Moving Out

“I’m in a new place.” We say that a lot, right? Like when we are trying to shift our mindset, move past something difficult perhaps. Once accomplished, we truly have traveled to that new place — or space as academics might say. Because academics like to appropriate simple words to substitute for other simple words so that everyone knows we are academics as opposed to just regular people. Fortunately, some academics have found themselves in a new place in their writing and no longer wrangle words into performing their bidding.

Anyway, I’m in a new place myself. Literally. And then — because of the nature of my move — emotionally, spiritually, and even olfactorily. (California definitely smells different than New Jersey, now that the smoke has cleared). It’s hard being in a new place. When we decide to move out of our mindsets, it takes a lot of effort. If we are religious, we might pray for wisdom and clarity on our new path. And if we are just about everybody else these days we might meditate on it. Some will “journal” about the process, articulating in our lovely lined-paper, leather-bound books where it is we want to go, and that which we are choosing to leave behind. It’s a noble pursuit, this sorting out of our positions like old possessions.

Yet, when public figures shift places we tend to criticize them. (Rightly so when they are being hypocrites, such as those crying urgency in the need to replace Justice Ginsburg even as they denounced such an idea when a different President was in office). Sometimes folks seem to be punished simply for revisiting their opinions and deciding they would like to make a move from that old habitat. I remember when President Obama was accused of “flip-flopping” regarding his stance on LGBTQ rights. I for one was happy for his flop towards a slightly more equitable union, but some characterized it as weakness, indecisiveness. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. moved to a new space in the ways in which he challenged our American society. At first his message bore a more passive style, simply stating that all humans deserve equal rights and that that was not yet the case when it came to African Americans — and the poor, and other marginalized communities. But once the Vietnam War was in full swing, all that it entailed really stuck in Dr. King’s craw and he was forced to move to a new place of direct criticism against the immoralities perpetuated by the U.S. government. This particular relocation in all likelihood got him killed.

Even Notorious RBG was known to have had a change of address now and again when it came to her thinking, albeit nuanced. In a statement she made surrounding the Hobby Lobby case, Justice Ginsburg apparently contradicted an opinion she had written regarding a 1993 religious freedom law. She was publicly called out on this shift by her friend Justice Scalia. Apparently a popular saying — when justices were trying to explain (away?) certain changes of heart — was making its way through the Supreme Court. It was first stated by a Justice Jackson in 1948: “‘I see no reason why I should be consciously wrong today because I was unconsciously wrong yesterday.” Scalia and Ginsburg both quoted it on separate occasions. (

In order to go to a new place, one must move, relocate, reposition, shift. I just moved across the country and I’m not sure which is harder: driving 40 hours in 5 days, or budging our minds to rethink something, to open up to an idea we didn’t originate, to embrace a possibility we know nothing about. In this volatile time that only seems to increase in volatility with every current event, I think it’d be a good idea for us to pack up and move our minds to some new places. We don’t even have to give up our old properties, that’s the great thing about metaphorical mental real estate. But I think that taking a quick trip to a foreign idea, or going sight-seeing in someone else’s thoughts and feelings for a minute, might just ease the pain that so many of us are in right now — and perhaps help us understand the pain of others as well. Whether we get down on our knees to pray, sit lotus-style for meditation, look up to the heavens, or just stare out the window, it’s time to go exploring. This is one activity that even COVID can’t obstruct. And it won’t cost a thing either, except maybe a little pride or ego. And then next time someone asks you where you are, you can simply answer, “I found a new place.” And then make sure to give them directions.

Thoughts from Route 80

I’m in a Best Western Hotel in Sterling, Colorado right now. I wasn’t planning on writing this week, but I also didn’t want to let my fans down. Fan. Well, really, I just felt like writing about some things I’ve been thinking on the road, having driven my car for approximately 24 hours these last three days. That’s a lot of time for thought, even between a meowing cat, audio books, NPR, and country music. (Country music, I figured out, is there to alert you to the fact that you have lost reception to the latest NPR station you were listening to).

