Listen to this essay.
I am seated here at a desk, writing under a lamp much like my grandfather would do while typing his sermons. He was writing the Word of God for the People of God. I remember playing with my siblings and cousins nearby and being scolded. He yelled, "Hush now!" It was not an uncommon thing for him to yell or become angry when frustrated. It was a yell that would halt the room. It was so common, in fact, that his children--our parents--rarely corrected or challenged his abusive ways. At some point, while we continued to laugh and play, he rose from his desk and rushed over to us while taking off his belt. Whipping it once, hard and swift, across our bodies, uncaring for where the belt or buckle landed, he glared at us in anger and in complete, intimidating silence. No one said anything. No one said any of the words that needed to be said:
"This is not okay."
"This is abusive."
"This is learned behavior from colonial slavery."
"You are engaging in white supremacist behaviors of domination."
No one said stop.
So, here I am lodging at a southern plantation transformed into a family foundation, attending a conference on our racial history and the disproportionate success of U.S. children in schools, and I again am feeling the weight of what goes unsaid. With our room keys, we were given a self-guided tour pamphlet of the grounds. While discussing its classic and leisurely history, the pamphlet reads:
"Visit the home of the distinguished Middleton family, and learn about the African-Americans who sustained the agrarian plantation economy."
While grateful of this conference's focus as well as the space being provided for needed dialogue and working groups, I read this pamphlet and found myself saddened. Then, I became angry. I became very angry. I remembered the school field trips to plantations while growing up, learning about the economy of cotton and the beautiful silverware. No one said anything about the ongoing terrorism of a group of people, of my ancestors. I thought surely the seminar team considered these things. Maybe this is intentional and they want it to come up during our process together. After engaging a few folks and some of the organizers, it seems to have been a complete blindspot.
This is why I believe the ongoing work of consciousness around human difference is necessary. When planning this conference, no one said the words that needed to be said:
"This is not okay."
"This space is historically brutal and is an erasure of its brutal destruction and ownership of bodies."
"This space may be traumatizing."
"This space endorsed colonial slavery and engaged in white supremacy."
I have no confusion about why the United States would need to have conferences or seminars on race. I am not confused on the progress of our children. We have a long, often ignored, ugly history. White people hide it from themselves and many People of Color have reimagined the brutality that took place, forgetting its pain and terrible nature. In some ways, possibly for the sake of peace--a false peace--we insulate ourselves from the truth.
I cannot be certain, but I wonder about the personal and societal transformation that could have taken place had we used this space to bear witness to our violent history while offering space for healing and planning. Someone paid for us all to come to this plantation and participate in this seminar. Too often, we choose to fund the legacy of white supremacy rather than dismantle and transform it.
One of the seminar's participants went nearby to another plantation and found someone doing something very different. Joseph McGill leads The Slave Dwelling Project, an organization that combats the romanticized narrative of Southern plantations. Hailing from California, this participant made the case for why it is important to do the "real" thing. We cannot hide from white supremacy. When we talk about the future of our children in America, let us say the words that we need to say. For me personally, the gift of this seminar was meeting people from across the country who were not afraid to name "white supremacy", even when encouraged to use other words like "academic achievement gap" or "poverty". One participant courageously said, "These are euphemisms."
When the voice speaks to say, "This is not okay.", let us not silence them or rush away from the tension. Let us have the courage and strength to engage this deep wound for true healing in the United States--for ourselves, our life together, and especially for our children..
Waking up on these days,
I am praying.
I am praying for my family.
I am praying for myself,
seeking safety, while
yelling to our Mother:
"I know you love me, but they don't!"
I am praying for white courage beyond tears.
I am praying they set aside the normalcy of themselves and their feelings.
I am praying they see this different human being,
having a family,
living a life.
But, so many still need details after lynchings.
They still need to be told they matter in a nation where they wrote themselves human.
And to those that cry as we die, what are you waiting for?
I cannot give you permission to fix this.
There are no maps.
There is only the legacy of your ancestors that you must see as bullets of sweat fall down your face.
You must dismantle it.
Your skin has to be in the game, too.
I am real and the anxiety is beginning to have faces.
There is a boot upon my chest,
and I am yelling for our Mother:
"They are still killing us!"
I know she hears me, guiding us higher and truer, back to ourselves. I still yell:
"But, the people are hurting and the cities are still burning!"
She says, in almost a whisper, "Everything has order. You know what caused this, chile. It must be."
She tells me:
To shine. Our. Light. In. Darkness.
And I go run and tell that everywhere.
You can listen to an audio version of this essay here
After reading books like “Sister, Outsider” and “The Fire Next Time”, I find myself wanting to ask Audre Lorde and James Baldwin so many questions. I am curious to know about how they maintained their sanity. I know how it feels to be a black, queer woman in the South engaged to a white woman who is part Colombian, but was tucked away from her Colombian roots. In writing the previous sentence, I recognize the pieces of freedom that the lives of ancestors like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin grant me: same-gender engagement and interracial engagement in South Carolina. I have not yet celebrated this in the way that I should. This is mostly because of fear and shame, wishing I was not who I am and that my life could feel easier to me. Deep down inside I know, and I can usually remember the truth, which is that hiding within white supremacy, as many people of all ethnic backgrounds within the United States do, is not a real life. Instead, it is a cage of illusion that holds nothing real.
