The United States is dealing with two plagues simultaneously: the plague of the coronavirus pandemic and the plague of racism. It’s pretty clear to most white folks how they can protect themselves against COVID-19: social distance, wash your damn hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask, stay home if you’re feeling sick, get tested if you have symptoms, quarantine. It’s less clear to white folks how best to help solve the plague of racism. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that it is, in fact, in our ballpark; it is our responsibility–our solemn responsibility. We broke it. We must fix it. But how? For so long, even liberal, well intentioned white people have been oblivious to systemic racism, convinced somehow that we lived in a post-racial society, or, so insulated that they never understood the depth of the problem, or, unaware of their own deep-seated racism. Some others are way out front, learning about anti-racism, becoming the best allies they can become; some of these folks have been at this for decades. And then there are those who are blatantly, unapologetically racist, and are that way because . . . Christ, who knows why. It’s difficult not to make broad generalized strokes–they are southerners, they are rednecks, they are right-wingnuts, they are nazis, they are republicans, they are ignorant, they are afraid. That pretty much covers the stereotype spectrum. And the stark political and cultural division in this country makes it very difficult to simply “bring up to speed” our recalcitrant brethren. They vilify those on the left as libtards and communists and heathen. And they hate the people who are characterized this way in the same way progressives hate the injustices and violence perpetrated against black Americans and other Americans of color. People are entrenched. So we seem to be at an impasse. Or are we?
For the first time during the corona virus shelter-in-place order from March 13, I found myself inside of a crowd. On Tuesday night I attended the Black Lives Matter Milwaukie Sit-In for Solidarity on the waterfront. There were hundreds of people there, spacing themselves from each other as well as they could on the grounds of the park, almost all wearing masks. And despite being, perhaps, the most racially diverse group of people to ever congregate in Milwaukie, most of the people there were white folks. But all of the speakers were black. And that is exactly how it should be.
Part of how we get beyond this impasse, first of all, for those of us who are sympathetic to the idea of justice and equality, is to listen. And even for those of us who consider ourselves allies, that listening can be painful, like it was to hear one of the speakers, a 2020 graduate, a former student of mine, talk about the difficulties she faced in the school where I teach. But this listening has to be done. So I’m listening. And it appears many of my Milwaukie neighbors are also listening. And we’re fired up. I don’t think that I have ever seen a gathering like the one I saw Tuesday, for any political issue, on Milwaukie’s waterfront or in its streets. I could be mistaken there, but it seems to me that my little town is waking up from a long slumber and I’m doing my best to wake up with it. It’s a step in the right direction–a step in the left direction.
Continuing with the tradition of ending with a poem, my choice today is “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes. One of the pieces of advice for white people on a flier that was circulating at the rally was to read black authors, black poets, black journalists. I know the power of reading to be the best way to exercise one’s empathy muscles, and personally, I know that until I started reading black authors, late, when I was almost as old as the speaker in this Hughes poem, 22, I was oblivious. With each piece I read by a Hughes, a McKay, a Hurston, a Walker, a Morrison, an Ellison, I became less and less oblivious. As an English teacher, I am biased toward literature, but I do believe with all of my heart that it is a correct bias, that literature is part of the cure, a significant one at that.