To the Editor:
Last week I completed a three-evening community conversation on anti-racism put on by Islander Kyle Williams and cohorts, called “A Long Talk.” Thanks to promotion by the M.V. Diversity Coalition (join!), many Vineyarders were on the call, as well as a mayor and a school principal from Iowa, coaches from Southern universities, a young man running to be the first Black select board member in Needham, etc. We ranged in age from grad students to grandparents, and there were many different skin tones.
It was extraordinary to be delving into the subject right now, as we reel from the imagery of white supremacists desecrating our democracy to its core and we listen to our representatives debate whether the incitement to do so is a punishable offense, when we have all heard the call to arms directly from the president’s mouth for four painful years. And yet, among 68 participants, the parallels didn’t come up. We were too engaged in examining the roots of a conflict that has played out in our nation since before its inception to discuss what anyone who isn’t white sees as business as usual. Jan. 6, 2021, was shocking and extreme in its blatancy (and only possible because of a leniency in policing that nonwhite, unarmed protestors never experience), but it is on a continuum of violence experienced by red, black, and brown people to a degree we whites have been unwilling to fully examine.
MLK once said, “It’s a cruel jest to ask a man to pull himself up by his bootstraps when he has no boots.” Imagine being told we must evacuate the Island, and rushing to the ferry with what you could grab in haste, only to be told there was no room for anything but yourselves, and getting on the boat that didn’t go to Woods Hole but to some unknown place, where you were separated from your family. Then imagine your children, who don’t even know who you were, and their children, and their children, generations, slaving, working for nothing, and then, when they finally are freed, still working for not enough but somehow making it and prospering, only to be murdered for doing so, with new laws imposed to keep them down. Until a day when one of them becomes president, but that is unacceptable to the children of the people who enslaved you. They think you want to take power from them, but you don’t. You aren’t even thinking about them. You just want to be left alone to get on with your life without interference.
Day 3 of the talk was a call for “White People to Step to the Front,” a reference to an increasingly common plea made at demonstrations. Our white bodies can protect Black ones. They have always been able to. We are just as capable of providing protection and aid as we are of perpetuating harm, and our silence does perpetuate real harm. We must speak up and out, with our mouths wide open. We cannot heal until we look at the wound, diagnose it, and treat it appropriately. We’ll need to tone our muscles and practice before we can walk righteously, but we can look to those we have abused for lessons in resiliency and even the maintenance of joy in adversity. To quote the immortal Charlie Parker, “Now’s the time.”