I have to choose not to hide. It is the most unnatural feeling. My hand is never simply in her hand. I am hypervigilant and fully aware of every touch we make in public. It is exhausting. I imaging the thoughts of others, replaying in my head like the charges before crucifixion. It takes hours before I allow myself to mentally climb down from the crucifix I have placed myself upon. Most times, there is no one actually there. No one is screaming at me. Simply myself, repeating all I have ever been taught about my love, my thoughts on justice. It ends in days of irritability at the world.
I am learning to give myself grace to wrestle through the fears and the shame. Both of which I have been conditioned to have throughout my entire life. It is my responsibility as an adult to find my way—the way that is truest to me. Lorde and Baldwin found that way. At least it appears so. I want to know what their daily routines were. Where did that strength come from? In the South, most might say God or Jesus or Allah. None of these make much sense to someone who learned about “hell” while learning to talk. This is the same “hell” that homosexuals are to enter. It is the same “hell” that Africans were saved from when they became chattel. So where did their strength come from?
There is a self-knowing in their writings. I find myself meditating—a form of seeking and stillness—sometimes I feel charged up by this and other times I just cry. The question of “why am I here?” is one I have asked since elementary school. At 30 years old, I wish I had a better answer than what my mother gave, but I don’t. To learn about oppression and live it in the United States, knowing the many masks that white supremacy wears and yet still choosing to live and love and thrive—where did that strength come from?
I remember being pulled over by the police in Kingstree, South Carolina with my best friend. She went to jail that night and I was unclear about why. I was asked for my license and registration. When I reached for it as I was asked to do, the officer reached for his gun and told me to be steady. I was 17 years old and around 145 lbs. She was 17 years old and less than 110 lbs. Two more police cars came. They took her and told me to be careful driving home. I still do not know why we were pulled over. I called her friend as she had asked me to in order to inform them of what had happened and where she was. They simply said “okay”. I told my parents. They were not very alarmed either. I watched my parents rationalize something that made no sense to me whatsoever. I realize now this is how they have survived. They told themselves “the police were just doing their job”. My friend returned home the next day and it turned out to be a suspended license due to an unpaid ticket. I still do not know why were pulled over in the first place. I do not know why extra cars or extra police were needed. But, I know that my white friends in high school would not likely ever have had the same encounter. This is the injustice that no one prepared me to call out. I have only been taught to rationalize it, ignore it, or to rant about it to family and friends.
So, here I am today—some sort of a guide in a movement for marginalized lives, knowing that deep inside so many of us are hurting without much of a clue as to why. The United States inflicts a pain that often goes unnamed, especially within all or predominantly white and privileged spaces. This deep pain leads to self-destruction, absolute beliefs, and polarized existences. We are in pain and we create more of it: black pain, lesbian pain, gay pain, bisexual pain, transgender pain, queer pain, indigenous pain, immigrant pain, and the list goes on. The most reckless thing I see is the pain that is so deep that we are not even aware it is there.
I think Audre and James knew this pain intimately. I imagine that deep inside of their biology, there was some sort of mirror that they looked into often, seeing themselves, thinking against themselves, and delivering, in my opinion, some of the clearest messages on the state of humanity. And here we are today. It alarms me how relevant a book written in the 1960s remains to my life, my wellbeing, and my ability to survive and thrive. Today, three days after Speaking Down Barriers held space for black people of color to engage healing and renewal, we are witnesses to at least three more black deaths that we know of at the hands of police officers. Today, I feel the call for us all to stop whatever it is we are doing. I feel the call for us to stop thinking whatever it is that we believe we know. I feel the call to stop and find our mirrors.
Where did Audre Lorde and James Baldwin find their strength?
Could it have been in seeing themselves for who they truly were? Could it have been for understanding their bodies for what they politically are in the United States? Could it have been in sharing their gifts to shine a light upon it all so that we might see? I am not certain, but I believe that if white people in the United States began to understand their history, they would better understand their unconscious fear and false ideas of who they are. This would call into question the privilege and power structures of this nation. I think that people of color in the United States who have bought into the false security of white supremacy might begin to dust off their mirrors as well. I believe that in beginning to point back at ourselves rather than at “the racist person over there” or our often choice of pointing at the marginalized among us as if they are somehow the root cause of their experiences of poverty, crime, educational gaps, wealth gaps, city erosion, or other social ills—we might arrive at a true starting point.
When I say ourselves, I mean specifically white people need to see themselves for who they truly are, engage the higher power who loves justice, and work to eradicate white supremacy at its root. I mean specifically all people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups must face themselves, remembering the higher power who loves justice and loves them, uniting to heal, build, and constantly progress forward beyond the illusive safety of white supremacy and into an equitable space of belonging for all of humanity.
If we do not, I believe Baldwin’s use of biblical scripture is correct to say “the fire next time” and I believe Lorde is right to caution us in how our own failure to see ourselves clearly perpetuates violence, terror, and the death of our fellow human.
The violence that comes for your fellow human can always come for you.