So here are some thoughts I’ve had:

  1. Nebraska is waaaay too big.
  2. It’s easy to find a radio preacher on a Sunday in Iowa.
  3. I like classic rock more than I thought. (Or it may just be a fun walk down my Michigan memory lane).
  4. Folks in the middle of the country aren’t real concerned about the whole mask thing.
  5. I am for sure a bi-coastal snob.
  6. Using the SCAN button on the car radio is like playing Name That Tune and it got me to wondering if maybe that’s how they came up with the idea for the game show.
  7. When my cat acquiesces to go back in her car-pen for another 8 hour ride my heart breaks with the trust she displays.
  8. Salad has yet to be invented in the middle of the country.
  9. The time zones seem extra absurd when you’re driving through a different one each day.
  10. Staying in hotels has always been a leap of sanitary faith.
  11. The Travelers by Regina Porter is a really good historic-like novel.
  12. People in the middle of the country don’t hog the left lane (which is called the passing lane for a reason) like we do in New Jersey.
  13. I learned from NPR that the idea of a vaccine — giving our body a little bit of the thing we’re trying not to get — was invented in its earliest stages in 400 BC China. I also learned that fire experts are trying to re-teach people that the best way to prevent wildfires is to allow small, natural fires to occur. To me, that sounded like the same concept as a vaccine. And I got to wondering what else we could get rid of by recreating it.
  14. It’s handy to be able to buy beer and wine at a gas station; but I will never embrace pumping my own gas.
  15. A lot of places in the middle of the country don’t look like the things they say they are, such that I have found myself mumbling several times already, “This can’t be it.”
  16. Maybe college students don’t read the syllabus on purpose — or maybe they do and then purposefully ask questions that are clearly answered as some kind of power play.
  17. Friends who don’t participate in social media make more work for you during times like this. (“Hey, how are you? Are you in Colorado yet?”). They’re kinda like students who don’t read the syllabus.
  18. The middle of our country is very flat.
  19. People in the middle of the country are willing to spend their time and money to erect giant signs that spell out the name of our so-called president.
  20. I’m excited to belong to California. Fires, earthquakes, I don’t care. It’s really calling me.

Tomorrow is Not Promised, So Compromise Today

Compromise. A bad word in the English lexicon, right? Don’t ever compromise, we are warned as some kind of encouragement to grab for that proverbial brass ring. There’s the famous Compromise of 1850, for example — not a good thing whatsoever. It has been drilled into us that compromise is for those not willing to take what they want, which of course is the American Way. In 1928 the Lincoln Motor Company advertised that their cars were “for those who accept no compromise.” Fifty years later Winston Cigarettes claimed “no compromise” on taste when it came to their new Winston Lights. Recently Fossil Watches admonished us, “Don’t compromise this season.” And just this March, Nissan came out with a campaign that exhorted us to, “Refuse to compromise.” In this particular ad we see some all-too-familiar-type man informing his female employee that she will not be getting the promotion she clearly expected. Then some woman in a sporty Nissan drives up to the scorned lady, tells her to drop her taco and hop in the car for a good lecture on the perils of compromise. (What’s that got to do with sexism in the workplace)? Herein, I believe, lies the origin of our problems today, if I may be so bold as to make such a claim. It’s time we reimagine compromise.

Today our church met for worship for the first time since March 15th. (Beware those Ides)! It felt so good to see people, to hear live music, to listen to our pastor preach the Word in person. (Zoom has gotten on just about everybody’s last nerve). The sun was out, the breeze was blowing, and we celebrated together in that moment. And yet, it was most assuredly a compromise. Masks; no sanctuary; no hugging at a church that has as its foundation physical connection; lots of people missing. Had we held such a service pre-pandemic we would have been disappointed. But instead, this compromise felt especially sweet, highlighting as it did the resiliency of our humanity. It wasn’t how we wanted things to be at the moment, but thanks to creativity and effort we spent a beautiful day together. Now, some of our members may well have stayed home because they were not interested in compromising. As in, I’ll go back to church when church looks like the church I knew. But most everything we knew isn’t going back to the way it was. And, as we know, that is not necessarily such a bad thing.

