
that we have of each other,
and then in some practical way, some daily way,
figure out how to see people differently
than they way we were brought up to.”
There is so much talk of American freedom and the call to protect and defend those freedoms. Yet, in our own country many of our citizens do not have the same freedoms a majority the rest of us call on to be protected.
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.”
We have to look in the mirror, our own and our society/culture’s, and understand what is there. We have to take off the protective veils, remove the band aids. What is there without make-up, before shaving, with uncombed hair, splotchy skin…what is really there? And we have to face that as truth.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed,
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
We can pray. We can recite the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Prayer may bring sense of comfort, but it may be seen as an excuse for not taking responsibility and action. We can believe God answers prayer as he sees fit, or we can take personal action. We can believe the Constitution somehow is magically true for everyone, that the Bill of Rights does apply to everyone. Or we can drop the mask and see the reality.
We….I….you…..are being called on and challenged to change. To take down the walls we have put up around ourselves by rationalizing why as a society we continue to disparage groups of people who are not white.
“The point is that right now they are not treated as though they matter equally. Some people’s lives are treated as precious, others as disposable garbage. If you really do believe all lives matter, then your focus should be on black lives, which are demonstrably the most neglected lives in our country and, for that matter, the world. Treating a focus on black lives as a “special interest” or parochial concern requires willful ignorance about what kind of world we actually live in.” All Lives Matter, Arthur Chu, Salon
I will not stop listening to the stories of the “Other”, whether they are Black, gay, trans-gendered, the incarcerated, the homeless, the mentally ill. I will not stop seeing, reading, listening, learning. I will not pretend to know everything, to be right or correct. I will not be blind or biased. I will pop the bubble I live in and step out and admit to not really understanding what has happened and is happening in this country. I will not hide behind not caring, ignorance, ignoring, blaming, shaming, making excuses.
I will not succumb to fear of any kind. I will not be told what to believe without doing my homework. I will not deny the existence of racism in this country. I will never defend racism. I will fight inequality, double standards.
“Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear.
Show us belief’s wide skirt
and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.” –
Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture in Literature
I will love, be compassionate. I will use my voice and writing to stop racism, bigotry, bias, discrimination, intolerance. I will listen and learn in order to understand. I will not tip my head down, but will lift it up and open my eyes and meet the gaze of others without fear or worry. I will work to understand in order to create change. I’ll look in the mirror to see who looks back and I’ll let the mask drop in order to see clearly who I am.
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without
and know we cannot live within.
I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense
but as a state of being, or a state of grace–
not the infantile American sense of being made happy,
but in the tough and universal sense
of quest and daring and growth.”
Dr. Peggy McIntosh, former co-director of Wellesley Centers for Women, directs the Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education Project, which provides workshops on privilege systems. She is a feminist and anti-racist activist and co-director of the National S.E.E.D. Project on Inclusive Curriculum. One of her defining studies has been on white privilege. Most of us react strongly to those words and begin to deny their possibility before we understand what they mean. She had an interesting epiphany while reading two essays written by women, and here is the result, Please watch.
While there may have been some progress made, white privilege has not gone away. The current catch phrase seems to be “white fragility”. I didn’t know it, but I carried the “knapsack” too. I am unpacking it with the intention of putting it away.
And finally, for those of you who are still with me…this blew me away:
It’s no fun to take a hard look at who think we are, and discover who we actually are. There is no disgrace or shame in doing this and understanding that we may in fact have biases. The gift we are offered is the possibility of change. It costs us nothing, yet offers much: the chance to evolve.
Again, Langston Hughes: “Ever’thing there is but lovin’ leaves a rust on yo’ soul.”
Let’s remove the rust.
(If you have never read the works of the people I have quoted throughout this post, I suggest it would be a good place to begin if my feelings and thoughts triggered anything in you.)
**both photos by me. Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh. Frabel masks.