(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
This past November 17th at the ReThinking Racism discussion seminar held. in this sanctuary, the session had been running for barely ten minutes before a lone African-American woman stood and asked, in a voice tinged with frustration and a bit of anger, “Why are we still talking about racism fifty years after it was supposed to be settled?”
That question quieted this room. Over ninety people attended that evening. Almost a fourth of them were people of color. Her question hung in the air until it was time to determine topics for each of nine discussion groups. Her question was chosen as the topic for one group and it was one of the largest attended – almost twenty people including me. This group grappled with the question and varying answers to it were suggested. Five African-American women and one Latina woman offered ideas. They were the most powerful because their comments came from personal experience.
But despite well thought suggestions, it was clear nobody could definitively answer the question. Why, after fifty years, after passing of landmark Civil Rights laws, after the election of a black President twice, why are we still witnessing unarmed African-American men, women and children killed by police for no reason? Why are we still fighting laws designed to curb voting rights in Ohio and other states? Why are schools still deeply segregated with schools in minority communities still underfunded and deficient in performance?
I left that evening full of appreciation for the opportunity to listen. I especially was thankful to hear the thoughts of black men and women. Racism is a subject I too often hesitate to talk about with people of color.
I wanted those discussions to continue but I mostly wanted them to continue in a way that caused me and other whites to grapple with our role in racism through enjoyment of white privilege. I wanted this congregation to continue its year long effort to learn, understand and think through the subject. I wanted all of that, and I wanted to hear an authoritative black voice speak above and beyond the voice of whites. I believe whites must do far more listening than speaking on this subject.
It’s then I thought this congregation could jointly read a book by a black author as a way to listen to the thoughts of someone personally victimized by racism. I came across Between the World and Me and I was both moved and challenged by it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, for me, is a writer of uncommon insight who uses beautiful phrasing to describe terrible things. His anger, his bleak assessment of our nation, his refusal to champion small glimmers of hope – these are all aspects of the book that intrigue me. The fact that the book is in the form of a letter to his son is also poignant.
This is a book that is quite controversial in some circles, but one that is widely praised in the black community as profound and authentic. The book speaks the contemporary African-American voice and might fairly represent its communal thoughts and emotions.
The book was titled by using one line from a famous poem by Richard Wright – writing eighty years ago. A portion of the poem is reprinted in the book but I will read a longer portion of it now.
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….
And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
Wright’s poem continues for several more verses but the “punch to the stomach” lines, for me, are ones I’ve just read. They lead me to the most important reason why I chose to use Coates’ book as the basis for our congregation discussions. The book Between the World and Me, like this poem, asks readers to hear, understand and feel the emotions of African-Americans.
I often assert that the single most important spiritual quality a person can have is to be able to empathize. Empathy is a human attitude in short supply today. Mean spirited words are tossed across political, religious and racial divides without anyone taking the time to just listen, process and honestly place oneself in the proverbial shoes of another.
If every person empathized with the feelings of others, I believe our world would be much better. Empathy involves active listening to the other – a conscious and studied effort to physically and mentally open oneself to hear the words of another and then work to understand and relate to them. Understanding means to hear underlying emotions that shape the words. Empathy is, as President Bill Clinton often said, to literally feel the pain the other talks about.
Reading about a lynching scene described in poetic detail grabs at the gut and forces the reader to stand in the same place, to see the grisly details, smell the burnt flesh, and imagine the horrific suffering the victim felt.
Reading Between the World and Me caused me to similarly hear the sadness, anger and pain of African-Americans. It led me to put myself in their shoes – to imagine myself living constantly on guard for my safety or that of my children. The book caused me to feel the frustration of Coates, and the woman In here with her question, why is white oppression and violence against blacks still a fact?
The ugliness of nasty racism is still prevalent. We hear it everyday and we heard it all too recently when a New York politician spoke words about our President and his wife that could have been said two hundred years ago.
But just as common as is overt racism, is the continued prevalence of white innocence and white privilege. We are cocooned in homes, workplaces and communities so very separate from the black experience. Such insulation is powerfully depicted in the painting on the covers of your programs. As white people, we are oblivious and indifferent to black pain primarily because we fail to hear, understand and feel it.
I offer – and will offer – no solutions to racism in here. As I said earlier, solutions are not up to me to offer – nor are they up to any white person.
I hope we will hear and accept Coates’ emotions and not dissect his words for their intellectual argument. I hope we can find ourselves experiencing, on an empathy level, the same anger, sadness, lack of hope and frustration that he feels – as do many other African-Americans.
If there is any purpose to our discussion today, and in the next two weeks, I hope it is this: that we grow as a community and as spiritually attuned people, if we feel, for a short time, as if we are victims of racism. I believe we can thereby understand, in very small ways, the injury blacks feel today, and have felt for hundreds of years.