The U.S. Open is in progress right now. It’s always been my end-of-the-summer pilgrimage. A sort of send-off to my favorite season in the midst of my favorite sport. This year the Open is happening but fans are not invited. Instead, giant video screens are on court, with Zoom-like squares filled with fan faces. The changeovers include boisterous music to keep the energy high for the players. There’s even canned applause. (I keep waiting for one of the chair umpires to repeat the ubiquitous phrase, “quiet please,” but I guess they just don’t have that sense of humor). Do you know I wasn’t going to watch the Open this year? It wasn’t going to be the same and I didn’t want to see my event in this compromised state. Why? What are we afraid of when we eschew compromise? (Because all resistance has something to do with fear). Are we afraid of learning new things? Foregoing identities, disbanding long-held beliefs? For sure those are all scary prospects. Maybe the fear is that we will realize that it wasn’t really the live music, the pews, the fans, or the cold beer that made these experiences. What if we learn that we are the experiences, that we create our experiences within ourselves ? Then, if we are not having good experiences, it may just be on us.

Think about the people you know who are making the best of this pandemic. They have gone through some stuff — are still going through some stuff — yet they exude grace and gratitude, joy and even humor. How do they do that? Answer: they are not afraid of compromise, not afraid it will lessen them, that it will make them look weak or without aspiration. Our society has told us forever that we gain nothing by compromising. Our country’s history is one of little compromise; if one group of people doesn’t want to do exactly what the other group of people in power want to do then off with their heads and on with the shackles. Yeah, it’s pretty clear we shouldn’t be compromising if we want to stay America-strong. Like: don’t wear masks, don’t follow social gathering rules, and by all means complain to the slow cashier at Trader Joe’s who’s probably got a couple other things on their mind beside your avocados, blue corn chips and pineapple salsa. Yeah, you’re not gonna take it!

The fact is that the definition of a compromise entails all folks giving in a little. It’s the we’re all in this together anthem, the buying of a gift certificate at a local shop that maybe is a bit out of your budget but you really want that place to survive. It’s the keeping your mouth shut when someone cuts in front of you because maybe they’ve got troubles at home you can’t even imagine. It’s like cheering for Serena Williams from in front of your laptop because she’s so damn inspirational. And it’s like singing, “God Lifts Us Up” through a cheery Van Gogh Sunflowers mask that a friend gave you, being grateful for the sun and the wind and the love that surrounds you. So go ahead, try some compromise. I think it can take us a mighty long way.

Life Might be Like a Box of Chocolates, but the Pandemic is Like Musical Chairs

I’m moving. Such a funny word, moving, for this thing we do when we pack up our belongings and relocate ourselves. I mean hopefully we’re always moving, in some form or fashion. “Big move,” people will say when they learn I’m heading to the opposite coast. Aren’t they all big? Or don’t they at all least feel big? And anyway, I am choosing to move. And right about now, that makes me a very fortunate person.

Lots of people are moving right now. They are moving out of homes they can no longer pay for; or because they are sick and don’t want to infect loved ones. Some people are being moved to tears because of the blatant immorality that continues to play out in our streets, behavior that does not even try to hide itself anymore thanks to the encouragement of the so-called president and his evil set of lackeys. Others of us have even been moved to do something about what we see happening in this world. We are moved to protest, write letters, sign petitions, and ruin polite conversation by calling people out. Others yet are being moved to heartbreak, losing people they know and love. And even losing people they don’t actually know but still love. I saw a post from a mental health organization that explained why we grieve for people we never met — like Kobe and Chadwick and George. It noted how the work of these folks may have gotten us through a hard time, or that perhaps their deaths triggered our own fears of dying. One thing that was not mentioned was the sinking feeling of inevitability one experiences upon seeing yet another Black man die prematurely in this country.

So I am moving. Because I want to. No, I am not moving “for a job,” that would be way too practical and linear for me. But I have the privilege of moving because I don’t want to end up where I am. And I think I am talking about my geography, but it may well be that I know something deep down and that I must move my self, my belongings, and my cat in order not to end up where I am in some other way. (Which is far from a bad place already, but there’s always more better).

