The very first time I met my husband was just before spring break in my sophomore year in college. We had both signed up to spend the week at the Harambee Center in Pasadena, Calif., where we would be involved in a variety of work projects and engage in conversations surrounding the intersections of race and the Christian faith.
The group of 50 students was divided into smaller groups of 4-5, and my now-husband and I found ourselves in the same group. We were supposed to meet several times before the trip to get to know one another and we were given a few discussion questions around which to base our conversations.
We met over dinner in the dining commons and our first question was the following:
"How do you think race affects life on our campus?"
I'm embarrassed now to admit this, but I chimed in first. And here is what I said:
"Life on campus? I don't see how it would affect life on campus. I think people need to stop talking about it. It's not an issue unless we make it one. Why even have this conversation? None of us are racist so let's just drop it already."
Which, of course, is a totally racist thing to say, but I didn't know it at the time. I remember my not-yet husband just staring at me, his mouth half open, an "Are you kidding me with this?" look on his face.
It took me several more years before I would come to understand why we needed to have that conversation. And I think this is where a lot of other white people also get stuck. If you, like me, were raised on a steady diet of "Color Blind At All Costs," you likely think that (a) you really are colorblind and (b) because of said colorblindness, you could not possibly be racist. Nor could those around you, who for the most part are good people with good intentions. So why do we need to talk about it? Why must we harp on it? What's the big deal?
Hospital Visit vs. Funeral Visit
Last weekend at church the Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah was visiting from Chicago, Ill., and he preached on the book of Lamentations. He explained that lament is the most appropriate response to suffering and the holy disruptive confusion that erupts when the status quo is challenged or changed.
Dr. Rah said that we can best understand true lament if we think of it as a funeral visit rather than a hospital visit. With a hospital visit, there is still hope to be had, prayers to be prayed, and the possibility that health and vitality will return to the person who is not yet dead.
On the other hand, a funeral visit is quite different. There's a dead body in the room and there's no way around it. The very essence of a funeral requires a dead body that everyone must acknowledge.
This is what lament looks like. Lament is the acknowledgement of the dead body in the room and all the attendant grief that brings.
Why We Have to Talk About It
This is why we needed to have that conversation that day in the dining commons fifteen years ago and why we've needed it every day since. We need the conversation because we've never acknowledged our history. Ours is a country built on the pillaging and stealing of black bodies and using them to our own end for generations, until the laws were at last overturned and we were forced to grudgingly change our ways.
But we never actually acknowledged what we had done. We didn't acknowledge the dead bodies. Instead of lamenting we paid ourselves reparations for our lost "property" and continued to destroy black lives at every conceivable turn.
Fast forward to the Civil Rights Movement that followed less than 100 years after the abolishment of slavery. That movement was, in large part, an effort to get us to acknowledge the dead body in the room. But again, we refused. Again, we grudgingly changed as few laws as possible, declared ourselves colorblind, and lamented only that we were inconvenienced and our sense of superiority jeopardized. At best we were embittered and at worst the vileness that had been simmering just out of sight bubbled to the surface in the form of the KKK, bombings, lynchings, fire hoses, and assassinations.
Today there is another movement in our midst. The Black Lives Matter movement is demanding, among other things, that we acknowledge the dead bodies in our history and the dead bodies that have most recently fallen. But we are again refusing to do it. We're colorblind, after all. This is crazy! Why must they persist like this? Why can't we all just move on already?
It is because, as Dr. Rah pointed out, we've had no funeral dirge. The bodies are strewn about us, literally and figuratively, and we insist on stepping over them and pretending that they were never there in the first place. It's we white folks that are holding up the line. We haven't acknowledged the dead bodies. We deny the reality and the repercussions of what we've done and try to absolve ourselves of any culpability by declaring to one and all that we "don't see color." That is to say, we don't see you.
Telling the Stories, Naming the Hurt
One of the most powerful ways that we can acknowledge the dead bodies in our history is to hear the stories.
Recent studies indicate that when people are confronted with something like, say, a student-launched petition for an anti-racism program on a college campus, they often initially respond with something along the lines of, “This is not directly related to me,” or “My experience is different.”
That's what I said back in March 1999, a few weeks before that spring break trip. But it was that very trip where I would end up hearing stories that would alter the trajectory of my life.
According to Dr. Thomas K. Houston, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, storytelling is beneficial for both the teller and the listener.
“Telling and listening to stories is the way we make sense of our lives,” says Dr. Houston.
"Stories help break down that denial by engaging the listener, often through some degree of identification with the storyteller or one of the characters. The magic of stories lies in the relatedness they foster."
And in hearing the stories, we must allow the storytellers to name the hurt. That's a vital part of any conciliatory effort, and it's an essential element if any semblance of healing is going to be possible.
Jesus and the Bleeding Woman
We see this in the story of Jesus and the bleeding woman. When he senses her touch, he turns around in the body-crushing crowd and makes the time and space for her to tell him her story and name her hurt. He didn't need to do it. The story tells us that she was already healed. Just touching him was enough. Her bleeding had already stopped.
But it was apparently important that she also be able to tell him who she was and what had happened to her. And in so doing, Jesus was able to acknowledged the dead body in the room. He lamented with her and he played a funeral dirge for her years of suffering and pain. What a gift. Let's go and do likewise.
Let's watch the "Formation" video and instead of missing the point entirely and barricading ourselves inside an echo chamber of our own making, let's read some of the responses it garnered from people in the black community. Let's listen to black voices, follow black twitter, read black literature, and study black theologians. Let's hear the stories they are telling and the hurt they are naming. Let's be like Jesus.