Changing Lanes Without Signaling

"Ta-Nehisi Coates" by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Ta-Nehisi Coates” by Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, is a powerfully devastating window into the experience of living in a black body in America, a body that is constantly vulnerable to assault, to capture, to torture, to destruction, to death.

I am a white woman who has long been involved in the white anti-racist struggle–I say this, not with any attempt at boasting, but merely to point out the map that my reality has followed over the last more than thirty years of my life. But even so, Coates’ words painted a picture of soul-shattering fear that struck me to the core.

I grew up with a general feeling of safety. I belonged to a working class family in Michigan, living in suburban Detroit for the most part, raised to believe that “all people are the children of God,” but also living in all-white communities where racial violence was something that appeared only on our television screen. A liberal white world aspiring to be “colorblind,” in the “Dream” that Coates describes as the place where white America lives as if asleep, unaware that it is built on the violence against black bodies.

I was asleep like that, but in my young adulthood I began to wake up to the horrific realities that America was built upon–the theft of the land and destruction of Indigenous people, the slavery and destruction of Black people. The first window into those realities came through my own awakening to the violence that was perpetrated on female bodies. That violence was hidden under the mantle of (white) safety. I did not actually experience sexual violence in my own body, only the constant threat and fear of it. Don’t go out at night, don’t talk to strangers, don’t dress to draw attention to your body, and so on. But here was the irony–a woman could “feel” safe if she stayed “asleep.” It was only upon waking that the fear undergirding my life became visible.

Once I woke up to that illusion, other illusions began to break through as well, and racism became visible and anti-racism became important to me. But so much remained hidden. Layer upon layer, I kept being surprised again and again at the horror of it, the extent of it, the insidious forms it takes, the interlocking systems that perpetuate it. I got it that we are all implicated, that no one can escape the systems in which whiteness benefits those who are understood to be white, and devastates those understood to be not white.

Ta-Nehisi Coates broke open for me a new and deeper layer of the reality of racism–his words, along with the revelations of the #blacklivesmatter movement, which have kept before the public eye the many recent killings of black people by police. Last week, I watched videos of the police officer’s traffic stop of Sandra Bland. Pulled over for failing to signal a lane change, three days later, she was dead in her jail cell. Something about her story–her innocent journey to start a new job, her bright spirit–brought it all home. No black person is safe anywhere.

This week, as I passed the flashing lights of a police vehicle behind a pulled-over car, I felt an unfamiliar shudder in my gut. A tiny glimpse into the terror. When I read Coates describing the terror he felt when he was stopped in his car by police, these images and videos came to mind, and I understood his fear for his life, his shaky relief when he was let go. A few months later, his friend was killed by the same police force.

The thing is, Coates continues to live with this original and constant fear in his body, just as my body still holds that original feeling of safety, even though I realize its illusory nature. I have to choose to stay awake, to remember. I can take a break, not think about it for a while.

It is not easy to stay awake. Mab Segrest talks of choosing white anti-racism as becoming a “Race Traitor.” There is a loneliness in it, a separation from the mainstream American dream, a separation from family and friends. Most often, I feel more resonance with my friends who are people of color, but I will never really belong to that world either. So staying awake is often lonely and sad. I usually don’t have a clue how to create change, or make things any better. But I believe that if we stay asleep we will never find transformation. We have to wake up to reality, bear its pain, before any change can happen. So thank you Ta-Nehisi Coates for being willing to be so open about the reality in which you live, in which we all live.

Broken Histories

Mab Segrest, in her book, Born to Belonging, examined the effect that the institution of slavery has had on the self-understanding of people in America, particularly the white people of her own family. She believes that a kind of spiritual anesthesia developed—a cutting off of compassion and connection—in order for a person to own slaves.

She ponders what it did to a man’s soul to sell his own children. Though it was not openly discussed, it was true that many of the children born into slavery had been fathered by the owner of the plantation. White people had to cut off their emotions, deny their relationships, and numb their spirits, to maintain this horrible institution for four centuries.