Like so many people, this pandemic has left me asking a lot of questions of myself. It feels like a game of musical chairs in that moment that the music stops playing. Some people are left with no chair at all. They are out. We know who they are. Those of us lucky enough to hold onto a chair have time to think about where that chair is and what we want to do on it. (Because the music is still off and we are only in the middle of this very long game). Some of us have taken a look around at the people in the other chairs and said to ourselves, Hmm, next time the music starts up I want to be somewhere else entirely before it stops again. That’s what I thought sometime around May when it was clear that the music had no intention of starting back up any time soon. Those of us who have the opportunity to assess our lives are very fortunate right now. We might not necessarily like the results of these self-assessments, but if we’re willing to pay attention to them then our outcomes could be pretty brilliant.

I read that John Africa, the founder of the 1970s Black liberation group MOVE, said that he chose the name (not an acronym) because, “Everything that’s alive moves. If it didn’t, it would be stagnant, dead. Movement is the principle of Life…” (

It really is the principle of life isn’t it? And I for one am going to keep on moving in order to keep on living during this time where so much of society is stagnant. So yeah, I’m moving.

Not Everything is a Debate

Not everything is a debate. Not everything has a conclusion, a summary, a finite judgment. Our need, our desire to wrap things up — usually with a bow of I’m right, you’re wrong — is a contributing factor to the diseased communications we are witnessing at this moment. What happened to exploring together, simply wondering about something aloud? (Have we ever really done this)? Only in the safest of company are we willing to venture forth into a sphere that we are unsure of, in order to gain some kind of insight for ourselves and perhaps even for those listening.

Imagine if political debates were conversations where two or more people considered issues together and provided what they saw as pros and cons — instead of barking strident rights and wrongs at each other. CNN debate moderator: “Vice President Biden, where do you think the idea of police defunding belongs in terms of a historical perspective? How does this pressing issue tie in with our country’s history of policing, law enforcement, community policing, law and order? In a perfect world, what would law enforcement look like to you?” Now I’d like to hear that answer, to watch the requisite thought processes, witness a potential leader’s frames of reference. I think that’s how you get to know someone, come to understand if you want them to run your country or not.

Because debates require that folks be on opposite ends of a given subject from the beginning, they are mostly useful as showcases for people’s abilities to memorize, distill and articulate under pressure. All worthy skills and certainly illustrative of one’s thinking. In fact perhaps we could employ debates on dating sites, wherein instead of reading about one’s favorite romantic activity we view a short clip of the potential candidate debating on a particular subject. “Splitting the Bill on the First Date, Equalization or Escapism?”

But what if we really want to accomplish something, say, change the world? What if we want to spread anti-racist thinking or encourage empathy or illustrate listening? Then we cannot shackle our discourse into a debate mode, instead allowing it to be more like a brisk walk together. Do you know anybody who takes a discussion and turns it into a debate before you even know you’re in one? There you are waxing poetic about One Love and suddenly they say, “I disagree!” After a moment of stunned silence, you ask, “With what?” And they go back to a word or sentence that you employed and turn it into a concrete statement and then stamp it with their challenge of its veracity. You were just wondering how to get more people to think about the incarcerated, or the deported, or the poor.

Working on immigrant rights these last few years, I have received so very many responses to my letters and public comments from public officials. Concerning a recent incident said to have happened to an immigrant at our county’s detention center, I wrote to the County Executive’s assistant: “Today I’m responding, in frustration, because of the ongoing cruelty at the…Facility. According to reports [this] immigrant has faced retaliation from corrections officers simply for talking to the press about the negligent medical care he’s experienced… He is still due his free speech rights, isn’t he?” The response I received included this sentence: “It is premature on your part to assume that the culture you describe exists … even before an investigation is conducted.” Instead of an exploration as to the issue at hand, I am told that I am wrong to assume that this event even happened. Case closed, conversation ended.

Look, whether you believe Jesus was the Messiah or not, if you have ever read the Bible you will see he was a pretty good listener. Instead of saying, You’re wrong, I’m right all the time he would typically offer up an analogy, or ask a question, to those who challenged him. He liked his discourse, though it made him so tired sometimes he had to go up to a mountain or find a deserted island to rest up from it. It is hard work to listen, to take in other’s words without automatically formulating your response. I always tell my students that as soon as they raise their hands to speak they have gone from listening mode to practicing their retort. Just. Wait.

