Preface from Tim: I am usually very hesitant to do any posts like this. The last time I did one even remotely close, one reader wrote to grumble about how this is not why he comes to the site. OK, fine. Skip the post. But TNRevolution has been such an important Sloper, and his contributions so generous, I’m going to bend the rules. I appreciate his hard work here, and his openness.
Why do I care? Why do I care about the state of race relations in black America? I am white. For one, I am a human being. To be a healthy human being is to have a measure of empathy. I am no different. When I see people hurting, my initial instinct is to help. Whether it is tornadoes ripping through Nashville, Covid-19, or black Americans being abused, I want to be a part of the solution. Second, it’s personal.
I grew up in rural America, in the suburban country north of Nashville, TN. In the school I grew up in there was only one black kid. I only remember him ever being in one of my classes. Everyone I knew in my world was white. That changed rapidly as I left home to attend college. Students from around the world attend Georgia Tech, and living in downtown Atlanta was a dramatic counter to my all-white childhood. I loved it. As college passed, I met and made friends with people from all over the world. However, I didn’t have any black friends. Why was that?
My spiritual life is important to me. During college I had been attending a church in the suburbs south of Atlanta. During February of my senior year of college, however, I and a friend were invited to attend a different church in Atlanta to hear a couple of individuals speak. We had no idea what we were about to step into. Up until this point in my life the largest church I had ever attended seated maybe 500-600 people. The church we visited this day could seat nearly 10,000. It was also almost entirely black.
From the moment I walked into the church I loved it. The music. The passion. The speakers. I had absolutely zero understanding of what it would mean to be a white man in an all black community, and I didn’t care. I got more out of that first service than I had in the past four years combined.
A couple months after that first service, a small group of friends and I joined this new church. We began attending services and events two to three times a week, and after about a year we all began serving in the music ministry. Myself, being from Nashville, of course played the guitar. My friends and I had been in a band in our college years, and brought those same skills to our new church. One on the drums, one on the saxophone, and one singing. We didn’t care that we were the only white people on stage.
Another year passed, and the four of us were all on stage at the same time on a Friday night, with only two other black men with us on bass and piano. As we finished playing and took our seats, the Pastor of the church came out to speak. His first words were, “As I was watching backstage on the monitor, did you guys notice we had four white guys leading us in worship tonight?”
The place went nuts. People standing up, clapping and cheering. I’ll never forget that night. It was the night I became a part of the community there. I connect with people very easily, but had struggled to connect in this community, with most keeping me at what seemed like arms length. This night was important because it was like the entire church finally acknowledged what no one wanted to talk about. Yes, we see you. You’re white, and we accept you. It was a release for everyone there, especially me. This is one way healing happens.
After that night, friendships began to develop. I ate out lunch and dinner with my new black friends. We went to concerts, went on vacations, and hung out with each other’s friends and families. One such friend I made is a musician that I have mentioned here before, Lizz Wright. When I met Lizz, she was an eighteen year old freshman starting college at Georgia State University. My two closest friends were both students at Georgia State, as well as members of the church. We all quickly crossed pathes, and became good friends.
Lizz didn’t have a car at this time, and I began giving her rides back to her dorm on Wednesday nights, as I still lived downtown. She and I seemingly talked about everything except music.
After about a year, Lizz had begun exploring musically and growing into the artist she would become. She had connected with a local jazz musician named Kenny Banks. The two of them formed a quartet with two other musicians, began playing local jazz venues, and Lizz began writing her own music.
One night in particular, I remember our little gang of four hanging out at my apartment in Atlanta. She had just recorded her first demo, and wanted us to hear it. I popped the CD in, and turned up the volume. I had never heard anything like it. Lizz uniquely mixed different genres into her music to create something new. The demo contained four songs, the first of which was a song called “Salt in the Stew”, later to be renamed “Salt”, the title track of her first CD. She gave me a copy of the demo, and I listened to it over and over again.
Shortly after that night, Lizz was signed by Verve Records, and off she went. As a kid from “all-white” Tennessee how much more narrow and unsatisfying would my life have been if I had allowed myself to remain at ease in “white America”, never to be brave enough to insert myself into uncomfortable situations?
