The world conspired against Darius from the moment of his birth. He was born in the wrong ZIP code, assigned to the wrong school district in a county determined to re-segregate, born poor and black in a culture built around the abuse of both.
His family loved him so much it hurt, but they had faced the same fate he did. Every time they stretched upwards, they hit a ceiling scarcely higher than the floor. Every victory they won was achieved in spite of their fellow citizens, not because of them. With each move they made, they faced a counterpunch that brutalized their bodies and traumatized their souls. Yet they kept trying, kept moving, kept gritting it out and in so doing should have earned the awe of those looking down from their perches of privilege, and would have, if those fellow citizens could be bothered to see them, bothered to know they even exist.
But they – I should probably say “we” here – don’t know, and don’t want to know. To know is to be compelled to act. A great deal of energy goes into maintaining inertia, into finding novel reasons for ignoring the humanity of those kin across town. “That land is worth a lot nowadays,” say, or, “I just want to give my kids the best possible chance.”
With his floor and his ceiling just about even, Darius in his late teens has had nowhere to go, and no real success, at least no success that either he or almost anyone else is able to recognize as success.
“We as white people have swallowed those lies, regurgitated the lies and fed the lies back to our children.”
So it was a surprise when, as I crawled on my belly through the woods last week, I looked over and saw him 10 feet away. Between us was the flag. This was the old game of “Capture the Flag,” and our team was now on the brink of victory. He was crouched, perfectly hidden, waiting for the right moment.
He hesitated. We were both surprised, honestly. Neither of us, himself included, expected Darius to lead anyone to victory, but that was exactly what was happening. Still, it startled us, silent together, covered in leaves and dirt, as we watched the theoretical become reality.
We both took one long breath of the same damp air, and then he jumped and grabbed the flag. A couple of teammates made a bunch of noise to provide him cover while he dashed back to base. Victory. Smiles, pats on the back, cold drinks all around. That evening at supper, Darius sat a little taller in his chair. Meanwhile, nobody else felt the need to slouch.
In a 1964 essay called “What Price Freedom?” James Baldwin wrote:
In order for us to survive the terrible days ahead of us, the country will have to turn and take me in its arms. Now, this may sound mystical, but at bottom that is what has got to happen…. The real problem is the price. Not the price I will pay, but the price the country will pay. The price a white woman, man, boy, and girl will have to pay in themselves before they look on me as another human being. This metamorphosis is what we are driving toward, because without that we will perish – indeed, we are almost perishing now.
Surely we are now in some terrible days as well, and facing the same death-dealing lies of white supremacy that Baldwin wrote of 55 years ago. We as white people have swallowed those lies, regurgitated the lies and fed the lies back to our children. The deceit of racism distorts reality, and soon enough working white people forget their very real economic alliance with people of color. They wind up on the side whose figurehead is a rotten New York real estate developer and his hedge funds cronies instead.
Baldwin’s “mystical” solution to this is immensely practical. Such spirituality looks like organizing our communities to attend to the political and economic wounds our nation inflicts, and to bring into practice a community that is at once more grounded and more beautiful than we have dared to imagine. The solution, in other words, is an anti-racist discipleship.
“Being antiracist brings Americans back to reality,” Ibram Kendi recently wrote. In Christian terms, facing reality makes repentance possible. With eyes to see what we have done, what we have failed to do, and the burden we have inherited, the path to wholeness becomes clearer. The way will be costly. The cost of confessing and making repairs is not just about writing a check, for though the check will have to be big, there is always money for the things you care about.
“A great deal of energy goes into maintaining inertia, into finding novel reasons for ignoring the humanity of those kin across town.”
The real burden is the cost of rebuilding a self and a community founded on a story worth having. White folks have those kinds of stories, but in the rush to be white, they got buried. Resurrecting them – and abandoning the racist distortions of reality – is the cost of becoming human, of undoing our alienation from land, from history and from our neighbors.
This is the image now put before those who think they are white, in our communities, churches, neighborhoods, governments, corporations, PTAs, book groups, coffee meetings, fraternal organizations, country clubs and households. There are young folks like Darius we have not bothered to see before, and they are leading us toward victory in these terrible days.
In order for us to celebrate around a table with them, we will first have to be changed. The metamorphosis, as Baldwin says, will be to see those neighbors, and “to look on them as human beings.” Without that, “we will perish.” If we determine it too costly, we will destroy ourselves out of spite.
The alternative, as Baldwin writes, is to take these neighbors into our arms, and in a moment deeply rooted in the reality of God, find ourselves locked in an embrace.