By Seth Vopat
The night Ferguson, Mo., erupted in protest over the shooting of Michael Brown, I was roughly 240 miles away attending the largest TEDx event in the world in downtown Kansas City. Any thought of the United States of America having progressed into a post-racial society has been shattered with the events of Ferguson now making headlines around the world.
I know what some of you are thinking: Not another article on Ferguson, Mo. Haven’t we dealt with that enough already?
But that’s the point. We haven’t really dealt with it at all. Sure, we have used social media to express which side of the debate we come down on. However, this is where it usually stops. We don’t dialogue and we seldom listen, except to the choir we are preaching too.
While Ferguson’s cries for justice became the epicenter of news outlets and social media, I was listening to several great talks and speakers that night — one standing above the rest for me. From the get go, Baratunde Thurston had me rolling with laughter. I would have been content with listening to him all night long, going home with aching stomach muscles from his smart, witty jokes. For those of you who, like me before that night, are not familiar with Baratunde Thurston, he is an African-American comedian, author and political commentator.
As soon as his talk was over I knew I wanted to read his book, How to Be Black. From the beginning I was engrossed in his hilarious, yet poignant narrative, which includes a panel of leading African-American voices and one white voice for good measure, he jokes. Together they critique the superficial ways we have dealt with the issue of race here in the United States — Black History Month being the opening example, in which he jests might be the best time to buy his book to show support.
In reading through his book I reflected on the ways I have been a bit naive in thinking I have moved past the issue of race, and even discovered I, too, was guilty of some of the stereotypes described in his book. True to his book’s words, after the election of President Obama I asked one of my African-American friends how his tenure as president was being perceived. I will forever be in debt and always grateful for the grace my friend offered me in providing me a response.
Earlier this year I had the privilege of traveling overseas and walking through the valleys of my father’s ancestors — valleys and villages they left by choice, not stolen from and enslaved. The handing down of my family lore does not include narratives of being oppressed and discriminated against.
Baratunde cautions, yes this is part of the black historical experience here in the United States, but it should not be the only limited-frame of reference. (Read his book.)
Ferguson is once again highlighting the poor ways we have handled race and differences. We can have all the external factors like Black History Month, post-racial ideals and laws promoting racial equality,and prohibiting of discrimination. We can have all the technological advances and social media tools which provide us access to more information and real-time updates than we could ever read. Yet none of this on its own is going to help us move forward. If anything, as Baratunde and his panel suggest, it has only allowed us to avoid the issues.
Moving forward will require the hard work of actually working through and, I think, celebrating and not simply homogenizing our differences. It’s work which cannot be done simply through the political, legal and public media levels, but work which has to be done at an individual, relational/communal level.
For the church, perhaps the starting point of this conversation is asking whether we can contribute to the conversation at all when it has often been stated (originally by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the United States.