I would like to see less encouragement of the debate mode — in the classroom and in the public square. Let’s talk, get to know each other, keep the channels open. I swear more good gets done that way. We should go back and study the great speeches, the ones we are taught changed history. Those were conversations, albeit sometimes with an audience of hundreds. Let’s grow humanity together, collectively, by sharing what’s in our minds and our hearts without concern for rebuttal. No goals. No scores. No wins or losses. Except, of course, for the gains that we will make by listening to each other’s ideas.

Killing Dreams

During the AIDS epidemic I was deep into my 20-something life in New York City. I was an actor, I was in food service; gay men were everywhere. Until suddenly they were not. Little by little my friends and co-workers disappeared. I would walk down 7th Avenue South passing emaciated men, Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions prominently displayed upon their bodies. I felt like I was in the movie, The Night of the Living Dead. I had to look away. I felt sorry for them but I knew I wasn’t one of them. You see, at that point we uninformed folks were under the impression that gay, White, skinny men were the only ones succumbing to this strange new disease. Sure, we knew that AIDS could be contracted in all kinds of sexual relations, but that didn’t mean we practiced much discernment at the clubs and bars we frequented. I, for one, was reckless in these terms. It was simply the 80s: it was all about China Club, Michael Jackson, and AIDS.

In my daughter’s wonderful reading and writing group, a young man recently led our discussion based on several texts including Wayne Hoffman’s “Skipping the Life Fantastic: Coming of Age in the Sexual Devolution.” It’s a piece written in 1996 that looks at the ways that “queer lifeworlds” were changed, and really shackled, by the AIDS crisis. Gay men were essentially told to stop fantasizing, imagining, and exploring. It was time to get in lockstep with the new “anti-sex” movement. This was society’s way of policing what some considered a subversive lifestyle. It was for their own good, after all. And implicit, I think, was that it was pretty much their fault all this AIDS had happened in the first place. They had brought this disease upon themselves — and the world at large — by their impetuous behavior. These messages came not only from the “straight world” but from “the community” as well.

Fast forward, as they say, to today’s COVID epidemic. (Wow, I have already experienced two major epidemics in my lifetime; I am either old or the world is spinning out of control at an ever-increasing velocity). We learned early in this scourge — to no surprise for many of us — that African Americans were bearing the brunt of this disease. Following this “news” came exhortations indicating their culpability in the matter. From White and Black folk. Earlier this month a Michigan official said it was Black (not his word) people’s fault in Detroit that COVID had spread throughout his great state. And Black leaders are lecturing their people on egregious lifestyles.

African Americans have essentially been told to stop fantasizing, imagining, and exploring. They have been told by the media — both social and journalistic — to stop fantasizing about access to immediate health care; and to cease their imaginings of what social equity would look like right about now. And for God’s sake no more exploring the reasons behind the constant murder of Black people by law enforcement.

While the majority of White people skate through this horror holding on to job, family and home — albeit tenuously at times — African Americans (and Latinos and immigrants and the emotionally and physically disabled and the elderly…) bear the brunt of sickness and death. On top of that is heaped the blame. “We’re all in this together” comes the cry of the people. But really, not so much. If I were in my twenties today, I may well be as reckless as I was back in 1980s Manhattan, refusing to don a mask this time instead of overlooking the lack of a condom. This kind of behavior happens with privilege, a kind of lacy veil we wear (unlike a mask) that allows us to fantasize about our futures; imagine possibilities; and explore new horizons.

Those who have died of AIDS did nothing to deserve it. Those who are dying now at the alarming rate of close to 1000 humans a day don’t deserve it either. The blame belongs to our government, to corporations that put profit before public health and to anyone who looks away.

The Answer is Fear

Today’s Zoom sermon was entitled, “When Haters Hate.” Now, many of us have encountered haters. Jill Scott said it in her song, “Hate on Me” (which I hum to myself quite often as a kind of mantra): “If I could give you the world/On a silver platter/Would it even matter? You’d still be mad at me…” You know haters, like that person who wants to undo everything you’ve done just because you did it ? (So-called President Trump, Hater of actual President Obama). Or, that person who abruptly hangs up on you just because you’re speaking the truth on a touchy subject? (Most everyone who has family)!

