Still Haunted

NOTE: Despite the title, this is not a Halloween fantasy but a recognition of a real-life haunting that continues to this very day and shows few, if any, signs of ending. 

I have removed images that were shown earlier, to avoid triggering readers. 

A dear friend told me about her high blood pressure during the past weeks and months—a response to nightmares she is experiencing. The nightmares include her being beaten, even shot, “because of the color of my skin.” She said a recurring one involves Walking While Black, being shot for walking down the street. 

It is for me a powerful reminder of the power of White Supremacy to keep BIPOC people on edge, off-center, always having to be aware of everything going on around them, to take extra precautions to be safe wherever they are, whatever they are doing. 

Even more, it is a powerful statement about what all that watching and being prepared for the next bad thing, every moment of every day, can do to people’s psyche, their sense of well-being, their mental health, and indeed their physical health. BIPOC people are so very aware of being expected to not precipitate what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility”—the form of bullying used by White people to maintain dominance, to keep people of color in line and “in their place.”

My friend is a Black woman in her 60s, now retired, with a long record of distinguished accomplishment in her profession as well as continuing engagement in working for social change. She is a well-known, greatly admired leader in our local community. She would seem to have everything going for her, and yet she is experiencing dangerously high blood pressure due to a lifetime spent coping with the insidious nature of White supremacy. 

Another friend speaks of “adaptive behavior” that she and other Black people (and other racially marginalized people) have learned to do to survive, expressed through self-denial and self-silencing (swallowing feelings, looking past hurts and insults, avoiding disagreements, etc.) piling up over years of stifling oneself. Small wonder people have nightmares.

None of what has happened in recent years to Black people surprises either of them, nor does it surprise any other Black people………or Indigenous or other People of Color. But all of it takes a toll on their well-being. This is the seemingly “non-violent,” quiet, side of White supremacy—it is not available for video recording and replay, it is not a dramatic moment like a shooting or a lynching or White supremacist demonstration. 

But it is violence. Social violence. State-sponsored or at least state-allowed violence—just think of the differentials for health outcomes not only in the Pandemic but all the time between White people and BIPOC people. And it is only quiet in the sense that our White supremacist social structure ignores it, pretends it does not exist. 

And it is violence enacted by individuals. Most White people don’t know our own complicity in everyday attitudes, interactions, and practices that perpetuate and even encourage the violence. 

This is why Ta NaHesi-Coates, in his powerful 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” speaks about the time after the passage of the 13th Amendment and Reconstruction, and indeed all that has followed, down to and including our own time. 

Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us. 

[If you have not read his piece, here is a link so you can read it now,

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/  …..vital reading for us all.]

“But still we are haunted.” 

That is my friend, but it is not limited to her. Nor is this haunting solely attributable to overtly racist, White supremacist people, or even to a President who denies the realities of American history and belittles those who keep bringing it up. 

The long and short of it, my fellow White Americans, is that we have so much to do because we have so much to answer for. We must engage in ongoing, probing self-examination, looking intently in the mirror of our souls, our minds, to be willing to root out our unconscious obedience to racist social rules of which we have remained blissfully unaware. We must become conscious about what is unconscious and challenge it, we must to dare to see what we were trained not to see and begin to share it with others, and we must confess and repent and figure out what we can do to repair at least some of the harm we have caused. 

For example, without asking a BIPOC friend to educate you (an old trick designed to keep the focus off us and on them, to help us feel good about ourselves for asking) you might ask them to tell you of something that happened to them with a White person recently that caused them to feel devalued, hurt, anxious, or angry, perhaps all of the above. Then watch your own reaction honestly and analyze all your feelings, certainly expressing your concern for them but really being open to the full range of your feelings. Let their testimony simmer in you and see where you go. And if you don’t have such a friend to ask, that is a wake-up call. 

Until we as White people realize, really realize, with the spoken word artist Guante that “white supremacy is not the shark in the water, it is the water (see below),” until we acknowledge how much harm has been caused, and how we continue to maintain it ourselves, until we can hear people like my friend and not become defensive, until someone we know tells us of their pain and we seek to learn more and to check in with other BIPOC friends, until we confess our complicity in this sin and start changing our attitudes, our behaviors, our words, our hearts and minds, the haunting will continue.

Let’s work, with each other and within ourselves, to end our participation in the haunting.

