24 July 2015

My Whiteness

Over a month ago, I left the Facebook arena of social media.  After the Mother Emmanuel Massacre social media had much to say.  I couldn't find words.  The confederate flag issue brought out more voices, "Heritage not Hate" rolled across my screen too regularly.  I still don't really know what that means - a cliche never much impresses me.  The truth is I don't want to know about a heritage from the losing side of a battle 150 years ago that waged war on itself in the name of owning human beings.  I don't want to know about the hate that grew in 1961 causing wealthy white leadership to hang a flag in defiance of integration. The fact is: that this Heritage is Hate. The day I decided to leave the social arena, I made a list of friends and former students who posted ignorance which often breeds hatred.  I stopped eating, an anger fast.  Sadness trumped all my emotions.  Our relationships are so tenuous.

Disturbed and shaken,  I walked away from the noise.  But the uneasiness wouldn't leave me.  I wrote lists about history that we were all ignoring.  I tried to draw parallels in my writing and conclusions.  I wanted to clarify for the world that ignorance was the problem.  That if we could be educated and know stories beyond our own, then we could own the truth and truly heal.  But I still don't have the words.  I am not nearly educated enough to write that treatise.

So like the rest of well meaning people, I tried to ignore.  Hmmm, the origins of ignorance. I immersed myself in reading and preparation for the coming school year.  And then it happened...

First I stumbled on this talk: The Danger of a Single Story by Cimanmanda Ngozi Adichie on Ted.com.

This was the beginning of my turn back to my troubled heart.  Watch it.  18 minutes of eye opening clarity about our narrow perspectives.  Thank you Ms. Adichie.  I don't have the words, but she does.

Later I was listening to NPR and I heard the voice of Ta-Nehisi Coates saying what I didn't know, what I needed to know.  The juxtaposition of his existence and mine were my struggle and he expressed his narrative with poetry, power, pain, truth and beauty.  I immediately bought and read his book, and then I wept.

Listen to him read an excerpt of Between the World and Me.

I wept for Coates's truth, which is my truth, and your truth whether we like it or not.  I wept for ignorance again.  How can my life be dedicated to educating young people, helping them reconcile what they claim to believe with the actions of their lives, when ignorance and lies shape their foundation? Am I Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the mountain every day, to watch it roll back down, to only repeat it over and again? Am I delusional in thinking it will be different tomorrow? 

This Slate review very accurately summarizes Coates premise in Between the World and Me: a father writing to his son about his place in the world.  The book is about humanity, even as Coates writes about being black in America. At one point he explores the idea that black people are held to a higher standard of morality, a higher Christian and American standard, and if they step out of line they become what white America already thinks they are - less than.  I couldn't help but think of the Mother Emmanuel response, how the world was mesmerized by the grace and forgiveness of these families, how Charleston showed the world what it looks like to be Christian.  These black Christians were doubly moral. And I wept.  This too seemed a juxtaposition I could not reconcile.

I ponder this thought:
If a black man would have walked into any number of white churches here in the Holy City and shot 9 people during their bible study, what would our response have been?  Certainly it would have cemented the fact that black people in general were savage - and they deserved the highest punishment, vigilante or law, exactly what we had always thought.  Would we have gone to court and expressed forgiveness?  Would we have begun flying our Confederate Flags higher in protest?  Perhaps we would have seceded because likely it would have been the President's fault, he is indeed black you know.

I am grateful that the AME church and its parishioners responded with Christian grace.  I am grateful that the community responded with an outpouring of wealth. It was something to see, a spectacle for sure.  But more than money and words with short memories, we need a change of perspective.  We cannot just see the narrative of a massacre and a city healing.  We must learn the narrative of the other, whomever he may be, our black neighbor, the Muslim in the airport, the Hispanic at the soccer field, the white teacher, the police officer, and the children who will live and believe whatever story we tell them. We share a narrative, we are writing the future together, and we must start telling it more truthfully.  We must stop exploiting the others for gain.  We must start owning who we are as a collective people ~ and I hate the word "owning" here because we don't really own anything (least of all our past actions.)  We take, we trade, we borrow, we buy, we possess... but ownership is a lie we tell ourselves for false security, for God's sake we owned people!  We are transient and in our desire to own we make grave mistakes.

Read the book.  You will be smarter for it.  It hurts.  It's true.  And it's a good place to start.


  1. Well said Ms. Clark. You touched on an issue that has weighed heavily on me, and I am not one to be burdened by much. Why did it take the deaths of innocent people to lower a flag? A flag that is the face of ignorance, a flag that many people despise, a flag that represented the physical possession of a group of people that now make up close to thirty percent of our state. I see this removal of the flag as an insult to all black South Carolinians. It's as if we are saying "A few innocent minorities died, let's throw them a bone." Some people view the flags removal as a motion of political correctness. It sure as hell isn't moral correctness, because if the majority of our state had one ounce of that, the flag would have been taken down years ago, or better yet, never put up in the first place.

    1. I will miss you in D2L this year Ross. Read the book.