It’s Complicated

Without going into the whole tabula rasa thing, I’m simply going to share something I heard on a podcast a few weeks ago. It wasn’t anything I didn’t already know because I did. But what arrested my attention and kept me listening were these words by the presenter: You know what you know because you’ve been told that by someone.

That someone might have been a parent or a teacher or a friend. Still, until you heard those words, you didn’t know that fact, i.e., the earth is round. As you matured and began to read, words from a book told you things you didn’t know before. Before long, you realized you were part of a culture, and although you knew there were different cultures and peoples and traditions and languages in the world, yours was the most awesome. Maybe you were a bit ethnocentric. I was. Probably still am.

As a child, I learned to speak English. In my baby book, my mother wrote, “Jane now says so many new words each day that I can’t write them all down.” I’m confident that the words were dog (not chien), brother (not frere), and house (not casa). My parents and extended family spoke only English, not French or Spanish, so that’s what I learned. A simple example, and yet you get the point. Language is a huge and unifying part of one’s culture. 

We went to a Baptist church where I was taught that “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.” My young friends and I sang those words with fervor, and yet none of us really knew any other children except the ones who were just like us. Until I went to college, I didn’t have classes with any Black or Asian Americans.

In grades 1-12, my friends and siblings learned quite a lot about the traditions and history of our country. George Washington was our first president and a brilliant military leader; Thomas Jefferson was a great statesman, the third president, and primary author of the constitution; Native Americans (called Indians back in the day) were savages who lay in wait to attack Europeans as they tried to “make it” in this land.

I’m not saying the above statements are bogus. I’m saying the truth is somewhere in the middle. 

Washington was indeed America’s first president, Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces, and slave owner of about 300 slaves (give or take). Jefferson once called slavery an Assemblage of Horrors, yet he owned around 175 servants. And then there’s Sally Hemings. Native Americans lived here long before the Europeans arrived, but now ….

I bought it all—hook, line, and sinker and was an adult before I realized how complicated things were. My awakening was slow. First, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His “I Have a Dream” speech can still move me to tears. Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The world was changing, and while I saw that as a good thing, it was a little discomforting. I read Ramona and learned more about the treatment of Mexicans and Natives, visited Juneau and stumbled upon “The Empty Chair” Memorial, toured Mount Rushmore and began to understand why the Native Americans were a bit bothered by the faces of white men carved into what they (the Natives) viewed as a sacred mountain. During the last several years, we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many Plains states, and some of things I saw and heard and read will disturb me for the rest of my life. 

One night I watched an interview with Susan Sarandon and Jimmy Fallon in which she said, quite calmly and assuredly, that America was founded on the “genocide of Native Americans and on the backs of slaves.” I gulped. In that moment, I knew she was right and that she had known this truth for a long, long time.

I just started reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s funny and clever and smart (like he is). At the end of the introduction to apartheid, he says: “….but the general thrust of it should be easy enough for any American to understand. In America you had he forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of these things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

I’m not dissing my teachers, preachers, parents, friends, books, or television for the things I blithely accepted as fact. I’m saying that being open to learning the “also truths” has been eye opening. It’s complicated.

Shadow Sides

I’m woke. I finally get it. And my awakening came during church yesterday morning.

The speakers gave talks on topics such as love, forgiveness, and following Christ. While sitting there, a character in a short story I’d just read came to mind—Mr. Stovall, a deacon in the Baptist church. In the story, Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun,” a black woman asks him when he’s going to pay her: “When you going to pay me, white man? When you going to pay me, white man? It’s been three times now since you paid me a cent—” Mr. Stovall knocked her down and kicked out her teeth.

Nancy spent the night in jail, attempting suicide toward morning. When the jailer found her, “Nancy was hanging from the window, stark naked, her belly already swelling out a little like a little balloon.” After he revived her, the jailer “beat her, whipped her.”

Barely into the story, I knew

  • that Nancy is black, 
  • that people (including Mr. Stovall, the Baptist deacon) use and abuse her, 
  • that she’s expecting a baby, 
  • and that there’s something sketchy about this pregnancy. 

Who’s the father? We soon learn that it’s not her husband, a man who says white men are allowed to come freely into his house but that he can’t go into theirs. Jesus, the husband, is angry and wants to kill Nancy—or so she believes. Is it because of her behavior or because of his own powerlessness over the abominable situation that exists?

Does Jesus know the father is white? Yes, and so does the reader. The fact that Faulkner makes a point of the interaction between Nancy and Mr. Stovall implies that Stovall is the father—or that it’s someone like him, some respectable white Christian.

But wait. Aren’t Christians supposed to love one another regardless of race or creed? Yes. everyone knows that. And yet. And yet here’s the poor, scared, powerless, penniless black woman carrying a white man’s baby (against her will) who gets her teeth knocked out by a white man who’s quite possibly the baby’s father. And he’s parading around as a Christian. And her husband plans to kill her because of her situation.

Some people see Christians as hypocritical and scary. Honestly, I can understand the hypocritical aspect a little. A bit hypocritical myself, I struggle with always being fair, loving, kind, generous, and forgiving. At the same time, I have to hold back when I hear a Christian dissing someone of another race or religion when they themselves are often cruel, bigoted, and judgmental. I have friends who dislike Mexicans, Muslims, Indians, Hindus, Syrians, Jews, transgender, gay, and any and everybody else whom they either (1) don’t understand or (2) feel superior to. 

My husband has a friend who used to say, “That ain’t right, Bo. That ain’t right.” Although his comments weren’t related to Mr. Stovall types of behavior, they align with the current hate mongering. Being okay with white supremacy and condoning racism, sexism, and all other isms that demonstrate hate, not love, just “ain’t right.”

So here’s my epiphany from yesterday. Neither Mr. Stovall nor thousands like him have personal insight into their shadow sides. They can’t see themselves with a clear eye. And nor can I. Fortunately, I have people in my life who can and do try to help me see the light. I say “try” because I, like you, am a work in progress.