America’s Open Wound

For those with open ears, open eyes, and open hearts, the bleeding wounds of racism in America are evident everyday- every hour and every minute for many. It is a complex, jagged, and deep wound which, because of neglect or intentional denial, has spread throughout the entire body of our country, and has been bending us for so long that few of us recognize the extent of deformation it has caused not only in our corporate body and mind, but within our American soul.

I am racist. I say that in the same way that I am honest about the fact that I have arthritis, or that I want- at some point everyday- to salve my ravenous emotions with the balm of Jim Beam. Those are just facts, realities about myself with which I must live and compensate for with the best of my awareness and abilities. I don’t know specifically where and when arthritis first began to grip my spine; nor do I know when the diseased defaults to racist attitudes began that I still am so easily able to display from time to time. Both of those things (along with the continuing desire- after fifteen years of abstinence- for an alcoholic fog to soften the day) are infestations I had no control over at the time they entered my being.

I’ve managed all of them, to an extent. I intentionally do not not drink and do what I can, with others, to keep Jim Beam and his sidekick, Bud, at bay. I swallow pills daily to keep my over-active anti-inflammatory systems in check. Racism, however, is probably the most difficult infection to deal with because of the daily reinforcements and affirmations that pour onto it, like gasoline on a fire. It flares at times, it sizzles often, and is always a (usually benign) ember that burns within me.

I don’t want it to be there. It is much, much smaller than it once was. And if I try to justify its presence based on a comparison of it to the hot coal which burns in others then, indeed, it was never very large. But it is there, and I hate that it is there. I want it gone.

I know the hope for its complete eradication is still generations away, for myself (i.e., my children and their children) and my country. I am not able to say I will die one day with nothing but a cold ash of racism within me. But I do hope, and will act on the possibilities of seeing that hope manifested as soon as possible in all the ways I can, whenever I can, wherever and however I can. My children are already less burdened (not only because of me, by any means!) of my various afflictions than I will ever be, thank God.

And I do thank God for that, and a whole long and glorious line of my fellow Americans who have been courageous enough to reveal the wounds of racism to be no mere reality which are harmful to some, but that are crippling, festering, killing wounds that are endemic to all of us. The blessing of being 58 years old in America is to have been alive in the same place, breathing the same air, as some of these past and present healers.

Two of them, of course, as they have been, are, and will be for so many Americans (and wounded people everywhere) are Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In fact, the first piece of American literature that I would recommend to anyone- even above The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Grapes of Wrath– is King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Soon after that, I would urge anyone to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley. Many people my age or older will remember Malcolm X in the fiery contexts of the early 60s, a time of frightening cultural change. Read him again, in the light of the forty years of history we have lived through since his death, and you will find yourself mourning his murder.

As of yesterday- and, yes, it is the reason I’m writing all of this in the first place- we heard a a speech by Senator Obama that may one day find itself in the same heady categories as the two pieces of literature mentioned above. Because of his unique cultural stance, he was able to elaborate on racism in America in a way that no one before him has personally been able to do. In black and white, African and American terms, his genetic voice and his intellectual honesty and wisdom have provided content for years of discussion and action and- most importantly- real social and soulful change. Whether a person is a supporter of his candidacy for president or not, this speech deserves to be read, studied, and pondered. In fact, I would urge those who are most opposed to that candidacy to read it most contemplatively.

And I say that not because it might change your vote, but because it might change you. I’ve overheard too many conversations about why someone is a Clinton or McCain supporter to not also have heard heart-breakingly racist statements being made in the guise of political or ideological language. Not all of those supportive statements for other candidates are racist, by any means, but enough are for anyone to know, if their eyes, ears, and hearts are open, that the blood and pus of racist wounds are still running fresh.

Read Senator Obama’s speech here.

