See Me, Brother*

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A brother stopped me on the street Saturday.

I was headed east, across 125th Street, toward the Metro-North station, waiting at the light on Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, when the man gently grabbed my arm and pointed me toward the group of Black Israelites handing out leaflets. On a milk crate, in the center of the group, a muscular young man dressed in a flamboyant imitation of the Biblical coat of many colors, shouted angrily into his amped-up mic.

“You really need to hear this,” my would-be Virgil whispered harshly without letting go of my arm.

It sounded like a threat. But I listened anyway. For as long as I could stand it.

“ Look around you, white man. See what you have done, you bitches and whores. These people are the sons and daughters of the slaves you persecuted. . . . you should feel ashamed. You should be consumed with guilt.”

Virgil stared at me and tightened his grip as I grunted and attempted to walk away.

“There is much to learn here, “ he insisted.

I nodded, and just as gently as he had grasped me, I pried his fingers off my arm and went on my way, shaking my head.

He was right. There was much to learn here, for all of us. But the lessons should not be about guilt. I could recite a litany of the myriad ways guilt has plagued me all my life, but guilt is irrelevant here. Except that I have learned all too well that guilt is destructive, and promoting guilt will do nothing to close the chasm that divides our union. To heal our country’s cancerous racism, we need to stand together, to learn to know one another, and guilt will only drive us further apart.

Besides, I am not guilty. I am responsible, yes. But my responsibility is to build cohesion, to encourage unity. I am not responsible for the actions of those who came long before me, reprehensible as they were. I am responsible to teach my students, to lead my grandchildren, to show my compatriots what I know about communion and cooperation. I eschew the condescension of tolerance, model equanimity. I care deeply that we humans treat one another with respect, kindness, empathy. But I am not to blame for those invading, marauding Europeans, who raped and ravaged Native and African Americans.

Since, to my knowledge, I wasn’t around in the bad old days of colonization, I hope that if some other iteration of myself was, she would have stood up against the forces of evil, would have argued for peaceful coexistence with the indigenous people, would have shared rather than stolen the land. And I hope that that earlier entity would have fought to abolish slavery, resisted the lynch mobs, fought for human rights, argued for true equality, made art or some contribution toward the effort to humanize — a notion nowhere near the same as to civilize — this country.

I am proud to say that my great-grandfather Hiram H. Terwilliger eagerly enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, long before the draft was imposed in 1863. He was already 27 by then, old enough to let younger men go ahead of him, and he was a Knickerbocker, a privileged member of the landed gentry with plenty of resources to buy a surrogate to serve for him. But he believed in the cause, abhorred slavery, had no patience for the abomination of white supremacy. He reenlisted after his first term and fought valiantly at the Second Battle of Bull Run, only allowing himself to be mustered out of service after he nearly died. In fact, old Hiram made medical history because of his foolhardy bravery. A minié ball split the bone of his left leg before it lodged itself on the outer side, and he kept fighting until, according to the surgeons who attended him, he was “struck again by a round bullet on the left side of his chest.” That bullet passed through him, grazing his lungs and liver, and left him miraculously in tact. Twice he was placed on the pile of corpses and would have been burned had he not groaned; he somehow managed to beat the odds by surviving yellow fever, sepsis and several surgeries without benefit of anesthesia, and then he returned to Ellenville, where, as a lay minister in his Dutch Reformed community, he preached for peaceful reconstruction and for universal voting rights till he died in 1920, at age 87.

While great Grandfather Terwilliger was fighting with Johnny Reb, my mother’s grandfathers, living in opposite corners of the Ukraine, were staving off Cossacks, defending their young sons from mandatory conscription and their daughters from molestation. To escape pogroms, both families migrated East to Poland’s Pale of Settlement. One of my great grandfathers was a rabbi, who stayed in Poland but sent both his male and female children to the university in Austria, and the other was an inn keeper, who dodged the Russians, rested in Warsaw, and eventually ran a hotel in Vienna. Surely neither of them or any of their forebears contributed to the travesty of early America.

I blanche whenever I hear myself called out for being White. I am no more responsible for the unfortunate accident of my color than is my black sister. I understand my privilege — though as a single woman nearing 70, who must work to survive, I have lost much of it — but am not ashamed. If anything, my color has made me more aware of what I can do, must do to eradicate intolerance. The color of my skin impels me to speak out, to rebuke hatred, to defend the rights of all. But it does not make me hang my head in embarrassment.

A student asked me last month if there could be such a thing as racism against whites. “If you hate me for the color of my skin,” I replied, “you are as racist as if I hate you for the color of yours. It’s that simple. Does that answer your question?”

How dare you, young man, make an assumption about me just because I am white? Would you not take offense were I to make an assumption about you just because you are dark? And what do you know about me? How do you presume to know my history? When I shake your hand, I have no preconceived notions. Why do you insist on harboring them as you refuse to shake mine?

We can work together to make police brutality go away, to promote equal rights and achieve the understanding that will stop the madness around us. But we can’t if you insist on labeling me and rejecting my sisterhood.

Truth is, you need me as much as I need you.

Those haters you think I’m one of? They have as much disdain for me as they do for you, and we can only beat them if we join hands and do it together.

*Reprinted from Medium.com

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