By all appearances Friday morning, as thousands lined the street waiting (and wilting) for hours in 90-degree heat to enter the funeral arena where President Obama was to deliver a eulogy for state Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, racial unity seemed a comfortable fact of life.
For many, no doubt, it is. And numerous conversations the past few days with residents confirmed at least the aspirational consistency of this observation. But — and there’s always a “but” — there’s more work to be done. Hovering over this beautiful city in the wake of the hideous murders this month of Pinckney and eight parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a puzzle for the good-hearted: Now what?
How do Charleston and South Carolina — and the nation — proceed from here? Once the eulogies have ended and life, indeed, goes on, what precisely can one, or many, of us do to resolve the problem of race?
Reconciliation is the word of the day, but how, practically speaking, does one get there? From leaders in Washington, we often hear of the need for a “national conversation about race.” Again, how? And what does this really mean?
I asked Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. She and Associate Director Charles Tucker gave me a three-hour tutorial in my Washington living room about how people can have the necessary conversation and work toward true reconciliation.
First, said Glisson, it can’t be a national conversation. “The best conversations are the most local,” she says.
To this end, the institute created a portable template for conversation called “the Welcome Table,” a physical table where up to 25 people of all races sit and talk. Really talk. As moderator, Glisson or Tucker might ask participants to speak for three minutes about when he or she first noticed the elephant of race in the room.
Honesty is crucial, even if it smarts. Sometimes people’s recollections lead to tears. Other times, to laughter. People often laugh over what Tucker calls their “nervous stories.”
Tucker, who is African American and grew up on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, releases a rolling, baritone laugh from deep within his 6-foot-3 frame at my own nervous story. He has had plenty of personal encounters with racism yet seems to have a considerable well of compassion for the most foolish among us. This is in part because he has listened to other people’s stories and really heard them. Something about the telling of stories draws out our more human selves. Empathy displaces cynicism and guardedness.
Glisson, a font of knowledge and wisdom, paraphrases Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, saying, “My enemy is someone whose stories I don’t know.”
Though most Americans of various races don’t see each other as enemies, the sentiment is clear. When you put yourself in others’ shoes, it’s harder to think of them as “other.” The rare and inexplicable exception is the young man who allegedly murdered nine people in the Mother Emanuel church — even after, as he put it, they were so nice to him.
This is reconciliation: Acknowledging that bad things have happened, that misunderstandings persist, that we are sorry, that we forgive.
This is what Americans witnessed in Charleston as black and white residents embraced each other. This is what was happening when residents walked from opposite sides of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge to meet halfway.
At its most profound, this is what we witnessed when family members of the Charleston victims spoke to the accused, Dylann Roof, and, expressing their authentic Christian faith, forgave him.
But reconciliation isn’t a one-act play. Every community, not just in the South, has work to do, though Glisson believes Southern cities and states have an extra duty to lead the way. She is also keen on the conversation culminating in social justice policy. “Person-to-person leads to group-to-group,” she says. “And groups create policy.”
Of like mind is native Charlestonian Charles T. “Bud” Ferillo Jr., creator and director of the documentary film “Corridor of Shame.” Ferillo has been working to create a sister reconciliation institute in Charleston, perhaps with the College of Charleston. His new film, “A Seat at the Table,” about the Welcome Table, is coincidentally almost ready for public release.
The terrible event that brought these projects to my attention will remain heavy on our hearts. But welcome tables are a welcome idea as we search for solutions and create a new story with a happier ending.
11 thoughts on ““Blueprint for changing the way we talk about race””
Who people are when challenged–by circumstances, by opinions counter to their own, by anything triggering a spontaneous response–is who we really are.
When one considers the emotions expressed by some fellow contributors here towards others offering an unexpected reception of their work–merely their literary endeavors!–one must wonder how deeply held their expressed values can be.
The furious rejection of an opinion–not very well disguised by the condescending dismissal expressed by “bless your heart”–
The tough-guy stance paraphrased as “your opinion is meaningless to me” while begging others to come in as a rescuing, refuting cavalry–
The name-calling by someone described as a faith leader when he finds his worldview threatened by a calm recitation of facts and comparisons–
–and the enraged insistence that no honest consideration of a writer’s craft can be allowed within the purview of a writers’ group–
This is a sort of mini lab experiment on how thin the veneer of “inclusion and diversity” lies upon so many.
…and I congratulate you, Thorn; your contest has certainly laid bare the pernicious extent of the problem.
Race to me is as artificial a division as national boundaries are from space. We all came from a combination of Neantheral & ancient African roots. Injustices, inhumanities all arise from this dividing of humans such as by making up races. To me this is a social stupidity whose time is up due to our knowledge of science. Throughout this contest I have read the contentiousness too, but very limited solutions. People who would rather fight than heal. I entered this contest to better heal myself & others not be a cynic or superior. It is cliche to say, but isn’t it time we behave as one human race, living in respect for each other & together find solutions to serve each other rather than destroying each other?
Perhaps persisting in this sort of labeling (labeling, I repeat) behavior is not the best way of furthering your goals…
Character, manners, respect, open attitudes to equal justice, opportunities in education, housing, food, water, health, personal liberties, safety & happiness are each about behaviour. Words without deeds are cheap, cynical poison. Intentions to unite with consensus is noble. Dr. King, Ghandi & the prophets from many ages were far more than pointing out the evils of their time. They each also offered (re)adjustments to their society’s failings. Our entries have spoken well of evils needing considerations. Without character’s, civil behaviour in resolving differences, these patterns of might makes right of man-made wars & ego & injustice results will continue to repeat until the end of human history.
You continue to presume that anyone who’s attracted your ire by calling out bias, hypocrisy and nonsense must therefore never have themselves done anything worthy. We’re not required, as an introduction to any of our comments, to provide a list of our merit badges and some character references.
I’d say that this contest has done an excellent job of turning over the rocks here and finding quite an assortment of worms.
Gandhi, by the way, was pretty far from noble. His grand foray into the struggle against injustice was impelled by his anger and indignation of being treated, on a South African train, just the same as a black man instead of a white one.
You might want to use that wonder of our age, Wikipedia, to learn how his wife died (after many decades, mind you, of the celibacy he decided she’d have to endure within marriage…)
I believe that to have excess emotions harms oneself & others, so I do not allow myself emotions other than joy & gratitude which I share with friends. My rare emotional tears, fears, desires & blues I deal with privately. To over-react emotionally in behaviour towards others is called Borderline Personality Disorder. I love myself too much to deal with BPD people. I applaud progresses in co-existence that are kind intended, constructive & all party agreed to. I am a pragmatic, rational lady (my high bar being utopian dreams) who believes in working with co-respect with others towards a more just world without the arrogances of bullying, priviledge, contrarianism, ego, narcissism or schadenfreude.
Perhaps “race” is the red herring of this contest. The pounding heart it’s exposed is intolerance in all its myriad forms.