I am currently in school and for one of my classes I had to attend an event that featured or spoke to a culture or background different from my own. I began perusing. I was excited about this as I have interests in other cultures. I like to know what different people believe, how they live-there are things I just want to know about. However one thing in particular has been brought to the forefront of my eyeballs and heart again and again and again. Being black in America.
I had a conversation with a deeply respected friend about two years ago. It was after a high-profile killing of a black man by a police officer, which was the second such incident in recent weeks. I wanted to extend some sympathy to him, let him know I was “with him.” I thought I was doing the right thing. He got defensive he said something to the effect of, “Jonathan I appreciate what you’re doing but you simply can’t be with me. Don’t try.” I was taken aback! I was extending an olive branch here! What’s with the hostility? He went on to tell me how he was feeling, that he was had fear and anxiety about walking down the street to his job simply because of the color of his skin. And in that moment, I was heart-broken because he was right. I could never understand that.
A couple of months later, I was sitting on a hotel bed on a quick work trip. It was Martin Luther King Jr Day. I typically do not even bother turning on the television in hotels-I see it as a God sanctioned time to read. As I was getting situated, I did flip on the tv, looking for local news and I found a documentary playing called, “Eyes on the Prize.” It was an epic 14 hour documentary produced in the late 80’s covering the entirety of Civil Rights movement. It was one of the most emotionally draining things I have ever experienced. I wept. I was angry. “How could people do this to other people?” I was confused. “Why was this not a class, in and of itself in high school?” I could not remember being taught much of anything about the Civil Rights Movement in school, let alone the heinous activities that took place. I was mortified this was not some foreign land in some ancient time. This was here, in America, a “christian nation” and it had happened just 50 years prior. There are people living who experienced this. The conversation I had with a friend who was expressing the realities of how he felt and the viewing of this documentary made me aware. I didn’t know what to do.
I found my cultural event. Last Saturday, I attended a panel discussion hosted by the ASALH Pittsburgh chapter. The panel featured “Distinguished African-American Trailblazers and History Makers.” I listened to stories about growing up with segregation still a very real thing, I listened to the first black man to play in the Jim Crow segregated NCAA Sugar Bowl, the first black woman graduate of Pitt Law school, stories of the first black swimmer to score in an NCAA final, the former head of human resources at US Steel and first African American to graduate from Pitt Law and first to receive tenure at Pitt Law School, and I listened to the stories of working in Mississippi in the summer of 1962 to sign black people up to vote. The stories were stunning. People asked questions, but I just listened. I was able to ask Mr. Lavelle (the man who worked in Mississippi in the summer of ’62) after the event “how can I enter in and help without feeling like I am making…..”Awkward pause. I didn’t have the right word. Or words. Charity case? Mockery? White Guilt? He looked at me and I think he knew what I was trying to say- or maybe not, but he said simply, “you just have to be willing to step in and listen.”
So, to all my fellow white people, before you drop your epic wisdom about “can we have white history month now?” or “Colin Kaepernick is an entitled, disrespectful baby…” “just listen to the police” or whatever you want to say, I would suggest, have you listened? Are you willing to listen? If not, have you looked back? Go find that documentary. Watch it. Step into that. The thing I remember the most as I watched that was the overwhelming sense of fear. That fear came out in the form of hatred and violence. We’re there again, folks. The fear is palpable in our country, in our cities. Are we willing to stop responding, stop rebutting, stop lashing out and do the hard work of stepping in, being present with our brothers and sisters, and listening? You might not like what you hear. You might be taken aback, offended, put off, but you might learn something. Only in listening will we begin to find the space to then act in love.