Allow me to share a few reflections from Our Friendship Bench of May 11th, 2023. For this event we were excited to share the Bench with Deidra Moore-Janvier, recent author of a wonderful book titled From Me To You: The Power of Storytelling and Its Inherent Generational Wealth―An African American Story. In tribute to the Bench as a venue for sharing, I applaud Dennis & Ali for creating it, and for encouraging its always fearlessly presented topics. Race in America is such a topic. As our guest Deidra wrote, referencing race & America, “…you can’t talk about one without addressing the other.”
With the theme being the ‘woke’ phenomenon, it was one of the most informative and stimulating segments of the always interesting and engaging weekly gathering called simply Our Friendship Bench. The theme elicited much introspection & examination from this white, straight, male, American Bencher. Here’s a partial rendering of my takeaways.
I start with the premise that I am indeed a privileged member of American society. Considering my status, I had to have a detailed, itemized, well-executed plan to fail in this society. With my skin color, social standing, geographic placement, and even my naming, America was not about to allow me to fall behind, or to become an outcast. Even if I’d been determined to sabotage my own life, to ignore and/or undermine the guardrails, privileges, and perks set aside for lil ‘ol white, straight, middle-class me I may have ended up under a bridge, but it would’ve been the nicest damn bridge in the best part of the city. It may have had room service.
If, on the other hand, I’d been born black, either male or female, regardless of my placement, naming, social or financial standing, educational attainment, or parentage, a spot under the bridge would always be just one tiny, seemingly inconsequential misstep away. And there’d be no room service, unless I was the one delivering the grub.
If I had to cite just one lesson from that Bench, and I make no claims of brilliant insight here, it would be that my suspicions have been correct for a long time. That is, for the race issue to resolve, the very first step must be for all white citizens of this country to take a long, hard look in the mirror and admit that the individual staring back at them is part of the problem. I speak only for myself, but for a very long time, before I made my first rudimentary grappling with being woke, it never occurred to me that the white/straight/Christian/male standard needed to be questioned.
Presently, we live next door to a wonderful Black couple. They’re highly successful, well-educated, very ambitious, and always engaging. They have young twins, four-year-old boys who are simply adorable, two kids I’ve come to love as my own. They always squeal and run to me when they see me come up the walk, a frequent experience that fills my heart with joy…and with a bit of sadness!
Why sadness? Several reasons. One is that we’re preparing to leave town soon, and will no longer hear those happy squeals, no longer enjoy the company of those friends next door. Another reason is more subtle, but more troubling, and it involves a question I’ve asked myself from time to time: How do the parents of those two Black kids, and countless others growing up — or trying to in today’s America — how do they teach those precious boys not to trust guys like me? Each time I see those kids running toward me, arms extended for a hug they know they’ll surely get, why do I hesitate? I know where the hesitation derives. If they exhibit the same trust when danger lurks for them, as it does far too often in America, how do those loving parents teach their boys to navigate that perilous ground? The saddest part is the necessity of having to teach those kids this infectious and never-ending truth.
I’m always open to new ideas, new understandings. So, if anyone can share with me the path forward, please do. I’m convinced that the ‘othering’ of certain people, the strict adherence by society to the long-sacred standard of white supremacy, until that assumption is seen for the nonsense it is, and until we begin to see everyone as equal — always, and in all ways — this tragic and ritualistic separation by pigmentation will endure.
In her recent book Breathe, A Letter To My Sons, Imani Perry wrote ‘America is addicted to innocence.’ We simply refuse to face the sullied past that brought us where we are today, and we’ve done whatever harsh and violent work deemed necessary to suppress and hurt those who insist on our past’s elaboration and study. This explains why the ‘woke’ effort has met such strong and divisive opposition. Simply put, I believe we Americans are ashamed of our past, and our defection from stated principles. In this nation where ‘all men are created equal,’ we know in our hearts that is simply a lie, and only aspirational.
I say we start to look, really look, and acknowledge, and study, and embrace our sordid past for what it was and is. I suggest we all embrace the ‘woke’ that’s hiding, that we air out the musty and oppressive past that haunts us, to finally recognize its corrosive element for what it is.
Until the two little boys next door to me can grow up with the assumption that they have access to everything I have, no questions asked, no prior restraint recognized, we will struggle with this seemingly intractable problem of race hatred and conflict. Until their parents know, just know, that their beautiful Black sons will routinely depart every morning, and then safely return each and every evening, we have work yet to do. And work does in fact sound very much like woke.
In her recent book, Deidra quoted Elie Wiesel:
…we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.
That must be our aim. That impulse must define us. Anything less is beneath our dignity as a country and as a people.