Something Just Broke

These lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins capture that seismic internal shift that occurs in one of those culturally significant moments.  Like when an assassin takes out a president or a shooter takes out a nightclub full of people. Or you lose a child.

(the whole thing is worth a listen, but especially from about 1:50 onward)

In those moments, something just, well, breaks.

I remember where I was the day the verdict came back freeing George Zimmerman.  I was alone and heard something in my heart crack as I pictured Trayvon Martin’s parents weeping. Again.

Then came Mike Brown.  Tamir Rice. Freddy Gray.  Sandy Bland. I heard that sound again and again and again.

Alton Sterling.
Philandro Castile.
The Dallas Police.

I remember them all.  And too many others.
I remember where I was, what I was looking at or listening to when I heard the news.
And that sound.
And the deep deep anguish of lamenting a part of our world that I feel powerless to change.

It’s funny – I don’t remember that same feeling for those other world-stopping moments in my lifetime. Not when Reagan was shot or John Lennon. Not when we lost the Challenger.  Not even the September 11 terrorist attacks.

I suspect because as horrific as those were, I can distance myself from them.
I cannot remove myself from the systems and structures of white supremacy.

I am white.
I grew up surrounded by farmland that had once been tended by slaves.  But the local history never really made that clear.
I grew up celebrating Juneteenth with my black schoolmates.  But I had been taught to focus on the joy of freedom that arrived on that day, not the fact that men, women and children had been kept ignorant of their freedom for years after emancipation.
I missed out on segregation in schools, but never thought to question why none of my black- and brown-skinned neighbors lived on the same side of the baseball park we shared as the rest of my friends… the white ones.

I (rightly, it turns out) assumed that my life would include college, marriage, home-ownership, access to medical care, travel with only minor inconveniences, a decent job at fair wages.  I never once asked my classmates from across the ballpark what they imagined their lives would be.

I took all those assumptions with me to college, where I first encountered a history book that taught westward expansion from the First Nations perspective. And the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Civil Rights from the African American perspective.  And I couldn’t quite make sense of it all.  I didn’t want it to be true.  And yet…

Remembering that semester, it was starting. The sound was still buried under too much naïveté to be audible. The weight of awareness and responsibility, too light to move beyond those initial misgivings.

If ignorance is bliss, as they say, willful ignorance is the offspring of bliss and evil. And racism is its bastard child.

I am ashamed to say that it took raising a child who was othered – a sexual minority, rather than an ethnic minority – for me to begin seeing the truth of segregation and oppression in this country. Standing on that intersection, I realized that I needed to learn as much about racial injustice as I had the experiences of the LGBTQ community.

The truth I found in the reading: I needed more than education. I needed to search my heart, but first I had to strip away all that my miseducation and willful ignorance had led me to wrap around it.

I confess when teaching and coaching young black men and women, I placed hardships on them and their families because I chose not to ask about transportation if I kept them after the busses ran or their friends left.  I made jokes about hair and hair products.  I made light of not getting their names right, even after I had been corrected.  I chose not to stop others who made “mildly racist” jokes in my presence.

I look back and am angry, embarrassed and ashamed. I could have done better. I could have educated myself. I should have asked questions – not of the all-white faculty, but of the parents and aunties and grandparents who came out to the games. I could have spent time listening to my students’ hopes and dreams, rather than projecting mine onto them. I should have been a better human.

I am getting better, but confess I have a long way to go. I am listening more and learning to see my defensiveness as a cue to shut up, rather than lash out or attempt to explain myself.   My heart is more tender, though not nearly enough.

I wrote this poem as events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, following the yessir of Muchael Brown. Tensions were high then, as they are now.  And I found myself reacting to that weird anxiety here in Central Florida. And in my own interior world.   I come back to this poem in my posts regularly, and it grieves me to say, I am still unlearning the ignorance and hate I have harbored for far too long.

I hate the part of me that hates

I hate the part of me that hates
others without knowing them
allowing the pictures and stories
consumed over time
to gnaw at reality,
to train me to believe
the person who dresses this way
or talks that way
is more dangerous
this one over here
by dint of genetics and cosmic randomness
looks, talks
more like me

I hate the part of me that hates
to be told
I am part of the problem
part the system that continues to place
in a different category
on a different trajectory

I hate the part of me that learned
on seeing the brown-ness of skin
to hate
to fear
to withdraw
so that I must recalibrate
and reorient
my vision to see the human-ness of skin

I hate the part of me that waits
too silent
too compliant
too complicit
too comfortable
I sit when I am called to stand
I speak when I am called to listen
I tolerate when I am called to love

I hate the part of me that hates
and so I pray
the part of me that hates
would  be no more
and would be no less
than the memory
that propels me out of my comfort
and into your pain



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