So why has the “Black Lives Matter” movement swelled with such intensity “seemingly out of nowhere”, as some white Americans see it? For me, to begin to understand the answer to that question we must discuss two concepts, dehumanization and the process of grief.
What is dehumanization? A recent example is the holocaust. Nazi Germany attempted to exterminate an entire race, as well as create a culture that Jewish people were something less than human.
Similarly, black Americans have been dehumanized over the past four hundred years. The American culture has instilled a belief deep inside the consciousness of us all that black Americans are not human beings. Black Lives Matter is simply an expression by black Americans of retaking their humanity. Michael Che of Saturday Night Live does a good job in displaying this in his short video below.
In the example of the holocaust we can gain a further insight. It was not only the Jewish people that had to heal after the holocaust, but the German people had to heal as well. The culture that had been created in Germany during World War II was something evil that Germans had become immersed in. The consciousness of an entire nation was infected with numerous evil and destructive ideas.
They would have to participate in a grief and healing process as well. Eighty years later, Jewish people around the world are still grieving their loss, as they attend memorials, make movies, talk openly about their experiences, and remember. The pain still exists, so the process must continue.
Another person I encountered at my new church home in Atlanta that made a big impact on my life was Michael Smith. “Mike” as we knew him was a young associate minister at the church during those years. He would later go on to start a church in his native Florida. In recent years, he also gave two Ted Talks. Mike offered a unique perspective as well, because Mike is white. The below Ted Talk he gave can go a long way in helping to frame and understand race in this country.
If you are like me, you’re probably saying to yourself something like, “Yeah, but I’m not a racist.” My view is that there are overt racists, as well as those of us who subconsciously have twisted viewpoints of black Americans, as we have grown up and been immersed in a culture that holds the twisted idea that black Americans are something less than human.
To test that idea, ask yourself how do you view a white woman being abused versus a black woman being abused? Is it different? Why is it different?
Earlier this week, this sister of Dolly Parton, who lives in Nashville, came forward with a story of how she suffered abuse recently at the hands of the police. In this article she details an account of accidentally tripping the panic alarm in her home unknowingly. Shortly after, she noticed men approaching her home, and seeing flashlights pointing into her home. She had a license to legally carry a firearm, and reached for the gun. She placed the gun onto a table next to her door as the police began to enter her home. Parton never reached for the gun, but instead pointed to the weapon to alert the police that it was there. Three police officers then proceeded to subdue her using a choke hold. She is an older woman, and although she remained mostly polite, she suffered bruises and was injured. The police tell a different story. How does that make you feel?
Conversely, we have all heard the recent story of Breonna Taylor. She and her boyfriend were at home in their Louisville, Kentucky apartment when the police unexpectedly entered their home on incorrect suspicion of drug activity, using a “no-knock” search warrant. Breonna’s boyfriend also possessed a gun, and assumed the house was being broken into. He fired on the “intruders”, and the police returned fire killing Breonna. How does that make you feel? Is the feeling different than what you felt for Dolly Parton’s sister? If so, why is that?
How do we heal an emotional or subconscious wound? It is a grief process. We grieve by acknowledging what happened. When we stand in front of a casket, attend a funeral, or watch as a casket is lowered into the ground during a graveside service we are acknowledging with our eyes what happened. Someone we loved died, and we are viewing it with our eyes to help us accept the loss.
How do we grieve? We grieve by talking about what or whom we lost. Both publicly and privately we discuss our experiences with the person, our memories, and express the deep feelings of loss. The act of talking about what you are feeling lessens the intensity of the emotion. This is where we are in America today, a necessary step in the evolution of healing the wounds of black dehumanization in America, for both blacks and whites.
In August of 2014 Robin Williams committed suicide. I grieved, as I’m sure many of you did. Robin’s best friend was Billy Crystal. How did Billy grieve? I’m certain he grieved deeply in private, but he also grieved publicly. He spoke of Robin Williams passionately. He spoke as a best friend who lost someone he loved. Just as Robin never held back on stage, Billy didn’t hold back in his remembrance of Williams.
This is how it must be with us. A continuing acknowledgment of what happened, and a continuing open discussion by everyone involved. It starts with talking to each other.