Segrest believes that the emphasis on individualism in America is an expression of our spiritual distress. We are all born into families, each with their own histories of disconnection or oppression that can cause a numbing of the soul. It feels less painful to imagine ourselves as separate, than to acknowledge the abusive and traumatic relationships that have closed our hearts. But when we close our hearts, we also lose our capacity for deep joy. We are not fully alive without each other.

Shortly after I first came to Maine, I visited Indian Island, home of the Penobscot Nation, in a trip sponsored by the Four Directions Development Corporation. During a beautiful traditional lunch that was prepared for us, we heard about some of the long history of brokenness between white people and indigenous people in Maine, as researched by Donna Loring, who at that time was the Penobscot representative in our State House of Representatives. Near the end she spoke of her belief that America needs to remember its roots. She wasn’t speaking of its ideals of freedom and democracy. Rather she meant that we cannot find the way to peace until we revisit our brokenness.

It is uncomfortable and painful to embrace our brokenness. But if we hope to find wholeness, we must be willing to hear the stories that we tried to forget. To return to wholeness is not to paint over the past with easy brush strokes, but to make awkward and painful attempts to cross over into the experience of the other. It takes a long time, and a lot of courage. In my experience, it is often easier to feel at one with nature than to feel at one with our fellow human beings. But I have also experienced, after the awkwardness, moments of grace and connection. Moments when we talk and share from our hearts, and feel a sense of wholeness restored.

Broken Rock DSC00135

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Born to Belonging

Excluded, Photo by Juan Ferr Alvarez, Flickr Creative Commons

Excluded, Photo by Juan Ferr Alvarez, Flickr Creative Commons

Have you ever felt on the outside of the circle? When I was in third grade, I went to a new school in the middle of the year. It was a Catholic school and when I arrived everyone was in church waiting for morning Mass. I went into the church but I had no clue what to do next. Everyone seemed to be sitting in groups by classes, but I didn’t know where I belonged.

I tentatively edged down into one pew, but the child next to me said, “This is for fifth graders, you don’t belong here.” I tried to move to another spot without being noticed. Again, the child near me looked askance: “You’re not a sixth grader!” I moved to yet another pew, with similar results. I was scared and embarrassed and out of place: I had no way to know where to go. Finally, one of the teachers noticed me, and brought me to where the third graders were supposed to sit.

It was a minor incident, yet a frightening moment of dislocation for a small child. Because my family moved frequently when I was young, that dislocation repeated itself often, and I was left with an unsettled feeling in my heart. I was left with perennial questions: How do we know if we belong or if we do not? What must we do to belong? Perhaps it was those moments of dislocation that made me aware just how important community is.

Activist and writer Mab Segrest wrote about a South African word that describes this essential need for community: ubuntu. “Ubuntu translates as ‘born to belonging.’” Ubuntu expresses the African idea that our human dignity and fulfillment is dependent upon our links to each other in community.

In contrast, our modern American society bases itself on the idea of individualism. John Locke formulated a theory of society as a contractual type of relationship freely entered into by individuals. Locke proposed that in the original state of nature, all humans were free and autonomous individuals, and from that state, they agreed to give up certain aspects of their independence, for mutual benefit and protection.

Today, this individualistic understanding is endemic. But Mab Segrest challenges individualism, and she begins her argument with the experience of motherhood. She writes,

It was after watching Barbara give birth to our daughter, Annie, …that it occurred to me the degree to which this Original Individual was a ridiculously transparent …fiction. None of us start out as individuals, but as fusions of sperm and egg, embedded and growing in the mother’s body for nine months. For months after birth, our consciousness is still merged with its environment, and a sense of the particular and separate self emerges only gradually.2

We start out in relationship, and our unique individuality grows out of that circle of relatedness. Not the other way around. We all need each other in order to flourish and to thrive in life.

To give Locke and others their due—the philosophy of individualism was created in rebellion against the authoritarian structures of an earlier age, the tyranny of church and monarch. To affirm relationship is not to deny the importance of human dignity and freedom. But we must recognize that relatedness comes first, and within that circle of relatedness, we find our inherent worth and dignity.

Quotes from Mab Segrest, Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice, (Rutgers University Press, 2002) p. 2.