I sit here sobbing through the credits of Blackkklansman. The film ends with images from the 2017 protests against the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
In a matter of seconds, I am pulled from the racism and racial terror inflicted by the Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s right to the present day. The film awes me with its beautiful depictions of black power and horrifies me with the images of white supremacy.
Last week, people responded to Facebook's "how hard has aging hit you?" challenge by commenting on how they've changed since joining Facebook. In the past few years, I know my sadness has started to show around my eyes. Eyes do that, as they age. I notice it whenever I see photos of people when they were younger. It's not the wrinkles or the gray hair I see--it's the eyes losing their innocence.
The world feels heavier to me than it did eight years ago, but this also means I can better feel its substance. The world is heavy in my palm. I would not trade these new eyes, these new hands, for anything.
As an adolescent and into my college years, I used to wonder about my purpose and vocation. I felt confused about many things. Raised in the ahistorical environs of white evangelicalism, I was largely untethered to history and a sense of place. Where did I fit in in the scheme of things? I did not know. I was constantly in an existential crisis or on the verge of one.
Most of these questions have dissolved as I've learned more about the history of the United States. Learning about the violent foundations of the U.S. and the horrific legacy of white supremacy has undone my listless quandaries about personal purpose.
Life is much simpler to me now. I know the world is a wildly beautiful place. But many have been denied the simple, foundational joy of being able to live without fear of violence or annihilation. I need no other purpose than to feel at home on the earth (as much as it’s in my power to do so) and to help right the wrongs that have made the earth a hostile environment for many (as much as it's in my power to do so).
My life is simple (though not easy): recognize my power and use it in generative ways.
Blackkklansman is hardly my first introduction to issues of race, racism, and white supremacy. I've been reading about these for about four years now. But seeing the images from Charlottesville remind me that it's my people that elected Trump: white evangelicals.
I grew up in that space. And I can tell you that most of them are good people. Generous, kind people even.
But there's the rub: I don't trust good people anymore because good people can perpetuate injustice and have no idea. Or, even if they have an inkling or experience cognitive dissonance, they can live so long in the insularity of whiteness that there's no communal consciousness of how injustice operates or how they perpetuate it. That was/is my story. I won’t shy away from acknowledging it. I am in recovery from whiteness and expect to be in recovery my whole life.
I grew up with the notion that humans were wicked at the roots. Any apparent "good" we might do was only because of the "grace of God" and not because we had actual good in us.
Over time, I saw how toxic this belief is. I discovered that people are good. I started to understand that I was good.
And then I discovered that it (almost) doesn't matter how good you are personally if the systems you're inhabiting are bad. And it doesn't matter how well-intentioned you are--your ignorance can do enormous harm. I spent twenty-seven years of my life not even thinking about my white skin, not realizing the power of my body, or that many of my personal advantages in life had come at the expense of people of color.
While I was preoccupied with my existential crises, black teenagers were just trying to survive into adulthood.
I don't give a damn about personal goodness anymore. We need to cultivate environments and systems where people do the good expected of them because it is difficult to do harm. I'm a good person, but I don't trust that I'll be able to live a just life without the support of a common historical memory or communal expectations about what is just.
My existential questions are gone. My question now is strategy: what do we do?
As a bookish person, my solution to everything is to just throw a book at it. That's what I've been doing. Reading--absorbing stories by people of color and letting them change my thinking. Weeping, too--letting the enormity of injustice sink into my psyche. Writing--reflecting on my encounter with these stories and trying to translate this into education.
The epigraph to Blackkklansman (the book) includes a quote by Alice Walker: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
My eyes are sadder. I have much to learn. But I'm not confused. I am starting to know my power.