Friday, July 24, 2015

Why It's Even More Distressing if Sandra Bland Committed Suicide.....

... and in no way relieves the police, jail, or other law enforcement officials who handled/mishandled and unlawfully stopped and arrested her from responsibility for her death. 

A colleague writes: I am haunted by the death of Sandra Bland.

I am haunted, and, is this the part where we are not supposed to say anything?

I think this haunting comes from our acknowledgment that this entire situation is a snapshot, a microcosm of the tragedy facing people of color, especially women of color.

Her life, of which we know the scantest outline: she went to school, went to college. She worked. She may/may not have had issues with depression. She was en route to a new job. She was attractive, and she was informed about police misconduct, and had even been actively opposed to it. She was not going to allow herself to be arrested for no reason.

And yet....

My mind went back this morning to years ago, when I was a La Leche leader. We had, in all seven years that I led these groups of moms, one mother who was a person of color. I remember her well. Her name was Iris, and her son was Alex. We puzzled over why more women of color did not attend, and indeed, did not breastfeed.But this was not unconnected with the reasons that many people of color did not go to the doctor, get regular breast exams (my friend Louise/ see "SCHOOLED" set me straight on this), did not have PCs at first, and in very many cases "appear" to have made decisions or failed to have taken actions which have led to their own demise or early deaths. 


We (being the collective white culture, which, "racist" or not, we can not divorce ourselves from) have treated them like neglected and unwanted step-children at best, and wonder why they have internalized the hate, the scorn for their bodies and their lives. NO! 

For me, it doesn't matter whether she committed suicide. In fact, that scenario, in my mind, is even worse. that means that, rather than go down fighting, that sassy, sure-of-herself woman who stood up to that cop, or tried to, she was broken down, who knows how... deprived of medicine, her cigarettes, her pride, her clothes, probably about to lose the job she'd come to start, plunged into some hideous despair born of everything that was engineered to deprive her of her dignity, her spirit, her self.

I am reminded of Tyisha Miller, the young Black woman in Riverside, California, shot to death while sitting in a car, unconscious, when they believed she "reached for a gun." She was tried, convicted, and found guilty... then executed, before she even woke up. We, the clergy, and the citizens, fought for justice for her. That was 15 years ago.

There is now a website. A hashtag. #sayhername. Tyisha's not there. But I am still haunted by Tyisha, who'd be in her late thirties now.

And I am broken-hearted at how women of color have been killed and have been mistreated, not only as individuals, but as an entirety. And, not just by white men, not just by law enforcement. By music, by women, by literature, by TV and films, so frequently and so blatantly, that it is those that survive that we actually notice.

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Lucille Clifton

Thursday, July 23, 2015


My world. Kentucky

Mr. Coates:

Now that I have finished Between the World and Me, I am not the same person I was when I began reading it just three days ago. It's not a long book, and I could have read it in one sitting. I didn't take notes, and I didn't underline or highlight. I felt from the beginning that I was entering into some sacred, hallowed space, this letter that you had written to your son. I know you said in an interview that it was a literary device, and, being a writer, I get that.

But I also believe that your words came from the deepest, most honest and unabashed place in your soul.

You tell us what no black man has really told in quite this lyrical and personal way, at least in this time: what it means and what it feels like to be a boy and a man in the body of one who is born in America an African American.

But you do so much more than that. You will not allow us to look away from what we (those who are white, or as you say, believe we are white) have constructed for ourselves, a world that feels somehow safe, free, secure, assured, and predictable, in ways that your life, your sons life, and no person of color's life... even if he becomes President of the United States... will ever really feel.

I went, last night, to a discussion at an Episcopal Church in Lexington, KY. We were meant to discuss Thomas Merton's book, Faith and Violence, and his very late in life writings on Vietnam and on racism in America. Writing in 1967 and 1968, the year he died, Merton, like you, was brutally frank about why the "Negro" had every right to be angry, as he understood Malcom X, H. Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael to have been. He understood the agenda of the Black Panthers, and anti-white agenda. He didn't offer, as you do not, a solution, other than to suggest that "we must continue to treat our Negro friends as persons and as friends,... and it is to be hoped they will do us the same honor..... and we must continue to do all that we can ... to see that his human rights are guaranteed to him even when he may seem to be acting in such a way as to forfeit them in the eyes of a truculent and critical white society." It is remarkable that Merton wrote these words after the summer of 1968, a summer of uprisings and violence in the cities of America. (179)

But he did. And then he wrote: If Christianity is being discredited in the eyes of the Negro, that does not dispense us of our duty to be authentic Christians toward the Negro whether he likes us or not. (179)

I found, in these fifty year old radical proclamations, a partial answer. And in this discussion, with a mostly white group of educated, progressive if not liberal folks, we talked about Merton, and we agreed that his words rang true today.

Then one man said to the Rector who led the discussion, Please tell us where we go from here. I don't know where to go.