I finally watched I am not Your Negro last night, a 2016 documentary directed by Raoul Peck, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. The proposed book was to be about the deaths of Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Talk about having haters. These three men inspired so much hate by the lives that they led that they were murdered for living. I was thinking how often those who are hated end up coming back to us as heroes, or martyrs. They return to haunt us, to point out our weaknesses, our fears, to hold up a giant mirror to the hateful world in which we participate.

Haters hate because they are afraid. All destructive human behavior emanates from fear. So, for example, the police officers we see (and the ones we don’t see) murdering Black and brown humans on a regular basis are afraid — so afraid that they have turned to hate for protection. But what are they afraid of, we might ask. They already have the power, the weapons, the capital… Well, once upon a time in America there were White landowners who purchased African humans to work their land. These landowners had the power, the weapons, the capital… But they were scared of “revolts” because they knew somewhere deep inside (or not so deep down) that owning humans was an aberration of morality. But, man, the living was easy. So, anyway, because they were afraid of uprisings, they made sure to nip things in the bud, show the enslaved who was boss, get them before they were got. See where I’m going with this?

White folks have been practicing this hater-ade consumption for centuries. It’s the “safest” place to put their fear. And, okay, I’ll take a moment now and say not ALL White people, yes. But certainly enough that our country’s sordid history has led up to today’s sordid news where we are still seeing Whites — and even non-Whites who feel they have some tenuous semblance of power — wielding violence and turning deaf ears to those who have been marginalized by the power structure. ICE officers who kidnap formerly incarcerated immigrants, drop them outside U.S. borders, and ignore court decisions are doing so out of fear that “we” will become overrun with “them.” Law enforcement officers who kick in doors of sleeping African-American citizens and just start shooting, are afraid that something nefarious is happening in that neighborhood. Fearers turn into Haters.

James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time (a biblical reference in case you’re not familiar): “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Haters hate out of fear of pain. For some of us, hate comes in the form of being undermined by a coworker, or cut off in the middle of a sentence. But for others, hate means torture, violence, and death.

What if we were to embrace our own pain? Then maybe somebody next to us would feel emboldened enough to embrace theirs. And then, just like that, we could eradicate hate. It’s just a thought. Don’t hate.

Story Promoter

In a few weeks I am presenting a brief workshop on oral history for a local public library. Via Zoom. I’m going to explain what the field of oral history is about and show them examples of oral histories and their uses. I’ll also provide some worksheets, like a guide for the process of taking oral histories, questionnaire templates, and the all-important gift of deed that states that the person being interviewed (if they signed the document) knows what the stakes are, where their story might just end up. The library program has been entitled,” Sharing Your Stories.” My job is to encourage folks to share their stories, as well as take part in getting others to share theirs.

I got to thinking about these “stories,” as I have so often in the past. Such a benign word, story. We use it a lot in history context these days — alongside the wildly popular narrative. I really want to help people tell their stories, to emphasize the importance of their life narratives. Women especially, Black women mostly.

I applied for a Fulbright, proposing to tell the stories of African women activists. And by tell I really mean to foreground these stories — stories already told, already played out, but often just not known. I really thought I had found my niche, my safe space. I am a white woman in Black worlds: sometimes I peek, sometimes I investigate, and often I participate. All this to ensure that these stories get heard, always mindful of not taking up too much space. But then I started thinking, what does it really mean to tell a story?

“No you tell that story, you tell it so well.” That’s what we say when we know someone’s story and want it to be heard but know we won’t quite do it justice. But why would that matter? It’s the story that counts, not who relates it, right? Nope. Because agency. It’s all about agency. And this is where we white people get into trouble. We walk around with so much of it we don’t even know we have it, like the woman who wears diamond earrings on a jog.

But if someone has literally told their story — or at least one of theirs, or part of theirs — via an oral history interview, then what I am doing when I march it out in front of readers or audience members? I’m certainly not telling their story. But am I inserting myself in that story? Like when our friend is telling their story and we urge them on, “Remember to say the part about the giant red fox in your front yard…” or when we explain, “She is so modest, but she’s the one who climbed the tallest pine tree in the forest first…”

I did a presentation about listening to oral histories at a recent conference. I think I need to do one about shutting up. Like, making sure as a scholar that we present a given oral history with contextualization, but not interruption or explanation or delineation. I don’t need to explain others’ stories. Because stories aren’t little ditties that people drop from their mouths like discarded sunflower seeds. No, they are one’s heart parts, one’s soul voice, molded into a form that an outsider can understand. A slice of one person’s life pie. They know if there was whipped cream on it, not me. A story is a beginning, middle, and end kind of thing that does not need the intervention of an outsider, merely the attention.

