Since those 9 blessed souls were murdered in Charleston last week, I haven’t had much to say. Only deep sadness, and fear of what has become of us as a nation. It isn’t often that I am unable to find words to express how something makes me feel, but this particular event has rendered me speechless and numb.
Which is fine, because generally other people seem to have a lot to say–about the South, about the Confederate flag, about racism and prejudice (two different things that often feed off each other), about gun control…. Some of it is on point, some of it is simply incendiary and accusatory and dear God we have enough of that to last this country several lifetimes.
I don’t know that the rhetoric really needs any more added to it, but this morning, as I drove to work listening to NPR’s coverage of South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley speaking to what happened in Charleston and its aftermath, I realized…I have some things that need saying. Confessions, really, of a girl who spent her adolescence in a small town in Georgia, and who has, as a result, grappled with what it means for black folks and white folks to get along in very real and very personal ways. I don’t know all the answers, and I’m sure not everyone who reads this will agree with my take on things–still, these things I offer up, they are part and parcel of who I am, who I am becoming, and they are the stories behind my heartbreak for Charleston.
1. There was a predominantly white hallway and a predominantly black hallway in my high school–the only public high school in the county at the time. I went one way, and the black kids I knew went another at the spot where those two hallways converged. There were exceptions to this: the starting running back for our football team was allowed on the white hallway. So were the three brothers who made up our fabulous basketball team. And the biracial girl who came from an exceptionally wealthy black family. And also a couple of boys from choir who could sing like nobody’s business.
2. The boys I knew who had Confederate flags emblazoned across the back windows of their jacked-up trucks mostly knew very little beyond the borders of Barrow County and I’m not sure had any clue what divisiveness and hateful heritage their celebrating that flag called up. I also know we mostly called those boys “rednecks,” a term that has its own hateful history and inherent judgement. “There’s four kinds of people in this town,” I once heard a classmate say, “whites, rednecks, blacks and niggers*.” His sentiment was clear. “Whites” and “blacks” were acceptable. The other two were not.
3. For over a decade, a boy named Adam lived with my family off and on. He was biracial, and was perhaps my greatest teacher in what it means for love and relationship to make skin color a thing that does not matter when it comes to how we treat and try to understand one another.
4. I once had a friend named Marketus, a student at the prestigious HBCU Morehouse College. He and I worked on a camp staff together one summer, and one day, the camp director sent us in to the neighboring town’s grocery store to pick up some supplies. Marketus and I walked in the store joking and laughing. The laughter froze in our throats as we watched every clerk, every bagger, every customer (all white), stop what they were doing and watch, with narrowed eyes, the very dark-skinned boy and very light-skinned girl who had just walked in. Together. We got out quickly, both of us aware that lingering could mean trouble. I apologized to him that day. I would again, if I knew where he was now.
5. I love the book Gone With the Wind. And I love the movie. I won’t apologize for that. I’ve read and watched both more times than I can count. I love the story for two reasons: The first is that I think Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most fascinating characters in all of American literature and the second is that I think the book is actually a pretty sharp critique of Confederate culture, if paid close attention to. And there’s also this–which many people don’t know and which should be shouted from the rooftops–Margaret Mitchell, with the profits she made from her book, anonymously paid the tuition of many Morehouse College students.
6. I have, since leaving my beloved South 15 years ago (Kentucky, y’all, is not really the South), been told more than once, “You don’t act like you came from the South,” by northern and midwestern peers. They mean it as a compliment, I think–but inherent is this assumption that South = backwards, ignorant, prejudice and Bible belt religion. A stereotype all its own. I’m proud of the good things to be found in my Southern heritage–and there are good things.
7. Several years ago, I read a book called Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, and I believe it ought to be required reading in our country. It traces the history of two powerful black and white families (and how they crossed and connected) in Atlanta, GA, and in doing so, notes the effects of systemic racism and also blind misunderstanding on that beautiful city.
8. Of my daughter’s favorite playmates these days–only one has something other than “dark skin.” This is as it should be, but she, already, is aware that this is “an issue” for some people in some places. My deep prayer for her and her little friends is one of peace, that their open and loving hearts will remain so, despite the efforts of the world to close them up tight to differences of opinion, politics, race and world view.
9. I believe systemic racism, not just personal prejudice, is alive and thriving in the United States of America. Until we admit to this, things are not likely to change.
All that confessed, I must add this–our inability to have positive, open communication about significant issues in this country is tearing at the very fabric that holds us together. And my great fear is that soon the seams will be ripped apart entirely, leaving fragmented scraps of what we have the potential to be. And yelling at each other, even with good intent, does not hold us together. The wounds are deep. The hurt real. The hate a well-aimed sword piercing the very heart of who God has called us all to be.
Our only hope lies in the possibility of relationship. Of listening. Of putting aside our own dearly held beliefs and assumptions (me, too) for the sake of others. Of being willing to let go of “mine” and begin thinking in terms of “ours.”
We will never be transformed–as people or as a country–by angry rhetoric, by finger-pointing, by constant bickering over who is right and who is wrong. We will never be transformed by pinning the ache on gun control or symbols or even demonstrations. These things, they matter, so very much, and there is a time and a place for staking our claim, toeing the line and speaking up–loudly, if necessary–for what’s right.
But none of this matters without an effort, a desire, a true willingness to love one another. To listen to one another. To see the goodness in one another, no matter how well it is hidden, such that we’re able to see God in one another.
I confess my own inability and unwillingness to do this sometimes. And my own desire to be better at it.
Because right now, in this world we live in, everything is at stake.
(*Even writing the “N Word,” causes me physical pain, and I don’t know how to speak it. But I am quoting here, and so it stays.)