I think this is the absolute place your book leaves thinking Americans. Not only "white" America, but people of color who have become advantaged and have not given thought to the systemic issues that plague and perpetuate white privilege. It leaves us stripped of all of the masks shields, shelters and places to hide. It robs us of what you call "the mettle it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces turned into armies, from the long war against the black body...." (Coates, 98) It strips from anyone who reads it with an open and honest heart, who reads it with God as their witness (even though you say you do not believe in God, you tell the truth, which plenty of people who say they believe don't, so.. you have integrity) "the forgetting.." the worst thing we participated in, the most horrible piece of this Dream, "because to remember would tumble them out of the Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world....I am convinced the Dreamers... would rather live white than live free." (143)

And then you tell your son that he won't have to be the one to to fix it because Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the sea. (151)

It is here, in these closing pages, where I see and feel, not only the interconnected nature of all the oppressions, but the addictive nature of them as well. I see, too, that for those who listen, and feel this horrible emptiness, this guilt of ages of plunder and pillage that weighs upon us, and this choked cry: But tell me what can I do to fix it?

...the answer is, the same answer given to an addict who arrives at the place called "Surrender." The place where you are on your knees, because there is nothing you can do now. You have done enough. It's time to pray.

I don't feel sad. I feel sadly joyful. I feel elated to live in the world with you, and I pray that this new Gospel of truth will be heard. For like the Prophets of old, you are simply telling us what is to come.

Your friend, whether you want me to be or not,


Monday, July 20, 2015


 Mr. Coates,

I love the way your book begins.

Do not speak to me of martyrdom
of men who die to be remembered 
on some parish day.
I don't believe in dying
though, I too shall die.
And violets like castanets
will echo me.

Sonia Sanchez

In your interview last week on "Q," you said that understanding these truths, the ones you present in Between the World and Me,  is like understanding that we will die.

I am eager to see and hear how your book will be read by believers amongst the Black literati, for even there we have preachers, Christians, and those who ultimately believe, or profess to, that this world is not the only world.

But you, Mr. Coates, start from a radically different place. A precipice, if you will, more consistent with my own faith, Unitarian Universalism, because you state, early on, that your parents did not offer you the hope of religion: "My parents rejected all dogmas.We spurned the holidays marketed by the people who wanted to be white. We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God." (28) So, your starting point, theologically, will be familiar to those I know best.

You dish out reality, as you have come to understand it (and you have earned this understanding, through reading, study, observation, and experience. Yours is not a capricious authority) in bitter doses stripped of any sweetening agent, stripped of salve, stripped of answers, or really of hope. These are powerful lessons that all of America needs to hear, but few will. I am wondering now, even, if Black America will hear them? Time will tell. I will be waiting and listening.

Meanwhile I hear you, and I believe you. I also hear something like hate and scorn, even bitterness and rage, for everyone in America who is white, or as you say, "believes" he or she is "white." That is so nuanced that even I with, as my kids say, way too many degrees to count, have to sit with, and read and re-read, and so hence am wondering how my "white" brothers and sisters will grasp. But I do not reject it. I have taught my own children to understand that it is probably true that many people of color are angry and may even hate "white" people (from now on I think I must say "white" people). I remember well the day, this past year, when my younger sister, who is mostly apolitical, hearing me explain some of the ways in which racism had played out in the past decades, simply said: no wonder black people hate white people. Yes, I think that would be a reasonable conclusion. In fact, I often think it's a wonder Black people often don't hate "white" people, and also that they don't kill white people. That's another subject for another day. It's just something that crosses my mind.

I wonder if there is a place in your rhetoric for anyone else beyond everyone who is not black? I know so many others, who, like myself, have been on a lifelong journey to reject the definitions of whiteness you hurl at us in the book. Who have not only not taken them for granted but have actively worked to undermine and undo the structural forces that create them. Who have raised children to move and relate in completely different ways in this world than their parents and grandparents did. Even still, as this new Civil Rights era takes off, who are re-examining assumptions about the world and preparing ourselves to re-engage, to be of service, who are willing to relinquish privilege, who believe you, who are wholeheartedly, and good-heartedly waiting and hoping to be of service in a struggle for a more righteous way.

The words you write are true. Their truth is startling, glaring, and brazenly courageous. This book will make change and stimulate discussion.

A Civil War Battlefield
Almost 7,000 died here. I pass by often and wonder long and hard about these things.

Your analysis of America is accurate. It's as heart-breakingly true as the day I learned of the sexual abuse that had occurred in my family when I was a child, and had to realize my childhood was not what I had thought. And you are correct, it is much like the realization that we, ourselves, will die. And it indicts us. It causes shame and humiliation, grief and deep sadness. Even despair. So, naturally people don't want to know this.

And I ask you this, as well: Can you allow that other people, even if they are not Black, may have had some experience from which they can identify with the fear, the visceral, gut-level, feeling of terror and imprisonment you experienced as you came awake to the danger of moving about in the world beyond Howard University, the fear of just being a human in your own skin? What I speak about is being a woman in many relationships of power/domination/control/abuse; being a child; attending most public schools; being a person with disability or disfigurement; being gay or lesbian or transgender? These are curiosities I have, wonderings, not challenges, and of course with no expectation that the actual author is ever going to read this!

So I am reading slowly, turning everything around and around, and contemplating each aspect of my present and past through your eyes as best I can. It's a treasure and a privilege.

I will have more to say. Thank you for this book.