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6 thoughts on “America’s Open Wound

  1. There are many who will disregard the Senator’s speech as political theater, discount it by reading it in excerpts and quoting sentences apart from the context of the whole. I have no doubt this happens with all great speeches and letters in the time they are made. Certainly it happened with King, as we can see in “….Birmingham Jail”–he addressing many of those critics directly.

    However, I think, whatever happens with Obama’s candidacy, this speech will be read closely for a long time, and more wisely perhaps after a time. But in our present, I hope that people throughout our country are encouraged to have the conversations that his speech is in fact encouraging us to have. The sort of conversation you have begun here.

    A conversation that acknowledges that race matters. And has mattered in America for hundreds of years. That it affects all of us in some way.

    We’ve been avoiding the topic for too long. Many of us overcompensate, saying “we don’t see color,” as if this were a compliment. As if to say that a person of another race should not be celebrated for being who they are, but for somehow transcending the “burden” of their genetics. As if our colors are stains. They are not of course, and we all know that. But we say we are color blind because it seems like the right thing to say. A way of avoiding the truth, which is that we cannot help but acknowledge a difference, even when we want to. It’s time to admit that when we watch a basketball game, the easiest way to identify which one Steve Nash is is to look for the short, white guy. This is logical.

    And yet it is impossible to escape the burden of these connotations. They do exist. For instance, what is implied about my Steve Nash statement? Well, obviously, that most of the other players are black. And now we’re getting into the whole black/basketball thing and just like that, I’m already getting nervous that I’ve said or implied something that would offend someone.

    And all because when I looked at the TV screen, I wanted to see which one Steve Nash was. I wanted to see the pick and roll.

    Maybe we will never be free of these prejudices, and these preconceptions, and these things that make us nervous. Maybe that’s a naive goal. But we can talk about them at least. We can admit them. It’s a good time to start. We’ve come a long way in this country, and I think most people are ready to listen to each other, and can probably identify their own reflection in another’s burdened and honest confessions.

    It’s a shared experience, after all, race in America. We’ll do better by sharing the experience together.

  2. Also, the Christian Broadcast Network approves:

    http://www.cbn.com/CBNnews/183357.aspx

    He takes a line or two to task, but quickly reiterates that those are small points that should obscure from the value of the whole.

    I bring this to the table in hopes that people who might be disinclined to read (or watch) and consider the speech will understand that it really does transcend the obvious politics involved.

  3. I too am a racist. I too hate that I have this inside of me. I live in a northeastern Louisiana city, where all the nearby small towns have populations of more blacks than whites. I try to evict the racism from within me, but it is so hard at times.
    I am white. The African Americans who live around here (enough of them that it seems to be a majority, but probably is not) refuse to use proper English and grammar. If they have a query, they will “ax” you a “kwushin”. They have been attending the same schools as their white counterparts for nigh on 30-40 years now, have had the same access to an education as the rest of us, so there is simply no excuse for this.
    When out in public, they have no class…shouting at their kids at Wal-Mart…screeching at their friends in parking lots and restaurants. So I kind of dislike many of them, but I also dislike the part of me that dislikes them.
    And I know some of them probably have issues with me. Privileged white woman, speaks proper English, has enough money to pay for my groceries with my debit card instead of the food stamps card.
    And then as a nurse, I’ve worked with plenty black co-workers, and taken care of plenty of black patients who I came to care about deeply.
    It’s time we all had a dialog, get this stuff out of our systems, as best we can, and then try to get past as much of it as we can, until the next time. Then hopefully, each subsequent episode will get easier.

  4. “And I say that not because it might change your vote, but because it might change you.”

    Well put, Barry! I too have heard the comment that “America is not ready for a black president,” usually spoken by someone who means “I am not ready for a black president.” I think you have hit on the crux of the matter: Obama’s speech transcends politics. There is hope here that we can rise above ourselves through honesty.

    I also appreciate Dana’s honesty (above). Being honest with ourselves does not preclude being compassionate about that which we hate, or detest, in ourselves. As a matter of fact, the honesty seems to be long overdue. We have been dancing around this issue for too long.

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