I hereby swear to serve as an attendant to the histories I unearth. Signed, Me.

In the Out Door

Today I was going into a store — alright, a liquor store — and encountered an awkward moment wherein a man was insisting on coming out the same door, the entrance. I stood still, waiting for him to figure out he should step to the right, to the exit door, but he didn’t. Instead he flung open the glass door in front of him and ushered me in. “You’re welcome,” he said sarcastically under his breath as I walked by.

I circled right out, through the exit door, and shared with him that he was actually in the wrong, using the entrance as an exit, and thus my lack of appreciation. I’m not sure he heard me. I went back into the store once more and picked out my wine — alright, my box of wine — and brought it to the befuddled sales clerk.

Why was I so mad, I wondered? What’s the big deal about using the wrong door? Am I such a rule follower, as a friend of mine once accused? Lugging my box of Chardonnay home I realized that the reason I was so angry, why the encounter felt so frustratingly familiar, was because it was emblematic of today’s society. The person involved did the wrong thing and yet I was supposed to thank him for his willingness to acknowledge me in the process. He was entitled to that. This was all about denial, about arrogance, about seeing those around you as wrong simply because they do not thank you for being you.

As a woman I have experiences like this fairly regularly. People of color, oh pretty much all the time. Is everything about race? Yes. And then gender. And for women of color – well, “major systems of oppression are interlocking,” according to the Combahee River Collective statement. “Intersectional,” we might say these days.

So, the brown store owners requested that their customers use one door for entering and another for exiting; the white man chose to use the door he preferred; the white woman was accused of ingratitude for not acknowledging the white man’s performance of a “chivalrous” gesture as he ignored the directives of the brown people. Way too much reading into the situation, you say? I will respect that opinion. But here’s what I say: it’s a tiny illustration, a shining microcosm, of our culture.

Today I watched the coffin of John Lewis being pulled by horse and carriage across the Edmund Pettus bridge. I thought he looked so all alone; it was a lonely scene. And I thought how his soul must be so tired, exhausted by the work it took to be a Black man in this country. And he spent even more energy, calling out those who believe the country is theirs alone, who think it is their inheritance to choose their doors — and who expect thank-yous when they decide, every once in a while, to let others in those doors.

Pain is the Bridge

Today, as I walked in the 97 degree heat, I listened to WNYC’s Brian Lehrer interview scholar Eddie Glaude, chair of Princeton’s African-American studies department and author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Glaude’s sensibilities surrounding where we are right now in this world, and what Baldwin might have had to say about it, were profound. And then he went and read some Baldwin aloud, so you know things got deep.

Glaude references the term “after times” in his book which he attributes to Walt Whitman. Glaude uses this term to describe what others might call a backlash, that horribly inevitable moment when American racial progress is answered with resistance, often in the form of violence. Baldwin suffered as he witnessed the after times of the Civil Rights Movement, falling into despair, according to Glaude, after Dr. King was assassinated. There is something both affirming and devastating in knowing that a man such as Baldwin, who had seen so much go wrong in his years, could still feel so deeply betrayed.

Glaude explained that with his book he is looking to James Baldwin to help him contend with the “doubling down of ugliness” that he himself is witnessing in his America at this moment. He then shared an excerpt from Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” that included the following:

“You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.”

“Pain is the bridge, ” said Glaude wearily, after reading.

The denouement of this interview may well have been a caller into the show, a man named Deforest (sic). He shared a moment he had with Baldwin many decades before. Quoting the Bible he had asked, “Mr. Baldwin, how shall we sing the songs of the Lord while in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4) Apparently Baldwin hesitated, and then answered, “I don’t know.” And then, in another beat Baldwin added, “But I simply know we must.”

I agree that we must. And those of us who bear less pain because of our privilege must also work to amplify the songs of those who continue to be drowned out. That is our personal must.