And if you aren’t familiar with the impact of racism on mental and physical health, here are links to two articles that provide some good information. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/racism-in-care-leads-to-health-disparities-doctors-and-other-experts-say-as-they-push-for-change/2020/07/10/a1a1e40a-bb9e-11ea-80b9-40ece9a701dc_story.html 

https://mhanational.org/racism-and-mental-health 

 You can hear Guante speak the truth in this 3.5 minute video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDSEHfxXLhI&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2-of-33eg8MhXN96m7VqsYzzfOJ1WQEqWyenS9tL8f_HBNi-gh89u6T8E

We Can Stop Pulling the Trigger

Last Sunday, our church music director opened worship by saying, “It’s been a rough week. Not only the cold, but I have been dealing with two suicides–one an 8th grader at my school and the other a leader of the Black Lives Movement.”

I did not get a chance to ask Tyrone about the young student, but I learned about the activist through a Washington Post article a couple of days later (click here for the story).

MarShawn McCarrel complex com
MarShawn McCarrel complex.com

His name was MarShawn McCarrel, 23. He shot himself on the steps of the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus on February 8. A few hours before the shot, he posted a Facebook message, “My demons won today. I’m sorry.”

By all accounts, this was a talented young man,  dedicated to liberation and justice. He started several nonprofit organizations, a mentorship program called Pursuing Our Dreams and a charity for homeless people called Feeding Our Streets. He had become a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in Ohio, following on other activism and writing poetry.

The man was a poet. On paper. And in life. Poets are people for whom words matter. Each word matters. And for this poet, lives mattered, too.

Except he could not sustain his own. He pulled the trigger.

But so did we. We–and when I say “we” I mean all of us who call ourselves white who have so far failed to undo the strangehold white supremacy, white privilege, white racism, have on our national psyche and day in and day out living in this land we claim is free and home to the brave.

As sure as anything, I believe his depression–which had plagued him for some years, after the death of his grandfather–was undone or minimized, but also deepened, by his activism.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me
observer.com

His ability to write and speak and organize and give hope to others helped to keep him going, but it was not enough to overcome the relentless–r e l e n t l e s s, let me say that again, relentless–drumbeat of negativity in his life and the lives of millions of other African American men, women, and children (remember that 8th grader?).

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his magnificent, also relentless (in a similar but also different way), letter to his son about growing up Black in America, “Between the World and Me,”

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.

Coates tells us that much of the posing and braggadocio of Black boys and young men on the streets, and the posing and efforts at creating distinct identities for the Black girls and and young women, is really in response to fear, fear for their very lives in the face of what feel like, and are, overwhelming odds against survival for many, if not most, of them in a world run by and for those who call ourselves white.

I cannot speak for MarShawn McCarrel, this lost prince of Black personhood, but I can imagine that he, like many other activists in the Black Lives Matter movement (and many in other movements for human dignity here and around the world), was brought down, depressed, by that fear, and by how little long-term deep, intentional attention is paid to the continuing violation of African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, etc.

Black Lives Matter protest  startribune com
startribune.com

I know I feel that, and I am not (yet, anyway) on the front lines of that struggle. He was on the front lines, and I know from experience on my own front lines (for LGBT equality, e.g.) that there is hope, even exhilaration at moments, when you watch others see new truth, but there also is exhaustion and fear when you realize how many people aren’t paying attention and how many of those who claim they are show no signs of caring (and may even express animosity).

What Coates’ book, and the unnecessary death of MarShawn McCarrel push me into is somehow to join the front lines. I have no desire to do what we who call ourselves white so often do–move in to take over the struggle, or even to make it about me or us. And yet, I know I have and can claim my place to support McCarrell’s surviving colleagues in the movement more than I have done, and to more directly engage my siblings in white privilege so that we all may learn why and how to give it up.

I don’t want to be part of pulling the trigger any more.

I don’t want to participate, even at a distance, in snuffing a life, or silencing a voice, as magnificent as that of MarShawn McCarrel.

It is my belief that he has found peace with the God who loves him unreservedly. But I have yet to find peace in my grief for this beautiful man, and perhaps I will not any time soon, knowing–as I have chanted more than once on the streets of Richmond, New York, Boston, and will undoubtedly do so again on Washington boulevards, and maybe elsewhere–No Justice, No Peace! Know Justice, Know Peace!

The good news, if there is any in this, may be that I have found, thanks to his friends, a powerful poem of truth and life by MarShawn McCarrel. May he have the final word here, today.

Down South by Marshawn McCarrel