Black, White, Yin, and Yang

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Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates garnered attention recently after publishing an article in the Atlantic called “The First White President.” The article talks about Trump’s white supremacy, the white vote. Its subtitle is “The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.” It makes me think.

On the one hand, my eyes have been opened as the prejudice in our country is uncovered and white supremacy is loosed in terrible ways. I appreciate the challenge in reading Coates, the way his words make me remove my shoes and slip on his, they way they make me step out of my bubble and reckon with what is really going on, the racism deeply embedded in our country. On the other hand, his words make me feel off kilter as I reflect on my own experience and detect some relationship in our situations. We whites have benefitted immensely from our elevated status and histories as the enfranchised, but we are sick from this cancer in our society too. Women and men striving, competing, climbing over each other, we are soul sick. We don’t even know what we are working for, and we are so busy we don’t realize what we are missing.

I will never know what it is like for Coates to live in this predominately white world where police kill black men and incarcerate many more. What it is like to be feared and hated, to be seen as a threat and as less capable at best and as criminal at worst.   But I feel that we and those like us are brother and sister, both of us awake to the truths of our society and the long history of its sickness.

I am pierced and aggrieved by this white nationalistic stuff, and I know in the face of it, I am, to borrow a sentiment voiced by water protector Doug Goodfeather to a small group of us white people, a [red] black man now. In these current times, white nationalists are a threat to all of our safety, to our communities and democracy, to any wellbeing. This threat to half the population is a threat to me, to all of us, and I know this assertion to be true from the depths of my heart and soul.

I know my life has been far easier than Coates’s has, and yet I feel that his struggle is a highlighted, more intense, and poignant partner to my own story of alienation and lack of self-worth. As a white woman, my own weak sense of self, the sense of being at odds most of my life now reveals itself to be a function of our corrupt and destructive economic system.

I honestly read Coates like a hungry child, one who is living with a sense of lack, who is sad that the “adults” about her work, often producing more junk, more highways, more shopping malls, while finding little time for their families, for their creativity. I begin to understand how these white suburbs I’ve inhabited are built upon others’ suffering and exclusion. I begin to see how screwed up our economy, our politics, our media are. Within Coates’s shoes, I see who we are as Americans.

As he shares his own experience growing up in Baltimore streets and witnessing the horrific treatment of black men in this culture, I consider how I grew up in the edges of DC in all-white suburbs, not far from Baltimore but oblivious. In depicting the economic hardships, drug problems, inner city violence, and discrimination in the prosecution and jailing of black men, he helps me better understand the world I see in which materialism, competition, and isolation reign. In the shadow of his story mine shows well lit, my blindness as well as my crippling low self-worth and my confusion. Coates contributes to my long slow awakening.

I see more clearly than ever how we whites suffer from the same corporate greed, from dismissal and denigration by those in power or those with money, from the materialism, from political and economic corruption, from egotism and exploitation. While whites might have hid from or avoided some of the ill affects of corporate greed, from economic and political corruption, we are now beginning to enter the thick of it. When oil companies want to frack in my back yard and dump toxic waste in my community, when Republicans want to take away my health care and increase my taxes, jail me for protesting, I become the black man, the red woman.

Though most white people may not experience daily fears for our lives, our bodies, our loved ones, we have become more and more isolated, focused on our own little lives, our goals and dreams, unaware of what is going on around and in us. We are alienated from our neighbors and sometimes our own family members. We are brainwashed by a demeaning economic model, worn out and sometimes sick from our striving, our amassing of stuff. We hurt from our divisions. And in our insulated and whitewashed existence we have not realized how toxic industry and politicians have raped the land and poisoned everything around us.

In The Souls of Black Folks, published in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois pondered the situation and status of Black Americans but also the direction of society as a whole. In that work he noted that a Tennessee town he lived in experienced major changes some called progress and he called “ugly.” He warned against the “greed of gold,” or “interpreting the world in dollars.” He said blacks should not abdicate “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness,” to the ideal of wealth attainment. “. . . to make men,” said Du Bois, “we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living,-not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold.”

Greed and progress are the very values our whole society has succumbed to. Time for a book called “The Souls of Americans,” time for taking stock. What meaning will our youth find in their white suburban lives as the notions of progress and achievement whither?

Paradoxically, the revelation of our decay and corruption releases energy.  When I feel my connection to Coates, to people and planet, I am feeling life. A force that allows me to break through the fear, conformity, and insanity like a new shoot through dead leaves.

This darkness and division actually allows love to surface and grow. The roof or our prison can be removed to let in sunshine and allow movement. We have an opportunity to listen to one another and to learn, to remove walls and plant gardens. To awaken within our bodies, minds, and hearts. Shaking out rusty limbs, blowing off dust, let us build cabins and communities, listen to our Mother and learn new ways of being. Forgive one another and work together, celebrate together, live as the beautiful multi-colored imaginations that we are.

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The education of a young white girl

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“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.