Paths to Learning about Race and Racism

Photo by Julius Drost from UNsplash.com.

Editor’s Note: This week’s post is by guest contributor Mark Docken and continues the question of how do we all work for more racial justice without shutting down communication through “us” and “them” approaches and “discussions”. Mark is a native of the Midwest, a retired pastor and friend and brings a fresh perspective to the discussions.

“Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” (Emily Dickinson)

In my ever-deepening journey into exploring racism and the legacy of slavery, I have moved forward in my own learning and discussions with others not because of direct confrontation, but through more poetic and emotional appeals, through stories and testimonies of people and land:

Percival Everett’s James is a contemporary imaginative retelling of Huckleberry Finn through the spirit of James (formerly Jim). In James, as a reader, I become close to this courageous man with a sly sense of humor, but through him I am confronted with the tragic and cruel construction of race by whites.

In a CBS Sunday morning segment, chefs of different ethnic backgrounds share their own variations on Texas BBQ. A white food columnist said that “immigrants see BBQ as a palette to bring the flavors of their culture to the forefront…I see people rail away against all these changes to Texas BBQ, but when you set them down with that plate in front of them, they’re rarely arguing about whether it’s good or not.”

In Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed, different lands cry out for a reckoning of slavery in America: Angola prison as a reconstruction of plantation slavery; Whitney Plantation as an open book to the hidden history of slavery; Monticello as an enigma of championing freedom while maintaining slavery.

I am thankful for these examples of telling the truth of racism’s legacy with a slant (approaching the subject from an angle of sorts rather than head-on).

To tell the truth with a slant is not to say that one should allow false narratives to be told unchallenged. It does not mean that we have to “go slow” as was told to MLK.  It does not mean that false understandings should only be gently nudged. People of all backgrounds need “the language, the history, and the framework to identify why their society looks the way it does” (Clint Smith, p. 179). From my spiritual tradition, there is a time to overturn the tables in the temple. But again, one must be aware of what it takes to be effective, to be listened to, to bring about change, and not just take refuge in being “right.”  

It is not helpful, for me, for people to stake out a moral high ground and seek to convince me and others of their “rightness” and the other’s “wrongness.”  We need to speak truth, but with a slant.

We need to touch hearts. We don’t do that with direct attacks and condemnations that result and have resulted in division and harden hearts, despite our best intentions. Frontal attacks on one’s religion, cultural identity, and deeply held meta-narratives most often will result not in thoughtful introspection, but in overt knee-jerk backlash. That shouldn’t just be blamed on “white fragility.” It is just not helpful to seek to be merely “right.”  One must find ways to be listened to and understood.  This does not happen just by being ever “more right”, and asserting it more forcefully.  One does not want to become captive to a kind of “moral supremacy.”  One needs to enter dialogue with the expectation that your own position may be changed by the other; that you need the other’s perspective in order to approach the truth together.

I am a pastor and theologian, and in my experience, ardent statements of moral rightness/righteousness in relationship to God or humans are rarely helpful and most often hurtful, besides being untruthful. Life is much more ambiguous than what can be stated from a stance of moral rightness.  That is why I am thankful the Bible is filled with stories (some that seem to contradict each other), parables, and prayers, which are much more impactful in that they tell truth with a slant.

Finally, Percival Everett provides a great metaphor of American history and legacy in the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty has become a great symbol of the unique American endeavor of freedom and equal opportunity. However, the original design centered on the abolition of slavery, with her left hand clutching a pair of broken shackles. This was changed due to lingering strained relationships between the North and the South in the 1870s and 1880s.  So now the shackles are less visible at her feet and partially hidden beneath her robe.

We have done much the same with our understanding of American history and the legacy of slavery on the present. The ideals of the Statue of Liberty and of America are and were bold and ambitious and are to be proud of, but the welcoming has tragically been limited and has excluded a host of peoples. How do we make visible those realities and the shackles and demand a reckoning that “informs how economic and political decisions are made moving forward” (Everett, p. 261)? How do we do this without it being heard as tearing down the “statue”?  How do we “tell the truth, but tell it slant?” 

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2 Comments

  1. Papa Q

    One cannot tell the truth with a slant. The truth is the truth that is determined by documentation and facts. But, then, who is the author. Even the story telling in the Bible is a challenge. Individuals speak of the word of God. The shackles represented on the Statue of Liberty was it about slavery or was it representing the shackles of the poor and down trodden of the nations of immigrants where many came as indentured from European nations, except African who were transported in bondage. What is truth? Is there truth?
    I was taught to use primary sources in writing an essay or a dissertation. I had to footnote, a footnote. There was always a story teller who became authorized: Aristotle, Socrates, Luke, Matthew, Hammurabi.
    Finally, there will always be a slant.

    Reply
    • Tom Adams

      Thnaks for your perspective. I am not sure we will ever know absolute truth.

      Reply

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