“It is not a romantic matter. It is the unutterable truth: all men are brothers. That’s the bottom line.”
James Baldwin, “The Price of a Ticket”
When I was a kid I had the only bedroom on the ground floor. My parents and three sisters slept upstairs while I inhabited a cocoon adjacent to the rec room where I withdrew into books, many pulled from my parents’ collection in the large wall-to-wall bookcase. Leaning up against my bed in front of the space heater, I discovered a world barely within reach of my imagination, one that existed before I was born in my own country, that persisted in various ways in my own lifetime.
It was the world of the Deep South, but really it was the world of African Americans in the United States during the 20th Century. I discovered it through books called Black Like Me and Nigger there in my white middle class home in a middle class neighborhood: I learned through reading stories difficult to fathom, stories that were troubling and at times horrific. In modern times, as the specter of white supremacy rises once again, I find myself thinking about those stories, about what I learned about conflicts between blacks and whites but more importantly how my heart was opened and my conviction of our equality and interconnection grew strong. Today, in the volatile racial and social situation we face we cannot ignore the fact know our lives are intimately entwined and that we have much to explore, admit, and rework.
I must have been 12 when I read Black Like Me. It was the improbable story of a white journalist named John Howard Griffin who blackened his skin and traveled through the Deep South in 1960 and published an account of his experience 1961. Traveling in the South in an era when segregation reigned, Griffin experienced racial slurs, demeaning comments, fear, and alienation. As soon as he landed in New Orleans, he felt alone, isolated, and as the days wore on and he felt traumatized and afraid for his life. After he published a magazine article and book on his experience he was threatened by many and later beaten and left for dead by KKK members. He left for Mexico.
Nigger is the autobiography of Dick Gregory, a writer, critic, and activist who is still alive today. Gregory tells the story of growing up black in America, his involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and his rise to fame. He writes about his anger at his abusive father and the fact that he almost killed him for assaulting his mother, about being assaulted in a tavern, about poverty and prejudice. He uses humor while portraying intense social issues.
As a young white girl sheltered in a middle class white neighborhood, these books and the stories they told seemed surreal: They shocked me, but I had no way of “processing,” no one to talk to about them. Instead I absorbed them in a way that changed me, that left me feeling more compassion, and more guilt. They touched a deep vein, stirring empathy, grief, and an awareness that I was in some way connected to black people, that skin color would never be enough to separate us in our humanity, that their oppression and suffering had something to do with our society, some sickness in us whites living safely in our nice tract homes in suburbia with every need met.
Given that my parents believed in equality, and that the Civil Rights era woke us up and created change, it seemed that we as a society would continue to evolve and leave those divisive years behind us. My first kiss was with a sweet boy named Robbie who was the only black boy in the school, and whose friendly open spirit attracted me. I read The Invisible Man in that school, and Toni Morrison books on my own, but it seemed to my naïve mind that these stories were of the past, that we had moved into an egalitarian society.
Years later, I moved to Colorado, an experience that unnerved me because everyone I knew and saw was white. When I followed the killings of Travon Martin in 2012 in Sanford, Florida, and Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement it was from a bubble, a small town north of Denver. The shootings and riots and revival of a movement all seemed so remote to me as I recovered from a divorce and tried to make a living, as I buried myself in studies about alternative medicine and healing.
This summer, in 2017, with Trump in the White House, I watched I am Not your Negro, a documentary covering writer and activist James Baldwin’s writings and thoughts on the murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Given Trump’s presidency and the racism in his administration, my earliest empathies and a strong believe in our interconnectedness has been awakened. I know that our violence and destructiveness stem from delusion rather than true threat from one another. No matter how scared of the “other” we feel, we are all in this together, and given the dense population, the fragility of our economic and political systems, I feel my bond with my fellow humans more keenly than ever.
And the drama of “the other” plays out in new forms. Today it is Muslims who are outwardly disparage. At the same time, the unspoken attitude is that “liberal” whites like me as well as African Americans, gay people are bad. We stand in the way of those who want to reclaim a patriarchal white system in which a white God, white males, and corporations hold authority.
We are in a heap of trouble. We cannot hide anymore from the fact that we don’t know how to live together, how to basic human tasks such as grow food, dance and sing, love each other–to create a healthy society and economy, and the lowest most divisive energies are tearing things down. We have to acknowledge that our quest for comfort, for material goods, for status and safety have resulted in the creation of a glass tower that in truth is easily broken. We have to acknowledge our emptiness, the chimera we live in, the bubble of money and plastic and processed food and addiction. And we need to remember that our country was built on the backs of African and Native Americans.
In I am Not Your Negro, Baldwin says “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” He talks about the emptiness of modern life, the pursuit of material goods, and the quieting of the inner moral voice. He notes that Americans are afraid of their inner lives and their sexuality. He writes, “I’m terrified of the moral apathy, the death of the heart …” in America.
Many times in the last couple of years a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount has risen in my mind: “Blessed are the meek, for they share inherit the earth.” LOOK UP “MEEK.” I hear in theses words the reality of our situation and the truth that those who we have marginalized are the ones we most need to listen to—Blacks, Native Americans, people who have lived with disabilities, women, and children. Like Baldwin, they can show us where we have gone wrong and how to create a viable community, economy, and world.
I know many who have been marginalized have experienced trauma and, like the rest of us, have not grown into maturity. I also know that I in some ways am naïve about race. But there is some sensitivity in me that was fostered by these books and modeled by my parents, that was nourished enough to endure . . . and I possess an unshakable belief that listening to those on the “outside” is crucial to knowing ourselves and creating health community.
As Baldwin also said, “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.” Why do we need to single out and ostracize those who are Black, or Muslim? Certainly our rejection of those different from us reveals our fears, our lack of self-knowledge, our one-sidedness.
The leaders within civil rights groups who have overcome, the individuals that have bound together and advocated for nonviolent protest and change, who have invoked a spiritual essence in their work and who are inclusive, are surely our leaders. Like Gregory, Baldwin and Griffin, they help us evolve. They may appear “meek” because they are not visible, not rich or powerful in the mainstream sense, because they are humble and devoted to a cause bigger than themselves, and yet they are the future. Better than anyone they know where we have come from and where we need to go. I am ready to once again sit at their feet and listen.