I recently saw Selma for the first time.
It's incredibly embarrassing to admit that it took me close to 3 years to finally getting around to watching one of the most powerful expositions of race and the struggle for civil rights ever captured on film. Especially when you also consider that I have seen Meet Joe Black* 3 times.
(*And that was a movie where Death (yes, that Death: played by a 30 something Brad Pitt) falls in love with Anthony Hopkins' daughter during an attempt to claim Sir Anthony's soul for the afterlife.)
Unexpectedly for a white dude who has long since considered himself already "there" when it comes to race and white privilege, Selma broke me in ways I'm still not quite sure I understand. It's not that I wasn't aware or conscious of what the African American experience has been like for the last century. I do have access to the Internet, as well as the ever-important "at least one Black friend I can casually drop into conversations to provide cover for my white ignorance" burning a hole in my back-pocket.
I guess you can say I've always "known" about race.
I knew it as a comforting explanation for why high school teammates from inner city housing developments miles from where I lived were faster, stronger, and taller than me, and thus, more likely to play Division 1 football.
I knew it as the utility infielder of monikers: serving as adjective (“black” clothes, music, food, schools, churches), noun (the “blacks"), and verb (acting “black”) in not-so-polite conversation amongst God-fearing Southerners I called my family and friends.
I knew it as an impenetrable, monolithic mass of foreign lives, experiences, choices, beliefs, and ideas that would always lack the nuance and individuality provided to me, a white person, who never had to explain his customs, proclivities, and confusing love of carpenter jeans and jam bands in the early 2000s as some sort of choice resulting from the amount of melanin in his skin.
The difference, however, between the consciousness I’ve always had as a (mostly) well-educated white male from East Tennessee about the complex realities of racial inequality in our republic, and the newfound awareness I now feel is that the former left me numb, paralyzed, and guilty, while the latter leaves me (like, on a cellular level) tearful, angry, and resolved.
It's awareness incarnate, if you will.
For some of you I’m sure this "self-discovery" comes across a bit trite, ham-handed, and (at worst) like some sort of White colonialist appropriation of a story that was never mine to claim, a heritage that was never mine of which to be proud, a movement that was never mine to join. I’m not naive enough to claim that were it 1965, my soles would find themselves beside Dr. King's and Congressman Lewis' atop the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
My soles weren’t covered in tear gas outside downtown Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown.
My soles weren’t snow-covered in North Dakota just a few months ago.
My soles won’t be in DC come this Friday.
But my soles will be in Knoxville, TN, and maybe the point of coming alive isn’t the realization that I should be somewhere else, doing something else, with someone else, but that when I finally wake up from the sometimes paralyzing dreams of other, far wiser, braver, and decidedly more eloquent souls, I uncover the ability to dream my own dreams about the place my feet actually meet the floor in the morning.
- A place where 37% of students in a mostly African American high school were suspended from school during the previous year, compared to 2.8% of students in a high-performing mostly Caucasian school 20 minutes away.
- Compared to 4.6% of students suspended in the only slightly less high-performing mostly Caucasian school 10 minutes away.
- Is it any wonder that when just under 40% of your students are suspended from school during the year that the average ACT score is a 19? Compared to an average ACT score of a 28 in a school where only 4.6% of the student body has been suspended.
And these are just our schools, you can imagine what happens when we begin extrapolating out to compare arrest records, employment levels, home ownership rates, and income.
I guess you could say the bloody resolve of the SCLC and the SNCC on the road to Montgomery reminds me that as a person of profound and unearned privilege, my self-congratulatory awareness about the plight of my brothers and sisters of color isn't the work.
The work is the work.
The incarnation of the dreams of Jesus or Martin serve as (arguably) some of the most epochal moments in the shared history of humans living on Earth. Across continental and corporeal divides their lives and deaths move us tectonically, sociologically, religiously, but they can also leave us feeling inadequate, underwhelming, and quickly sinking in the face of the wind and the waves of whatever sea upon which we find ourselves uneasily attempting to walk.
“Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?"
To be aware isn’t simply to believe in the validity and authority of Martin’s dream or Jesus’ dream, it’s to believe that their dreams give birth to our dreams. We begin sinking not when we doubt the power inherent in their breathtaking marches atop the waves of Galilee or the concrete of Selma, but when we doubt that we’re the sort of people who should be joining them.
Peter sank not because he doubted the power of God incarnate in Jesus, but because he doubted the power of God incarnate in Peter.
I continue to sink not because I continually doubt the truth and sacrifice incarnate in Dr. King’s legacy, but because I continually doubt the truth and sacrifice demanded of my own.
On March 25th, 1965, Detroit housewife and mother Viola Gregg Liuzzo was murdered following the march from Selma to Montgomery, when her car was gunned down by the Klan while ferrying marchers back home. I bring up her story not because she was a white martyr amidst a sea of African American bodies buried by hate in the 60s, but because she believed not simply in Dr. King’s dream, not simply in a collective dream for equality in our country, but in her own dream of what it looks like when she (as a mother and wife from thousands of miles away) puts flesh and blood on God’s belief in her to be the sort of person bringing heaven to earth.
May we dream with Martin and Jesus and Viola.
May we walk with Martin and Jesus and Viola.
And if it comes to it, may we die with Martin and Jesus and Viola.
Because there’s always another and another and another bridge to cross.
*photo credit: Creative Commons