"To Trayvon Martin and the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice for these last four hundred years." - Dedic"To Trayvon Martin and the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice for these last four hundred years." - Dedication, The Fire This Time
"When a story is unpleasant, it is hard to focus on details that allow you to put yourself in the place of the subject, because the pain of distortion starts to feel familiar. Paying attention often requires some sort of empathy for the subject, or at the very least, for the speaker. But empathy, these days, is hard to come by. Maybe this is because everyone is having such a hard time being understood themselves. Or because empathy requires us to dig way down into the murk, deeper than our own feelings go, to a place where the boundaries between our experience and everyone else's no longer exist." -Wendy S. Walters, "Lonely in America"
One of the ideas that I hold close to my heart is that it is vital for people who want to live in this world and engage with their fellow humans, to actively seek out the voices that tell stories different from our own stories. Even when the stories are not for us or about us, we have a chance to see through different eyes.
James Baldwin, in his letter to his nephew, wrote: "You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason..." White people are, he said, "still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it."
These stories and essays are not for me, are not for "white people." But they are an opportunity to understand.
Isabel Wilkerson ("Where Do We Go From Here") draws a line of violence from "history," to now. Wendy S. Walters ("Lonely in America") attempts to unearth, figuratively, long buried (literally) histories of slave trade in the New England States, which enjoys the dubious privilege of erasing the word "slavery" with the euphemistic "servant," and then paves over the unmarked graves of their captive laborers.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers ("The Dear Pledges of Our Love") works on uncovering anything true about the first published African woman poet in America, after discovering that most of the "facts" we know about her were written by a white woman who claimed to be a descendent of her owner. Carol Anderson, ("White Rage") author of the book White Rage, reminds us of the Southern Strategy, and how it is still there, but perpetrated in littler, unexamined strategies.
Garnette Cadigan gives us a window into what it's like to walk through the streets of a city that is dangerous to everyone, but not him in particular, versus walking through the streets of a city that is hostile to him, as a man who is threatening solely because of his dark skin:
"On my first day in [New Orleans], I went walking for a few hours to get a feel for the place..." "When some university staff members found out what I'd been up to, they warned me to restrict my walking to the places recommended as safe to tourists and the parents of freshmen. They trotted out statistics about New Orleans's crime rate. But Kingston's crime rate dwarfed those numbers, and I decided to ignore these well-meant cautions. A city was waiting to be discovered, and I wouldn't let inconvenient facts get in the way. These American criminals are nothing on Kingston's, I thought. They're no real threat to me.
What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat." - "Black and Blue"
In "The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning", Claudia Rankine tells us:
"A friend recently told me that when she gave birth to her son, before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was, I have to get him out of this country. We both laughed. Perhaps our black humor had to do with understanding that getting out was neither an option nor the real desire. This is it, our life."
"I asked another friend what it's like being the mother of a black son. "The condition of black life is one of mourning," she said bluntly. For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son's reality: At any moment she might lose her reason for living."
There is nothing I can say about this story essay that doesn't trivialize the gut punch of looking through all these eyes and seeing all these mothers' sons.
Jesmyn Ward, in the acknowledgements, tells us: "I was asking them to write toward the hurt, to wrestle with the ugly truths that plague us in this country. Each of the writers did just that, and they did so beautifully."
If you are White in America, these stories are not for you. But it is critical to our humanity that you hear them....more