The Power of Identity

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve been reading two important books in recent weeks. Both have challenged some of my deeply held assumptions.  Both books and their authors have received extensive coverage in the media. And while I didn’t originally plan for this post to come out on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, perhaps it is only fitting that I spend this time on America’s racial history as we honor one whose life work was spent on correcting injustice.

One book was not written with a white audience in mind, while the other is clearly intended to open the eyes of the those who see the civil rights movement as a three-day event:  “On Day 1, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on the bus. On Day 2, [the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] led a march on Washington. And on the third day, we signed all of these laws.”  Both books – in their own ways – have affirmed for me that the work I can do to help build a more complete American identify can be a small but important step in helping to heal the racial divide that tears at our country.

The topic of racism and our response in this country is one I’ve been wrestling with in this blog almost since it began. Last year was especially difficult in this regard, given the shootings of nine innocent parishioners at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, and the response.  I came to these two books from a rather progressive (especially for the South) family background, where I had always tried to follow the rules of respect and trust.  I’m not sure that’s enough.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is rightfully being hailed as a worthy successor to the intellectual legacy of James Baldwin.  Written as a letter to his adolescent son, Between the World and Me grapples – in straightforward, stark, and beautifully written prose – with what it means to be black in a country that built its history and power in part on the difference between being white and black.

While Coates has been quoted as saying this is not a book written for white audiences, I think it speaks in a special way to those of us who did not grow up as people of color.  Journalist and lawyer Sally Kohn has suggested the following reason it is important for white audiences:

That Between the World and Me was explicitly not written for white people (like me) is exactly why we should read it. Because part of the ideology of white supremacy and racial hierarchy is the idea that everything white is better, and that people of color should learn from how white people dress and work and raise their kids and write. Want to subvert that subtle, implicit bias? Tweeting #BlackLivesMatter is good, but expanding your intellectual as well as actual interpersonal relationships is even better. And especially if you live in a very white part of America, a book is a great place to start.

I don’t live in a “very white” part of America (our block has multiple families of color who share life together in our urban neighborhood), but this spoke to me.  Much of Coates story is difficult to absorb in one reading, which is why I’ll probably return to it.  But this is an important voice, and I’m glad my children pushed me to read this book.

Just Mercy

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson’s work is easier to understand, if not easier to accept.  I was privileged to hear a recent talk by  Stevenson at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2015 PastForward conference which helped me put both these works in a context, as he framed this struggle as the “power of identity.”

Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.  EJI…

…litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.

Just Mercy is Stevenson’s 2014 book that tells of this work, framed around the wrongful conviction of death-row inmate Walter McMillan, and the years-long effort to get the criminal justice system to right an obvious wrong.  It is a harrowing story, and not all of the people represented by EJI make it off of death row alive.  Stevenson’s struggle has been compared to Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti.  Tracy Kidder, who wrote the magnificent Mountains Upon Mountains about Farmer’s efforts to cure infectious diseases in the most poverty-stricken reaches of the planet, has this to say about Stevenson:

Our American criminal justice system has become an instrument of evil.  Bryan Stevenson has labored long and hard, and with great skill and temperate passion, to set things right.  Words such as important and compelling may have lost their force through overuse, but reading this book will restore their meaning, along with one’s hopes for humanity.

When Stevenson spoke last fall at the PastForward conference, he tied EJI’s work to that we do as preservationists.  He framed his talk as the power of identity, and called on us to speak to a more complete American identity.  Speaking truthfully about who we are as a people, “requires engagement that we have not yet made”  because there is a narrative of racial difference that we have not confronted.

Besides the power of identity, he spoke of power in memorialization, noting that “we preserve the things that matter.”  If we are to have a more complete American identity, we need a new way of thinking about what we preserve and what we tell.  Stevenson and EJI just released a report entitled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror in which the Institute documents 3959 racial terror lynchings of African-Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia between 1877 and 1950.  The reports summary (linked above) should be read by all who care about truth and reconciliation in an area where we need to talk about race and racial justice.

This work is necessary, asserts Stevenson, not to punish, but to get to a “better freedom.”

Stevenson ended his talk at the PastForward conference with a call to change the landscape of American iconography, as it tells a false story.  He also ended with three points (two of which he makes in every one of his speeches).  Stevenson said that he believes,

  • We are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
  • That the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice.
  • And that we cannot judge how we are doing with landmark preservation if we just look at the sites of the wealthy, privileged and powerful.  You judge the character of a society by the places that it saves – especially the places that tell the story of the poor, the formerly enslaved, and the condemned.

Stevenson’s speech is the first 25 minutes of this hour-long video, and I cannot recommend it to you enough.  If you cannot make it through an entire hour, that’s fine, but if you do you’ll also hear of some of the great work of Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute, who I’ve also been privileged to hear and speak with on several occasions.

These are important steps being taken at a time that this country is working through (not always successfully) its history of racial discrimination.  Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend is as good a time as any to take their work seriously.

More to come…

DJB

 

3 Responses

  1. Our friend Sarah O’Connor made the following comment on Candice’s Facebook page today, which I’ve pasted into the comments section here on the blog so others can see the link she suggests:

    This was a wonderful post. I am using Just Mercy in my Writing in the Community class at JMU. People who read this have probably already read Dead Man Walking, by Sr. Helen Prejean, an excellent introduction to the death penalty. A recent New Yorker article worth reading is “The Worst of the Worst,” about Judy Clarke, who defended Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/14/the-worst-of-the-worst). I look forward to reading the Coates book David recommended.

  2. […] in the King Years 1954-63.  I’ve also read two from the President’s vacation reading list:  Between the World and Me and  All the Light We Cannot See.  Both are powerful books, in very different ways.  Let me know […]

  3. […] and his work has included the telling of difficult stories. In the introduction to his 2014 book, Just Mercy, Stevenson explains the need for proximity by quoting his grandmother: “You can’t understand […]

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