Four years ago I was walking through Alabama, slowly trekking my way across the USA. As fate would have it, I made it to Selma in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. William Riley, the chief of police, put me up for a few days in an operations trailer in the station’s parking lot. He gave me a tour of the station when I first arrived, pointing out the haunting remnants of its history. There, entombed in a glass case, were the clubs and cattle prods the police used against the voting rights marchers in 1965, and their tear gas masks, too, staring vacantly. The men who had worn them had walked these floors. And then, my God, here was the very cell where they’d once incarcerated Dr. King. I stood there, where he must have stood, absorbing as much of it as I possibly could. Past and present seemed to merge. It felt like it had all just happened yesterday, or like it was all still happening now.
Of course, it was still happening now. Is still happening now. The history of racism and the violence that defines it isn’t some dead, divorceable fable. It’s a living reality, and we are its authors, each and every one of us. Everything I do and say, everything I don’t do and don’t say, everything I think, it is all contributing to this unfolding story. So long as I am alive, I am writing this collective book, and so are you. We cannot escape the fact of our authorship, just as a boat cannot help but make a wake. The more I convince myself that I’m not a part of it – that I’m capable of living a wake-less life – the more deluded I become, the more harm I do. You’re awake when you realize you’re not wake-less. Till then, you’re asleep.
What does it mean to wake up in the context of racism in America today? Am I slumbering in ignorance? What am I avoiding and why? How am I a part of this story, this morning, right here and now? Each of us should be asking ourselves these questions, because that’s our responsibility as the authors of this book we’ve been born into. It’s worth saying again: We cannot help but contribute to the writing, each and every day. Better make sure the writing is good. You don’t want to write a shitty book here, especially when the shittiness isn’t measured in bad reviews or poor sales, but in hearts broken by the weight of your apathy, and in beaten, bleeding bodies; in grief disguised by glaze-eyed stares, and in the tremendous numbness that is the requirement for walking down a New York City street without going mad at the sight of all the suffering contained in bodies of every shape and color, huddled in rags on the streets or sleepwalking in the finest clothes from club to club. Suffering. That’s what’s at stake as we write this book together. That, and the prospect of healing. Shitty writing is not an option. We must write beautifully, each of us, and to write beautifully we must ask ourselves questions that will disturb us, must find the humility to accept that there are some things we do not know about the truth of our reality and so begin listening as if the fate of humanity depended on it. Because it does.
For me, waking up to the truth has everything to do with listening, particularly in the context of racism. It means acknowledging that millions of people of color are still living with a kind of pain that I will never experience as a white man. It means cultivating the emotional resiliency to be able to witness that pain, to be grateful when someone trusts me enough to share it with me, to enter into that vulnerability with them instead of shutting down or getting defensive. To say, “You know something that I don’t – your experiences – and so I need you to teach me. Teach me who you are, what you’ve learned. School me in those things that I can’t understand without you. I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. How could you be wrong about what you’ve experienced and the way you feel about it? I’m here, I swear to God I am. Whatever you need to express, I’m here.” I want to listen like that. I want to correct the instinct to walk away, and learn how to walk with.
Back when I was in Selma, I got to meet the former mayor of the city, James Perkins, the first black person to hold that office. We chatted over dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and he spoke about healing in a way I’d never conceived of before.
“One of the challenges in Selma is when you go around and talk to people, it’s common to be speaking to someone who was here in 1965, who was a part of the movement, on both sides. And the consequence of that is there’s still this healing process. And we’re going to have to talk about it. Talk about the pain that it caused, talk about how it makes me feel. It’s one thing to know my history. It’s another thing to feel what I feel about my history.
“It’s okay to hurt. That hurt does not constitute hate. It’s okay to hurt and it’s okay to express that hurt, because the expression of it is a part of the healing. The pain that we experience, physical and emotional pain, is real. And part of the healing process is acknowledging that it’s there, and being able to speak to it, about it, so that you can better understand what’s going on inside of you.
“There is a tremendous amount of focus on knowledge, but I go back to the fact that human beings are also equipped with feelings. That’s why words mean something to us, because they make us feel a certain way. And until we’re willing to sit down and really address how these things makes us feel, then we’re going to come up short on the healing process.”
Pain hurts. No getting around it. We shouldn’t expect the pain of racism in America not to hurt. It already does for people of color, tremendously and inescapably, but I’d say it does for white people, too. It hurts to know that other people are hurting, and to know that I am a part of that hurt. White people can avoid this pain in ways that people of color cannot. We can deny it and forget it, and often we do; but that’s shitty writing right there. Reprehensible writing, considering its consequences. The best thing any of us can do as co-authors of this living book is to accept that pain hurts, start feeling it, and cultivate the courage to be there for others as they process theirs. None of us will be truly healed until each of us learns how.
*To celebrate MLK Day 2016 (especially if you’re white), I recommend reading the essays Dear White America, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, and I, Racist. And the video, Are you racist? ‘No’ isn’t a good enough answer.