Writing from the Heart: Rude awakenings

The time is now to do more than take a knee.


I think I have an idea of what it might have felt like to be a Pole during the Nazi occupation. I grew up hearing things like, “Of course they knew. They had to have known. You’d have to have had your head in the sand to not know Jews were systematically being slaughtered every day in your own country.”

But now I know that when so many of them said, “I knew things were bad, but not as bad as what was actually going on,” maybe they were telling the truth.

Because I am in a situation with some of the same ingredients. The day after George Floyd was murdered, I joined a Black Lives Matter group on the Island. We kneel for eight minutes and 46 seconds, which, among other things, gives us the experience of how interminably long eight minutes and 46 seconds actually is.

The reason I can relate to my imaginary Polish counterparts is because before I listened to stories every day about a Black or brown person who was murdered — mostly in cold blood and often simply for being Black — I would have said the same words: I knew it was bad but … I had no idea.

Because listening to story after story after story about fellow humans being shot down, either in an incident that began as a traffic stop, or in response to a complaint such as noise or any other infraction that if it had been a white person carrying it out, could have ended with a ticket or an arrest — not in a fatal shooting — has been a real education.

Nine hundred and eighty five (that’s 985) Black or brown people have been shot by police in the past year. Early on in the group, it was suggested we read Isabel WIlkerson’s Pulitzer prizewinning book, “Caste.” I don’t think I have ever underlined this many paragraphs and whole pages in all my reading days. For many of us who would have said, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” it will be a rude awakening.

Here are just a few words: “Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy. Caste is insidious, and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

Lately our group isn’t just about learning facts and having our hearts broken. We have been moving toward action.

We wrote letters thanking the 10 members of law enforcement who broke the blue wall and testified against Derek Chauvin.

A few weeks ago we Zoomed with a man named Ndume Olatushani. He was wrongly convicted of murder, and spent  27 years on death row. Staggering setbacks of the legal system, withheld evidence, a defense lawyer who had never tried a murder case, plus an all-white jury are just a few facts of Olatushani’s ill-fated journey. With a legal team that took 20 years to do it, last June he was finally released. While in prison he taught himself to paint, and after seeing his gorgeous work, we are planning a gallery opening on the Vineyard for him.

The most recent tragedy is about a 16-year-old teenage athlete named Mikayla Miller from Hopkinton.

We are just getting the information bit by bit, since there hasn’t been a lot of publicity. What we’ve learned so far is that she had never been arrested or suspended from school, and that she was jumped by older, white, teenage boys and her former girlfriend before being found dead on April 17. Her mother was told that her happy daughter decided to kill herself.

I’m writing this column in the hopes that we can collectively pull our heads out from under the sand and not just echo thoughts and prayers and empty promises to do better.

During the Second World War, if the folks who had consciences tried writing to the Nazi government, they would have gotten shot. All we need now is a commitment and a stamp.

Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of “Writing from the Heart” (Hyperion), and is the founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop.